On values-based fiction, or, why literature does not need to be virtuous

September 15, 2012 by · 2 Comments 

When Émile Zola published the second edition of his short novel, Thérèse Raquin, he felt compelled to append a preface responding to critics of his day who had taken him to task for writing what they considered to be a highly immoral book. “Some virtuous folk,” Zola wrote, “in no less virtuous newspapers, puckered their faces in disgust as they picked it up with the tongs to throw it on the fire. Even the literary papers – those same literary papers that every evening report the gossip from bedrooms and private dining rooms – held their noses and spoke of stinking filth.”

No doubt these readers had some justification for their passionate reactions. First published in 1867, Thérèse Raquin tells the story of a woman thrust into a tedious arranged marriage with her cousin Camille. Thérèse is introduced to her husband’s friend, Laurent, who is much more virile, lusty, and animalistic than her gormless husband. Thérèse and Laurent embark on an affair and, almost incidentally, conspire to kill Camille. The second half of the novel traces the murderers’ psychological deterioration as a result of their crime. (In this, Zola’s novel shares a trajectory with Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment, published a year previously.)

While Zola’s book has elements in common with other, better known novels of adultery – Anna Karenina and Madame Bovary – it actually cleaves closer to American noir fiction: echoes of Thérèse Raquin can be detected in the work of James M. Cain, Jim Thompson, and Patricia Highsmith.

What set early readers on edge was not so much the novel’s subject matter, which is no more lurid than many 18th-century Gothic novels, but Zola’s resolute refusal to judge his characters. The author insisted on a naturalistic, almost scientific approach to his characters: he would observe them, but not condemn them. In his preface, he likens himself to an anatomist impartially examining his “naked, living anatomical specimens.” And while he avers that a “sincere study purifies everything, as fire does,” he takes umbrage at those critics who would charge him with obscenity or immorality, claiming that such terms are of little use in discussing literature:

In our times, there are only two or three men who can read, understand, and judge a book. I accept criticism from them, certain that they would not speak until they had discovered my intentions and assessed the results of my efforts. They would be very careful not to mention those great empty words: “morality” and “literary modesty.” They would recognize my right, at a time when we enjoy freedom in art, to choose my subjects wherever I please, asking me only for works that are conscientious, and knowing that only stupidity harms the dignity of literature.

Were Zola alive today, he might find himself making many of the same arguments. Indeed, the puritanical voices claiming that art need be ethical, moral, or didactic have never gone away. Novelist and critic John Gardner perhaps put it most bluntly in his 1978 book On Moral Fiction, in which he baldly states, “Nothing could be more obvious, it seems to me, than that art should be moral and that the first business of criticism, at least some of the time, should be to judge works of literature (or painting or even music) on grounds of the production’s moral worth.” (The hedging apposite clause – “at least some of the time” – is a strong indication that Gardner himself remained ultimately unconvinced of the blanket truth of his assertion.) Although less dogmatic and much more nuanced, Wayne C. Booth, in his study The Company We Keep: An Ethics of Fiction, also champions the idea that books should serve an ethical or moral purpose for their readers: “The fact that no narrative will be good or bad for all readers in all circumstances need not hinder us in our effort to discover what is good or bad for us in our condition here and now” (emphasis in original), with the implicit corollary that we should elevate the “good” and avoid or disavow the “bad.”

Strains of Gardner and Booth could be detected as recently as last week, when the 2012 Man Booker Prize jury announced its shortlist. While he admitted that it was “the pure power of prose that settled most debates” among the jurors, this year’s chair of judges, Peter Stothard, went on to comment that he and his fellow jurors were “exhilarated by the vigour and vividly defined values” of the nominated books.

In brief, “vividly defined values” seems like a strange criterion on which to base an assessment of literary worth. The language is vague and imprecise, but let us assume for the sake of argument that the word “values” is not confined merely to the literary sphere, but contains within it some moral imperative. The obvious questions then arise. Whose values are we referring to? From what realm do they spring? Are they moral values? Philosophical values? Political values? Theological values?

Then we must consider the question from the perspective of the writer. What is a writer’s responsibility, to herself and to her readers? Is she responsible for promoting a particular ethical or societal code, or is she responsible merely to the work of art? If we admit that one of the functions of literature is to be truthful to the world as the writer finds it, how is it possible to insist on some moral imperative in art given the evident immorality that surrounds most of us, most of the time? Is the function of art to better its recipients, or is it simply to present, in the kind of scientific manner Zola advocated, an accurate literary representation of a time and place?

It is obvious that evil occasionally triumphs in the world; why should it not also be allowed to triumph in works of literature? (It might be useful to remember that John Milton was roundly excoriated for making Lucifer the central figure of Paradise Lost.) Think of the great moral, virtuous, upstanding novel in the English language: Samuel Richardson’s Pamela. Now try to imagine an entire literature informed by it. The mind positively reels.

No doubt there are many, even today, who would argue that the function of art is to better humanity. And it seems to be true that those who expose themselves to artistic works are more tolerant and expansive than those who don’t. It is also true that one must take care about what one exposes oneself to in a literary context: much more benefit will be gleaned from reading Zola and Dostoevsky (who were, it should be pointed out, both highly moral writers) than, say, The Protocols of the Elders of Zion.

However, the idea that literature must be affirming in order to be worthwhile does not follow.

31 Days of Stories 2010, Day 29: “The Dream of a Ridiculous Man” by Fyodor Dostoevsky

May 29, 2010 by · Leave a Comment 

From Great Short Works of Fyodor Dostoevsky

Although Dostoevsky’s story begins with a typically bleak existentialism, “The Dream of a Ridiculous Man” is in fact one of the author’s most hopeful works. The unnamed narrator, having succumbed to the anxiety of meaninglessness that characterizes his life, decides to kill himself, but a chance encounter with a young girl gives him second thoughts. In his apartment, with his gun by his side, he falls asleep and has an extended dream that thoroughly changes his outlook on life.

A bare-bones summary of the story’s plot belies its philosophical heft and its nuanced thought; far from being a simple redemption story, it is instead a reckoning with human weakness and fallibility, and an extended meditation on the nature of suffering. This being Dostoevsky, things are not all sweetness and light.

The story’s opening section finds the narrator in a state of existential crisis. He has determined that the universe is indifferent and that nothing matters: “I was becoming terribly disheartened owing to one circumstance which was beyond my power to control, namely, the conviction which was gaining upon me that nothing in the whole world made any difference.” Worse than experiencing anger at the rampant corruption and venality of society is the narrator’s lack of any kind of feeling at all:

I suddenly ceased to be angry with people and almost stopped noticing them. This indeed disclosed itself in the smallest trifles. For instance, I would knock against people while walking in the street. And not because I was lost in thought – I had nothing to think about –  I had stopped thinking about anything at that time: it made no difference to me. Oh, I had not settled a single question, and there were thousands of them! But it made no difference to me, and all the questions disappeared.

The narrator’s indifference is so pervasive that although he has made up his mind to kill himself, he cannot work up the energy to follow through. Even the elements conspire to exaggerate the narrator’s malaise: the night he finally decides to take decisive action is “as dismal an evening as could be imagined … it had been pouring all day, and the rain too was the coldest and most dismal rain that ever was, a sort of menacing rain – I remember that – a rain with a distinct animosity towards people.” The pathetic fallacy continues as the narrator looks up a the night sky, which is “awfully dark,” with “torn wisps of cloud and between them fathomless dark patches.” In an ironic moment, what finally convinces the narrator to take action to end his life is a star that he glimpses between the clouds. The star, symbolic of light and hope, prompts the narrator to finally pick up his revolver and shoot himself.

However, on his way home to do the deed, the narrator encounters a little girl in the street calling for help:

I turned around to look at her, but did not utter a word and kept on walking. But she ran after me and kept tugging at my clothes, and there was a sound in her voice which in very frightened children signifies despair. I know that sound. Though her words sounded like they were choking her, I realised that her mother must be dying somewhere very near, or that something similar was happening to her, and that she had run out to call someone, to find someone who would help her mother. But I did not go with her; on the contrary, something made me drive her away. At first I told her to go and find a policeman. But she suddenly clasped her hands and, whimpering and gasping for breath, kept running at my side and would not leave me. It was then that I stamped my foot and shouted at her.

This is the pivotal scene in the story, for it is the narrator’s encounter with the little girl that jostles him out of his existential torpor. His initial reaction to the encounter is anger, because he feels pity for the lost little girl, yet he thinks to himself, if he has decided to commit suicide, should he not be indifferent to the world’s suffering? If, by ending his life, he also severs his conscious connection with the outside world, what difference should it make to him that there is a young girl in distress? Despite these rationalizations, like the guilt-plagued Raskolnikov in Crime and Punishment, the narrator discovers that he cannot quell his feelings of sympathy for the girl.

It is this contradiction that leads to the narrator’s dream, an extended expressionistic journey through a land that resembles Earth as an Edenic paradise, prior to the fall of mankind. The people who live in this alternate world do not suffer or succumb to anger or jealousy; although they die, their earthly unions survive death; they have no religions, but are stamped with “a certain awareness of a constant, uninterrupted, and living union with the Universe at large.” And how does the narrator’s presence influence these prelapsarian souls? In one of the story’s most savagely ironic twists, the narrator confesses: “I – corrupted them all!”

Indeed, the presence of the narrator among the innocent denizens of his dreamworld incites a recognition of human frailties and states that had previously gone unremarked upon: selfishness, jealousy, shame. They begin to eschew their communal existence, and “progress” in a specifically human fashion:

A struggle began for separation, for isolation, for personality, for mine and thine. They began talking in different languages. They came to know sorrow, and they loved sorrow. They thirsted for suffering, and they said that Truth could only be attained through suffering. It was then that science made its appearance among them. When they became wicked, they began talking about brotherhood and humanity and understood the meaning of those ideas. When they became guilty of crimes, they invented justice, and drew up whole codes of law, and to ensure the carrying out of their laws they erected a guillotine. They only vaguely remembered what they had lost, and they would not believe that they ever were happy or innocent.

Here, Dostoevsky distills human nature to its essence: the thirst for suffering, the use of science to explain away an incomprehensible existence, the conviction that justice is appropriate, but only because we have accepted the reasonableness of crime in the first place. When the narrator confronts the dream figures about what they have sacrificed to achieve this new world order, the response he receives is tantamount to a philosophical rationalization for mankind’s dissolution:

“What if we are dishonest, cruel, and unjust? We know it and we are sorry for it, and we torment ourselves for it, and inflict pain upon ourselves, and punish ourselves more perhaps than the merciful Judge who will judge us and whose name we do not know. But we have science and with its aid we shall again discover truth, though we shall accept it only when we perceive it with our reason. Knowledge is higher than feeling, and the consciousness of life is higher than life. Science will give us wisdom. Wisdom will reveal to us the laws. And the knowledge of the laws of happiness is higher than happiness.” That is what they said to me, and having uttered those words, each of them began to love himself better than anyone else, and indeed they could not do otherwise.

With these words, penned in 1877, Dostoevsky provides as good a diagnosis of modernity and its attendant crises of conscience and meaning as exists in literature. It is this understanding that prevents the story’s narrator from making good on his promise to kill himself. Instead, he awakes from his dream a changed man, and determines to spend the rest of his days preaching. He espouses a Christian philosophy of brotherly love: “The main thing is to love your neighbour as yourself – that is the main thing, and that is everything, for nothing else matters. Once you do that, you will discover at once how everything can be arranged.” For his troubles, he is branded a madman. And yet, Dostoevsky’s story has a happy ending, one of the few in the author’s canon of works. The narrator does track down the tormented little girl, and his final words are not words of despair, but words of defiant hope in the face of a fallen world: “I shall go on! I shall go on!”