One of the curious things in the peculiar world of public morality is the occasional flare of outrage over “bad” books. It isn’t just the fact that book burning is a terrible idea; it is based on a misunderstanding of morality that assumes “immoral” literature is about “immoral” actions. This is understandable, I guess, but it can be wrong-headed; the morality of morality and the morality of literature are not exactly the same. Morality is about choosing to do morally correct actions, but reading is about a possible view of the world. An immoral book does not necessarily urge evil actions as much as it gives a view of the human condition that is inherently false. Whether due to sentimentality or a ham-fisted political agenda, the immorality of literature is in its complete lack of plausibility – it is impossible to believe a real human being could think this way or do these things, rather as Dr Dalrymple points out Lady Chatterly’s father speaks of his daughter’s sexuality in a way that no father would. Well, no decent father.
“Immoral” literature also has almost nothing to do with whether the reader is offended. Anyone who thinks being offended is a logical argument against the offender is probably someone in search of a “safe space.” Let me give an example of what offends me. In Hemingway’s “A Clean, Well-Lighted Place,” the old man takes two of the most ancient Christian prayers, the Pater Noster and the Ave Maria, and reduces them to sheer nihilism. “Our nada” – “our nothing” – replaces “Our Father” in one of the most scathing passages in all literature, and nada is also used of the Blessed Virgin. How, for Christians, could this not be offensive? (Of course, in the Hierarchy of Offense, Christians are negligible. Nobody these days much cares if we are offended.) So why, after this reduction of my most cherished beliefs to “nothing,” am I not calling for book burnings and protest marches?
The answer is not that I agree with the old man. I do not. But the morality of literature is not morality pure and simple; it is a window into a possible view of the human condition. It may be an incorrect view, but it is one that a human being could possibly hold. It may not be right, but it is relevant. As a Christian, I need to understand this old man – why he could promote something that to me is incomprehensible and even blasphemous. If I reject the old man without trying to understand him, my own understanding of the human condition will be impoverished. Even in the largely inhumane world of rock culture, a song like “Heroin,” from Lou Reed and The Velvet Underground and Nico, though very offensive, nonetheless does tell me something about addiction. Avoid it. (For that matter, “Venus in Furs” tells me something about “S&M” – the tuning is wildly sharp and one considers telling where the treasure is to get it to stop.)
For me a “bad” book is not merely a book that advocates evil; it is a book that is inherently false to the human condition. Unlike the author in The Fourth Man who says writers lie the truth, “bad” books lie a lie. While the so-called “marshmallow Poets” sell better than their superiors, their poetry is “bad” not because it is obscene, but because it gives an untrue view of the human condition. Love may conquer all, but there is much more real crunch to a good love poem than that supplied by a marshmallow. If the rhetoric of a marshmallow poem seems closer to a greeting card soufflé than it does to real life, it has far too much sugar in it to be read.
This is not to say all good literature must be cynical, but sometimes a touch of bitters makes a drink more palatable. Simple syrup alone is almost invariably cloying; too much cups of it may also make you sick. Nor does this mean that there is no offensive literature in the usual sense, for even I am not sure I would go so far as to recommend the Marquis de Sade to “understand” sadism. What I am sure is that many books that have been relegated to the flames for obscenity are very great books. Sometimes the wretched excesses of Political Correctness are responsible for ludicrous misjudgments, as with the condemnation of Huckleberry Finn for its “inappropriate” racial slurs. Anyone who has read Twain knows that Huckleberry Finn is a masterpiece. Huck would go to Hell for Jim, the runaway slave, and our understandable desire to stamp out even the language of racism can in this case lead to great injustice. We need to remember that taking offense should usually involve discerning the intent to offend, and times have changed since Huck had his adventures. Huckleberry Finn ought to be read, not bowdlerized, because it is a genuinely moral book, not only because it does give us insight into the human condition and a possible way of viewing it, but in this case Huck Finn’s view is “elevated and correct,” despite the pejorative language. If we truly believe in free speech, which all too many American Universities do not, we should cut Mark Twain some slack, not only because times have changed, but because his character Huck has greater love for his fellow man than I do. I am pretty sure I am not willing to go to Hell for anyone, if I can help it.