The War in Ukraine and Toni Morrison’s View of Goodness

Pro-Ukraine protesters demonstrated in Lafayette Square in late February. Photo by Nick Penniman.

In 2012, Toni Morrison spoke at the Harvard Divinity School on the subject of altruism—or “goodness,” as she prefers to call it—in literature. One might think, given the profound pain and darkness Morrison explores in much of her work, that her premise might have had something to do with writers’ and readers’ inattention to evil, their unwillingness to confront it or their preference for shallow or false goodness. But she made a different case.

“I have never been interested in or impressed by evil itself,” she said, “but I have been confounded by how attractive it is to others. I am stunned by the attention given to its every whisper and shout.

“Evil has a blockbuster audience; Goodness lurks backstage,” she continued in the lecture, which The New York Times published in written form in 2019. “Evil has vivid speech; Goodness bites its tongue.”

Morrison focuses on this phenomenon in literature but implies that it exists in our culture in general—in the conversations we have and the thoughts we think. 

As Vladimir Putin’s evil rears its head in the war in Ukraine, I wonder whether now is a good time to revisit Morrison’s thinking.

So many of the TV shows and movies and podcasts we consume, in addition to our literature, are obsessed with evil: true crime podcasts, Joker, Criminal Minds, American Horror Story. So many others are intent on depicting something less than evil but generally lurking around it: corruption, sleaziness, sociopathy, betrayal. (Think: Succession, or all the network shows that are just different versions of NCIS.)

Squid Game, Netflix’s most viewed show of all time—which raked in 1.65 billion hours of viewing in the 28 days after its release last year (equivalent to more than 182,000 years in total)—is a good example. In the first episode, dozens of innocent contestants are quickly killed as the game’s unnamed mastermind drinks a cocktail and watches the massacre, reminiscent of school shootings in the U.S. In the show, as Frank Bruni wrote in the Times, “God is an assassin, tipsy and merciless in his gilded lair.”

Look at the fiction category of the Times’ bestseller list on any given week and you’ll likely find a murder mystery (or something pretty close to one) in a top slot.

Some of the evil with which we entertain ourselves is the real-world kind; some is not—implausible, fantastic, just for thrills. Sometimes its creator is attempting to understand evil, expose it, take it down; other times, the goal is to simply make it addictive. Some artists have serious ideas about evil, its roots and its mechanics; others really don’t.

Whatever the case, evil gets a lot of airtime. Why?

“Is it its theatricality, its costume, its blood spray, the emotional satisfaction that comes with its investigation more than with its collapse?” Morrison asks. “Perhaps it is how it dances, the music it inspires, its clothing, its nakedness, its sexual disguise, its passionate howl, and its danger.” 

We may be afraid of evil, or condemn it, but we are also thrilled by it. We may appreciate goodness, but we may also see evil, as Morrison says the writer Umberto Eco does, as “a thrilling intelligence scornful of the monotony and stupidity of good intentions.” 

We dislike evil when it appears on CNN, but we love it when it appears on Netflix. 

Why isn’t goodness as well-disposed to draw an enthusiastic audience? Morrison’s answer is simple: “The formula in which evil reigns is bad versus good, but the deck is stacked because goodness in contemporary literature seems to be equated with weakness, as pitiful (a girl running frightened and helpless through the woods while the pursuing villain gets more of our attention than her savior).

“Contemporary literature is not interested in goodness on a large or even limited scale.”

There are exceptions, of course, but the observation still rings true today. We are more likely to be dismissive of or cynical about goodness than invested in it. We see goodness as dull and simple, evil as cunning and complicated. 

Just watch this scene from No Country For Old Men, a movie made by two of America’s most revered directors (the Coen brothers), adapted from a novel by one of America’s most revered writers (Cormac McCarthy), awarded America’s top prize for filmmaking. 

As Anton Chigurh, McCarthy’s ambassador of evil, begins to unspool his logic of murder and nihilism via a life-or-death coin toss, we get the sense that the man behind the counter has a far shallower grip on moral, philosophical questions than Chigurh, who knows something more. The man behind the counter stutters, repeats himself, gets frightened—he plays evil’s game.

Morrison points out that such a representation of goodness is the norm in American literature: It is Melville’s Billy Budd, “who can only stutter,” and his Bartleby, who “[confines] language to repetition”; it is Coetzee’s Michael K, “with a harelip that so limits his speech that communication with him is virtually impossible”; and it is Faulkner’s Benjy, “an idiot.”

She claims that many late 20th- and early 21st-century literary heavyweights—Philip Roth, Norman Mailer, Saul Bellow—“are masters at exposing the frailty, the pointlessness, the comedy of goodness.”

To be clear: I don’t want to suggest that there is some kind of moral failing in being disposed to evil-heavy entertainment, or that we must monitor the ratio of goodness- to evil-focused art we consume. And there is, of course, value in attempting to interrogate evil, to scare an audience out of complacency, to force people to confront the recessive human urges from which they are not immune, etc. (I also think that No Country, in both book and movie form, is phenomenal.) 

But I do believe that we should not be blithe about the purpose of art or cynical about what it can achieve. If a sense of responsibility is lacking in our current politics, should we really cede responsibility when it comes to art, too?

As the writer George Saunders observed in 2018, “For a long time now, it seems to me, our culture has assumed that the function of art is to warn, to blame, to critique, to scoff, to dismiss. And those are some of its functions, for sure. But an art that only does those things is destructive. Destruction already being the dominant mode of our culture, we don’t need any more of it.”

Goodness is just as capable of illuminating the answers to difficult moral questions as evil is—if not more so. That is evident in Morrison’s own work: Through acts of love and compassion, characters from Paul D in Beloved to Florens’ unnamed mother in A Mercy offer us ideas about how to think and live.

Even if goodness is less entertaining than evil, is it more helpful?

That, among others, is a question I believe the war in Ukraine forces us to consider. And Morrison’s goal of giving goodness a strong voice is one the war forces us to take more seriously. 

In Ukraine, goodness has a strong voice indeed. It has no note of apology, and it refuses to play evil’s game. It’s the Ukrainians risking their lives for their fellow citizens. It’s the volunteers making meals for refugees at the Ukrainian border. It’s the Russians unafraid to face years of jail time for speaking out against their government. It’s a bunch of other things that don’t have to do with the war that happen every day, unnoticed and unremarked upon.

Goodness is out there. So who’s writing it?

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