Your Mind Is a Moral Event Simulator
The role of fiction in personality development
This short bit from Ponerology has stuck with me since I first read it:
Our personalities also pass through temporary destructive periods as a result of various life events, especially if we undergo suffering or meet with situations or circumstances which are at variance with our prior experiences and notions. These so-called disintegrative stages are often unpleasant, although not necessarily so. A good dramatic work, for instance, enables us to experience a disintegrative state, simultaneously calming down the unpleasant components and furnishing creative ideas for a renewed reintegration of our own personalities. True theater therefore causes the condition known as catharsis. (pp. 34-35)
Veteran subscribers will catch the allusion to Dabrowski’s theory of positive disintegration. For newer readers, positive disintegration is the shaking up of one’s psychological structure during inner emotional crises (disintegration), resulting in an enrichment of one’s psyche and the achievement of higher levels of personality (positive—negative disintegration, by contrast, may result in suicide or chronic psychosis).
This reintegration on a higher level is possible because the “shaking up” has the effect of separating out the higher and lower levels within one’s self-awareness. It throws into relief those aspects of oneself that previously might have been all mixed up, indistinguishable from each other, and thus invisible. Along with a clearer hierarchy of values comes a hierarchy of self, which promotes the development of virtue. And so an element of self-criticism enters into one’s self-perception and self-valuation. There are features that one wishes to develop, and those one would prefer to leave behind. The emotional valence of the experience is what makes it possible to actually do so, to forge a new center of will—on a level that mere intellectualization cannot.
Lobaczewski highlights the disintegrative capacity of dramatic works of art. In the absence of certain experiences (like, say, sailing the high seas in the age of buccaneers), we can still profit from the imaginative, projective act of identifying with a character. We can feel what they feel as we watch or read of their experiences, and grow with them as they make choices, face obstacles, and follow that higher part of themselves. We can learn what if feels like to embody certain virtues—or to fail to live up to them—to emerge stronger from tragedy, and thus enrich ourselves in the process.
I was reminded of the above passage recently when reading Alexander Palacio’s “A History of Lost Adventure: On the Tragic Death of the Boys’ Adventure Novel.” In it, he wrote:
As I have written before, there is a didactic element to fiction. A good story makes moral arguments by showing the result of actions driven by the wants and needs of heroes and villains as they make decisions in the face of challenges and revelations. We, as readers, have the ability to identify with these characters, and thus step into a sort of simulated moral event in which we can experience, in some measure, the results of moral or immoral choices. This simulation helps us learn by example, like an infant trying to copy speech or motions.
Different types of stories offer different strengths arising from what simulated experiences they can provide. A romance plot is of course best suited to teach us about the triumphs and tragedies of love.
A bildungsroman is interested in everything attendant to the troubles that go with coming of age. And an adventure story has at its heart a reflection on some of our highest, most vital virtues; those associated with, not only heroism in the face of danger, but the idea that danger must be accepted for the sake of some higher good.
This is why I’m generally unimpressed by modern “superhero” films. What they teach is weak, and they tend to teach it poorly. “Hey kids, here’s what it’s like to be a conceited, self-important nonentity.”
At first glance, such a classic hero as Errol Flynn’s Robin Hood might strike a modern viewer as vain and arrogant. But there’s a difference between unreflective narcissism—which is wholly reflective of the people writing such characters, I would wager—and Robin’s suave self-assurance, which comes from justified confidence, competence, and virtue.
Watch this classic scene from The Adventures of Robin Hood (1938):
“He stands before you.” Toxic?
“I love a man who can best me.” Tonic.
This is not only clever writing; it’s good characterization. Robin Hood might appear as an arrogant braggart, but his response to defeat belies that interpretation. He’s not a brittle egotist. He accepts defeat with as much good cheer as he had going into the fight. He’s confident, because he has every reason to be. He has a healthy appraisal of his own ability and worth. But he’s also charming, and he recognizes and praises competence in others. He has no axe to grind, no chip on his shoulder, nothing to prove. He’s a natural leader—and a good man.
Contrast with this:
By “iconic,” I assume the video creator meant “insufferable.” Unlike with Robin Hood, there is no payoff to Captain Marvel’s high opinion of herself, no sign that underneath it all, she is actually a decent person. No man can best her, and I doubt she would love one who could.
Stephen Aryan on YouTube characterized Captain Marvel well—“cold, bullish, and arrogant”:
The lack of emotion is also a big issue. It feels like a one-note performance, and it makes the character very wooden and two-dimensional, because it lacks nuance, subtlety, and depth. There’s no hint of anything going on under the surface.
He also described how Marvel could’ve made this work:
What if because she is so powerful she feels less? What if her po-faced, sociopathic inability to connect to other humans or show any emotion other than anger and frustration is because she can’t feel she’s doing? What needs to be done the mission because she’s former military and it’s a part of her core, but she doesn’t understand why because she doesn’t care because she can’t feel anything.
They could have worked with that. That’s the character they were writing, after all; they just didn’t seem to realize it, and so they didn’t craft a narrative that made sense with that characterization. They wrote what should have been a portrayal of a deeply disturbed, flawed character, but presented her as a hero. The result is a sense of cognitive dissonance that never really gets resolved one way or the other, at least not satisfactorily.
Again, contrast with Robin Hood:
Wow, he’s an actual human, one who feels joy, who loves, whose sense of justice bids him sacrifice and fight tyranny. So old fashioned.
In an time where even modern classics are being bowdlerized and new works are shallow to the point of irrelevance, maybe it’s time to enrich your psyche by revisiting the classics.
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Pathopolitics, psychopathy, and mass hysteria