Literature and Morality

While in most parts of developed countries, barriers of morality have been re-demarcated constantly by writers and painters and philosophers, in this country issues about morality in literature are still vigorously debated. Some senior writers here condemn the works of a handful of female writers – such as Djenar Maesa Ayu, Ayu Utami and Dewi Lestari – as pornographic. These senior writers lament about the loss of the head in Indonesian recent literature. These senior writers are for me as outdated as when George Sand commented on Flaubert’s Madame Bovary. Sand questioned Flaubert with concern why he wrote a novel so bereft of any morality as Madame Bovary. Flaubert replied to Sand he was not as much interested in the morality of Madame Bovary as he was with her humanity.

Flaubert’s obsession with mots justes and frailty of humanity earned him today the reputation as father of literary modernism. Nietzsche and the postmodern thinkers, such as André Breton, Georges Battaile and the ilk, have pushed the limits of morality ever to the edge. Once they were also accused of being blasphemous in arts. Now they are considered pioneers of the arts. The umbilical cord that once bound literature and morality have once and for all been sundered. Milan Kundera says there’s a history of the arts, but in art there is no history. Repetition in the art is pointless. Any artist worth the salt of the earth constantly aims to break through precedent accepted forms or thoughts. To demand that these writers or artists to conform to the rigidity of morality, or any doctrine for that matter, is akin to tying up the hands behind them, while demanding that they be bold to raise the bars of esthetics.

What then can be gotten out of literature? I hear one of these moralists holler from the back of the room. I think literature is the exchange medium of human experiences. We read into a line of poetry or a paragraph of fiction the relativity of our own experiences and certain ingrained humane truths.

For example, here is a short poem by Philip Larkin, which connects with most enlightened readers, but might have irked stout believers. The poem is called Water.

If I were called in
To construct a religion
I should make use of water.

Going to church
Would entail a fording
To dry, different cloths;

My liturgy would employ
Images of sousing
A furious devout drench,

And I should raise in the east
A glass of water
Where any-angled light
Would congregate endlessly.

It is clear Larkin is a very religious (or secularly) spiritual poet, whichever point of view one wants to look at the poem). Stanza by stanza, he is clearly saying to us one can’t take religiosity as easily as attending church regularly. It takes more ardor than that, for it ‘would entail a fording to dry, different cloths. This is reaffirmed in the next stanza that more rigors are required to carve a path to religiosity: My liturgy would employ/Images of sousing/A furious devout drench.

The lines such as I should raise in the east/A glass of water and Where any-angled light/Would congregate endlessly denote for me Larkin’s call for tolerance of differences of faith because all are congregated by the same light of the Supreme Being. Such a poem might easily offend a devout Christian. In the hand of a highly enlightened poet such as Larkin, he has both broken through an impasse in esthetic expression about religion (a much traversed path since Keats and Shelly) and imparts a fresh truth about religiosity at the same time. Therefore, taking offense at the blasphemous nature of the poem or at the poet would only connote a sort of bigotry or rigidity of one’s understanding of faith.

In the end, we must admit that morality is rigid and art is always dynamic. To find one in the other is possible through a winking irony such as in Larkin’s poem, but often times, the preoccupation of art lies elsewhere.

A version of this article was published in The Jakarta Globe, December 2008

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