In this episode of the Fiction/Non/Fiction podcast, writers James Traub and Margot Livesey discuss the idea of morally weak characters with hosts V.V. Ganeshananthan and Whitney Terrell. In part one, Traub talks moral weakness, the concept of decency in the public sphere, and his recent Atlantic article about the Strzok hearing. Livesey explores the morally weak character in her novel Mercury, fiction and moral failings in the private sphere, and famously flawed characters in literary history.
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Readings for the Episode:
“Decency Loses Its Moral Force” by James Traub · “Selfishness Is Killing Liberalism” by James Traub · John Quincy Adams: Militant Spirit by James Traub · The Hidden Machinery: Essays on Writing, and Mercury by Margot Livesey · 12 Angry Men by Sidney Lumet · On Liberty by John Stuart Mill · All The King’s Men by Robert Penn Warren · Put Out More Flags by Evelyn Waugh · Homage to Catalonia by George Orwell · 1984 by George Orwell · Moby-Dick by Herman Melville · The Good Soldier by Ford Madox Ford · “The Interview” by Ruth Prawer Jhabvala · Giovanni’s Room by James Baldwin · All the King’s Men by Robert Penn Warren · Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison · “A Good Man Is Hard to Find” by Flannery O’Connor · “Drinking Coffee Elsewhere” by ZZ Packer · A Passage to India by E. M. Forster · Magneto from The X-Men · The Stanford prison experiment
James Traub on the loss of decency in politics:
James Traub: I grew up in the late 1960s—I was born in 1954, the year of the Army-McCarthy hearings—and so I think my ideological position, some combination of Jewish Universalism and the 1960s, built this big sense of what’s just and unjust in me. And I suppose you could say my whole career has been dedicated to that question. But as I get older (I don’t think this is at all unique to me) I think that the human virtues, that is to say, the “how we behave toward each other” questions—the “ordinary” virtues is the word some people use—seem more and more salient to me. And I’m probably less and less inclined to think that having the just answer, winning the just argument, permits you to be indecent. I guess I kind of fear more and more the consequences of losing our grip on decency. And of course, not just the election of Donald Trump but, in recent years, the sort of flaming indecency of American popular culture has brought this question to the fore.
Whitney Terrell: You mention Henry Fonda and you talk about [how] in any film starring him we get to see the quiet, undemonstrative heroism of the decent man. Could you talk a little bit more about why that particular fictional character was so important for the time that we’re talking about and maybe we could talk about some other characters that fit that line?
JT: I talk about Henry Fonda because I was trying to find figures from that mid-century period to remind people of what it meant to be decent, and the Henry Fonda character, really even more than Gary Cooper/Jimmy Stewart, who would be the other ones in that group, always incarnated decency, which is to say he didn’t have other virtues necessarily. He wasn’t the smartest guy in the room. He wasn’t the strongest guy in the room. He often was extremely not ambitious, but he had the sense of how to be right towards others. When I first wrote about it I was thinking of his role in
12 Angry Men.
JT: You have 12 guys who don’t know each other. They have different kinds of politics. They come from different places, but they have been handed someone’s life. And each one is revealed in their foibles. Some are timid. Some are bad. They’re selfish. Some are cowardly. Some are really kind of monstrous, and Henry Fonda is a little reserved at the beginning. He’s an architect, I think. It’s the 1950s, and he’s a nice liberal guy, and there are elements in his speech that maybe you could have heard on The West Wing, so I don’t want to take this too far, but his whole role is: we must withhold judgment and think carefully and consciously, and not give way to our own prejudices and predispositions because of this large obligation we have. So, that was directing the listener, not so much to a political point of view, to a left or right thing, but to something everyone would have recognized as being right.
Part of the point I made in the piece is that the 1950s, the moment before everything broke apart in the 60s, was a kind of consensual moment. I say that of course with the full knowledge that it was a time when Black people were treated as second-class citizens, and indeed non-white, non-straight, non-male American citizens were, but there was this kind of foundational sense of what it means to do right by somebody. And movies, which could not stray very far from that mainstream view, were where that morality was embodied in the same way as in Victorian England. You would find that in Dickens or in Trollope.
WT: Sugi, I’d be interested to know if you had the same experience, but we both studied with James Alan McPherson at the University of Iowa. When I was there Jim was really, really interested in the Westerns, and I watched Henry Fonda for the first time with him, in particular the 1943 film The Ox-Bow Incident, which is similar to 12 Angry Men in the sense that Henry Fonda tries to prevent a lynching and also the movie The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, which is a Jimmy Stewart movie. One of the things that was really important to him that he thought you could learn from these movies, that you’re talking about from this same period, was the idea of integrity, which I think is somewhat similar to this idea of decency that you’re talking about. In other words, Jim’s belief was that characters that had integrity were the same on the inside as on the outside. In other words, they didn’t have hidden motives, and they would also live by a code.
V.V. Ganeshananthan: I was actually thinking about the ways in which your definition of decency tracks in some ways with more recent debates about civility and that I think touches on, Whitney, what you were just saying about Jim’s notion that people with integrity were the same on the inside and the outside and that recent debate over civility—the idea that we should talk about politics in a polite manner. People saying horrible things should be dealt with in a “polite manner.” The idea that that is important. . .
WT: I don’t know.
VVG: I’m not saying I agree with that, but the people who are promoting the idea of “civility” are talking about the notion that people holding beliefs that are abhorrent to them should be dealt with in ways that have surface politeness.
JT: The politesse question could almost take you away from what we’re talking about because obviously integrity, at times, demands that you stand up for painful truths.
VVG: Yeah. And I think when we’re talking about integrity—just to be really direct about that—why is it a shame for the Republican senators to ask Peter Strzok about his affairs? It’s a shame because that affair has nothing to do with the investigation. It has nothing to do with his work. It has nothing to do with the political affair at hand, and it’s really irrelevant, and what’s more is it’s a pretty stunning hypocrisy as others have pointed out. If you are really going to talk about infidelity, sexual improprieties etc. etc., look at who’s in the White House. Asking Peter Strzok about, “Is that how you lie to your wife?” is really a crock.
Margot Livesey on the difference between villains and the morally weak:
V.V. Ganeshananthan: I wonder if we need to define this term that I think I was throwing around while reading the news: “The morally weak!” But in terms of literature, a morally weak character isn’t the same as a villain. I mean Ahab is a villain, but he’s not morally weak. A character like the narrator of The Good Soldier knows the difference between good and evil, and would like to do good, but fails to act on that knowledge. So I wonder what you think the definition of being morally weak even is. Is there some other way we should be thinking about it? Is it cowardice or paranoia or . . . ?
Margot Livesey: Well I’ve been thinking about this since you spoke to me about the idea of the morally weak, and I was thinking: we think of Iago as being a villain. And we think of Othello as being morally weak.
Whitney Terrell: Right!
ML: . . . because he so quickly falls into Iago’s traps and so easily believes bad things about Desdemona. And I suppose in Hamlet we think of Hamlet as in some ways, for all his reasoning, being morally weak, while Gertrude and Claudius are evil but not weak.
WT: [laughs] We’re coming back to Shakespeare as our touchstone for all things. Did you think about Viv [from Mercury] as “Okay, this is her weakness. Her ambition is also going to cause this sort of moral decay on her part”?
ML: I suppose what I thought about it was the idea of her having some Achilles heel or fatal flaw, which is something that I learned about in seminars on Shakespeare at university when F. R. Leavis was a kind of god.
WT: Although it feels to me that when you’re talking about a morally weak person, there’s some other option that they could have been. Viv doesn’t have to go as overboard as she does in her horsemanship.
ML: I think that’s really key: that when we think about someone being morally weak, we feel that they could be better or they could do otherwise. Whereas I think with the really evil person, it begins to feel like no, they almost couldn’t do otherwise.
WT: Yeah. So I wanted to talk to you and Sugi and get your nominations for other characters in literature who might fit this description as we’re outlining it. And are you happy with this definition, Sugi? Do you have anything else you want to add?
VVG: I guess when we’re thinking about Othello, or even about Viv, on some level we’re thinking about selfishness as well. But I think that notion of “Could you do something different?”—I mean I of course was looking at the administration and thinking about the morally weak, but perhaps that distinction between the morally weak and the evil is really helpful.
WT: I think guilt’s part of it, and deceit is part of it. Like Viv hides what she’s doing from her husband.
VVG: Mhm, right.
WT: And I think that’s part of the calculation of what makes me feel like she’s a morally weak person. She knows that she’s doing something wrong, and it’s hurting someone who loves her.
VVG: There are people in the world and in literature who are evil who I want to shout at and say they’re morally weak, but actually they’re not morally weak—they’re just villains.
ML: And then, sometimes people are just muddled. There’s a wonderful story by Ruth Prawer Jhabvala, “The Interview,” in which this young man describes in the first person his attempt to get a job and go to this interview. As you read, the enormous pleasure is his level of self-deception and how he’s prepared to live off his family for all eternity, rather than actually exert himself.
WT: Yeah, I think self-deception is also part of it, and that reminds me: Margot you mentioned to me in an email when we were setting up this episode—you nominated the narrator from James Baldwin’s
Giovanni’s Room, which I thought was a brilliant idea.
WT: And I find a lot of parallels between him and the narrator of Ford’s novel [The Good Soldier]. Maybe you could talk to us more specifically about why that character came to mind for you?
ML: I think David in Baldwin’s Giovanni’s Room is just one of the most heartbreaking characters, because he does appreciate Giovanni. Some of those early scenes where the electricity is flowing between them—there’s one scene where they’re walking down the street, walking to Giovanni’s room, and they’re tossing cherries back and forth between them. . . .
ML: I just find that so radiant and so heartbreaking. You know, he knows he’s behaving badly. He knows that he’s failing Giovanni’s love and joy, and those passages where he’s waiting for Giovanni to die are just excruciating.
WT: Yeah, I guess the point that I’d chime with in what you’re talking about is that he has the capacity to feel love and understand and be in tune with his world, and then he allows that to be lost. He doesn’t fight for it—of course fighting for that love would, as Baldwin makes clear, mean fighting against, heroically, his society’s prejudices.
Transcribed by Erin Saxon and Kevin Kotur