wherein i disagree with rohan — 1 of 2

wilde2At last I’ve finally screwed up the nerve to disagree with Rohan Maitzen, an English professor and talented book blogger at Novel Readings. She’s read Gone with the Wind a staggering 31 times. That to my one.

Of course I’m likely playing the upstart to a wiser, more informed perspective. Or not.

If you haven’t read Gone with the Wind, here’s what you need to know to join the party.

The novel is a compelling read, a page turner, and it’s splattered with many vices. Yeah, it suffers from aesthetic limitations as a work of art.

But these aren’t the vices I’m foregrounding (thanks, Tom!) at the moment.

No, I’m talking moral vices.

As Rohan says, “It’s a morally appalling book.” It ignores the iniquity of slavery, adopts an apologetic stance toward the Confederacy, and whitewashes the history of the civil war.

Now I’m not convinced books can be immoral. I tend to agree with Wilde that they’re either well written or not.

The proper objects of moral condemnation are people and their actions.

Not fictional people, those thronging denizens of stories.

Real ones.

You, me, and all the rest, including Margaret Mitchell.

Perhaps she is immoral after all. Assuming the narrator is not only a literary device but is also a kind of incendiary or morally retrograde bullhorn, Mitchell might be writing (read: acting!) immorally.

Even then I’m not convinced.

But let’s assume it is a morally appalling book with a morally offensive point of view and that Mitchell is an immoral author and person to boot.

Let’s just grant all that. Or rather please allow me to grant it when I’ve mustered the energy to press on.

I’ve plumb run out of steam and am ready for bed…

12 Responses to wherein i disagree with rohan — 1 of 2

  1. Jessica Ryan says:

    I know nothing of the content of the argument, but iI think I agree with you- I don’t like a word like “moral” being thrown around in fiction either and furthermore, isn’t it that particular setting that creates Scarlett? Without the iniquity of “The South,” the cluelessness, the self defeating and cruel reality of that system, from whence would Miss O’Hara come? It’s rather the point, I’d say. She’s not a flower, but a poisonous weed born of that ground.

    • In my next installment, Rohan’s view will be plainer. It’s one thing to portray a racist character. It’s another thing to deploy devices and techniques in the name of art to create an overall point of view (what Rohan terms a “pattern of desire and fulfillment”) that is “morally” reprehensible. I disagree with Rohan on two counts: (1) I’m not sure a point of view is the proper object of moral evaluation, and (2) assuming a POV is morally revolting, I think it’s a good thing to inhabit it in a work of art, a very good thing, and that one should read, if one were so inclined, Gone with the Wind and enjoy it despite the extraordinary degree of its racism.

  2. Sure, any time.

    You’re really an art-for-art’s-saker like Wilde? Honestly, I had no idea. You’re more extreme than I am. I have little inclination to engage in ethical criticism myself, but I am glad that other people do it.

    Rohan may well think, but be too polite to ask: Have you read Wayne Booth?

    • Hi Tom, I’m not an art-for-art’s sake type. But you knew that already. Still, I don’t think inhabiting a morally appalling POV carries with it the risk of contagion. Indeed, great benefit can come from exposure to alien and foreign thoughts, feelings, and values.

      I haven’t read Booth but think the content to which the link points slightly scatter-brained yet entirely consistent with my modest (almost tactical) disagreement with Rohan.

      Lastly, you have the memory of an elephant.

      (Or you searched like a fiend.)


    • I’m curious, Tom, have you read The Company We Keep?

    • Searched like a fiend, what, I typed “Wayne Booth” in your Search box, upper right.

      Miguel: Yes. The single most relevant (and detachable) chapter for this discussion is the one on Huckleberry Finn.

      I do not understand the use of the Wilde quote. He meant something radical. Not modest, not tactical.

      You may have to rehash some of that old argument. Booth, and Maitzen, do think there is a risk of contagion. Rohan typically writes about this from the positive direction, via her work on Eliot, such as the way readers of fiction can be surprised into sympathy with alien points of view.

      Is there an argument by which she can keep the good contagion without having to accept the possibility of the bad, or are you suggesting that both have to go?

  3. I believe the Wilde quote came from a quip during a legal trial.

    Anyhow, my argument won’t rely on it.

    I agree with Rohan, Gone with the Wind is a morally appalling book, in particular its racism. (There are some elements of its point of view I rather like, for instance, the value it places on land.)

    Where I differ from Rohan is the suggestion that while reading Gone with the Wind, we compromise our moral commitments, and that to the extent we sympathetically enter its point of view.

    Non sequitur.

    As for the possibility of contagion, I do think it’s there but also very Very VERY poorly understood, in both directions.

    In my experience, morally upright folks aren’t made less moral by reading morally dubious books.

    Nor are morally lax folks made more moral by reading Middlemarch.

    Lastly, I’m not aware of any studies that explore the impact reading has on the moral psychology, i.e., dispositions, motives and character traits, of readers.

    I’m open to the idea that literature can surprise us into becoming more compassionate. But I am skeptical.

  4. The Wilde quote is from the preface to The Picture of Dorian Gray.

  5. […] last Friday’s post, I got tuckered out. My […]

  6. Kat says:

    Hi, Kevin! Gone with the Wind is basically a rewrite of Thackeray’s Vanity Fair, so if Rohan doesn’t like Scarlett’s immorality, she has to take on Becky Sharp’s, too. (By the way, Amelia in Vanity Fair becomes Mellie in Gone with the Wind. The parallels are fascinating.)

    • Rohan says:

      I don’t know who here actually read my long essay on GWTW in addition to Kevin’s very brief comments reporting about it, but I wouldn’t say that “not liking Scarlett’s morality” is really the point of it. Certainly the specific kind of reading I was doing in that essay does not, I don’t think, compel me to do anything about Becky Sharp — though I have written also on Vanity Fair, in case you’re interested, Kat! I agree that the parallels are fascinating (and I know other people who have written about them), but I would make a very different argument about how we are positioned in relation to Becky and her immorality (especially thanks to Thackeray’s intrusive narrator).

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