Beyond Good and Evil: Contemporary Fiction’s Strange New Vision of Morality

Reports that the western novel is in good health are grossly exaggerated; the truth is that sometime at mid-century the novel ceased to be the main carrier of the fictional imagination. And why not: storytelling (Bergson’s fonction fabulatrice, the human impulse to tell stories) seems in every century to choose a new form in which to manifest itself: Homer’s epic poems, the versified, courtly novel of the twelfth century, tragedies of Shakespeare and Racine, or Proust’s and Joyce’s interior monologue. As a genre, the mainly bourgeois novel (from Richardson to Thomas Mann) has reached the end of the line. New contours appear on the literary horizon.

One symptom of exhaustion and thus of gradual change from old to new forms is the author’s loss of moral and physical concern for his characters. Balzac and Thackeray and Henry James reveled in rich descriptions of the characters’ external appearance and inner life, their intrigues and conversations. Listen to what Eric Auerbach says of Balzac’s method in his collection of superb literary essays (Mimesis, 1953, Princeton): “To Balzac, every milieu becomes a moral and physical atmosphere which impregnates the landscape, the dwelling, the furniture, implements, clothing, physique, character, surroundings, ideas, activities and fates of men, and at the same time, the general historical situation reappears as a total atmosphere which envelops all its several milieux.”

Now this basically moral care has long ago vanished from the novel, and has probably migrated to the serious documentary. And with the disappearing moral dimension a new style has come into use, the “low style” as Auerbach calls it, the “democratic style” for Tocqueville, the painting of mass-man (he may be an educated sophisticate) with tiny emotions. Flaubert, says Auerbach, believed that the truth of the phenomenal world is also revealed in linguistic expression. The modern writer has no such belief, mainly because he does not accept the outside world as real and takes great pains to invent a personalized language in which to express his own cerebrations.

Seventy years ago, Ortega deplored the evacuation of human beings from the novel; they were soon replaced by spokesmen of a semi-scientific psychology and by an endless series of near-identical college graduates with their “problems.” How can we then, fin-de-siecle readers, expect that the characters of novels —no longer privileged sources of action (in other words, “heroes”) but rather objects of sociological and psychopathological diagnoses —should possess a moral dimension? In a world where good and evil, crime and punishment, sin and redemption no longer make sense. In a fictional world where the author no longer imagines characters but turns out abstract figures.

It may be unjust to expect in the century of Klee and Picasso, of Giacometti and the Whitney Museum, Norman Mailer and John Updike to endow their personages with flesh and blood, with moral consciousness and judgment, joy over little things, a sense that life and its realities have a weight, not just a nuisance value. This has much to do with the public also. The “problem-novel” has been for decades in vogue, but at least the “problem” used to be wrapped in layers of bona fide adventures (Hemingway, Malraux, Gore Vidal). But now readers, recruited from among sophisticates with a narrow experience of life, expect paltry characters and tortured plots. In France there has been a litterature des agreges, that is, a literature for professors with hard-to-earn diplomas. Life in these novels is, of course, artificial, vicarious, the plot is not born from an honest-to-goodness clash of passions, ambitions, loves, and beliefs, but from intellectual problems, psychologically monitored complexes, and from stereotyped conflicts of a socio-economic nature. The epitome of this are Sartre and his progeny.

The loci of these gratuitous games are not segments of the real world where moral decisions are made. They are literary stockmarkets where sexual, psychological, and Marxist vulnerabilities are traded. John Updike, to take an example, might have made a person out of Rabbit, somewhat like previous American novelists (Melville, Dreiser, Nathanael West) who were also obsessed with the drive to get away from deadening conventions, the ever-present public lie, the vaporous blonde next door. Instead, Updike chose an elusive and inarticulate anti-hero whose running-away does not amount to action, even to decision. We find the same non-action and non-reality in the case of Milan Kundera, suddenly lifted to the status of an emblematic witness-of-the-century. Kundera, too, mechanizes his characters, whose sexual acts exhaust all the dimensions of living. For Updike, Mailer, Oates, and Kundera, being is indeed light and porous (see the latter’s best-seller title), unbearable since all its elements are permutable at will. The center of gravity is the bed.

Bruce Bawer puts his finger on it: a whole generation of fictionalists, issued from creative writing classes (with a minor in psychology!) and courted by Knopf, dabbles in phenomenology which means that its members align vignettes whose mere juxtaposition is supposed to create a story -like atmosphere. Yet all that Marian Thurm, David Leavitt, Elisabeth Tallant, Meg Wolitzer —the “Brat Pack” as Bawer calls them— manage to produce are puny snapshots of a routinized way of life, not frescoes about the soul, its temptations, its exposure to tests and storms. We face, in other words, a new preciousness. The latest fiction tiptoes around the Self whose sole concern seems to be mental comfort and yuppy lifestyle. It is not the suffering of young Werther, nor the curtailed, then erupting, passion of Emma Bovary or Heathcliff —men and women of the novel’s heroic age. Rather, we read pedantic laundry lists of fashionable little hurts, overlaid with psychological analysis: parent’s divorce, wife’s office adventures, husband’s latent homosexuality, and above all the couple’s “inability to communicate.” Not even tempests in a teacup, only textbook cases from Psychopedagogy 101. The place: a Fifth Avenue luxury apartment.

Under these circumstances, can one expect stories, either full- bloodedly frivolous like Maupassant’s or human-beyond-human like Kafka’s? How does one convey the moral streams of the soul when the soul itself is dissolved in false analyses, then congealed in formulas? An older student of mine, a 50-year-old mother of three, says she takes psychology courses in order better to understand her 15-year-old son. (Like the tourist who looks at the Parthenon through the camera and carries triumphantly away not a memory but a snapshot.) Conditioned to trust textbook-packaged formulas, she never asks herself how Pascal or Chaucer penetrated their fellow -men’s soul without such courses. Can one expect her, and legions like her, to enjoy Dostoevsky, obviously a dilettante by her standards? Can one persuade her that Dimitri, Prince Myshkin, or Stavroguin have explored the farthest limits of man’s moral condition? Has she not become opaque to their language?

In short, our narrow formulas of standardized and vicarious living (through television screen, textbooks, “how to” manuals, and advertising messages) exclude the kind of literature which feels at home in the human universe, to which, as the Latin playwright said, nothing that concerns man is alien. The moral reality becomes a white spot, a terra incognita of old maps. Any wonder that the fiction writer implements the public’s tacit desire to read only about a few authorized behavior-patterns and the characters’ mechanically plausible motivations?

For decades, Soviet fiction had to submit to the Zdanovian and Suslovian ukases of “socialist realism”; are we much better off with the artificial plots and robots of Joyce Carol Oates, David Leavitt, Styron, and Burroughs? Saul Bellow said in a recent TV interview that contemporary American writers are so crowded with commands to “communicate” that the genuine ones have retreated into solitude and silence. Well, the scandal is that the latest generations of typescripters have actually adjusted to this solipsistic isolation and have chosen their human problematics among the okayed topics and types: crime, drugs, feminism, office squabbles, gay issues, minority protests. The last thing writers want to do is to judge. If you judge —that is, weave the moral reality in the fabric of the story —you exclude yourself from the comforting fraternity of colleagues brought up on classroom phenomenology and existentialist seminars.

The modern novel, perhaps the novel as such, has locked itself in the squirrel-cage of formulas: disjointed descriptions, shotgun-like flashes, shock effects, the whole paraphernalia which distracts attention from the emptiness inside. Note that all stories need a hero, Achilles, Perceval, Hamlet, Raskolnikov; that stories are built around models of sin or virtue, of society, of adventure; that the hero is larger than what the model prescribes —or that he breaks through its walls like Julien Sorel or Captain Ahab. The breakthrough may be successful or it may be a failure, but at any rate the hero took risks. One legitimately wonders whether industrial mass-society with its technological models and statistical formulas —that is, without sensibility and imagination —can produce novels at all. The welfare state has Nn out of the last hero, the self-made man, even of filed ones like Willy Loman; tragedy, as Huxley’s World Comptroller remarks, is alien to the brave new world.

Is this the end of literature? Amazingly, it isn’t! In fact, a new storytelling is aborn, with achievements squarely in fantasyland and with great possibilities. Let us say it again: it is a basic human requirement that stories be told, in words, sounds, shapes, colors, and stone. Somewhat like in the Portuguese king’s dictum: navigare necesse est, vivere non est necesse. This is how the age of maritime adventures began, in the last third of the fifteenth century. This is also how the new storytelling has emerged. It is more important than life because it enhances life.

One should not call “novel” what Jorge Luis Borges writes, or Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Marguerite Yourcenar, Umberto Eco, or Milorad Pavic. The world of the novel, its natural milieu, does not exist anymore. Neither writer nor reader believes in the framework where the plot used to take place: An identifiable place (the camp before Troy, a Russian small town, the American South), a time with a beginning and end (Dante’s Easter Sunday, teatime with madeleines at Proust’s aunt, to mention sophisticated concepts of time), a family like in Buddenbrooks, a travel, well-planted people, the play of passions. In such a world our physical bearings were easy to take, and the moral compass showed reliable directions. We were in a kind of box, small, large, extensible, reduced to suffice one man or coinciding with the size of the universe but still measurable and human.

Well, such a world of time, space, and delineated subject has lost its credibility. If nothing else, the vogue of science fiction shows that our contemporaries want to escape their world cluttered with people, machines, issues, events and problems, endlessly the same, endlessly televised. The new world, though perhaps not before the next century, prepares new coordinates, new weights and measures, new sensibilities that literature must reflect. Indeed, how could the end-of-century fictional character pursue his course as if the well-worn frame still held true, as if the fabric were not torn? The poet and the painter have long ago understood: Eliot, Yeats, Chagall spoke of the center, the circumference and the upside-down; they scattered ordinary objects and saw through man as if he were transparent, elastic, floating, disjointed.

The novel was unable to follow; it was over-intellectualized. Its professor-authors would not let go of it, not even mischievous Nabokov, although he went rather far. True, there have been surrealism, the nouveau roman with the talented Robbe-Grillet (he called himself the Balzac of the new age), concentration camp and gulag literature: all of them contributed to the initiatives of the present. We may consider them as partial attempts, sketches for the next oeuvre.

We speak here of glimpses and perhaps more than glimpses of future literature, a new fabric woven which is as old as storytelling. Its universe is no longer “box- like,” character-centered, its plots are not, at least not apparently, traced with meticulousness; nobody, unless it is the reader, picks up the loose ends. There is no place and time, or rather there are many times and places, some without location and sequence. There are no limits, the details are large frescoes or mosaics, themselves broken, gathered up, discarded.

Borges, Eco, Pavic, Marquez juggle with the pieces, each pregnant with an old-fashioned theme, but now dropped and eventually but not necessarily taken up in a different contextual frame and with new characters. The “old, reliable” psychology is also discredited, the new one derives from dreams, hallucination, allusion, magic. Nor are machines, animals, humans separate species locked in conventional behavior; in the midst of telling an old legend recent events or documents show up. All are yanked out of their customary essence, they are re-situated in a dream, a myth, a puzzle. The reader who would insist on Cartesian habits feels lost in a labyrinth, obliged to put fragments together to make sense of his own whereabouts. He is detective, scholar, criminal, victim, and witness, all in one.

Is this deconstructionism? I think it is the opposite. The deconstructionist technique (chief culprit: Claude Levi-Strauss) was devised to show that nothing has meaning, particularly the content of thought. Proud of conveying sense, human beings and communities—so the deconstructionist thesis runs—resort to tricky systems (language, eating habits, ways of dressing, institutions) in order to supply themselves with a semblance of consistency. There is, however, an infinite number of possible systems, their variation defines new selves and new communities, new values. Consistency is illusion.

The new storytelling is not at all deconstructionist, it does not elaborate systems, it does not deny reality. Its merit is, precisely, in accrediting the old idea that reality is infinitely diverse. Its world is the old cosmos you find in folktales and pre-Renaissance art or in the cathedral of Chartres where rigorous science, druidic symbols, esoteric formulas, and redemptive messages coexist. In other words, the new stories, unlike Nietzschean nihilism, do not cut our roots in the real, they enrich them from a vastly better nourished soil. The fantasy world where we take up abode is not the opposite of the real world, it complements that world, somewhat like grace which does not abolish nature but completes it, lifts it higher. The old forms of imagination are reinstated; allegory, for example, is not regarded as unworthy of machine civilization; it is machine civilization which becomes allegorical since its elements and deadening calculus are presented as deja vu in dreams and fancies, playthings of children.

One ancestor is Mikhail Bulgakov in The Master and Margarita. Floating above Moscow and the Union of Soviet Writers, there is suddenly Satan mixing up the cards and the progressive thoughts of these most serious gentlemen and comrades. It is not the same devil whom Bernanos presented to embarrassed critics at about the same time in Under the Sun of Satan (1926), but it is just as valid a participant in the affairs of men when they come down with a severe bout of rationalism. After all, the devil is part of the moral universe, it adds mightily to the latter’s self-orientation.

It is not our intention to locate ancestors of the new storytelling; they abound from Nietzsche’s Zarathustra to the Grand Inquisitor, from Kafka’s “K” to Ivan Denisovich. The important point is that new directions for fiction begin here, beyond the avatars of the classical novel. The novel has ended in an impasse, but the story as such is rehabilitated under our eyes, with the inseparable moral dimension. What I mean by moral dimension is not the triumph of good over evil, not the morality-building function of the felix culpa. It is not religion and church I have in mind. This would be difficult in view of Borges’s mundane sophistication, the Marxism of Marquez, or Eco’s virulent anticlericalism and sarcastic treatment of church institutions.

The point is, rather, that our authors restore the incalculability of the human being beyond the formulas which have been squeezing him into increasingly impoverished systems of ideology, whether behaviorism, Marxism, or psychoanalysis. They do so not by writing nice stories but by focusing on the story itself with rich plots and by justifying the pleasure of turning to the next and the next page. Readers of Eco and Pavic are thrilled (as those of Sartre cannot be) as Foucault’s Pendulum —Eco’s latest, not yet in English — and The Dictionary of the Khazars —Pavic’s fantasy-puzzle from Knopf—unroll, bounce back, revert to earlier layers of knowledge, leap ahead of themselves, all the while winking at the reader, upsetting him, and requesting his cooperation. Morally reassuring him also, the way Solzhenitsyn reassured us 25 years ago when Ivan Denisovich gathered up little morsels of bread and happiness from the table of zeks in the gulag.

Pavic calls himself a descendant of Byzantium, true crossroad of civilizations. His Dictionary is neither a lexicon nor a history of the Khazars, nor a novel with a plot. Next to nothing is known about Pavic’s “sources”; they are to a large extent invented, and our means of retracing the connecting links are deliberately falsified, misleading. We are sent on inconclusive searches. There is here, for those who insist on labels, a pseudo-history, yet not that either, documented through make-believe antiquarian explorations. The characters come to life, melt away, reality and fancy fuse on a map super-imposed on history and occasionally touching it. Yet the characters and the story live, the way Odysseus, Faust, and Beatrice lived, and other heroes and heroines, imagined but more real than reality.

The same with Foucault’s Pendulum. The man was a nineteenth-century physicist, his pendulum demonstrated the earth’s rotation —but this has little to do with the many themes of Eco’s 520 pages. The volume is rather an alchemist’s workshop; it cuts through and combines topics, confessions, mirror images, computer data, occultist experiments, and a museum for interrupted mechanical inventions. The atmosphere? One of games, esoteric sciences, orgies a la Fellini, nightmares, humor, and heresy trials. One of its myriad lessons is that man beats machine when he treats it as if it were human. The way children treat them when immersed in the miracles and mysteries of an old country fair or an amusement park.

Under the disorder of these works there is order, and more, the joy over man’s confrontation with fantasy. Again, let us not search for the well-ordered novel; this is another kind of order, not derived from the Cartesian mind which imposes its categories on things, but from participation in the dance of objects that surround us. Two sentences from Umberto Eco summarize a lot: “the world of machines tries to find the secret of creation”; and another: “Wisdom understands that the proper thing of mystery is to reside in non-being—except for one instant which is also the last.” Mystery becomes incarnate . . .

Let us not expect lessons on morals, an outline of a treatise on good and evil, from these writers. Their revolt against the novel —and against the world which made the novel then saw its decline—aims at new arrangements. Things must first fall in place, they and man must enter upon new relationships, a mutual recognition. The Catholic Claude’, when asked why he chose pagan Rimbaud as his guiding light on the ocean of poetry, answered that the man who taught “the riot of all these senses” was blessed also with the knowledge that the “outside world is real.” This is a giant step toward moral intelligence, and our authors did take that step. Otherwise, they would not bother about rearranging and recreating reality. They are not morally neutral; in the language of their art they tell us that subjective man is not the privileged place of the world, that he shares it with animals and stones, plants and sounds, meanings and signs. They are all there, waiting, locked in fantasy. The writer’s task forever is to unlock them.


  • Thomas Molnar

    Thomas Steven Molnar (1921-2010) was born in Budapest, studied at Columbia University, and was a Catholic philosopher, historian and political theorist.

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