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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