This is the first of a possibly continuing, irregular series of moral musings. Part of it was brought about by the usual miscreants poking me and asking “hey, why don’t you do THIS” and it strikes me as worthwhile, because ultimately that’s what storytellers deal in: the good, the evil, the sin, the punishment and the redemption.
Stories are imperfect vehicles for a moral vision, of course. Much easier to just throw it all out as commandments but I don’t even climb mountains much and the last time I saw a burning bush was the Colorado wild fires – in other words, I don’t have any moral authority and can’t order the world around. Not and have them obey. And those that do and have an army… well, hopefully I’ll get around to covering that under the shades of “evil.” So, stories are all I have.
And before someone brings religion into it (further) let me establish at the outset that yes, I’m a believer. Some of you even know what I believe in, and some of you know what I struggle with. Those of you who know are friends and those who don’t know don’t need to, because, here’s the thing—
When I face the world at large, which is what I hope to do with my stories, I’m not dealing only with a sect of people who believe what is written in a book or a set of books. I’m not dealing with people who accept one law.
We are, whether you like it or not, a plural society when it comes to belief. Probably still majority Judeo-Christian but the infinite shadings of those make things a little fuzzy around the edges. (Okay, very fuzzy. As fuzzy as Havelock when he hasn’t been groomed in a while, and that cat is a Turkish van.)
I do occasionally read fiction intended for a Christian and/or Jewish audience. Mostly since I got a Kindle and the ability to download. My requirements for it are exactly the same as any other story. It has to carry the load of the story and make me feel the good/evil/horror/redemption/etc. without recourse to a single incident/moment which is entirely religious-law based.
I don’t know if I’m making much sense here. It’s not that I don’t share the beliefs in those stories (most of them at any rate. My background is definitely Judeo-Christian as are my beliefs) BUT that for the story to have an impact it needs to do more than point to the law and go “And he was a good person, because—”
Look, I have this issue with Jane Austen’s Mansfield Park. I was never as confronted with how views of morality have changed as when reading it last time. In the book it is very clear that not only do the characters believe in life after death, but that the passage through Earth is a sojourn. This is clear because the solution to the sinning character’s infraction is not the one that would make the rest of her life (possibly sixty years or so, since she is a very young woman) and that of her co-conspirators “whole” in the sense we’d think of it: i.e. getting to marry again and hush up the scandal, but the one that costs her, her family and everyone around (except the rather odd couple who gets pushed together by this) the most, but prevents – probably – giving a bad example to others.
If you want a view into two completely different sets of morals and into how much society has changed on that, read Austen’s Mansfield Park and Heyer’s Venetia back to back.
I will confess my view of it is closer to Heyer’s. While I trust in life after death, I believe in forgiving and making things as whole as we can on Earth. Perhaps that’s a lack of faith. It probably is, but I’m not going to go there or get lost in those particular weeds. The point is that Heyer’s story, while also about sinning and repentance and ultimate redemption will reach a modern audience much faster than Austen’s (unabridged. If you’re going by the movie, you’re not even close to the original book.) It’s more understandable to the rather pragmatic sense of good and evil we’ve developed in a society where people have highly individualized beliefs. In fact in some of Mansfield Park (the theatricals!) one often feels like they’re playing from a rule book that’s hidden from us.
All this to say that because rules change, it is not a matter of whether I believe a book of rules or not. It’s a matter of whether I can communicate that book of rules to the audience I hope to reach without making them go “Oh, come on now. You’re just preaching to me.” Or “You’re playing inside baseball.”
Is it possible? Oh, heck yeah. Look, most of the code of honor by which Ancient Greece played is now opaque to us, but their plays still grab us and make us experience what they wanted us to, if not in the exact way they wanted us to, then not very far off.
My middle schooler fell in love with the classical Greek playwrights before he had the slightest notion what was at the back of it (which he’s still studying.) [Of course being an engineer by inclination, his attention was immediately diverted to seeing what mechanical contraptions they used for staging the plays then studying how that influenced the plays themselves. He wrote a paper about it, that’s lying around somewhere.]
So, it can be done. And in my opinion it is the job of the story teller: to make the reader/viewer experience emotions so strong that the story becomes a part of him or her.
If you think on how false memories are created — how it’s possible, through vivid story telling, to tell a story that people believe they’ve experienced – you realize how important a tool the storytellers have at their fingertips (literally) and what I mean, in the long run, that the storyteller have not only a good notion of good and evil, but also of what is good and evil in his society. The first will give force to the narrative, the second will allow it to reach its audience.
And so we go back, way way back to the first notions of good and evil. And let me tell you, children, they had it easy back then.
When you’re the story teller to a tribe of a hundred people or so and you all have the same taboos, then all you have to do is violate that taboo, and oooh. Power.
Therefore you can make a story about how Oog went into the forest at night, which is a taboo, and everyone immediately feels Oog’s daring, his sacrilege and is then primed for redemption and punishment.
The first morals, in either human society or in individual humans development are group-based rules. Because we’re social animals, that’s our default mode. “Evil” becomes what would get us cast out of the tribe. If you think back, really far in your life – say if you’re one of those people (yeah, I am) who has memories before the age of six or so – you’ll remember the first few times going outside your family and experiencing a change in how things are done as a sort of moral violation. Say your friend’s mom folds the dish towel “Wrong” – you’ll experience as strong a sense of revulsion as if they violated a moral rule. (Having been raised mostly around/by my paternal grandparents, when my poor maternal grandparents agreed to house-and-Sarah sit for a few months while I was in high school and my parents were away, I was a pain in the neck to them mostly because everything my maternal grandmother did was subtly “wrong.” Nothing major, but just out of kilter, and since we were in my parents’ house, I experienced all of it as a violation of rules, from the way she boiled milk, to the way she did dishes. I hope where she is she has forgiven me for being sullen and nasty beyond even the bounds of teenager behavior. At the time – and for many years after – I had no clue what made me so cross with her. But it was that “violation of how things are done.”)
Nowadays… not so much. Not when you hope to reach an audience of millions. (And more so with kindle and a worldwide audience.)
You can still work with the rules of your tribe/your received handbook, but you’d best use the story to convince us why that is indeed evil. And you’d best learn to distinguish the important, big Good/Evil questions from the ones that are merely the rules of your tribe.
This might present even more of a problem if you are a post modern kind of person, because they’ve gone around the other way and don’t seek moral justifications for their internal taboos, just enshrine those, so that they become a tribe of one and “evil is what violates my principles.” There’s danger there because, say, if you are a fervent green type of person, you’ll experience SUVs as evil and you’ll totally fail to explain the taboo to someone like me who lives in CO (four wheel drive) and who often transports large/heavy furniture. This increases the chances your book will get deleted and/or thrown against a wall, depending on the format I’m reading you in.
So, where do you go to find the source of Good and Evil, if you discard the simple answer of “to this scroll” or “to that rule book”?
How do you connect to it? How do you connect it to your reader?
The ancient Greeks still connect, so clearly there is a way to do it.
Where is your tree of Good and Evil?
(…to be continued. And religious in-fighting in the comments will be met with a baseball bat to the forehead. I’m writing a novel, so keep the screaming to a low roar, please. And, btw, I’m not saying I have any definite answers — this is by way of being an exploration for me as well as for, hopefully, others.)