Friday, January 03, 2014

On being good


Whew! Just finished reading Mark Helprin's 700-page novel In Sunlight and In Shadow, set mostly in New York and environs in the years immediately following World War II. A cross between Scott Fitzgerald and Thomas Mann -- New York sophistication and Teutonic exhaustive (and exhausting) attention to detail. A slog at the beginning, but I was sucked into the story, and stayed till the end.

Really more of a fairy tale than a novel. All the women are heart-stoppingly beautiful, all the men are brave and virtuous, all the villains are ogreish and irredeemably evil. A moral tale, certainly, but without moral ambiguity.

And therein lies the flaw.

I was raised in a moral culture of black and white. One walked a narrow path with sin welling up on either side. The rules were all written down -– where? Rome? Heaven? -– and the consequences of breaking them were eternal. Conscience was a matter of measuring oneself against a given template, and usually finding oneself wanting.

Then, in literature, I discovered a world of nuanced choice, of solitary human selves parsing virtue. Gatsby and Karenina. Ahab and Aschenbach. Queeg and Quasimodo. A world of ambiguity, of imperfect humanity. And having experienced that lesson, morality became something other than fitting into a template; it became a lifetime of sometimes ambiguous choices for which, for better or worse, I alone am responsible. No ledger in Rome or Heaven keeping track; the ledger is in the lives of those for whom my actions have consequences.

There is a great debate going on now between traditional philosophical ethicists and evolutionary psychologists about the roots of morality. Yale psychologist Paul Bloom'sJust Babies: The Origins of Good and Evil is only the latest work to look to natural selection for innate morality. Nurture or nature? How the debate will resolve itself remains to be seen. In the meantime, we have as much to learn about how to live from literature as from the psychology lab. Especially from literature that rises above the level of fairy tales.