Because most philosophies that frown on reproduction don't survive.

Tuesday, August 11, 2015

The Rich Drama of Virtue

In the New York Times, Thomas Mallon and Alice Gregory debate whether a virtuous character in a novel can be an interesting character. Mallon says no:
We expect fiction’s round characters to undergo change in the course of their book-length adventures, and the most important kind is usually an increase in self-awareness — a journey that leaves an unblemished character with no place to go. Self-awareness for the fully virtuous will necessarily be a matter of self-satisfaction, a state that can only render them insufferable. 
Who among us is fully virtuous? Reading this, I wondered whether Mallon had ever known a virtuous person or attempted a life of virtue himself. Virtue rarely leads to self-satisfaction, but to ever increasing self examination, as a person increasingly realizes how short he or she falls from the mark.

Alice Gregory says yes:
But as anyone who has earnestly attempted it will admit, being good is to feel far more at odds with the world than being bad does. It is the cumulation of calculated social compromises, purposeful acts of communion, and meticulous emotional arithmetic. Commonplace wickedness, meanwhile, is seldom the result of anything more devious than inattention to the feelings and realities of other people. Living virtuously is hard. It takes generative intellectual work that is far more interesting than the defensiveness of “being bad.” I would rather consider the challenges that go into a consciously lived life than the inevitably hurtful products of a cruel one. 
...If I were to commission a novel, I would ask the author for lots of things (that it be short; that it be written in free indirect speech; that it include funny, but frank, acknowledgment of women’s grooming rituals), but mostly I would want this notional novelist to take up the challenge of animating at least one character who is virtuous, not in the intimate way that everyone seems to be up close, but in a way that is obvious and legible in the book’s own universe. It’s time that goodness be shown in all its relentless torment and sacrifice.
Leah Libresco, in a separate post on the topic, points out:
Being Good isn’t a matter of choosing once and then proceeding on autopilot.  It’s a lot of small, creative acts of resistance. It’s a lot of doing small, boring kindnesses that can secretly be a little thrilling because they don’t happen by default — they’re a matter of choosing or of building up habits of thought and action until caritas does actually wind up feeling natural.
Calculated acts of villainy do take planning and coordination and an aggressive will to dominate, which is why so many books and movies choose to focus on and glamorize that kind of evil. But everyday acts of malice and selfishness take no self-control or forethought. It's always easier to snark than to be charitable; to snarl in impatience rather than smile at someone inconvenient; to ignore the child making a frustrating demand rather than put aside the book or phone or even to turn aside from legitimate business and really listen and then act. Goodness is always an act of the will, and the biggest triumphs are often the least seen because they're played out in and against one's own heart. A novelist can take these everyday sacrifices and create a story of high drama about even the outwardly smallest stakes because the richest stories are about moral choice and change. Purely plot-driven stories about big events -- will the family escape the tidal wave in time? Will Apollo 13 make it back to earth safely? -- are exciting, but without an foundation of moral agency in the human characters, those stories will ultimately be shallow, entertainment with no substance.

Also, I've already written Alice Gregory's dream novel.


Brandon said...

Also, I've already written Alice Gregory's dream novel.

It's indeed rather funny how close the description is.

Itinérante said...

This made me want to be really virtuous! Thank you :)

mandamum said...

Also, I've already written Alice Gregory's dream novel.

Yeah, I was thinking that too :)