, , ,

…I’d rather make an honest mistake than say what I don’t believe. In short, I’d rather be truthful than correct…But the whole matter can be cleared up if you’ll ask Raphael about it–either directly, if he’s still in your neighborhood, or else by letter. And I’m afraid you must do this anyway, because of another problem that has cropped up–whether through my fault, or yours, or Raphael’s, I’m not sure. For it didn’t occur to us to ask, nor him to say, in what area of the New World Utopia is to be found. — Sir Thomas More, Utopia (trans. Robert M. Adams)

During the school day I am in Ethics, and the question (at least for all of Chapter 5) is: Absolute? or Relative? In that guise, I am very careful to steer a middle line in order to show the students that some things can be true of other people (a different culture, for instance) without being true of them; and yet, and yet — that does not mean that I am saying that truth is relative; that what is true for humanity is necessarily all relative.  It’s like getting that camel through that Eye of the Needle, and a lot of times it depends on the class, and even their mood at the time.  Sometimes I am faced with the rather clear-cut situation of being among Young Absolutists; the type who are quick to point to the behavior or beliefs of another person, group, culture, whatever, usually because of something they have read on the Internet, and say, “Oh, that’s just WRONG.”  Or, sometimes, “Horrible.” Then my job is easier, because all I have to do is toss out some other points of view, to use the walk-a-mile-in-his-moccasins metaphor. And some learning will occur. Other times they are, for all their youth, already playing in the fields of relativism, and wondering why some things are considered bad when, from their developing point of view, there don’t seem to be any negative consequences, or even any particular human dignity issues, associated with a certain kind of transgression (that’s a long-winded way of saying they don’t know for sure why their parents are so horrified by premarital sex, or same-sex marriage.)  Then my job is trickier.  I could, of course, settle myself cross-legged on my desk, gaze at them sympathetically, and say, “I know, RIGHT?” and we could all be hippies and sing Kumbaya and they could go home and tell their parents that I am one of those, what do you call them, liberals, and their parents can say, well, of course, dear, she teaches in a college and everybody knows colleges won’t hire you if you are a Christian or have any values.  But I don’t do that.  I still sit cross-legged once in a while (I’m showing off because two years ago I was too, well, Rubenesque to fold like that and it’s still something of a wonder) but I then steer them into discussions where we contemplate the possibility of some moral absolutes.  It’s astonishingly easy, for example, to get an absolute moral conviction when “innocent children” are dragged into the conversation. On a good, or even great, discussion day, we can work back and forth and they can go home nice and confused, wondering if they can still find certain things horrible and yet argue with their elders about the relative morality of a different culture’s, say, religious laws. 

Welcome to Planet Literature, kids.  Where bumper-stickers need footnotes.

But at home right now I’m not always in Ethics.  I’m spending my down time on other continents of the Planet — the Anglo-Saxon one, as I am sure my readers are aware; Middle-Earth, because I can; and some other Points West. You may have noticed I dropped in on Ithaca yesterday, to mine some adverbs. And I realized as I sat to write today that point of view, relative vision, is such a different thing in narrative fiction than it is in Ethics. I can easily shift point of view, slip on moccasins, in Ethics and feel as if our view is enlarged, not compromised. But I know that if certain tales were told from someone else’s point of view, they would not be the same tales at all, and for all that they would be “correct” they just might not be True.

I think Mark Twain understood this (not all at once, since it took him many years to get the gears meshing correctly) when he stopped writing the first draft of Huckleberry Finn and later recommenced it in Huck’s first-person.  It is one of the most telling cases of narrative point of view, and everybody I know who teaches p.o.v. in literature uses it as an example. Nearly everything Huck says  — to us, in his role as narrator; he lies plenty in other situations — is absolutely honest, and yet we know, and Twain expects us to know, that it isn’t correct.  Of course, we think, and Twain thinks, that Huck isn’t going to Hell for harboring a fugitive slave.  The miracle of that book is that even though Huck KNOWS he is going to Hell for it, he does it anyway.  Imagine how bad that book would be if it were an old man telling us, “Now, young Huck remained utterly convinced that, as he was breaking the law of the land and committing a criminal act by ignoring the Fugitive Slave Law of 1850, he would go to Hell.” 

I’ve played with point of view in my (unpublished) novels. After living with them long enough, I am surely facile enough as a writer to retell the entire story with another narrator.  I did it once as a lark and it was really good for me and for the book (although it didn’t stop agents and editors from complaining, “But who am I going to SELL this to?”). But I doubt that point of view is as malleable as that would suggest.  There are some truths that are, after all, not self-evident, and more often than not I’m going to write the piece from the point of view that is truthful rather than correct.  If that’s a problem, I suggest you ask Raphael about it directly.