It is no simple thing to take on the subject of censorship in our morally confused age. I had thought perhaps to write at length about Mr. Chaucer’s “Retraction” appended to his Canterbury Tales at the end of his life, but, while I think his example a laudatory one, it is too difficult to keep writing around the center of this controversy. My favorite philosopher Socrates once said something relevant to poeticizing and fiction-writing that has long stuck with me, as recorded in his student Plato’s Republic:
When a moderate [poet-storyteller] comes upon the words or actions of a good man in his narrative, he’ll be willing to report them as if he were that man himself, and he won’t be ashamed of that kind of imitation. [Socrates is contrasting poetic imitation to poetic narration, the latter of which lends the poet an emotional distance from his subject. -JM] He’ll imitate this good man most when he’s acting in a faultless and intelligent manner, but he’ll do so less, and with more reluctance, when the good man is upset by disease, sexual passion, drunkenness, or some other misfortune. When he comes upon a character unworthy of himself, however, he’ll be unwilling to make himself seriously resemble that inferior character—except perhaps for a brief period in which he’s doing something good….
As for [a poet] who is not of this sort, the more inferior he is, the more willing he’ll be to narrate anything and to consider nothing unworthy of himself…. And this man’s style will consist entirely of imitation in voice and gesture, or else include only a small bit of plain narration. (Republic III)
I do not quote this controversial passage simply for the purposes of controversy, but because Socrates makes some important points about the moral quality of the writer. A writer who already has a morally good soul, argues Socrates, will happily delve into the mind and heart of a moral (fictional) character, but will only recount the actions and thoughts of a wicked character with great reluctance and with a stylistic brevity that keeps this evil at arm’s length.
In my own writing, which mainly consists of lyric poetry these days, I have often considered the subjects I am comfortable or uncomfortable writing about to be indicative of the state of my own soul. If my writing begins turning, shall we say, a bit goth, I begin to worry about the disorders in myself that are searching for expression. If I am content to write about joyful and generally undistressing things, I worry much less about my own moral state. Socrates put into words what I had intuited long before.
I realize that this puts me at odds with many other philosophies of artistic creation, maybe even Miss O’Connor’s. She believed that a bit of distress was healthy for the soul in the long run, and I think some of the other editors who have chimed in would argue that distressing art might even be the only truly honest kind worthy of the craft.
[There is a] distinction between Evil known by pure intelligence and Evil known by experience. (Dorothy Sayers, The Mind of the Maker, 103)
Evil is a kind of nothingness. It is not something that can be understood in its own merits, but only by the goodness it lacks. Likewise, the more a person tends towards evil, the more he tends towards nothingness, towards unbeing, and a storyteller needs to recognize this when writing about evil persons. (As does a lyric poet when waxing, umm, poetical about evil subjects.) It is a common mistake to have good people fictionally described as dull and boring, and bad people as vividly colorful and interesting—an easy enough mistake to make when your subject is sexually charged.
But nothingness is not advantageous, any more than losing a limb is an advantage in and of itself. Amputees often do come to a newfound appreciation of bodily health and strength, even of athleticism, but it cannot be doubted that they would have been even stronger if they had found the will before the loss of limb. Likewise, someone who has lived a life of sin (like St. Paul) can sometimes end up living a more virtuous life than those who never sinned greatly, but only because those non-sinners never cared enough about their virtue to make it great, not because sin is itself good. More often, unfortunately, someone who lives a life of grievous sin never turns away from it, or turns away too half-heartedly to be saved.
It is a confounding thing to look into nothingness with the hope of understanding it. The problem is that nothing is… nothing. You cannot empathize with nothingness without being torn by its abysmal absence. Look into the pit, and the pit stares back, etc.
Love your characters unconditionally. All of them. Not just the soulless vampire who longs to be human, but the even more depraved soulless vampire who created her. For a Catholic, there are no throwaway people. If your character is Judas Iscariot or Adolf Hitler, love him. (Karen Ullo, “Empathizing with Demons”)
Pardon me for suggesting that a Christian perhaps ought not to love the Devil. (I know that a vampire is a sort of half-breed of demon and human, thus giving it a freer moral agency than fallen angels. Bear with me.) God loves all his creatures inasmuch as he wills their existence. He loves certain creatures in greater ways for the aspects he has given them, such as power and free will. He loves those most greatly who love him and freely choose his will.
As Christians we must love our enemies, but not the Devil—at least not literally. We must extend charity towards those who are capable of receiving that spiritual friendship, even if they are ultimately unwilling to do so, but the fallen angels are beyond the reach of charity.
Likewise, the human damned are beyond the reach of charity. They are so committed to the nothingness of their evil that they have made themselves incapable of receiving charity. We might imaginatively empathize with The Iscariot in a work of fiction, but once he reaches his narrative death we must as Catholics concur with the judgment that it would have been better for him not to have been born. To conclude otherwise would be to literally place our judgment above God’s. As Pope Pius III once said, it is blasphemous to even pray for the damned.
Nothingness has a magnetic draw to it, a gravitational pull that latches onto the concupiscence of fallen human nature. When we extend charity towards our fellow man and woman, it must not be with the intent of participating in their sins, or else it is not charity. It is also not, preferably, with the intent of empathizing with their sins, unless it is to simply admit that we are all weak and sinful, and to encourage them thereby to a better life.
If I am drowning in a rapid river, a man who still has one foot on the bank may give me a hand which saves my life. Ought I to shout back (between my gasps) ‘No, it’s not fair! You have an advantage! You’re keeping one foot on the bank’? That advantage—call it ‘unfair’ if you like—is the only reason why he can be of any use to me. To what will you look for help if you will not look to that which is stronger than yourself? (C.S. Lewis, Mere Christianity, 59)
Maybe we cannot convince a dying world that it is wrong by simply insisting that we are better than it. But certainly we cannot help the world without actually being better than it. God has never asked us to wallow in our sins, not even for the sake of appearing empathetic to the sinful. A drowning man cannot help another drowning man, at least not without drowning, himself. The old moral principle that a man must see to the health of his own soul before he can help others (“Remove the plank from your own eye…”) applies even to the artist.
In all of this I have said almost nothing about poetic inspiration: whether it comes from God, the Devil, the Muses, or the Collective Unconscious. Nor have I opined about whether inspiration justifies writing otherwise morally untenable prose or poesy, although attentive readers will conclude that I would answer in the negative. (I don’t disagree that there is a fair amount of grey area in what is and isn’t morally tenable, but I won’t belabor that again right now.)
What I think is missing in this conversation, and what I have been getting at since “What has Rome to do with Iowa City?”, is a serious grappling with the moral responsibilities of the writer towards the spiritual good of his neighbor. Do we include in our regular examination of conscience a serious consideration of whether or not we caused others to sin? Do we consider whether or not whether any occasions of sin we artistically create are justifiable (for some occasions of sin are indeed justifiable and even necessary)? Do we discern the spirits, not assuming that every artistic inspiration comes from God? Do we work towards Goodness, Truth, and Beauty, not just what is aesthetically pleasing? Are we aesthetes at the expense of these transcendentals?
Again and again, I am no moral theologian. My point in “Iowa City” and later was that none of the authorities previously considered competent are stepping up and taking responsibility for offering moral guidance, so now we have to do that for ourselves. I don’t know what else to do except make a regular examination of conscience and include my artistic endeavors in that examination. A few artists are lucky enough to have attentive and wise spiritual directors, but the rest of us must fend for our own well-being.
But don’t fret. There’s nothing to worry about.
Nothing at all.