The thing which is resented, and, as I think, rightly resented, in that great modern literature of which Ibsen is typical, is that while the eye that can perceive what are the wrong things increases in an uncanny and devouring clarity, the eye which sees what things are right is growing mistier and mistier every moment, until it almost goes blind with doubt.
If we compare, let us say, the morality of the Divine Comedy with the morality of Ibsen’s Ghosts, we shall see all that modern ethics have really done… Dante describes three moral instruments – Heaven, Purgatory, and Hell, the vision of perfection, the vision of improvement, and the vision of failure. Ibsen has only one—Hell.
It is said, and with truth, that no one could read a play like Ghosts and remain indifferent to the necessity of an ethical self-command. That is quite true, and the same is to be said of the most monstrous and material descriptions of the eternal fire… Realists do in one sense promote morality—they promote in it in the sense in which the hangman promotes it, in the sense in which the devil promotes it… Modern realists are indeed terrorists, like the dynamiters; and they fail just as much in their effort to create a thrill..
Ibsen has throughout, and does not disguise, a certain vagueness and a changing attitude towards what is really wisdom and virtue in this life—a vagueness which contrasts very remarkably with the decisiveness with which he pounces on something which he perceives to be a root of evil… We know that the hero of Ghosts is mad, and we know why he is mad [due to the progress of syphilis inherited from his profligate father]. We do also know that Dr. Stockman is sane; but we do not know why he is sane. Ibsen does not profess to know how virtue and happiness are brought about, in the sense that he professes to know how our modern sexual tragedies are brought about. There are no cardinal virtues of Ibsenism. There is no ideal man of Ibsen… this omission does leave us face to face with… a human consciousness filled with very definite images of evil, and with no definite image of good.
GK Chesterton, Heretics
Reflection – Well, I’m posting today’s blog post at this odd hour because I had written it all up at my usual early morning hour, then proceeded to delete it without a trace before I could post it. My Sundays are such that this is the first chance I have had to rewrite it.
I think I GKC were mystically transported to the year 2014 and shown what passes for dramatic art in our day, he would perhaps change a name or two, an example or two, from the (rather dated now, I believe) Ibsen to something more au courant, but otherwise would change nothing of this. Perhaps Scorsese’s Wolf of Wall Street would serve with its orgies and drugs and financial corruption, or Martin’s Game of Thrones with its betrayals, bloodshed, and torture, or O’Boyle’s Slumdog Millionaire with its mutilated children and despoiled innocence.
All suffer from the same affliction of Ibsen’s drama—vivid, spectacular, virtuoso presentations of evil, human misery, wicked cruelty… and not much else, really. Certainly there are good characters in all these dramas, but the same vagueness, the same shrouding in mystery of exactly why a good character is a good character pervades them, while the motivations and utter perfidy of the villains is laid bare and clean for all to see, pocked with stains of blood and other fluids, exit wounds and shattered lives.
Now I am not one to advocate or enjoy a sanitized sweet literature or drama. My favorite author of all time is Flannery O’Connor, who has no shortage of wickedness in her stories. But her stories also contain some manifestation of grace, of God, of the good, even if it is in the mode of ‘that which the main character resists, flees, refuses.’ But it’s there – Heaven is hovering just off stage in her fiction, and Purgatory is where most of her characters end up by the end.
This is not the case in the modern drama and literature of the type I mention. And this makes them bad dramas, ultimately – not morally bad necessarily, but artistically so. They are less realistic, not more, present the world, hard as it would seem to accomplish this, as considerably worse than it is. Sin is indeed real, but you know, so is repentance. Evil and cruelty happen, no argument… but so does kindness, tenderness, mercy. Hell is real… but I have reason to believe Heaven is, too, and that the heavenly life is not entirely unknown on earth.
It all hinges upon this terrible agnosticism of the good and the virtuous that afflicts our modern world. It is easy to show a man mutilating a child (as in Slumdog Millionaire) and say, ‘that’s bad!’ But what is good? And why is it good? And where does that goodness come from, and where does it take us? Any shocker-rocker dramatist with a budget and a bucket of red food coloring can show us the whole taxonomy and final outcome of evil. But goodness? That requires a coherent philosophy, a world view where there is indeed virtue and a whole moral order composed not only of horrors and atrocities but courage, modesty, peace, and real love.
This is why we need Christian artists—not to explicitly proselytize through third-rate melodramas, nor to provide ‘sweet’ stories that are as unreal in their way as anything I’m describing, but to show that alongside evil and filth there is a power of goodness that is strong enough to conquer and redeem it. Without this, we are lost in the ‘realism’ of the art of our times, which is actually supremely unreal, and we will lack the vibrant art and drama that any civilization needs to thrive.