Immoral Books

Argument that texts are neither moral nor immoral as they require active interpretation.
philosophy, criticism, Gene-Wolfe
2010-01-242010-01-24 finished certainty: unlikely importance: 1


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

The moral­ity of books has long been a de­bated ques­tion. Wilde wrote within a mi­lieu; a mi­lieu that did­n’t work and was 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 never hap­pened. No per­sons were ac­tu­ally mur­dered or de­flow­ered as in ‘s . 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 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 “”,

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.

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