John Gardner wrote an entire book on the subject of moral fiction, appropriately titled On Moral Fiction.
His main premise is that the world tends toward disorder and that life is an anomaly that must always fight against that disorder (entropy). It’s a very existential premise.
He rails against those would create art-that-isn’t-art — trivial mimicking nonsense that has the surface features of art but that is lacking in any kind of substantive bulwark against the darkness. (Darkness, he tells us, is forever marching against us, and unless we strive mightily, continuously, and generation after generation, we could lose the match. His concern is that not enough artists understand the threat, and are therefore failing to put in a proper moral effort.)
This is a great summary of this thesis, from the section on premises (quoted under fair use, a small part of a larger work):
That art which tends toward destruction, the art of nihilists, cynics, and merdistes*, is not properly art at all. Art is essentially serious and beneficial, a game played against chaos and death, against entropy. It is is a tragic game, for those who have the wit to take it seriously, because our side must lose?
Later, he tells us what art used to do commonly, but rarely does now:
Art rediscovered, generation by generation, what is necessary to humanness.
What I like about Gardner’s assertions is that he stops far short of ‘moral’ meaning anything like ‘good’ or matching the definitions of any one faith. Moral is about the fundamental nature of humanity: art in general and fiction in particular should strive to mine the human condition for its truth.
(It’s possible to come up with silly, narrow, even spurious definitions of what moral is, which not only undermine the strength of fiction, but narrow its scope and thus its meaning as art. To do so avoids the real meat of the questions: should fiction be moral; what is moral fiction?)
Art, in other words, is what “beats back the monsters and…makes the world safe for triviality.”
That raises the more mundane but still important questions:
- Are there monsters that need beating back?
- What does it mean to beat back the monsters?
- What does ‘safe’ mean in this universe?
- What is the role of triviality in the life of the mind and heart?
Are there monsters that need beating back?
This seems like a simple question, but it’s a tricky one. Yes, perhaps even obviously, there are monsters that need beating back. But it’s far too easy to put up straw men for the real monsters because the real monsters are inately terrifying. So modern mankind may err in two ways: we may fail to see the real monsters in existence, and we may have ways of fooling ourselves about how terrifying and powerful they are.
What are the real monsters? They are born out of simple things, not unlike stones and lamps and other magic items: they are born out of our own natures. Not lions and tigers and bears, but the twisted ways of seeing we have that accommodate the presence of lions and tigers and bears in our lives. We see them where they are not; we fail to see them where they exist – all because we have to live our lives aggressively and passionately in the face of mortal risk. Human awareness is stamped from the git-go with the pestilence of self-delusion merely so that we can find enough reason to get up and do life again the next day in the face of imminent death.
The price of that built-in curtain across mortal risk is the source of the kinds of monsters that art can deal with. Self-doubt, dealing with failure, the loss of love, the need for affirmation – all of these contain the seeds of true personal monsters of exactly the kind that art reveals and shows us how to fight against.
What we have to be careful of are monsters that we make up in order to satisfy our own fears. When we cannot face up to our own monsters, we project them on those outside of us. The greatest horrors of man upon man have their roots in such projections. I would be safe if only the Jews were not here, I would be at peace if only those damn Croats had never come into my land, I would be safe if I were able to use my gun to get rid of the people I think are bad, I would be safe if I could just torture information out of someone whom I think deserves it – everything and everyone has enough aspects that we don’t like to enable us to make bogeymen out anything around us. One of the great moral abilities of art is to remind us to look more courageously at ourselves.
What does it mean to beat back the monsters?
It takes will and faith and time to deal with things like self-doubt and loss of love. Art disentangles life to the point of clarity about the ways and means of monsters, and the ways and means of those who oppose them: flesh and blood men and women.
Any attempt to deal with these monsters that falls short of such courage leads to complacency, the idea that we are capable of great things without the building of the mental and emotional muscles that such acts require. Art that is not moral cannot help with courage; it is a false bravado that will leave one naked and exposed when death or hate or fear come calling. Art is an awareness of the power of lions and tigers and bears without having to throw ones self into the fight, so that when they come calling, one is not fearless but understand the purpose of fear. One is not blind to the costs of death but accepts it with courage. One recognizes hate for the monster that it is, and finds the will and faith to oppose it even when hate is self-righteous and powerful.
Art is the false idea that truth exists, that fuels the will to create that truth and make it real and tangible. Art is the faith that humanity matters.
The dark side of this is that if we create substitute monsters, we attack not just the enemies we thus create, but our own peace and love and safety. We create monsters of ourselves.
What does ‘safe’ mean in this universe?
Safe means that we are free to play. Man does not live by meaningful art alone; he needs the freedom to play so that he can invent the tools that art will use. If art is to make room for the safety that play requires, it must open the door to the trivial and anti-art as well.
It must pretend, at times, that monsters do not exist. That no one will come calling for Jews, or shoot those they despise on sight, or enslave, or go to war, or crush even reasoned opposition. It must treat _real_ lions and tiger and bears as illusions, as we always have, from the beginning, to make room for hope and dreams and tools and love.
What we should never lose sight of is that the room for those things is temporary, hard-fought for, and finite.
Art must remain viable and vigorous, courageous and deep, when times are at their best and the threats become less obvious. When darkness is far away, moral art is hardest, and most necessary because the further away the darkness is, the harder it will come rushing back. It has a kind of momentum from that distance.
Otherwise, we will slip and lose that last bit of traction on the nature of humanity, and forget how hard it is to stay alive, and all that momentum will come rushing at us.
At the same time, we can get lost in safe. And forget to beat the path to all the good things, and keep it open.
What is the role of triviality in the life of the mind and heart?
It’s not a long journey from safety to triviality. It might even be necessary for mental and emotional health.
Triviality, while it provides room to breathe, is only the illusion that the darkness and disorder have been beaten back permanently, that there is no longer anything to worry about. But that illusion is also at the heart of human hope and ambition. We should not forget that trust in safety is a fool’s errand, and yet we must forget it in order to find joy and peace. We need to adopt the same sense of enabling illusion about trivial things as we do about lions and tigers and bears: we must ignore the monsters long enough to forge ahead; we must ignore the risk of triviality leading to oblivion in order to trust the safe havens we create for ourselves long enough to soar in our imaginations and ambitions.
Otherwise, we put our faith in trivial things, and might as well stake ourselves next to the monsters and let them have at us.
That balance, between safety and threat, monsters and triviality, courage and taking life for granted, is dynamic and while it is not art alone that keeps up our muscles for maintaining balance, art remains the one thing that is purely moral at its center, and thus a compass to the rest of existence.
After writing the above, it occurred to me that one can be blind to an aspect of moral reality without being a sociopath or a psychopath. In fact, that kind of blindness is central to the conflict in nearly all fiction. A tragedy is built on moral blindness, for example, and a comedy exploits moral blindness to trip up the actors in ways that tickle our funny bones.
So I think that there are also simple, practical reasons for writing moral fiction. Whether by its presence or absence at a given moment in a given character, it is the fuel that makes the story go.
And it also gives me a way to define ‘good’ fiction: a story that has the courage to apply moral concepts to situations that skirt the edges of what we like to call human. The beast, the deep love, the catastrophic loss, endurance, betrayal: these are not about the moral high ground, but about the dungeons below all that. Good fiction has the courage to explore places where even brilliant illumination may leave us staring at our own monsters.
The moral low ground, in other words, is where the action is. But one needs to sink low enough as a writer so that even the lowest visible point of the story is (potentially; we all bring those monsters) elevated in the reader’s view. Because that’s what moral anything is about: the humanity in the darkest corners, the love in the bleakest outcome.
Hah – the visual that comes to me is that my keyboard is sitting in a tiger’s mouth the whole time I’m writing.
* From the French word for shit, of course: those who love things made of merde. It’s actually a movement of sorts, an affirmation of nihilism, but I’m not sure how sincere that is; it could just be sarcastic. But you never know…