Message Fiction: Some Comments
I’ve had a few people, while agreeing with most of my comments on Message Fiction Done Right, have questioned whether I’m using the term message fiction correctly. I admit I may be using it a bit more broadly than most.
Dominka Lein has proposed to differentiate message from meaning – message being that which the artist intends to express with his work, while meaning is that which the viewer of the work subjectively obtains from it. Nixon Maxy gently critiques my own use of the term and say Burroughs did not intend the message I found there, but was just writing a story that entertained and expressed the mores of his time.
Both points are well-made, but I have some disagreements.
To Lein’s comments, I’m suspect of such a distinction. Admittedly, there’s a lot of reasons why it seems natural to most. In a post-kantian world where the noumena (the-thing-itself) and phenomena (the-experience-of-the-thing) are radically separated, we assume that such a distinction between message and meaning is obvious. Many of us have prior commitments to rather robust interpretations of free speech and the distinction seems to naturally bolster those commitments (meaning becomes something unassailable in the fortress of subjectivity and so enjoys a kind of absolute freedom). It also creates an easy critique of works which try to limit themselves to the artist’s meaning and thus “force” it upon others – the usual critique of SJW literature.
I’m the madman, though, who doesn’t believe in the radical noumena-phenomena divide, is skeptical of free-speech, and actually wants literature which expresses messages. I don’t truck with art for art’s sake. I want art at the service of religion, humanity, and the state (though my thoughts on legitimate states are somewhat nuanced). Apologies if I scare off some of my #PulpRev compatriots with my crazy.
Where I think Lein might agree with me is when that message/meaning (I don’t really see the difference) is at odds with reality. The example she gives in her piece is the importance of diversity to the SJW crowd – the message appears to be that one can only identify with one-like-oneself (an asian man with an asian man, a lesbian with a lesbian, etc.). She rightly points out this is madness – we identify with all sorts of people who are nothing like ourselves. Thus for literature to make this it’s message is just, well, wrong. It’s not that it’s a message, it’s that it’s the wrong message – that which is counter to reality.
Literature and art which limits itself to ideology can also have it’s own weaknesses. In physical arts, especially statuary, there is a world of difference between an allegorical piece versus one based on a human person. Allegorical pieces of the virtues, like Caritas, must rely on abstractions and symbols, desiring more for the idea, the “message” to dominate in the literature. More incarnational pieces, like Michelangelo’s Moses, are in your face, asking you to encounter the person depicted and not the ideas he may or may not embody. It’s far less weak.
In literature, we see this more abstract model of art in things like the old morality plays or the more recent dystopian allegories like Animal Farm. Lewis’ Chronicles of Narnia veers dangerously close to such kind of allegorical literature. These are works which seek to have the story and characters serve the message, the “moral of the story.” More fully fleshed literature presents the complexity of humanity in trying to attain, fail or deny these values and transcendent realities.
Bad literature seeks to say these eternal values are wrong and newer values should be sought. That’s what’s wrong with SJW literature. To say otherwise smacks of dishonesty to me.
This brings me to my response to Nixon Maxy. I do agree that Burroughs was not sitting down and actively thinking about the message he wanted to express. Rather, he simply wrote a story imbued with the values of his time, values which are eternally important for all men.
But what of those who live in an age where those values are not “of the time”? When SJW values hold a kind of dominance in the culture? Burroughs and many of the pulp writers are incredibly bracing to moderns because they reveal values which we have for the most part jettisoned in our culture – the importance of marriage, the necessary nobility of man, the strength in feminine womanhood, the glory of unabashed heroism. Perhaps this is just me talking, but as much as I consciously embrace and seek to live out these values, I’m a brainwashed modern. To write of Burroughs’ values requires effort on my part. I can’t just write “of the time”.
Thus what may not have been a message in Burroughs’ time is a message in our time. Burroughs acts like a clarion call into our modern world, actually rebuking us. But he not only rebukes, but puts before us models to follow. And these are not abstract models, but, to the extent that fiction allows, fully incarnated persons. Men, be John Carter. Women, be Dejah Thoris.
I’d like to ultimately see the lexicon around these topics expanded. It may very well be that terms like “message fiction” don’t have essential meaning. It appears to be nothing more than a shaming term for literature we think goes against reality (but don’t want to admit to objective morality in the process). If we want to say a work is weak because it’s allegorical – meaning it’s moral or lesson is of greater import than the story itself – then call it that.
But I don’t think most of what we call message fiction (full of “virtue”-signaling, diversity- and equality-affirmations, political snipes) is allegory. And its problem isn’t that it portrays a message, but that it portrays the wrong message. It denies reality in favor of some individuated ideology.