Let Other Pens Dwell on Guilt and Misery

This is the fourth and final post having to do with Frank Palmer’s book Literature and Moral Understanding: A Philosophical Essay on Ethics, Aesthetics, Education, and Culture (1992, Oxford University Press). You should start at the beginning.

Welcome to our home.

I went into architecture because I wanted to take care of people. I later realized that wasn’t the profession’s goal, but it’s always been mine. Let the other designers play their intellectual games, challenge our expectations, decenter our understandings, throw our easy recognition into question. I wanted to create places where people could be comfortable, and where they could become even more generous and welcoming than they imagined themselves capable of being.

One of the things that Nora and I love most about our home is that other people feel comfortable here. It’s almost impossible to get people out of the kitchen and dining room, unless we started on the patio and the back yard, which is just as magnetic. People come for dinner, and discover without knowing how we got there that it’s eleven o’clock and we’re still talking. It’s a fine home for Nora and me and the cats on a daily basis, it allows us our rituals as partners and writers and cooks and diners, allows us to be independent when we need to be and together when we need to be. But it’s particularly good for hosting our friends, and for helping random guests become friends.

I mention this because of my morning’s reading of Palmer’s Literature and Moral Understanding, which has now done what good philosophy should do; it has let me apply its lessons to a question I’ve already carried. In Chapter 5 (“Readers and Spectators”), he begins with a long conversation about Jane Austen and her novel Mansfield Park, which he quite likes. But he offers one brief passage that took me out of his book and into my own understanding of my role as a writer of fiction:

As far as the world in the novel is concerned Jane Austen does not exist. Certainly Jane Austen has written the novel, but in responding to the world she has created we react to its occupants, and Jane Austen is not, and cannot be, one of its occupants any more than we can be. (106-7)

Let’s recap Palmer’s earlier assertion that we have two modes of discourse about a book, which he calls the internal discourse of World 1, the fictional world, and the external discourse of World 2, the actual world we live in every day. Both worlds are equally “real,” though not mutually interchangeable—the inhabitants of one cannot inhabit the other.

What I understood this morning is that, as a writer—a creator of World 1—I play the same role as the designer or builder of a home. I am not a member of the family who lives there, and cannot be. What I do is to facilitate the pleasures and the growth of that family, and to help them welcome friends to their table.

The family are the body of people who inhabit World 1, the world of the book. I want them to be not merely comfortable, but to be loved, to be successful, to discover strengths they weren’t sure they could muster (just as our home has helped me to exercise a generosity that hasn’t always been available to me). I bear the same responsibility to my characters that I always imagined I would bear to the residents of the homes I might design.

And what of the friends who visit? That would be the body of readers, unimaginable and ever changing, people invited and people who drop by. Palmer quotes a fellow philosopher, Rush Rhees, to say that “the artist does not work to satisfy an existing audience, but to create an audience through his work.” And how is that audience created? My goal, as a writer and as a designer, has been to allow the World 1 family and their home to be so engaging that people want to stop by. Nobody watches The Big Bang Theory for the plots; they watch because they find that Sheldon and Penny and Leonard and Amy are people they want to spend time with.

So that’s the underlying work I bring to the building of a story. I discover a character. I discover the other characters that surround him or her. And I work to help them be strong, to help them be proud, to help them learn that they can do great things with humble gifts. I build the home that I will never inhabit, not as a shrine to my own ingenuity, but as a gift to the family who will live within it, and to the unknowable guests who will stop by for a while.

Let other pens dwell on guilt and misery. I quit such odious subjects as soon as I can, impatient to restore everybody not greatly in fault themselves to tolerable comfort, and to have done with all the rest. — Jane Austen, Mansfield Park