The Sublime Modes of Sheila Heti

The novelist as philosopher

Noreen Khawaja
Portrait of Sheila Heti

The real subject of Sheila Heti’s novels is often not a character at all but a moral or metaphysical question. Portrait by Leanne Shapton

Philosophy is a practice of questioning shaped not only by what we ask but also by the attitudes and experiences that lead us to ask in the first place. Today academic philosophy often brackets the circumstances in which concepts first come to be needed. It commits to examining the “content” of truth claims—the concepts “themselves” as abstracted from fields of lived experience—and leaves to psychoanalysis, religion, or literature reflection on the ample rest. And yet, many of the philosophers who have directly impacted how people live have been those whose work refuses a neat distinction between concepts and experiences. Plato’s dialogues, Descartes’s Meditations, Kant’s theory of the sublime, Kierkegaard’s Fear and Trembling, Fanon’s studies of colonial consciousness, Beauvoir’s Second Sex, Arendt’s theorization of evil—the immediacy with which these works speak to readers, resonating far beyond their circumstances of origin, stems from the fact that they offer something more than keen arguments. These works develop original treatments of the scene of philosophy. Using narrative techniques such as characterization and mise-en-scène, they reveal that the range of experiences yielding fundamental lessons about the nature of the world and ourselves is much greater than we perhaps imagined. Through such works, I’d suggest, the scope of the philosophical project itself expands.

Expanding the philosophical project is often the work of those less known as philosophers. Consider Sheila Heti. Heti’s writing has been famously tough to categorize. The two novels for which she may be best known, How Should a Person Be? and Motherhood, have often been read as autofiction, or an entwining of autobiography and the novel. One can see the appeal in viewing Heti’s work that way. How Should a Person Be? is subtitled “A Novel from Life” and focuses on the relationships between a protagonist named Sheila and her closest friends, whose names are shared with their real-life counterparts. Motherhood concerns a writer’s wrestling with the question of whether to become a mother. While the narrator’s first name remains unmentioned, Heti has been phenomenally open in interviews about the book’s basis in her own struggle. She has also confirmed that the narrator’s central method of deliberation—tossing coins to yield yes-no answers where her own thinking stalls—is a technique she herself regularly uses in writing. The “Further Note” that opens the novel thus reads as both fictive feint and methodological confession: “In this book, all results from the flipping of coins result from the flipping of actual coins.”

Currents of nonfiction flow through Heti’s work, to be sure. But to view those elements as autobiographical simply because they reflect the author’s life is to claim an answer before we have figured out the question. There is a porous quality to Heti’s novels, a plasticity in the relation between writing and living, which diverges from autobiography’s usual aim to index a life. Literary critics have for this reason noted a connection between Heti’s novels and more didactic, performative genres such as self-help books and improvisational comedy. (Heti’s 2011 inventive non-fiction work co-written with Misha Glouberman, The Chairs Are Where the People Go, plays with these genres most directly.) But while Heti’s books draw from life, her life is less the subject of her writing than it is a medium or instrument for reflection. Indeed, the real subject of Heti’s novels is often not a character at all but a moral or metaphysical question. How should a person be? What is a mother? And in her new book, Pure Colour, what is the difference between love and repair in a broken world? In other words, Heti’s work is not interested in the correspondence of the mind of the character to the mind of the author. Rather, what is essential is that the character’s search and the author’s search coincide. They need one another in order to proceed.

Heti’s novel becomes something more than a self-contained literary work; it is an act of reflection targeting a real-world concept.

What if we considered the nonfictional elements of these novels from a philosophical rather than an autobiographical point of view? What if we considered Heti as a philosopher on something like the model of Plato or Kierkegaard—a philosopher, that is, who carries out her work in the medium of fiction? In a 1952 essay about the novels of Jean-Paul Sartre, Maurice Blanchot once observed that although philosophical novels tend to be reproached for having wooden, lifeless characters who serve as mere mouthpieces for the author’s ideas, the real problem in such novels is that “the idea…is lifeless: it no longer resembles anything but itself, it has only its own meaning; the artificial world hides it too poorly, it is more visible there than in its original [theoretical] bareness, so visible that it scarcely has any secrets to offer us” (The Work of Fire, trans. Charlotte Mandell).

The ideas in Heti’s novels, by contrast, are very much alive, precisely because they retain their secretive aspect. Motherhood appears at first to be centered on the question of whether the narrator should have a child. But this question cannot be held at a distance; it is a question whose resolution rests on the subject’s ability to know, and indeed to trust, herself. “Whether I want kids,” we read in the book’s opening pages, “is a secret I keep from myself.” Knowing how to answer the question requires, above all, knowing how to make out the arc of the narrator’s own desire from a tangle of untrustworthy voices without and within. The question unleashes a corrosive doubt, “eating holes in everything there was or will be.” How can a person unteach herself the lesson, as Adrienne Rich wrote in Of Woman Born, “that only certain possibilities within them are livable”?

A friend of mine read Motherhood while she was trying to get pregnant. Although she enjoyed the novel, she told me, she had been frustrated by the notion that the narrator was sincerely trying to decide whether to have a child. It was obvious she wasn’t going to do it, my friend said. Someone who’s really thinking about it would never put herself through all that. I saw it differently, I offered gingerly, sensing that our disagreement—from opposite sides of the decision—was allowing certain scenes from the novel to repeat themselves. Friends who had hesitated before ultimately deciding to have children, the narrator of Motherhood learns, could not always be trusted to treat her ambivalence as legitimate.

But even if my friend were right about Heti, I felt, sincerity wasn’t really the point. The question that gave Motherhood its form and its tension was not the narrator’s “will-I-or-won’t-I” become a mother; rather, the form-giving question was about what else the concept of motherhood could be brought to mean. Could motherhood mean a relationship to creation? Could motherhood mean a relationship with one’s own mother? Indeed, by halfway through the novel the reproductive question largely recedes, giving way to far more interesting ones: “How can I express the absence of this experience, without making central the lack?” the narrator asks. “Can I say what such a life is an experience of not in relation to motherhood? Can I say what it positively is?”

It is in consideration of these questions that the philosophical work of the novel is concentrated, and where Heti’s thinking changes most dramatically. In fact, the concept of motherhood goes through so many interpretations that we might consider it to be the novel’s real protagonist—the titular character, the one who most evolves. A concept, unlike a fictional character, has a rich life beyond the page. Thus Heti’s novel becomes something more than a self-contained literary work; it is an act of reflection targeting a real-world concept: a work of philosophy.

If something like a nonfictional pact is upheld by Heti’s novels, perhaps that is because the author herself has not settled the questions the character is grappling with.

And if something like a nonfictional pact is upheld by Heti’s novels, perhaps that is because the author herself has not settled the questions the character is grappling with. This makes the writing, as both process and object, the place where these searches converse, mingle, and mutually reflect. “You are never lonely while writing, I thought, it’s impossible to be—categorically impossible—because writing is a relationship,” writes the narrator of Motherhood, adding, “I suppose it has been the central relationship of my life.” In this sense, Motherhood names not only the book but also the experimental process by which the narrator transcends the disjunction of having/not-having a child to a position she calls the “not not.” Through writing and her dialogue with the coins, the narrator progressively concretizes the negative space of choice itself until it becomes possible to interact with a real phantasm: “The more I write this, the more this not-born child becomes a real thing, a figure not there, a specific person who is being denied life. Perhaps in this negative way, that child will live.”

These passages also contain the most philosophically resonant material of the novel, in conversation with works such as Kierkegaard’s Either/Or, an important influence on Heti. Either/ Or opens with the tragicomic reflections of an unnamed aesthete who is paralyzed by the idea of decision as a zero-sum competition between two options, believing that any action, including non-action, would necessarily lead to regret: “Marry, and you will regret it. Do not marry, and you will also regret it.” This view is later criticized by his levelheaded friend, who writes that avoidance of regret is despair, not freedom, and urges the young man to see that true freedom presupposes choice, which means accepting loss.

Where Kierkegaard splits this discourse across two fictional personae, Heti’s narrator uses writing to enact a different sort of resolution. She herself theorizes this work as narrative’s ability to “synthesize taboos” at an existential level, turning them into something more than constraints: “to bind the taboos with our lives, and so create a synthesis in our living.” As the book unfolds, we watch as the question of motherhood shifts from the reproductive to the relational plane, as the taboo of not-having becomes the ground for new intimacies to emerge. It is telling that Motherhood comes to a close long after the narrator decides not to have a child, and only once the writing of it has allowed her to construct a new channel of relationship with her own maternal line. In the climactic final pages, the narrator offers our only glimpse of her name, revealing a link to her grandmother Magda, whose survival of Auschwitz forms a complex theme within the novel: “My mother gave me the middle name Magdalen. She put her mother inside me.” Magdalen is also Heti’s middle name, Magda the name of Heti’s grandmother. The subtle build-up to this moment of author-narrator identification gives the work the feeling of an epitaph, and charges it with sudden ambiguity. Have we been reading a fictional exploration of motherhood? Have we been watching a writer use the novel form to enact a real-world ritual?

That Heti's novels are driven by questions and allow the evolution of those questions to help determine their structure is one reason to consider her work through the lens of philosophy. Dialectic—the oldest genre of Western philosophy—rests on the claim that an idea’s formation bears the structure of a plot. Real life, too, is filled with fiction. Our fantasies are so essential a part of reality, writes the psychoanalyst Adam Phillips, that we would be better off thinking of life itself as inherently double: “the [life] we wish for and the one that we practice; the one that never happens and the one that keeps happening” (Missing Out). Something ancient dialecticians understood, I’d wager, as they structured philosophical dialogues on the model of the theater, is how similar an idea is to a fantasy. To hold an idea: What does that mean, if not to put it on, test its ability to resignify the world, see what it feels like to think, perceive, relate in its light? Responding to Blanchot, we might say that one key reason Heti’s novels manage to keep their ideas alive is their deft, crystalline way of weaving in and out of these registers—the fictive and the real, the completed work and the open-ended enactment of relation.

Self-determination sounds better than being determined by others.

To follow these movements as a reader is to experience something we might call a modal sublime, as the work presses into ambiguities about the nature of its own reality, sculpting spaces that prompt us to hover and hesitate—Did it really happen the way it’s written? Did writing bring it to pass? Did the fictional work heal the need that birthed it? Was the need itself a fantasy? Kant labeled “sublime” those encounters that test the mind’s ability to prevail over objects of extraordinary magnitude, such as towering cliffs, threatening storm clouds, mathematical infinities.

But the philosophical significance of the sublime, for Kant, had nothing to do with size. It was about power: how far our concepts and our fantasies take us in understanding the world, and what happens when they seem to hit a limit, where the mind feels most acutely the reality of what it cannot shape. Heti’s work finds in intimate ambiguity something akin to what Kant found in infinite magnitude—spaces where the mind’s thirst for a line dividing the natural from the constructed, the world from the self, the serious from the ironic, is pressed to its limit and yet is asked to carry on minding nevertheless. If writing is capable of “binding” with life, of creating “a synthesis in our living,” it can only be because the modes of fact and fantasy are not fully separate. We may not all be writers, but we all live in forests of symbols, and it is on this terrain that Heti’s narrators meet us at eye level; it is here that her work emits its secret pulse.

This way of writing requires a peculiar openness to outside forces, at least relative to most literary fiction. These forces include the coins Heti tosses to make decisions about where her writing will go next, as well as the wide scene of friends and interlocutors who figure centrally in her work. All of this is another reason why the label of autofiction seems inapt. Because for all that Heti’s work receives from the contours of her own life, one major feature of her writing is a sense of exhaustion with the individual self as a creative and social norm. Heti’s work picks up from the twilight of what has been called the century of the self, where it is assumed of modern subjects that our desires and choices form the thread by which we define ourselves and may be judged.

Heti draws an epic plotline from these conditions, crafting characters who struggle momentously to make up their minds, in the most literal sense of the phrase. George Ticknor, the eponymous narrator of Heti’s first novel, Ticknor, orbits the world of his friend Prescott as a moon to a planet. “There has always been one way to go about finding out what sort of a man you are,” he writes, “and that is to go straight to people and return to yourself.” How Should a Person Be? is made from the words and actions of Heti’s friends and collaborators, and turns its own faith in the wisdom of others into a critical leitmotif. “I had come to New York as a student, like it was my teacher. And hadn’t I always gone into the world making everyone and everything a lesson in how I should be?” The work hits ironic denouement in this passage, when Sheila reflects the observation back onto herself: “Somehow I had turned myself into the worst thing in the world: I was just another man who wanted to teach me something!”

Motherhood incorporates still obscurer voices, as the narrator’s extended dialogue with tossed coins, visits to a psychic, and tarot readings all form part of the tissue of reflection that makes up the work. “I feel like my brain is becoming more flexible as I use these coins. When I get an answer I didn’t expect, I have to push myself to find another answer—hopefully a better one. It’s an interruption of my complacency—or at least that’s what it feels like, to have to dig a little deeper, to be thrown off. My thoughts don’t just end where they normally would.” In the hands of another writer, such devices might feel capricious, but Heti manages to incorporate these elements as centrally as she does because they form part of her ongoing attempt to grapple with the limits of creative self-determination. They allow her to make expressive room for the pleasure we take in receiving, and not only in creating, form. As the narrator of Motherhood puts it, reflecting on one of the subthemes of the novel, “I found the idea that my soul was not my possession very comforting—that either my life was an expression of time’s soul, or that my soul was time.”

Self-determination sounds better than being determined by others, let alone by race or sex or some other criterion over which we have no control. At the same time, it is exhausting to demand that each individual shoulder an awareness of herself as self-creating with every minor movement of body and mind. One could scream at the cruelty, as Lauren Berlant might have put it, of a secular infinity wherein the self, recognizing no outside power as legitimate, is run through a perverse, entrepreneurial version of the eternal return. How long until a new DSM entry appears? Autopoietic burnout. And before we congratulate ourselves for no longer being naturalists, what makes anyone sure the self offers an alternative to the coercive corporate? “I know that personality is just an invention of the news media,” Sheila declares in the prologue to How Should a Person Be? “So how do you build your soul? At a certain point, I know, you have to forget about your soul and just do the work you’re required to do.”

PURE COLOUR TURNS the theme of receptivity into a question about how to honor the intimacies we inherit, through accidents of family, geography, and class, in a world dominated by ideals of critical autonomy. Mira, the novel’s protagonist, was young at a time before technology distributed occasions for self-fashioning into every crevice of experience. She describes that era with a comical and vaguely antediluvian tenderness: “How did people find jobs back then, back before everyone knew what everyone else wanted? Little paper signs. How did she find the room she lived in? There was probably a scrap of paper taped up somewhere, or tacked to a corkboard at a local café.” The same was true of one’s friends, who “were simply who was around. It didn’t occur to anyone that it could be another way. If you liked your friends, that was okay. If you didn’t like your friends, that was okay, too.” When she meets Annie, a magnetic figure who becomes significant to her over the course of the novel, Mira describes the attraction not as wanting to know someone new but as being drawn in by the mystery of a relationship that feels as if it “already existed.”

The narrative of Pure Colour seems to radiate from present, future, and past all at once, recalling the uncanny fabular tone of Heti’s early collection The Middle Stories (2001) more strongly than that of her recent novels. Pure Colour also breaks more boldly into a speculative dimension than her previous work, and is marked by passages of funny and quite profound theological reflection. The vectors opened up between artistic and existential poiesis in Heti’s earlier work expand dramatically here via the conceit that God, having created our world as a first draft, now sees too many flaws in his work and is getting ready to start again.

Finding herself in this twilight of cosmic revision, Mira faces a decision about what to do regarding the practice of judgment itself. One droll embodiment of the dilemma involves Mira’s connection to a group called the American Academy of American Critics. Another concerns her attempt, as she makes her own way in the world, to work out the right relation to a subsuming experience of paternal love. Throughout, she struggles for critical balance in a world whose contours are both given and revisable—or perhaps, revisable and given.

I can think of several compelling arguments to view the choice not to have children as no less virtuous or charismatic or loving than the choice to have them.

The twist is that God is grappling with all these questions, too, in preparation for the next draft. The new world will be an improvement on this one, made for enduring love and happier plants and people with fewer complaints about weather. But it won’t be settled. In fact, God will still “dream darkly about our world,” sensing “the past had some extra vitality which the present does not.” The resonance between theological and artistic creation is deliberate here, and rich. Any artist will tell you that constraints are the soul of creation; the trick is to find the givens that work for you, where limitation helps concentrate possibilities rather than simply exclude them. Heti’s work explores how this creative axiom travels between art and life, revealing a hidden commerce between literary production and spiritual exercise, between the laws of aesthetic and those of existential form.

Mira, like all Heti’s protagonists, listens. This is one of the main things she does. But listening does not come easily to her, or at least, it does not come without cost—she struggles with her own impressionability, with the tension of holding herself accountable to heterogenous voices. Teachers, fellow students, her father, her friend Annie—all nudge in different directions. Sometimes these voices seem to hold an enormous amount of power, as if they are oracles pronouncing a sentence which Mira can interpret variously but cannot ignore. In this way, Pure Colour joins Heti’s other novels as a work that attempts to explore the idea that one’s soul is not ultimately one’s own, that it is an expression of other essences, voices, or perhaps of time itself.

I have heard readers, fans even, shudder at the degree to which Sheila of How Should a Person Be? throws herself open to suggestion in the maelstrom of others’ minds. Or bridle at the authority Motherhood’s narrator grants to the stray comments of her boy-friend, Miles. It can be uncomfortable to read such passages. One wants to take the protagonist by the shoulders and tell her to ignore everything so-and-so just said. But the movement between fiction and nonfiction, between literary philosophy and open-ended pedagogy that the novels carefully stitch allows us to believe that if we did this to Mira or to Sheila or to the author of Motherhood, perhaps even to Ticknor, they would not brush us off. They would say, Oh? Why do you think so? And they would listen to us explain, our words embedding into that same polyphonic tissue. The novels engender this vertiginous dialogic fantasy—confronting us with the possibility that walling ourselves off from the thing that discomforts us may only add to the causes of our discomfort.

What is the name for the place in experience where we allow ourselves to be guided, truly shaped, by something, someone else? Male artists used to call it inspiration, a word that now sounds pleasantly vague. But the process they were describing was certainly as destabilizing, as challenging to the sovereignty of the artist, as some of Heti’s bolder pursuits of exogenous energy. That they feminized this figure—the muse, rather than say, the teacher, the parent, or the best friend—may indicate how eager they were to contain its power and distinguish it from themselves intellectually. Heti, by contrast, tends to make these figures as strong as possible, have as much power as possible over the protagonist’s reality and the creative process. She then sets herself the challenge of producing, through the work of writing itself, a way to remain whole. There is both a gendered and a theological component to this approach. For in Heti’s novels it is the listener who is hero. It is receiving which operates as the basic dramatic act.

At an instant, I can think of several compelling arguments to view the choice not to have children as no less virtuous or charismatic or loving than the choice to have them. But let’s now imagine that I am trying to decide for myself, and despite these arguments, a part of me feels scared and confused by what I actually feel. Perhaps mine is not the answer I expect. Perhaps I do not approve of my reasons. Academic philosophy can help locate the logical and rhetorical coupling relating reason to tendency, inclination to argument. But it has little to say to help us navigate the sticky, fearsome process of letting the mind be changed. It does not prepare us for what a painful and confusing (also at times erotic) experience it can be for another voice—be it coin toss, person, or logical argument—to enter your mind, to shape what you do and what you are.

One power of Heti’s prose lies in her fascination with this primordial secret of everyday human reality: that most of the time, however conscious or self-conscious we may be, we have little control over what and whom our minds are actually made of. And the universe she creates, which spills into our own, is one in which the mistrust this situation might engender never gets too far ahead of the wonder: there are clues everywhere. There are clues right here.

Noreen Khawaja writes about thought and culture and teaches in the Religion and Modernity program at Yale University. She is the author of The Religion of Existence: Asceticism in Philosophy from Kierkegaard to Sartre.
Originally published:
March 1, 2022



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