Reflections on an Ethical Society

What follows was delivered on November 4, 2000 at the one-day ‘Reflections on an Ethical Society’ conference at University of Toronto’s Convocation Hall. (Ironically, the setting for the opening scene of The Summer Tree .) This is a somewhat edited version of the original draft of the speech (I still ran a little long) but it seemed to make sense to post the variant that people actually heard. For a speech I didn’t do footnotes, but those interested in following this up further will want to find the June 1999 edition of Harper’s for the Jonathan Dee essay, and I recommend Jeffrey Rosen’s The Unwanted Gaze as a challenging set of reflections on privacy issues in society today. I make (of course) no apology for the baseball references, but will acknowledge that one of the other five speakers later suggested that everything I said in my remarks had to be regarded suspiciously because I was (and am) a Yankees fan. I maintain that sour grapes must not be permitted to mar the heady wine of philosophic reflection. Or something.

Ladies and Gentlemen,

It is a pleasure to be here. I’m particularly pleased to have this opportunity to share and develop a thesis that has engaged me for a number of years. But before I approach the heart of my text, I wonder if you’ll indulge a small digression. It occurred to me that it might be appropriate to pay tribute to the presiding spirit of this gathering: Cynthia Good, of Penguin Books. Given the widespread awareness of one – at least – of her ruling passions it seems apt to begin by citing the celebrated linguistic philosopher and Hall of Fame catcher Lawrence P. Berra, more familiarly known as Yogi. It was Yogi Berra who said to a graduating class, in a venue not dissimilar to this one, ‘If you come to a fork in the road, take it.’

While we collectively parse the oracular depths of this, let me also remind you that it was The Yog who further reported, speaking of baseball, that ‘90% of this game is half mental.’

As a novelist, I feel the same way about fiction much of the time. Forks in the narrative road, and feeling half mental. On the other hand, the sense of creative and intellectual empowerment in writing fiction – in all forms of art – can be seductive, and forms a central part of my thesis today. I’ll also confess that I’ve just been guilty of a novelist’s classic unreliable narrator device: those two initial quotes aren’t digressions or only tributes after all. Indeed, I’d hope they might be kept in mind throughout these remarks.

Here’s why. I’m going to contend that our culture as a whole, and our writers of fiction, including many of the most deservedly honoured in this country and elsewhere, have indeed taken a fork in the road, without, perhaps, adverting to the fact. I’m going to argue that there are significant ethical issues emerging from that path taken, and that they have to do with privacy and the autonomy of a lived life.

Is privacy important? Something with ethical value attached to it? Enormous elements of cultural conditioning underlie this question, of course, and so we should at least pause to acknowledge the complex history of private life, the way in which the very idea of a sequestered space to be alone, unobserved, has been alien to many cultures, and is still today a dream or an illusion for many people, even in our own society.

But perhaps the fact that it is a dream is revealing. A room of one’s own, shelter from prying eyes. In Jewish rabbinical law the notion of protection from ‘the unwanted gaze’ was enshrined, to such a degree that not only was it prohibited to look from one’s window into the home of another, it was prohibited to build a window where someone might apprehend they could be overlooked in private space. The anxiety that one might be seen was judged worth assuaging by that society. In translation, the core passage reads as follows, and this, too, I offer as an epigraph to my remarks: ‘Even the smallest intrusion into private space by the unwanted gaze causes damage, because the injury caused by seeing cannot be measured.’

Significantly, this was not a breach that required the aggrieved individual’s protest, and could not even be permitted by the individual. In other words, the intrusion upon privacy was an offense against society, how it defined itself.

We value and acknowledge, in shifting and complex ways, the importance of a private sphere to life. Some distinction between public and not-public. Whether we think of Pierre Trudeau denying the state’s place in the bedrooms of the nation, or whether, post Clinton-Lewinsky we feel a distaste for the nation intruding into the bedroom of the chief of state, there exists, or – I’ll go further – I’ll assert that there must exist, in an ethical society today, some awareness of privacy as a nurtured value.

There are dissenting views. So let me now bring into the picture the remarks of Scott McNealy, the CEO of Sun Microsystems, who said, in January of last year, with Berra-esque pith, ‘You have zero privacy anyway. Get over it.’

Ladies and gentlemen, what I wish to sugest today is that, with all respect to Mr McNealy, and others who share his opinion, we ought not to be so quick to get over it.

But first, what does McNealy mean? What gives rise to this sort of bluntness? It isn’t hard to find examples and what I’ll stress is how fundamentally recent these are. Or, alternatively, how the present day has dramatically accelerated and intensified elements that might have long been with us, but never before found such influence. I want to emphasize, also, how pervasive this process has been … an encroachment that leaves the culture altered dramatically without dramatic warnings. To the point where someone can say, ‘You have zero privacy.’ Zero. Consider what it means that this can even be plausibly, if hyperbolically, asserted.

Not surprisingly, the CEO of Sun Microsystems was speaking particularly of technology. Computers, the internet, credit card data, medical records, satellite images sharp enough to show a favourite chaise lounge in the backyard. Zero privacy. But what is of note is a collective and unsettling ennui about all of this. Some may mutter about how data on our netsurfing is harvested by strangers, but a staggering preponderance of users simply treat this as an inconvenience, a cost of entry into the new world order. We shrug, mostly.

But there’s more to it. We seem to now be a culture that rushes to embrace exposure. It is as if a colossal inversion is taking place: we want to be naked on the stage in public. The attention accrues more value than protected autonomy. Nobody knows you when your blinds are down and you’re not out.

How does one discuss the importance of privacy, or even speak of the unwanted gaze, in the age of the jennycam, where a college coed becomes an international celebrity simply by putting cameras in her dorm rooms so websurfers can watch her, realtime, all day and night? One might deride her as naive, since most of those who have followed Jennifer Ringley down this path of proud self-assertion have at least had the simple decency to charge for it – allowing us to see the process as mere commerce – but the onlie beggeter, Ms Ringley, offered a pure, transaction-free model of exposure and ensuing fame to contemplate.

Might we make the case, as the rabbinical code did, that when this becomes a norm, when we collectively participate in that gazing process, the injury caused by seeing is to all of us? Robert Post, of the University of California School of Law has noted that, ‘The point is that we should actually care about privacy, and it’s not clear that we do.’

Have we ‘gotten over it’?

More examples.
These are so prevalent, so easy to find, they feel almost banal in the citing, but that banality – in essence – becomes a part of my argument. This permeating of our world and worldview. Cameras in the face of mourners, celebrated or otherwise. The inexorable intrusion of utterly personal questions into daily political discourse. ‘Jerry Springer,’ ‘Survivor,’ ‘Big Brother.’ It isn’t just celebrities who are exposed in this way, we make celebrities of those who expose. And, I want to argue, we gradually assume a sense of entitlement to look.

When a grievously depressed woman committed suicide with her child in Toronto this summer in front of a subway train, it made the news that her family wished not to give interviews or statements, to mourn in privacy. Editorials were written lauding this unusual exercise.

Can we pause a moment to contemplate where we have come, that this should be so? Half a century ago, William Carlos Williams, opposing a gaudy village funeral, wrote, ‘my townspeople, what are you thinking of?’ Ladies and gentlemen, what would he write today?

In response to ‘Get over it,’ I’d like to offer, ‘What are we thinking of?’

What would Justice Brandeis, one of the most brilliant jurists to sit on the American Supreme Court, make of what we have made of our world? One hundred and ten years years ago, Brandeis and Samuel Warren wrote what is still the seminal essay on issues of privacy. And back then, in 1890, they noted, ‘Instantaneous photographs and newspaper enterprise have invaded the sacred precincts of private and domestic life, and numerous mechanical devices threaten to make good the prediction that “what is whispered in the closet shall be proclaimed from the housetops.”‘

1890. They didn’t have Internet cookies and databases. We do. We have a world where respected senior figures of commerce can flatly declare that privacy is simply gone. McNealy may be wrong, or he may not yet be right, but I think the saying marks a watershed.

And it is in this context that I wish now to raise some questions about the writing of fiction. Let me repeat that: I am raising questions, not prescribing a universal response. I am in mind here of a remark attributed to Vermeer: ‘Our task is not to solve enigmas, but to be aware of them.’

Too often changes overtake us by quiet encroachment. Raised questions can admit of differing answers, collectively and individually, but if we’re unaware there’s an issue, we cannot formulate any answer, any ethical position.

There is a wide net to be cast here, but given the constraints of time I want to focus for the next few minutes on the use of real people – living or dead – as central figures in fictional works. I want to argue that this might constitute a component in a society moving at speed towards zero privacy – and suggest that we ought, at least, to pause a moment in our careening to think about it.

Here’s a starting point. Jonathan Dee, in an essay entitled ‘Literary Graverobbers’: ‘The appropriation of genuine historical figures – people who actually lived – as characters in fiction is an act of imaginative boldness that, through simple attrition, readers of contemporary fiction have come to take entirely for granted.’

First of all, I’m arguing that the attrition Dee mentions is wider than he implies. He’s talking about an attrition created by so many novels of a certain kind. I’m more interested in such a process in the entire culture. I view the issue as pervasive, the fiction aspect as a symptom, a marker. To be frank, if I didn’t see it this way, I doubt it would be worth raising in a symposium on ethics and society.

Secondly, I see even the literary issue as wider than a use of dead figures. The living, too, are as easily characters in creative works today. Is there a moral distinction? If I write a novel which describes a fictional Ethical Society Conference at Convocation Hall, set it back a number of years, and portray Robertson Davies snorting a line of cocaine backstage before going out to speak, is it ethically on the other side of some great divide from doing the same thing with Rob Buckman or Margaret Somerville? There may be legal distinctions: a libel suit is possible for the living but not the dead, but we must avoid formulating these issues in terms of what the law can or cannot do. Our personal and collective morality is surely not contiguous with what the law proscribes.

Dee describes the phenomenon as a change in the way ‘fiction writers imagine their relation to the world.’ I suggest that this may be expanded and explained by the notion of ‘entitlement.’ It is this phenomenon, I want to argue, that makes inadequate a retort that we’ve always done this, citing Shakespeare – say, the brilliant Tudor propaganda of his Richard III – Dumas’s Richelieu, or Tolstoy’s General Kutuzov ruminating upon Napoleon.

In formal terms, the origins of the current trend have been tracked backwards to Truman Capote, Tom Wolfe, and Norman Mailer’s The Executioner’s Song, which was specifically titled ‘a true life novel.’ Books structured as non-fiction, but newly and aggressively employing creative license.

Within fiction itself, the progenitor is probably E.L. Doctorow, in his shift from The Book of Daniel to Ragtime. The latter is a book that brilliantly erodes the distinction Sir Walter Scott offered as proper for the use of real people in historical fiction – that they be background figures to the invented protagonists, not viewpoint characters. There are moments when Ragtime offers us a startling window through which we can gaze – wanted or unwanted – at what was to come: say, Emma Goldman making love with Evelyn Nesbitt.

I’m going to up the ante of my metaphor. This isn’t a window, it is a cannon blast. Entitlement has entered. I’ll also add that we see, in the frisson that is added to eroticism there, an author discovering – for all who come after him? – the kick, the power, the sales and attention boost that is added through the fact that he is playing with real people. Celebrities. Is it possible to deny that the reader is not affected in his or her response by fame and the mild shock of having people used in this way? Would anyone bother to deny it?

Might we therefore at least bother to examine it? Doctorow is on record as saying that ‘his’ J.P. Morgan in the same novel, with utterly frabicated actions and thoughts, is more ‘accurate’ to the real man than any biography. One needs an ego, a confidence in one’s own vision to write a major novel – perhaps even a minor one – but is it possible to imagine Dumas thinking this about Richelieu, Tolstoy about Kutuzov? Here, I believe, lies a salient difference between then and now.

Listen to Bruce Duffy, author of The World As I Found It, a much-lauded novel about Wittgenstein. This is from the afterword to a reprint of the novel: ‘I was disgusted – no, outraged is the word – that to some, Wittgenstein’s life was clearly considered off-limits …’

Disgust? Outrage? This is the language of absolute entitlement, isn’t it? Admitting of no possible alternative perspective, no intrusion, no fork in the road, no loss.

Do we want to forbid such speech and writing? Not, I trust and hope, beyond the present laws of libel, hate literature and other legal remedies, and perhaps even not as far as we currently go – though that’s a matter for more than twenty minute’s discussion. But is it not possible, or necessary, to invite reflection upon what we might be losing when these fictions – and the worldview that underlies them – become normative? Moral inquiry is a necessary tool for the construction of an ethical society, and this functions outside the purvue of the law. Laws cannot define the limits and borders of ethical behaviour and we are surely entitled to judge a work of art as brilliant and morally troublesome.

My contention is that just as all of us, as participants in our culture, have become sub
tly imbued with this erosion of the idea of the private, so – inevitably – have novelists, for we are manifestly in and of our own time and place.

Now, none of us ‘own’ the stories of our lives. It is a too-common misconception that we do, perpetuated by Hollywood announcements about buying the rights to someone’s story. They buy access to us, to interviews, journals, letters, whatever we choose to give. But a moment’s consideration of the idea of an ‘unauthorized’ biography ought to make clear that this is not an issue of ownership. We are not, I repeat, in the territory of legal possession. We are discussing societal self-definition and the questions we wish to ask ourselves.

Brandeis and Warren, one hundred and ten years ago wrote that the right to privacy ‘implies the right not merely to prevent an inaccurate portrayal of private life, but to prevent its being depicted at all.’ I daresay, with respect, that this is simply wrong, both in cultural fact – we do not think or function this way and never have – and in terms of the rigidity of boundaries it imposes philosophically. But if we refuse to follow them this far does it mean we go all the way in another direction? Is it not possible to hold two more propositions simultaneously? To honour freedom of speech and imagination and also to nurture and respect some resistance to wholesale intrusion and appropriation?

Are people like Dee overstating a phenomenon? Am I? Well, let me now run through a few books by important writers – there are simply too many such works to bother with the mediocre. And my point, in essence has to do with the co-opting of lives by significant figures. Otherwise, I’m simply offering a Jeremiad without substance, a complaint about tacky daytime tv and downmarket culture. I don’t think I am.

I’m talking about Carl Jung in Tim Findley’s Pilgrim , Joey Smallwood with his entirely fabricated mistress in The Colony of Unrequited Dreams, Billy the Kid, Buddy Bolden, Count Almasy, in the works of Michael Ondaatje – and note the obscurity of the last figure, and of Grace Marks in Margaret Atwood’s Alias Grace. It isn’t just the famous we’re talking about. But then consider Marilyn Monroe in Joyce Carol Oates newest work, Virginia Woolf, walked through her suicide and the writing of Mrs Dalloway in Michael Cunningham’s Pulitzer Prize winning, The Hours. Don Delillo, using Lee Harvey Oswald, then Jackie Gleason, J. Edgar Hoover, Frank Sinatra as characters.

Here’s the Calgary Herald reviewing Johnson’s Colony: ‘Johnson’s story weaves fact and fiction and while I have no idea how factual the novel is, I don’t care. It’s a hell of a good read.’ The New York Times on Oates’s, Blonde: ‘If a novel can’t deliver Monroe’s beauty … it can, better than any film, give us her interior world.’

Might we pause to consider these remarks? Shouldn’t we care what is real and what is made up? And shouldn’t we ask what has happened when someone suggests that a novel gives us the inner world of a real person? This is nonsense, and it is pervasive.

There is, I want to stress, nothing monolithic about the fictional approaches here. Atwood has said in an interview, ‘What I was terrified about in Alias Grace was that I would get a letter from somebody saying, ‘I was up in the attic and I found this old biscuit box full of letters from Grace Marks and you were very wrong about everything.” The implication is that the obscurity of the subject, the absence of a record, offers license or opportunity. But this is obviously not an issue or concern for Findley with Jung, for Johnson with Smallwood. Here the record, the documented existence of the well-known subject is not seen as impacting on license, but perhaps actually conferring it. With a little more time, by the way, this sub-issue is worth following up, if someone wants to throw out a question about it later.

But to my mind the core issue centres on Doctorow proclaiming the ‘accuracy’ of his J.P. Morgan fabrications, and Duffy being ‘outraged’ at the very idea that there might be an impingement taking place.

What I’m suggesting is this: with all the variations of purpose and craft, what we can see in all of these works – and countless inferior ones – is an expanded perception of entitlement. And this, I ask you to consider as being of a piece with other elements of our place and time.

We end up back, or my whimsy for today takes us back, to Yogi Berra: 90% of the exercise is half mental. We writers like to wrap ourselves in the cloak of liberty, defenders of free speech and the individual voice against the tyranny of state or fashion. What happens when we shift the mental perspective – as I am suggesting today that we do – and consider ourselves as tools of tyrant fashion, instruments against individuals, not defenders of them? This, I begin to suspect, is what might be happening when so many important writers embrace this co-opting of real lives. Instead of challenging or querying, those who anchor their fictions in the co-opted lives of the real may be subscribing to the the erosion of the private that I see as a defining component of our society.

Ladies and gentlemen, I am suggesting, as respectfully as I can, that we may be suffering a loss. That a through line, a direct continuum, exists between the unwanted gaze of the media or of the high tech industry, or the solicited gaze embodied in the jennycam and ‘Big Brother’ and daytime talk shows … and those works of fiction that use the living and the dead as elements and instruments.

It may well be that we should ‘get over it’, that, indeed, we are collectively in the process of doing so, but my very great preference, the thesis I offer today, is a questioning resistance. Though Scott McNealy may one day prove to have the enduring philosophic weight of Yogi Berra, I invite you to consider us a society that still values and embraces the notion of the private sphere. Not by way of absolutes, not through vetoes and embargoes and forbiddings, but by way of an ongoing awareness of what might be at risk when we embrace certain paradigms and models – or, perhaps more accurately – when we allow them to enfold us.

© Guy Gavriel Kay, 2000

Note: An updated version of this essay can be found in the Journal for the Fantastic in the Arts: “The Fiction of Privacy: Fantasy and the Past.” JFA 20.2 (2009): 240-47

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