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Morality vs. Enchantment: A Response to Victor Acquista’s Writing to Raise Consciousness: Meaning & Intent

I very much enjoyed your post, Victor. And as Curtis noted, one could easily compose a twelve-page essay in response. I’ll keep my remarks confined to a few loosely related thoughts which flitted through my own consciousness as I read your blog post.

First off, this question of “writing to raise consciousness”—quibbling definitions aside, I take your meaning—and, in the main, applaud the intent—whilst wincing from such a baldly stated, motivating aesthetic principle of overt didacticism and moral uplift. Though John Gardner has remarked “true art is by its nature moral” (italics his in On Moral Fiction; Basic Books, Inc.; 1978) Vladimir Nabokov tells us that there are “. . . three points of view from which a writer can be considered: He may be considered as a storyteller, as a teacher, and as an enchanter. A major writer combines these three . . . but it is the enchanter in him that predominates and makes him a major writer.”

Regarding your observation that “authors often write to get readers to think about a particular issue” I can only exclaim, indeed! I oftentimes write to think more deeply about a particular issue or to explore a theme; I think all serious writers are more interested in theme than plot. (Excepting hacks, eh? I confess to a firmly held prejudice here: I think writers of lesser talent, ability and ambition are all-consumed by plot; whereas writers of greater stature–that is to say writers of deeper thought, broader emotion and depth of feeling–are spurred to action, epiphany and insight by an exploration of theme.)

Now please understand that I do respect your approach to the craft; I honor and salute the thoughtful deliberateness and intentionality with which you interweave spiritual values into your work. (No ironic quote marks around that phrase; no tiresome inquiry into the epistemological and ontological qualities you mean to evoke by such usage. I’m willing to roll with phrases like “planetary consciousness” in this instance.) It strikes me that you are consciously writing in a long and noble moral tradition, one that hearkens back to the Axial Age. (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Axial_Age )

My own encounters with writers such as Viktor Frankl, Carl Sagan, Bertrand Russell, Thich Nhat Hanh and Albert Einstein have inculcated in me a fierce unapologetic humanism which rejects any and all ideological verities which seek to elevate autocratic thinking and institutions over the individual. As regards writers of fiction who have left a similarly profound mark I would point to such exemplars of excellence as Hemingway, Steinbeck, John Irving, Pat Conroy, Toni Morrison, et. al. (Far too many to enumerate here. I believe all writers with something to say eschew dogma and cant in favor of that “great honesty and probity of a priest of God” that Hemingway fingered as the requisite criteria of character and vitalism that informs and animates all lasting literary work.)

And yet . . . and yet . . . Is there not an element of pretension and narcissism in baldly stating to the reader that one hopes to “raise their consciousness” by one’s own writing? Is this not, perhaps, too “on-the-nose”, pseudo-Victorian (“This book lacks the essential moral uplift required of all great literature.”) and/or off-the-mark entirely as regards fiction? Is it not true that most people love being entertained and resent being educated? Returning to Nabokov’s observation that “it is the enchanter in him that predominates and makes him a major writer” (Salmon Rushdie, Umberto Ecco, Tolkien, Neil Gaiman, Italo Calvino, et. al.) are we in danger of rending the fairy-like enchantment of the fictional dream by an all-too-obvious, overt hand orchestrating character and theme? On the other hand, does it smack of rank cowardice, evasion and duplicity to deny that one has any such intent or responsibility when we all know the profound and lasting impact well-written moral fiction (let’s embrace John Gardner’s unflinching and unapologetic term) can have on consciousness and behavior?

Questions, questions . . .

I am so very glad you raised them, Victor.

Cheers!

PS. I hope my respect to your approach to the craft is apparent in the words above. Your blog post is a rich one that could serve as a springboard for many future discussions; the tangential issues alone could keep us occupied for years.

 

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23 thoughts on “Morality vs. Enchantment: A Response to Victor Acquista’s Writing to Raise Consciousness: Meaning & Intent

  1. GD Deckard says:

    Now, there’s a complex question: Can a writer raise the reader’s consciousness?

    Yes, if the operational definition is, “…raising consciousness is to call attention, to get the reader to notice or to think about something in an introspective way.” (- Victor Acquista, Writing to Raise Consciousness—Meaning and Intent.)
    A good writer can do that to readers in ways that can be empirically measured.

    Maybe, if the operational definition is, “… to raise consciousness by getting readers to think differently, to challenge beliefs, to expand and grow in their consciousness.” (- Victor Acquista, ibid.)
    You’d have to ask the reader if any of that happened to them. Much of the evidence would be anecdotal.

    I don’t know, if the operational definition is, “…anything that I do, write, or even think potentially influences the collective planetary consciousness….” (- Victor Acquista, ibid.)
    Has anyone ever observed and measured consciousness?

    The wonder of writing is to create something. The effect that has on the reader may or may not be what the writer had in mind. Ask any poet. 🙂

    Liked by 2 people

    • victoracquista says:

      I would like to think of something clever and witty to say, but nothing comes to mind.

      “The wonder of writing is to create something. The effect that has on the reader may or may not be what the writer had in mind. Ask any poet.”

      A keen observation my friend!

      Liked by 2 people

  2. mimispeike says:

    The best thing we can do is to write about what fascinates us, explore issues, and offer a point of view that others can integrate into their own (inevitably blindered) world view, hopefully to the betterment. I do think that the idea of goosing consciousness comes more naturally to those who write Sci-Fi, the future of the species, etc.

    “I think all serious writers are more interested in theme than plot.” This I certainly agree with. My plot is as insubstantial as it can be. Do I have a theme, then? I’m afraid my theme is: Life sucks. Deal with it as creatively as you are able to. Also – a responsible grown-up I am not – Rules are for fools.

    Moral uplift, etc.? Screw that shit. Unless it’s entirely unintentional. (That would be Sly’s view also.)

    Calculated enchantment? Is that even possible?

    Liked by 4 people

  3. GD Deckard says:

    For some (hopefully) reason I am remembering that when our Founding Fathers crafted our governing documents, they shared the thoughts of John Locke, Charles Montesquieu, and Jean-Jacques Rousseau. It can be argued that those writers did shape the thoughts and actions of others in a profound way that did, in fact, change the world.

    Liked by 3 people

  4. victoracquista says:

    Carl, you certainly have provided us with some thoughtful and scholarly commentary. There’s a lot to unpack. I find it a little provocative that you characterized, in part, my shared thoughts as “overt didacticism”. I suppose ‘beauty lies in the eye of the beholder’. In retrospect, my effort to clarify meaning does indeed smack of some didacticism; although, I did not appreciate that until you pointed it out.

    I resonate with John Gardner’s notion that “true art is by its nature moral” and feel some egoic pleasure in thinking that perhaps my words (how I tackle the art of writing) might indeed be “true” according to this metric. Yet, it seems to me that a very credible argument could simply point out that morality and morals are a slippery slope littered with obstacles of values, judgements, and beliefs. If one accepts moral relativism in art (writing and otherwise), then truth also becomes relative. From the Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy, “Moral relativism is the view that moral judgments are true or false only relative to some particular standpoint (for instance, that of a culture or a historical period) and that no standpoint is uniquely privileged over all others.”

    I don’t know what particular criticisms were levied against Gardner, but I have to imagine some critics mentioned moral relativism and/or truth as relative. Still, a reviewer commented on Gardner’s work as follows:

    “By ‘moral fiction’ the author meant fiction that attempts to test human values, not for the purpose of preaching or peddling a particular ideology or mode of conduct, but in an honest and open-minded effort to find out what best promotes human fulfillment. Such writing does so, as great artists beginning with Homer have always known, by the kind of analysis of characters and actions that brings both the writer and the reader to a fuller understanding, sympathy, and vision of human possibility.”

    I must say I find this notion of ‘moral fiction’ most appealing and by all means aspire to raise consciousness in such a fashion through my writing. In this sense, I hope to be less preachy and less didactic and elevate (raise) the reader to consider what is humanly possible. I think I managed this type of moral fiction in Sentient, but that would be something for readers to decide.

    As for Nabokov’s approach to characterizing writers, I have no reason to disagree, but will point out that there are other ways to parse writing. Orson Scott Card in his book, ‘How to Write Science Fiction’, breaks writing SF into plot driven, character driven, or event driven–another useful way to think about writing. I view these as useful tools of analysis. I would love for readers to be enchanted by my writing, but I honestly feel I am well short of that mark. I also think enchantment is from the reader’s perspective, I would find it difficult to write with the purpose of writing something enchanting to the reader. Not saying it cannot be done so much as saying I would find that to be difficult.

    I like your comments about theme and will give it some more thought. My initial thoughts are that you are spot on.

    Your comments about the Axial Age and the thought leaders that you reference are appreciated, but we all stand on the shoulders of giants. I would argue that dividing institutions (or anything related to the collective) and individuals has merit, but there is a false dichotomy. It isn’t ‘either/or’ so much as ‘both/and’. Can you think of any ‘meaningful lasting literary work’ that does not impact both? As an aside, and related to the issues you raise, have you read anything by the contemporary American philosopher, Ken Wilber? If you have not, I recommend ‘A Theory of Everything’. It’s a quick read and very intellectually stimulating. I also think you would immensely enjoy Steve McIntosh’s book, ‘Integral Consciousness and the Future of Evolution’, (https://www.amazon.com/dp/B004Y76NFG/ref=dp-kindle-redirect?_encoding=UTF8&btkr=1). I mention these books not to try and sound smart or academically sophisticated so much as to share ideas and resources that I have found valuable.

    At the risk of rambling and perhaps becoming boring, your closing paragraph (including the well-received taunts) contains some elements that I simply must address. Pretension—perhaps yes, but I did include this disclaimer in my post: “Am I deluding myself in thinking I can write ‘stuff’ that is going to actually raise consciousness?” Narcissism–I think not, at least not in the sense of self-aggrandizement or ego inflated ‘it’s all about me’. When individuals express themselves creatively, this does represent an expression of self. But, (alluding to some previous thoughts I had shared on this board about apple trees being authentic and true to self by producing apples), a narcissistic apple tree would take umbrage and be offended or deny anyone challenging the goodness of their apples. Think of the scene in The Wizard of Oz where Dorothy criticizes the apples and the tree gets angry. My writing to raise consciousness represents an expression of who I am.

    It is silly to think that individuals do not vary in their expression of consciousness, that some humans are not more well developed than others along the ‘consciousness scale’ (granted that definition of this is not well established). I am more than willing to suggest that Thich Nhat Hanh or Eckhart Tolle expresses consciousness at levels well above my own. They share their insights with others. There is nothing inherently narcissistic about sharing who you are. If I had skill in music composition and shared this by composing a symphony, is that narcissism? Some may object to considering consciousness in terms of a developmental hierarchy. If a reader is insulted by my intent to raise their consciousness using the mechanism of my writing, I think the reader has to own that, not the writer. At least, not this writer.

    “…are we in danger of rending the fairy-like enchantment of the fictional dream by an all-too-obvious and overt hand orchestrating character and theme?” Yes, absolutely! Where is that balance—enchanted exposition of theme without getting up on a soap box and turning the reader off instead of on?

    “Or does it smack of rank cowardice, evasion and duplicity to deny that one has any such intent…?” While I can probably think of several dozen reasons to characterize myself with attributes of rank cowardice, evasion, and duplicity (conveniently I shall add here, false humility), I must congratulate you on discerning my true nature as an inscrutable mountebank. More seriously, you cause me to wonder. I do not think I am comfortable with proactively announcing my intention to readers. I am comfortable in explaining my intentions upon being asked (a couple of co-op members asked me to clarify what I meant by writing to raise consciousness) or in responding to a reader or critic who wonders about my intent.

    In many respects, the exercise of writing the original post, commenting on members’ feedback and now scribing a further response to your well-crafted stream of consciousness has been illuminating to me personally. You have certainly helped me to clarify aspects of my motives and methods.

    I shall now return to my laboratory where I am creating a mind machine to manipulate consciousness and diabolically enslave humanity.

    Thank You!

    Liked by 4 people

    • @Victor: I very much appreciate your extended and thoughtful reply. I hope I made it clear that I respect and in many ways admire your direct and unequivocally stated ambition to fashion words in such a way that they raise the consciousness of the reader. John Gardner applauds you, David Foster Wallace (who fought a life-long literary battle against writing that was excessively precious, cynical or vicious in favor of “morally passionate, passionately moral” writing) applauds you–I applaud you! I simply used your statement of authorial intent as a springboard into a wider discussion of what fiction is and isn’t. Or should or should not be. (And GD damn well knew what he was doing when he all but double-dog-dared me into expanding those few hastily scribbled lines of reply into a full blog post. Back in the day he was known as quite the conversation-starter/inciter over on Book Country, as well. Heh!)

      Anyway: I need to clarify something you may not have understood. Strike that–I need to clarify something that was aimed at myself, not you: that line “. . . or does it smack of rank cowardice, evasion and duplicity to deny that one has any such intent…” For I share your goal of raising the consciousness of the reader, Victor. Indeed I do; I am simply too self-conscious, uneasy and wary of my own talent to nakedly admit it–as I suspect many genre writers are. (Musn’t scare off the summertime beach reader. You mean this is good for me?! :::hurls book into sand:::) Though I write genre I hope that the lasting impact of any of my stories is to have increased the empathy, pity (I use the word in a classical sense), intelligence and wisdom of the reader even as The Greats have increased my own empathy, pity, intelligence and wisdom (or so I fervently hope!) in tandem with life-lived experience.

      Nothing written here was intended as a taunt, Victor. But I do confess to writing sharply and clearly and cogently in order to provoke a wider discussion and interrogate these values you and I and so many others apparently hold dear.

      Having said all this, however, I do believe that the first duty and primary purpose of art is enchantment, not moral instruction. If the reader isn’t engaged . . .

      Liked by 2 people

      • victoracquista says:

        I probably should have included a wink along with the taunt reference. In any case, I sense we may both share a bit of the provocateur. Did not mean to malign by suggesting that. I fully respect you and welcome the forthright dialogue. It is stimulating and informative and consciousness raising after a fashion (whether intended as such or not). I do agree that GD is a good conversation starter.

        What is the primary purpose of art? Does it have to have a primary purpose? Can the primary purpose shift from one thing, such as enchantment, to another, such as moral instruction? Does Plato’s art enchant or provide instruction or something else? Greek tragedies? Hamlet? How about Picasso’s Guernica? I don’t know the answer to any of these questions. It seems easier to have the questions rather than the answers. In the end, does it matter? I think we all have some artistic aspect to our humanity that needs to be fed. Unfortunately, we are often feeding ourselves junk food in the form of bad writing, storytelling, reality TV, etc. garbage. I think we can all agree that some things masquerading as art do not meet the threshold for enchantment, moral instruction, elevating consciousness, or anything that might satisfy aesthetic engagement. But, we can always satisfy our hunger by reading the Classics.

        Liked by 2 people

      • GD Deckard says:

        🙂
        (And GD damn well knew what he was doing when he all but double-dog-dared me into expanding those few hastily scribbled lines of reply into a full blog post. Back in the day he was known as quite the conversation-starter/inciter over on Book Country, as well. Heh!)

        I’m pretty sure I’m carrying out God’s will.

        Liked by 1 person

  5. GD Deckard says:

    I’m enjoying this discussion because we are reaching for understandings that encompass everything we know.
    Relativism, be it moral, philosophic and even Einstonian, always struck me as facile and self-serving. The assumption that there is no over-arching perspective, no truth, no unifying thought possible – is unproven.
    Here, I am seeing possibilities.

    Liked by 2 people

  6. Perry Palin says:

    All of this writing about raising consciousness is too tangled for me. My neighbor across the road raises consciousness. He sells eggs and wonderful cheese, and his horses break out and come to visit my horses. He raises consciousness in his day job as a nurse, talking to people as they come out of anesthesia.

    I write for simple reasons. Sometimes I write to make people laugh, and when I wanted to make people laugh at a reading, I read what I thought was a funny story and they laughed. Sometimes I write to make people think about the horrors of war, and after reading a story about a young soldier dying, the people were sober and silent. Sometimes I write to ask people to protect the environment, and after reading a story about the natural woods and streams, people ask me how they can help.

    You writers and scholars post some interesting ideas, things I’ve never thought about, and I’m not equipped to join the conversation. I doubt anyone will be reading my stories twenty years from now, and I’ve never really thought about that. In the meantime, every month someone asks me when my next book will be published. I’m a medium fish in a small pond, and I’ll take it.

    (Sorry for not being more engaged lately. I’ve been busy, but that’s not a good excuse.)

    Liked by 5 people

  7. mimispeike says:

    I’m finding some great comments here, that I can stuff into Sly’s mouth. Like: Does Plato’s art enchant or provide instruction or something else?

    I don’t know much about Plato, but I guarantee Sly knows a lot about him. I can’t wait to see what he has to say on the subject.

    Liked by 3 people

  8. mimispeike says:

    Note to GD: See how easy it is for this story to grow and grow? My husband scolds me, when he says something interesting and I yell: Sly would say that! He yells back: Do you have to use everything?

    Yes.

    Now I have to start researching Plato. So I can mangle him cunningly.

    Liked by 3 people

  9. mimispeike says:

    Well, folks, I hardly know where to start. Thinking that Sly may have had a correspondence on this matter with Cervantes (he’d gotten hold of some of his early poems), I started to read up on the writer.

    Informed that Cervantes was working on a novel (La Galatea, published in 1585), I believe Sly might have brought up the subject of influencing opinion in one’s fiction, and that he would have been set straight by Miguel, by one account a hack writer trying to earn a living, who only stumbled into the making of a masterpiece. (From Our Lord Don Quixote by Miguel de Unamuno, published 1905)

    Until the early twentieth century, when Unamuno recast him in an heroic mold, Don Q was seen as closer to what Cervantes had intended: a buffoon, pure and simple. I have a number of links saved that I am going to run down.

    An article will be coming out of this, but not today, and probably not tomorrow. Maybe on Monday.

    Oh, I am enjoying this! Thank you Victor, for bringing it up.

    Liked by 2 people

  10. Humbled as I am by such a weighty discussion, I feel there’s little I can add. For the moment I’m writing mysteries, and though they no doubt can raise consciousness (Chesterton’s Father Brown, for example), they may not be the best placed. Or at least, not in my case. If I entertain, so much the better. If I educate, or at least inform a bit, that’s extra. As for enchanting, unless I’m seized with a new ambition, I think I’ll have to accept my limitations.

    Liked by 2 people

    • ‘Lo there, Curtis!

      I was content to leave my reply at a couple of sentences; GD invited me to expand it into a full post. (No doubt curious as to how I could possibly tie all those disparate elements together into a cohesive whole. Well, I couldn’t. The best I could do was to elaborate in detail on those initial thoughts while inviting others into a broader conversation.)

      I hadn’t posted in a while; I knew it was time to step up again and contribute.

      Liked by 2 people

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