“Apart from many important aesthetic reasons, I think that we read novels because they give us the comfortable sensation of living in worlds where the notion of truth is indisputable, while the actual world seems to be a more treacherous place.” — Umberto Eco
An oft overlooked aspect of fiction is the way in which it corresponds to reality. The real world may not be populated with fantastic beasts like cyclopes, but the reader takes on faith the rules of the fantastic in the same way that one trusts the ‘representation of the actual world.’ When a person reads the newspaper, a moral evaluation takes shape, despite this event happening outside of lived experience. One could say the same of reading a novel or short story, where the virtue or vice of a character becomes a part of the reader’s imagination, though again, not through a shared, lived experience. How then does an audience come to understand the morality of a fictional character? Could there be a genre which gives itself naturally to this idea? C. S. Lewis recognized such a quality in the burgeoning field of speculative fiction and wrote, “It is sobering and cathartic to remember, now and then, our collective smallness, our apparent isolation, the apparent indifference of nature, the slow biological, geological, and astronomical processes which may, in the long run, make many of our hopes (possibly some of our fears) ridiculous.” Every speculative fiction writer, then, is offering their own attempt at explanation. Taking cues from Alasdair MacIntyre’s virtue theory, a keen-eyed reader might dig deep into the world of speculative fiction to find just such moral development embodied in characters at once fantastic and otherworldly in the layered universe of Neil Gaiman’s American Gods.
MacIntyre’s vision of traditions connects the past to the present and concludes“a living tradition then is an historically extended, socially embodied argument, and an argument precisely in part about the goods which constitute that tradition.” As a part of this handing down, those receiving the tradition engage in a moral seeking, an attempt to reconcile the values of the past with everything that faces the community in the present. This moral inquiry requires “sociological self-knowledge,” which is an understanding of “who you are and those around you are in terms of your and their roles and relationships to each other, to the common goods of family, workplace, and school, and to the structures through which power and money are distributed.” Crucial to this self-knowledge is the ability to imagine possibilities. One must possess the ability to ask “searching questions,” but must also provide reasonable solutions that can make the imagined into reality. This manifests itself in the earliest stages of life, as even children without the ability to “imagine alternative courses of action to those in which one is presently engaged,” will find that honesty and reliability do not guarantee the desired outcome; a discontented child can find many creative solutions to their struggles. The imagination acts as a bonding compound, uniting all the strands of moral inquiry and enabling the moral actor to not only act, but also desire, rightly.
Key to this handing down of moral traditions is a recognition of literary authority. This is not a simple blind acceptance of anything written down, but it is the ability to digest the words on the page, sifting them in order to retain what is good and to leave behind what is bad. MacIntyre understands this and traces the idea back to the very roots of what it means to be a human:
We allocate conversations to genres, just as we do literary narratives . . . Conversational behavior is not a special sort or aspect of human behavior, even though the forms of language-using and of human life are such that the deeds of others speak for them as much as do their words. For that is possible only because they are the deeds of those who have words.
In other words, to be human is to be able to describe the deeds of men and to comprehend those actions. MacIntyre also makes frequent use of fictional narratives, including his most recent foray which highlights four specific narratives that offer a vision of moral action and inquiry which he thinks is worthy of exploration. But a story is not a mere reproduction of historical events nor a statement of moral truths in a fictional mode; rather, a story “at its best it can do more; it can give us experiences we have never had and thus, instead of ‘commenting on life,’ can add to it.” Thus, proper moral inquiry is embodied not only by Aristotle’s philosophy but also by Milton’s poetry. Right action is the result of both story and philosophy. Stories allow us “to enter human society . . . with one or more of the imputed characters — roles into which we have been drafted — and we have to learn what they are in order to be able to understand how others respond to us and how our response to them are apt to be construed.”
Virtue, whether in the real world or in the fictional, can be deduced from the communitarian beliefs which have been handed down over time. As MacIntyre explains, a person engages in more than one community, in more than one conversation, and the reading of a text accomplishes this. MacIntyre’s claim, that virtue is not relative even though it is contingent with communities, expresses itself in the world of speculative fiction. Part of the difficulty in making such a claim is the rather nebulous definition of what are the specific, constituent parts which make up speculative fiction. Neil Gaiman, a British author who lives in America and writes in an astonishing array of genres, offers a helpful insight into this matter:
People think — wrongly — that speculative fiction is about predicting the future, but it isn’t . . . What speculative fiction is really good at is not the future but the present — taking an aspect of it that troubles or is dangerous, and extending and extrapolating that aspect into something that allows people of that time to see what they are doing from a different angle and from a different place. It’s cautionary.
To put it another way, speculative fiction attempts to make moral sense of a particular aspect in culture by imagining alternatives and possibilities that are not yet realized. The possibility is not as important as the imagining. This is why it is one of the most effective forms of writing to explore tradition-based morality, for speculative fiction is interested in the same ends.
Gaiman is a writer known for the bizarre, for his invocation of the past whilst embracing the modern. Sometimes his works address the not-quite-yet, which puts him in conversation with the rest of speculative fiction. Gaiman explains in Smoke and Mirrors, “Stories are, in one way or another, mirrors. We use them to explain to ourselves how the world works or how it doesn’t work. Like mirrors, stories prepare us for the day to come. They distract us from the things in the darkness.” Perhaps the most morally robust fictional world Gaiman has created is that of American Gods, which boasts two books and a short story that explore various characters who all inhabit the same shared universe.
American Gods is a fictional exploration of the things Gaiman understood about America as someone who was not American. The primary character of the story, Shadow Moon, is in some ways a marvelous example of how virtue theory finds expression in the working out of moral choices, both on the largest of scales and on the smallest. The tale explores how one man might change the course of the gods, if they exist, and the importance of individual moral actors on the stage of community, for American Gods is a story of rival traditions. Shadow has been raised on the post-Enlightenment fare which MacIntyre loathes, and Shadow finds himself in jail as a result of his personal philosophy. But, because of his auspicious parentage, the traditions of the past beckon to him, where ancient pagan gods eke out a meager living among the godless country of America, hoping for the occasional thought or prayer to sustain them. Shadow’s quest is not only one of belief but one of recognizing which belief is right. Despite the odes of grandeur that the loquacious Wednesday often gives the reader, the majority of the transition from one tradition to another take his place in the most ordinary of communities.
MacIntyre’s initial conclusion to After Virtue sought to give local communities the moral standing that once belonged to grand institutions, “what matters at this stage is the construction of local forms of community within which civility and the intellectual and moral life can be sustained through the new dark ages which are already upon us. And if the tradition of the virtues was able to survive the horrors of the last dark ages, we are not entirely without grounds for hope.” Gaiman’s Shadow embodies this ethic. When the old god, Hinzelmann, is revealed as a child murderer, Shadow cannot remain silent. When the unsettling Oliver explains his human sacrifices, not even the personification of fear itself can stop Shadow living out the morality handed down to him. Shadow, in this way, is the corrective to the rival tradition, exposing darkness the only way a shadow can, by existing in the light.
When one tradition cannot cope with the situation it finds itself in, it may seek out assistance from some other community with a perspective of its own. This is the thrust of American Gods’ closing chapters, and it is a growth of tradition that works both ways. While Shadow cannot find happiness in his world, he discovers the value of sacrifice when he willingly takes up vigil on Wednesday’s tree. And it is not merely a fleeting moment of the emotional high that sometimes accompanies a selfless act; when his recently-deceased wife offers to cut him down, he tells her. “I have to do this . . . I’m alive.” Without a community or tradition to anchor him, Shadow had lived a life of easy pleasures and hollow victories. By embracing the code and calling of Wednesday, Shadow embraces this older set of values.
Yet what of his impact on said tradition? It begins innocuously with Shadow’s refusal to play along with all of Wednesday’s cons. When he repays a woman, who has just been duped by the old god, Shadow’s explanation to Wednesday is simple, “It was the right thing to do.” This moment is the seed of a merging of traditions which culminates in the moment of Shadow’s discourse before the gods. Preparing to speak, Shadow thinks, “The paradigms were shifting. He could feel it. The old world, a world of infinite vastness and illimitable resources and future, was being confronted by something else—a web of energy, of opinions, of gulfs.” Shadow’s desire to do the right thing means that he is willing to stand on the field of battle, as various immortals prepare to deal death and destruction so that some might live. This embodied morality changes the landscape for everyone involved. While the gods are relieved to abstain from slaughter, it is Shadow’s actions which cause a shift in the horizon of the old gods. This is most evident in Czernobog, the god of death to whom Shadow pledged his life. Even though everyone tells him he does not have to honor his oath, that Czernobog no longer has a claim on his life, Shadow goes to fulfill his promise. Shadow’s actions have set in motion the transformation of Czernobog into Bielebog, the god of death into the god of life. This is the power of a rival tradition influencing another; of one way of considering moral action invading another perspective.
Gaiman’s characters also care about books and writing, a primary mode of transmitting traditions. As he waits out his time in prison, befriending the mischievous Loki in disguise, Shadow spends his time reading Herodotus’s Histories, committing to memory Croesus’ famous line: “Call no man happy . . . until he is dead.” This phrase echoes throughout Shadow’s adventures, and in some sense, plays a vital role in his moral development. As an outsider in most ways, it is significant that in a prison community, where he shares a bunk with the trickster god, Shadow would be initiated into an older community through the writings of a “Dead Greek.” Hinzelmann judges the worth of a library on the books they carry, and Shadow remembers that somewhere in San Clemente is a garage “with box after box of rare, strange and beautiful books . . .waiting for someone who would never come to set them free.” It is the old books which Shadow purchases at the Library book sale that reveal the true identity of Hinzelmann. Texts bring light to rival traditions, causing their merger at various points throughout American Gods.
The fictional world created by Neil Gaiman offers a unique look into tradition-based morality and exemplifies the realities MacIntyre diagnoses of the modern justification project. It recognizes the problem of competing traditions, and presents a method on how to blend, or even reverse, the tide. But it is not only that this work provides interesting examples, for so do many fables, fairy tales, and fictions from across the genre spectrum. If MacIntyre’s assessment of modernity is right, then those who are best equipped to ask imaginative questions and seek out fantastic solutions will orient culture back towards a proper understanding of virtue. These are the stories which remind people of the traditions that are worth handing down, of the morality which a culture will value. For “what we have is valuable, and that sometimes we take what we value for granted.” Speculative fiction allows for a tradition which is struggling, “by their own standards of flourishing and foundering,” to reconstitute or to abandon it whole. This is how such fantastic stories enable their readers to imagine morality as it might be.
Sean Hadley, “Imagining Morality,” An Unexpected Journal 3, no. 2. (Summer 2020), 27-38.
Direct Link: https://anunexpectedjournal.com///imagining-morality-alasdair-macintyres-virtue-theory-neil-gaimans-american-gods/
C. S. Lewis, “On Science Fiction,” in On Stories and Other Essays on Literature (New York: HarperOne, 2017), 93. Lewis’s subgenres provide an early example of why the term “science fiction” is unsatisfactory.
. Ibid., 21. This particular quote is actually the words of Solon, as reported by Herodotus. The quote might read more accurately as, “Now if, in addition to all these things, he ends his life well, too, then this is the man you are looking for; he alone deserves to be called happy and prosperous. But before he dies, refrain from calling him this—one should rather call him lucky.” Perhaps, given the focus on luck throughout American Gods, and the particular role of Mad Sweeney, Shadow’s paraphrase could be read as an intentional change on Gaiman’s part. Cf. Herodotus, The Landmark Herodotus: The Histories, ed. Robert B. Strassler, trans. Andrea L. Purvis (New York: Anchor Books, 2009), 20-21.