Literature and Violence II: Do the Laws of Morality Apply to the Realm of Fiction?

In the first post of this mini-series, we investigated some of the ways in which violence undergirds fiction: it’s a source of creative or philosophic insight, a justification for the act of writing, and perhaps even that which makes the flight to fiction necessary. The question of violence and literature seems particularly fruitful in our time because we seem to make most of our personal and political decisions with the aim of reducing violence as much as we can, yet we also seem — at least when it comes to fiction — to be secretly in awe of it.

For example, the story of Dostoevsky’s mock-execution has always impressed me. Arrested for participating in a progressive literary circle, he and some other prisoners were lead out to a St. Petersburg square to be shot, only to have a tsar’s messenger ride in to the square at the last second to issue a dramatic pardon (Dostoevsky & co. were instead to Siberia for a couple of years). Had I later found out that this history was actually an urban legend and that Dostoevsky had been sent to Siberia simply for petty theft, I would surely be disappointed. Even though it would mean that the total amount of terror in the world would be less than I previously thought, part of his aura as a writer would, for me, be diminished. So I would instinctively prefer the world with more evil — the one in which Dostoevsky was forced to face the firing squad — than one in which there was less, and I imagine most others would feel the same.

We often use the personal trauma experienced by an author as a measuring stick for the authenticity of their work. For some reason, in some circumstances, it makes a difference to us whether one’s writing from one’s own hardships rather than using the trials of another person’s life as the raw material for one’s story. My high school English teacher Mr. Moore sent a good example of this: a 2012 novel about the Iraq war, Ben Fountain’s Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk, was reviewed unfavorably, despite its artistic chops, because its author was a lawyer, not a soldier. The following review, which I got when I typed in “Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk review” into Google, appears to be typical:

I have serious problems with this book. The first is that Fountain isn’t a veteran. Yeah, I know, I’m not being fair. Any good writer can write a good war book if he does his research, right? How dare I expect The Great Iraq War Novel to have been written by an Iraq vet. I mean, it’s not like there are millions of Iraq vets around the country who are qualified to write about the war. Oh wait, yes there are. Well, I guess none of us are writing about it. Oh wait. . . yes we are.

Even though Fountain talked to numerous veterans in writing the book, we dock him points because he didn’t live the lives he writes about. This creates a situation in which authors may in fact value their traumatic experiences as the coinage they need to legitimize their work. Saul Bellow, for example, foreshadowing T-Swift in the generation after him, seemed only to get married in order to use his inevitable matrimonial deterioration as fodder for his next National Book Award winner.

Of course, nothing in any of this establishes that violence, physical and emotional, must be the only source of an author’s creative output (and it would be useful some other time to try to come up with a list of alternative, more wholesome sources). And it doesn’t mean that stories necessarily have to be about psychic and physical trauma. This is the point my friend Wilson (left) was smart to bring up in reply to Part I of this. “To suggest that because violence exists it becomes a mandatory topic for ALL literature seems kinda flimsy…we don’t ask that all literature present to us all things: it is enough that it present whatever it can well, without regard to the limit of its scope,” he wrote.

In order to address this comment, I decided it makes sense for me to alter my original plan and discuss the relationship between morality in the “real world” and the fictional before trying to, next time, identify techniques for successful representation of violence in lit. After all, before trying to explain how authors successfully treat violence in their work, we should try to establish why they ought to write about violence in the first place.

For, certainly, we don’t demand from workers of other professions that their work present violence to us. No one ever been mad at a cook, for example, for not weaving a critique of oppression into the dishes they prepare, and indeed it would be hard to think of what doing so in that medium would entail (perhaps shaping mashed potatoes into corpses, or using real victims’ bodies in the recipe?). Likewise, such a gesture would seem out of place at a ballet or ceramics show. So why should we demand it from a novelist?

Nabokov (who, incidentally, was right about everything) detested the suggestion that his experience of violence should be read as a key to his work. Though he fled Red Russia in 1919, Nazi Germany in 1937, and Nazi-conquered France in 1940, he insisted that “whether Nazi or Bolshevik farce had anything to do with my novels should concern the good reader as little as it does me.” But one might respond, of course, that it’s precisely because Nabokov had the first-hand experience of being victimized by those regimes that it’s okay for him to insist his work has little to do with them. To illustrate by contrast, let’s return to our example from last post of the World War II-era Japanese aeronautics engineer who designed beautiful airplanes that happened to be used in the war effort. If he declared “whether Tojo’s farce has anything to do with these beautiful planes should concern the good viewer as little as it does me,” most of us would object. Why? For one, before one is an artist one is a human being, and we would consider it a moral failure not to be thinking about the circumstances that are enabling one to produce one’s art. As Roberto Bolaño says, we should be suspicious of anyone whose love are art is unmatched by their love of life, and failure to consider the victims of one’s art would seem to signify a breach of attention to life. And yet there is obviously an important difference between the claim of Nabokov and that of our Japanese plane-maker. The Japanese engineer’s reason for continuing on his work is purely aesthetic (“I want to make beautiful planes”), while Nabokov — contrary to what is sometimes thought of him — is objecting to politically inspired art not from the standpoint of “art-for-arts’ sake” but for reasons of politics and morality. Nabokov’s logic was that to entertain the idea that the experience of totalitarian regimes influenced his writing — even if that was true — was to allow them to control more than they deserved. It was to cede power to the aggressor rather than the victim. Furthermore, to require that a novelist be a record of those regimes’ terror would be merely to repeat the totalitarian impulse at the heart of them that insists on making art conform to the dictates of “grand ideas” — in this case the idea that art ought necessarily to privilege a particular subject matter. In this way, to insist a novelist be a witness to violence is itself an act of violence.

So I wouldn’t want to limit in advance the scope in advanced of what can be considered appropriate subject matters for writing. But obviously, at a certain point in a writing process, an individual has to choose what to write about, and so one cannot help but make decisions about what is more or less important to present. This requires mediating between one’s experience and capabilities, and the understanding of the audience and needs of their contemporary world. The factors that contribute to the decision of today’s writes will be different than those of previous eras in some ways. Like I said, we have more advanced knowledge of world history and of other parts of the world than previous eras did, which means no matter who we are, we are more in-tune, as commenter whoisntjohn says, with the violence permeating through the world than people of other times, even if we do not experience it viscerally. When the extent of one’s world was the surrounding village, one had no way of addressing or internalizing the psychic fractures of widows or orphans of far-off lands. Now, we know better than ever what is out there. The question is whether we chose to try to do or write anything about it.

To live authentically (Heidegger says) doesn’t mean “being true to true yourself,” as we often think, but rather taking into ourselves, making ourselves responsive to, the meaning of all that is, was, and will be. Which means one must try to act with the whole of humankind in mind, to take into our hearts the experiences of every human who has and will ever live. This is obviously overwhelming, but as Herman Cain says, it’s never easy when there’s so much on the line.

Doesn’t this mean that every moment you spend worrying about your own problems is time you’re taking away from addressing those of others? Isn’t all the time you spend drawing or painting or writing or watching YouTube time you could be spending helping others? But there are millions of lives past and present and future, how on earth can I be responsible for them all? How much do I really have to live for other people in order for it to “count” as living authentically?

I’m sure you go through this in your head often. Most of our lives we feel we live selfishly, and yet we can come up with all sorts of ways to justify it. What’s more, we write off people who are radically oriented towards others as naïve or crazy. That’s a main point of a new book by New Yorker staff writer Larissa MacFarquhar that profiles people who make extreme ethical commitments (adopting 20 children, founding a lepers’’ colony, donating all of one’s money to others…). Why are most people not capable of such acts? What is stopping each of us from quitting our jobs right now and donating all our time and energy to the betterment of others? (Notably, I guess, Mrs. MacFarquhar herself didn’t decide to quit writing the book mid-way through in order to take care of Syrican refugees). Perhaps partly this has to do with the fact that good intentions are often hardly enough. Notes Kant: “It was fortunate that so few men acted according to moral principle, because it was so easy to get principles wrong, and a determined person acting on mistaken principles could really do some damage.” And ask MacFarquhar: “Is it possible for a person to hold himself to unforgiving standards without becoming unforgiving?”

But suppose you decide you do wish to help others. That still doesn’t mean writing have to be the means through wish you accomplish this. Why couldn’t you spend 10 hours a day volunteering at a homeless shelter and write a few verses in the evening for amusement? Surely there’d be no harm in that?

To yourself, certainly not, but it’s a question not just of economizing your time but economizing that of others. If your verse is purely for pleasure, and others read it, then aren’t you taking away the readers’ attention from more important things, as well as missing an opportunity to try to make them better citizens?

Being a soccer player isn’t essential to being human and so a book that doesn’t include soccer wouldn’t be a big deal. But violence is fundamental, and so to not present something about it would seem to be missing an opportunity, and to take up space on the shelf from what people could be reading.

But how often does one need to be reminded of violence? Every single day is the answer provided by Flannery O’Connor’s “A Good Man Is Hard to Find.” The protagonist of the story is a brutish, self-interested grandmother. Then she watches her family get murdered in front of her by a shady guy named “The Mischief,” and then is killed herself. Before she’s offed, though, when she’s being held at gunpoint, she seems to have a moment of redemption when she reaches out and acknowledges the Mischief as her son. One of The Mischief’s henchmen comments that the grandmother would have been a good person “had been somebody there to shoot her every minute of her life.”

Mr. Moore, who clued me in to this story, recounted how his students found it really horrifying and thought O’Connor was a sick person. Interestingly, these same students likely murder thousands of zerglings, Goombas, avatars, etc (what do kids these days kill, by the way?) after school on their game consoles without second thought, yet suddenly they’re repulsed just because O’Connor had a few characters senselessly murdered in front of their grandmother.

Before she’s killed, as I said, the grandma experiences an epiphany. There’s a strange violence-tinged symbiotic relationship between author, character, and reader in the story. The grandmother needs O’Connor to have her held at gunpoint in order to have the epiphany and so receive some measure of redemption by becoming, for at least a moment, a good person. And O’Connor needs the grandmother to receive redemption in order to redeem her story from being a completely pointless nihilistic bloodbath. And perhaps the reader needs to witness the effect of the grandmother being held at gunpoint as a “moral equivalent for violence” in their own life. Is O’Connor’s decision to kill off the grandmother’s family justified since it gives readers a humane take-away message? Is it okay that fictional characters are sacrificed for the sake of a real-world payoff?

And what if there’s no real-world payoff, no didactic message for the reader, but pure entertainment or even just nonsense? In that case is there anything wrong with an author killing, maiming, torturing, raping etc… fictional characters?

Let’s consider the following story:

“There was a man named Bob. Bob had no friends. Bob didn’t accomplish what he spent his life dreaming of. The love of Bob’s life was swooped up by another man. Bob was murdered in his own home by someone who mistook him for someone else. No one came to his funeral.”

If we had made this story prettier, would you feel sorry for Bob? Probably. But there was nothing that made us create Bob, so does that make us cruel people to offer him no redemption at the end of his tale? BUT HE’S NOT REAL SO WE DIDN”T ACTUALLY HARM ANYONE, you might say! Of course we didn’t, and Bob has no legal rights, so we can’t get sent to court (unless we were to cross other boundaries like employing slurs that might offend real people).

But does Bob’s story — which is basically just the plot of The Great Gatsbysans Nick as well as of numerous other tales — only matter for the didactic effect on and entertainment value for us readers? Should we not worry about Bob’s unjust treatment? The reason it’s hard to adopt the view of treating characters as mere instruments for our own edification or amusement — is that we want our own world to be moral and meaningful. And if the fictional world has no inherent meaning or justice and exists only for the sake of the “real world” that the characters in the fake world don’t know about, what’s to say that we are not in the same position as those fictional characters — that our world has no inherent meaning and that our lives are only means to the entertainment of someone else’s “real world.” It seems that if we want our own world to be moral and to be an end in itself, we have to insist on the morality of the fictional world so that we can believe in the reality of our own.