Thursday, December 11, 2008

Relatively Speaking

Am I a moralist?

I often feel like I am more willing to go into absolutes than other people I know, sometimes more than I care to be. I strive to understand everything, and have done so since I was very young, even things I find repugnant, but I believe firmly that some things are just completely fucking wrong no matter how you look at it. That is a consideration of morals, certainly; whether it is moralism is something I want to explore.

Tonight my mother and I saw The Reader, an imperfect but deeply moving and fascinating movie. (Beware of spoilers.) The film, with the always-awkward conceit of being set in Germany among Germans but being written and spoken in English with slight German accents, is an intense, beautiful exploration of morality, sex and literacy.

In 1958 fifteen-year-old Michael spends several months having a passionate affair with much-older tram conductor, Hanna (played by my favorite actor ever, Kate Winslet)—during which, at her request, he reads to her at least as much as they make love. Eight years later, when Michael is in law school, his legal ethics seminar travels to a trial of concentration camp guards, and Hanna is among the accused. Michael figures out that she has always been illiterate; after she has been in prison for many years of her life sentence, he sends her tapes of himself reading, from which she teaches herself to read. And she was still a Nazi, and even after she learns to read she does not regret her crimes.

I wept during the sequence where Hanna was learning to read. I am a once and probably future instructor of adult literacy, so it may mean more to me than to most people, but I cried.

There are things in the movie that have nothing to do with morality, passionate love or literacy, but they're poorly done (everyone's raving about a scene with Lena Olin at the end, but I could do without it) and irrelevant. (Except Kate Winslet's naked body, which is *always* relevant. That isn't the reason she's my favorite actor ever, but it's certainly a bonus.) Those things all kind of annoyed me, and distracted me from what I think was the central but somewhat poorly executed point that literacy does not bear any relationship to morality, even though we wish it did. I was frustrated with the mistakes it made (casting Ralph Fiennes as the older Michael was a big one—too bloody patrician, in spite of his best efforts), but deeply moved by its central relationship.

Then I read an Anthony Lane review in The New Yorker, wherein he panned the movie basically because he doesn't think we should care, or be asked to care, about an "unrepentant Nazi" becoming literate. He dismissed the movie based on that sentiment.

I was more furious at that than I am at the movie's failings. And I believe my first verbalized thought was something like, "What a smarmy moralist fuck."

Therefore, I am not a moralist.

But nor am I a moral relativist. This consideration made me realize how much control moralists tend to have in defining the world.

A moralist, I now believe, is someone who not only believes in absolutes of right and wrong, but also believes that those absolutes of right and wrong are unique and paramount in defining the world, that no other standards should be used. A moralist believes that the polarity of right and wrong trumps everything else in the world we live in—that when it comes down to it, the world is not defined by any factors other than morals.

I believe that there are absolutes of right and wrong. This can make me unpalatable to some genres of liberals (or make those genres of liberals unpalatable to me). I try to be pluralist and inclusive, which makes me unpalatable to some genres of moralists or conservatives, but the truth is I am always secretly happy when I can reduce things to moral polarities. But I also believe that there are things that have a controlling interest in the way we live and behave, and the way we should live and behave, that have absolutely nothing to do with morality.

Moralists would have me believe—and on occasion *have* had me believe—that this perspective makes me a moral relativist, somebody who thinks nothing is genuinely good or bad without a thorough deconstruction of the surrounding circumstances. Moralists would have you believe that being a moral relativist is the only way you can, say, care about a murderer, or be invested in a character who's a Nazi. Both Anthony Lane and the constantly, needlessly snotty Manohla Dargis take this position when considering The Reader: if a movie asks us to empathize with, care about, a character who believes in things that are inescapably morally wrong, and if it succeeds and we do so, then both we and the movie are inescapably morally wrong.

This is bullshit.

Why is this bullshit? Because love is separate from morality. Because understanding is separate from morality. Because literacy is separate from morality. The three things I just mentioned, among many others, are tremendous factors in the world. As such, they need to be considered with as much weight as morals if we are to live in the world we do live in, as opposed to one that would be neat to live in. I have as my Email signature the Camus quote, "Unless we choose to ignore reality, we must find our values in it." This is exactly what he was talking about.

Some things will always be wrong, and nevertheless we will always have to live with them. We are better served in living with them by being able to see what else we live with.

Is letting three hundred people under your control burn to death inescapably morally wrong? I would say so. Can you still be in love with someone who did something so inescapably morally wrong? Fuck yeah. Does that give you a role in that inescapably morally wrong thing? I don't know, and that's a question I could write about for the rest of my life, and *want* to write about for the rest of my life, and that I don't think good writers, or even mixed-quality writers like Reader screenwriter David Hare, should dismiss or shut down because you can attach the trigger word for inescapable moral wrongness, "Nazi," to a character's name.

The revelation of The Reader as it stands isn't that morality and literacy are not the same thing, but if the film had in fact hit what it was aiming for, it would be. If they'd done the last scene with Hanna and Michael right I would have been fucking weeping in devastation, and it would have been because of that. The movie made me realize that I taught a murderer. I never thought about it in those words; he was who he was. I knew of his crimes and history, and I knew him in the classroom, and those were two different people. For me to keep those elements of the same man completely separate was unfair; for me to not appreciate his considerable talents as a writer or a student because he was a murderer would be equally unfair; for me not to acknowledge the horrific thing he had done was equally unethical. Had I been braver and better-considered, I might have tried to learn more from him about what makes a murderer. I was neither of those things. Yet my teacher-student relationship with this man existed and mattered. Whether it existed "independent of his being a murderer" is a matter for deeper consideration than I am capable of at this hour, but both the fact of its existence and the fact that the man committed murder are unimpeachable. Hanna's horrific acts and the controlling love and passion she and Michael shared are, similarly, both unimpeachably true in the world of the film.

We gain little by saying one piece of knowledge trumps all others, and that is the central argument of moralists. If you know Hanna was a Nazi, say Manohla Dargis and Anthony Lane, why develop her character? If you know right from wrong, goes the moralist credo, you don't *really* need to know anything else.

And that is the kind of bullshit that makes me furious, whether you're talking about my student, this movie, or anything else.


Post a Comment

<< Home