"As kingfishers catch fire, dragonflies draw flame; / [ . . . ] Each mortal thing does one thing and the same: / Deals out that being indoors each one dwells; / Selves -- goes itself; 'myself' it speaks and spells, / Crying 'What I do is me; for that I came'." --Gerard Manley Hopkins

10 June 2010

On Moral Fiction

I'm revisiting John Gardner's On Moral Fiction this summer, thanks to the quotation from it which Bill Luse posted at Apologia, and -- since I seem incapable this week of formulating any thoughts other than those required for the class I'm teaching -- I thought I'd post some quotations that have intrigued me this time through, ones that caught my attention the first few times I read the book and have done so again because of their remarkable applicability today, over three decades after its publication.

On art as instructive:

"Moral action is action which affirms truth. [. . .] It was once a quite common assumption that good books incline the reader to [. . .] morality. It seems no longer a common or even defensible assumption, at least in literate circles, no doubt partly because the moral effect of art can so easily be gotten wrong, as Plato got it wrong in the Republic. To Plato it seemed that if a poet showed a good man performing a bad act, the poet's effect was corruption of the audience's morals. Aristotle agreed with Plato's notion that some things are moral and others not; agreed, too, that art should be moral; and went on to correct Plato's error. It's the total effect of an action that's moral or immoral, Aristotle pointed out. In other words, it's the energeia -- the actualization of the potential which exists in character and situation -- that gives us the poet's fix on good and evil; that is, dramatically demonstrates the moral laws, and the possibility of tragic waste, in the universe. It's a resoundingly clear answer, but it seems to have lost currency."

Later, there's this:

"In a democratic society, where every individual opinion counts and where nothing, finally, is left to some king or group of party elitists, art's incomparable ability to instruct, to make alternatives intellectually and emotionally clear, to spotlight falsehood, insincerity, foolishness -- art's incomparable ability, that is, to make us understand -- ought to be a force bringing people together, breaking down barriers of prejudice and ignorance, and holding up ideals worth pursuing." He indicts American literature of his day (the book was published in 1977) for largely not doing this well, of instead posting "cynical attacks on traditional values such as honesty, love of country, marital fidelity, work, and moral courage. This is not to imply that such values are absolutes, too holy to attack. But it is dangerous to raise a generation that smiles at such values, or has never heard of them, or dismisses them with indignation, as if they were not relative goods but absolute evils. The Jeffersonian assumption that truth will emerge where people are free to attack the false becomes empty theory if falsehood is suffered and obliged like an unwelcome -- or, worse, an invited -- guest. Yet to attack a work of fiction on moral grounds seems now almost unthinkable."

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