Flannery O’Connor On Free Will And Integrity

In the ‘Author’s Note to the Second Edition’ in Wise Blood, Flannery O’Connor writes:

Does one’s integrity ever lie in what he is not able to do? I think that usually it does, for free will does not mean one will, but many wills conflicting in one man.

Unsurprisingly, here we find a provocative intervention in a philosophical debate by a novelist. We define integrity as “the state of being whole or undivided” or as “the quality of being honest and having strong moral principles; moral uprightness.” The latter definition related integrity to honesty and morality, and thus presumably to actions taken and choices made; we acted ‘appropriately,’ we chose ‘correctly.’ It is our integrity that makes us capable of doing so. (There is a relationship visible here between the two definitions of integrity in that the person with integrity can be seen as unitary in moral resolve, and not incoherently torn between conflicting moral impulses, unable to choose and act.) So how could integrity consist in not being able to do something? If you are unable to do something, then where is the choice, so crucial to moral action?

O’Connor suggests that this conundrum may be resolved in Nietzschean fashion: we imagine that we have one will, one moral drive of sorts, but this is a mistake. We have many drives, each rudderless, each competing with the other in some shape or fashion; the effect of a drive may be tempered, attenuated, or amplified by others. The net resultant effect, the vector sum of a kind, is the ‘personality,’ or the ‘character’ of the moral agent. We are this resultant sum. Those who think they have ‘free will’ say so not because they experience a unitary drive that directs their choices, but rather, because they experience themselves as a location for an ongoing conflict, an irreducible dissonance, on the occasions of decision-making. This psychic disturbance, this evidence of distant battles between our various drives, waged in various subterranean locations of our subconscious and unconscious is what we call ‘free will’: acting in the presence of conflict, or perceived choices.

Now we can understand what O’Connor means when she says that perhaps our integrity may lie in what we are not able to do. We–some of us perhaps, whose drives add up in particular, distinctive, idiosyncratic ways–do not strike the helpless, the old, the infirm, we do not refuse water to the thirsty, not because we want to do so, but because we cannot; the drive that would make us do so has been combated by another one–or by a combination of others, and it has been bested. The social hosannas heaped on us for our action–or inaction–may suggest to us the pleasing ‘fiction’ that we have ‘chosen correctly’ and that we have ‘acted rightly’; it perpetuates the notion of a unitary free will, which reaches into the various choices available to the agent and picks out one. And leads to further puzzles like those of self-destructive behavior.

O’Connor is not the first to suggest our selves are a dynamic multiplicity, of course, but the indication of morality as a kind of ‘inability’ is certainly noteworthy.

Dostoyevsky on Donald Trump And The 2016 Elections

Yesterday, I spent part of a gloomy, overcast day in the CUNY Graduate Center library, preparing for my classes today. In particular, I prepared for my class on existentialism by reading, yet again, Dostoyevsky‘s Notes From Underground. As I read sitting next to a large window, I heard chants emanating upward from Fifth Avenue; I looked out to see a large contingent of protesters heading uptown, presumably toward Trump Tower. (The Graduate Center Library is located at 34th Street and Fifth Avenue, so I was only twenty or so blocks away from their intended destination.) I wished them a silent ‘good luck,’ and then turned back to my reading. In an email to my students over the weekend I had asked them to keep in mind that the Underground Man is engaged in a kind of ‘revolt.’ What was he revolting against? How is this revolt expressed? As I read on, and reached Chapter VII, I reached a set of passages which I thought would strike my students as remarkably relevant to these times–perhaps even prescient.

There, Dostoyevsky writes:

I, for instance, would not be in the least surprised if all of a sudden, a propos of nothing, in the midst of general prosperity a gentleman with an ignoble, or rather with a reactionary and ironical, countenance were to arise and, putting his arms akimbo, say to us all: “I say, gentlemen, hadn’t we better kick over the whole show and scatter rationalism to the winds, simply to send these logarithms to the devil, and to enable us to live once more at our own sweet foolish will!”….what is annoying is that he would be sure to find followers–such is the nature of man. And all that for the most foolish reason….that man everywhere and at all times, whoever he may be, has preferred to act as he chose and not in the least as his reason and advantage dictated. And one may choose what is contrary to one’s own interests…One’s own free unfettered choice, one’s own caprice, however wild it may be, one’s own fancy worked up at times to frenzy–is that very “most advantageous advantage” which we have overlooked, which comes under no classification and against which all systems and theories are continually being shattered to atoms….What man wants is simply independent choice, whatever that independence may cost and wherever it may lead.

Dostoyevsky has set up the above pronouncement with the following opening to the chapter:

Oh, tell me, who was it first announced, who was it first proclaimed, that man only does nasty things because he does not know his own interests; and that if he were enlightened, if his eyes were opened to his real normal interests, man would at once cease to do nasty things, would at once become good and noble because, being enlightened and understanding his real advantage, he would see his own advantage in the good and nothing else….Why, in the first place, when in all these thousands of years has there been a time when man has acted only from his own interest? What is to be done with the millions of facts that bear witness that men, consciously, that is fully understanding their real interests, have left them in the background and have rushed headlong on another path, to meet peril and danger, compelled to this course by nobody and by nothing, but, as it were, simply disliking the beaten track, and have obstinately, willfully, struck out another difficult, absurd way, seeking it almost in the darkness. So, I suppose, this obstinacy and perversity were pleasanter to them than any advantage…. And what if it so happens that a man’s advantage, sometimes, not only may, but even must, consist in his desiring in certain cases what is harmful to himself and not advantageous. And if so, if there can be such a case, the whole principle fans into dust.
Note: Excerpts above from Existentialism from Dostoyevsky to Sartre, Walter Kaufmann ed., Penguin, New York, pp. 67-71.

Snowpiercer: The Train As Capitalist Society And The Universe

Post-apocalyptic art–whether literature or movies–is provided, sometimes all too easily, ample opportunity for flirting with the grand, for making sweeping statements about human nature and the meaning and purpose of life. After all, it’s the (often violent) end of the world. Time to speculate about the new, phoenix-like world that may rise from the ashes of the old, or to mourn the loss of not-easily replaced intangible moral goods of a world gone missing.  So it is unsurprising that SnowpiercerBong Joon-ho‘s English-language debut, swings for the fences.  It is initially grounded in a facile morality play about global warming, man’s persistently failed and hubristic attempts to play God, and the evils of science. There is more to it though. The ark-like train which is the movie’s stage and centerpiece, which circles the world carrying the survivors of a world frozen over, functions as an extended allegory for capitalist society, its economic inequality, its class structures and exploitation of the weak, its decadence and immorality,  the inevitable revolt of the oppressed, and their rise to the top (or the front).

But Snowpiercer is more intellectually ambitious than that. It also to aims to be an allegory that flirts with God, the Universe, Free Will, Evil, Freedom and Existential Choice. It offers us commentary on ideology and false consciousness and propaganda; it shows us how man may be tempted by evil and can choose moral redemption instead. The structure of the train and the progressively enlightening journey of the rear passengers through its various compartments suggest too that Dante’s Inferno and the Pilgrim’s Progress could be invoked here with some ease. (Ironically, for an allegory, Snowpiercer is sometimes a little too literal and heavy-handed. Yes, man, with all his cunning and scheming, can play the part of a devious God, and God may just be our notion of human powers and goodness and judgment extrapolated to an unimaginable extreme, but these theses can be advanced with a little more subtlety than Snowpiercer allows.)

Snowpiercer‘s grand ambitions are sometimes realized and sometimes not.  Mostly they are not realized because Snowpiercer spends a little too much time trying to be an action movie. Its showings off of technical virtuosity, its nods to the video game and martial arts genres with their extended bloodiness, their glorying in gore, their stylized slow-motion combat, are distractions and deceits. (This action initially provides a possibly invigorating jolt to the movie’s plot, but all too soon it becomes tedious, deadening, and in the movie’s closing stages it is a distraction.) There is much in the movie that is visually interesting and provocative, much that should have been allowed to come to rest in the viewer for to facilitate reflection and introspection.  But this does not happen, largely because the movie believes that some rather archaic cinematic tropes–physical conflict rages elsewhere while two protagonists engage in philosophical debate!–must be relied on to in order to build and generate tension.

All too often, I find myself describing science-fiction movies as missed opportunities. This is one such.