Writing Good

Imaginary evil is romantic and varied; real evil is gloomy, monotonous, barren, boring. Imaginary good is boring; real good is always new, marvelous, intoxicating. Therefore “imaginative literature” is either boring or immoral (or a mixture of both). It only escapes from this alternative if in some way it passes over to the side of reality through the power of art—and only genius can do that.

                                                                                      --Simone Weil, Gravity & Grace

As someone who writes boring and immoral fiction much the time, I can only agree with Simone. And yeah, it’s hard to make the good interesting. The interesting, in fact, is almost by definition transgressive. We write about crime, war, sexual betrayal, Cain against Abel. The hero of all our popular fiction invariably has bad guys ranged against him and they are often more fascinating than the good guy. (One has only to compare the fictional cannibal, the urbane, sophisticated, brilliant Hannibal Lechter with his real-life counterpart, Jeffrey Dahmer, dull, pathetic, and empty.) The mildest domestic comedies are about the deadly sins: pride, greed, envy and so on.

And when I talk of the good, I don’t mean the classic Good Guy of melodrama, which is a cinch to write. The hero of melodrama always behaves according to his code; he never suffers; he is a stranger to compassion; he seeks redemption through violence; his interiority is as thin as the oil on his gun. To add interest to this essentially boring figure, we hang vices around his neck like fetishes. He’s divorced, of course. He drinks. He exhibits despair because—wait for it!—there is evil in the world. For this reason fictional melodrama, representing the vast majority of thrillers and detective novels, accomplishes the feat of, contra Weil, being immoral and boring.

This is because being good is a tragic fate, and tragedy has no place in melodrama. The common wisdom has it that no good deed goes unpunished, and the common wisdom is right. The prophets are without honor in their own country, and they very often get the axe. In melodrama, the faux good guys always win, the girl gets rescued from the railroad tracks where the villain tied her: clinch, music up, fade to black. In life, the girl usually gets killed as, often, so does the good person attempting the rescue. This is a downer. Life is enough of a downer, most of us believe, which is why we read escapist melodrama and watch it on our screens, and which is why our culture sinks us beneath a load of immorality and boredom. We are astounded and dismayed when, for example, our politics refects this culture.

Art, even popular art (maybe especially popular art) ought to give us some relief from that, which is why depicting the glory of goodness in art is so important. Maybe genius is necessary. Certainly genius produced Cordelia in Lear, Alyosha in Brothers Karamazov, Jean Valjean, in Les Miserables, the Magistrate in Waiting for the Barbarians, and John Ames in Gliead, to name a few that come instantly to mind. But maybe genius isn’t necessary, quite. Maybe a growing impatience with crap will suffice.

So what is interesting about the good in the real world? I mean a character who is not consumed by sex and violence, who is not posssessed by a desire for fame, fortune, beauty, and the other objects of material desire, who resists not evil with violence. There are such people and their lives are often dramatic, full of action, delight, and varied incident. Car chases and explosions happen to good people too. Also, good people tend to occupy a different moral universe than most of us. They are not pious frauds as a rule. They are not cowards, as a rule. They face evil directly, because they observe the evil in themselves and respond with humility. This is how they stay good, and avoid the besetting sin of the good, which is spiritual pride. They are not withdrawn from humanity but are involved with the suffering of the world and respond with compassion. When they do bad things they suffer, but they rarely suffer guilt, because part of being good is living in the present moment. They may be religious or irreligious, but they always practice discernment, because good action in the world almost always has evil side effects. This moral calculus is far more interesting and tension-making than romantic illusion, if you can get it right on the page.

Writing a good character is hard, because there are no formulas for it. Good is wild and draws you down unsuspected paths. You have to be particularly inventive in your language, because much of the ordinary language we now use to depict good has become stale and devolved into mere sanctimony. Peter Handke expresses a version of this problem in his script for the film, Wings of Desire: “But no one has so far succeeded in singing an epic of peace. What is wrong with peace that its inspiration doesn’t endure and that it is almost untellable?”

I don’t think that goodness is quite as untellable, as witness the examples above. I like the idea of trying to pass “goodness over to the side of reality through the power of art.” I’m not sure that I can succeed in this, but I intend to try, not because I think it will sell more books (it patently won’t) but because I think it’s a (duh!) good thing, and because it makes me ill to purvey nothing but sex, violence, and evil as amusement. Being one with Caligula is a bitch.