Monday, December 19, 2011

Fictional Morality

I sometimes find myself in what might be described as a blogging cycle. On one hand, light, upbeat - even frivolous. On the other, when something wrenches guts hard enough, a meatier, sugar-free post, rather like today's. 
People often admire literary intellect, irrespective of expressed moral view and the notion gains credence that excellent facility with prose in some way excuses sins. Christopher Hitchens, the champion of vitriolic atheism has left this world, perhaps to discover that most of his tightly reasoned theories about God, the afterlife and the permanence of the soul have been set at naught. His style was excoriating and passionate, some might argue grossly offensive, even repellent - in his own words he once remarked that he 'ought to carry with him some sort of rectal thermometer', presumably to measure how rapidly he was turning into an old fart. The influence of such writers on popular culture, the axis of leverage which they are able to command over the mind of the reader is almost impossible to calculate. I was seduced, but not captivated. 
I don’t believe that the humanities are necessarily humane - in other words, shape our moral perceptions for good rather than evil. Indeed, I would go further: I think it more than conceivable that the focusing of consciousness on a written text diminishes the sharpness  of our actual moral response. Because we are trained to give psychological and moral credence to the imaginary, to the character in a play or a novel, to the condition of spirit we gather from a poem, we may find it more difficult to identify with the real world, to take the world of actual experience to heart. The capacity for imaginative reflex, for moral risk in any human being is not limitless; on the contrary, it can be rapidly absorbed by fiction, consequently the cry in the poem may come to sound louder and  more urgent than the cry in the street outside. The death in the novel may move us more potently than the death in the next room. Is there, I wonder, a covert, betraying link between the cultivation of aesthetic response and the potential for personal inhumanity? As we succumb more and more to the fantasy of aesthetics, we fail to realise that the moral plumblines keeping us upright have been twisted into grotesque, unrecognisable shapes. Thus, the more aesthetically refined we imagine that we have become, the more our internal moral structures decay until we become a satyr, a Dorian Gray.


  1. Whoa. I think if you had done this entry as a podcast I'd have to read it for myself anyway. I want to write like you when I grow up.

    As to Mr. Hitchins (my own faith in a Creator God being very firmly entrenched) I would have loved to be a mouse in the corner when said atheist comprehended the Truth of the One he has railed against all his adult life.
    Poor man.

  2. Oh yeah - and about moral plumblines. I came across this quote the other day ~ "The mind is ever ingenious in making its own distress." (Oliver Goldsmith) Morality is "in the eye of the beholder." Everyone has morals - it's just that some are judged 'higher' than others (whatever that means). I can think of well documented episodes in history where morals dictated actions which departed far from actions dictated by Truth. Moral plumblines conceived and held in the mind without regard to objective reality or measured by an immutable standard are bound to become grotesque caricatures. At least that's what I think,,, and we all know how my bubble is totally level.

  3. i think this is why 'no-one is good but God alone'. Attempts to measure objective goodness are skewed by the very instruments used to make the measurement.

  4. It took some time for me to catch up on your topics so I apologize for the late response to your entry regarding the passing of Christopher Hitchens. It is just as well considering that my thoughts about the man are complicated.
    As a writer I admire his talent. His prose leaps off the page with the fierce attack of a bird of prey. I can only aspire to someday achieve the precision of his words and the eloquence of his message.
    Having said that I find it nearly impossible to agree with anything the old codger ever said. I will not claim to have read all of his work. Most of what I have read of his comes from articles published in periodicals over the years.
    I found him deeply lacking any kind of human compassion in his appearances on television. Usually shilling, in my view, for the lowest common denominator capitalist, colonialist, or other status quo elite systems versus progressive or "liberal" in the American use of the word causes.
    To say I hated the man, based on his views is an understatement. However, never having actually met him I tried to give him the benefit of the doubt as "playing an expected role," or otherwise hacking out a living in the wilderness that is the American writing market.
    I was always intrigued with his opinions, if for no other reason than that it helped me to clarify my own ideas.
    I found it interesting that in something I read shortly after his death that he was an avowed "socialist" small (s) I suppose. I couldn't really reconcile that with the hideous social darwinist I saw on the sunday TV pundit circuit. I guess his "athiesm" was one common cause he had with many "socialists" but outside of that I didn't find much in the way of what you could call common ground between him and any "socialist" causes or positions.
    He seemed to be an apologist, albeit one with a very impressive vocabulary and ability to wield it like a claymore against any who would dare attack the captains of industry or kings, queens or presidents. He would have been right at home during London's "Bloody Code" period it seems.
    I imagine that he would have been an interesting person to drain a bottle of scotch with, or a case of good wine perhaps. But at the end of the night I am not certain I would have benefited from the experience.
    He strikes me as a sad and lonely man although I am certain with his fame and ability to converse he may have had and rejected dinner invitations every night of his life . But at the end of it all what is the point of making relationships with people if one will have expectations of mutual obligation hoisted upon them at the end of an evening?
    Perhaps he would have been happier as a farmer or a scientist. Working with his hands in a more concrete arena with less ambiguity seems to be what he was after. Although if he couldn't split the atom or cure some incurable disease he may have been dissatisfied in the end.
    I find it interesting that he chose to live most of his adult life in America. One would think that with his love of provincialism an apartment in London would have suited him better than in New York. In any case I am reminded of Erich Fromm's answer to Nietzsche that it is not God but man that is dead in our day. Paraphrasing of course, but the point that we are dead without God certainly seems to fit here.
    I have never met a true athiest in my view. For me it is far more complicated to perceive a universe that has and continues to happen by chance than to believe in an entity that created everything. I'm afraid I am not that limber as to assume the contortions and contradictions such a view requires.
    Happy trails to you until we meet again...
    I was more affected by Davy Jones' death than Christopher Hitchens. But I'm attracted to positive people I suppose.
    That's why I love reading your contributions. Its good to have good friends:)


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