05 September 2007

The Moral Argument of Talking Dogs

The Rake on James Wood's criticism of "hysterical realism":
His puffed-up preferences are not moral imperatives.

I happen to disagree with Wood, but in invoking moral objections he's already denied me equal textual footing for a rebuttal. Certain metatextual questions remain in play: We can talk, for example, about whether or not Robert Lowell should have incorporated his ex-wife's letters into his work, but I fear I'm not willing or able to sustain a moral argument for or against Pynchon's decision to include a talking dog and a mechanical duck in Mason & Dixon rather than more conventional, rounded human characters. To engage a moral argument about such things is to be led down the primrose path by Wood, where we will engage in narrowing the novel instead of celebrating its manifold possibilities.

1 comment:

  1. I'm pretty confused by The Rake's article. I attribute that to a number of features of it: I don't understand what many of its phrases, like "mimetic weirdness" or "the primrose path", mean; I don't follow the thought behind certain segues in its argument;-- and I don't think that the author understands what Wood means by moral. I might be missing references or not following out of density or I may be misunderstanding Wood myself, though.

    As I understand it, Wood argues that fiction strays from morality when it presents a distorted picture of the world; when it's reductive or contemptuous or whatnot. In the same way that one can't act morally when informed by nothing but prejudiced information, one is not better enabled to relate to the world after reading a depiction of the world that doesn't match it.

    I can remember reading some Wood article where he took a passage of Evelyn Waugh to task because it caricatured the... some group or other. The implication seemed to be that if one were to take Waugh's depiction as truthful, one would be misinformed and less charitable to the group. I agree with that implication; such a piece of writing is immoral in the same way that being told the same thing by a person is immoral. In the same way, in fact, that the opening of The Rake's essay strikes me as (mildly, mildly) immoral: if the use of the image of Wood pushed-up together on a bike wasn't meant as genteel humiliation, I can't see its purpose.

    I haven't read Mason & Dixon so I can't speak about the talking dog. I'm sure that Pynchon didn't mean to imply that talking dogs exist but I am sure that he meant it to mean something. And if what it meant was some aspect of reality, distorted, then I'd argue that you can call its use immoral.