Genesis 3

Reality, responsibility, and ‘The Eye of the Maker’

 

To admit the fact that contradicts all one’s assumptions is the mark of an honest man.

—David Warren

Whatever you may think of the Hebrew Scriptures as theology or history, they are certainly sound as psychology: far sounder, in fact, than we parochial moderns (who like to believe that the study of the human mind began only with Freud) can admit without considerable abashment.

Eve, then Adam, ate the forbidden fruit: that, we are told, was the first sin. The second sin, which followed immediately, was trying to shift the blame. ‘Eve made me do it,’ said Adam, and ‘The serpent made me do it,’ said Eve. The serpent seems not to have been available for questioning, but if God did in fact track it down and ask for its account of the story, it probably said: ‘I just told them about the fruit. I didn’t pick it.’ There was enough blame to go round, but none of the three guilty parties would accept a proper share of it. So instead there was enough blame to go round . . . and round . . . and round — and it is going round still.

C. S. Lewis said: ‘Courage is not simply one of the virtues, but the form of every virtue at the testing point.’ Tolkien, who I think was a more troubled and scrupulous soul, took a more ambivalent view of courage:

For this ‘northern heroic spirit’ is never quite pure; it is of gold and an alloy. Unalloyed it would direct a man to endure even death unflinching, when necessary: that is when death may help the achievement of some object of will, or when life can only be purchased by denial of what one stands for. But since such conduct is held admirable, the alloy of personal good name was never wholly absent.

If there is one form of courage that comes near being free of ‘the alloy of personal good name’, it is the moral courage required to say, ‘It was my fault.’ Adam and Eve were as lacking in this courage as most of us. And this should not surprise us, for they had no training for it. They knew that their audience would not think well of them for having eaten the apple; they had no reason to think that courage would be rewarded. So they tried to deflect the blame instead. Most people do this, I think, pretty much of the time. Moral courage (as Dr. Johnson said of gratitude) is a fruit of great cultivation; and we live in a society that has made a fetish of short sight and self-regard, and seldom troubles about any fruit that requires much cultivation at all.

This is to some extent even literally true. A short walk from my house there is a supermarket which sells objects under the name of apples, which George Orwell famously dismissed as ‘lumps of highly-coloured cotton wool from America or Australia’; and of the people who buy them he said, ‘they will devour these things, apparently with pleasure, and let the English apples rot under the trees.’ Safeway built up a great retail empire on the strength of this principle. They established enormous corporate produce farms in California to turn out these lumps of cotton wool, and others that might be legally sold as anything from asparagus to zucchini, whose only virtues were their cheapness and the fact that they were obtainable at all seasons. In the end Wal-Mart hoist them with their own petard.

As soon as we get away from literal fruit, and start talking about the fruit of human character, the point becomes even more obvious. Everyone complains about the bad character of other people, but few will work to develop their own. The reason in either case is the same: the bad character of others gives us trouble, but having a good character requires taking trouble voluntarily on others’ behalf.

Nowhere is this clearer than in the matter of accepting blame. People want confessions, as a rule, to save themselves the trouble of finding out whom to ‘get even’ with. I put ‘get even’ in sneer quotes because so many people want punitive damages far in excess of restitution. It is fashionable to decry the primitive vengefulness of the lex talionis, but in fact primitive vengeance is exactly what thelex talionis was instituted to prevent. ‘An eye for an eye’ means just that; it means that you shall not take more than an eye. You naturally feel that your eye, which was so much better than Jones’s (or he would not have been such a hopeless shot as to put it out), is worth two of his. And while Jones, once you have blinded him, cannot take your other eye in retribution, his brother can, and his brother (who now has to support Jones for life) naturally feels that since you have made a dead loss of Jones, it is only fair to make a dead body of you. Then Smith weighs in against Jones, perhaps because your death has either inconvenienced or outraged him, perhaps for some other reason: until everybody and everything is devoured by the compound interest of revenge, long after the tiny principal has been paid off.

In this garden of poisonous weeds, there is no hope of cultivating the tender fruit of moral courage, because to admit any fault is just to paint a gigantic target over one’s heart. If you say, ‘It was my fault,’ you can expect teachers to flunk you, bosses to sack you, judges to jail you, and all sorts of other uncomfortable and undesirable consequences. Perhaps only our parents — some of them — and a few old-fashioned pious souls will still give you credit for the courage to admit your errors and accept the blame.

Now that our legal systems have formally repudiated the lex talionis and even the idea of retributive justice, it may be that the only really moral or civilized thing in our laws is the plea-bargain. If a man commits murder, we want to see him punished for murder, and howl with frustration when he gets off with eighteen months’ imprisonment for manslaughter. But in fact the prosecutor, in trading a lesser charge for a confession, may well be the only person who has ever offered to reward that man for telling a truth discreditable to himself. I think it a habit worth encouraging, even at such a cost. It would be better still to encourage everyone to tell the truth, even if they are not criminals; but let us consider possibilities, and leave miracles to God.

Of course matters are made worse by the common habit, inculcated by Marxists and Freudians and positively prescribed by Chomskyites and other Postmodernists, of treating truth itself as merely the present state of an unending argument. Marx tells us that truth is an economic artifact, that all our beliefs are conditioned by our position in the class struggle. Freud tells us that our beliefs are either wish-fulfilment fantasies or sublimations of the death-wish. The Postmodernists have been saying for forty ghastly years that all argument is merely a political struggle, and that ‘truth’ is defined by the power-group that imposes its own terms on the discourse. The idea that there could be any independent reality to argue about is foreign to the entire Postmodernist way of thinking. The upshot of any of these philosophies, as applied to moral courage, is the same. Why confess to any wrongdoing, if by a clever argument you can put yourself in the right? It is so much better to be the innocent victim of someone else’s crime; and better still to be the hero who put that crime to rights, though he was tragically misunderstood. And if you can make these things true just by saying they are true (as long as you are believed), why on earth should you do anything else?

 

I have been thinking a good deal about these things, in the context of my own dubious writings, because I seem to keep catching some ghostly hint of importance, of (ghastly phrase) thematic relevance, wandering in the labyrinthine plot of The Eye of the Maker. I shall try — it is a delicate job — to show where I see the connexions without boring anyone with excessive details about the book.

The ‘scenario’ of the tale is quite simple: A young man with a certain amount of intelligence and native courage, but no other particular talents, finds a device that gives a trained user the ability to observe, clearly and accurately, any real event that he chooses to set his mind upon, from where you left your keys this morning to the precise text of a book lost centuries ago, or for that matter, the thoughts in the mind of the philosopher who wrote it. In other words, it makes him potentially omniscient: only potentially, because its use still requires attention, and it will not answer questions that you have never even thought of asking. He sees almost at once, using this device, that an immeasurable disaster is in the offing. Two ancient enemies of his people (one considered mythological by right-thinking moderns, the other considered no longer dangerous) have combined forces to conquer and destroy first his country, ultimately the entire world; and to do this they are using powers likely to destroy them as well.

Our Hero’s attempts to prevent the coming catastrophe comprise the burden of the tale. Three great obstacles stand against him. The first is that he, as an otherwise ordinary man, has no direct power to alter events. He cannot command armies or issue decrees, or set things right by magic. Second, his people’s enemies do not want the device to be used against them, and will stop at the customary nothing to suppress it. Third and worst, many of those on his side do not want the device used at all, either because their power depends upon lies which they fear to have exposed, or because they are wedded to the idea of truth as something infinitely manipulable, and viscerally loathe the prospect of being confronted with a reality fundamentally indifferent to their wishes.

And that, so far as theme goes, is that. Of course, since all this is set in a historical and cultural ‘matrix’ probably as detailed as anything in what is still sometimes called epic fantasy, these essentially simple conflicts take a lot of working out. In a way, I only discovered what the book was really about in the process of writing it; and if I keep going, it is only because there is something in the idea that will not let me go. It is of course presumptuous and absurd to compare something as small as myself with something as large as J.R.R. Tolkien, but of course I am bound to find myself doing it, as in my puny way I am trying to practise his trade. In any case a grapefruit and the sun are both round and yellow, and it may be profitable to examine them in light of their similarities, leaving aside the obvious vast differences of size and brilliance.

Tolkien lived and wrote in a world threatened with extinction by a failure of ethics. Partly by happenstance, partly by design, he wrote a book affirming in the strongest and most dramatic terms a truth very near to his heart, which was exactly what that world needed to hear. Power is not Destiny, he said: we may have the capacity to do evil and yet choose not to do it. The Ring of Power can be renounced and destroyed. As it happens, our present civilization (if not the human race as a whole) has only survived because we have finally learned that lesson, refusing to blow ourselves to kingdom come just because we could; and of the many people who taught it to us, Tolkien was one of the most influential. He firmly maintained that The Lord of the Rings had applicability to modern situations, but was not an allegory. This was the exact truth. But if a reader in the shadow of the H-bomb saw Frodo in the shadow of the Ring, she was naturally bound to see the obvious parallels; and if she had any training in Modernist literary criticism, she could only assume that the Ring was a symbol invented solely to draw those parallels. This is a weakness in Modernist criticism, but I have discussed that sufficiently elsewhere.

I sometimes think that the human race is incapable of remembering more than one lesson at a time. Today we are painfully sensitive to the dangers of destroying ourselves by our own technological power, even, I believe, to the point of panicking at dangers that are not there. Our capacity for self-destruction is less than we fear. But we seem to have forgotten a much more elementary lesson, which is that truth is not subject to negotiation. As Orwell said, rocks are hard, water is wet, objects unsupported fall towards the earth’s centre, and two and two make four no matter how convenient it would be if just this once they made three or five. But for too many of us, our attention is turned to opinions instead of facts, and we are no longer taught the difference between them. The house I am living in, for instance, if it came on the open market today, would probably sell for about four hundred thousand dollars. That is not a fact, it is an opinion; it is based on the fact that other, similar houses are being sold for that price every day in this city, but that fact in turn is based upon the opinion of the buyers and sellers that the houses are worth that much.

In politics, in business, in popular culture, in nearly all the ephemera that bombard us daily under the misleading name of ‘news’, nearly everything is opinion masquerading as fact, or opinion nakedly expressed. You see it most obviously in sport, because that is where the most ludicrous wishful thinking coexists with the most indisputable evidence. Somewhere in the vicinity of my desk is a copy of the latest yearbook by The Hockey News. It contains an article on each team in the National Hockey League, and a naive soul might think it would tell you what each team has done in the past year. Of course it does nothing of the kind. Each article contains about five lines summarizing what the team did last year, and a page and a half of the most confident predictions and prescriptions for the coming season. We are blithely told that the Calgary Flames must score more goals, and that the Edmonton Oilers will finish 12th in the Western Conference. Yet every one of these statements in the future tense is a matter of opinion, and nearly all of them will presently be contradicted by the facts. Of course the writers of The Hockey News, and the fans of the respective teams, will show great fluency in constructing explanations of why their predictions did not pan out. Like Adam and Eve, they will try to deflect responsibility for their own failures. The best explanation, that they were fools to make confident predictions about an unpredictable future when they had not even an adequate knowledge of the present, will probably never occur to most of them.

Of all people, however, professional athletes (I cannot say the same for their fans) are least likely to believe that wishes, hopes, or fears are equivalent to facts. At the end of an athletic competition, there is a winner and at least one loser, and the score is recorded with great precision. We know that Tiger Woods was five under par on a certain day, and neither he nor anyone else can take one stroke off his score by argument.

Most of us work at less measurable occupations, and the trade of writers and artists is the least measurable of all. It is probablyinherently unmeasurable, except by methods amounting to vivisection. I know that I experience certain emotional and aesthetic responses to a symphony by Beethoven, or a painting by Turner, or a poem by Tennyson; but the only way to objectively assess those responses would be to put me under bright lights and cameras, stick me full of electrodes, and measure my reactions in volts and millimetres. Of course nobody ever does appreciate art in such a condition, and if you were to make the experiment, I doubt you would measure anything except my discomfort at being your subject. Heisenberg’s principle applies to more things than he intended: human beings are as skittish as electrons. But we are all of us trying to produce a certain kind of response in our audience, and using our own response as a very imperfect meter to gauge it by, and the still more imperfect meter of the halting language some of them use to express their opinions of our work.

But the reality remains. Some paintings convey an image to the mind, some don’t; and most people with normal hearing have one reaction to a Mozart concerto, and quite another to the odd congeries of sound-effects and practical jokes that John Cage called music. As you move further from the reactions of the human mind, out into the world of merely physical phenomena, things become more measurable and less subjective. It should come as no surprise to find that there are thousands of Postmodernist writers but hardly any Postmodernist physicists. But for the average urban person, increasingly surrounded by processed images and filtered impressions rather than by inert objects, the distinction between fact and opinion becomes increasingly blurred. The beauty of nature is subjective, and so is the beauty of a picture postcard; but then nature itself is objective, where the postcard may be nine-tenths Photoshop.

I should like to rekindle the feeling of reality, to remind people that not everything is subject to argument and that truisms really can be true. I feel like Winston Smith, though in a very different milieu: Freedom is the freedom to say that two plus two make four. If that is granted, all else follows. I could say likewise that reason is the power to recognize that two plus two make four; and if that is not granted, nothing else can ever follow.

In the most elementary philosophy course (if not taught by a dunce or an ideologue), you can learn not only the rules and fallacies of logic, but some of the most obvious errors of epistemology and the answers to them. The answer to solipsism is the passivity of experience: things happen whether you wish them to or not, and you cannot make them happen just by wishing. You can sometimes do this in a dream, where solipsism is effectively true; and that is how you can tell it is a dream. Any radical subjectivism is just solipsism in fancy dress. It is silly to say that my desk is rectangular ‘for me’ and oval ‘for you’, and that each of our ‘interpretations’ is equally valid; but not as silly as some of the things that actually are said by radical subjectivists. I could have made a pretty collection from personal experience if I had chosen.

I know better. I know perfectly well that unpleasant things happen whether you want them to or not. Some people seem to think that bad things only happen because you subconsciously wish them to happen. I can state with absolute certainty that this is not so, because I have lived the proof. It seems to me that someone ought to stand up for the reality of reality, the factualness of facts. It ought not to be necessary, but it is. I have sometimes said, in vulgar mood, that reality is what bites you on the arse when you’re looking the other way. Most of the things that have happened to me were neither things hoped for nor things feared, but came upon me quite unexpectedly by the anfractuous pathways of the exterior world. They were not of my choosing at all.

I find it very sad that some people have taught themselves, or been taught, to forget this. But here I am, living in a world crammed with people who disbelieve in the very concept of objective truth, or, if they think there is an objective reality, disbelieve in the possibility of knowing anything about it. The practical difference between the two kinds, like the difference between atheists and agnostics, is small beer indeed. I have seen such people damage themselves and others immensely by their inability to distinguish fact from fantasy. It seems strange and counterintuitive to say that they might accept the existence of facts if you persuade them with fantasies; but that is just the kind of counterintuitiveness that reality continually exasperates me by exhibiting. If we can make no impression by beating them with the stick of fact, we may yet gain some results with the carrot of fantasy. Perhaps some of them will follow that gentle lure right across thepons asinorum.

That, I suppose, is why I keep coming back to The Eye of the Maker, no matter how often I am daunted by its difficulty or discouraged by rejection. It is the foolish feeling that this story of mine may palatably express some things that I think need to be said. But if I am wrong, or if I merely fail, I shall try not to blame the serpent.

 

Comments

  1. I’m picking this post more or less at random as I’ve been indulging in a complete read of everything posted under Essays so far in Bondwine.com

    Just wanted to say how thoroughly impressed I am at your level of writing in all these essays. I’ll pick up your published fiction since it falls in my usual area, but I don’t yet know if your excellences of style carry over to your fiction. I can but hope.

    In these essays: diction, precision of word choice, perception, analysis, references — all very fine indeed. I was born in 1953, so I came of age just as Tolkien became truly available and saw (and bought) all the excrescences that sprouted as a result. You have a stronger stomach than I do, though, if you read more than half a Terry Goodkind book. Or Donaldson.

    One curiosity — no commentary on Gormenghast? Certainly something of a unique work.

    And a request — more Cabell, please, and Pratchett, both so often overlooked in general Tolkien-comparison/fantasy overviews. I’m grateful you mention them at all.

    I have not reread it since it came out and perhaps it doesn’t merit mentioning, but I can remember thinking at the time of the miscellaneous fantasy boom that The Riddlemaster of Hed (Patricia McKillip) was less nausea-inducing than most. I’m almost afraid to buy the reissued one volume trilogy to see how poorly it bears up.

  2. Your remarks on house prices are based on two fallacies, or a fallacy plus a confusion. Social facts are just as much facts as physical facts, and theories are both more and less than opinions.

    To begin with, it is a fact that a particular rock has fallen from a particular height, perhaps from the sky, at a particular time and place. It is a theory, a pretty well established theory, that rocks fall (in a gravity field, and if gravity is not countered by the electromagnetic force, which is what “supported” means). At one time, it was a mere conjecture that rocks could fall from the sky, and Thomas Jefferson said that he would rather believe that two Yankee professors lied. He was wrong, which is why the saying is remembered. The theory of meteorites, like the theory of falling rocks generally, is now so well established that it would be perverse to withhold provisional assent: I say “provisional” because it might in principle be shown to be wrong, or overly limited, in future, as Newton’s theory of gravity was. But one thing it is not is an opinion of yours or mine or Eric Blair’s.

    Secondly, it is a social fact, not reducible to any set of physical facts, that you and I are writing English and not Greek. It is a social fact, not reducible to facts about individuals, that Britain and Germany were at war in 1943 and at peace in 2003. Likewise, the price of a house is a social fact. If Alice offers to sell her house without specifying a price, and Bob offers $400,000 for it and Alice accepts, that is not a matter of opinion any more. There may be opinions around this: perhaps Bob believed that Alice would accept that price, but then again perhaps he was very surprised by her acceptance of it. Perhaps Alice believed that she could get $500,000; again, she was wrong when measured against fact. If your house is said by Charlie, who is not learned in the art of assessing, to be worth $400,000, that is an opinion. But if a professional assessor says so, it is not merely an opinion, though not a social fact until you actually sell your house; rather, it is a theory. It is a social fact that you will pay taxes on your house according to the assessed value.

    “Some paintings convey an image to the mind, some don’t.” Some paintings may convey an image to your mind but not mine, or even vice versa (though I doubt it, as I am much less visual than most people). Art is by nature a representation, but some representations are objective (in the sense of being generally agreed upon), some are not.

  3. Wendy S Delmater says:

    Parsing your comments on this and other posts, you seem to be very interested in criticizing Mr. Simon. Is there anything at all that he’s written here in this blog that you actually like? Or are you just in a confrontational mood?

  4. “The difference between atheists and agnostics, is small beer indeed”: I forgot to comment on this. It may seem small to you, but the difference between the United Church and the Catholic Church seems equally small to a New Atheist, or for that matter to the sort of Christians that Lewis described thus: “They don’t think human reason or human conscience of any value at all: they maintain, as stoutly as Calvin, that there’s no reason why God’s dealings should appear just (let alone, merciful) to us: and they maintain the doctrine that all our righteousness is filthy rags [Is. 64:6] with a fierceness and sincerity which is like a blow in the face.” From my viewpoint, atheism is just another kind of dogmatism. I will concede, however, that the difference is small in this respect: no one has ever made Agnostic vs. Atheist a ground of persecution.

  5. I do enjoy and even agree with much of it. If I didn’t, I wouldn’t bother to be critical.

  6. You linked to this essay recently, and so I reread it and was moved to comment appreciatively. Then I noticed I already did so, two years ago.

    So, at least my opinions are stable. 🙂

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