Diana Sheets has a Ph.D. in European History, and is a Research Scholar in the English and History Departments at the University of Illinois. She has written two novels, The Cusp of Dreams and American Suite. She writes her own literary and political blog: www.LiteraryGulag.com
Those of us who desire to write the great American novel today are imprisoned within the Literary Gulag. We are the Defectors. As such, we refuse to embrace social causes oozing with "virtue." We look out upon the world to describe its circumstances. Outside our Gulag, however, the literary establishment has abandoned social realism for an interior realm saturated with social justice. These "virtue" seekers create stories about women and children and the socially disadvantaged. They condemn violence and erase "real" men from their fiction. The feminized readers of these tales cry. They imbibe the moral outrage convinced that they, too, will become "virtuous." This is the dismal state of fiction these days as innovation, truth, and excellence have been relegated to the Literary Gulag while the establishment extols its self-righteous "virtuosity."
For the Greeks, the word arete translates as both excellence and virtue with the implied search for truth. Plato, concerned with living the good life, noted that only under special circumstances are individuals able to tame their unruly appetites to devote their lives to the search for truth. Aristotle saw happiness as that "activity of the soul expressing virtue." For Zeno, virtue was the sole constituent of happiness. Birth, beauty, honors, and riches were secondary to virtue. (Darrin M. McMahon, Happiness, Grove).
Where would we find this Greek notion of virtue in literature today? Is it evident in Jeffrey Eugenides' Middlesex (Farrar, Straus and Giroux), winner of the 2003 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction and celebrated by the literati? Middlesex presents the story of a hermaphrodite of Greek heritage, Callie, a girl who at fourteen becomes Cal, the man. Might virtue be found in Jason Goodwin's The Snake Stone (Farrar, Straus and Giroux), a novel that has as its gumshoe, Investigator Yashim, a eunuch who solves mysteries in historic Istanbul? Never mind the story's Orientalist flavor, its metrosexual guile, its risque decadence implied by the surgical removal of testes-all the better for women to identify with the neutered, "sensitive" male. For the feminized readers of Middlesex and The Snake Stone, these novels achieve "virtue" by celebrating marginalized boys and men whom they may nurture as their own.
As we travel across the historical timeline from the ancient Greeks to our American Founders, the emphasis on virtue continues. The Founders placed great stock on character. Our revolutionary leaders were self-conscious and self-made. They embraced power and its institutions, though favoring a meritocracy that eschewed the aristocratic privilege of inheritance associated with "old" Europe. Disinterestedness in the pursuit of the greater public good was the sacrifice they saw as necessary for inspired leadership. Their beliefs were based on Enlightenment principles that advanced our nation and its polity. Virtue, in pursuit of excellence, lay at the foundation of these core values. For as John Adams noted, "public Virtue is the only Foundation of Republics." A republic lasts, he argued, only so long as:
. . . a positive Passion for the public good, the public Interest . . . [is] established in the Minds of the People. . . . Superior to all private Passions. (Gordon S. Wood, Revolutionary Characters: What Made the Founders Different, Penguin)
However, what happens to the principles of the Founders when they are presented within a contemporary literary context? Consider M. T. Anderson's The Astonishing Life of Octavian Nothing, Traitor to the Nation, Vol. 1: The Pox Party (Candlewick). It received the 2006 National Book Award for Young People's Literature. This historical novel is beautifully written and deftly plotted. It is a coming-of-age story that features a black youth, Octavian, who is raised in the home of enlightened philosophers on the eve of the American Revolution. Both the boy and his mother, an African priestess, are the subjects of experiments to demonstrate the genetic inferiority of Africans. The American Revolution breaks out. The African princess dies after she is given a vaccination at the Pox Party. Octavian runs away, eventually joining the Patriot cause as a musical performer. He is caught and brought back to the household where he is held captive until one of the instructors frees him. That is the story summary.
It is unlikely that Anderson's novel could have won the National Book Award except for its unremitting focus on social justice. The history of the American Revolution is presented against the backdrop of slavery, racism, human rights violations, and the ravages of war. The hypocrisy of the enlightenment and its neoclassical values is inferred as we witness Octavian's struggle to become free. The complex narrative style of the novel is ultimately overlooked by the critics because of the pious implications of the story -- the triumph of "virtue" over racial prejudice and white, male power. How else to explain the award of the National Book Award to one of the most "elitist" stories conceived for a young audience in years, except that it lays waste to the values of the Founders in an effort to ensure the ascendancy of social justice.
Today, the neoclassical ideals founded on virtue that form the basis of our character have been replaced by the relativistic values of a Godless civilization. "Lifestyle," the culminations of these values, is navigated by a protean Self, the arbiter and actuator of its own moral realm. (James Davison Hunter, The Death of Character, Basic). Literary fiction reflects these contemporary mores. It has become relativistic and solipsistic, donning the vestments of social justice at the expense of virtuous truths. It celebrates consciousness and interior thought while denigrating the discomforting landscape of the real. Not surprisingly, plot-driven stories with dialogue and violence are never the recipients of major literary awards.
This brings us to the realm of science. Since the time of Darwin, scientists have sought to examine "altruistic" and "cooperative behavior." The dispassionate language they employ reflects their research based on probabilistic reasoning founded on principles derived from the Scientific Revolution and the Enlightenment. They pose the question, "Is altruistic behavior independent of self-interest or does it occur in order to serve the interest of the community by means of genetic advantage conferred to members of the tribe?" Recent studies in Game Theory suggest that human motivations are selfish and that cooperative behavior has been employed in order to further the individual and group prospects for survival.
Enter Jonathan Haidt, a moral psychologist whose discipline straddles the divide between the sciences and the humanities. He has argued in his book The Happiness Hypothesis (Basic), as well as a number of scientific publications, that our moral decisions are based on primitive emotional behavior developed prior to language and reasoned judgment. Consequently, rational analysis based on evidence is considered after we have already arrived at the emotional outlook that dictates our actions. As a scientist, he suggests that our motives are selfish, though he asserts that they are guided by moral norms.
Haidt questions the liberal assumptions that underlie the values of modern Western civilization. By his account, our society places emphasis on two tenets: 1) Do No Physical Harm (protect your kin and those most vulnerable) and 2) Do As You Would Have Done Unto You (reciprocity/fairness). However, he notes that traditional cultures rely on a much more elaborate and nuanced moral calculus that also includes 3) Respect for Authority (deference), 4) Purity and Sanctity (social and spiritual rituals that restrain excess), and 5) Loyalty to the In-Group (reward cooperators, punish defectors). Haidt suggests this traditional framework provides a far more comprehensive moral framework with which to deter selfishness and integrate members.
The implications of Haidt's argument are staggering. Modern Western society's reliance on "Do no Harm" and "Fairness" now forms the basis for our selection of literary stories. If we apply Haidt's analysis to consider the novels favored by publishers, literary critics, and the academic community we discover that this community rewards fiction that lays claim to "virtue" and consistently rejects stories that describe the discomforting circumstances of our reality except when these depictions present the triumph of social justice against the claims of "hegemony." These three "virtue" clusters -- publishers, literary critics, and the academic community -- constitute the in-group. This in-group dictates the narrow selection criteria for literary fiction: a subjective world residing entirely within the minds of the characters, an impassioned advocacy for the disadvantaged though necessarily presented in a manner devoid of economic and social realism, and a denunciation within these stories of masculine aggression in favor of idealized femininity and perpetual childhood. At no stage does the in-group acknowledge the corruption of the selection process or the cant of its espousal of diversity while systematically excluding all perspectives that challenge this orthodoxy.
How could it? To do so would necessitate a seismic rupture within the publishing, literary, and academic realm that would give rise to freedom.
The solution is as apparent as the light of reason. Embrace the neoclassical values of excellence directed toward the pursuit of truth, that which our forefathers referred to as virtue. Pursue this cause with the intent of the Founders, applying their disinterested scrutiny so that we might, once again, strive for exalted standards. Acknowledge science and the less than virtuous motivations that influence our actions but temper this understanding with morality shaped by character and driven to revitalize civilization. Celebrate writers of talent and inspiration who dare to describe in realistic detail the world in which we live so that our society may comprehend its failings, endeavor to improve, and aspire to all that is most noble. *
"Religion and good morals are the only solid foundation of public liberty and happiness." --Samuel Adams