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Do Moralists Make Bad Novelists?

Friday 10 July 2015

JULY 7, 2015

Each week in Bookends, two writers take on questions about the world of books. This week, Alice Gregory and Pankaj Mishra discuss whether moral preoccupations have a place in good fiction.

By Alice Gregory

There is moralism with the intent to teach, and moralism with the intent to question.

When I hear the word “moralist,” I imagine a didact, a preacher-like figure intent on explaining the difference between good and bad. It seems self-­evident to me that these people have no business writing novels, if for no other reason than their strict dogma jeopardizes their readers’ pleasure. Thomas Mann captures this tedium exactly when he writes, in “Buddenbrooks,” of the “wide-eyed expression that children put on when someone reading a fairy tale to them is tactless enough to insert some general remarks on morals and duty — a mixture of embarrassment and impatience, piety and boredom.”

Not only does moral preoccupation corrupt the artfulness of fiction, but fiction is an inefficient and insincere vehicle for moralizing. If an author’s motive is to impart a lesson, he would be better off writing a manifesto or publishing a pamphlet and distributing it free on the subway. Novels are, by their very nature, slow. It takes a long time to read a book — longer than looking at a painting or listening to a song. And of course writing one takes even longer. If you are a person whose aim in life is to spread the gospel of good, writing about the inner lives of people who do not exist is a bad use of time.

Thankfully, there is another kind of moralist, one disinclined toward manifestoes and pamphlets, who is in fact exceptionally suited to the writing of novels. She perceives herself as more ambivalent, either about the soundness of her own judgments or about the value of imposing them explicitly on her readers. For her, ethics are measured and expressed in nonliteral units: the sorts of people to whom she chooses to extend her theory of mind, the small details upon which her characters disagree, the extent to which they are willing to forsake integrity for social graces. She does not inject her fiction with moral content, but moral content is there nonetheless. As Iris Murdoch told The Paris Review in 1990, “You can’t write any novel without implying values.” A novelist “is, in a sense, a compulsory moralist.”

There is moralism with the intent to teach, which makes the world smaller, and moralism with the intent to question, which makes it larger. Nabokov, who denigrated, more or less constantly, the idea that morality play any role in literary production — “I am bored by writers who join the social-comment racket” — was, despite himself, a moralist through and through. He once told an amphitheater of college students that, when reading, they should strive to “share not the emotions of the people in the book but the emotions of its author.” This declaration, a single line of a prepared lecture on literary appreciation, is as good as any key to his work, for despite his incessant harping on the virtues of “impersonal imagination and artistic delight,” it is impossible to read any of Nabokov’s writing and not come away with an almost fanatically precise understanding of his values (down to how one should pronounce specific words).

This sort of sly moralism — diffuse, cumulative — is the kind most needed today. We live in an era of constant online castigation and unequaled opportunity to judge and be judged. We are unceasingly exposed to our friends’ and enemies’ real-time (and seldom flattering) calibrations in self-presentation, and novels should offer a relief from that. Reading fiction has always been a method of escapism, but today the escape offered by the novel is no longer from the banalities of life but from our own compulsive and exhausting scrutiny. It’s not that fiction should be written by amoral authors — in fact, I would argue that novels actively unconcerned with which thoughts and behaviors are worth having are themselves not worth reading — but that their methods ought to be suggestive rather than forthright. Fiction should expose us to a conscience, not a conviction.

Alice Gregory is a writer living in New York. Her work has appeared in publications including The New Yorker, Harper’s, GQ, The Wall Street Journal and The Boston Globe. She is a contributing editor at T: The New York Times Style Magazine. Her essay “Mavericks,” which ran in n+1, was included in the 2014 edition of The Best American Sportswriting.#

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By Pankaj Mishra

Voltaire’s moralism is a less reliable guide than Shakespeare’s sense of uncertainty.

Voltaire, Roland Barthes once pointed out, was the “last happy writer.” He was also a moralist, one who belonged to a rising bourgeoisie that in the 18th ­century could imagine itself as the apotheosis of human history. And so the world was “simple” for this ambitious man of letters who attacked Shakespeare as well as the Bible before his aristocratic salon. He beseeched despots to spread enlightenment, but he could blithely exclude the lower classes from its benefits: “We have never claimed,” he wrote, “to enlighten shoemakers and servant girls.”

Voltaire’s fluent Manichaeism could only become burdensome for succeeding generations of writers, as the elite high culture, cleansed of religion and tradition by moralists like him, collided with the realities of mass society and revolutionary politics. Thinkers and artists were briefly exalted as unacknowledged legislators as the French Revolution, followed by large-scale urbanization and industrialization, expedited the secularization of Western Europe, while art filled the transcendental vacuum.

But the triumph of the bourgeoisie proved to be neither total nor secure. The Enlightenment’s grand program developed fatal contradictions. As it turned out, religious restrictions were soon replaced by the leviathan mechanisms — state and industry — of collective progress. Shoemakers and servant girls were among the disaffected working classes within Europe that fueled a series of uprisings and revolutions. History, far from ending with the triumph of reason in Parisian salons, accelerated madly in the 19th century.

Universal progress was likely to run off course when slave owners invoked the rights of man, and terrorists, followed by imperialists, began to promote the ideals of equality, liberty and fraternity across Europe, Africa, Latin America and Asia. It was this blighting of the 18th century’s facile rationalism and universalism, and the revelation of contending class interests and national antagonisms, that gave 19th-century literature an unprecedented density and depth. Never did prose fiction command as much authority and conviction as when Balzac, Tolstoy, Flaubert and Dostoyevsky wrote about the irresolvable moral and ideological conflicts of their societies.

Their own precarious position made Voltairean moralism seem a remote fantasy. Writers in the 19th century found themselves trapped in a professional and emotional dependence upon an aggressively materialist bourgeoisie, and were often dragged before the tribunal of utility. They couldn’t help dramatizing their peculiar fate as beneficiaries or victims of a shifting political order. By the 19th century, Voltaire’s cozy Republic of Letters had cracked; the 18th-century seekers of rational knowledge had been reborn as Flaubert’s bumbling clerks, Bouvard and Pécuchet. Many writers — Tolstoy as well as Baudelaire — were appalled by their own resemblance and proximity to the hypocrites lecteurs of the bourgeoisie. Escape into political and religious romanticism brought only temporary relief. No wonder, then, that the greatest novels since the 19th century have been marked by their authors’ incurable neurosis.

We can only be grateful that discontent is the un-Voltairean lot of modern writers, who turn into moralists only by coarsening their art. For, really, who today would prefer Bellow’s “Mr. Sammler’s Planet” over his “Herzog,” or Naipaul’s “Guerrillas” over “The Enigma of Arrival”? Voltaire wannabes, and ­assorted literary Republicans, insist on being acknowledged as moral legislators in the world’s great and complex conflicts. But the insidious enemies of freedom can no longer be clearly identified from the vantage point of some literary salon. In our darkly ambiguous world, Voltaire’s moralism is a much less reliable guide than the sense of uncertainty and incompleteness long ago evoked by Shakespeare. Upholding that ambiguity against the deceptive certitudes of politicians, businessmen and ideologues, the novelist — now irrevocably unhappy — still achieves a kind of transcendence.

Pankaj Mishra is the author of several books, including “The Romantics: A Novel,” which won the Los Angeles Times Art Seidenbaum Award for First Fiction, and “From the Ruins of Empire,” a finalist for the Orwell and Lionel Gelber Prizes in 2013. He is a fellow of the Royal Society of Literature and contributes essays on politics and literature to The New York Review of Books, The New Yorker, The Guardian of London and The London Review of Books.

A version of this article appears in print on July 12, 2015, on page BR31 of the Sunday Book Review.

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