Support First Things by turning your adblocker off or by making a  donation. Thanks!

In an episode from the first season of HBO’s series Girls, Hannah Horvath—played by the show’s creator and chief writer, Lena Dunham—is having sex with her occasional lover Adam when Adam does something odd. The description I am about to give will strike some as exceedingly graphic, but in fact I will exclude the more disturbing details. In a kind of reverie, Adam stops mid-intercourse and begins masturbating while fantasizing about an eleven-year-old heroin addict. In the grip of this fantasy, Adam seems to forget that Hannah is present, though she attempts half-heartedly to join the verbal part of the fun, as though it were some kind of role-playing game. Afterward he seems not to remember any of it.

Adam’s inexplicable behavior doesn’t deter Hannah from seeking to strengthen her relationship with him. Nor do his merely intermittent interest in her, his apparently self-approving memories of his teenage desire to rape a girl who rejected him, or his tendency to speak disparagingly, even contemptuously, of her looks. (In a complimentary mood he says, “You’re not that fat anymore.”) Adam’s behavior does not seem to bother fans of the show either, most of whom, to judge from what one can find on the internet, wish their relationship would become more serious. Among a group of professional journalists (all of them women) discussing the show on Slate, only one is willing to go so far as to say that Adam’s rape fantasy is a “distasteful phenomenon.” Another acknowledges that Hannah’s evident delight in Adam’s enthusiastic pantomiming of sexual violence is “patently ridiculous and degrading,” but immediately goes on to ask, portentously, “Who among us hasn’t had our artistic judgment eroded by love?” (Who indeed?)

Notably missing here is the possibility that there could be a moral dimension to Adam’s behavior: It’s only Hannah’s artistic sensibilities that have gone temporarily out of whack, because the rape fantasy is presented as something that Adam would like to write about. The revelation in that episode that Adam is an aspiring playwright—Hannah herself wants to be a writer—provides a doorway to absolution. As one of the Slate panelists says, “Adam is aiming at something not unlike Lena Dunham’s own project: an autobiographical exploration of his own deepest, lamest, pettiest desires and fantasies.” All is then excused: Adam is pursuing art. As he says to Hannah, “I’m really good at acting and writing”—a moment that makes one think that Dunham-the-writer may see Adam more clearly than do either her character or the show’s fans. (And indeed, later developments of his character, and of Hannah’s response to him, suggest just that.)

And it turns out that Adam’s make-believe degradation of an abused and miserable child isn’t a problem either, according to Elaine Blair, writing in the New York Review of Books. “Even though the only person having fun in Dunham’s scene is the guy, there is nonetheless a certain joy in seeing someone get off in some other way.” Blair acknowledges that “Adam is meant to be obviously under the influence of porn,” but that’s anything but a problem: “A dose of porn, judiciously applied by an extremely intelligent director, can save cinematic sex.” Which is, I suppose, quite an achievement.

Adam’s artistic ambitions had not yet been revealed when Blair wrote her essay, so she has to find other ways to defend him. “Adam’s sex fantasy may be off-putting to some, but part of the deeper humor of the scene comes from our knowing that he is basically an overgrown boy—and probably a pretty good boy at that—whose grandma sends him monthly checks for his rent.” So now we can complete our picture of Adam. He lives among the young and hip in Brooklyn; he wants to be a playwright—he was even a comparative literature major in college, we’re told; and his grandma pays his rent, which means that he comes from money. He’s not black, or poor, and he doesn’t have a regional accent. He’s “probably a pretty good boy”; he’s one of our kind of people. What could possibly go wrong?

These moves are interesting, because the best answer to the question of what could go wrong is something like this: not too much, because Girls—to judge by its first season, as these writers are doing—is not the kind of show in which one of the main characters gets killed or raped or in some other way badly harmed. Hannah and her friends can be frustrated and unhappy, they can contract sexually transmitted diseases, they can lose their jobs—but they’re not going to lose their lives or be deeply and permanently traumatized in a show that depends a good deal on comedy. (The show’s second season reveals a more troubled and self-harming Hannah.)

But none of Adam’s defenders that I have seen make the genre-based argument. Instead, they treat Girls as a naturalistic drama; rather than defending Adam as a caricature, they treat him as though he is a real person but, any appearances to the contrary notwithstanding, a fundamentally decent one. I find myself wanting to ask: Don’t you think Adam is, at the very least, really creepy? You know that Adam desperately needs healing, don’t you? You realize that he could possibly be dangerous to Hannah?

But perhaps the fans of the show realize no such thing; perhaps they truly believe that no potentially violent young comp. lit. majors live in Brooklyn. If so, they remind me of Tesman in Hedda Gabler, who, after Hedda shoots herself dead, stands uncomprehendingly over her body and cries, “But people don’t do such things!”

After reading these encomia to Adam and to the social and sexual world presented in Girls, I happened, purely by accident, to pick up and re-read one of my favorite novels: Jane Austen’s Mansfield Park. One of the first things I ever heard about Jane Austen—I can’t remember the source, perhaps a teacher—was that she achieved the remarkable feat of writing interestingly about good people. This she does, but she writes about really bad ones too.

Consider Mrs. Norris, for instance: the aunt of our heroine Fanny Price, who devotes much of her energy and ingenuity to keeping Fanny in her place—or what Mrs. Norris believes to be Fanny’s place, which is considerably below her more glamorous and accomplished cousins. Mrs. Norris is sufficiently occupied by her undermining of Fanny that she fails to notice that Maria and Julia Bertram, the nieces she adores so much, grow into frivolous and selfish young women whose inability to deny, or even question, their own whims ruins their lives.

As the narrator later reflects about their father, Sir Thomas Bertram, “He had meant them to be good, but his cares had been directed to the understanding and manners, not the disposition; and of the necessity of self-denial and humility, he feared they had never heard from any lips that could profit them”—and they had never heard such things at all from the indulgent and flattering Aunt Norris, who preferred to turn her critical faculties, such as they were, against their cousin Fanny. It’s with good reason that Mr. Filch’s spying cat in the Harry Potter books is called Mrs. Norris.

But in light of my recent reading about Girls, as I read Mansfield Park I found my attention drawn particularly to Henry Crawford, a young man who falls in love with Fanny, and to his sister Mary, with whom Fanny’s favorite cousin Edmund is enamored. They are elegant, charming, witty, accomplished—the right kind of people in every way, except that they are bad. Not conventionally villainous, but morally untethered, and therefore (yes) dangerous both to themselves and others.

Not long after Maria Bertram marries the rich but dim-witted Mr. Rushworth, a man she does not love, Henry seduces her and runs away with her—an act with catastrophic social consequences in Regency England. Mary effectively excuses her brother, blaming him chiefly for indiscretion and, still more, blames Fanny: “Simple girl! I shall never forgive her. Had she accepted him as she ought, they might now have been on the point of marriage, and Henry would have been too happy and too busy to want any other object. He would have taken no pains to be on terms with Mrs. Rushworth again. It would have all ended in a regular standing flirtation.”

When Edmund tells this story to Fanny, Fanny exclaims that Mary’s words were cruel, to which Edmund replies, “Cruelty, do you call it? We differ there. No, hers is not a cruel nature. I do not consider her as meaning to wound my feelings. The evil lies yet deeper: in her total ignorance, unsuspiciousness of there being such feelings; in a perversion of mind which made it natural to her to treat the subject as she did. She was speaking only as she had been used to hear others speak, as she imagined everybody else would speak. Hers are not faults of temper . . . . Hers are faults of principle, Fanny; of blunted delicacy and a corrupted, vitiated mind.”

As for Henry, Austen as narrator accounts for him thus: “Ruined by early independence and bad domestic example, indulged in the freaks of a cold-blooded vanity a little too long. Once it had, by an opening undesigned and unmerited, led him into the way of happiness. Could he have been satisfied with the conquest of one amiable woman’s affections, could he have found sufficient exultation in overcoming the reluctance, in working himself into the esteem and tenderness of Fanny Price, there would have been every probability of success and felicity for him . . . .” But when he saw Maria Rushworth, “curiosity and vanity were both engaged, and the temptation of immediate pleasure was too strong for a mind unused to make any sacrifice to right.”

Writing interestingly about good people, indeed. In his poem “Letter to Lord Byron,” W. H. Auden imagines a meeting in the afterlife between the rakish Lord and Austen, and acknowledges, “She was not an unshockable blue-stocking; / If shades remain the characters they were, / No doubt she still considers you as shocking.” But, he continues,

You could not shock her more than she shocks me;
Beside her Joyce seems innocent as grass.
It makes me most uncomfortable to see
An English spinster of the middle-class
Describe the amorous effects of ‘brass’,
Reveal so frankly and with such sobriety
The economic basis of society.

Her bluntness about the financial basis of marital alliances is remarkable indeed, but it is as nothing compared to her cold-eyed moral realism. Mrs. Norris is simply a monster: selfish, grasping, mean-spirited, morally obtuse; her ability to harm others is limited not by any goodness in her nature but by the limits of her power as the widow of a minor clergyman. She does as much damage as she can, and one can but be thankful that she has limited scope for her malice. There are such things as tiny monsters.

The Crawfords are, by contrast, complex figures, Henry more than Mary. Mary seems unable to think of any situation, no matter how dire, in moral terms: Edmund’s verdict on her “corrupted, vitiated mind” is really not an exaggeration. This is why her attraction to Edmund, while present, could never be strong—unless his elder brother died and made him heir to the family estate, at which point she would throw herself at his feet. But Henry had it within him to fall in love with shy, retiring, poor, and morally stable Fanny Price, which few men of his “corrupted” upbringing would have done. (He did not mean to: Thinking only to while away the time by making her fall in love with him, he found himself in well over his head while she remained, though struggling, on shore.)

And so the residual virtues of his nature would have, as Austen notes in a sober reflection, made his choice of Maria its own lengthy penalty: “We may fairly consider a man of sense, like Henry Crawford, to be providing for himself no small portion of vexation and regret: vexation that must rise sometimes to self-reproach, and regret to wretchedness, in having so requited hospitality, so injured family peace, so forfeited his best, most estimable, and endeared acquaintance, and so lost the woman whom he had rationally as well as passionately loved.” His sister Mary would never have seen what the fuss was all about; but Henry would, over the long term, have understood all too well. Austen seems to doubt whether this is sufficient punishment; I don’t.

The great theme of Mansfield Park is moral education: the difficulty and necessity of pursuing it, the stability and patience it yields to those who have been given it, the terrible price paid by those lacking it, who therefore find themselves at the mercy of “a mind unused to make any sacrifice to right.” (Austen is likewise attentive to the self-reproach of parents, like Sir Thomas, who fail to provide their children with such an education and so bear heavy responsibility for the young ones’ errors. As much as Henry Crawford’s, Sir Thomas Bertram’s actions come complete with their own punishments.)

By contrast, the moral world of Girls—or, more precisely, of many of its most devoted fans—does not strike me as corrupt so much as innocent: “innocent as grass,” as Auden puts it. Such confidence in human nature!—or at least, in the nature of those who have been to the right schools, who live in the right neighborhoods, possess the right ambitions, have the right kind of grandmothers. It’s a moral world in which Edmund’s phrase about Mary, “perversion of mind,” can have no place, even when the mind in question occupies itself with masturbatory fantasies about performing degrading acts on the bodies of suffering children. “Perversion” and “corruption” are not available categories. So when presented with such a fantasy, the only category Hannah can fit it into is that of the sexual role-playing game; and for Elaine Blair it’s a moment of “joy,” particularly to be savored as one that “can save cinematic sex.”

The two moral worlds I have been describing do not, as far as I can tell, touch at any obvious point. To hold one is to reject virtually every premise of the other—though in fact, while Austen’s understanding of human behavior consists of a complex set of interlocking propositions, the moral world of Girls may have only one premise. It was articulated some years ago by Woody Allen, when he was in the news for having commenced an affair with his long-time lover Mia Farrow’s adopted daughter. Asked by a journalist to account for this, he had but a brief explanation: “The heart wants what it wants.”

As someone who largely shares Austen’s moral orientation, though not all of her particular judgments, I respond to this alternative moral world . . . how? I think the only viable answer is: I don’t, at least not directly. To someone who thinks Adam’s fantasies are unproblematic, or even commendable, there is nothing for me to say. I confront a linguistically unbridgeable gap; I confront incommensurability.

In an essay called “Leading a Life,” the philosopher Charles Taylor points out that there are two distinct senses in which we may say that an idea or a belief or a moral account is incommensurable with some other idea or belief or moral system. “The first is where we have to make a choice with two different goods at stake—goods that are different enough that we have difficulty knowing how to weigh them together in the same deliberation.” It could be argued that the difference between Austen’s world and the world of many fans of Girls is of this kind: For instance, one might say that the good of protecting naive young people from catastrophic moral harm (Austen’s prime concern) conflicts with the good of freely pursuing erotic pleasure.

But the difference goes deeper than that. For Austen, “pursuing erotic pleasure” is simply not a good; and for many fans of Girls, “catastrophic moral harm” is not a meaningful category. (The heart just wants what it wants.) We here confront, I think, Taylor’s second kind of incommensurability: “The second kind of context is increasingly common in our world. It is where we somehow have to weigh together, perhaps even adjudicate between, demands emanating from the ethical outlooks of very different cultures and civilizations. Here we tend to struggle without being able to find any common ground from which to reason in a way that people from both cultures could be induced to accept.”

Taylor’s use of the phrase “different cultures and civilizations” may suggest great geographical distances, national or regional distinctions, as when we note that Chinese political leaders think in ways quite alien to American sensibilities, or that Islamic models of the family can’t be reconciled with those of the Christian West. But such “different cultures and civilizations” can develop within nations and even communities, according to varying attitudes towards what we inherit from our past, especially the religious past. People who watch Girls and read Jane Austen novels—and there are thousands and thousands of such people—are moving between incommensurable moral worlds whether they know it or not. There is no “common ground from which to reason in a way that people from both cultures could be induced to accept.”

This is the case because radically alien models of the sacred are at play. Taylor shrewdly comments that the invocation of incommensurability always indicates that sacredness is involved: “We treat values as sacred when we devote ourselves to maintaining or furthering the goods that instantiate them without calculating the loss involved, by omitting or refusing to commensurate the benefits against the costs.” Moreover, “it is not only believers, particularists, conservatives, romantics, and traditionalists who treat their favored values as sacred; liberals do so too.”

Nineteenth-century philosophical liberals—particularly the greatest of them all, John Stuart Mill—were profoundly committed to safeguarding the individual pursuit of pleasures, but were careful to distinguish between “higher” and “lower” pleasures, and insisted that the former had to be cultivated and the latter strictly disciplined. Mill and Austen might not have agreed, but they could have talked to each other: Mill would have shared Austen’s disparagement of Henry Crawford’s choices, even though he might have described those choices differently.

Likewise, while he surely would have acknowledged that “the heart wants what it wants,” he would not have viewed that statement as a conversation-stopper: Mill would not have hesitated to say that the heart sometimes wants what it shouldn’t, and that in such a case it needs training to want the right things. (Cut to Jane Austen nodding in vigorous assent? Perhaps; or perhaps she senses that grounding the good in the pursuit of pleasure, however nobly conceived, is problematic.) “The heart wants what it wants” only assumes finality—sacredness—in contemporary liberalism, which is focused almost exclusively on, in Taylor’s phrase, “rights and the inviolability of persons.”

Inviolability is the key word here, and helps solve the puzzle—for those, like me, who think there is a puzzle—of the fans of Girls who either dismiss Adam’s fantasies of sexual violence as irrelevant or celebrate them as salvific for “cinematic sex.” First, human beings seem generally compelled to tell stories about what they hold as sacred. Not all narratives embody the sacred, but all sacredness at some point finds narrative embodiment. Second, if “the inviolability of persons” is sacred, then others cannot violate my person—but also, and vitally, neither can I. With these thoughts in mind, we can see that for many of its viewers Girls is a narrative of the sacred set in a storyland Brooklyn, a kind of mythic sandbox in which characters only play and suffer clearly limited consequences.

Moreover, and centrally within the rules of this particular storyland world, Adam’s sexually violent fantasies do not primarily concern Adam, but rather Hannah: The sheer viciousness of his fantasies coupled with his not acting upon them may best be understood as a sacred parable about her life. They illustrate the essential truth that Adam cannot violate Hannah—nor can she, by dating and having sex with him, violate herself. To make this point with sufficient strength, his fantasies have to be foul; but equally they have to remain “mere” fantasies, never acted upon—at least not with Hannah.

Only with these features is the sacred narrative complete: Our selves remain pure and free regardless of our actions with others or theirs toward us. Hannah’s later miseries are significantly disconnected from her on-again-off-again relationship with Adam. Indeed, though we see him behave abominably toward another woman, in a way that strongly suggests that his fantasies reveal something very real about him, the last image we have of Adam in the season is as Hannah’s rescuer, her deliverer from self-harm. Adam’s relationship with Hannah is, at heart, a parable of the inviolability of the self.

With this in mind, I want to return to my claim that I have nothing to say to those who celebrate Adam’s behavior. Here again, Taylor is helpful: He points out that when we say that sets of beliefs are incommensurable with one another, we might mean that it’s meaningless to argue that some are better than others, or that it’s pointless to do so, or that it’s inappropriate.

I do not believe that debate about the proper attitude towards Adam’s fantasies would be meaningless per se, but I do think it would be both pointless and inappropriate, precisely because I discern the story as a sacred parable. As Taylor has shown, one cannot attack a sacred value by making consequentialist arguments, for instance that if a woman acted as Hannah does she would put herself in serious danger of being raped or murdered. To designate the self as inviolate is to designate a non-negotiable sacred value “without calculating the loss involved, by omitting or refusing to commensurate the benefits against the costs.” Therefore, to reply in consequentialist terms is to speak a language that one’s interlocutor has already and preemptively set aside. This is pointless.

But to make such arguments is inappropriate also, for reasons explained long ago by Kierkegaard. For someone who believes as I do, the doctrine of the inviolability of the self is simply wrong. To employ language that Taylor develops at length in A Secular Age, the energies of modernity have been largely devoted to creating a safely “buffered” self as a rescue from the anxieties of the “porous” self of the pre-modern world. But to a Christian, or anyone who believes in spiritual forces, both good and evil, that exceed the powers of the human self, buffers will always be imperfect at best, and trust in them foolish.

That is, the perfectly buffered self is an illusion. And as Kierkegaard demonstrates in his Point of View for My Work as an Author, “an illusion can never be destroyed directly, and only by indirect means can it be radically removed.” A blunt confrontation with this kind of position is inappropriate. It could only be perceived as self-righteous carping; that is certainly how I would perceive it if I were committed to the doctrine of the inviolable self.

What, then, is the alternative? One possibility would be to turn aside and let people tell their sacred narratives and hope that they someday, somehow, come to see the illusion intrinsic to them. But surely this would be a failure of compassion: Only the most devastatingly traumatic events are likely to shake people’s faith in what they have designated as sacred, and it cannot be loving to wish such trauma on others, no matter how wrong we believe them to be. Perhaps even more important, turning aside is also a failure of imagination—a failure to explore the possibilities of indirect communication. What might such possibilities look like?

Taking up a related issue, that of the legal status of same-sex marriage, Paul Griffiths once made the shrewd and bracing comment that “those who have undergone a profoundly pagan catechesis on these questions will believe and behave as pagans do.” That is, people will not “naturally” be attracted to what is good; this is, again, a primary concern of Mansfield Park. Think of Mary Crawford, whose frivolousness in the face of disaster wounds Edmund’s feelings, but not out of cruelty: She says what she says from “total ignorance, unsuspiciousness of there being such feelings.” Or Maria and Julia Bertram, whose father had educated them only in “understanding and manners,” not in the “disposition” of the will that will not without sound instruction see the need for “self-denial and humility.”

So what is set before us is the task of moral instruction, both because the good is just good and because appreciation of the good opens the door to the love of the holy. But it would be a mistake to conceive of this moral instruction as solely, or even primarily, a matter of direct inculcation of sound principles. Griffiths again: “What the pagans need on this matter is conversion, not argument; and what the Church ought do to encourage that is to burnish the practice of marriage by Catholics until its radiance dazzles the pagan eye.” Griffiths is encouraging here an engagement with the affections, an appeal not to diminish false or disordered desires but to increase in the love of the right ones. Austen is relevant here too, because what ruined Henry Crawford, ultimately, was not the strength of his desire for Maria Rushworth but the inadequacy of his love for Fanny Price: Had he but loved her as intensely and constantly as she deserved, he could have had her.

And so back to the moral world of Girls. What we need is not condemnation of Adam, or condemnation of Hannah for liking Adam, but better art and better stories—better fictional worlds, by which I mean fictional worlds that rhyme with what is the case, with what is true yesterday, today, and forever. Not the abolition of mythic sandboxes but the making of sandboxes in which to play with true, or truer, myths: fictive spaces in which Hannah can do better than Adam, and Adam can be better than what he is, a bitter prisoner of past angers and resentments. At the end of After Virtue, Alasdair MacIntyre writes, “We are waiting not for a Godot, but for another—doubtless very different—St. Benedict.” I wait, with all the patience I can muster, for another Jane Austen.

Alan Jacobs is the Clyde S. Kilby Professor of English at Wheaton College and teaches in the Honors College of Baylor University.