Novels Against Moralism

In Image Journal, James K.A. Smith writes about the tension between the ethical life (e.g., engaging in social justice) and the aesthetic life (e.g., writing novels and poetry), arguing that a life of genuine faith may actually be closer to the aesthetic life than you might guess. He draws most prominently from the novel Either/Or, by Elif Batuman, to make this point. The novel features a character by the name of Selin who wrestles mightily with this tension. Take a look at how the essay ends:

In his Genesee Diary, Henri Nouwen interrogates his own concerns about so-called withdrawal into the life of the monastery, but then realizes: “compassion belongs to the center of the contemplative life.” “True contemplatives,” he says, “are not the ones who withdrew from the world to save their own souls, but the ones who enter into the center of the world and pray to God from there.”

A similar insight dawns for Selin. She realizes that writing, far from being a withdrawal from the world, is a way of acting in and on the world. (It’s not an accident she’s taking a course in the philosophy of language and considering different sorts of “speech acts.”) She reflects that, even through a series of fanciful, quasi-literary emails to Ivan, “I had caused so many things to happen in the world—sleep to be lost, plane tickets to be bought, money to change hands. In a way, it had been a test of what a person could achieve just through writing.” From the cocoon of her writing nook, the novelist makes a dent in the world outside. She retreats into her imagination in order to reach and influence a world bigger than books.

“It’s someone’s job to write novels,” Selin concludes. “Every civilized country had such people. They were in some way the very mark of civilization.” We depend on such artists to withdraw from us to show us ourselves. We need those who retreat in order to give the world back to us in a novel, who give us the gift of a mirror. The attention of the novelist, trained on the particulars of the human condition, is its own act of love. Those of us caught up in the thrum and bustle of the world, perhaps especially those wrangling with the principalities and powers of injustice and heartbreak, need that gift.

The attention of the novelistis its own act of love. Why? Because the novelist tells stories about who we really are; and it turns out we often need to be reminded of who we are. All the more so in an age of distraction.

In fact this reminds me of a famous poem:

“O, wad some Power the giftie gie us
To see oursels as others see us!
It wad frae monie a blunder free us,
An’ foolish notion.”

‘A Young Man Writing at a Cloth Covered Table’ by Christian van Donck. Source: Tumblr

2 thoughts on “Novels Against Moralism

  1. I found this passage challenges the idea that the aesthetic life and the ethical life are mutually exclusive and suggests that there can be a close connection between the two. I especially appreciate the emphasis on the value of writing and storytelling as a way of providing a gift to others by offering a reflection on the human condition. This message resonates with me and encourages me to consider the ways in which my own creative pursuits can be meaningful and impactful. Thank you for sharing.

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  2. Yeah that really struck me as well; and yes, that connection isn’t always obvious to us in the U.S. I just read a thoughtful essay about how pragmatism is the dominant philosophy in our country. Perhaps that makes us even more prone to believing that aesthetics are secondary and practical ethics ought to be our primary concern. It’s a good time to re-evaluate that tendency.

    Anyways, thanks for dropping by! And keep up the good work over at your blog.


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