wherein a disagree with rohan — 2 of 2

tIn last Friday’s post, I got tuckered out. My bad.

Picking up the thread, let’s agree that Gone with the Wind is a morally appalling book.

Here’s the passage in the Rohan’s superb article I’ve been mulling over:

“While I read [Gone with the Wind], in the present, I am invited to share its point of view; I enter, today, into its particular pattern of “desire and fulfillment.” The desire it urges on me is a desire for the South to prevail. Of course, this wish cannot be fulfilled, which is why the dominant mood of the novel—one to which even Scarlett finally succumbs—is nostalgia. But it’s a retrograde nostalgia, one that requires me, if I play along, to compromise my commitment to a just and equal world.”

Like most novels, good or bad, well written or not, Gone with the Wind has a definite point of view. In this case, it adopts a stance on labor, land, family, leisure, race, history, and duty, among other things. A complex moral framework with many moving parts, some of which are appealing, others not.

Entering a point of view, with its alien and foreign values, doesn’t require us to compromise our commitment to a just and equal world.

Why would it?

We can read an adulterous novel without abandoning our belief in the virtue of fidelity. And we can read misogynistic, hebephilic, and even homicidal necrophilic novels without losing or staining our moral beliefs in these areas, too. A moral stance isn’t compromised by entering a strange odious world.

Rohan suggests that reading Gone with the Wind sympathetically suppresses one’s best self. I disagree.

There’s an alternative way to frame the issue. Bring one’s best possible self to bear on a novel, period. Do one’s level best to enter its world, good or bad, familiar or alien. Allow one’s emotional center to be moved by it. Then one might learn something new and unexpected about language, about desires and values, about in-group and out-group dynamics, about the primacy of gut feelings over reason, about different moral foundations and viewpoints, and about the mysterious transit between belief and action in a pluralist world.

We’re so easily divided into hostile groups, each convinced of its own righteousness.

Instead of worrying about the possibility of moral contagion, bring your best possible self to bear on reading alternative points of view, especially when they strike you as morally appalling. Especially then.

Struggling to find common ground through the difficult practice of sympathy is a lot better than the alternative.


3 Responses to wherein a disagree with rohan — 2 of 2

  1. Jessica Ryan says:

    You make good points. I don’t remember wanting the south to win as I read the book, but I do remember feeling deeply for all of the boys…the pain and disillusionment crashing down upon their heads…the men- no..they had it coming, big time. For me, the book is much more about disillusionment then desire. Everything that is “desired” in the book has a rotten core. It only takes Rhett some 800 pages to see in Scarlett what he saw on page 1 regarding the “Old South.”
    Thanks for the thought provoking posts!

  2. Rohan says:

    I’m not entirely sure how much of a divide there really is between us here – at least in some respects. I don’t argue, after all, that just reading the novel at all is some kind of threat: I argue that reading it sympathetically (by which I meant, accepting its point of view, or getting on board with what I understand it to be arguing in favor of) would mean accepting things I find abhorrent. We enter all kinds of worlds through reading, as you say, but that doesn’t mean that in doing so we agree to share their terms. My challenge with GWTW was trying to figure out what those terms really were — and I decided (on the basis of the most careful reading I know how to do!) that they were morally appalling – racist, pro-KKK, etc. So though I may (and do!) read it with some kinds of pleasure, I am also going to read it with resistance. To me that IS bringing my best self to bear on alternative points of view. When those points of view seem to me profoundly racist, I do rather lose my interest in seeking common ground.

  3. @Jessica, thank you.

    @Rohan, thanks for swinging by. Agreed: not much of a divide. Mostly minor stuff, I think. Like I’m of the opinion that the moral POV in GWTW “argues” for more than just slavery/Confederacy. Also think that wiggling one’s way into a slave owner’s head, abhorrent as it may be, is a useful exercise for comparing the mentality of chattel slavery with that of wage slavery, as both mentalities adopt fanciful tactics to defend subordination, etc.

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