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The Moral Aim In Fiction

The producers of modern fiction, who have acquiesced more or less
completely in the theory of art for art's sake, are not, perhaps, aware
that a large class of persons still exist who hold fiction to be
unjustifiable, save in so far as the author has it at heart not only (or
chiefly) to adorn the tale, but also (and first of all) to point the
moral. The novelist, in other words, should so mould the characters and
shape the plot of his imaginary drama as to vindicate the wisdom and
integrity of the Decalogue: if he fail to do this, or if he do the
opposite of this, he deserves not the countenance of virtuous and God-
fearing persons.

Doubtless it should be evident to every sane and impartial mind, whether
orthodox or agnostic, that an art which runs counter to the designs of God
toward the human race, or to the growth of the sentiment of universal
human brotherhood, must sooner or later topple down from its fantastic and
hollow foundation. "Hitch your wagon to a star," says Emerson; "do not lie
and steal: no god will help." And although, for the sake of his own
private interests of the moment, a man will occasionally violate the moral
law, yet, with mankind at large, the necessity of vindicating the superior
advantages of right over wrong is acknowledged not only in the interests
of civilized society, but because we feel that, however hostile "goodness"
may seem to be to my or your personal and temporary aims, it still remains
the only wholesome and handsome choice for the race at large: and
therefore do we, as a race, refuse to tolerate--on no matter how plausible
an artistic plea--any view of human life which either professes
indifference to this universal sentiment, or perversely challenges it.

The true ground of dispute, then, does not lie here. The art which can
stoop to be "procuress to the lords of hell," is art no longer. But, on
the other hand, it would be difficult to point to any great work of art,
generally acknowledged to be such, which explicitly concerns itself with
the vindication of any specific moral doctrine. The story in which the
virtuous are rewarded for their virtue, and the evil punished for their
wickedness, fails, somehow, to enlist our full sympathy; it falls flatly
on the ear of the mind; it does not stimulate thought. It does not
satisfy; we fancy that something still remains to be said, or, if this be
all, then it was hardly worth saying. The real record of life--its terror,
its beauty, its pathos, its depth--seems to have been missed. We may admit
that the tale is in harmony with what we have been taught ought to happen;
but the lessons of our private experience have not authenticated our moral
formulas; we have seen the evil exalted and the good brought low; and we
inevitably desire that our "fiction" shall tell us, not what ought to
happen, but what, as a matter of fact, does happen. To put this a little
differently: we feel that the God of the orthodox moralist is not the God
of human nature. He is nothing but the moralist himself in a highly
sublimated state, but betraying, in spite of that sublimation, a fatal
savor of human personality. The conviction that any man--George
Washington, let us say--is a morally unexceptionable man, does not in the
least reconcile us to the idea of God being an indefinitely exalted
counterpart of Washington. Such a God would be "most tolerable, and not to
be endured"; and the more exalted he was, the less endurable would he be.
In short, man instinctively refuses to regard the literal inculcation of
the Decalogue as the final word of God to the human race, and much less to
the individuals of that race; and when he finds a story-teller proceeding
upon the contrary assumption, he is apt to put that story-teller down as
either an ass or a humbug.

As for art--if the reader happen to be competent to form an opinion on
that phase of the matter--he will generally find that the art dwindles in
direct proportion as the moralized deity expatiates; in fact, that they
are incompatible. And he will also confess (if he have the courage of his
opinions) that, as between moralized deity and true art, his choice is
heartily and unreservedly for the latter.

I do not apprehend that the above remarks, fairly interpreted, will
encounter serious opposition from either party to the discussion; and yet,
so far as I am aware, neither party has as yet availed himself of the
light which the conclusion throws upon the nature of art itself. It should
be obvious, however, that upon a true definition of art the whole argument
must ultimately hinge: for we can neither deny that art exists, nor affirm
that it can exist inconsistently with a recognition of a divinely
beneficent purpose in creation. It must, therefore, in some way be an
expression or reflection of that purpose. But in what does the purpose in
question essentially consist?

Broadly speaking--for it would be impossible within the present limits to
attempt a full analysis of the subject--it may be considered as a gradual
and progressive Purification, not of this or that particular individual in
contradistinction to his fellows, but of human nature as an entirety. The
evil into which all men are born, and of which the Decalogue, or
conscience, makes us aware, is not an evil voluntarily contracted on our
part, but is inevitable to us as the creation of a truly infinite love and
wisdom. It is, in fact, our characteristic nature as animals: and it is
only because we are not only animal, but also and above all human, that we
are enabled to recognize it as evil instead of good. We absolve the cat,
the dog, the wolf, and the lion from any moral responsibility for their
deeds, because we feel them to be deficient in conscience, which, is our
own divinely bestowed gift and privilege, and which has been defined as
the spirit of God in the created nature, seeking to become the creature's
own spirit. Now, the power to correct this evil does not abide in us as
individuals, nor will a literal adherence to the moral law avail to purify
any mother's son of us. Conscience always says "Do not,"--never "Do"; and
obedience to it neither can give us a personal claim on God's favor nor
was it intended to do so: its true function is to keep us innocent, so
that we may not individually obstruct the accomplishment of the divine
ends toward us as a race. Our nature not being the private possession of
any one of us, but the impersonal substratum of us all, it follows that it
cannot be redeemed piecemeal, but only as a whole; and, manifestly, the
only Being capable of effecting such redemption is not Peter, or Paul, or
George Washington, or any other atomic exponent of that nature, be he who
he may; but He alone whose infinitude is the complement of our finiteness,
and whose gradual descent into human nature (figured in Scripture under
the symbol of the Incarnation) is even now being accomplished--as any one
may perceive who reads aright the progressive enlightenment of conscience
and intellect which history, through many vicissitudes, displays. We find,
therefore, that art is, essentially, the imaginative expression of a
divine life in man. Art depends for its worth and veracity, not upon its
adherence to literal fact, but upon its perception and portrayal of the
underlying truth, of which fact is but the phenomenal and imperfect
shadow. And it can have nothing to do with personal vice or virtue, in the
way either of condemning the one or vindicating the other; it can only
treat them as elements in its picture--as factors in human destiny. For
the notion commonly entertained that the practice of virtue gives us a
claim upon the Divine Exchequer (so to speak), and the habit of acting
virtuously for the sake of maintaining our credit in society, and ensuring
our prosperity in the next world,--in so thinking and acting we
misapprehend the true inwardness of the matter. To cultivate virtue
because its pays, no matter what the sort of coin in which payment is
looked for, is to be the victims of a lamentable delusion. For such virtue
makes each man jealous of his neighbor; whereas the aim of Providence is
to bring about the broadest human fellowship. A man's physical body
separates him from other men; and this fact disposes him to the error that
his nature is also a separate possession, and that he can only be "good"
by denying himself. But the only goodness that is really good is a
spontaneous and impersonal evolution, and this occurs, not where self-
denial has been practised, but only where a man feels himself to be
absolutely on the same level of desert or non-desert as are the mass of
his fellow-creatures. There is no use in obeying the commandments, unless
it be done, not to make one's self more deserving than another of God's
approbation, but out of love for goodness and truth in themselves, apart
from any personal considerations. The difference between true religion and
formal religion is that the first leads us to abandon all personal claims
to salvation, and to care only for the salvation of humanity as a whole;
whereas the latter stimulates is to practise outward self-denial, in order
that our real self may be exalted. Such self-denial results not in
humility, but in spiritual pride.

In no other way than this, it seems to me, can art and morality be brought
into harmony. Art bears witness to the presence in us of something purer
and loftier than anything of which we can be individually conscious. Its
complete expression we call inspiration; and he who is the subject of the
inspiration can account no better than any one else for the result which
art accomplishes through him. The perfect poem is found, not made; the
mind which utters it did not invent it. Art takes all nature and all
knowledge for her province; but she does not leave it as she found it; by
the divine necessity that is upon her, she breathes a soul into her
materials, and organizes chaos into form. But never, under any
circumstances, does she deign to minister to our selfish personal hope or
greed. She shows us how to love our neighbor, never ourselves. Shakspeare,
Homer, Phidias, Raphael, were no Pharisees--at least in so far as they
were artists; nor did any one ever find in their works any countenance for
that inhuman assumption--"I am holier than thou!" In the world's darkest
hours, art has sometimes stood as the sole witness of the nobler life that
was in eclipse. Civilizations arise and vanish; forms of religion hold
sway and are forgotten; learning and science advance and gather strength;
but true art was as great and as beautiful three thousand years ago as it
is to-day. We are prone to confound the man with the artist, and to
suppose that he is artistic by possession and inheritance, instead of
exclusively by dint of what he does. No artist worthy the name ever dreams
of putting himself into his work, but only what is infinitely distinct
from and other than himself. It is not the poet who brings forth the poem,
but the poem that begets the poet; it makes him, educates him, creates in
him the poetic faculty. Those whom we call great men, the heroes of
history, are but the organs of great crises and opportunities: as Emerson
has said, they are the most indebted men. In themselves they are not
great; there is no ratio between their achievements and them. Our judgment
is misled; we do not discriminate between the divine purpose and the human
instrument. When we listen to Napoleon fretting his soul away at Elba, or
to Carlyle wrangling with his wife at Chelsea, we are shocked at the
discrepancy between the lofty public performance and the petty domestic
shortcoming. Yet we do wrong to blame them; the nature of which they are
examples is the same nature that is shared also by the publican and the

Instead, therefore, of saying that art should be moral, we should rather
say that all true morality is art--that art is the test of morality. To
attempt to make this heavenly Pegasus draw the sordid plough of our
selfish moralistic prejudices is a grotesque subversion of true order. Why
should the novelist make believe that the wicked are punished and the good
are rewarded in this world? Does he not know, on the contrary, that
whatsoever is basest in our common life tends irresistibly to the highest
places, and that the selfish element in our nature is on the side of
public order? Evil is at present a more efficient instrument of order
(because an interested one) than good; and the novelist who makes this
appear will do a far greater and more lasting benefit to humanity than he
who follows the cut-and-dried artificial programme of bestowing crowns on
the saint and whips of scorpions on the sinner.

As a matter of fact, I repeat, the best influences of the best literature
have never been didactic, and there is no reason to believe they ever will
be. The only semblance of didacticism which can enter into literature is
that which conveys such lessons as may be learned from sea and sky,
mountain and valley, wood and stream, bird and beast; and from the broad
human life of races, nations, and firesides; a lesson that is not obvious
and superficial, but so profoundly hidden in the creative depths as to
emerge only to an apprehension equally profound. For the chatter and
affectation of sense disturb and offend that inward spiritual ear which,
in the silent recesses of meditation, hears the prophetic murmur of the
vast ocean of human nature that flows within us and around us all.

Julian Hawthorne

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