RARA-AVIS: literature a moral harm

From: DJ-Anonyme@webtv.net
Date: 25 Aug 2006

I was reading the following article in Dissent
(http://www.dissentmagazine.org/article/?article=425) on the current state of obscenity prosecutions when I ran across the following section on literature and moral harm. I immediately thought of the semi-recent debate over Stansberry's The Confession, how some critics (and many who hadn't even read it) equated simple depiction of evil deeds -- SPOILER ALERT (but one known by anyone at all exposed to the debate) -- from the perspective of the evil doer --SPOILER ALERT OVER -- with an endorsement of those deeds.

Now I'm on record saying I didn't think Stansberry was entirely successful in this book (but think his Last Days of Il Duce was great and am looking forward to Chasing the Dragon, which I have on deck), but I had no problem with the depiction of evil. Actually, I find its depiction from the viewpoint of the perp especially interesting and entertaining. However, no matter how cool I think Parker is, I don't think there's much chance of my going out and pulling a heist, much less casually killing anyone who gets in my way.


Anyway, here's the (pretty long) excerpt:

When we try to think through how literature causes moral harm, matters become more complicated. In his book The Company We Keep: An Ethics of Fiction, Wayne Booth developed a sophisticated account of the moral effects of literature. As we read, "a large part of our thought-stream is taken over, at least for the duration of the telling, by the story we are taking in." The reader is invited to view the world in the same way that the narrative does. Literature is good for us when it teaches us to view the world, and particularly human interaction, subtly and sensitively. The "facts" that we take in when we read a narrative are of two kinds, Booth argues. One is "nonce beliefs," which the reader embraces only for the duration of the story: "Once upon a time there was a farmer who had the good fortune to possess a goose that laid a golden egg every day . . ." But any story will also depend for its effect on
"fixed norms," which, Booth notes, are "beliefs on which the narrative depends for its effect but which also are by implication applicable in the 'real' world." When Aesop concludes the goose story with the claim that "overweening greed loses all," the reader is meant to keep thinking that once the story is over. And the point applies to all fiction, whether or not it has overt moral lessons as Aesop's does. Morally bad literature is literature that promulgates morally bad fixed norms. Just as good literature invites us to perceive the world subtly and empathetically, it is possible -indeed, it is common-for novels or films or television shows to view the world crudely and insensitively, and to spin out self-aggrandizing fantasies that invite self-centeredness and cruelty. There is a lot of that stuff in our culture. It is a huge problem. Will censorship make matters better? It's unlikely. . . . Even with portrayals of sexual violence that make the violence appear attractive, matters are complicated. There may be valid moral reasons for such portrayals. One of the most vivid literary treatments of sexual cruelty is Vladimir Nabokov's 1955 novel, Lolita, which is told from the point of view of the eloquent and witty pedophile Humbert Humbert. For half a century critics have debated whether Nabokov went too far in letting Humbert's voice dominate the novel. Forced Entry [an extremely explicit rape/murder porn film at the center of current cases questioning obscenity laws] isn't Lolita, of course. Lolita is a literary classic, and Forced Entry-to put it gently-is not. And this matters, because under the Miller test material can't be obscene if it has substantial literary value. IF YOU'RE CONCERNED about moral harm, however, literary value may just make matters worse. Humbert's perspective is presented with dazzling skill. A sample: "I do not intend to convey the impression that I did not manage to be happy. Reader must understand that in the possession and thralldom of a nymphet the enchanted traveler stands, as it were, beyond happiness. For there is no other bliss on earth comparable to that of fondling a nymphet. It is hors concours, that bliss, it belongs to another class, another plane of sensitivity." Gee, that sounds great. I have not seen Forced Entry, but I will bet that it doesn't make the case for the delights of committing rape nearly as well. Many readers will not notice how Nabokov subtly subverts his narrator's ingenious apologetics. The same problem is present in any narrative that makes the appeal of evil actions intelligible, such as that of John Milton's heroically defiant Satan in the early pages of Paradise Lost.

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