I’m sure parts of India are fantastic to see but there are way too many incidents like this (woman raped and then set on fire) that make me wonder how Western women, in their quest for enlightenment, feel comfortable travelling alone in that country. It’s quite unnerving how easy we humans accept things that happen around us as normal: owning slaves, hanging negros, raping women and/or children, burning witches, silencing minorities, stoning infidels, exploiting workers, Orwellian surveillance and so forth. If the majority are doing it, or not actively fighting it, then it must be OK. Or the other excuse: “it’s part of our culture”.
People can hide the most odious and disgusting practices, like castes and honor killings, behind irrational institutions like culture or religion but they can’t change the fact that oppression of other humans is inconsistent with common decency. Without decency a man is no more than a beast. Since evil triumphs when good men do nothing (Edmund Burke), standing silent on the sidelines and doing nothing is not an acceptable option for a decent human being.
Man as both both creator and created, it seems, is cursed to seek the very formula of creation. Take the case of Victor Frankenstein, Creator, in Mary Shelley’s book of the same name. (Revelation for me, it’s not the monster who’s named Frankenstein). Bent on creating life, he brings to the world a freak both terrifying and thrilling. Unlike the Good Lord who looked upon his creation and saw that it was good, Frankenstein fled his own handiwork. Poor thing. He then determines to destroy what he had brought forth (rather like The Man Upstairs with Noah’s Flood). So begins the struggle between the “Good” and the “Bad” although it’s soon clear that the Good isn’t all good and neither is the Bad all bad. There’s a section in the book when the pitiable creature tells its own story and one’s heart fills with pity.
The novel itself is in the form of a letter written by a young explorer, Robert Walton, to his sister in which he describes his mission to “traverse immense seas” to a land where the “sun is forever visible”. Why? He wishes to “confer on all mankind” his discoveries and he is sure that “success shall crown my endeavours”. Madness? “There is something at work in my soul which I do not understand”. Whereas the adventure in Samuel Butler’s Erewhon was pursued out of curiosity, young Walton seeks to “make a name for myself”. The omens are not good when he picks up Frankenstein from the icy seas where the latter had almost frozen to death while out hunting his daemon.
I think the usual focus on Frankenstein’s creature misses the point of the novel: that what we get after we achieve our dreams may not turn out in any way to be what we dreamt. In fact it could turn out to be much worse. We know this of course. The Greek stories are our perfected examples. But do we learn? Perhaps the question should be: can we learn when there’s often, and maybe always, something in our souls that we do not comprehend willing us on? According to the Introduction in my Puffin version, Frankenstein was Mary Shelley’s entry to a ghost story competition that included her husband, the famous poet P.B. Shelley and other friends among whom was Lord Byron. Ah, with friends like these. She clearly won. It’s not the greatest novel ever written but certainly one of the most original and, for its time likely along with Bram Stoker’s Dracula, the most chilling. Read it and then go fulfil your dream.
Am I evil? Am I good? I’m done asking those questions.
– Dexter, Season 2, “The British Invasion”
Man (also homo sapiens): arguably the most intelligent of nature’s creations; unarguably the most tortured: Good, Evil, Crime, Punishment, Justice, Equality, Freedom, Responsibility, Death. Man is tethered to anguish, its boundary, without definition; its depth, without fathom; its end, doubtful.
Do you ever wonder what is good writing? Seems to me the first question to answer is “what is good?”. Only then can one decide if what one has written is good. Trying to answer what is good leads us naturally to Plato. I’m going to pick Plato’s Theaetetus where Socrates debates Protagoras’ famous maxim that “Man is the measure of all things”. In other words what you think is good is good to you. As Socrates noted, what may be good to you might be crap to most other people. So what are we to do?
Sticking with Plato, in “Crito” Socrates argues against fleeing the city to avoid his execution. He argues that since the city made laws it thinks are good for it and since Socrates himself chose to live in that city then he must necessarily abide by the judgement of the city including the judgement that he be executed. Similarly, we might determine that what is good writing is good only if other writers (which ones – the majority, the influential ones etc) judge the work to be good.
When the impressionists started out, they were derided by traditionalists. Now no one with a “good” eye thinks Monet inferior to Titian. Or do they? Who knows? What we can say from observation is that what is good for a group of people may not be so for a different group. Rome thought it was good to erase Carthage. It’s unlikely the Carthaginians thought so. The biblical God thought it was good to erase the first born of all Egyptians. It’s also unlikely the Egyptians thought likewise.
In art, we can safely say that “good” depends on genre/style/education and experience of the reader/viewer/listener and so on. Hunter S Thompson may be good if you like that jumbled up style but for me personally he’s just a nuisance. I think Vasily Grossman’s Life And Fate not only “good” but excellent but many westerners don’t have a clue who he is. Back to Plato’s Crito, Socrates argues one should take advice from experts – on fitness from a trainer, on health from a doctor and so on. In modern science we are trained to not trust one source but to critique and seek out a multitude of views. Likewise in writing, “good” can be assumed to be by common consent.
To get back to the point then, how do I assess if what I’ve written is good? I think I’ve written something good when I’m excited about my writing with the same heat of excitement I have after reading a really “good” book or author. A bit of circularity there. If despite my heat, virtually everyone else thinks my work is crap then I may well be self-delusional and mad. Vincent van Gogh died with few people thinking his work good but today we all think he was a genius. So what is “good”? Perhaps only the gods know.
(Reproduced from my comments on a blog about good writing)