Thursday, December 16, 2010

Crippled By Moral Sensitivity

A very funny moment happened during my first public reading of my short fiction. A friend was outside stumping for me, trying to get passersby along the Hamilton Art Crawl where I was performing to come inside and listen to me. One person asked my friend who I was, and she said that I was a PhD student in philosophy. This person then walked away faster.

I can understand that reaction. Academics and literature rarely go well together. It’s a very strange development to watch university MFA programs become the thriving new home for American short fiction. But those programs are actual creative writing programs, there to teach people how to write literature itself. They’re more like trade schools than academic institutions. And the MFA creative writing programs I’ve visited myself are free of a lot of the pretention and elitist attitudes of high-level academic institutions. Academics are often taught to keep their language dry, free from controversy, easily understandable, unchallenging, to stay away from ambition or broad scopes of meaning. I’ve never gotten along well with these academics, and I’ve worked best with philosophers who are just as hostile and apathetic toward the boring aspects of academic writing as I am.

But now that I have enough stories for a full set list myself, I’ve actually looked at my completed works so far and noticed an interesting trend. Half (or more, depending on whether you include writing about students and not just academic professionals) of my completed stories so far are about philosophers. Perhaps I’ve internalized the stereotypical adage of ‘Write what you know,’ because I’ve definitely gotten to know university and academic culture pretty well over the last few years. However, I think there’s a larger point that has snuck into my thoughts, which has to do with what kind of stories and what kind of characters I find interesting.

I’m most intrigued, as a writer, with hypocrisy. I’m not against hypocrisy per se; I never explicitly denounce hypocrisy in any of my fiction works – neither the stories or my novel. I’m a hypocrite myself. But I find that hypocrisy and inconsistency of character makes for the most intriguing literature. I’ve never been all that interested in literature about characters who have no internal conflicts and just deal with problems that arise around them. I’m not into plots. I don’t like narratives structured around things happening. I’m far more fascinated by narratives that reveal strange, multifaceted characters. Inconsistency in the beliefs and desires that are most important to your character makes for an amazing literary exploration.

I think this is the more profound reason why my ideas for stories keep coming back to philosophers. We’re the so-called lovers of wisdom. It’s in the etymology of the name of the fucking profession. A wise person is supposed to be a person without serious internal conflict, a person without hypocrisy. We call people wise who can guide people out of personal conflict and into more harmonious lives. Philosophers study ethics itself, so our own ethical beliefs we often hold to a higher standard than those of people outside the profession.

The ethical and personal obligations of a philosopher for consistency in living and freedom from internal conflict are at their highest intensity. A philosopher who becomes aware of his or her own hypocrisy or inconsistency of character is going to have the most intense conflict, because of all professions, philosophers have more skills to analyze these concepts and so understand their own internal conflicts more deeply than others who may not have been trained to be as articulate with ethical concepts. “Mobilization of the Oppressed,” which I just submitted to University of Toronto’s Echolocation fiction journal this afternoon, explores the disconnects from reality that can happen when you firmly believe that knowledge makes one moral. “My Perfect Lover” explores the hypocrisy of a man whose desires and emotions lead him to use his skills of reasoning and argument to defend a regime of slavery that he knows to be wrong. I have an untitled story in draft form about a professor whose drive to discover through philosophical argument the nature of a perfectly benevolent God turns him into a bitter old man incapable of love.

I thought of another idea today about a philosopher, the idea that made me realize that my profession was such a frequent subject for my fiction. This philosopher is so deeply committed to his utilitarian ethical beliefs and arguments, that the rich should give almost all they can to alleviate poverty, that the North is morally obligated to bankrupt themselves to feed the South. But as he comes to this ethical stance, he realizes that the institution of the university is incorrigably inegalitarian: according to his deeply held ethical beliefs, he shouldn’t hold a position that trains upper class elites of affluent North Americans and be paid from the profits gained from forcing thousands of young people each year into crushing student loan debt. But by the time he figures this out, he has his own family to support: children to feed and put through school. By his own philosophical beliefs, he should sacrifice the well-being of his three children to alleviate the pain of suffering millions. But when he goes home to see his own kids, he can’t. So he goes back to a job he hates every day.

Perhaps one day, I’ll publish a collection of stories about philosophers and their conflicts and hypocrisies. I might call it Thinkers. Perhaps it will be valuable.

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