Last weekend, Toni Morrison gave a talk at UCSC on literature and the silence of goodness. It was part of the 2014 Founders Celebration events at UCSC.
She gave a similar talk at Cornell last year (“Translating goodness”), and in the Ingersoll 2012 Lecture at Harvard Divinity School. She began with a non-literary example of forgiveness, that of the Amish community’s reaction after the shooting of nine young girls (five died) and the suicide of the killer in 2006. They responded with support for the families, media silence, and no vengeance. The silence particularly impressed Toni Morrison and started her thinking about this broader topic of the silence of goodness. Evil exercises no fascination on her. She wondered about its attraction for others, what she called its worshipping. Why is evil so captivating? In the nineteenth century, she said, whatever the forces of malice, redemption was there at the end. She spoke of the effects of WW I, the disappearance of happy endings. With WW I and one could add even worse with WW II, the dynamics of evil and redemption set up in nineteenth-century bourgeois fiction didn’t quite fathom anymore the depths human misery could reach, and any morality play looked trite and hypocritical. Acts of goodness were greeted with suspicion or irony. True heroes were dead ones.
It all sounded so categorical. I wondered about Saint-Exupéry’s works. Or children’s literature. I granted the point however that the force of goodness is more mysterious than that of evil, this crafty grabber of the intellectual platform. Before giving examples of the role of goodness in the drama of her own books, she mentioned Umberto Eco’s The Prague Cemetery, fascinating, distant, scornful of good intentions. In Roth, Bellow, etc., goodness seemed comical and frail. She noted an exception to this chorus of minds fascinated by evil: Marilyn Robinson. I thought of others still.
All along the talk, I kept thinking of Apollinaire’s line in La jolie rousse: “Nous voulons explorer la bonté contrée énorme où tout se tait” = “We want to explore kindness enormous region where all falls quiet.” Apollinaire the wounded soldier of WW I. The drama of good vs evil swirls around kindness, goodness, self-giving, forgiveness, as the hurricane around its eye. Forgiveness, the broad giving of everything that counts without calculation or expectation of recognition (hence its no-name, no-image) is at the center of being human or pan-human, or is all that this noosphere may consist of. A fiction of it is rather paradoxical. Better if fiction continues to function as a reminder of the eye at the center of the storm. The father of the prodigal or lost son in Luke 15—another story—looks so weak, so un-patriarchal, yet so dramatically decisive and speedy in restoring the younger son to original status. It was the right thing to do, he says to his older, envious, raging son. He begs him to enter into this pacified, giving society “where everything falls quiet.”
Modern society presents many opportunities to give and forgive in ways that are more splendid and sublime than ever before because completely invisible to others. In fact, the raison d’être of modern economic development, with its systematic erasure of stifling local, traditional bonds and the explosion of enticing, temporary, greedy freedoms of capitalist structures, is its enabling of un-named, quiet, transforming, non-reciprocal and assymetric giving. I’m not thinking about philanthropy, certainly not the name-rich philanthropy of Founders’ Day at a fast-corporatizing UCSC and its expensive speech on the silence of goodness (20,000$+ if I’m not mistaken). I’m thinking of hidden forms of generosity, beyond our anonymous taxation and social security systems, though they are at the heart of it too. This giving and forgiving beyond public morality, this thousand-fold com-passion or em-pathy in families, offices, streets, companies, that is our work of fiction, a negative of the printed and electronic one, the heart of a moving coral reef. Like a coral reef, it is capable of establishing “lasting institutions” in spite of what Melville’s Billy Budd says, quoted by Hannah Arendt (On Revolution, p. 86). Printed history and fiction sometimes hesitatingly point in the direction of this old, unmarketable story.