Thursday, January 08, 2009

All morality is quite useless

An addendum to the previous. There is one especially corrosive and long-established form of idiocy: the desire to impose one's moral views on everyone. Lamentably it has always been popular. Of course, the people who do this sort of thing usually fail to distinguish between morals and ethics, and they are usually wrong about whatever it is that they wish to moralise about, but these are mere details beside the fact that such sanctimoniousness is unutterably annoying.

Take, if you like, this week's news that some people in Worthing are seeking to remove a plaque commemorating Oscar Wilde.

Chris Hare... points out that Wilde, a homosexual man married with children, had a documented taste for seducing teenage boys. At least one of his victims, a 14-year-old newspaper delivery boy named Alphonso, had to flee Worthing when the scandal of his relationship with Wilde became public knowledge. "This role model, a man preying on teenage boys with little or no education - I don't think that would be regarded as heroic today."

This is the perfect type of a perfect preposterousness. It is exquisite and leaves one wanting more. And, of course, it encapsulates the trouble with moralisers in one anecdote. One would not regard that sort of thing as heroic today, of course, but Wilde lived in a different age when sexual mores were rather different to our own. The age of consent for girls was 13, there was no age of consent at all for homosexual sex and lesbianism was not illegal because, the story goes, Queen Victoria refused to believe such a thing existed.

Besides: Wilde is not honoured for being a fat old queen. Sex with teenagers was not what bothered the Victorians at all: it was the homosexuality. That no one would really expect to be taken seriously if, today, they objected to honouring Wilde on the grounds he was posing as a somdomite highlights the folly of trying to impose contemporary moral values on the past. Were Hare's argument to be taken to its extreme, we should revile Plato and a host of other Greeks for their advocacy of pederasty. (Admittedly there has been the odd prep school classics teacher who has taken Grecian mores rather too much to heart, but that hardly detracts from the main point).

News of Wilde's sexual inclinations
came as a great shock to the Victorians

More lamentably, the inability to distinguish between the artistic work and the person who produced it shows a woefully distorted set of perspectives. It is wrong-headed, it is philistine and shows an inability to distinguish the valuable from mere dross. One could see this, to an extent, in some of the responses to Harold Pinter's death. It is not that people criticised his political views (which were admittedly asinine) nor that they were a factor in considering the man as a whole. For that matter there was nothing wrong with criticising those political views immediately after his death: it's the inability to judge his plays as plays that disturbs.

Admittedly, Pinter's is a fairly trivial example. But the attitude is, I think, a dangerous one too. The fact that Wilde's work was ignored for decades because of the desire to allow moral considerations to trump everything else should cause the modern day moralists to pause before we head down the path of ignoring work by people of whom we do not approve. Totalitarians, both political and religious, have always been rather keen on this after all, and taste and decency are but staging posts along the road of silence, censorship and suppression.

Let's let Oscar sum up:

I never came across in anyone in whom the moral sense was dominant who was not heartless, cruel, vindictive log-stupid, and entirely lacking in the smallest sense of humanity. Moral people, as they are termed, are simple beasts. I would sooner have fifty unnatural vices than one unnatural virtue. It is unnatural virtue that makes the world, for those who suffer, such a premature Hell.

PS: Is this effort by a contemporary pederast so terribly wrong because of the values espoused, or is it the fact that such a terrible-looking old roué singing a bloody awful song presents such an unpleasant spectacle? I shall have to listen to some music by that vile anti-Semite Wagner to recover.

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Blogger Quink said...

Quite so. On the same basis, they'd rip out Eric Gill's stations of the cross from Westminster Cathedral.

Incidentally, if you look closely at that Queensberry thing, there's a strong case for arguing it reads "Ponce & Somdomite", which makes sense to me.

Look for yourself

8:19 am  
Blogger bill said...

Yes, that's what most people who saw the thing at the time thought it said. Queensbury insisted it was the other.

As for the Catholic Church, quite. They'd probably also have to whitewash over the Sistene Chapel ceiling, but that would smack a little of Talibanic practices, wouldn't it?

10:23 am  

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