Thursday, October 14, 2004

A Brief Word on Morality and Fiction Occasioned by Watching Ingmar Bergman's The Shame

I just want to go on the record as saying that I think that it is good for fiction to be moral. By that I mean that it is good for a story to illustrate one or more moral principles, and not only that, but that many moral principles can only be illustrated through fiction. Those of us who call ourselves Christians should be able to understand this since Jesus used stories in just such a way.

This idea is counter to much of the direction of 20th century fiction writing. I'm no expert on the history of novels, so I can only be approximate here. If one reads the victorian authors it is easy to see that the authors were promoting certain ideals. In Trollope's The Warden, e.g., the main conflict of the story circles around the idea of whether recipients of charity can or should be content with what they have received, whether it is proper to receive money for administering charity, and the corrosive effects of rumor, slander, tale-telling, etc on relationships of all sorts. Now, I have mentioned to you some of these moral questions, but they are not the sort of things that can be understood well and properly outside the realm of actual relationships. This is something fiction can approximate. By having characters with relationships to each other, with histories and places in life, one can this image how morality actually works.

Sometime around the turn of the 20th century, many novelists decided that this was not what fiction should do, that it should just picture life as it really is. Thus H. L. Mencken scoffing at the idea of those who always are trying to improve humanity. Admittedly, much of 20th century fiction simply takes a back door approach, masquerading as a "realistic" picture but working to illustrate principles the novelist has in mind, or perhaps even principles which are subconsious to the author.

Much more and more intelligent discussion along these lines can be found in Alasdair MacIntyre's After Virtue (the section on Jane Austen), and Stanley Hauerwas' essay "The Novel as School of Virtue" in Dispatches From the Front. All of this brings me back to watching the Bergman film.

Shame, or The Shame (the article is missing on the box, but included on the title screen) is a fictitious story of a fictitious war in a fictitious European country. When it started I assumed it was WWII (and certainly it has plenty of echoes of that war), but it became clear that that was not the real context. Since Bergman seems to have wanted to make a film about "war", rather than a particular war, this ambiguity was effective. It follows the lives of a young, childless married couple who are non-combatants. The film systematically tracks how the war destroys their relationships with their neighbors, with each other, their livelihood, their property and savings, and, most importantly I think, their character.

This, it seems to me, is all proper for a war film to do. This is how fiction "tells the truth" in ways that other media cannot. For me this makes Shame a better film than, e.g., Saving Private Ryan. The latter film is much more realistic, is bound to a real setting in a real time and based, if I remember correctly, on a "true story". It also illustrates some of these principles in its own way, and some others as well. But the realism seems to create some ambiguities. We all know that WWII had a purpose (defeat the evil Nazis), and thus war could be seen as an evil which must be endured to achieve that end. So perhaps the war was good. In Shame, it is never clear what the purpose of the war is, or even if there is one. This seems to tell the story of many non-combatants more accurately. They did not ask for war, did not want to participate in it, and in nearly every way were victims of forces entirely beyond their control.

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