Newspaper article International New York Times

Are There Any Unforgivable Sins in Literature?

Newspaper article International New York Times

Are There Any Unforgivable Sins in Literature?

Article excerpt

For me, the unforgivable sin is the assumption of certainty and the moral high ground.

For me, the unforgivable sin is the assumption of certainty and the moral high ground.

I once had the pedagogical good fortune of having a bad art teacher who was very good-looking and, in his mind, always in the right. He gave the cheerleaders shoulder massages, he challenged the boys to chess or wrestling, and on Fridays, instead of teaching the course materials, he devoted class time to Bible Jeopardy. Most of the questions came from the New Testament. This was at a public high school in Norman, Okla. I confess I really enjoyed winning at Bible Jeopardy, being the one who was right.

"You're a learned Christian," he said to me one afternoon.

I explained that I wasn't Christian, that I was Jewish. But I had often attended church on Sundays with friends.

"Oh, you're a heathen," he said. He clarified that he wasn't saying that it was a bad thing, just that, by definition, since I had not accepted Jesus Christ in my life -- not yet -- I was a heathen. That was the definition of "heathen," he declared.

I said I didn't think that was the definition of "heathen." I said we should look up "heathen" in the dictionary. The dictionary in his office supported my side of the disagreement.

My good-looking teacher said different dictionaries say different things; he was unswayed.

O.K.

I dislike that this anecdote violates the basic anecdote rule, that the teller should come out looking weak and in error. But what I do like about this anecdote is that for years it has economically contained, for me, an idea about what makes for bad art, bad literature. For me, the unforgivable sin in literature is the same as that in life: the assumption of certainty and the moral high ground. That words like "righteous" and "pious" are often used to suggest the contrary of their original meaning is telling. I sometimes think that if my (basically nice) teacher had lacked the power of good looks, he would have been less deluded about his rightness. A position of power -- power from being attractive, power from heading a classroom -- is nearly inevitably accompanied by a slight stupidity of self-assuredness. …

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