There is Use in the Secondhand Experience of Temptation

The portrayal of temptation in literature can have, for better and for worse, significant ethical effects.

(photo: Pixabay/CC0)

In an examination of Guardians of the Galaxy II, one of the Marvel franchise’s more recent movies, I spent some time discussing the movie’s failure to portray a convincing villain, a failure which damaged the story as a whole.  If the villain in Guardians had been able to more effectively sell his masterplan to the hero (instead having to resort to hypnosis), it could have been a much better film.  A hero who has to make good intellectual and moral choices using his full capacities is a more interesting and on some level a nobler character than one who acts merely instinctively.  A villain who can almost convince a sound man to follow him is more interesting and on some level more useful character than one who is easily refuted.

Since the screenwriters had time in this case to make the villain more effective (they had only to change a rhetorically weak speech for a strong one), I assumed that the screenwriters were simply unable to write convincingly villainous rhetoric.  Upon further consideration, however, I wonder if that was the only thing, or even the main thing, holding them back.  It is at least conceivable that some of them had ethical scruples about portraying a villain whose tempting is nearly effective.

The problem with a good, solid temptation scene is that it operates differently upon different viewers or readers.  Even the story of the Fall in Genesis has this imperfection: I’ve known non-Christians to genuinely feel that God’s test is tremendously unfair to Adam and Eve.  In the Gospels, Christ refers to that sort of spiritual blindness using Old Testament references to those who lack “eyes to see, and ears to hear.”  Nor is the blindness always spiritual: during the latency period of childhood, which lasts from about age five to twelve, there is generally a diminished ability to comprehend and process certain adult knowledge (a diminished ability which, incidentally, ought to be respected).  And of course, there is always the question of intelligence pure and simple: the annals of history are full of evil men who rose to prominence in part because people were simple enough to believe them.

When it comes to literature, there are plenty of examples in which right and wrong portrayed subtly have led to confusion.  Evelyn Waugh’s masterful and very Catholic novel, Brideshead Revisited, is adored by numerous secular critics only because they fail to see its Catholicity.  Waugh, writing from the point of view of a narrator who is (for most of the story) not Catholic, is too subtle for his advocacy of the Faith to be grasped by many readers.  A still more grave example of this phenomenon is Milton’s Paradise Lost.  Milton asserts rather grandly near the beginning of his biblical epic that he intends “to justify the ways of God to man,” an intention which even a minute scholarly knowledge of Milton’s life and opinions supports.  But over the centuries since Milton wrote, scores if not hundreds of readers have felt (in the words of William Blake) that Milton was “of the Devil's party without knowing it.”  Milton has been rolling in his grave ever since.

This gives the writer a conundrum that is not faced by other creative artists.  If he is called, as some writers are, to write simple stories, stories that deal with good and evil on a level that a child can understand, then there is little or no danger that he will tempt readers beyond their strength.  But if he is called to produce anything more complex—if it is part of his secondary vocation to reproduce moral conundrums with anything like the complexity they sometimes have in real life—then there is always a danger, almost the inevitable danger, that some of his readers may (to paraphrase Blake) take the devil’s side without his intending it.

Fortunately for both readers and writer, it is seldom the case that a single film or novel will endanger anyone’s soul; at worst (or best) it will be a mere contributing factor, one of many.  Still, the responsibility of the writer is real.  And this is why, I think, writers sometimes shy away from portraying evil accurately, even if they know it as it is.  It is perhaps especially a problem for Catholic writers today, who tend to approach their art rather self-consciously; but even secular writers oftentimes feel that they have a mission not to mislead, and indeed to uplift.  One only has to read a few of the (admittedly misguided) recent comments by those involved in producing A Handmaid’s Tale and A Wrinkle in Time to see that, even in the secular world, Important Films are being made, films that will Change Hearts and Minds for the Better (that, at least, is the hope).

And, while the idea that A Handmaid’s Tale might convince Catholics and Evangelicals to endorse birth control is risible, I don’t truly wish to mock writers who hope their work will assist the moral development and stability of its consumers.  It is simply a fact that fiction does have ethical thrust; and so for any thoughtful writer the question immediately becomes one of how to weigh the possible effects of their work—for the outcomes of a story do diverge.  For every person misled by Waugh’s novels or Milton’s poetry, there are perhaps two people whose faith is strengthened by their work—perhaps greatly strengthened.  There is use in the secondhand experience of temptation: in seeing how a literary character is tempted, and understanding the strength of the temptation, and understanding how and why it is overcome.  Done rightly, in a well-disposed mind it engenders both humility and charity, as well as a resolve to avoid the near occasions of sin; for, “There but for the grace of God go I.”  This is no small matter.

Still, is it right for a writer, any writer, to portray evil, even in this “useful” way, if he knows it is likely to mislead some readers?  And how can he weigh the value of the various effects his work will have?  Robinson Crusoe can play a game of credits and debits with his circumstances; it seem hardly permissible to play noughts and crosses for individual souls.  And of course, if the writer is going to enter into calculations about the moral effects of his work, it is impermissible, inexcusable to wager that on the balance “It will do more good than harm.”  It’s equally impermissible for the Catholic to throw his hands in the air and let the chips fall where they may.  The goal of every writer should be to produce work which will mislead no one, work which, in effect, whoever its intended audience might be, will draw up into that audience those who are not of it: a work that the simple and the cunning, the good and the bad, will alike be able to read for what it is.  I suspect that this is not usually a matter of being less subtle but rather more so.  Certainly it is a matter demanding great prayer on the part of the writer—prayer first, and then art, art produced without too much intellectual hair-pulling, but merely on instinct and grace.  But the grace is as important as the instinct.  Chesterton was right (though he was approaching the problem from another angle) when he said that the poet ought to be the best and not the worst of men.

And if, after all that, the Great Catholic Writer finds that his Great Catholic Novel is still misunderstood, and has done damage to a few sad souls—well, there is this comfort.  God gave us two books, the world itself and the Bible that comes through the Church, and both of those have been mightily misunderstood from their first appearance up through the present day.  Even the saintliest subcreator can scarcely aspire to a better track record than that of the Master Artist Himself.