In her Atlantic Monthly article "Moral Fiction," Mary Gordon, wonders whether fictional characters or real-worlders (both historical and familial) gave her the moral compass that guides her actions. "Does true art really establish models of human action?" she asks.
Then, she wonders, why we put so much stock into characters that are really nothing more than "black marks on a white page that perform the trick of making us believe that people who have never existed are as real as our best friends?" Sure, we should learn that the manic obsession with a hint of revenge we see in Ahab can be tragic - but Ahab never existed. Not really. So what does it matter?
It matters, Gordon argues, because fiction and art can provide us with examples of people from which to learn our lessons. For instance - I don't know what my co-workers think or do from day-to-day, but with a novel I'm involved in the mundane details, fantastic adventures, and deepest thoughts of the protagonist.
And often art serves as nothing more than around-the-campfire storytelling, with lessons and morals and didactic narratives that help us discern right from wrong, just from unjust, and norm from abnormal. Art can go deeper of course - and it often does, as Gordon says, exposing the ever-present grey areas of life.
But then she reasons that, in her own life, she more often looks to real-life friends and family members - and often historical and political figures - to gather the dos-and-do-nots of life.
"My models of right action - the ones who have really helped me in the struggle to be good - are not fictional characters," Gordon says. "But my moral exemplars have tended to be people I know, such as my uncle Joe, who probably never heard of Melville, though the name Moby-Dick might have rung a bell."
Instead, art and literature shows us that moral certainties are rare indeed. They break between moral certainty and moral complexity. One could argue that, at his heart, Gatsby was a cool guy to party with. But someone else could argue he was a manipulative bastard. Who can say?
"The novel has never been very good at shaping people up in predictable and orderly ways," Gordon says. "It says to us that the truth of human beings is often more complicated than we think."
Especially, I would say, if you think human standard operating procedure was not handed down to us mortals by a lightning bolt. For those who believe it was, the right choices can be prescribed and referenced to that striking point where the wavering sand turned to strict and rigid glass.
For the rest of us, we can look to art to help us - not with fire and brimstone, but with beauty and delicacy - to find our way in the world.
"You come to nature with all her theories, and she knocks them all flat," Renoir said. So it goes with us humans, I suppose. Just when you think you have it all figured out, you read about someone else.