Tuesday, December 27, 2022

“Our Knowledge of Others Is Always Partial”: Garth Greenwell on the Morality of Fiction

I can’t remember how I recently came across To a Green Thought, the substack of novelist, poet, literary critic, and educator Garth Greenwell, but I’m sure glad I did. He is an exceptional writer – insightful, erudite, humorous.

Greenwell’s latest pieces in entitled “I Hated The Hours (et d’autres tristesses),” in which he muses on “the morality of fiction, writing like a pianist, and freedom in art.” Following are excerpts relating to the “morality of fiction” part, the one I found most compelling.


I’m not sure [that “aestheticizing a quagmire”] is . . . what great novels do. Please don’t quiz me on this – it’s been a few years since I read it – but I’m not sure that Anna Karenina, say, forces me to permanently suspend judgment and hold everyone blameless. I don’t think that’s true of any of the books I love, which actually I think are constantly inviting me to exercise my judgment. But they also constantly remind me that human beings are not monovalent, that no judgment can be final, that any life is more ample than any judgment I could draw. That’s what annoys us, I think, in our age of ideological bubbles, of blocking and ostracization: the insistence that judgment does not exhaust our knowledge of a person; or rather, to put it more strongly, that judgment does not exhaust our duty to know a person.

To be sure, there are situations whose moral valence is clear: there are crimes, and there should be punishments. But if that’s all you want to know about a situation – that there’s a villain and they should be punished – then I don’t think we need art to think about it. This was part of my annoyance with Tár, which I really don’t want to write about very much, since I think it’s best forgotten. But that’s an example of a film that always already knows the answer, in which everyone is held up for our derision and condemnation, in which dumb horror-movie atmospherics (which never add up to anything or lead anywhere) try to fill up the void where characters should be. There’s no complexity: Tár is a monster from the start, threatening schoolchildren and tyrannizing her family, not to mention talking about music in the dumbest, most cartoonish way possible; and her victims are nothing but victims. (The most interesting character in the film is Tár’s assistant, whose story it should have been: she adores Tár and hates her, is betrayed by her and engineers her destruction. Make that movie, you cowards.) Anyway, I didn’t need a movie about Tár, or not this movie, since it doesn’t convincingly portray her brilliance or her hungers, or even, with any depth or penetration, her cruelty. For the story the movie apparently wants to tell, an article in the Times would have been plenty. I want more from a novel or a film: call it a moral quagmire if you want, or call it depthlessness, an awareness that our knowledge of others is always partial; an awareness that the value of others’ lives is not exhausted by their bad acts, that such value can never be exhausted. This doesn’t mean permanently suspending judgment, or suggesting that “nobody is at fault”; it means seeing that no one is reducible to fault.

. . . [S]ome people might argue that art is nothing but manipulation: that all art intends for us to have an emotional response, and performs certain maneuvers to elicit it. I guess I just don’t think this is true, finally; good art doesn’t treat us like mechanisms. This is something mysterious to me, the way that great art refrains from dictating our response, the way it respects our freedom – presenting us with something too complex to coerce an uncomplicated response. The greatest art, I sometimes think, has a kind of terrifying, sublime indifference to our response. I feel this about certain poems by Bishop or Geoffrey Hill, say. This isn’t coldness or a rejection of emotion; it’s emotion profoundly felt, emotion that has wrestled with itself.

Or maybe that’s not quite right. Maybe it’s emotion in which something is genuinely at risk. In the great operas, which so often are all about flooding us with emotion – Tristan, or the Inquisitor scene in Don Carlo, or Grimes’s madness – there’s a danger, a wildness, a teetering up to the abyss, that has something in it beyond manipulation because there is something in it beyond control. Call it the duende, maybe.

To read Garth Greenwell’s “I Hated The Hours (et d’autres tristesses)” in its entirety, click here.

Related Off-site Links:
Garth Greenwell’s Official Website.
Review: Garth Greenwell’s Cleanness Thrums With Life’s Questions – Nellie Hermann (Los Angeles Times, January 10, 2020).
James Baldwin’s Giovanni’s Room: An Antidote to Shame – Garth Greenwell (The Guardian, November 19, 2016).

See also the previous Wild Reed posts:
The Distinguished Rhone Fraser: Cultural Critic, Bibliophile, and Dramatist
Yahia Lababidi: “Poetry Is How We Pray Now”
Boseman on Wilson
James Baldwin’s Potent Interweavings of Race, Homoeroticism, and the Spiritual
Austen and Australia
Return of the (Cornish) Native
On Brokeback Mountain: Remembering Queer Lives and Loves Never Fully Realized
Passion, Tide and Time
As the Last Walls Dissolve . . . Everything is Possible
E. M. Forster’s “Elusive Ideal”
Love at Love’s Brightest
Don Gorton on the Significance of Maurice (Part I)
Don Gorton on the Significance of Maurice (Part II)
Conversing and Arguing with the Theology of Philip Pullman
At Swim, Two Boys: A Beautiful Novel
My Travels With Doris
Tariq Ali Discusses Rudyard Kipling
John le Carré’s Dark Suspicions

Image: Oriette D’Angelo.

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