On Moral Fiction (1978)
Notes put together from the book; each passage could be a starting point for discussion.
Criticism, like art, is partly a game [but the game has a point].
My basic message . . . drawn from Homer, Plato, Aristotle, Dante, and the rest, and a standard in Western civilization down through the eighteenth century . . . : TRUE ART IS MORAL: it seeks to improve life, not debase it.
Trivial art has no meaning or value except in the shadow of more serious art.
Art is essentially serious and beneficial, a game played against chaos and death, against entropy.
Art re-discovers, generation by generation, what is necessary to humanness.
The critic’s proper business is explanation and evaluation, . . .
To understand a critic, one needs a clear head and a sensitive heart, but not great powers of the imagination.
Criticism and art, like theology and religion, are basically companions but not always friends. At times, they may be enemies.
True art is a conduit between body and soul, between feeling unabstracted and abstraction unfelt.
Dullness is the chief enemy of art.
True art is too complex to reflect the party line.
True art is by its nature moral. We recognize true art by its careful, thoroughly honest search for and analysis of values.
**Morality is nothing more than doing what is unselfish, helpful, kind, and noble-hearted, and doing it with at least a reasonable expectation that . . . we won’t be sorry for what we’ve done. Moral action is action which affirms life.
True morality [is] life-affirming, just, and compassionate behavior.
Great art celebrates life’s potential, offering a vision unmistakably and unsentimentally rooted in love.
In art, morality and love are inextricably bound: we affirm what is good . . . because we care.
Critics would be useful people to have around if they would simply do their work, carefully and thoughtfully assessing works of art, calling attention to those worth noticing, and explaining clearly, sensibly, and justly why others need not take up our time.
A good book is one that, for its time, is wise, sane, and magical, one that clarifies life and tends to improve it.
The chief quality that distinguishes great art . . . is its sanity, the good sense and efficient energy with which it goes after what is really there and feels significant.
The true artist’s purpose, and the purpose of the true critic after him, is to show what is healthy, in other words sane, in human seeing, thinking, and feeling, and to point out what is not.
The theoretical border between art and madness seems to be, then, that the artist can wake up and the psychotic cannot. When Hamlet plays mad, he takes a step toward real madness. Sanity is remembering the purpose of the game.
**The business of civilization is to pay attention, remembering what is central, remembering that we live or die by the artist’s vision, sane or cracked.