Category Archives: Phi Fic Podcast

Phi Fic means Philosophical Fiction. Each episode, we have a candid dicussion on a heady work of of fiction, full of SPOILERS. Join host Nathan Hanks and readers Cezary Baraniecki, Daniel St. Pierre, Laura Davis, and Mary Claire, plus the occasional guest.

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Originating from The Partially Examined Life’s Not School and its Philosophical Fiction group. Sign up for a small recurring donation for access to many more discussions!

Phi Fic #25 “At the Mountains of Madness” by H. P. Lovecraft

The oldest and strongest emotion of mankind is fear, and the oldest and strongest kind of fear is fear of the unknown. –H.P. Lovecraft

In this episode, we discuss At the Mountains of Madness by H.P. Lovecraft. Considered one of the greatest writers of horror and creator the science fiction horror genre, Lovecraft was primarily a short story writer during the early twentieth century. Most of his stories were published in Amazing Stories, a pulp, horror magazine and At the Mountains of Madness is his only novella.

The story is narrated by William Dyer, a geologist who, along with his associates from Miskatonic University, has embarked upon an expedition to the Antarctic. Dyer’s goal in writing this account is to prevent others who would wish to undertake a similar journey to the Antarctic, in light of what he and his colleagues discovered there.

It is absolutely necessary, for the peace and safety of mankind, that some of earth’s dark, dead corners and unplumbed depths be let alone; lest sleeping abnormalities wake to resurgent life, and blasphemously surviving nightmares squirm and splash out of their black lairs to newer and wider conquests. –At the Mountains of Madness

What is this discovery? Join Nathan and Laura, along with Jennifer Tejada, Dan Johnson, and PEL’s Mark Linsenmayer, in this animated discussion, as we dig into the dark, nameless world discovered by these Miskatonic scientists—and the fear within all of us that animates this world.

Check out H.P. Lovecraft Literary Podcast’s incredible discussion of At the Mountain of Madness (and everything Lovecraft):

Here are some sketches by Academy Award–winning director Guillermo de Toro of his interpretation of At the Mountain of Madness. Del Toro is hoping to make a movie of Lovecraft’s masterpiece.

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Thanks to Christopher Nolen for the music.

Phi Fic #24 “Ulysses” by James Joyce

If Socrates leaves his house today he will find the sage seated on his doorstep. If Judas go forth tonight it is to Judas his steps will tend. Every life is in many days, day after day. We walk through ourselves, meeting robbers, ghosts, giants, old men, young men, wives, widows, brothers-in-love, but always meeting ourselves. –Ulysses

As Nathan notes, Ulysses is “the historically difficult read,” and Daniel agrees, following with his finding of this formative novel, “a great puzzle, that is exhausting but incredibly rewarding.”

Follow us on this brief journey as we dig through some of the themes within the Ulysses universe: Cyclical history. Epic of return. Absent figure. Impotence. Failed Love. The Self and the Not Self. Universal Love. One Step forward, One step back. Identity in flux. No inner sanctum.

Based on The Odyssey by Homer, Ulysses takes place in Dublin and follows three characters: Stephen Daedalus, Leopold Bloom, and Molly Bloom. The events in the novel take place over 24 hours and parallels the journey home by Odysseus after the Trojan war, as well as delving into Irish history through a day of life in Dublin. Even more profound, Ulysses is considered the seminal stream-of-consciousness work—making it known as the great arduous read, but changing the course of literature as it was known at the time, and since.

She would follow, her dream of love, the dictates of her heart that told her he was her all in all, the only man in all the world for her for love was the master guide. Come what might she would be wild, untrammeled, free.” –Ulysses

This recording is an archived episode from our Not School group, long before we became a podcast, so please excuse any audio problems. In this discussion, Nathan, Laura, and Daniel are joined by Phillip Cherny. Many thanks to Phillip for his wonderful thoughts!

There have been many visual interpretations of Ulysses, but try a look at Bloom (2003) directed by Sean Walsh, or Ulysses (1967) directed by Stephen Strick, loosely based on the novel.

And check out the Great Courses Study:  Literary Modernism: The Struggle for Modern History.

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Thanks to Chrisopher Nolen for our music.

Phi Fic #21 “Foe” by J. M. Coetzee

We discuss the novel about an origin story of ‘Robinson Crusoe’ by Daniel Defoe. Coetzee writes about Susan Barton, a woman cast away at sea who discovers an island inhabited by two men, Robinson Crusoe and Friday. Once rescued, Crusoe dies and Barton goes on a journey with Friday to tell her story. She seeks the renowned author Daniel Defoe but struggles with telling her story through the author.

“We therefore have five parts in all: the loss of the daughter; the quest for the daughter in Brazil; abandonment of the quest, and the adventure of the island; assumption of the quest by the daughter; and the union of the daughter with her mother. It is thus that we make up a book: loss, then quest, then recovery; beggining, then middle, then end. As to novelty, this is lent by the island episode- which is properly the second part of the middle – and by the reversal in which the daughter takes up the quest abandoned by the mother.”

‘All the joy I had felt in finding my way to Foe fled me.’

Reality also becomes blurry for Barton and the narrative builds to a metaphysical break in the structure which explores Authorship. What do stories matter? What gets left out? Who gets to speak? We also mention a work of non-fiction from a favorite thought-provoking author, ‘The Kekul Problem’ by Cormac McCarthy.

‘But this is not a place of words. Each syllable, as it comes out, is caught and filled with water and diffused. This is a place where bodies are their own signs. It is the home of Friday.

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Phi Fic #20 “Lord Jim” by Joseph Conrad

It is when we try to grapple with another man’s intimate need that we perceive how incomprehensible, wavering and misty are the beings that share with us the sight of the stars and the warmth of the sun. It is as if loneliness were a hard and absolute condition of existence; the envelope of flesh and blood on which our eyes are fixed melts before the outstretched hand, and there remains only the capricious, inconsolable and elusive spirit that no eye can follow, no hand can grasp. –Lord Jim

It’s within the loneliness of guilt that Jim, the titular character of this episode’s reading by Joseph Conrad, struggles.

Young Jim leaves a relatively comfortable life on land to follow his dream of a life at sea. He quickly ascends the ranks and is hired on as first mate on the Patna, a steamer set to cross the Red Sea with a “cargo” of 800 religious pilgrims, far exceeding the ship’s capacity. On one of the first nights of the voyage, the ship hits an underwater obstruction and begins taking on water. Fearing that the ship will sink, Jim urges preparation of the lifeboats for what pilgrims could be saved, but the captain and a few crewman instead quietly lower a lifeboat for themselves and abandon ship, saving only themselves. In a pivotal moment, Jim jumps into the lifeboat with the captain. Back at port, the four men are brought up before the magistrate’s council but the others flee, leaving only Jim to face the music. All four are publicly censured and lose the right to sail.

At the trial, Jim meets Captain Marlow (a recurring character in Conrad’s books, and Lord Jim’s narrator), and as they become acquainted, confesses his guilt to him. Marlow is intrigued by Jim and tries to help him recover from his fall from grace. After a few false starts, Marlow eventually helps arrange for him to find work on a remote island across the sea, as Jim desperately tries to save himself.

It is my belief no man ever understands quite his own artful dodges to escape from the grim shadow of self-knowledge. –Lord Jim

Join us as Nathan finds that Conrad seems, in this complex, nonlinear, far-reaching work, to be struggling with the soul of humanity, and Daniel notes the poignant contradiction of Jim having contempt for the captain but then following him into the lifeboat. Cezary points out that almost immediately when they’re in the boat they talk about what their story’s going to be, and Jim says he’s going to just say the truth. Laura discusses Conrad’s sharp questioning of the value of life with the decision the captain, and Jim, made of whether to save the smaller amount of people because they couldn’t save the larger amount, and Mary notes that ultimately, you’re supposed to go down with your ship.

Watch the trailer for the 1965 film starring Peter O’Toole.

Thanks to Christopher Nolen for the music.

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Phi Fic #19 “Death in Venice” by Thomas Mann

In 1911, the great writer Thomas Mann (1875–1955) went on vacation with his family to a seaside resort in Venice, Italy. There, he came across a beautiful 14-year-old boy and it inspired his great novella Death in Venice. This experience sets up the central struggle in the story: where eros—or erotic love as seen in Plato’s dialogue Symposium—can lead one to recognize beauty in its “pure” or “ideal” form and toward an understanding of truth.

To rest in the arms of perfection is the desire of any man intent upon creating excellence… –Death in Venice

The story’s main character is Gustav von Aschenbach, a famous writer in his fifties. Suffering from writer’s block, he resolves to take a vacation in Venice, where he crosses paths with a 14-year-old Polish boy—Tadzio—and his family. Aschenbach soon becomes obsessed with the exquisite Tadzio. As Aschenbach follows his muse through the streets of Venice and finally to the beach, struggling all the while to master his creeping infatuation, the city itself is overtaken by a mysterious plague. Ultimately, Aschenbach is overcome by the plague as he watches Tadzio playing in the surf.

But now, as he mused idly on such profound matters, the horizontal line of the sea’s shore was suddenly intersected by a human figure, and when he had retrieved his gaze from limitless immensity and concentrated it again, he beheld the beautiful boy, coming from the left and walking past him across the sand. –Death in Venice

Join our heated discussion about Mann’s intentions in this complex and remarkable story. Laura was immediately distressed by Aschenbach’s behavior given the Socratic ideal of beauty as pure and reverent as discussed by Mann; Nathan takes note of Aschenbach’s internal struggle, and wonders what he’s searching for; Mary questions how we approach manners, and how we experience beauty; Cezary insists that Socratic love is too neat, and that real love is an unruly, unraveling experience; and Daniel sums up the struggle in the book for Aschenbach and Mann as one of tensions between the ways we perceive and interact with beauty.

Watch Luchino Visconti’s search for the right boy to play the character of Tadzio in 1970 for his 1971 film based on Mann’s novella.

Thanks to Christopher Nolen for the music.

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