Sitting in judgement on oneself

It’s a mug’s game trying to propound general rules about literature. Or about any art form, I guess, but let’s stick to literature for now. As soon as you hit upon something that seems reasonable, up pop any number of exceptions. But, even accepting this, there does seem to me certain principles one may propound that are true in most cases – true in enough cases, at least, to deserve serious consideration. And one of these is that messages do not make for good literature.

I suppose at this stage I should define what I mean by “message” in this context. I don’t mean a particular perspective on life, or a specific way of seeing things: an individual viewpoint is something we expect from writers. What I mean by “message” is an explicitly or implicitly stated moral precept. And, unless we are talking about fables (in which moral complexities are deliberately simplified), such moral precepts do not, I think, make for good literature.

And the reason they don’t make for good literature, I think, is that literature, being the least abstract of all art forms, must engage in some way or other with life. This need not imply close imitative reproduction: one may, if one wishes, and if one has the genius to do so, engage with the realities of life by making one’s characters speak in intricate blank verse, and setting the action on some magical island. But at some level, in some form, the realities of life need to be grappled with. And, given the various uncertainties and ambivalences of our human lives, given all the complexities and intricacies of all this unintelligible world, moral precepts either crudely cut through it all and end up being partial (“capitalism is an evil and we need revolution now,” say); or they end up being merely banal (“we should all be kind to each other”). Leaving aside fables once again, where moral simplification is the very point, neither, I think, makes for satisfactory reading as literature.  

This is not to say that writers cannot project their own ideas; but when they do – when, at least, the best writers do – something strange happens: they present their ideas not so much to propagate them, but, rather, to challenge them. Sometimes, even, to subvert them. Tolstoy had famously intended to present Anna Karenina as a sinful woman who is punished for her transgression, but what emerges is entirely different. Dostoyevsky often put his own most deeply held convictions in the mouths of fools and scoundrels, and, despite himself being devoutly religious, presents through Ivan Karamazov the most powerful (and as yet unresolved) argument against religious belief.

Ibsen wrote once in a letter that to write is “to sit in judgement over oneself”. Even while insisting that the truth must be told, whatever the cost, he created unflinching truth-seekers who, merely by the fact of seeking truth so unflinchingly, are maniacs. In Rosmersholm, he wondered to what extent the truth can even be discerned, let alone told. None of this is to say that Ibsen abandoned the idea that truth is vitally important; rather, he was sitting in judgement on himself. As all great writers do. And the judgement is harsh.

Tolstoy too, I think. In The Kreutzer Sonata, he presents a narrative told by a deeply misogynist man, Pozdnyshev, who murders his wife; and, very disconcertingly, he gives this man a great many of his own views. Now, quite clearly, Tolstoy is not Pozdnyshev, if only for the simple reason that Tolstoy is not a murderer; so why does he give Pozdnyshev so many of his own characteristics, and his own opinions? It seems to me that here Tolstoy, as Ibsen and Dostoyevsky had done, is sitting in judgement upon himself, putting his own most deeply held convictions under the microscope, and, with a disarming honesty, finding them wanting. The world that he presents – that Ibsen presents, or Dostoyevsky presents – is too complex for any simple moral precept to hold. It wasn’t that Tolstoy was above being a moralist: he did, after all, write fables – the finest, probably, since Aesop’s (James Joyce once described these fables as “the greatest literature in the world”). But when not writing fables (which, by their nature, simplify the moral complexities of this world), he had to acknowledge a world filled with complexities and uncertainties, in which moral precepts, even those embodying his most deeply held convictions, were simply not adequate – where they were either partial, or banal, or both.

And so, it frankly worries me when so many literary essays and discussions I see online consider works of literature, often major works of literature, purely in terms of their “message” – often, in the process, dragging out, based on what is known about the author, a straightforward message from all the messy complexities of the work itself. Are we really, after all, to believe that Tolstoy condoned murder? That Ibsen, speaking as his alter ego Stockmann, is calling for entire peoples to be “eradicated”? Or can we see here the authors’ own shocked realisations of the shortcoming and inadequacies of their own convictions?

With writers of the quality of Dostoyevsky, Ibsen, or Tolstoy, we have to – we must – look beyond whatever it is we perceive to be the “message”. In lesser writers, however, the message is all there is. This is not necessarily a bad thing: Uncle Tom’s Cabin was a very important book because its message was so powerful, and, happily, so influential. However, I doubt any great claim can be made for its literary merit. There are many other writers too who are prized primarily, on even purely, because of the message their works project. Claims of literary merit are often made for these writers, but I remain dubious. Ayn Rand, say: she remains controversial because her message remains controversial. I personally think her message is nonsense, but that’s not the reason her novels are so bad: rather, the novels are bad because they send out a message at all. This is not what literature is about.

Recently, on Twitter, I saw a thread (which, out of politeness, I will not link to) written by an English teacher in which she (for the author of this thread was a “she”) discusses how she teaches a certain poem in class. The work in question, which was reproduced in full, is a poem only by virtue of the fact that the lines did not stretch all the way to the right-hand margin of the page: I could certainly discern none of the creative use of language that I expect from poetry; and, indeed, if we were to take out the line breaks, even the prose that would emerge would not be particularly distinctive. The interest of the poem (for such we have to call it) lies solely in the content, and sadly, even that wasn’t very interesting: the imagery was banal, and the message – which may be adequately summarised as “we kill those that we are afraid of” – seemed to me both simplistic, and not generally applicable: we are all, after all, afraid of a great many people, but most of us manage to get through our lives without killing anyone. But what interested me more than the poem itself – there is no shortage of bad poems, after all, that this one should be of particular interest – is the account of its teaching: it focused purely on the content, on its message. I guess it had to, as there is nothing else in the poem that is worthy of attention – but I couldn’t help wondering if there is any point in teaching poetry at all when what is taught isn’t really poetry, as such, but, rather, some banal and questionable “message” it projects. Is it really a creditable thing to do to tell students that what matters in literature is merely what the literature says? That the sole purpose of reading a novel, or a poem, or a play, is to extract from it some sort of message?

This focus on message worries me because it seems to me to deny the richness of literature. It is reductive. It reduces even the greatest of writers, the greatest of works, merely to what it says – or, if what it says is complex and ambivalent (as life itself is complex and ambivalent), to a simplified (and therefore misleading) view of what it says. Children would be better not taught poetry at all than taught in the manner I saw described in that Twitter thread.

But now that I have written all this, you are all going to regale me with various titles of books that are without doubt major literature, and which certainly contain a message, even of the kind I described at the start of this piece. Well, yes: making up these rules always is a mug’s game, and maybe I shouldn’t have tried in the first place. But this reductive focus on “message” does, I admit, continue to worry me.

11 responses to this post.

  1. Posted by Robert Bowden on May 23, 2022 at 7:20 pm

    And the one writer who preached no messages but whose works are used to project any message you like ? Mr WS. Is The Tempest about colonialism ? Is the passage in Winter’s Tale about plant grafting against genetic engineering ? His works have been manipulated by people more concerned with their own agendas than simply presenting the text with imagination and respect .


    • I don’tvthink there has been any orthodoxy, or, forbthat matter, any heresy that has not claimed Shakespeare as a fellow-traveller. On one level, I suppose that speaks for the universality of Shakespeare, but on another kevel, it makes for very reductive idea-driven productions.


  2. Posted by Michael Harvey on May 23, 2022 at 7:55 pm

    Who was it said ‘messages are for Western Union’?


  3. Posted by Daphna Kedmi on May 23, 2022 at 8:10 pm

    Once again, your message (sorry, I had to…) completely resonates with my view on discussing a work of Literature through what it is that it has to say. Not only is it reductive, but I have found that unless a message is very subtly, barely discernibly, threaded into the work, it tends to take center stage and the work itself is lost to the message.
    One example that comes to mind is Jenny Erpenbeck’s “Going, Went, Gone”. I am mentioning her because, having read several of her other novels, she is, in my opinion, one of the most interesting and captivating of contemporary authors.
    And then she wrote “Going, Went, Gone”. It’s a political manifest, in the guise of a story, dealing with the issue of the loss of identity of African refugees in Germany. A great literary author decides to send out an important message through her literary work, and her art is completely lost in the process. The message definitely gets across, but the magic of her other novels is just not there.
    Sorry for the lengthy example, but it painfully validates the detrimental affect of the message on the literary work.
    Thank you for creating this platform, and enabling these ruminations on Literature.


    • Thank you for this. And please do not apologise: the example you give is very interesting, illustrating how a focus on polemic aspects can detract from all the various other elements that go to make up the totality of the experience of a work of art.


  4. Posted by Max Cairnduff on May 23, 2022 at 9:44 pm

    Isn’t this rather a question of execution? George Orwell’s books often have pretty plain messages. HG Wells too. Upton Sinclair. Not that I like him much but Steinbeck. And that’s just off the top of my head. Dickens is routinely a message writer, sometimes very bluntly so.

    The problem isn’t polemical literature. The problem is bad literature, some of which is bad because the author let the polemic override the craft which Orwell and Wells didn’t (haven’t read Sinclair and I think sometimes it did override for Steinbeck and Dickens).

    Dickens is polemical, but also rich and full of life. I think the issue you’re seeing is books that are merely polemical without the craft of a Dickens.


    • I knew there would be a plethora of counter-examples to my contention that polemics make for inferior literature!

      The examples you give all certainly have a strong polemical element (those that I have read, at any rate). However, I would contend that their polemical content is, certainly in retrospect, the least interesting aspect of the total experience they have to offer. (“Nineteen Eighty-Four” is possibly an exception to this; “Animal Farm” I see as a brilliant fable, and I explicitly excepted fables in my post.)

      Let us consider Dickens, for instance. “Oliver Twist” certainly contains a powerful polemic against workhouses, and the political thought that had led to them. The Dotheboys Hall chapters in “Nicholas Nickleby” contain an equally furious denunciation of the kind of establishment that passed for schools, but which were, in effect, labour camps for helpless boys. However, both workhouses and these kind of “schools”:are now things of the past; so why do we still read them, and take such pleasure from them? I’d argue that though the polemic aspects have now retreated in terms of importance (simply because what they set out to achieve has already been achieved), we still read and love these books because of all the other aspects that still remain – the vitality of the imagination, the exuberance of the humour, the richness of the prose, and so on. And that it is in these other asoects, and not in the polemics, that the literary merit of these books reside.

      Yes, I agree there are exceptions to my rule – “Nineteen Eighty Four” being a particularly prominent one. (Another major exception, incidentally, is Tolstoy’s last full-length novel, “Resurrection”.) I intimated in my post that there will be exceptions, though I should perhaos gave emphasised the point more than I did. But in general, I continue to believe that polemical intent weakens art, and that art with polemical content that we recognise as being of a high quality make their aesthetic impact despite, and not because of, their polemics. This is why works such as “Oliver Twist” or “The Jungle”, say, can survive and be continued to be enjoyed as art even when their polemical content has ceased to be relevant.


  5. Some Euripides and Aristophanes plays coming up soon – The Suppliants Friday, for example – will provide interesting tests of your ideas.

    I have perhaps made my peace with this issue more than you have. What is polemical literature is not meant to survive? What if it is high value right now even if it will be tossed away next year? I see why a writer would want to write such a thing.

    Your examples are all inevitably canonical, because we know the books that remained known. And your objection, really seems to be with reductive interpretations of these complex, famous works, not with the creation of all of the works that only period specialists know. Maybe I am misunderstanding.

    Rand’s novels would be bad if they sent out no message at all. At the level of craft, they’re dreadful.


    • No, you’re not misunderstanding at all.

      I always feel that if there’s even a possibility of my post being misunderstood, it’s because I haven’t written clearly enough. Maybe I should have worked a bit harder on this one. But what you’re saying is quite correct. Polemical writing to address specific (or even general) issues is fine. But if I were to pen a polemic, say, on the inadequacies of street lighting in our locality, then, once the problem with street lighting is fixed, the polemic ceases to be of interest. It may still be of interest for historic reasons, but not for reasons of literary merit.

      My concern is that I see much literary discourse that reduces the work under discussion purely to content, and, more specifically, to its message, or to what is taken to be its message. And quite often, the work is judged purely on this basis. But yes, I should have been much clearer.

      As for Ayn Rand, her work is so oriented towards its message that it’s hard to imagine it existing without a polemical purpose. But yes, you’re right: it’s all pretty rancid, however you look at it. And I resent the very fact that I have to take all this guff seriously simply because so many other people do.


  6. A related theme: “A work in which there are theories is like an object which still has the ticket that shows its price.”
    “Time Regained”, Proust. (Chatto & Windus, 1970; p 244.)


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