It is tedious when a speaker begins by protesting modestly that he is inadequate to the task before him, or that he is the last person who should have been asked to discuss the theme of his address. We are apt to dismiss such wincing disclaimers as belonging to what Goldsmith called “the decorums of stupidity.” But the fact is that speakers often do feel inadequate to their task, and I am one of them at this moment. “Why, then, did you accept the invitation to speak?” you ask. I did it because I was intrigued by the theme proposed, and wanted to think about it. I may even have been so vain as to suppose that I might say something illuminating about it. But as I thought and wrote and wrote and thought, I was driven to admit that I had bitten off a very large chaw, and that I could chew only a part of it.
The subject is “Literature and Moral Purpose.” It is not a particularly engaging title, but I was unable to come up with anything better that was equally descriptive. What I am going to talk about is how far literature may be expected to discuss moral problems and what contribution it can make to their solution, without being untrue to itself.
I suppose I had better make some attempt to define or to give some general notion of what is meant by moral purpose. Is it not to give some guidance toward whatever is good as opposed to what is evil? But at once we meet a difficulty, for in some parts of the world things are considered to be good, or at least within the bounds of reasonable conduct, which are condemned elsewhere. Consider pederasty and sodomy, for instance, which were tolerated in the pagan world, but which until about the middle of this century were thought to be immoral in the Christian and Judaic world. But now the Christian and Judaic world, or a considerable part of it, has done a moral U-turn and what was condemned is tolerated, if not countenanced, even among members of the clergy, who are expected to be moral exemplars.
Presumably this is because among the seven Virtues, the Natural Virtues are regarded as less needful to the good life than the Supernatural Virtues. If one has Faith, Hope, and Charity, one may presumably manage with a smattering of Justice, Fortitude, Prudence, and Temperance. But these are very deep and stormy waters, and only subtle theologians can swim in them. As a literary man—specifically a novelist and a playwright—I must keep within the bounds of what I may be expected to know. And what I know is this: Virtually all novelists, playwrights, and poets of serious artistic purpose become inevitably involved in problems of morality, but such writers are on dangerous and artistically ruinous ground when they allow their work to be dominated by moral purpose.
When, for example, one speaks of great works of imaginative literature that have an avowed moral purpose, one thinks at once of Paradise Lost, in which Milton the artist so overreached Milton the theologian that Satan emerges as by far the most interesting character in the poem, and we are all drawn to admire him; in Paradise Regained, where Satan is reduced from the proud rebel to a much lesser tempter and schemer, the genius of Milton seems to be less happy. Or consider The Pilgrim’s Progress, which is remorselessly and unanswerably moral, so far as it goes, but which lives by the beauty of its style and its succession of vivid portraits and pictures. When we read that book as children, did we ever want to be Christian? Did we not yearn more toward one of the lesser roles, even that of Giant Despair? Reprobate children that we were, we thought that Christian was rather a pill, and that the others were full of exciting life.
Literature which is moral before it is artistic is rarely on the level of Milton or Bunyan. When I was a boy, I was a voracious reader. My home had plenty of moral literature on its shelves, and I was urged to read it for my betterment. There was lots of other literature, as well, but I was not forbidden, only discouraged, from reading it as it was said to be “beyond me,” which I quickly discovered meant that it dealt with life pretty much as life was, and not as the determinedly moral writers wanted me to think. My parents had both been brought up in uncompromisingly Christian homes, and so we had many books which they had won as Sunday School prizes—which meant that they had good memories rather than aggressively contrite hearts.
How awful those prize books were! I shall not bore you with too much detail about them, but I must mention one which was called Striving to Help. It was about a noble boy whose father was a business failure, not through any fault of his own but because evil men worked against him. The boy possessed a child’s printing press, equipped with rubber type, and he single-handedly lifted his family out of despair by going into the printing business. He sought orders from temperance societies to print their notices, and thus he killed two moral birds with one stone, although evil boys often altered the bills he printed to give them a pro-alcohol bias. But he won through in the end, because right always triumphs. He was very decent to his father, and never rubbed it in that his father was a failure. To his mother, of course, he was an object of almost hysterical adoration. There was an Oedipal element in this story which, at the time, I did not appreciate.
I have since wondered if some of those writers of moral tales for youth knew just what they were doing. Even Louisa May Alcott—unquestionably a writer of substantial gifts—included puzzling things in her books. Think of Little Men, which I read with avidity. One of the little men is a boy called Ned, and he is a boy of wavering moral character; but at Plumstead School he comes under the influence of Professor Bhaer, a German pedagogue who has an unusual method of discipline. When Ned is naughty, the Professor does not punish him; oh, no—the Professor makes Ned strike him on the hands with the cane, as hard as he can, until Ned is reduced to tears, because he dearly loves and admires the Professor. Even as a boy, I thought there was something decidedly kinky about the Professor. But did Louisa May Alcott know it? (She was not wholly without kinks herself.)
But let us return to the noble boy in Striving to Help. That boy made me feel very cheap indeed, for I too had a boy’s printing press, and it produced the messiest, worst-spelled, and most despicable work that anybody had ever seen. The most abject temperance society would have scorned to employ me. Fortunately, my father was not a failure, or my family would have sunk under the weight of my ineptitude.
Noble boys in fiction were the bane of my life. My family subscribed, on my behalf, to a journal called The Youth’s Companion, which originated in Boston, and every month it arrived, heavy with tales of noble boys who imposed their moral superiority on everybody around them by much the same sort of admirable industry. In my dark heart I hated those boys. They were unfailingly noble in their behavior toward girls, and I confess that there were times when my feelings about girls fell below their standard. I knew quite a few girls, and they were divided between the voluptuously desirable and beastly little sneaks and tattletales.
Only one thing saved me, I now believe. The boys in the Sunday School books were all English, and the boys in The Youth’s Companion were all Americans— usually Bostonians. I was a Canadian, and I grew up believing that Canadians were different—a lower order of being, incapable of morality in its highest reaches. One of the satisfactions of being a Canadian is that one is not expected to be a good example.
I gagged on tales of moral animals, like Beautiful Joe. You may not have encountered this powerfully moral dog, who met with much of the world’s evil in the form of wicked and cruel masters. But Joe was a sort of Canine Christian, and what was more, a Total Abstainer; Joe’s lips never touched alcohol. But I knew a few dogs in real life, most of whom were idiots, and whose moral behavior was well below Joe’s standard, for Joe lived a life of unwavering chastity, and the dogs I knew did not.
I could not stomach Little Lord Fauntleroy, who presented me with a political puzzle especially hard for a Canadian: What was that boy, and what did he do? He was an American, but by chance he inherited a title and went to England and became a Lord, and thereafter was remorselessly democratic toward anyone who kept it firmly in mind that he was a Lord, and behaved accordingly. The Little Lord existed to hammer home two things that were presented as mighty truths: We must be democratic and we must recognize the moral superiority that goes with poverty. It was easy, I thought, to be a democrat if everybody toadied to you, and I wished that the Little Lord could spend a few days at the school I went to, where to be known as a tireless reader (for I could not conceal it) was to be an outcast. Many of my persecutors enjoyed the blessing of poverty, but it did not seem to improve their characters. They were savage, jealous, and without bowels of compassion.
My sanity was saved by the books I read on the sly. Dickens, where evil people were plentiful and often rich, successful, and attractive. Thackeray, where snobbery seemed to be the mainspring of much of the action. Thomas Hardy, where life was complicated by opposed moralities and the uncontrollable workings of Destiny, and where God was decidedly not a loving Father. I did not know it at the time, but of course these were the works of literary artists who observed life with keen eyes and wrote about what they saw, as their widely varying temperaments enabled them to see. When I myself became a writer, it was these whom I chose to follow, as best I could, and not the aggressive moralists.
When I went to Oxford, I fell in with a young man in my college who had already been ordained as a Presbyterian minister. He found out that I had ambitions as a playwright and he conceived a great scheme: We would collaborate on a series of plays based on the great moral tales of the Bible—The Sacrifice of Isaac, Moses and the Golden Calf, Naboth’s Vineyard, and the like. I would write the plays, but he would supply the theology, the moral fervor, the zeal. I pointed out to him that in the eighteenth century, Mrs. Hannah More had had produced, in 1782, four Sacred Dramas: Moses in the Bulrushes, David and Goliath, Belshazzar, and Daniel. Even the authoress could not really like them. She wrote: “It would not be easy, I believe, to introduce Sacred Dramas on the English Stage. The scrupulous would think it profane, while the profane would think it dull.” My friend the young dominie was not daunted: We would succeed where Mrs. More had failed. But I was not convinced. In my childhood I had seen sacred dramas— Queen Esther and The Prodigal Son—and even in such a stage-struck child as I they produced a profound ennui. I had a lot of trouble getting rid of that ambitious young parson, I may tell you.
The problem was that I had changed my personal definition of the word “moralist.” For me, it meant not someone who imposes a moral system upon his art, but someone who sees as much of life as he can, and who draws what conclusions he may. What courses of action lead to what results? Are there absolute standards of good and evil? To what degree is what appears to be acceptable to society rooted in the truth of a particular man or woman? To what degree may the acceptance of a popular or socially approved code of conduct define or perhaps distort a character? Where do the springs of behavior lie; to what degree may they be controlled; how far is a human creature accountable to his group or his country or his professed belief (or unbelief) for what he does? How far is it permissible to talk of what a human creature makes of his life, and to what degree does an element of which he may be unaware in himself make his life for him? How far may we accept the dictum that life is a dream, and that we are creatures in that dream, which is being dreamed by something of which we have no knowledge? These, it seems to me, are the concerns of a true moralist. He is an observer and a recorder; he may not permit himself to be the judge, except by indirection.
In the comments that follow it may seem to you that I dwell heavily on writers of the nineteenth century and earlier, to the neglect of writers of the century in which we live. Of course, there are many writers of comparatively recent times who might be discussed: One thinks at once of Hemingway and Faulkner in the United States, and of Graham Greene, James Joyce, and that resounding moralist Evelyn Waugh in Great Britain; Marcel Proust’s great novel is virtually a long disquisition on vanity, and much might be said of Thomas Mann, of Glinter Grass. In the drama, one of the most deeply searching moralists of our time is Arthur Miller, and in Britain Alan Ayckbourn, under a cloak of sardonic comedy, presents us with some complex moral problems. But of these and of more recent writers I shall say nothing, because the nearer a writer is to us, the more varied debate and opinion becomes. I will stay with writers of an earlier day, about whose work the dust of dispute has in some degree subsided.
It may appear to you that I have weighted the scales unfairly against books of avowed moral purpose by talking of Sunday School prizes and publications for children. Certainly there have been widely accepted works of fiction and drama that are not so simple. I think of the famous play George Barnwell, or the London Merchant which was written in 1731 and enjoyed something like 150 years of popularity on the stage. It was often performed on holidays as a moral warning to apprentices who, like Barnwell, might fall into the company of evil women and—what was worse—rob their masters. One thinks of Uncle Tom’s Cabin, powerful both as a play and a novel. There were books like Danesbury House, which Mrs. Henry Wood wrote in 1860, and which won a prize of one hundred pounds from the Scottish Temperance League because of its description of the evils of drink; this was the first of Mrs. Henry Wood’s remarkable flow of novels, all of which were extremely popular— and all of which were of a determinedly moral tendency. But their morality has not been able to save them, for a simple reason: Morality changes from age to age and her morality was dictated by her society. The deeper truths about human nature which form the foundations of great drama and fiction are of more enduring stuff.
Compare, for instance, Mrs. Henry Wood’s most famous novel. East Lynne, with Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina. The theme is the same: A married woman falls hopelessly in love with a man who wearies of her; she destroys the peace of her husband and is estranged from her beloved child; in the end, having ruined her life, she dies. But in East Lynne her infatuation is dealt with very heavily on the basis of what Mrs. Grundy might think. Who can forget the line from the play, spoken by the heroine’s father: “O Isobel! you, an Earl’s daughter! How utterly have you forgotten yourself!” Tolstoy treats Anna’s defection as it reflects on the career of her husband who is brilliantly portrayed as a wronged, if unsympathetic, man. But chiefly Tolstoy tells us of the moral destruction of Anna herself, of her abandonment to a passion which she finds overwhelming but which seems from the outside to be merely foolish. We see Anna’s ruin and her final realization of what she is and what she has done, and her suicide. Anna Karenina is pitiable, and she is almost noble in her passion, but we cannot escape the realization that she is also something of a fool. Not so the heroine of East Lynne; she sins and she is rapturously forgiven; much of her conduct must be described as sneaky, but nobody seems to care; she dies at last in a glow of virtue, mourned by her husband, whom she has treated badly, as if she had been an angel all her life. Anna dies because it is her fate. Lady Isobel dies, one suspects, to make all the other characters feel cheap.
Why has Anna Karenina lived, whereas Lady Isobel is forgotten by all except a few hobbyists like myself? Because in East Lynne the cards are all stacked to the benefit of the principal character, the repentant sinner, the woman whose sins are forgiven her chiefly because she is the heroine of a popular novel. But Anna Karenina is a human being, not a doll devised to perform in a doll’s drama. Anna’s faults are plain for all to see, and the morality of the novel dips far below the surface of what was considered moral in the Russian society of the 1870s. We read it now, in a very different moral climate, for its fine understanding of what may happen when passion overcomes prudence, which is a timeless theme, and of the way in which Fate may intervene in an apparently ordinary life.
Of course not all fine fiction is written at the Tolstoy level. There are many literary artists who do their best to represent man in society and man at odds with society whose literary gift does not take them into the front rank of writers. A gift is not to be commanded. We know how grievously Tolstoy himself sank in the latter part of his career when he often wrote to prove a point and drive home a lesson, rather than to record what he saw and what he understood intuitively from what he saw. The genius of fiction seems to be always at war with orthodoxies, always resistant to established creeds, because the literary artist is drawn toward those things which are exceptions to orthodoxy and which seem opposed to creeds. And this is not because literary artists are necessarily rebellious (though some have been so) but because they are wary and unrestingly observant. They are well aware of the sunlight, but they are driven also to examine the shadow that it inevitably creates.
If I seem to be talking as if writers have an orthodoxy of their own—an orthodoxy of unorthodoxy, so to speak, a determination to go against the grain of society—let me disclaim any such intention at once. Writers are not unrestingly intellectual in their approach to life; indeed, some acquaintance with the history of literature shows how far authors, in the main, fall below the determined intellectuals in their power of analyzing and theorizing.
I once got myself into some trouble by saying that authors are not, as a rule, highly intelligent. People attacked me and contradicted me because they were certain that anyone who can create plots and characters must be a person of powerful intelligence. But I defend myself by saying that I do not take intellectuality, as it commonly appears in society, with entire seriousness. The power to argue strongly and what I may call the puzzle-solving and examination-passing cast of mind are often the possession of people of arid and limited perception and uneducated heart. In art, and in science as well, it is the power to see what other people do not see, to jump to conclusions and to be right, to see through a brick wall, in short to be creative, that counts. Intuition is an abused word, but if we define it as the power to apprehend things without the intervention of a reasoning or logical process, we are talking about something which is not intelligence in the accepted sense of the word. Anybody who has tried it knows what a poor tool logic is when it is applied to questions of human conduct. A very great logician defined intuition as “the perception of shadows,” and it is the perception of shadows that is at the root of the greatest poetry and fiction and drama.
Because they are not unrestingly intellectual, writers may not be strongly aware of the intuitive impulse that drives them. Consider Cervantes’ Don Quixote, a novel which has survived for almost four centuries and is still regarded as one of the great masterpieces of world fiction.
Its story is of the adventures of a gentleman whose wits have been turned by reading old books of romance and chivalry. He equips himself absurdly with miserable armor and an old wretched horse, and he rides forth in search of adventures. The story is not told with tidy literary art; it is a rambling and often coarse tale of the foolishness of a mad old man who is mocked, beaten, and humiliated until, on his deathbed, he understands the folly of his delusion.
The book is often read superficially. More often it is not read at all by people who are nevertheless aware of it, because the story is familiar from stage, film, and operatic versions, and has given our language the word “quixotic,” meaning actuated by impracticable ideals of honor. But if we read the book carefully and sympathetically, we find the secret of its extraordinary power. It is the first example in popular literature of the profoundly religious theme of victory plucked from defeat, which has strong Christian implications. The Don, who is courteous and chivalrous toward those who ill-use him and who is ready to help the distressed and attack tyranny or cruelty at whatever the cost to himself, is manifestly a greater man than the dull-witted peasants and cruel nobles who torment and despise him. We love him because his folly is Christ-like and his victory is not of this world.
Is this what Cervantes meant? I cannot say, for I am not a Cervantist, but this is certainly what he wrote, and we know that such a book could not have been written except by a man of great spirit. This is the puzzle that has led some impetuous critics to assume that a writer is sometimes an idiot savant who writes better than he knows, and who, of course, needs critics to explain him to the world and probably also to himself.
The theme of victory plucked from defeat and the folly which is greater than conventional wisdom is at the root of many novels. One of the best and most enduring is Charles Dickens’ first success, The Pickwick Papers. When we first meet Mr. Pickwick, he is an almost buffoon-like character, but when he is unjustly imprisoned, his character deepens and he becomes aware of the misery and injustice that is part of the society in which he lives. By the end of the book, Mr. Pickwick is a man of real worth. It is interesting and very important that Mr. Pickwick is dependent on his valet, Sam Weller, a streetwise youth who is to him what Sancho Panza is to Don Quixote; that is, an element of common sense and practical wisdom that is lacking in his master. When we think about it, we see that the great virtues are exemplified in these four people: Don Quixote and Mr. Pickwick possess faith, hope, charity, justice, and fortitude, but they need their servants to supply prudence and temperance. A character who possessed all the seven great virtues would never do as the hero of a novel; he would be perfect, and in consequence unsympathetic, for we are impatient and suspicious of human perfection. But when a hero who has most of the virtues is partnered by a helper and server who has what he lacks, great and magical fiction may result.
Did Dickens know what he was doing? Here I am on safer ground than I am with Cervantes, for Dickens has been one of my lifelong studies, and I think he knew exactly what he was doing, in this and in all the novels that followed Pickwick Papers. Dickens’ life showed him to be a man who was far from intellectual, and sadly astray in much of his personal conduct, but when he was at his desk he was in total command, and he knew very well that, after a shaky start, he was working with a great theme.
What, throughout his career, was Dickens doing? There are critics who insist that he was a great social reformer, a scourge of the society and laws of his time. So indeed he was, though a careful study of his work suggests that he was often behind reform rather than before it. His famous attack on the iniquitous Yorkshire schools that existed as places to conceal and forget illegitimate children came after those schools had already been attacked and were in the process of being investigated. Certainly he attacked the Civil Service and the Court of Chancery savagely in Bleak House, but whether any changes came as a result is open to question. The world has a strong tendency to separate what it reads in novels from what it experiences in real life, and although a reformer like Dickens may rouse public indignation, it is carrying things a little far to attribute reforms to his interventions. Abraham Lincoln may indeed have said that Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin started the American Civil War, but one suspects that in his heart he knew better. So, was Charles Dickens moved by moral fervor when he wrote?
Yes, he was in part, but he was moved more strongly and effectively by something else, and that was the instinct of an author—a very great author—that worked within him. There were plenty of reforming writers in his time, and in some of them indignation burned more fiercely than it did in Dickens. There was one, Henry Cockton, whom you may well be excused for not knowing, who wrote a very popular book called Valentine Vox (1840), which was a furious attack on the private asylums for the insane that during the nineteenth century served very often as prisons for inconvenient relatives. There is some reason to believe that Valentine Vox had its effect in provoking investigation, but who reads it now? Why? Because Cockton was no Dickens, and except for eccentrics like myself, his book is unreadable. So, what was it Dickens had which places him so high in the ranks of writers in English that Henry Cockton lacked? It was the instinct, the nature of the author. Can it be defined? Let us try.
It was Plato who first said that we gain our knowledge of the world about us by means of four functions, which we may call Thinking, Feeling, Sensation, and Intuition. Thinking is reasoning, untinged by emotion; Feeling is the forming of what are now called “value judgments” on the basis of emotion; Sensation is the quality which gives us the physical reality of things—of height, depth, softness, hardness, distance, temperature, and all such palpable things; and last is Intuition, which is the perception of possibilities. We all have these four functions in some measure, but one is likely to be dominant and thus determine our approach to life. The author is likely to be particularly strong in Intuition.
It is Intuition that enables the writer to see beyond the facts of a situation, to embroider and extend their scope, and to discover possibilities that do not appear to the Thinker, for instance, or the Sensation man. I used to tell my students that every Monday morning the story of Othello was reported in the morning papers, but it took a Shakespeare to see its possibilities. I reminded them also that Henrik Ibsen said that he read virtually nothing but the Bible and the newspapers, because it was there that he found all he needed for his dramas. Human experience is not illimitable; the same things tend to repeat themselves in all our lives; it is the individuality of our response that gives them their personal quality. Dickens encountered the same poverty, squalor, meanness, magnanimity, and heroically endured pain in the London of his childhood that was met with by his boy companion, Bob Fagin, hut it was his intuitive quality that enabled him to people the scene with Mr. and Mrs. Micawber, with Bill Sykes and Nancy, with Dick Swiveller and the Marchioness, with Uriah Heep and the grandiloquent Crummleses. I think it is superficial to say that he invented his characters; rather it should he said that he discerned them in the welter of life and experience that pressed upon him; he saw the gold in the ore, and he made the gold palpable to his readers, then and now.
The vitality of Dickens’ work, I suggest, lay not in his indignation over long-dead abuses; there was plenty of indignation in Victorian England. It was in his extraordinary perception and illumination of the life that lay about him, inanimate as well as animate. He was not nearly so aroused about the incompetence and dishonesty of the hospital nurses of his time as he was fascinated by the incompetence and dishonesty of Sairey Gamp and her partner Betsey Prigg; he did not care so much about the grinding slowness of the Court of Chancery as he cared about Miss Flyte, whom it had driven mad, and the Jarndyce family, whom it impoverished. When he looked at the Lord Chancellor seated in his court, wigged and gowned and attended by all the splendor of precedent and ritual, he was not a lawyer who had reached the top of his profession, but Old Krook who sat in his nearby junkshop surrounded, like the Lord Chancellor, by the dusty evidence of ruined households and broken lives.
It tells us nothing to say that Dickens was an artist. Why was he an artist, and what did his artistry incline him toward as a writer? Not, I think, to causes far better pursued in Parliament and the newspapers, but to people and things and the raw stuff of life in which he saw wonders hidden from other eyes. If you want to find out what Dickens’ opinions on social subjects were, apart from his novels, read what he wrote for the popular papers he edited; you will be astonished at how commonplace and un-Dickensian many of those articles are. The editor was driven by moral purpose; the great author was driven by intuition.
Do not mistake me. I do not say that Dickens lacked moral purpose; he had as much as the next man and more than many. But it was not moral purpose that made him a great writer.
There have been writers, and good ones, who have rejected any suggestion of moral purpose in their work. Vladimir Nabokov wrote, in a letter to a friend, “Writers have no social responsibility,” and certainly he admits of none in his own novels. But in the three published volumes of his lectures on Western Literature, he has to recognize the powerful social responsibility of Tolstoy and Dostoevsky, to name no others. Unless one writes extremely astringent novels, as Nabokov himself did, it is difficult to avoid some influence of social responsibility because it appears to be something deeply rooted in human nature. Ever since Aesop’s Fables, mankind has had a strong appetite for stories from which a moral is drawn directly, or in which some moral attitude is implied.
If you truly want to discover what people expect from what they read, forget about great writers and masterpieces for a while, and look at the bulk of popular novels—the kind of novels that sell in the hundreds of thousands in drug stores and airports, and which are never reviewed in literary journals. G. K. Chesterton, a perceptive and unjustly neglected critic, wrote in 1905, “Men’s basic assumptions and everlasting energies are to be found in penny dreadfuls and half-penny novelettes.”
To rise above that level, but to deal still with a genre of literature that is hugely popular, consider the detective novels that sell in such astronomical numbers, and are eagerly passed from hand to hand by enthusiasts. I do not suppose that many of their readers ever give a thought to moral purpose, but their attitude could be summed up as “Vengeance is mine, I will repay, saith the Lord.” Scores of detective novels are rooted in the words of Exodus: “If any mischief follow them thou shalt give life for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot.”
And in these stories, so various in their form and so widely separated in the kind of society they depict, who is the instrument of the Lord’s vengeance, who brings the thief or the murderer to his just reward? It is the Great Detective, of course. Perhaps, like Sherlock Holmes, he is the Thinking Man, the cold reasoner. Or he may be the Man of Feeling, as in Chesterton’s Father Brown. He may be the aristocratic Lord Peter Wimsey, or the immobile intellectual Nero Wolfe. In the works of Miss P. D. James, the acknowledged queen of the modern detective story, he may be Adam Dalgleish of New Scotland Yard, who is a poet when he is not on the trail of a murderer, and plainly a Man of Intuition. But whatever Platonic type he may belong to, anybody who has given even superficial attention to medieval religious drama recognizes in the Great Detective the figure called Divine Correction. He is the restorer of balance, the dispenser of justice, working on behalf of a higher authority.
What higher authority? The mass of readers might balk at calling that authority God, but they might agree to calling it Poetic Justice, the desire deep in the human heart to see evil punished, however delightedly as readers they may have bathed in that evil for two-thirds of the book.
Even in the much-abused television series, and the movies where the villains wreak hideous punishment on the Good Guys, the Good Guys must triumph in the end, or there would be outraged protest from armies of viewers.
You may say that in this the public is having its cake and eating it too. I make no denial. That has always been the public’s way, whenever it can be managed. It is neatly summed up in the story about the little boy who burst into his mother’s drawing room, crying, “Ma—I caught a toad, and I bashed him and jumped on him and ran over him with the lawn mower till—(suddenly seeing the parson, who had come to tea)—till God called him home.” The moral attitudes of the majority of people are not intellectually reasoned but they are deeply rooted. Evil must be punished, one way or another. But while the evil is going on, we do not want to miss a gunshot, or a blow, or a drop of gore. As an English satirist wrote a century ago:
It’s human natur, p’raps—if so.
Oh, isn’t human natur low!
Perhaps, in a more generous mood, we may say that human nature is not so much low as unreflecting. It is people like ourselves who have determined to reflect on this theme of literature and moral purpose, and I have put forward my opinion that literature at its higher levels must beware of allowing moral purpose to assume a dominant place in its creation. Moral purpose, if it asserts itself as it has done in much of the finest literature we possess, will come unbidden from the place where literature of the serious kind has its origin, and it will be part of the fabric of the whole work, and not something that can be abstracted and discussed as an element in itself.
Consider Gustave Flaubert’s Madame Bovary (1857). In it we follow the brief life of Emma Bovary, who is fated to live in provincial dullness with a dull if worthy husband. She is not a woman of strong character or intellect; she has been sentimentally educated, and what intelligence she has is poorly employed; she seeks a broader life through ill-fated romances with men of no greater intellectual or moral stature than herself; and in the end she dies wretchedly, a disappointed woman.
It sounds a dismal theme, but as Flaubert treats it, it is transfixing in its depth of understanding and its illumination of a kind of life that is led by millions of people. Is Emma treated by the author with compassion? No, she is treated with justice. Has the author no pity for Emma? It does not appear, but it is plain to the understanding reader that the author has great pity for mankind. It is not the pity that slops and gushes, nor would it be just to Flaubert to say that it attempts to be godlike. It is the pity of the observer, the recorder of things as they are rather than as they should be.
It is significant that on a famous occasion when a lady said to him, “How could you write so profoundly about Emma Bovary? Where did you find your extraordinary understanding of woman’s nature?” Flaubert replied, “Madame Bovary, c’est moi.”
He spoke the simple truth. A writer finds his themes and his characters in the depth of his own being, and his understanding of them is an understanding of himself. This is not to say that Don Quixote is Miguel de Cervantes or that Mr. Pickwick is Charles Dickens in any simple sense. It is to say that Cervantes and Dickens are capable of the Don and Mr. Pickwick; they embrace the character, not because it is an obvious part of their own nature, but because it is a possibility which they are capable of seizing and bringing to a fictional life. They have intuitions of the Don and of Pickwick, as Flaubert had his intuition of Madame Bovary.
Incidentally, it is nonsense to say, as some extreme feminists say now, that a man is incapable of writing perceptively about a woman; nobody, so far as I know, has ever said that a woman is incapable of writing perceptively about a man. George Eliot, one of the truly great writers of the Victorian age, could draw men with a breathtaking verisimilitude and perception. It needs no genius from the genetic laboratories to tell us that in every man there lies a substantial physical element which is feminine, and that in every woman there is a substantial genetic element of masculinity. Authors, it appears, have unusual access to this contra-sexual side of themselves, which is not only mental, but physical. Heavy books are written now to explain this androgynous element in human character, but great numbers of people of all sorts have always been aware of it, and artists of any significance have always been among their number. Perhaps we may say of the author what Walt Whitman said of himself. He is large, he contains multitudes.
To develop this theme of intuition, it will be necessary for me to speak of personal experience. What I am about to say is not prompted by vanity, but by the fact that only by telling you what I know from my own experience to be true can I hope to carry conviction.
When people speak of intuition they seem as a usual thing to mean some sudden leap in the dark, some instantaneous flash of enlightenment. Certainly that is intuition of one sort. But there is another kind of intuition, which is the slumbrous, slow-moving kind, and it is not so widely recognized.
Some years ago I wrote a book called Fifth Business, which attracted a flattering amount of attention. For six or seven years before I wrote it I was very busy about some work that demanded the best of my attention, it seemed, and all of my energy. I had been entrusted with the task of setting in motion a new college in my university, exclusively for graduate students. But however hard one works at a task, one is never totally absorbed in it. Personal matters, family matters, involvements of all kinds must be given their necessary attention. And in addition to these things, one is never free of one’s fantasy life, or the life that asserts itself in dreams. During all the years that I was busy in the way I have described, I was visited from time to time by a scene which appeared in my fantasy life—when tired, or when dropping off to sleep, or when traveling in an airplane when a better organized man would have had his lap full of papers and letters.
I have called it a scene, and that is what it was; the action in it was slight, but the picture was vivid. The picture was of a village street; it is six o’clock at night and as it is two or three days after Christmas it is dark; snow is everywhere. Two boys are in the street; one is hurrying home to his supper, and the other calls abuse after him and throws a snowball at him; I know that inside that snowball there is a stone and that it can hurt, and that it is meant to hurt; but just as the snowball is about to find its mark, the first boy dodges suddenly in front of two people, a man and a woman, who are walking in the street, and the snowball hits the woman on the head; she falls to the ground.
There it is. An incident that takes about thirty seconds to act out. Does it mean anything? It recurred so often that I decided that it was stupid to ignore it any longer, so I called up the scene and invited my imagination to do what it could with that material. In a very short time, I knew who all the people in the fantasy were, and what the outcome of the incident was. The book demanded to be written. And as I wrote, over a period of several months, the remainder of the story and its outcome appeared as they were needed. And not only did the story of Fifth Business appear, but other aspects of the same story which made up two subsequent novels, resulting in a trilogy.
I assure you that as I wrote those books, I had no sense of moral purpose whatever. I have never thought of myself as a moralist. What I was writing about might be summed up in two themes. First, that the result of a single action may spread like the circles that expand when a stone is thrown into a pond, until they touch places and people unguessed at by the person who threw the stone; in my story it took sixty years for the flight of that stone-laden snowball to expend itself. Second, I wanted to explore the matter of childhood culpability for evil-doing—may a child be guilty of true evil? And what may be the outcome of deeply felt childhood guilt?
These, I protest, are a novelist’s themes and it was as a novelist that I treated them. I was surprised when some critics decided that I was a moralist. Of course there were moral aspects of my story, but to me they were of far less importance than character and incident. Character and incident were the results of intuition, not of careful intellectual work, and when critics wrote about the hook as if I had decided on a moral theme first and then cloaked it in fiction, I was at once amused and indignant.
This, I am sure, is the way that real books—I mean books which are not simply manufactured for the market from themes popular in the market—get themselves written. They have already formed themselves deep in the unconscious of the writer, from which they can be coaxed or dragged when they will not emerge gently and readily. Before a word was put on paper, the book existed as a possibility.
This accounts, I think, for the unsatisfactory nature of some very great books when they are looked at from the viewpoint of the literary critic. Critics appear to have in their minds some sort of Platonic Ideal of what a novel should he, and any novel that does not conform to that ideal they declare to be “flawed.” I once asked a member of this Druid circle if she could name any novel which was not flawed. After melancholy reflection, she declared that she could not. Even Henry James, the high priest of the finely crafted novel, showed flaws, at points where outraged artistic instinct refused to be bullied in the name of academic excellence.
We all know these great, flawed books. War and Peace is a horror to the literary critic, but it is a work of unquestioned greatness. So is Moby Dick, which seems at times as if it would exhaust the patience of the most besotted reader. Dostoevsky and Balzac never know when enough is enough. But would we wish to be without any of the great, flawed masterpieces? No, we would not.
Nor would we say that we valued them first of all for the emphatic moral purpose that unquestionably appears in them. Again and again as we read the great works of fiction, we hear voices afar crying, “God is not mocked”; “For whatsoever a man soweth, that shall he also reap”; “The dog is turned to his own vomit again, and the sow that was washed to her wallowing in the mire.” But can we find any evidence that these things were written up over the desk of the great author? Why, then, do they assert themselves in his work?
I have said that I am not a moralist. Nor am I a philosopher or a theologian. So when I suggest, or tentatively hint, that perhaps morality is part of the structure of man, that it has some archetypal root, I am not speaking as anything but a novelist, an artist.
Having said that, let me hasten to add that I do not use the word “artist” in any grandiose sense, nor do I claim particular status because I apply it to myself. The word, traced to its origin, means simply “a maker,” and not necessarily a superior being, though, as Aldous Huxley said more than sixty years ago, we live in a time when anybody who chooses to call himself an artist seems to imagine that the world owes him a living. Literature is unquestionably an art, but we must be cautious in whatever claims we make for it.
Everyone is aware of the sad plight of Salman Rushdie, who has offended the world of Islam. I will not say anything about the rights and wrongs of that matter, because I do not know enough about it to do so usefully. But I was sorry when, in a recent public address, Mr. Rushdie appealed to what he called “the sacredness of art” to justify what he had written in The Satanic Verses. An age that has so often urged us to regard the Bible simply as literature is no time to throw a cloak of sanctity over a novel. Art has no overriding “sacredness” that lifts it above the other works of man. Some books, because of their splendor of conception and execution, are unquestionably art on the highest level, and are so valued. But their glory does not spill over on the run-of-the-mill works of the journeymen of literature, and writers are on shaky ground when they think otherwise.
So, to sum up, I have given an opinion that literature may indeed have a moral purpose when the moral judgment rises naturally from the work of art and is answered by a strong inner conviction in the reader. Morality which is applied cosmetically to catch a particular taste is found in many books, but not in the best books. I have confined my remarks pretty well to fiction, and of fiction I may say that it is by its nature a secular form of art, taking the whole of life as its province, and impatient of bonds of any sort, including those of popular morality. But if, as I suspect, some moral purposes exist deep in the psyche of man, they are certain to rise to the surface in literature of the highest order.
Robertson Davies, the distinguished Canadian novelist, has received numerous awards and honors. This essay originated as the fifth annual Erasmus Lecture, sponsored by the Institute on Religion and Public Life in New York City. Copyright © by Robertson Davies 1990.