Doing Philosophy Better

Mark de Silva’s debut novel Square Wave uses fiction as a space to foreground philosophy. The result is a novel that can be maddening in its refusal to gratify through plot, character, or even theme, focusing instead on corresponding shapes of thought and social organization.

Human depth isn’t Square Wave’s focus at all: people are present in the novel to direct us toward meaningfully original orchestrations.

Martin Waldsemüller, Universalis Cosmographia.

Philosophers usually write novels to rebel against the constraints of academic philosophy. In Thus Spoke Zarathustra, Nietzsche turned to a fictional protagonist to give classical forms a modern immoral character. In Diary of a Seducer, squeezed within Either/Or, Kierkegaard set out to make aesthetics “interesting” through the narrative of a reckless dandy. More recently, philosopher-writers like Tom McCarthy and Simon Critchley have practiced parody and bricolage (see, for example, their joint endeavor The International Necronautical Society, whose first manifesto celebrates the “deep wells of the Unknown”). As Critchley put it in an interview for 3:AM Magazine, “I am committed to a form of paraphilosophy.”

One might expect, then, that a bold new book by a philosopher would follow in this line of moving philosophy toward fiction. But Mark de Silva’s debut novel Square Wave uses fiction as a space to foreground philosophy. The result is a novel that can be maddening in its refusal to gratify through plot, character, or even theme, focusing instead on corresponding shapes of thought and social organization. It pairs an historic postcolonial setting (Sri Lanka) with realms of contemporary experimentation (including microtonal music, the historical novel, and atmospheric physics), all bound by the structuralist notion of a fixed center. The book’s key figure is Ptolemy, whose geocentric model of the universe reverberates through its many digressions on government and art alike. Unity, and its possibility, become its central problem.

De Silva himself is a Cambridge-trained philosopher who interned at The Paris Review and worked as an editor at the New York Times philosophy section The Stone, and, now, 3:AM. He wears this past and his frustrations with it on his sleeve: Square Wave abounds with references to figures from Carl Schmitt to Leo Strauss, as well as an insider’s ambivalence toward a barely disguised New York literary scene. When one gets past the sense that he has something to prove, this turns out to be not a bad thing. The novel is essentially a search for intellectual purity amidst the tawdry actualities of post-college life in a failing democracy.

Square Wave moves mostly between the future-dystopian fictional East Coast city of Halsley—a lurid and violent place that’s a cross between Gotham City and the New York of Taxi Driver—and an historical novel-within-a-novel about 17th-century Sri Lanka (or colonial Ceylon). Further complicating matters, the Halsley scenes subdivide into multiple plots and expository modes. The Sri Lankan novel-within-a-novel belongs to a disheveled writer named Carl Stagg, and the reader drops into it through his small, messy apartment. In other sections, Stagg is on his beat as a government-employed night watchman who discovers and “saves” a badly beaten prostitute. Interspersed throughout these scenes are conversations between Stagg’s fellow night watchman Ravan, an atmospheric physicist, and his own numerous friends and family; stream-of-consciousness treatises on microtonal music and its hybrid punk/classical genealogy; brief encounters with the beaten prostitute’s attacker, who it turns out is a rich moral crusader who thinks his violence is “art”; glimpses of the prostitute’s recovery and her ensuing adult film career (occasionally, she also chats with Stagg about her Classics major); and Stagg’s interview and guest lecture at a powerful philosophical “institute” called The Wintry that advocates for a kind of Straussian non-representative democracy.

If this all seems rather chaotic, that’s because it is: there are character links between plotlines and sections (the microtonal music theorist, for example, is Stagg’s girlfriend’s friend from high school), but they are not points of interest in their own right. Nor do the subdivisions stop there. The sections set in Sri Lanka also alternate between multiple imperial perspectives (the English and the Dutch), as well as that of an indigenous Sinhalese monk who contemplates the criteria by which political events are admitted into the island’s official history. Unlike other “philosophical novels” that are unified by a single idiosyncratic persona—David Markson’s Wittgenstein’s Mistress and Sergio De La Pava’s A Naked Singularity might be generative comparisons—Square Wave is consistently alienating. There is no unifying through-line of voice; only of concept.

To speak of a “plot” in any traditional sense would be to greatly oversell Square Wave’s mass marketability. (This will hardly count as a problem for De Silva, who once published an essay in 3:AM on the merits of “putdownable prose.”) A better way of describing the book’s nearly 400 pages is as a chronicle of intersecting fields of innovation, in which things might “happen,” sure, but only to point back toward the structures being analogized. When Stagg discovers the hurt prostitute in a vacant lot, it does not set in motion a relationship between the two characters that can then come to some kind of psychological or social fruition. They do interact a few more times, but their conversations would carry much the same weight even were they devoid of context.

The take-away is rather that the prostitute, named Jen, embodies the dark side of a democracy that has lost its capacity to effect humanity’s elevation: she’s left college and chosen this path of self-debasement. This meeting in turn prompts De Silva and Stagg’s meditations on the nature of democracy in its populist versus non-representative forms, neither of which satisfies. Jen’s life and the elitist goals of The Wintry then look like two sides of the same political coin. Similarly, the atmospheric physicist is involved in a collaborative plan between the US and India to manipulate storm systems across the world, which might alternately serve humanistic or weaponistic aims. Square Wave presents morally ambivalent systems without any clear evaluative standard: redemption looks like apocalypse depending on your point of entry, and there are many.

The reader must build her own footholds in the text. For the first half of the novel, I found myself placing sticky after sticky in pages I had covered in furious red ink, first exhilarated and then annoyed by the sheer volume of De Silva’s provocations. Looking back at my notes now, they seem almost absurd in their efforts to find significance in glancing details. And I think that is partly the point. In one instance, De Silva’s narrator spells out a brief and evocative anecdote about a gymnast, Stagg’s girlfriend’s former roommate: Stagg is watching him compete on the rings when he briefly falters from his perfect form, the merest flicker of a moment that Stagg will nonetheless fixate on for weeks and months to come. The idea is to suggest the allure of absolute rather than relative standards of value. But the scene quickly breaks from Stagg’s pregnant ruminations to a labored, real-time conversation between the main character and his much shallower girlfriend. In response to her offer to edit the Sri Lankan “short stories” she thinks he is writing, Stagg notes that they are “‘More like fragments, of fact. Patchworks of fact.’” “‘Bricolage,’” she then whispers, “as if speaking to her own past in graduate school.”

The failed erotic scene that follows ends with Stagg masturbating alone and thinking, “Immediately things seemed simpler, mercifully abstract. Philosophical. A natural refuge.” So this was the pay-off: to establish Stagg’s desire for a life free from human entanglements. The motivation for this seems to be that only in the aesthetic domain can he broach the question of value. But it is unsustainable. Stagg’s allegory is disrupted by Renna’s inanities (by their relationship “plot,” so to speak), and the allegorical gymnast must go back to being a real person.

There are many points of similarly heavy-handed speculation in Square Wave, which risks condescending to exactly the sort of erudite reader De Silva courts. At one point, Stagg observes the parallel relation between the novel’s different streams: “he had to consider whether, beyond the turmoil all around him, his research too might be a catalyst, just as its object, a long-lost Sri Lanka, had been for [Stephen] Rutland,” a British East India Company captive on the island. Square Wave thus appears to provide exactly the structural lines that one could use to make sense of its framework.

The problem with following this auto-exegesis, though, is that it doesn’t actually work: De Silva can be too forceful with interpretive cues that turn out to be miscues. There isn’t, in fact, a meaningful parallel between Stagg’s future American context of Halsley and the historical Sri Lankan one he excavates piecemeal. On the contrary, a deeper reading reveals that Stagg retreats into the history of Ceylon in order to flee the almost maddeningly over-determined social world of Halsley and thus the late capitalist United States, which includes his own commentary. As a result, the colonial past—whose outcome, in some sense, we know—seems like a more complex place than the techno-dystopian near future.

The terrorized future American city, as it copes with a spree of targeted bombings, is an exaggerated version of the conditions in which De Silva’s New York intelligentsia exists. In Stagg’s and, one suspects, De Silva’s world—cast in stone from references to a rote literary scene full of elite college grads, and a blind faith in society at large that “the popular bears an inherent correspondence to the good”—there seems nowhere for the free-thinking few to go but The Wintry Institute, which feels a bit like a recondite version of something Ayn Rand might have dreamt up. But by the time I had turned Square Wave’s last page, it was clear that the Halsley characters and their social infrastructure were distractions from the novel’s main pursuit.

This is where the novel’s chaotic appearance is deceptive. Square Wave is not really invested in the messiness of human experience against organized ways of accounting for it. De Silva, rather, comes into his own as a stylist in describing highly organized forms of chaos, which is to say in doing philosophy better, more radically, across more genres than a transparent philosophical enterprise would allow. As the political motivations behind Halsley’s bombings become less clear (terrorism in the novel is almost an afterthought), Square Wave does not try to represent fear as a brute or narrowly experiential phenomenon—say, through a timely consolidation of jingoistic “American” identity—but through progressively more provocative and complex social shapes. On one of his night-watch shifts, Stagg imagines “a subset of these [possible criminals] he’d even befriended in limited ways, leaching data of unknown quality. Some of these were surely other watches, the sensoria of other agencies whose domains overlapped, or even tiers of the same groups, where jurisdictions were often structured concentrically.”

Human depth, then, isn’t Square Wave’s focus at all: people are present in the novel to direct us toward meaningfully original orchestrations, to the points of progressive formal achievement at the heart of the novel’s ostensibly dark social world. The word “concentric” is crucial. Variations of it are repeated over and over throughout Square Wave, almost like a verbal-intellectual tick. But the notion of radial movement from a core is essential to understanding what De Silva is up to, most persuasively in two theoretical junctures that hold Square Wave together. The first, in Halsley (the book’s future-present), is one of the novel’s manic explanations of microtonal music theory through a character named Edward Larent. The second is a discussion of Portuguese-Sri Lankan cartography in the 17th-century novel-within-a-novel. These are in fact versions of the same thing: both serve as “keys” to the book that take up the idea of Ptolemaic design, in musical scales and then in maps, as a means of suggesting how a center might be meaningful without being empirically “true.”

In other words, De Silva asks us to conceive of a world in which lots of centers are possible, and yet he wants us to do this outside the obvious failsafe of “decentralization.” And then he makes us think about why centers—of musical scales, or commerce, or government—are indispensable for structuring our lives.

Microtonality, the practice in music of deviating from the standard Western twelve-interval octave to make bold use of the notes between notes, is introduced in Square Wave as “a continuous tone” that “rose from the double bass, and from it sprang further tones, harmonics, an infinite ascending series, growing even fainter.” The musician character Larent, technically precocious but otherwise a narrative blank slate, then follows “these tones up through the registers, fixing the intervals with his ear, tracing an elemental order. The first thirty-one harmonics, more than he could resolve, produced a pure, a just—a Ptolemaic—version of the common twelve-note chromatic scale.”

Square Wave’s musical sections only get more technical from here, and it is a testament to De Silva’s firm grasp of the material that I now feel drawn to take a music theory course. For the relative layperson, “just” tuning, in music, is the practice of finding harmonies “by ear,” say in a string orchestra, based on an almost infinite possibility of tonal ratios. This means that harmony varies mathematically from key to key. “Equal” tuning, in contrast, as found in Western-originating instruments like the piano or organ, relies on fixed pitch so that notes are always the same distance from one another. As Larent succinctly puts it of his preferred Ptolemaic scale (the “just” one), “Ratios—relations—not absolute frequencies, are what count.”

De Silva’s invocation of names and traditions, in this case, illuminates the philosophy of design underlying the whole of Square Wave. The novel kicked into high gear for me when Larent, light-headed with intellectual exertion, notes that “Glenn Branca had come closest” to his formal ideal, with his “stepwise motion through the intervals of just-intoned scales, this miasma held together by percussion not far from punk rock.” I hadn’t heard of Branca before De Silva’s brief reference, and this discovery, via YouTube, was nothing short of revelatory. I happened to be teaching Square Wave the day it drew me in, so I began our evening class with a loud clip of the first movement of Branca’s Symphony no. 16, “Orgasm,” performed by the Philharmonie de Paris. The waves of concentrated sound gaining force through dissonant tonal pairs, over sixteen minutes of perfect clashing, left students without terribly much to say. When I queried them on their visceral response, one volunteered, “It gave me a headache.”

Minimalist microtonality in such extreme doses does cause one pain: it is literally dizzying in the pressure it exerts to separate its interlocking tonal trajectories. As Branca himself has acknowledged of his work, “It’s intense, it’s powerful, it’s beautiful, it’s rich, it’s got acoustic phenomena galore, it’s all over the place. I think it’s going to be too much for most people to deal with . . . Really, we’re talking three listenings minimum before you have even the vaguest idea that you’re even listening to a piece of music.” And, more laconically, it’s “all of this information, never repeating, but at the same time never changing.” This describes Square Wave to a T, as it seems constantly to expand and somehow concentrate the range of terms it presents for decoding itself, without ever following through on a conclusive standpoint or message. The reader’s experience along the way can best be described as ample, rich in analytic possibilities whose social application is mostly a comedown.

And yet Square Wave has already found itself in at least one bookstore’s “postcolonial” section, and its detailed history of Sri Lankan colonization (by the Portuguese, Dutch, and English) and knowledge curation demands direct attention. Ptolemaic geocentrism is the tie that binds these sections together. The British prisoner Rutland, in a Buddhist temple with a monk named Darasa as his guide, finds

Martin Waldseemuller’s Carta Marina: A Portuguese Navigational Sea Chart of the Known Earth and Oceans. A true mariner’s map. Unlike the Ptolemaic map he’d made earlier, the Universalis Cosmographia . . . with its scholarly deductions, this was a deeply empirical depiction, which meant there was an unruliness to its lines. There were the tensions thrown up by conflicting records coming in from so many sailors. A priori maps elided that sort of complexity, or more likely never knew it.

There is a tension, here, between high-handed colonial idealism (the Ptolemaic map of yore), and the messier record of colonial realities (the mariner’s map of numerous waves of “discovery”). But the important thing for Square Wave isn’t either of these models per se, so much as it is Sri Lanka’s “centering” as the geographical point at which De Silva is best able to meld the two. Rutland plans to “conjoin rational and empirical principles, thinking this was the key to definitive cartography,” with Darasa as his epistemological steward. Indeed it is the monk who sets “a copy of the King James Bible on top of the Carta Marina’s Africa,” a document that serves as a “thicket of sense, making it impossible to read its implications off cleanly.” The inflexible geocentrism of Ptolemaic cartography thus becomes but one part of a brimming, moveable structure of relation that sounds eerily like Glenn Branca’s description of his microtonal symphonies. The Sinhalese monk, above all others, thus curates Sri Lanka’s colonial history into a definitive example of the act of curation, amidst almost impossibly dense material and formal conflict.

In this way, Square Wave becomes a timely record of the struggle for interpretive ambition across space and time. If the book has a weakness, it is the palpable desperation to see this mission succeed, which one suspects might be mitigated were De Silva as genuinely removed from the real world as he seems sometimes to wish. There is no doubt, furthermore, that he will have to contend with the almost too-obvious neglect of substantial female characters in such a notable debut; the two pale contenders, Stagg’s girlfriend and the prostitute-turned-porn star, are among the first things in the book one learns to read past in order to get to the good stuff. I imagine any number of readers will home in on a more-or-less extraneous section late in the novel, in which the drug-numbed, abused Jen films her first graphic anal sex scene after moving to L.A. It’s not that it’s offensive, really, so much as that it seems contrived to be “risk-taking” while adding little by way of conceptual meat.

While it is tempting, finally, on account of such gruff turns to place Square Wave in a lineage of post-imperial sexualized disillusionment arguably begun by V.S. Naipaul (to whom the book also refers), this lets De Silva too easily off the hook. Whereas Naipauline scenes of abuse and erotic degradation bespeak a deeper misanthropy and resignation, Square Wave is ultimately a novel about the possibility of intellectual uplift in a self-consciously global context. Its social dystopianism, for De Silva, seems almost like window-dressing for a rare and moving faith in the power of the trained mind. In this way, De Silva emerges as a rare voice committed to mapping the many tones of a hostile world.

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