Literature and the moral question

David L. Ulin
Los Angeles Times Book Critic
Is there such a thing as morality in art or literature?

Over the weekend, the National Catholic Reporter reported on a literary award to be administered by America Magazine, in conjunction with Yale University’s St. Thomas More Chapel: the George V. Hunt, SJ Prize for Excellence in Journalism, Arts and Letters, which will bestow $25,000 on a writer “of sound moral character and reputation [who] must not have published works that are manifestly atheistically or morally offensive.” Submissions close March 31.

Hunt was a Jesuit priest and longtime editor of America, which calls itself “the National Catholic Review.” This explains the focus on morality, I suppose, but still I have to wonder: What are the criteria?

Morality, after all, is a slippery slope and nowhere more, perhaps, than in regard to art, to literature, which begins as the expression of a single heart, a single mind. That it becomes more than that — connective, the fiber of a conversation between writer and reader, and between both of them and the world — is not just the point but the miracle. Still, to frame this miracle in moral terms is to misread what art extends to us: a way of joining, for a moment only, across the void.

Some of the most resonant writers are also the most morally difficult: Faulkner, Shakespeare, Flannery O’Connor, James Baldwin. What do we make of characters such as Iago, Flem Snopes or the Misfit, who concludes O’Connor’s “A Good Man Is Hard to Find” by massacring an entire family?

“Nome, I ain’t a good man,” he tells an elderly grandmother, just before he puts three bullets in her chest, “but I ain’t the worst in the world neither. My daddy said I was a different breed of dog from my brothers and sisters. ‘You know,’ Daddy said, ‘it’s some that can live their whole life out without asking about it and it’s others has to know why it is, and this boy is one of the latters. He’s going to be into everything!’”

O’Connor seems especially appropriate to this discussion, since she was a devout Catholic who wrote out of her abiding faith.

And yet, what does faith offer O’Connor? The substance of an uneasy reckoning. “Sin,” she writes in “A Prayer Journal,” “is a great thing as long as it’s recognized. It leads a good many people to God who wouldn’t get there otherwise. But cease to recognize it or take it away from devil as devil & give it to devil as psychologist and you also take away God. If there is no sin in this world there is no God in heaven. No heaven.”

I have to wonder how such a statement would play with the Hunt Prize’s insistence on “sound moral character.”

The issue is that art is not, cannot, be a matter of doctrine, no matter how much we might wish it were so. Art, rather, is most effective when it surprises us, leading to affinities, empathies, we might not otherwise allow.

Perhaps the most famous contemporary example of this is Humbert Humbert, the pedophilic narrator of Vladimir Nabokov’s “Lolita,” who literally seduces us with his voice. It is only when we look up from the page that we realize with whom we’ve identified — and the shock is in our recognition of his terrible humanity, which renders him as (yes) a lot like us.

Is Nabokov’s novel morally offensive? Patently, it is not. We live in a universe of treacherous choices, of corruption and degradation on both the individual and the collective level. To pretend otherwise is the true moral offense, to write as if it were possible to reduce the nuance, the ambiguity, of experience to stark shades of black and white.

This is what Jonathan Franzen meant, I think, in his remarks, from an interview also posted over the weekend, about moral simplicity, which have been widely read as a dig at young adult literature. Maybe so — but more to the point, he was getting at the difficulty of navigating a world with no clear markers, in which it’s all we can do, much of the time, to make it through the day.

“People don’t want moral complexity,” Franzen argues. “Moral complexity is a luxury. You might be forced to read it in school, but a lot of people have hard lives. They come home at the end of the day, they feel they’ve been jerked around by the world yet again for another day. The last thing they want to do is read Alice Munro, who is always pointing toward the possibility that you’re not the heroic figure you think of yourself as, that you might be the very dubious figure that other people think of you as. That’s the last thing you’d want if you’ve had a hard day. You want to be told good people are good, bad people are bad, and love conquers all. And love is more important than money. You know, all these schmaltzy tropes. That’s exactly what you want if you’re having a hard life. Who am I to tell people that they need to have their noses rubbed in moral complexity?”

Yes, of course, there’s judgment (schmaltzy tropes?), but this, too, is part of what a writer does. We are operating, first and always, out of the personal, looking through our own eyeballs, framing existence on our terms.

That, I want to say, is the true morality of writing, the willingness to expose ourselves, to open our strange and idiosyncratic centers to the world. That is the only way not to be aesthetically offensive — or ethically, as well.

There is no morality in art except the morality of speaking honestly, even (or especially) when that means saying something we can’t bear to hear.

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