Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Books Gone Wilde

Oscar Wilde once wrote, “There is no such thing as a moral or immoral book. Books are well written or badly written.”

What do we make of this?

Ironically enough, I am not qualified to pronounce verdict on this. At least from a position with some claim to authority. Despite being a fervid reader of all sorts of literature, despite professing an interest and knowledge of classical music ranging chronologically from Bach and Vivaldi to Copland, Barber, and Bernstein, despite an obsession with TCM, I really have not given the whole “What is Art?” thing consideration.

A shame, I guess, but in all honesty, the question bores me.

I suppose I treat it like the other old question, “What is Pornography?” that the Supreme Court has to take up every couple of years or so. To both questions my answer has always been the same: I don’t know, but I know it when I see it.

But let me apply the old college try to Oscar’s quote, as The Pig Who Wants to be Eaten has whetted my appetite, so to speak.

Just a disclosure: I’ve never read Oscar Wilde and know little about him, other than the fact that he wrote that Dorian Gray novel and was known as something of a sexual libertine, to put it mildly. He would be hailed a hero had he lived in the 21st century, but because he lived in the Victorian era, he was put on trial and jailed on “morality” charges. I must confess I find him yawn-inducing.

Anyway, Wilde’s quote is not aimed at the question, “What is Art?” per se. He’s attacking the presumption of linking the idea of morality with the idea of art. To shock us he’s taking an extreme position which I think few but a minority of attention-seeking performance artists would take.

But it’s not all cut-and-dried, and I think Wilde has something of a point.

The common-sense view is that, yes, a book can be moral or immoral. Two immediate examples: The Bible and Mein Kampf. I am extremely well-acquainted with the first, and never have read the latter. But I think 99 point 999 percent of the public would agree on the ethical judgments of those two works of art.

Let’s get controversial, shall we? Let’s light up the phone lines.

Let’s be current and topical and take the Koran. For 99 point 999 percent of the world, it is a source of inspiration and hope. A moral book, right? Half a billion Muslims can’t be wrong, right? But for that other point oh-oh-one percent, its words are twisted to justify cold-blooded murder of innocents.

See what I mean? A book can be both moral and immoral, depending on what it inspires its readers to do. And if it can be both moral and immoral, it really can’t be both, can it? Perhaps books, and by extension, other forms of art, transcend morality? Or perhaps morality just cannot be applied to them, like morality can’t be applied to, oh, just off the top of my head, the action of a shark eating a human. It just doesn’t apply.

I think that’s what Wilde is trying to say. Maybe.

But is it really fair to judge a work of art by the effect it has on its readers? And shouldn’t we also take in mind the intent of the author? For example, let’s say Bin Laden writes a manifesto exhorting his followers to kill the infidel blah blah blah. Can we make a blanket judgment on both the Koran and this Bin Laden book, labeling them both “immoral” if some Muslims take it upon themselves to actually kill the infidel, when the command no longer applies to modern readers in the first and the author of the second is directly advocating murder?

So while superficially this whole question of “can a book be moral or immoral?” seems a slam-dunk, it’s actually quite thorny and difficult. Unanswerable, maybe. I myself certainly can’t answer it in a 750-word post. Originally I was wondering if I could think of, say, ten books I’d label as “moral” and ten I’d label as “immoral,” and post that for your consideration. But it’s really, really difficult. I mean, could you?

Now I wouldn’t give a thumbs-up to Wilde’s statement; something inside me prevents me from doing so, even though I can’t even begin to formulate an argument against it. Or maybe I’m just too damn tired, and I’m doing this pro bono. In any event, and I hate to admit it, now, but that question

“What is Art?”

has now taken hold of me.

I need to investigate this further. Hmmmm.

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