Blog by Sumana Harihareswara, Changeset founder

11 Mar 2005, 15:48 p.m.

Question Marks

Hi, reader. I wrote this in 2005 and it's now more than five years old. So it may be very out of date; the world, and I, have changed a lot since I wrote it! I'm keeping this up for historical archive purposes, but the me of today may 100% disagree with what I said then. I rarely edit posts after publishing them, but if I do, I usually leave a note in italics to mark the edit and the reason. If this post is particularly offensive or breaches someone's privacy, please contact me.

Unitarian Universalist jokes and a Satanism joke: "Satanism seems to be an elaborate prank designed to annoy Christians while having some good parties ... rather than a system one could practically live by."

The classics AND contemporary media sometimes show people doing immoral things, and sometimes we see that these actions lead to their downfall. Kristen, you ask why certain books become classics, and whether classics that portray immoral behavior are smut. I've never understood what smut is. I think smut would be pornography that didn't care about a story or characters. The classics care about story.

Literature explores different ways of being human, as my old English teacher said. I realized, after reading George Eliot's classic Middlemarch and finding in Rosamond's character a reflection of myself, that I should be more emotionally independent and not a self-important parasite like her. But that's not because the story punishes her. It's because Eliot describes Rosamond so precisely, wittily, and devastatingly that I wince at recognizing myself.

And TV shows have taught me stuff, too. Sitcoms teach me that lying and hiding stuff never works; if I'm straightforward and honest with people, my life gets a lot easier. The elegant plot structures and wordplay I remember from Seinfeld (probably a classic) and Mad About You taught me about art before I ever read Fitzgerald.

I'd argue that the movie The Matrix is a classic; if anyone wants me to expand on that, shoot me an e-mail.

Compare-and-contrast: the CAPAlert guy who marks a movie down for portraying sin, even if the movie shows the sinner punished for his sin. His justification is that the very portrayal of the sin might influence a child who had not previously considered that sin. I'm not certain there are any edifying stories that don't depict bad behavior; there has to be a Goofus to make Gallant look good.

In our everyday lives, sometimes good things happen to bad people and vice versa. So morality plays for children will have to be somewhat unrealistic, and stories for adults, aiming to recreate the familiar, will depict these dismaying outcomes. (I hesitate to say the word "unrealistic." I've just read C.S. Lewis's Screwtape Letters, and his scorning comments on the secular world's use of the word "real" to mean "most unpleasant, whether material or notional" make the word "real" stick in my throat. What a funny, disorienting, doubly-directing book, Lewis's Christian edifications feinting behind the Devil's decreasingly convincing instructions.)

Last night I saw Camus's The Just, a hundred-year-old play about terrorists aiming to overthrow the Tsarist Russian state. [Spoilers ahead.] In the end, only one of them dies, but one goes mad. We as adults watching the play know that none of these people comes to a happy end and Russia never gets free, but within the play there's very little explicit punishment for the plotting and murdering. [End of spoilers.] Does that make the play immoral? I really doubt The Just encourages anyone to become a terrorist.

But the main point of your post, Kristen, was about teaching ourselves to act responsibly and accountably. If I could change one thing about the way my parents raised me, I'd work on that very aspect of my rearing. If they'd let me make little choices and suffer the consequences of choosing wrongly, I'd have been more prepared for the stormy ocean of adult life. I think.