Here we are, in Part 3 of the series A Serious Game. So far we’ve discussed how stories influence our lives and seen the reality of fiction in action. Today, I’m going to say a lot of inflammatory things about Harlan Ellison!
The question now becomes: how is anyone qualified to make a moral or ethical judgment, especially in regards to literature? One of the most public attempts to tackle such a question was that of author John Gardner, in his book On Moral Fiction. Taking a look at Gardner’s effort may underscore some of the difficulties of ethical criticism. His basic stance is that anything that is art is necessarily moral; to call something that is immoral “art” would be an ontological mistake, and a symptom of either a sick artistic or critical culture. Wilde, for his part, claimed morality to be only a possible subject of art, but Gardner alleges his view is the longstanding one: “The traditional view is that true art is moral. It seeks to improve life, not debase it, it seeks to hold off, at least for a while, the twilight of the gods and us” (5).
By gods Gardner does not mean divine entities literally, rather that gods and religious figures historically are abstractions or personifications of human values. Gods are values, which are life-affirming ideals; the majority of these ideals, Gardner claims, are unchanging. We need these values in order to stand against a basically unfavorable existence: “Art is essentially serious and beneficial, a game played against chaos and death, against entropy. It is a tragic game, for those who have wit to take it seriously, because our side must lose” (6). Gardner’s bleak existentialist humanism is actually quite romantic, despite this emphasis on inevitable tragedy; he says it is the job of the writer to idealize an imperfect world and present works of art that are either “a vision of how things ought to be or what has gone wrong” (16). In the past, the author presented this vision by way of the protagonist or hero: “Every hero’s function is to provide a noble image for men to be inspired and guided by in their own actions” (Gardner 29).
Talk of heroism seems clear enough given the logic so far. I have established that people are given to imitating stories, or applying stories to their lives; therefore, the writer should only present positive, moral ideals to be imitated or applied. This line of thought goes back at least to Samuel Johnson, who commented that art, in its great ability to imitate nature, “should also distinguish those parts of nature … most proper for imitation” (2874). But who, exactly, decides the morals in a piece of literature? The author, presumably, but how should we expect moral perfection from an author? Well, maybe it is the true artist who “can distinguish between conventional morality and the morality that tends to work for all people throughout the ages” (Gardner 50). But regardless of that, wouldn’t art thus directed inevitably fall into didacticism? Yet Gardner similarly argues against didacticism, saying “morality is infinitely complex, too complex to be knowable, and far too complex to be reduced to any code,” and this “is why [morality] is suitable matter for fiction, which deals in understanding, not knowledge” (135).
So maybe literature allows the reader to imagine an intimate relationship with the consciousness of someone else, inspiring sympathy, what Shelley claimed to be “the faculty which is the organ of the moral nature of man” (844). Gardner argues that “the effect of great fiction is to temper real experience, modify prejudice, humanize” (114), asserting that literature is “a conceptual abstraction of our actual experiences of moments of good in human life” (136). In other words, the issue is not whether a reader can and should imitate what happens in a story, but how well a reader can understand the human motivations implicit in the narrative. When I read a story I do so not because there is a hero for me to emulate successfully, but because the story presents me with another personality — regardless of the status of the character — whose life I am invited to consider, evaluate, and most importantly, understand. But that thought seems to conflict in some profound ways with what Gardner said earlier, and it raises the question of which moral function — imitation or understanding — is correct, or at least the more operant mode for any ethical reading.
To clarify some of these questions, both for myself and for rhetorical effect, I will attempt to put Gardner’s ideas into practice. To start: what sort of story is immoral, by Gardner’s terms? What sort of fiction “tends toward destruction … [and] is not properly art at all” (6)? So as not to make the conversation too grim, I can choose something light for my study — Harlan Ellison’s short story, “‘Repent, Harlequin!’ said the Ticktockman.” This is quite an immoral story, though superficially it may seem moral; “Harlequin” appears to be concerned with a sickness of a culture and a desire to rehabilitate it. But it is superficial; reading the story as a moral critic indicates its message to be cynical posturing. Ellison begins the story by telling us the “point,” breaking the narrative structure to provide us with an excerpt from Thoreau’s Civil Disobedience to satisfy “those who ask, what is it all about?” (877). So even before we can get to the end of the story, before we can even begin to have a question, we are given an answer. “That is the heart of it,” Ellison says, initiating what will be one of the story’s recurring themes — and problems: “Now begin in the middle, and later learn the beginning; the end will take care of itself” (877).
“Harlequin” takes place in a future world where a totalitarian government lethally enforces a rigid time schedule, led by the Master Timekeeper or Ticktockman. Being chronically late results in execution; the Harlequin is a freedom fighter who sets out to thwart the Ticktockman’s regime. There is nothing too reprehensible here on first glance. Such an authoritarian society would hardly be considered moral, and overturning it would indeed be a moral act. And the story itself is quite amusing; it’s absurd and knows it (a major plot point involves a rain of one hundred-fifty thousand dollars’ worth of jelly beans). Like the Harlequin of the title, the story is a motley assortment of vignettes from various chronologies, stitched together and presented with a knowing smirk by a manic third-person narrator. But investigating Ellison’s presentation of this world unmasks the Harlequin, showing the story to be juvenile and nihilistic. Behind that knowing smirk there is only an abyss.
The world the story takes place in is “the very world it was, the very world they had allowed it to become” (877-878). The middle part of the story, which is chronologically the beginning, dramatizes the absurd way in which the story’s society becomes increasingly dependent on punctuality, from train schedules to voting times, eventually resulting in the creation of the Ticktockman and his power over life and death: “And so by this simple scientific expedient … the System was maintained. It was the only expedient thing to do. It was, after all, patriotic. The schedules had to be met. After all, there was a war on!” (882). Society becomes the System only bit by bit, gradually; authoritarianism works on a ratchet, gaining power while being rationalized into the current situation and ideology. The story alleges that “they” (the people) allowed this to happen through their own inaction and conformity.
The Harlequin is the ultimate individual nonconformist, the man who is habitually late in a society where punctuality means life or death. His crusade to bring down the Ticktockman ends ultimately in his capture and brainwashing. However, the implication at the end of the story is that the Harlequin is truly triumphant over the Ticktockman — because the Ticktockman shows up late to work. The narrator tells us “that’s the way it happens, and if you make only a little change, then it seems to be worthwhile” (886). The story is obsessed with these tiny changes — the Harlequin’s tiny changes to the System’s schedule end up causing monstrous tangles as each instance of lateness causes more problems. “He had tapped the first domino in the line,” the narrator says of the jellybean incident, “and one after another, like chik chik chik, the others had fallen” (880).
Too often the story presents us with this attitude: that small actions matter, which is not untrue in and of itself, but there is an implication that these small actions often end up being all that matter. It doesn’t matter if the Harlequin is captured because he’s already won; so what if the System is still in place, for the Harlequin has already cracked the Ticktockman himself, apparently by just existing. Sidestepping of the real matter of societal change to give the reader its result recalls the story’s structure, which tells us its “point” before it even begins. Nothing has to truly be “done” and accomplished. As revolutionary agitprop that thought may be comforting, but it’s troubling in that it is also the way in which the authoritarian System comes to be: through the stacking of tiny actions, or rather, widespread inactions and acceptances. Oppression rises amid human apathy, so does revolution, and it does not matter. The end, as Ellison tells us, will take care of itself; both defeat and victory are so easily obtainable as to be meaningless. This is to say nothing of the didactic simplicity with which Ellison draws his world. Conformity is bad and nonconformity is good; conformists are boring and pitiable, noncomformists daring and noble. We like the Harlequin and want to imitate him, so we should be noncomformists; we noncomformists should also pity the conformists for not being so enlightened, for it’s not their fault they’re boring.
If everything is starting to sound a bit ridiculous, I think that’s because it is. Gardner’s terms, in application, do not become any less troublesome. Wayne C. Booth called Gardner’s book “courageous but careless” (7n.2), and that is probably the best way to describe it. Gardner’s framework fails to address its basis in two opposing views — do we imitate art, or do we merely understand it? “Harlequin” obviously invites me to imitate the titular clown — he is the hero, by Gardner’s framework, and also the most colorful figure in a drab and authoritarian future. But exactly how should I imitate him? What values does he represent? Nonconformity and habitual lateness, I suppose; but his nonconformity is extreme and implausible, and since when has being untimely been any sort of virtue? If anything, imitating the Harlequin would make me a rather unpleasant person to associate with. If the story is attempting to humanize — to garner sympathy and understanding — who is it humanizing? Not the Ticktockman or his lackies, since they remain one-dimensional; the Harlequin, perhaps, but he is similarly never a very “human” character. This is not a story that is interested in probing the depths of human emotional capacity, it seems, and in that regard it leaves Gardner treading water.
Also unhelpful is that Gardner often makes judgments or statements without clarifying what he means. For instance, he leaves the door open to an author to be ironic and affirm values indirectly (106), but he fails to describe how any of this would work. I think the largest caveat to the reading of “Harlequin” I’ve set forth lies in this possibility of irony; the story is self-consciously silly, so how far can I take the silliness? How much of Ellison’s tale is irony? If we accept the story as a half-joke, then it suddenly makes sense why the characters are so flat, why their actions are so implausible. But Gardner gives no guidance here. Just as the true artist will know the true morals, I suppose the true reader will recognize the true artist?