May 20, 2004

Humor Redeems Evil (But Not in the Real World)

Brian says somewhere that we couldn't imagine a fiction that in which all the same non-moral facts are true as in our world but different moral facts are true. That's probably true--I can't imagine all the non-moral facts of our world anyway. But I do think that I've read some novels in which the moral facts are not the moral facts that would be true in the real world, if the non-moral facts that were true in the real world were the non-moral facts that are true in the fiction.

I'm thinking of Donald Westlake's Dortmunder novels. Dortmunder is a hapless crook whose schemes always go wrong in funny ways. He never harms anyone seriously (I don't think). And I'm pretty sure we're supposed to sympathize with him; with his exasperation with the eccentrics he has to deal with, with his frustrations at unforeseen hitches, sometimes with his anger when someone treats him in an absolutely unforgivable way (like the diplomat who cheats him out of his pay for a jewel he had to steal six times, or the media mogul who steals his ring after catching him robbing his house). None of this would work if it were true in the story that Dortmunder were evil. (Pulp Fiction has humor that's based on your seeing things from the point of view of evil people, but I don't think that's what Westlake's doing--he's not nearly as dark.)

But--if Dortmunder existed in the real world, he'd be evil. He constantly puts people at hideous risks, even if he doesn't want to hurt anyone. In one novel he kidnaps a child (who runs circles round him a la The Ransom of Red Chief). If he never does much actual fictional harm, that's because of Westlake making sure that nothing awful happens; in the real world, he'd be depravedly indifferent and damned lucky.

None of this is too original--I think I swiped the basic idea from John Holbo. But maybe this is a new wrinkle. When we're reading a Dortmunder, we know that things won't go too horribly wrong; that Dortmunder won't go to prison for life, for instance. But in the fiction, it is not true that Dortmunder definitely won't go to prison for life. Much of the sting would be taken out of his mishaps if he were in a position to be sure that nothing bad would happen. So halfway through we, the reader, may infer that p is definitely true from what is written--this is a matter of the books' tone as much as anything--though definitely p isn't true in the story.

It seems to me that there ought to be an interesting example with "might" in the vicinity. Say you have this: by page 32, you know that if the burglar alarm turned itself on, then Dortmunder will go to prison. On page 40, it is left ambiguous whether the alarm turned itself on (in fact, it's hinted that it did). On page 50, it is made clear that the alarm is off. It seems to me that it's true to say:

(1) On page 40, it is true in the story that Dortmunder might go to prison.

(2) On page 50, it is no longer true in the story that Dortmunder might go to prison.

And these are epistemic "mights"--metaphysically, it's not true (since in the story, it is already settled before the events of page 40 that the alarm is off). But is there anyone whose knowledge is such as to make both (1) and (2) true? Not the reader--we know all along that Dortmunder won't go to prison. Not Dortmunder--even on page 50, he doesn't know that he won't go to prison. And, the way I've set it up, not anyone else (that's why the alarm has to turn itself on).

(I'm writing this post now partly because I just typed, "Let us pretend that maximizing expected utility is always rational." Can I pretend it, since I don't believe it? I think so. But I don't think I can imagine it--pretending is a matter of using examples of practical reasoning that involve EU instead of much messier examples that I think have a hope of being right.)

Posted by Matt Weiner at May 20, 2004 04:12 PM

Interesting post, Matt. I think the author 's tone can temper the Reality Principle. Dortmunder inhabits a kinder, gentler universe. The real odds don't apply in the story world, repercussions that would normally be considered likely are remote or non-existent. The author raises the possibility of prison at certain points, but as the reader, you
/know/ Dortmunder's not going to end up in jail. If this were a biography, we would have no such assurances.

When telling the story, the author sets up various expectations through tone, convention, Dortmunder cannon, and other literary devices.

Most fans would be incredulous if Westlake told a Dortmunder story in which D. got raped in an Oz-style correctional facility.
Many would reject such a plot line as unbelievable or illegitimate within the story. Whereas, if we were reading a biography, we would be shocked and saddened by the subject's fate, but we wouldn't be incredulous. We know that in the real world, terrible things often happen to inept career criminals.

Posted by: Lindsay Beyerstein at May 21, 2004 12:04 AM

Part of what inspired this post was Drowned Hopes, in which Dortmunder and the crew have to deal with someone who's really evil. (Dortmunder agrees to help him get money buried at the bottom of the reservoir, because otherwise he'll blow up the dam and drown a whole village.) At one point--I don't think I'm telling you anything you couldn't have guessed--the bad guy is preparing to kill Dortmunder and his buddies. While I was reading, I thought, "He can't do that!" Obviously he doesn't, but I didn't think it was right for him to be planning to.

You're definitely right about the incredulity. I'm not sure if the best way to deal with this is to talk about what's true in the fiction. Dortmunder lives in a kinder universe (cf. Richard Stark), but is it fictionally true within his books that he can't go to prison? Not sure. I think that my uneasiness is the same sort I get when I read The Franchise Affair--it's true within the novel that some people are purely morally righteous and upstanding, and others are pure evil, and others are nothing but dupes, but that world just doesn't live for me.

Here I feel like what Holbo said about "The Great Weep" (an antifeminist Saki story):

We decline the invitation to enter the fictional world of Hermann the Irrascible (thank you very much); in which Hermann is genuinely wise; in which women genuinely are better off for being deprived of the right to vote.

Except I don't refuse to enter Drowned Hopes; it's more like I'm occasionally glancing nervously at the exit.

Posted by: Matt Weiner at May 21, 2004 02:24 PM

Thanks for the link to the Holbo post. I don't think "The Great Weep" sheds much light on imaginative resistance. Holbo argues that "getting" the story requires some imaginative grasp of the sexist king's perspective. I disagree. I think I "get" the story without sympathizing with the king. The joke has to do with human nature, rather than the morality of suffrage. Hermann is genuinely wise in that he sizes up his political opponents correctly. The irascible king just knows how to manipulate people with reverse psychology.

Posted by: Lindsay Beyerstein at May 30, 2004 07:56 PM