How to read authors of earlier times who expressed views or created characters that we find repugnant today

There has been a lot of debate about how—or whether—to read authors whose views (or language) may not comport with today’s mores. Morality evolves, usually for the better, leaving older books bearing attitudes or characters that we find repugnant.

The usual result is to either denigrate or ban these books, and such opprobrium has involved works like Huckleberry Finn, To Kill a Mockingbird, The Great Gatsby, Slaughterhouse-Five, and even The Color Purple. I’m not even mentioning the many books that are deemed verboten by various religions, such as The Satanic Verses. Go to the American Library Association’s Frequently Challenged Books webpage for a comprehensive list.

How do we deal with these books? Do we remove them from libraries, as Confederate statues are removed from campuses? Do we cease teaching them in classrooms—something that’s now happening with To Kill a Mockingbird? Or do we just decry them as a way of showing our moral advancement and purity? (Remember, though: in 100 years we ourselves will be seen as morally primitive in many ways!) I’ve always claimed that we should not ignore works of literature, even if we find them offensive, as there may be a nugget of truth in them or, if not, we can at least sharpen our minds by mentally debating the authors.

This article in the January 8 New York Times is a bright spot in the censorship wilderness. Written by Brian Morton, author and director of the writing program at Sarah Lawrence College, it is eminently sensible and yet sensitive.

After facing a student who rejected Edith Wharton because of the antisemitism expressed in her novel The House of Mirth(1905), Morton recognizes the commonality of such rejection:

Anyone who’s taught literature in a college or university lately has probably had a conversation like this. The passion for social justice that many students feel — a beautiful passion for social justice — leads them to be keenly aware of the distasteful opinions held by many writers of earlier generations. When they discover the anti-Semitism of Wharton or Dostoyevsky, the racism of Walt Whitman or Joseph Conrad, the sexism of Ernest Hemingway or Richard Wright, the class snobbery of E. M. Forster or Virginia Woolf, not all of them express their repugnance as dramatically as the student I talked to, but many perform an equivalent exercise, dumping the offending books into a trash basket in their imaginations.

And Morton’s solution, which I could kick myself for not having thought of, is obvious and salubrious:

It’s as if we imagine an old book to be a time machine that brings the writer to us. We buy a book and take it home, and the writer appears before us, asking to be admitted into our company. If we find that the writer’s views are ethnocentric or sexist or racist, we reject the application, and we bar his or her entry into the present.

As the student had put it, I don’t want anyone like that in my house.

I think we’d all be better readers if we realized that it isn’t the writer who’s the time traveler. It’s the reader. When we pick up an old novel, we’re not bringing the novelist into our world and deciding whether he or she is enlightened enough to belong here; we’re journeying into the novelist’s world and taking a look around.

He explains:

. . . If we were to sign up for a trip to the New York of 1905 — Wharton’s New York — we’d understand, even before buying our tickets, that we were visiting a place where people’s attitudes were very different from ours. We’d know that nearly everyone we’d meet, even the best, most generous minds — rich or poor, male or female, white or black — would hold opinions that would be unacceptable today. We’d be informed of this in the contract we’d be required to sign, at the same time as we’d be given our inoculations and fitted for our period clothing — our hoop skirts, our waistcoats, our top hats.

Knowing all this before we went back in time, met Wharton and discovered that some of her opinions were abhorrent, we’d be prepared. We wouldn’t be outraged or shocked.

Instead, we’d probably be curious. We’d probably be interested in exploring the question of how one of the most intelligent and fearless minds of her time was afflicted by moral blind spots that are obvious to us today.

. . . Regarding a writer like Wharton as a creature of her age might bring a further benefit. It might help us see ourselves as creatures of our own.

When we imagine that writers from the past are visiting our world, it subtly reinforces our complacence, our tendency to believe that the efforts at moral improvement made by earlier generations attained their climax, their fulfillment, their perfection, in us. The idea that we are the ones who are doing the time-traveling doesn’t carry the same implication.

Morton notes some of our moral blind spots today, such as our overlooking child labor, which, though disappearing, is still prevalent, as much a moral outrage as is the oppression of any group. This ignorance, too, shall pass.

Morton’s essay is important and timely in an age where views we find offensive tend to be put aside rather than examined or debated. That’s a point that I and others have made repeatedly, but somehow Morton’s idea of a book as a “time machine” makes the point more succinctly.

His conclusion, however, comports with ours:

If we arm ourselves with a little bit of knowledge and a little bit of curiosity (those essential tools of the time-traveler), we’ll be able to see the writers of the past more clearly when we visit them, and see ourselves more clearly when we get back. We’ll be able to appreciate that in their limited ways, sometimes seeing beyond the prejudices of their age, sometimes unable to do so, they — the ones worth reading — were trying to make the world more human, just as we, in our own limited ways, are also trying to do.

81 Comments

  1. Posted January 20, 2019 at 2:52 pm | Permalink

    Yes because I still read and love H.P Lovecraft although he can be beyond racist in some of his characterisations, and outright use of language. Also, there is an argument he got better as he got older, and don’t we all grow and learn from our ignorances?

  2. Randall Schenck
    Posted January 20, 2019 at 2:56 pm | Permalink

    I always want to ask – who is the censor, who gets to decide what we see? It is only easy to answer the question if it is everything. If you don’t want to read it because it offends you, then don’t read it. But when you tell others what they can read, that does not stand and it smacks of religious bigotry. The ones who tell us what we need based on their religion. Regarding the reading of history, I think it may have been Joseph Ellis, I’m not sure, but it was a warning I have always lived by. If you are going to take your 21st century culture and judgement back in time with you to read history, you might just as well not make the trip.

    • Posted January 21, 2019 at 6:50 am | Permalink

      yes, censuring is always bad. We are the last country on earth that still has freedom of speech-we should hold onto it and never let that go. We should be able to read whatever we want to and speak our mind. Years ago my son had to read To Kill a Mockingbird, they took that off the reading list. They are talking about editing old books. Kids on college campuses are destroying old statues. The world has turned into a crazy place that I don’t recognize.

      • GBJames
        Posted January 21, 2019 at 7:47 am | Permalink

        The book censorship and statue remove issues are completely different, IMO. Public statuary has a role that books-in-libraries (and taught in class) simple do not. To be consistent one should compare book studies to studies about statuary in class and in museums. When placed in a public setting, statuary acquires a symbolic role whose purpose is quite beyond teaching history. “Silent Sam” was not place on the UNC campus to teach history. It was placed by the Daughters of the Confederacy as a political statement. While the history of the statue should be taught, there’s no reason why the statue itself should remain in place.

  3. Raúl
    Posted January 20, 2019 at 3:04 pm | Permalink

    This is a very good way to address the issues considered. The reader as time traveler is a great metaphor. The author, and Jerry, has performed a great service in advancing understanding over reaction.

    • Deodand
      Posted January 20, 2019 at 5:18 pm | Permalink

      The author is not the only person to have used that metaphor, I saw an essay recently on a website devoted to Spy fiction that makes the same point.

      http://spyguysandgals.com/sgShowArticle.aspx?id=18

      The problem is that SJWs are consumed with presentism. They really do think that people in the past knew/thought the way they do now and the only reason that it’s not reflected in history is because of wickedness.

      • Posted January 20, 2019 at 6:23 pm | Permalink

        I find the time travel metaphor apt, but not particularly innovative at all. It’s the whole point of “escapism” to go to another place.

        SJWs characteristically show the Actor-Observer Asymmetry in a strong way, attributing other people’s perceived moral failures to their innate disposition (often outright comical, “being evil”) while the typical SJW believes their own bullying, dogpiling and “call-out culture” is due to “justified anger”, good reasons, best intentions etcetera.

  4. Linda Calhoun
    Posted January 20, 2019 at 3:06 pm | Permalink

    I think this is a great strategy, but it is demanding. It requires us to gain not only a knowledge of literature, but a knowledge of history as well.

    Not a bad idea, IMO, but the mentally lazy, the censors, won’t like it.

    L

    • Historian
      Posted January 20, 2019 at 3:30 pm | Permalink

      You make a good point. Such works to be of value to today’s students, they need to be placed in historical context. Books such as Huckleberry Finn most definitely require this. I hope that teachers of English literature do this. I do not know to what extent they have a sufficient knowledge of the historical era that the authors of these works lived in. If they spend their time teaching these books by simply analyzing characters or events for metaphors or hidden symbolism they are bound to get into trouble. I must confess that my experience with literature classes was rather negative because I was turned off trying to discern hidden meanings in these works that for reasons I could not understand the authors declined to make plain. Even after the passage of many decades I still feel that these classes were a waste of my time with a few exceptions. I guess I just didn’t have good teachers. Or perhaps I lacked the insight or intelligence to fathom why these books were important to read.

      • rickflick
        Posted January 20, 2019 at 3:45 pm | Permalink

        I spent some time with a high school lit teacher who had about 30 years experience. She was truly excellent in the sense that you mean. She taught controversial subjects with enough context to give good understanding. I was amazed and pleased by her care and skill.

      • Diana MacPherson
        Posted January 20, 2019 at 3:49 pm | Permalink

        I have an English degree. Understanding context was taught as vital to understanding the literature. I did find this lacking in, ironically, the art history course I took as it centered on the way art changed throughout the ages without why artists did such things. In contrast, a study of Romantic poetry or Victorian poetry put it solidly into what the writer was experiencing and who they were in relation to everyone else.

      • Posted January 20, 2019 at 5:37 pm | Permalink

        I think some of those hidden meanings were also unknown to the author. That was often true of Hemingway. Sometimes cigars were just cigars, as Sigmund said.

      • Posted January 21, 2019 at 5:27 am | Permalink

        “I was turned off trying to discern hidden meanings in these works that for reasons I could not understand the authors declined to make plain.”

        I think this is a shame and am sorry to hear that you were badly taught. On the whole I don’t think authors are trying to ‘hide’ meanings in their works like some kind of enormous tricksy Mensa puzzle. If the reader cannot discern the message the writer is trying to get across then the writer has failed.

        This does not necessarily mean that everything is to be read literally however. Of course a cigar is sometimes just a cigar but there are various reasons why writers sometimes choose to refer to or describe things obliquely. Metaphor, allusion and allegory can often evoke things more powerfully than than a literal description. To take one simple and obvious example, George Orwell could have written a factual account of the Russian Revolution and the corruption of its founding ideals but by writing instead a tale of an uprising of farm animals he arguably created a more memorable and revealing account of the corrosive effect of power.

  5. Historian
    Posted January 20, 2019 at 3:07 pm | Permalink

    I like the concept of reading old books as a means of time travel into worlds that no longer exist. In other words, this approach is one way to study history. It helps us understand what motivated people, often with ideas that we no longer find palatable. For example, what motivated abolitionists to oppose slavery? Many of them did not believe in racial equality, but acted out of a paternalism that preached that slavery was immoral. Uncle Tom’s Cabin by Harriet Beecher Stowe, published in 1852, was an enormous best seller in the North and made many people in that region understand the monstrous nature of slavery, yet if such a book were published today you can rest assured that it would be condemned as white paternalism (materialism?). Reading the literature of a particular period is an essential complement to studying the other material historians look at – newspapers, letters, speeches, etc.

    • Randall Schenck
      Posted January 20, 2019 at 3:28 pm | Permalink

      Many would be surprised to know that Harriet Beecher Stowe was a firm believer in exportation. I believe her favorite was Liberia. Of course so was Lincoln and certainly Jefferson in the earlier period.

      • XCellKen
        Posted January 20, 2019 at 6:55 pm | Permalink

        Didn’t Jefferson wanna send them west of the Mississippi ? Kinda like Indians were sent to Indian Territory (Oklahoma) ?

        • Randall Schenck
          Posted January 20, 2019 at 7:58 pm | Permalink

          Don’t think so. He had opportunity with the Louisiana Purchase to do something really good if emancipation was really on his mind but he did not do it. Instead the territory was opened to white settlers. Sell of the land could have been used to pay slave owners to free their slaves but again he did not do any of it.

          • rickflick
            Posted January 20, 2019 at 8:51 pm | Permalink

            I hate to condemn Jefferson. I think he was a captive of his time. He had the right instincts and education but the environment was not ideal. If you were to shift any variable he might very well have been a more proactive modernist. As it was he ushered in a new national government which enabled renewal after his death. How much more can we ask of anyone?

            • Posted January 21, 2019 at 4:52 am | Permalink

              Isn’t this exactly the point of the original post? It is pointless judging people in the past by the standards of today. It is pretty much certain that had Jefferson grown up in our times his views on many things would have been different (although exactly how different we can never know). But although Jefferson’s views and attitudes were a reflection of his time – and included aspects that we now find out of tune with our own standards – he was not a captive of his time.

              Along with other prominent people of the enlightenment Jefferson contributed to new ways of thinking and reasoning that subsequent generations have been able to build upon to arrive at our present view of the world and how it works and what constitutes a just way of running society.

              In the eighteenth century it was an accepted belief that some ‘races’ were superior to others but the application of reason and the scientific method over the years since then have shown that to be a belief without substance and we now rightly condemn any arguments that suggest it as being racist.

    • Diana MacPherson
      Posted January 20, 2019 at 3:51 pm | Permalink

      It is one way we access information about a civilization. It’s through their art that we know a lot of what Roman society was like.

      • rickflick
        Posted January 20, 2019 at 6:51 pm | Permalink

        …and Greek and Egyptian, etc. When you go beyond the era of written records, the farther you go back the more puzzling the art. Cave painting in Europe mostly depicts the animals that surrounded those people, yet the meaning of the paintings is, so far, unknown. That art seems to tell us very little about it’s makers other than that they were highly skilled.

        • Diana MacPherson
          Posted January 20, 2019 at 7:09 pm | Permalink

          It’s a big piece of the culture. For example the “crab claw” bangs on Augustus’s statues that is echoed over and over by other emperors. Did they really look like that? Probably not but it was short hand for “I’m a Julio Claudian or at least I want you to associate me with them because this shows I’m legitimate”. Often art isn’t for showing something beautiful but by communicating. Art as marketing. That example shows how you needed to show legitimacy and how you did that.

  6. ron
    Posted January 20, 2019 at 3:09 pm | Permalink

    I hope we are more morally advanced in 100 years!
    And our relentless brutality towards sentients, simply because they taste good, is another piece of low hanging fruit exemplifying how far we have to go.

    • JezGrove
      Posted January 20, 2019 at 3:21 pm | Permalink

      Very nicely put.

    • Mark R.
      Posted January 20, 2019 at 3:49 pm | Permalink

      I highly doubt the world will be vegetarian in 100 years. But perhaps we’ll figure out how to grow meat instead of raise it.

  7. Posted January 20, 2019 at 3:10 pm | Permalink

    When I was young, help wanted advertisements in the newspaper were segregated by sex. I still feel ashamed that I did not see anything wrong with that at the time. It just seemed the way it was. So I am always leery of judging people outside of their time. I ask myself, if I had lived in the ante-bellum south, would I have seen the moral wrongness of slavery? I like to think I would have, but I don’t know that. Probably, I would have been as morally blind to slavery as I was to the segregated help wanted ads.

    So, yes, be a time traveller when reading the works of people living in a different age. And learn.

    • Historian
      Posted January 20, 2019 at 3:50 pm | Permalink

      If you had lived in the antebellum South, you may have realized that slavery was morally wrong. In the period after the Revolution to around 1830 such people were not rare. There is no way of knowing for sure, they may have been in a majority. However, very few of these people took any concrete steps to end it because of the cheap labor it provided and the absolutely unfathomable notion that blacks and whites could live together on grounds of equality. Only a horrific war was the means to end it. By the 1830s and onward, the South became a region of ideological terror where opponents of slavery were censored, silenced, and often had to leave it. Proponents of slavery as a “positive good” had won the today and were not hesitant to call for secession when a Republican won the White House in 1860.

      • Posted January 20, 2019 at 3:57 pm | Permalink

        I think many in the south of opposed slavery nonetheless saw no good way to end it, because of fear of that free blacks would riot and slaughter whites.

        • Randall Schenck
          Posted January 20, 2019 at 4:22 pm | Permalink

          There were certainly some of these but the Jefferson model was also part of the extreme bigotry. In his younger period he actually wrote about freeing the slaves but never did anything about the 200 or so he owned. Later he thought, if freed they must be removed as the two races could never live together. Therefore, Jefferson was the absolute height of hypocrisy as he lived very closely with one for many years.

      • Posted January 20, 2019 at 5:32 pm | Permalink

        From my reading on this, the views on slavery in the South changed from necessary evil at the time the Constitution was written, to an outright moral good at the time the Confederate States of America was formed.

        • Posted January 20, 2019 at 5:43 pm | Permalink

          When someone’s views are challenged those views become more firmly held and defended. There are numerous studies that confirm thus.

          • Posted January 20, 2019 at 5:53 pm | Permalink

            Exactly. And that is what happened on views about slavery leading up to the Civil War. Some things don’t change.

        • Randall Schenck
          Posted January 20, 2019 at 5:59 pm | Permalink

          I believe by 1776 there were about 400,000 slaves in America so it was pretty well locked in down south. In the early 1800s cotton became the crop and it required lots of slaves. Certainly so did the sugar cane.
          As far as the economics of slavery, it was not really sustainable. Jefferson, Madison and Monroe all died in poverty.

        • Ken Kukec
          Posted January 20, 2019 at 6:07 pm | Permalink

          “It is difficult to get a man to understand something, when his salary depends upon his not understanding it,” as Upton Sinclair observed.

          It’s even more difficult, when a person’s primary capital asset depends upon his or her not understanding it, as was the case with the thought-leaders in the antebellum American South.

  8. JezGrove
    Posted January 20, 2019 at 3:14 pm | Permalink

    I’ve just finished reading Anthony Trollope’s Palliser novels, and although he is generally progressive in terms of social issues there is a lot of casual anti-Semitism – time-travelling readers (a wonderful concept) beware!

  9. Tom Besson
    Posted January 20, 2019 at 3:20 pm | Permalink

    When I read perspectives like this, I am once again reminded of Joseph Campbell’s definition of myth and the part that defines the denotation of the metaphor, “The possibilities of human experience and fulfillment in a given society at a given time.” Writers in the past were limited to the possibilities that existed at that time. When we realize this limitation, we can be more empathetic to the reality that existed then, and who could argue against more empathy?

    • rom
      Posted January 20, 2019 at 3:34 pm | Permalink

      I prefer:
      Myth is what we call other people’s religion.

      But we start getting close to Sophisticated Theology here. Having said that ST is way better than Unsophisticated Theology.

    • rom
      Posted January 20, 2019 at 7:20 pm | Permalink

      Just notice Morton is from Campbell’s old college, 🙂

  10. GBJames
    Posted January 20, 2019 at 3:24 pm | Permalink

    Sub

  11. Michael Fisher
    Posted January 20, 2019 at 3:27 pm | Permalink

    Some books can never be forgiven:

    • Mark R.
      Posted January 20, 2019 at 3:57 pm | Permalink

      Damn, what would Mr. Milne think of that!

  12. rickflick
    Posted January 20, 2019 at 3:40 pm | Permalink

    Morton has put the issue in a fine context. If I were teaching literature I’d have all my students read that article.

  13. Posted January 20, 2019 at 3:49 pm | Permalink

    “How do we deal with these books?”

    There is a very simple answer to this: The principle that no one could have acted otherwise than he acted also means that no author could have written even one iota otherwise than he wrote. That is all. Therefore, one can and may keep and read everything that has ever been written, these are simply written testimonies that allow insights into the thinking of past ages, just as particular geological formations allow an insight into earlier periods of the earth’s development.

  14. Mark R.
    Posted January 20, 2019 at 3:56 pm | Permalink

    I hope Morton’s paper makes the rounds in American academia. Thanks for sharing this.

  15. Robert Bray
    Posted January 20, 2019 at 3:56 pm | Permalink

    ‘. . . the racism of . . . Walt Whitman,’ casually remarks the essayist, as if this is generally understood. Well, it’s not, and not true OF THE POETRY. No more than ‘Huckleberry Finn’ is racist. Yes, the authors fail to pass the 21st century SJW Purity Examination in their lives and perhaps some of their essays. But the imaginative, fictive works? ‘Song of Myself’ and ‘Huck Finn’ come as close to envisioning social equality in a democratic world as any works I know (although Twain was the sardonic pessimist to Whitman’s cosmic optimism).

    The problem today is that too many people don’t know how to read. I mean it: don’t know how to read literature as it is intended, as it is created to be read: as an imagined possible world represented in artful language and complex, realistic voicing. Sure, most U.S.-ians are literate, and many do a little reading for pleasure. But literature demands more than desultory participation at the reader’s end. For instance, to understand Twain’s narrative intent with Pap Finn’s rant–surely one of the most ‘offensive’ passages in the novel–a reader MUST feel the yawning ethical chasm that Twain opens between himself and this hideous character. It’s called ironic distance. Seasoned readers may say, sure, so what? But as an experienced professor of literature I can assure you that many college students have immense difficulty recognizing narrative irony, since at its best it is far distant from sarcasm and burlesque (Twain was brilliant with these more ‘circusy’ tricks too).

    I use this example because the novel has often been banned from contemporary classrooms because of objections (mainly from African-Americans) over the common use of the N-word throughout. Such objections are understandable on their face, and indeed I scrupulously avoided saying the N-word aloud in class.

    But teach ‘Huck Finn’ I did, and would still.

  16. Posted January 20, 2019 at 4:04 pm | Permalink

    This is a great way to explain how to deal with problematic issues in literature.

  17. Torbjörn Larsson
    Posted January 20, 2019 at 5:04 pm | Permalink

    Yes … but that does not solve the prescriptive/censorship problem since it goes both ways – some or most *will* read books as a lesson for today.

    For example, I don’t think Bible readers are willing to consider its contents as only applicable for its Bronze Age writers. Some even expect a coming christian Ragnarök from its more ludicrous passages.

    • Diana MacPherson
      Posted January 20, 2019 at 5:53 pm | Permalink

      Also, making you feel uncomfortable is considered violence.

  18. Jenny Haniver
    Posted January 20, 2019 at 5:29 pm | Permalink

    I certainly don’t think that people should ban books or bar others from reading an author who expresses sentiments or creates characters that we now find abhorrent. I think that Morton’s advice re “time travel” and contextualization is the way to go.

    However, I fear that such advice will be lost on the very people who need it the most. Some, be they on the right or the left, believe that any writing that doesn’t advance their causes and ideals is harmful and should not be read. I see this as a kind of Philistinism and a evidence of a moral/social/mental purity mentality that is part of their psyche and runs much deeper than just re literature and the arts.

  19. John J. Fitzgerald
    Posted January 20, 2019 at 5:31 pm | Permalink

    Thank you for sharing this article. As a student of history, I constantly need to remind myself of context. Not as an excuse, but a movement toward understanding.The time machine metaphor is an excellent one. Let’s not burn books. Instead let’s review them and critique them.

    John J. Fitzgerald

  20. Ken Kukec
    Posted January 20, 2019 at 8:05 pm | Permalink

    Personally, I believe in a wall of separation between political sentiment and aesthetic judgment (as to works both contemporary and historical).

    Can’t say I succeed unconditionally, but I try conscientiously.

  21. Harrison
    Posted January 20, 2019 at 9:05 pm | Permalink

    “Regarding a writer like Wharton as a creature of her age might bring a further benefit. It might help us see ourselves as creatures of our own.”

    Today’s moral crusaders skew young, and young adults are always certain they’ve got the world figured out better than anyone before them. If you tell them people in the future might find some of their ideas quaint and backwards, they won’t believe you.

    • c carter
      Posted January 21, 2019 at 8:23 am | Permalink

      Ah yes, the certainty and moral superiority of youth. A student in my genetics class once stated (in a discussion of her book review for extra credit) that she thought people had evolved a lot in recent times. When I asked over what span of time she meant, she said “oh, about 20 years” (coincidentally perhaps, approximately her age.) (I merely pointed out that, in that case, we would probably be observing cultural change, rather than biological evolution.)

  22. Roo
    Posted January 20, 2019 at 10:55 pm | Permalink

    I feel like this is a non-issue as long as there are books about Hannibal Lecter and whatnot. If reading a fiction novel were an endorsement of everything in it, we’d have some really big things to worry about in 2019. Historical novels at least have educational value about a time and place in humanity’s past, I think it makes zero sense to worry about them when people literally read books about serial killers every day. No one thinks that’s an endorsement of becoming a serial killer for goodness sakes.

    To be fair, this is an issue I’ve started to think about in some instances regarding “What do we want to be exposed to via media?”. I used to get Netflix ads on social media until recently, when I blocked them after seeing an ad for “You”. Out of curiosity I Googled a synopsis of the show, which turned up a synopsis and some other articles, like a Vulture.com article about whether or not women should be watching something like “You” in the Me Too era. After reading the synopsis I found myself thinking that, as a personal choice (not one of censorship), that no, we probably shouldn’t. I have enough in life to deal with, I don’t need to purposefully pour disempowering, sadistic narcissistic fictional narratives into my head and stream of consciousness, to bobble up repeatedly in my thoughts over the coming days.

    That said, click-bait tv is a far cry from Dostoyevsky. Truly good writers have a message somewhere within their narrative that contains some manner of wisdom, a truth that transcends place and time. That does not mean they aren’t human and automatically immune to all the vices and ignorance of their era – but part of being an adult is being able to separate those things out, to my mind. The exact balance of “disturbing moral confusion to timeless truth” that is acceptable to read is an interesting question – but again, given the absolute monstrosities that we do think it’s totally cool to read or watch, without a second thought, historical literature is really far down the list of things to worry about, to my mind. To act as if it tops the list doesn’t make sense.

    • Posted January 21, 2019 at 5:59 am | Permalink

      It is an issue because it has been made one by those who seek to prevent various books being taught because they somehow fail the moral purity test of the the people who are seeking to knock them off the curriculum. This is harmful to the education of youngsters in various ways:
      i) it denies them the opportunity to read and learn about some great works of literature;
      ii) it falsely leads them to a view that moral standards and attitudes are unchanging;
      iii) it denies them the possibility to confront views that may be challenging to their own world view and to learn and understand how people in other circumstances could arrive at different views to their own.

      • Roo
        Posted January 21, 2019 at 9:32 am | Permalink

        I see what you’re saying, to my mind the article was speaking to the free reading choices of adults, which makes it a bit absurd.

        On the topic of banning books, I think that one is a tale as old as time, the only difference is now it is liberals proposing the banning, which is a new twist. But, when roles and intuitions reverse, I think it is an opportunity for learning, considering how the view looks ‘from the other side’, and so on.

  23. Sshort
    Posted January 20, 2019 at 11:03 pm | Permalink

    A deft cleaving, a useful lens, and a sound metric.

    Thank you for the link.

  24. David Billingham
    Posted January 20, 2019 at 11:59 pm | Permalink

    Judging historical figures by present day morality is all too common these days unfortunately.

  25. infiniteimprobabilit
    Posted January 21, 2019 at 12:35 am | Permalink

    FFS, I’m surprised we’re still allowed to read Shakespeare.

    I have a liking for Damon Runyon, with his highly idiosyncratic language. I can’t see any intentional racial, color or gender hatred in his short stories, though they’re chock-full of stereotypes, and if he ever used a term for women, color or ethnicity that wouldn’t outrage an SJW I haven’t found it yet.

    cr

    • JezGrove
      Posted January 21, 2019 at 2:30 pm | Permalink

      And everything’s in the present tense, so no historical adjustment necessary ;o)

      • infiniteimprobabilit
        Posted January 22, 2019 at 6:09 am | Permalink

        It is reputed that Runyon once uses a past tense, but it is suspected to be a misprint. 😉

        cr

  26. kelskye
    Posted January 21, 2019 at 1:01 am | Permalink

    One of the greatest ways of understanding our moral vantage point is to consume stories of other cultures and other times. And if we can’t understand our vantage point, how do we hope to improve things? It just means we have the false certainties of our own perspectives rather than genuine moral insight into the nature of things.

  27. Posted January 21, 2019 at 1:32 am | Permalink

    As Pinker has bèen showing by his last two great books, the friggin world has changed. See these books and authors as insights to the past as sòmething to help take stock of the present and get a grip. Take the journey and take in the advances been made by those of the times, the work and sacrifice of those who got us here and the work to be done,

  28. Rasmo Carenna
    Posted January 21, 2019 at 2:30 am | Permalink

    This censoring of old “inappropriate” authors is intellectually impoverishing, in my opinion. Personally I have always enjoyed works of the past with a special attention to those values and views that we find abhorrent now. That is what I reflect upon and what gives me food for thought. I don’t care much for the particulars of the plot: A does B and goes to C. Pff! Most of the time it’s all about the same trite themes. But the feelings, the ideas, the assumptions… that’s what teaches me about the way people represented the world to themselves.
    I recently reread “Don Quijote” from start to finish trying to savor every line. Even though I can only remember a few twists of the story, it got me thinking a lot and thinking hard about so many things: power relationships, gender roles, views on religion, social mores… I identified a couple of blatantly racists passages that would send it to the censors’ pyre, but what a loss for a curious mind to be deprived of those works on account of “snow-flakery”.

  29. MKray
    Posted January 21, 2019 at 7:28 am | Permalink

    Has anyone suggested banning that great slavery approving book: the bible?

    • JezGrove
      Posted January 21, 2019 at 2:36 pm | Permalink

      Slavery’s the least of it, I suspect!

  30. CAS
    Posted January 21, 2019 at 9:21 am | Permalink

    “Morality evolves, usually for the better, leaving older books bearing attitudes or characters that we find repugnant.” I’m against censorship, but it is interesting that these censors don’t criticize the holy books of Christianity and Islam that call for the murder and damnation of anyone not sharing their particular fantasies (today around 5 billion people). Even discussing the evil in them, particularly in the case of Islam, is considered a form of prejudice.

  31. Posted January 21, 2019 at 10:38 am | Permalink

    The idea of bringing an author to my time never even occurred to me. It seems obvious that a book transports us to the author’s time. I find the best idea here to be this one:

    “. . . Regarding a writer like Wharton as a creature of her age might bring a further benefit. It might help us see ourselves as creatures of our own”

    This idea of gaining a perspective on our own time and our own ideas is extremely valuable. There’s some famous quote by a scientist that doesn’t come to mind. It basically says, “Gaining a different perspective on a problem goes most of the way to solving it. Everything else is details.”

  32. Posted January 21, 2019 at 1:16 pm | Permalink

    Also, always remember the pathetic fallacy.

  33. ThyroidPlanet
    Posted January 21, 2019 at 2:21 pm | Permalink

    That’s an interesting angle, the time machine.

    The discussion is focused on the authors. It seems the reaction these books get is not necessarily about the stories themselves, but a question: does this author – this individual- personally deserve to be so famous, so celebrated? And if not, they need to be deplatformed.

    • infiniteimprobabilit
      Posted January 22, 2019 at 6:21 am | Permalink

      I do hope that last sentence was facetious. 🙂

      Personally, if I enjoy an author, I neither want to know about his private life nor care. It’s the quality of his writing that interests me.

      (As a loosely related aside, I’m just reading Bill Bryson’s ‘Mother Tongue’, an entertaining history of English language, and he quotes the story of Dr W. C. Minor, the most erudite and prolific contributor to the Oxford English Dictionary. He was sadly unable to attend a gathering of the Dictionary’s contributors as he was in Broadmoor, the prison for the criminally insane.)

      cr

      • GBJames
        Posted January 22, 2019 at 6:53 am | Permalink

        Knowing nothing of an author’s personal life means that you are also missing something about the nature of their work. What someone writes, and how they do so, is greatly informed by the lives they lead.

        • Diana MacPherson
          Posted January 22, 2019 at 8:31 am | Permalink

          You’d think so but I keep coming back to Orson Scott Card. I see his views as (if I’m being generous) retrograde, yet he writes really great characters that are not at all the manifestations of his views.

          • ThyroidPlanet
            Posted January 22, 2019 at 8:42 am | Permalink

            This illustrates something I think I said here before, and I’m sure others have – the distinction between knowing and author and their work as subjects for study, and an apparent desire to buy into the franchise of an author and their work as if the work was a Bible, and the author a saint.

        • infiniteimprobabilit
          Posted January 22, 2019 at 11:08 pm | Permalink

          If I were a literary critic that might have some validity.

          If I’m just reading for enjoyment, I prefer to let the material speak for itself. And many a fiction author has chosen to remain pseudonymous.

          cr

  34. harrync
    Posted January 21, 2019 at 7:20 pm | Permalink

    I would hope that 100 years from now, people will look back at us and say “How could they have let the rich exploit the poor like they did? How could anyone have been a sincere Muslim, Christian or Hindu?” And a lot of other questions, too numerous to list here.

  35. Posted January 23, 2019 at 5:45 am | Permalink

    Reblogged this on The Logical Place.


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