Immoral Books

Argument that texts are neither moral nor immoral as they require active interpretation. (philosophy, criticism)
created: 24 Jan 2010; modified: 08 Mar 2017; status: finished; confidence: unlikely; importance: 1

There is no such thing as a moral or immoral book. Books are well written or badly written.Oscar Wilde

The morality of books has long been a debated question. Wilde wrote within a milieu; a milieu that didn’t really work and was deeply hypocritical and decaying; he knew it, and in disgust reveled in the post-modern ironies that allowed. Who hasn’t been at last a little irritated by the luxuriant lounging in paradoxes, and the willful misleading and distorting of syntax and semantics alike, that so often appears in Victorian literature around the time of Oscar Wilde?

Wilde was always persecuted by others and himself for his homosexuality. The established opinion of the land hated his sins, and for all that they might proclaim that they hated the sin, but loved the sinner, it was clear they hated him too. And why? Because of the victimless crime of sodomy.

There is a curious parallel here. Also repressed through social and legal mechanisms were texts that dealt with sexuality and violence, and their intersections. Here is a victimless crime: the couplings described in a work like Lady Chatterley’s Lover never happened. No persons were actually murdered or deflowered as in de Sades 120 Days of Sodom. All sprang from the author’s imagination, and never became anything more. The only thing which could be said to have suffered is the paper the works were printed on, and yet, they were stridently and confidently denounced, banned, persecuted and burned as ’immoral.

The absurdity of this is apparent; what were these books but blotches of ink on paper? Paper cannot be a moral agent, cannot commit evil actions, or altruistic charity. All of the immoral events took place in the reader’s mind, a reader who willingly participated, in another victimless crime. A quotation from Scott McCloud’s seminal work on comic book aesthetics, Understanding Comics, comes to mind (a hidden legacy from Nietzsche1, perhaps):

Every act committed to paper by the comic artist is aided and abetted by a silent accomplice. An equal partner in crime known as the reader. I may have drawn an axe being raised in the example, but I’m not the one who let it drop or decided how hard the blow, or who screamed, or why. That, dear reader, was your special crime. Each of you committing it in your own unique style.

But an author has even less culpability here. The comic book artist at least dictates how the world looks, but an author can’t even do that. He may suggest, may indicate, may give thumbnail summary of actions, but almost everything is done by the reader. So not only are immoral books victimless crimes, if anyone is the criminal, it is the reader! Remember, the meaning hinges on the reader’s interpretation. As Borges said in his beautifully written The Library of Babel,

There is no combination of characters one can make - dhcmrlchtdi, for example - that the divine Library has not foreseen and that in one or more of its secret tongues does not hide a terrible significance. There is no syllable one can speak that is not filled with tenderness and terror, that is not, in one of those languages, the mighty name of a god.

To which I might add, In an infinite universe, there is not a scarcity of worlds which do not espouse the complete works of the Marquis de Sade as their own most holy scripture. Nor is there a lack of lands where a text corresponding to our New Testament is held in the highest loathing because of the depths of depravity they may read of in it.

Those who believe that a mere incantation, a recital of certain magic words can, by virtue of simply existing corrupt the minds of the living and that such lists must be extirpated, believe in nonsense. The would-be sorcerer alone has faith in the efficacy of pure knowledge; rational people know that things act of themselves or not at all, as Gene Wolfe wisely comments.

Fictional books always describe a possible universe, a possible world where if things had been a little different (or maybe a lot) we could find ourselves living. Reality does not make value judgments. We cannot use the physics of electrons to decide the morality of the death penalty. By extension, a description of reality is non-moral as well, and if that holds for a real reality, then how can a description of an altogether non-existent world be either moral or immoral?

It cannot. We can only judge on how well that world was portrayed, with what skill the author reached out into his hat, the realm of the possible and pulled back a gem or bizarre creature we never saw before, for our delight.


  1. Friedrich Nietzsche, #58 Assorted Opinions and Maxims:

    Somebody remarked: I can tell by my own reaction to it that this book is harmful. But let him only wait and perhaps one day he will admit to himself that this same book has done him a great service by bringing out the hidden sickness of his heart and making it visible.