RARA-AVIS: Bad Soup and Tarzan on a Motor Scooter

From: Kevin Burton Smith ( kvnsmith@thrillingdetective.com)
Date: 13 Feb 2007

Mark wrote:

> As for moral books, in his preface to The Life of Dorian Grey, Oscar
> Wilde (whose homosexuality led to jail time for immorality) wrote:
> "There is no such thing as a moral or an immoral book. Books are well
> written or badly written. That is all."

I knew someone smarter than me would pull a good quote. Thanks. That's a good one. It goes in the file.

And Jim, still gnawing on that ol' morality bone, wrote:

> If, as you seem to admit, artists have moral obligations, then it
> stands to reason that the art they produce must be consistent with
> those moral obligations.

That stands to your reasons. It only leans slightly to mine. I figure I'm an alright guy -- I wouldn't lie or steal or kill, generally, but I do have characters in my stories, even occasionally the "heroes," do all of those. As do the characters in your own stories.

Does that mean you write immoral stories?

> To say otherwise is to say that if, to use your example, a cook does
> something immoral like putting poison in the dish s/he prepares, the
> dish itself is morally neutral. Obviously a dish, being inanimate,
> can't make moral choices, but it was produced for an immoral purpose
> to further an immoral action.

But it's still a bowl of soup. Even laced with arsenic it's morally neutral. It may be bad soup, health-wise, but is it morally "bad"?

Or are you going to suggest that anything designed specifically to kill or harm is inherently immoral? Is arsenic itself immoral? Or does it depend on how it's used?

And what about weapons? Is a nuclear bomb immoral? Is a handgun? Is drunk driving? Is speeding? Is littering? Is thinking bad thoughts?

> Art that is produced for an immoral purpose, or that is produced in
> an immoral way, reflects the immoral actions of its producer. That's
> why a novel that is plagiarized, however well-written it may be in
> its own right, reflects the immoral actions of its writer.

But if you didn't know who the author was -- or didn't know the source from which it was swiped -- you wouldn't know it was an
"immoral" book. And you'd be forced to judge the book on its own terms, not by how it was created.

Which, to me, is how art should be judged. It's what's on the page that ultimately counts, not how it got there.

So, ignore the creation of the art (and the artists themselves) for a moment, if you can, and tell us what exactly makes a book immoral.

And, if there are immoral books out there (by your definition), so what?

Should something be done about them? What?

(This notion of "immoral" books really intrigues me, so please type slowly. This is a big topic I'm trying to get my head around here.)

> Miker's comment was in response to my assertion that an artist
> adapting a piece of work created by another to a different medium
> owed a moral obligation to the original creator to show a modium of
> fidelity to the original work. In other words I was talking about
> the moral obligations of the artist. So it was reasonable to draw
> the inference, when Miker responded by saying "Art has no moral
> obligations," that he was talking about the producer of the art.

It would also be reasonable to believe that perhaps he meant exactly what he said. Miker?

Which brings us back to John, who said:

> ... art has no obligation other than to have
> a point of view

YES. Because without some sort of point of view, it would simply be craft, right? Or at most lesser art.

By the way, pursuant to the thread of whether Altman somehow
"betrayed" Chandler, didn't Chandler also dismiss Marlowe in one of his essays or letters somewhere as a "ridiculous man... Tarzan on a motor scooter" or something like that?

That would seem to imply that perhaps the author's vision of his hero wasn't quite as diametrically opposed to Altman's after all, despite the much trotted-out "Down there mean streets" riff.


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