Wednesday, January 13, 2010

The moral act of writing

“Writing,” Patrick Kurp remarks this morning, “is a moral act (a tautology if we assume every human act possesses a moral component).”

This statement needs to be fleshed out to be exact, I am afraid. I worry about the sentence quoted by Jake Seliger a few days ago from Roth’s Zuckerman Unbound (1981): “He’s not merely a monster, he’s a great moralist too.” The moralist is a monster—of morality. He does not engage in moral reflection, but in moral legislation. He knows right and wrong clearly and in advance, because he has reduced human experience to a universal code, which admits of no exceptions. If he cooked as badly as he moralizes, his dishes would be tasteless reproductions of laboratory-tested recipes. He is under the delusion that morality, like good cooking, can be set down in black and white, and he is just the man to do so.

But this is not possibly what Kurp means. He doesn’t mean that writing is a moralizing act. A great writer is not a monster and a great moralist too. Nor does Kurp mean, I think, that writing is the labor to produce what the novelist John Gardner called, to the consternation of those who might otherwise have agreed with him, “moral fiction.” For Gardner, writing in 1978, this was a species of fiction distinguished from (and opposed to) experimental fiction or metafiction or self-conscious fiction. It is a paradox universally acknowledged that fiction can be amoral or even immoral in intention while holding itself to a chaste and persistent morality in realizing its intentions.

Writing is a moral act, because it demands complete autonomy (to be in thrall, whether to an employer or an ideology, is not to write but merely to recirculate stock phrases and received ideas), freedom from coercion of any kind, including moral fashion, and the refusal to quit until an adequate reaction to the literary situation at hand is carried off. What Michael Oakeshott said about religion applies equally well to writing. “In religion,” Oakeshott said, “we achieve goodness, not by becoming better, but by losing ourselves in God.” In writing a man achieves goodness—that is, morality—not by becoming a better man through the habit of composition, nor even less by laying down the moral law, but by losing himself in the text he is now writing.

8 comments:

scott g.f.bailey said...

Do you mean that writing is a moral act when the writer writes freely from within his own ethical framework, for his own purposes, and that cultural assessments of the writer's (or the work's) moral stance are beside the point? Forgive my lame attempt to rephrase you; I'm trying to figure out how you define "moral," if you do define it. "Moral" as in able to distinguish between good and evil as opposed to "moral" as in upholding the mores of the prevailing culture. Or perhaps you mean something else.

Forgive me also, if you will, the probable lack of close reading to your posts. Blogging has replaced for most people neither the art of the essay nor the art of correspondence; rather it's replaced water cooler conversation. Hey, Myers said something about morality, didn't he?

D. G. Myers said...

I mean that writing is moral when it obeys the laws of its own universe. For writers, as writers, there is only one moral obligation: to write well.

R. T. said...

If a writer is true to himself or herself, with absolute willingness to dig into and reveal (at least parts of) his or her real self for the purposes of creating that which is aesthetic (however he or she understands that arguable concept), then is not the writer then a moral (and responsible) writer? What more could you demand of a writer other than honesty and commitment to aesthetics?

R. T. said...

Postscript: I should perhaps add my opinion that assessing the moral power of a writer (and the writer's aesthetics) is not the same thing as assessing the literary quality (i.e., effectiveness and correctness) of a particular example of the writer's work. In other words, to say it differently, a well-written paragraph is not a measure of whether or not the writing is moral.

scott g.f.bailey said...

Sadly, some writers (mostly of genre fiction, in my experience) believe that books ought to have a didactic or utilitarian purpose. Usually this mean Aesop-brand "morals" or American WASP values. A lot of "middle-grade" or "young adult" books are infected with this disease. A great many readers also think that fiction should have this sort of moralizing purpose. A "good book" confirms and reinforces their views about the world and all that sort of inanity.

For a long time now, my own guiding principles for writing fiction have had nothing to do with this sort of parenting-by-proxy, and if there's any "truth" within my fiction, it's likely nothing more than the observation that life's a mess but at least there's causality.

Jack said...

If a writer depicts the human condition as it is, without error or omission, that, to me, is "moral" fiction.

scott g.f.bailey said...

Jack: Happily, "the human condition as it is, without error or omission" is varied and subject to interpretation. There is no objective "as it is," but there is how the writer truly understands it, or is trying to understand it. I think that a writer ought to be honest about what he sees, but realize that others will see things differently. Likely I'm just restating you at length.

David Gordon said...

I have just discovered your blog and am happy to find a fellow Roth-lover. I would like to point another couple of I think central aspects of his achievement:

In works like The Anatomy Lesson, Operation Shylock, Counterlife, etc., Roth became one of our great formal experimenters and a novelist who constantly thought and rethought the novel, a sort of quiet partner in this sense to Pynchon more than to Bellow. As much as I love Pynchon, the fact that Roth managed to be equally radical while seeming to toss off many of his most complex manuevers as jokes adds a kind of grace and maturity to his work.

Then of course there is the somewhat obvious but nevertheless, for me at least, hugely liberating idea: Great art can be funny. And I don't mean as a secondary characteristic. Rather, what Roth let me see as a young reader and writer was that the sheer vitality, imagination and behind it, aggression, of his writing was enough to break the force of gravity and soar into the realm of art. Of course he is not the first or only one (Roth's own hero Celine) nor is this all that is going on his work (even Portnoy has his tender side), but in my life it was Roth who made it clear I could laugh my ass off and ruminate on great literature at the same time.