Friday 18 July 2008

Thy neighbour's wife

Here’s a little dialogue about morality from Tim Winton’s superb new novel, Breath (Penguin, 2008), pp. 207-9. The narrator is a paramedic:

When I was on the ward there was a tall, reedy bloke who carried a bible with him all day. He had a habit of fixing on things you said during group work and hitting you later with a few pithy verses to be going on with. He had me down as some kind of compulsive – not miles off the mark – but I wanted to pull his ears off when he told me that a man who even thinks about having his neighbour’s wife is already an adulterer.

No, Desmond, I told him. Bullshit.

Can’t deny it!

You get ideas. We all get ideas. Thoughts. And most of them come and go without causing anybody grief.

Desmond shook his head and I wanted to get him by the hair, squeeze the poison from his head. Wanted to, but didn’t. I told him he was sad and dangerous, that he shouldn’t say such things, especially not to vulnerable people like us. I was well and truly wigged out at the time, but still sane enough to know there’s a world of difference between thinking things and doing them.

You lack morality, he said mildly enough.

You call that morality? I said, trying not to shout. Robbing people of the distinction between thoughts and actions?

Sport, said Desmond, I tell you this out of love. You are a captive of evil.

Talk like that frightened me because in an unsteady moment you could believe it. I was tired and sad and fucked up but I wasn’t going to give in to bullshit. I’d been prey to false convictions aplenty and I’d had enough. It is possible to believe that as an idea comes into your mind, an act has been born and there’s nothing you can do about it. It’s as if thinking something causes it to happen, makes an action inevitable, even necessary. Sometimes it’s good to remind yourself it isn’t so.

A captive of evil, said Desmond.

No, I said. I’m a voluntary patient. […]

All about there were others watching Desmond and me, waiting for a blow-up. There were people in our midst who believed that babies had died and cities burnt because of thoughts they’d had.

Do you lust after your neighbour’s wife? asked the girl with the slashed arms. Really, she said drolly, you can tell us.

My wife, I said. My wife is now my neighbour’s wife. And my old neighbour’s wife is dead.

Man, that’s fucked up, said someone.

No lust?

Not much, I said. Not now.


Shane said...

"You call that morality? I said, trying not to shout. Robbing people of the distinction between thoughts and actions?"

Desmond is wrong--the claim at issue does not erase the distinction between thoughts and actions, it just says that moral praise and blame apple the the former as well as the latter. Which is actually quite plausible.

It's better to have a murderous thought than to carry it out, but the best of all is not to have it. Nothing particularly profound about that.

*comment made before whining that "it's a piece of literature and can't be reduced to propositions" wank.*

Anonymous said...

Robbing people of distinctions is one thing. The other danger for philosophers is robbing them of the relatedness of things distinguished.

I really enjoyed the extract. Sounds like Winton is improving with age...

Anonymous said...

Hi Shane,

One can, of course, argue the toss of Desmond's "claim", but I suspect that's not why Ben posted this gobbet. Rather: "The signification of the words is neither conceptual nor representational; it is the positing of a world in which these words 'catch' and establish certain relations or resonances" (Rowan Williams, Grace and Necessity: Reflections on Art and Love [2005], p.31).

Kindest regards,
A wanker

byron smith said...

One thing I love about Winton is that he will never give you any characters wearing either a black or a white hat. No one's point of view can be either entirely dismissed or uncritically adopted.

And I love the cover. Winton has a fixation on drowning.

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