Moral Literature – A Reply to Prof. Currie
Moral Literature – A Reply to Prof. Currie
In his article, published in The New York Times1, Prof. Currie argues that the study of challenging literary works is an important task. It is possible that not everyone reads what is considered to be a “Masterpiece”, but most feel guilty if we do not. One perceives this disadvantage as a fault, which flaws the aspiration for excellence. Nevertheless, Prof. Currie declares that we must not think or believe that “literary exposure” protects us entirely from moral temptations, or that is has the ability to reform the “true baddies“ in our society. Literature operates on the reader’s sentiments and does not refine him in terms of ideological values (or any other aspect for that matter). Prof. Currie indicates the gap between the notion of literature’s positive moral tendency and the lack of practical evidences to support it. The belief in literature’s ethical influence is exactly what it is – a belief, nothing more. He even challenges this position with a subversive conjecture: if literature can inspire for the better, why cannot it also do the complete opposite?
The real question needing to be raised in light of Prof. Currie’s theory is not “does literature constitute a beneficiary moral awareness” but the following: does any literature have a either a positive or a negative influence on the reader?
It is tempting to reply to Prof. Currie’s arguments by providing a comprehensive report of the school of moral literature, researched by scholars such as Martha Nussbaum, Wayne Booth, Adam Zachary Newton, David Parker, Richard Posner, Tobin Siebers and others.
It may be the easiest way to refute his claim, but much less interesting. The attempt to prove the existence of moral literature is much more challenging when it is demonstrated by literary works that deal with the immoral act: murder. Cold-hearted murder.
The slow beginning of Antonio Muñoz Molina’s El viento de la luna goes around in circles, repeatedly describing a case of brutal slaughter by an unknown murderer. It is an ongoing reflection of the victim Fatima’s identity. All that is left of her is a scarred corpse and fragments of memories. The movie Once Upon a Time in Anatolia2 similarly deals with an unknown murderer:
The murderer in El viento de la luna is a disturbing question mark.
The murderer in Once Upon a Time in Anatolia is presented at the beginning of the film: he is accompanied by a convoy of policemen, a doctor, a prosecutor and another suspect as they all try to locate the burial place of the victim. Furthermore, although the viewers know whom the murderer is, his name, and what he looks like they actually know nothing about him.
El viento de la luna also releases clues about the murderer without revealing his true identity. The author takes the readers into the murderer’s consciousness, dwells upon the description of his callused strong, enormous hands, with their broken black nails and constant bad smell. The author talks about the murderer’s life, weaknesses and defects, about his contempt for his old parents. He unfolds the murderer’s actions in minute detail, but holds back the key to his motives.
“Why” is the burning question of the nameless police inspector: four months he has chased after an unidentified man, searched in the eyes of every passer-by in the street, assembled a collage of the man’s personality from the testimony of another victim who had survived a brutal attack of the murderer.
For four months he has been persistent, determined, almost fanatic, memorizing every detail, learning every possible detail and then, when the man is finally captured, the inspector is sickened by the ineffectualness of his quarry.
Such a horrific murder should have had a much greater reason.
Only… what meaning can be great enough to justify such a horrific deed?
The police inspector lives life like a dead man, until he meets Fatima’s teacher who becomes his lover, and life overwhelms him with its sweet intoxicating power.
Neither the teacher nor the inspector can be considered to be exemplary characters, as in the characters of Once Upon a Time in Anatolia, who seem extremely conventional. The couple’s uniqueness is expressed in the bond that is formed between them: the schoolteacher awakens the police inspector’s soul. He had observed the world with detached indifference, considering this apathy to be an expression of psychological resilience, an ability to protect him from everyday horrors. Only this numbness did not truly protect him. It was the reason that prevented him from living life to its fullest.
The personal relationship between the schoolteacher and the police inspector are portrayed in a healthy light, in comparison to the maliciousness of the young murderer, who was fully charged with abominable animosity towards each and every person in his world: his parents, his neighbor, his friends from the army, the women who buy his fish. His heart is completely void of any love, sympathy or human compassion. He is as cold as the fish he is killing and selling.
The police inspector – until his meeting with the schoolteacher – and the murderer do not see the beauty of the world.
The victim in El viento de la luna is Fatima, an innocent girl who lives in the same surroundings as the murderer who ends her life. Like him, she suffers the same poverty, the same uncompromising monotony. They both come from the same world, but Fatima has a way out of it. In her innocence, she exposes another dimension that the murderer had never noticed: hope. Fatima is a girl who detects the beauty between the cracks. She is an example of diligence. She is the representation for the honorable way – perhaps the only way – out of the hard world that ensnares her. Her mother wants Fatima to be strong and self-sufficient, so that she could lead a life independent of man’s grace, kindness or cruelty.
Only Fatima’s life had indeed depended on a man’s cruelty.
That is why it ended as it did.
The police inspector who escorts the detainee in Once Upon a Time in Anatolia seems, in comparison with the quiet police inspector in El viento de la luna as a chatterer who is occupied with the trivia of life alongside his work; he can talk inconsequentially while leading a convoy taking the accused who had given a questionable confession. Yet, at the end of his long journey, the police inspector sits in the doctor’s office and tells him of the difficulties of his job, concluding that in his mind, only children suffer. They are the ambassadors of hope and imagination. Life’s crushing harshness has not suppressed them.
When the police inspector in El viento de la luna starts associating with the schoolteacher, he becomes younger with each passing day. Thanks to her, he is also able to reconnect with the “child” inside him, which was put aside, frozen, for long agonizing years. The inspector learned to be a cold and indifferent adult. He learned to believe that there is no justification to life and no love. The schoolteacher, who teaches young children how to read, now taught the older police inspector how to live.
The murderer, whose mind and body are both impaired, never behaved as a young man. He is only twenty-three years old, but he never experienced the vivaciousness of life, as did Fatima.
El viento de la luna and Once Upon a Time in Anatolia both tell a sad story about heartbreaking reality, a dark world that only seldom shows hopeful opportunities.
Hope is the only ray of light that can defeat darkness.
Literature is not a medicine one should take in order to improve life. Good literature can indeed help improve one’s life, but this is not the reason why one should devour it.
Does moral literature exist? – Certainly.
Are there stories that can stimulate us to better our ways and embrace a more valued approach to life? – Without a doubt, even if Prof. Currie would argue otherwise.
Is literature always moral? – Of course not.
History recalls strong reactions to “immoral” stories, usually those with unacceptable sexual conduct. Yet one must remember that although literature can make a change, it is always a part of an over-all context.
There is no doubt that literature enables psychological analysis of emotional actions, but morality is not necessarily taught from this.
Moral literature is literature that functions as a mirror. It does not have to deal with complex issues, detached from reality, as Prof. Currie tried to explain. The essence is the confrontation of the protagonist in the story with the plot.
The reader shares this confrontation.
Moral understanding resulting from it is inevitable.
Not all literature can be constructed as moral. However, when genuine, qualitative literature raises an ethical question in a convincing way, its moral influence is profound. The notion that such perceptual and ideological changes do not occur is entirely unreal – at least, in the realm of book reading.
Moral insights in literature are not meant to be sugar coated; ten times out of ten it is that blazing sensation or repulsive denunciation that creates the understanding which could not have been achieved otherwise.
A story has a way to shake one to the core precisely as it presents the world artistically.
Prof. Currie prefers to find a scientific, conclusive proof of the assumption that literature turns its reader into better people.
That is all very nice except for the fact that there is no scientific, conclusive proof that can support such a finding.
Scientific graphs cannot evaluate matters of the heart.
It is impossible to measure emotional changes.
That does not mean they do not exist.