Friday, April 27, 2012

“Peter the Liar Got Hit by a Bus”: Concerning the Morality of the Story

RC’s comment on my analysis (a pretty fancy word for what I wrote, but let that be) of Raphael’s two paintings of St. George and the Dragon got me thinking.  He brought up the review I wrote for StAR of Baron de la Motte Fouque’s The Magic Ring—a book that he enjoyed very much but which I, to borrow one of my favorite phrases from Sayers, praised with faint damns.  My reply to RC’s comment, explaining what I thought made for a good work of literature (or a great one) as opposed to one that is merely fair, started to get out of hand as I worked it out in my mind; and in the end I offered a simple formula to explain my views.
“A good work of fiction is one which convicts the reader of some important truth.”
I hesitate over making the claim for “good” literature—perhaps this definition ought only apply to literature that we call great?  But as I thought of the works that might risk being named “not good” under so strict a criterion, I realized that many of them were in fact not good—fair, perhaps, inoffensive and even (sometimes) “interesting”—but not good.  And others, to my surprise, really were good in a way which I had not suspected: good not merely as entertainment, but by the definition.
That definition needs to be unpacked; it has the virtue of being precise but the flaw of sounding at once vague and overly severe.
“A good work of fiction is one which convicts the reader of some important truth.”
That does not mean that fiction should be didactic in the pejorative or obvious sense.  Aside from writing that is genuinely vile, essentially immoral, there is nothing more repulsive than literature which is essentially moralistic.  Let me give an example of what I mean.
One day Peter took and ate his sister’s doughnut when his parents weren’t looking.  When they found out it was missing, they asked him about it.  Peter told a lie.  He said the dog ate it.  Then, as he was leaving for school, he got hit by a bus.  And that is what happens to little boys who lie.
This may sound to modern ears like a gross exaggeration, and certainly the story, as I have stated it, is ludicrous.  “Peter the liar got hit by a bus” is a synopsis that no one ought to be able to write with a straight face—but for many years the authors of children’s literature could not appear to resist the temptation to do just that, a weakness that was beautifully sent up by Belloc in his Cautionary Tales for Children.  Nowadays we believe in giving children more frank, nuanced, and realistic fare, and so they get to read about abusive relationships instead.  But the tendency to moralize still makes itself felt in the world of adult literature and film.  The plotline “Men were greedy and selfish and so now Gaia (or an alien species, or Russians, or apes, or the sun) will destroy society as we know it” is frequently expounded in a way that makes for no more sophisticated a story than “Peter the liar.”  The Christian version of the implicit sequitur that doesn’t really is well known among TV evangelists as well as the writers of popular fiction.  “Peter the sinner, the man who found God, got a pretty young wife and a pretty fat wad” has the advantage of being upbeat; but as a plot it is hardly less offensive to reason than the Revenge of Gaia on the one hand and Peter the Liar on the other (and to the mind of the biblical Christian, it has the additional defect of being blasphemous).
These statements given above are morals, of a sort; they are not what I have in mind when I say that the reader must be convicted of some important truth.  The flaw of the moral is that it is, if not by nature then frequently in application, tied only arbitrarily to the tale.  Peter’s lie may get him thrown under the bus; that tells us (if we believe the story) that lying is dangerous, but it does not teach us that ling is bad.  If it teaches us anything beyond that, it may teach us that lying has an intrinsic connection to death by mass transit—which is certainly not true.  This is why “The Boy Who Cried Wolf” is both fascinating and terrifying to children (I speak from personal experience, you understand) even to the present day: because there is an actual logical connection between what the Boy does wrong, and the fate that meets him.
Of course, there is in the abstract no more intimate a connection between lying and being eaten by a wolf than there is between lying and being hit by a bus; so far, the story does not makes a good impression.  But there is a connection, a very direct connection between this boy’s lie, the particular boy and the particular lie that he told, and the fate that came over him.  If our friend Peter, instead of being run over by a bus, had been so focused on explaining himself to his parents that he had left his doughnut unguarded—whereupon it was eaten by the family dog—that might have come off as a good story (pardon the expression).  The connection between the deserts of the protagonist (again, pardon!) and his deeds would in that case have been organic: the end flows out of the beginning, not as if no other end were possible, but in a natural way.  To use the metaphor from nature: “Peter the liar got hit by a bus” is like a rosebush to which the author has grafted a gardenia: there is a dramatic, showy, exoticism tacked onto the end of what had been a perfectly good plant, and the whole thing looks to incoherent to be even attractive.  “The Boy Who Cried Wolf” is, on the other hand, like a rose bush that grows red roses when it might have grown white or yellow.  The ending is plausible and satisfying, as well as being dramatic and showy.
That is what literature should be; what it should do.  It must tell the truth—but that means to tell the truth in its reality and complexity, to really show why the world ticks.  Peter the Liar, if it can teach us at all, teaches us that lying is dangerous—most likely, it won’t teach us a thing, because we can detect, even in our tender years, the disconnect between what he does and what befalls him..  The Boy Who Cried Wolf teaches us that lying is dangerous because lying by its very nature destroys the trust that men have for each other, and men who are not trusted (for having been liars) are not helped.  That is a truth, a subtle truth, and an important one.
“A good work of fiction is one which convicts the reader of some important truth.”  So much for the last two words of the definition!  The rest will have to wait for another day.

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