Here lieth the delights of pity, shame and rapture

April 22, 2005

Literature and theatre can instil a sense of morality, especially in young minds, says Philip Pullman. But this 'school of morals' is in danger of being dragged down by strong cultural currents, theory and theocracy chief among them

Not far from the door of St Peter Mancroft, overlooking the marketplace in Norwich, is a tomb - a finely carved family sort of tomb. At one end there is an oval cartouche and inside it the inscription: "This Stone is dedicated to the Talents and Virtues of Sophia Ann Goddard, who died 25 March 1801 aged 25. The Former shone with superior Lustre and Effect in the great School of Morals, the THEATRE, while the Latter inform'd the private Circle of Life with Sentiment, Taste, and Manners that still live in the Memory of Friendship and Affection."

I've been fond of that tomb, inscription and, by extension, of Miss Goddard herself for most of my life. I don't profess any religion; I don't think it is possible that there is a God; I have the greatest difficulty in understanding what is meant by the words "spiritual" or "spirituality". But I think I can say something about moral education, and I think it has something to do with the way we understand stories, which is why I have begun with Miss Goddard's grave.

"The great school of morals, the theatre" - it was possible in 1801 to use a phrase such as that and not be misunderstood, not be suspected of irony.

The people who patronised Miss Goddard's performances would have believed that the theatre was indeed a place to which they might go to find instruction or enlightenment on matters of morality.

They might not go to see a play specifically to become more moral people; the latest pantomime might have been stronger on farcical slapstick than on ethical instruction. But, by and large, they would have felt that the experience of seeing many different stories over a lifetime's theatre-going would tend to give the audience a moral education.

People would come to see that some kinds of behaviour, such as generosity and forgiveness, led to happy outcomes; other kinds of behaviour, such as greed or deceitfulness, led to unhappy outcomes. There would be degrees of subtlety, of course; both a violent melodrama and Macbeth would tell the audience that murder was not a good thing, but the Scottish play would do it by showing the effect Duncan's murder has on the murderer himself.

But it wasn't only the theatre that was felt to have this educative effect. At about the same time, Jane Austen was writing these famous words in Northanger Abbey : "Oh! It is only a novel! ... Only Cecilia, or Camilla, or Belinda; or, in short, only some work in which the most thorough knowledge of human nature, the happiest delineation of its varieties, the liveliest effusions of wit and humour are conveyed to the world in the best chosen language."

And Austen's own novels, of course, do exactly that. Think what happens when Emma is thoughtlessly rude to poor elderly Miss Bates and is castigated by Mr Knightley. We see the whole progress of her shame, mortification and grief -grief that she has done wrong, mixed, to be sure, with grief that it has been noticed by someone whose good opinion she especially values; but genuine sorrow, too, that she has hurt someone thoughtlessly. The movement of the passage from Mr Knightley's reproof to Emma's self-reproach, her regret for appearing sullen and not speaking to him, when in fact she was deeply ashamed, is the school of morals fully at work. Emma is being educated all right, and so are we.

You won't be surprised, then, that I endorse this "school of morals" view wholeheartedly. I think we can learn from fiction what's good and bad, what's generous and unselfish, what's cruel and mean. I think it needs restating from time to time, in terms that take account of the currents that have flowed through cultural life, through public discourse, since it was last stated. And I think that there are two such currents that have been flowing strongly in recent years.

One is theory, including poststructuralism, postcolonialism, postmodernism and so on. As it affects this argument, it takes the form of saying that the connection between literary texts and the rest of life is characterised by contradictions, fractures, disjunctions, subversions and an endlessly regressive series of dialectical readings. A text is not, as we had innocently thought, a transparent window through which ideas or things or events or characters are visible with perfect clarity.

You could call the other cultural force bearing on the school of morals theocratic absolutism. It has been around for longer than theory, and its effects have been far more deadly. I don't think you need to believe in God to have a theocracy; some are atheist. In fact, as far as the way they behaved in practice, there are remarkable similarities between the Spain of Philip II, the Iran of Ayatollah Khomeini and the Soviet Union under Stalin. We might see some parallels with the US in the time of McCarthy. We might even see some resemblances to the present.

The problem is the tendency of human beings to gather power to themselves in the name of something that may not be questioned, and to justify what they do in terms of absolutes: absolute truth; absolute goodness; absolute evil; absolute hatred; if you're not with us, you're against us.

People with this cast of mind have low expectations of literature. They think that it has only one purpose, which is ideological, and so its worth can be judged entirely by how well it fulfils that ideological purpose.

They also know only one way to read. Everything is taken literally, with no allowance made for ambiguity, mystery or subtlety. Things have to be black or white, true or false, good or bad, right or wrong. There is no scope for interpretation, except the kind that is taught in the official schools and approved by the authorities.

This nation isn't yet a theocracy. There is still a certain amount of democratic back-and-forthness at work. But I am worried by a couple of straws in the wind. I am worried by this Government's willingness to endorse and support schools that teach so-called creationism. This is an extraordinary development. Science isn't a body of knowledge: science is a method of inquiry. And creationism closes down inquiry by stating in advance what is to be discovered. Our Government is colluding in this, and it's wrong.

The second straw in the wind is the increasing tendency among people to describe their primary identity not in terms of ethnic or geographical origin, but in terms of the religion they profess. They don't say "I'm Asian", they say "I'm a Muslim". Of course, people are surely allowed to describe themselves in any way they like, and for those of us who are British it's a fluid kind of thing anyway, because we constantly find ourselves shifting between British and English, Scottish, Afro-Caribbean or whatever, depending which part of our identity is salient at any moment.

During the Ryder Cup golf tournament, many of us discover that we are European.

But this way of labelling ourselves by our religion is a new thing, and it worries me because it ties in with the third straw in the wind - the Serious and Organised Crime and Police Bill. This contains (or did, until the general election was called) the new offence of "incitement to religious hatred". It's intended to protect people from being exposed to hatred or contempt because of their religion. The Government found stronger opposition than it expected over this clause, and it might try to rethink it before bringing it back after the election, supposing Labour win; but if it does pass such a law, the result will be that people who identify themselves by their religion will be able to claim that anyone who criticises their beliefs exposes them personally to hatred and contempt.

The Prime Minister has said that the Bill won't pose any threat to freedom of speech, because in most cases the Crown Prosecution Service won't prosecute. That will just make things worse. People will be invited to feel aggrieved and then denied the likelihood of satisfaction. Are the zealots going to say: "Oh well, fair enough, we tried"? Are they hell.

So to ward off trouble before it begins, a local authority that licenses and subsidises a theatre will insist on a legal opinion before it lets a new play go on; a publisher with a risky novel will have it read by my learned friends; and, of course, they will advise against the risk, because - as the Home Office Minister Hazel Blears has said - "it is difficult for me to say what a court would decide in those circumstances". Books or plays that question or criticise religious belief will quietly vanish from sight.

In case anyone thinks I'm exclusively criticising Muslims here, there's a new group called Christian Voice that demonstrated against the broadcast on television of Jerry Springer - The Opera and disseminated the private phone numbers and addresses of BBC staff so they could be harassed at home. Only last month these champions of Christian virtue triumphantly announced that they had bullied a cancer charity into turning down money raised during a benefit performance of that show, because it was "tainted".

When this law comes in, obnoxiously superstitious and self-righteous people such as these will have the right to stop opinions they don't like from being heard.

So the cultural current I've called theocratic absolutism is beginning to stir, and if we're not careful it could sweep away a basic and priceless freedom. We would be very foolish to think that this couldn't happen here: it has happened here. Only 150 years before Miss Goddard exhibited her lustre and effect on the stage of the great school of morals, the Puritan revolution closed the theatres down entirely.

The school of morals assumes that stories, in whatever form they come, show human beings such as ourselves acting in recognisably human ways. And our moral understanding is deepened and enriched by the awakening of our imaginative sympathy. I can't prove this numerically. I can't show you statistics to demonstrate a 23 per cent increase in moral awareness among 12 to 14-year-olds who have been exposed to fiction as opposed to those who have not; I can't point to studies demonstrating a decline in adultery among reading groups discussing Anna Karenina . I think the moral education that stories provide is a more subtle, fluid all-pervasive thing, without a precise one-to-one correspondence. Perhaps the only evidence is anecdotal, but it's powerful and there is a lot of it.

But doesn't theory suggest I have made a basic mistake? Isn't what I've been talking about not so much a school of morals as a school of manners? And isn't that a means of reinforcing the dominance of one social class, which knows how to behave, over another, which doesn't?

Let us go back to Miss Goddard and consider the audience in the great school of morals, the theatre. The sort of moral views that might be inculcated or polished there would be those that everyone who could afford a ticket - the local clergy, gentry and the prosperous citizens of Norwich - would share and approve of. Any views at variance with the inevitably conservative consensus wouldn't be allowed on the stage.

Then there's the fact that moral v`iews change with time. Miss Goddard's audiences would be shocked at some things that we take for granted today, such as the acceptability of sexual freedom. And the patrons of the Theatre Royal in 1801 would have viewed with incredulity the fervour - the moral fervour - that characterised the recent debate on foxhunting. They would have thought our society was morally deranged.

Then there's the difference between our Western liberal humane culture and the other cultures that exist today. What does the world of the secular European intellectual have in common with the world of the mullahs and the ayatollahs? Are the moral teachings of one kind of literature universally valid or are they contingent on culture?

So I don't think the discoveries of literary theory are easily dismissed.

There are things it tells us that are true and helpful, and others that are discouraging and deceptive - and we need to tell the difference.

Theory says that truth is provisional whereas the school of morals says that some truths endure long enough to be as good as permanent, and that even if we and the people of 1801 disagree about whether foxhunting is good or bad, we would certainly agree that there are good things and bad things.

Furthermore, the "theory" line on language, that it's constitutive and not transparent, not only undercuts the responsibility of the writer, it contradicts the experience of the reader. That's just not what it feels like when we read. We feel fond of this character, we feel exasperated with that one; we feel pity for their predicaments, we cheer when they overcome them.

The reading we do in the school of morals isn't like taking notes in a lesson, learning the correct line and parroting it back: it's like a conversation. There's a democracy about it. And we are active about the process. The school of morals doesn't force us to read in a way determined by someone else - even by the author.

But when we disagree, or when we think we've caught the text disagreeing with itself, we don't lose faith in the possibility of meaning. We know that our understanding of this meaning might be superseded by another in due course, but while it lasts, the school of morals encourages us to take it as being solid and see how we get on. And, little by little, as we grow up in the school of morals, we become better readers. So the relationship with books and plays and stories we develop in the school of morals is a profoundly, intensely and, in essence, democratic one, and it is characterised by mutual responsibility. Furthermore, it isn't static: there is no final, unquestionable, unchanging authority. Books we once thought great come to seem shallow and meretricious; books we once thought boring reveal their subtle treasures of wit. And this progress is real progress; it's not the endless regression of shifting sand underfoot and the shimmering falsity of a mirage endlessly retreating ahead, it's solid stepping stones and clear understanding.

And it's voluntary.

The school of morals works best when it doesn't work like a school. The way real reading happens, the way into the school of morals, goes through the gateway of delight. Any education that neglects this dimension of experience will be a dry and tasteless diet with no nourishment in it.

People - children especially - need this experience of delight. It isn't something you give them as a reward, it is something without which some part of them will perish. Look at children's faces as you tell them a story, or as they sit in the theatre. Look at the rapt flushed expression on the face of a child involved, lost in a well-loved book. That is the look of someone entering the school of morals.

I'm going to close by saying something that might sound strange: I think this is a theme that is possibly tragic. Because I haven't by any means listed all the forces bearing on the school of morals - for example, the relentless busyness of modern life, the crowdedness, the incessant thumping music and braying voices, the near impossibility of finding solitude and silence and time to reflect.

I haven't mentioned the commercial pressures, the forces urging us to buy and discard and buy again. When everything in public life has a logo attached to it, when every public space is disfigured with advertisements, when nothing of public value can take place without commercial sponsorship, when schools and hospitals have to act as if their guiding principle were market forces rather than human need, when adults and children alike are tempted to wear T-shirts with an obscene word on them by the smirking little device of spelling the word wrongly, when citizens become consumers and clients and patients, guests, students and passengers are all merely customers, what price the school of morals? The answer is, what it would fetch in the market and not a penny more.

I haven't mentioned the obsession with targets, testing and league tables, the management-driven, politics-corrupted and jargon-clotted rubbish that so deforms the true work of schools.

I haven't mentioned the difference between reading a story in a book and watching a story on a screen. It's a psychological difference that we are not taking account of.

I haven't mentioned simple human wickedness. Or laziness, greed, fear or the strongest regiment of all in the army of darkness: stupidity.

I haven't mentioned death, hazard or the environmental recklessness that will do for us all if we don't change our way of life.

These are mighty forces, and I think they will defeat the school of morals in the end. But that doesn't mean we should give up and surrender. Nor does it mean that we should turn the school of morals into a fortress, surrounded with rules, systems and procedures, and look out over the ramparts with suspicion and hostility. That would be a different kind of surrender.

I think we should act "as if..."

I think we should read books, tell children stories, take them to the theatre, learn poems and play music as if it would make a difference.

I think that while believing that the school of morals is probably doomed, we should act as if it were not. We should act as if the universe were listening to us and responding; we should act as if life were going to win.

We should act as if we were celebrating a wedding: we should act as if we were attending the marriage of responsibility and delight.

That is what I think they do in the school of morals. And Miss Goddard's portrait hangs on the classroom wall.

Philip Pullman is author of His Dark Materials . The article is drawn from his Keswick Hall lecture at the University of East Anglia last month. He will speak at the Cheltenham Science Festival on June 10.

© Philip Pullman.

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