You might believe that God rules the universe, that every action occurs according to God’s will, that all decisions can be judged according to whether or not they comply with God’s prescribed set of morals, as described in the Bible.
You might believe that nothing exists outside of your own mind, that only your own thoughts are known to you, that everything else is an illusion created by your own psyche. Or you may believe that it is impossible to know for certain whether anything beside your own mind exists; and therefore, you will treat everything outside your own mind as though it does not exist, just to be safe.
You might believe that the laws of physics determine every action in the universe, including your actions, movements, thoughts. If you decide to jump off a bridge, it is because of electric signals in your brain set into motion at the time of your conception. If your psychiatrist convinces you not to jump off the bridge, her words, the thoughts that gave rise to them, your thoughts and actions in response to her words were all effects of the physical interactions of particles in your brains and bodies and in the universe around you, and all of this was determined at the beginning of time and cannot be changed any more than we can change the force of gravity.
When I was in college, I discovered a totalizing system that saved me from being stuck with the B grades that seemed to be my perpetual fate in my chosen major, English. When I started studying English, I wasn’t sure exactly how the graduate students who graded my essays wanted me to analyze works of literature. I would try to make causal arguments about the characters’ actions, or discuss the psychological distinctions between two characters. My graders were never impressed; they didn’t agree with my premises or the conclusions I was drawing from them.
Then I discovered a field of study that I was really, really good at: linguistics. And I figured out that the study of language could be applied readily to analyzing literature, because literature is nothing but language. I discovered that a whole tradition of structuralist and post-structuralist literary critics agreed with me, approaching literary texts as an assemblage of words and sentences, descriptions and metaphors, not as hypothetical worlds populated by imaginary people.
This strategy of interpretation became my doctrine, and it saved me from all the inane disagreements about character motivation that I had had with my graduate student instructors. Characters had no motivations, because the characters did not exist. No one could argue with this fact. One professor, my senior thesis advisor, would actually shoot me a guilty, apologetic look every time she made a statement like, “Hardy implies that Tess of the D’Urbervilles was raped, but a lot of readers think she really wanted to have sex with Alec.” She did not need to voice her acknowledgment aloud: Tess of the D’Ubervilles doesn’t want anything, except in the sense that Thomas Hardy’s narrator says that she wants it—she is nothing but a collection of words and descriptions, not a real person who can act in defiance of the author who created the illusion that she exists.
This approach to literary analysis seemed to be objection-proof. I wrote an essay about Proust’s Remembrance of Things Past that compared the similes used in the first half of the giant novel (comparisons to concrete objects) to those used in the second half (comparisons to abstract ideas). I invented some explanation of what this change meant, relating it to the novel’s themes of self-doubt and self-acceptance. I wrote this essay during the five hours before it was due; I was taking the class pass-fail, so my grade didn’t really matter.
I got an A, and some gushing commentary from my graduate student reader about what a solid analysis I had achieved. I knew why my grade was high: there was no easy way to argue against my analysis. I had carefully documented examples of similes from beginning to end; and who would want to bother going back into that giant tome to verify that the pattern I had identified was correct? By focusing on purely linguistic elements, which are the only factual truths about literature, I made myself invincible as a literary critic. Everything I wrote in college from this point on got a grade of A or even A+, all focusing on language-based truths that were impractical or impossible to refute.
I liked this newfound power—the power to wield a system that I had mastery of, one that impressed and confounded my professors, one that could be used equally on any text, because, ultimately, they were all cut from the same cloth, just a bunch of language.
By the time I got to graduate school, this way of thinking had gotten pretty old. Of course the characters didn’t really have motivations. Of course they didn’t have histories, families, futures, identities. But I was ready to write about those things again, anyway, illusory though they were, because they comprise the meaning of literature, and it occurred to me that I did not want to spend the rest of my career ignoring the point of what I was analyzing just to be invulnerable to criticism.
The idea that literature is nothing more than language was the first and last totalizing theory that I ever subscribed to. It isn’t a theory that applies to everything in the entire universe, as a true totalizing theory would. But it applied universally to every work of literature—in fact, to every written or spoken text.
Since the time I gave up my own theory, I have found myself on the wrong side of a number of others. One semester, I had a student who used to come to my office hours every few weeks to debate with me about Christianity, which he was a strong believer in; in fact, he was training to be a minister. I normally wouldn’t engage in religious debates with anyone, much less my student, but he was a strong and interesting debater and I liked hearing what he had to say.
“My moral system is absolute,” he would say to me. “I believe morality comes from God, so I can always defend my values and beliefs. If you believe that your morals are defined by your society, you have to accept that other societies have different morals. How are you going to tell them that it’s wrong to commit murder?”
He was right, of course: it is a messy process to make any moral argument when morality is relative. Your argument is likely to contradict itself at times, or end up anchoring itself in absolutes (“it is wrong to cause suffering”) that cannot be proven any more than my student can prove that God doesn’t want us to murder people. This is the nice thing about totalizing systems; they’re tidy and consistent and avoid hypocrisy.
The issue of absolute versus relative morality arises whenever we discuss conservative and liberal politics in my English classes. Conservatives know what they believe, and state it outright: We are for big-business. We are against abortion. We believe America is the greatest country on earth, and we support traditional American values.
Liberals tend not to state concrete beliefs, but rather systematic principles: We might not agree with what you say, but we will defend your right to say it. We are pro-choice (not pro-abortion). We believe it is important to respect other people’s beliefs.
Predictably, the conservative position is internally consistent, while the liberal one is conflicted. How can we justify respecting other people’s religions and cultures, except when they fundamentally disagree with our own values? Theocracy is okay; preventing women from getting an education is not okay. Communism is okay; suppressing the free speech of your opponents is not okay. Of course, in these cases, the values that are violated are part of what we call human rights, values we hold so sacred that we don’t even see them as values but self-evident morals. Which I believe we should, but I can’t explain that belief through recourse to any absolute morality. If someone asks me why I hold those values to be self-evident, I will ultimately have to respond that I just do. And that, of course, is a horrible basis for an argument.
If we wish to avoid such messiness, we must believe all sorts of counterintuitive things that will make consistency out of a messy world: that there is a god who cares deeply about our dietary habits and who we have sex with; that America is the greatest country on earth; that all of our actions and thoughts can be predicted by the laws of physics. These beliefs are orderly, and once we have embraced them, we will never be lost, illogical, confused, or frightened again.