JMC : Philosophy of Literature / by Brother Azarias

Chapter II.
Literary Morality.

MAN has more than art-power and intelligence; he has soul, and that soul is the seat of a multitude of contradictory passions. As such it is called the heart In literature, the whole man speaks; therefore the heart has a say in the production of thought, and in sensitive natures determines motives, and gives a coloring to the labor of their life. Genius is generally accompanied with refined sensibility, and is therefore influenced in a special manner by the heart. Is the author who is ruled by his sensibility crossed in life? All his darker passions are aroused; he grows embittered against society; humanity is a monster; the Divinity even is the impersonation of cruelty and injustice. He recoils from friends; he recoils from himself He lives a misanthrope. The hiss of black hatred resounds through his works. Is he happy in his career, surrounded by endearing friends, who wield a wholesome influence over him? His writings everywhere reflect the sunshine in which he basks. Nature is all beauty; society a joy; life a pleasant dream, and God good. Thus are impressions ideas to him; and it not unfrequently happens that what, in his seeming, is the logical deduction of a severe course of reasoning -- a purely intellectual process -- is but the silent work of an undercurrent of sentiments welling up from the inner recesses of his heart And so sentiments influence thought, expand the intelligence, raise man above himself, and inspire some of the sublimest passages in literature. Where an author throws his whole soul into a subject, he is most forcible. The most soul-stirring passages in literature are the result of a play of feeling, a personal reminiscence, an overflow of sensibility. There is in the reading of such passages the electric influence of soul upon soul, the source of sympathy between author and reader.

As literature proceeds from the whole man, so it addresses itself to the whole man. There is in it truth for the mind, beauty for the esthetic sense; and there is also in it that which appeals to the heart. When the genius rises above the crampings of systems, and personal likings and dislikings; when he soars clear of all prejudice and the turmoil of passion, and seems to catch a glimpse of the real relations of things, and a stray beam of the created light of truth, such as primeval man lived in prior to the fall, lights up his soul, he is invariably in harmony with the goods the true, and beautiful. But man is fallen man, and his moral nature is sadly impaired. Human nature is corrupt human nature. Passion is active. It blinds: it leads reason captive. It never dies; it only sleeps, and is easily aroused; and when aroused, it is in continual struggle against man's better judgment. It behooves the Writer, then, to be calm and collected, to know fully what he is about, and to say to himself: "Are the consequences of this work to be for good or for evil? Is there anything here that I would regret in after-life -- anything that I would wish recalled on my death-bed?" And at every sacrifice he should prune whatever in the remotest degree Would be the germ of ruin to a soul. Having satisfied himself on this negative test, he should further say to himself: "As a work of literature, this book is addressed to fallen human nature; and fallen human nature ever tends to fall lower in the moral scale but it should be the aim of every book to raise up that nature, to draw out its nobler and better parts. Is this the function of the book I now write? Will it make man look more kindly on his fellow-man? Will it help him to think on his Creator the more, and draw him closer to Him? Will he be a better man for the reading of it?" And if the writer can answer these questions with satisfaction, may God bless him; he is a benefactor to humanity; he is deserving of laurels; his book through all time will be doing good; and in eternity alone will he be able to reap the reward it has sown for him. It is within the power of every literary artist to thus control himself, and express the true and the good in spite of his individual feelings. The higher genius always makes his prejudices subservient to his art when he cannot keep them altogether out of sight. It is littleness that bustles and cries out, and makes a great noise about grievances, exaggerated or imaginary.

In literature, then, it is of extreme importance to draw a line of distinction between the moral and the immoral. As in nature there are flowers and fruits fair to the eye but rotten at the core, so in the garden of humanity are there to be found, under an accomplished exterior, a bad heart and a vicious character, such as might be the product of a cultivation based merely on Chesterfield's Letters -- that elegant code of polite scoundrelism -- such as led Shakespeare to say:

"That one may smile, and smile, and be a villain;"

so, also, in the domain of literature, there often lurk behind the garb of an elegant diction ideas and sentiments the most contaminating. The great and infallible criterion whereby to distinguish, is the Divine and immutable law of morality, such as is the rule of man's actions, and as he will be judged by -- the Decalogue. A literary production should never attempt to infringe this law by directly teaching doctrines, insinuating a spirit, or acting upon and drawing out feelings to which it is opposed. The very instinct of literary art looks to this criterion: for in the departments requiring most artistic skill, viz., poetry and fiction, the basis of nearly all, and of all the most excellent and successful efforts, is also the basis of the moral code. A thread of love is woven into their ground-work. But that thread is frequently so tattered and soiled with human passion, its Divine origin is no longer recognizable. Yet love is the golden chain that binds humanity in a bond of brotherhood, that keeps society together, that connects earth with heaven. It is the law not only of man, but of God. It is the principle of His Triune Personality. Without it, Nature would drop back to its original nothingness, and its Creator would cease to be; for God is Love.

Writers of poetry and fiction seem to forget this elevated character of love, and give the sacred name to blind passion. They spin a thread of fate from the fiction of their brain, and weave it about their characters, and call it destiny or elective affinity, as though every individual were not responsible and the master of his own choosing; and thus they sow broadcast the seeds of free-loveism, again abusing the sacred name. They deck up monsters of vice in all the fascinations of youth, beauty, engaging manners, and splendid fortune; they

" -- make madness beautiful, and cast
O'er erring deeds and thoughts a heavenly hue of words,"

and represent such creations wading through crime to the enjoyment of earthly happiness, and call on the reader to sympathize with them in adventures and sufferings brought upon them by their own vicious ways. The reader responds; from sympathy he passes to liking, and from liking is soon involved in like deeds. Say he does not fall so low; still the reading of such works blunts his finer feelings, prepares him to consider unmoved, perhaps even complacently, crimes the bare mention of which should have been a horror to him, and thus suppresses the growth of his better nature, it especially destroys genuine sentiment.

There is too much of the lackadaisical in our modern literature. Authors abound -- especially writers of fiction -- with whom life is reduced to a sentiment; thought is a sentiment; love is a sentiment; religion a sentiment; and often God is regarded as nothing more than an object of pious sentiment. This is sentimentalism. The offspring of exaggerated and unnatural feelings, it fosters them in the reader of delicate sensibility to the ruin of all humane impulses. He becomes unreaL His heart grows hardened. It may seem paradoxical, but it is true that sentimentalism hardens the heart. It is but a passing thing; it evaporates soon, and seems, so to speak, to leave after it a sedimentary deposit which shrouds the better feelings. See that young lady transported to ecstacy over some meaningless expression, and paying the tribute of a tear to some high-wrought, fanciful, and improbable incident, picturing affliction and misery where they never could have existed. She is distracted by the untimely intrusion of some poor, infirm, suffering, needy one, a true object of pity and charity. He asks an alms. In that half-scowling, perturbed look with which she gives the scanty mite or the curt refusal, we perceive no indications of a heart softened on beholding a brother in actual distress; the unholy tears she had been previously shedding seem to have extinguished in her the last spark of real sentiment, and encased her heart in selfishness. This is a scene of daily occurrence. Man is but too prone to be unreal, and to deceive himself on his nearest and highest interests; the grand aim of literature ought to be, not to hide these interests from his view and sink him deeper in delusion, but rather to raise them out of the daily cares in which they lie buried, place them before him in their most attractive form, and inspire him with practical and ennobling sentiments regarding them. "It is unlawful to influence when it is not permitted to convince; where conviction is a deception, persuasion is a perfidy."{1} An incontrovertible truth, rendered doubly strong when we consider the usual attitude of readers towards an author. They are frequently credulous and unthinking; and some read to beguile an idle hour, or even to be lulled to sleep; some crave light reading, and abandon themselves to the scenes, incidents, and impression of the novel or poem with the repose of one listlessly gliding down a smooth stream, calmly enjoying the varied beauties that present themselves on its banks; some few read to gain a further insight into the workings of the mind and heart than can be learned within the narrow circle of their own experience; but they are far between who vex and weary their minds in separating the salutary from the baneful. He, then, who would avail himself of the confidence placed in him by the large majority of his readers, to insinuate aught in his work that tends to inflame the passions, who would diffuse a misanthropic spirit through its pages, who would elicit sympathy in an unhallowed cause, or tamper with the truth, or gild false maxims, is guilty of a breach of good faith towards his readers; he becomes a public evil; he is, indeed, a seducer of men and an agent of hell.

The reader has a duty to perform here. He should be select in his reading. He should neither patronize nor encourage a bad book. Supply is always in proportion to demand. Let the bad book drop. Cease lauding it as a matchless literary production. Show it up in its true light. Show it to be false in sentiment, false in fact, false in principle, and it will soon pass into oblivion.

The critic's is a noble position; it is also a responsible one. He ought to be the faithful sentinel and and servant of humanity, ever on the lookout, ever quick to report the signs of the times and the spirit that actuates a work, fearless in exposing shams, just in his estimates, and at all times truthful. But truth compels us to say that the press weakens its own power by its negligent criticisms, by the subserviency with which it does party work, and by making use of false standards in judging of a literary production. There are honorable exceptions. The critical opinion of a book is not always the just estimate of its value. The professional critic is usually a man overpowered with work, and, when he is best disposed, he seldom has time to read a book to the end; he has to be content with dipping into it and recording his impression as favorable or unfavorable. He may have found the drift of the work good, and it really may be so; but in an uncut page there may also lurk poison intellectual or moral whereof he knows nothing. Hence all criticism is based on probability, more or less reliable, according to the known judgments of the critic in other cases. That criticism is the most probably correct which agrees in the main with others from different quarters, representing opposite or divergent interests. Criticism, like medicine, is a matter of empiricism. There is nothing infallible in its judgments. There are no standards, except of a vague nature, by which all can be ruled; and even were there, each critic would apply them differently, according to the cultivation of reason and taste. We say reason and taste, for a literary work is not judged by reason alone. A scientific work is either true or false, and its value is determined according ly. Not so a piece of literary art. There, it not unfrequently happens that where the reason condemns, the aesthetic sense approves. The language of soul, heart, sentiment, is not the language of intelligence. The feelings may speak one thing, the judgment another. St Augustine, in his younger days, shed tears over the love of Dido. His maturer judgment condemns his folly; for it finds that love opposed to morality, and he again weeps over the tears he formerly shed. And so, throughout literature, in the greatest master-pieces, there are passages based upon deeds our judgments condemn, and we shrink from with horror; and yet we learn them by heart; we are enthusiastic in their praise; we recite them to our friends. They please our aesthetic sense; they move our sentiments. We see perfection approached in their artistic execution. And this suggests a question delicate as it is important: What works may or may not be safely read in literature? We lay down but a general rule:

I. Every literary production that promotes, encourages, and strengthens truth and virtue, may be read with profit to soul and intellect.

II. Every literary production not opposed, in its spirit and bearing, to truth and virtue, and implying the necessity of both one and the other, may be read with safety.

III. Every literary production, be its artistic qualities what they may, that scoffs at religion, disregards truth, looks upon morality as a prejudice into which men have been educated; that speaks lightly of any of these: that throws any, the least, aspersion upon them; that even, in a negative manner, by losing sight of them, and treating subjects as though these eternal principles were not, thus insinuates that life is good without them -- every such production is to be condemned, and its reading discouraged.

It will not do to quote the maxim: "To the pure all things are pure." It is a sophism. Virtue can never regard vice as a virtue, and it may or may not be contaminated by coming in contact therewith. It is not given to everybody to be able to draw good out of evil and turn all things unto a spiritual purpose. There is another maxim much more to the point. It is, that evil communications corrupt good manners.{2} Individual experience is of no avail here. True, one man may have read a bad book without its injuring his moral character in the least; but how knows he that his neighbor, to whom he recommends the same work, has the strength of character to withstand its poisoning influence?

In all departments of thought there is a pure and invigorating literature. There is also a literature of doubtful morality. Finally, there is a literature positively immoral. Nor is it to be wondered at Being the embodiment in language of what there is most intimate in man -- part of himself -- and often the production of a misinformed mind and an erring heart, it is to be expected that a large ingredient of untruth and immorality run through it. From the imperfect, the weak, and the erring, we cannot hope for the perfect, the strong, and the infallible. These truths will be all the more evident from a further search into the scope and function of literary criticism.

{1} No es licito persuadir quando no es licito convencer; quando la conviccion es un engaño, la persuasion es una perfidia. -- BALMES; El Criterio, p. 299.

{2} 1 Cor. xv., 33.

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