What’s Wrong with the World

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What’s Wrong with the World is dedicated to the defense of what remains of Christendom, the civilization made by the men of the Cross of Christ. Athwart two hostile Powers we stand: the Jihad and Liberalism...read more

Some Things Never Change

Our last Sunday with Samuel Johnson, for the time being, though the first to offer an actual excerpt of his own writing, wherein he declares upon the "works of fiction" gaining fashion in his day, the difficulties (and virtues) of which are equally, if not more keenly, felt in our own time, now that the feeding of fantasy to the populace has become an industry. Most important for our puposes, though, is the fact that, however varied his subjects may be, the same force and foundation of character impresses itself upon them all:

...But the fear of not being approved as just copyers of human manners, is not the most important concern that an author of this sort ought to have before him. These books are written chiefly to the young, the ignorant, and the idle, to whom they serve as lectures of conduct, and introduction to life. They are the entertainment of minds unfurnished with ideas, and therefore easily susceptible of impressions; not fixed by priniciples, and therefore easily following the current of fancy; not informed by experience, and consequently open to every false suggestion and partial account.

That the highest degree of reverence should be paid to youth, and that nothing indecent should be suffered to approach their eyes or ears; are precepts extorted by sense and virtue from an ancient writer [Juvenal], by no means eminent for chastity of thought. The same kind, tho' not the same degree of caution, is required to every thing which is laid before them, to secure them from unjust prejudices, perverse opinions, and incongruous combination of images.

In the romances formerly written, every transaction and sentiment was so remote from all that passes among men, that the reader was in very little danger of making any applications to himself; the virtues and crimes were equally beyond his sphere of activity; and he amused himself with heroes and with traitors, deliverers and persecutors, as with beings of another species, whose actions were regulated upon motives of their own, and who had neither faults nor excellences in common with himself.

But when an adventurer is levelled with the rest of the world, and acts in such scenes of the universal drama, as may be the lot of any other man; young spectators fix their eyes upon him with closer attention, and hope by observing his behavior and success to regulate their own practices, when they shall be engaged in like part.

For this reason these familiar histories may perhaps be made of greater use than the solemnities of professed morality, and convey the knowledge of vice and virtue with more efficiency than axioms and definitions. But if the power of example is so great, as to take possession of the memory by a kind of violence, and produce effects almost without the intervention of the will, care ought to be taken that, when the choice is unrestrained, the best examples only should be exhibited; and that which is likely to operate so strongly, should not be mischievous or uncertain in its effects...

It is justly considered as the greatest excellency of art, to imitate nature; but it is necessary to distinguish those parts of nature which are most proper for imitation: greater care is still required in representing life, which is so often discoloured by passion, or deformed by wickedness. If the world be promiscuously described, I cannot see of what use it can be to read the account; or why it may not be as safe to turn the eye immediately upon mankind, as upon a mirror which shows all that presents itself without discrimination.

It is therefore not a sufficient vindication of a character, that it is drawn as it appears, for many characters ought never to be drawn; nor of a narrative, that the train of events is agreeable to observation and experience, for that observation which is called knowledge of the world, will be found much more frequently to make men cunning than good. The purpose of these writings is surely not only to show mankind, but to provide that they may be seen hereafter with less hazard; to teach the means of avoiding the snares which are laid by Treachery for Innocence, without infusing any wish for that superiority with which the betrayer flatters his vanity; to give the power of counteracting fraud, without the temptation to practice it; to initiate youth by mock encounters in the art of necessary defence, and to increase prudence without impairing virtue.

Many writers, for the sake of following nature, so mingle good and bad qualities in their principal personages, that they are both equally conspicuous, and as we accompany them through their adventures with delight, and are led by degrees to interest ourselves in their favour, we lose the abhorrence of their faults, because they do not hinder our pleasure, or, perhaps, regard them with some kindness for being united with so much merit.

There have been men indeed splendidly wicked, whose endowments threw a brightness on their crimes, and whom scarce any villainy made perfectly detestable, because they never could be wholly divested of their excellencies; but such have been in all ages the great corrupters of the world, and their resemblance ought no more to be preserved, than the art of murdering without pain.

Johnson then takes a few paragraphs to refute the fashionable sentiment that the mixing of vice and virtue in equal parts is appropriate to an imitation of life, since "certain virtues have their correspondent faults", a sentiment most concisely expressed in Swift's observation that men are "grateful in the same degree as they are resentful," Johnson responding that "To this fatal error all those will contribute, who confound the colours of right and wrong, and instead of helping to settle their boundaries, mix them with so much art, that no common mind is able to disunite them." He then concludes:

In narratives where historical veracity has no place, I cannot discover why there should not be exhibited the most perfect idea of virtue; of virtue not angelical, nor above probability, for what we cannot credit we shall never imitate; but the highest and purest that humanity can reach, which, exercised in such trials as the various revolutions of things shall bring upon it, may, by conquering some calamities, and enduring others, teach us what we may hope, and what we can perform. Vice, for vice is necessary to be shewn, should always disgust; nor should the graces of gaiety, or the dignity of courage, be so united with it, as to reconcile it to the mind. Wherever it appears, it should raise hatred by the malignity of its practices, and contempt by the meanness of its stratagems; for while it is supported by either parts or spirit, it will be seldom heartily abhorred. The Roman tyrant was content to be hated, if he was but feared; and there are thousands of the readers of romances willing to be thought wicked, if they may be allowed to be wits. It is therefore to be steadily inculcated, that virtue is the highest proof of understanding, and the only solid basis of greatness; and that vice is the natural consequence of narrow thoughts, that it begins in mistake, and ends in ignominy.

Comments (2)

The whole question of how fiction can be guided by the desire to teach, to present only edifying material to the audience, and so forth, while being good fiction, is a difficult one. I don't feel myself as though I have a good handle on it and what the desire not to write pernicious books (which any moral person, novelist or not, should have) should entail in terms of fiction. But I agree with Johnson that there _are_ such things as pernicious books, and even that these can be written, in a sense, without pernicious intent. It's one thing to say that novels that outright advocate evil ideas and actions are bad. That's obviously one possible way for them to be bad, and there are plenty of such books. But Johnson seems to be saying that you can, as it were, accidentally write a morally harmful book by portraying your wicked characters as being too likable. Now, that's interesting. How would it apply to the devil character in The Brothers Karamazov (on which my memories are about 20 years old and rusty)? I seem to recall that he is rather Mephistophelian and attractive. Yet I suppose Johnson could agree that the whole impression is that it's very creepy for some of the characters (Ivan, right?) to be taken in by him.

I think Johnson's target is what we might call irresponsibly amoral fiction, in which, if you happen to know an attractive rake, you just portray him true to life in such a way that your readers might just like him and emulate him. Such fiction has no depth at all. Johnson appears to be saying that you must make him look more unattractive than he does in real life lest you lead the young astray. I would be inclined to say, instead, that you should find some way, without forsaking truth to nature, to show your readers his underlying emptiness or viciousness, while fully admitting his attractiveness. I wonder what Johnson would think about that?

I think he would agree with you. I don't see him as wanting the writer to "make him look more unattractive than he does in real life", but rather that that attractiveness, as events resolve themselves, be subordinated to the truth about human nature. This can be honestly accomplished if the qualities of character and the events that befall them are given in proper proportion, either in the manner in which the events are juxtaposed, or through a revelation in the mind of one or more characters to whose thoughts we have been privy. The difficulty for the writer is to execute this without preaching, by showing rather than telling. It is a difficult task, and that is why there are so few masters, but an abundance of mediocrity.

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