Yesterday I made a borderline-nihilistic blog post through a different site saying that calling a sex scene “gratuitous” is really making a value judgement that sex is not worthy of being written about and can only play a structural, supporting role in literature. And that is, even more sneakily, a pathetic attempt to pretend that whatever non-sexy thing we’re writing about has deep meaning.
I think I learned something from the comments that followed, so I’m going to try another approach: Stories are morals. I might even say stories are the real thing, and morals are just a muddled abstraction of the stories that we like.
(This is probably all in Nietzsche somewhere.)
I can think of 3 things you can praise in a story:
Raw terminal values / preferences / tastes are the sort you find in the Iliad or Conan the Barbarian: “What is best in life? To crush your enemies, to see them driven before you, and to hear the lamentations of their women.” Entertainment is anything that pushes our terminal value buttons over and over. Sex and violence entertain because people want to have sex and want to be victorious. That’s what I mean by “terminal value”: Something you want for its own sake.
I’m counting feelings as values. When we say “OH THE FEELS” after reading a story, we enjoyed having that feeling, so it’s a value. A feeling you want to avoid is also a value (with a negative sign, let’s say).
I can imagine 3 different types of values: Personal values, social values, & objectively true values (which may or may not exist). Values are “correct” if they’re objectively true values. They’re “right” if they’re in your set of social values. If they’re in your set of personal values, they just feel good. If what mesmerizes you most is pictures of naked women, then that’s your highest personal value. It isn’t incorrect, but somebody else who finds something else more fascinating will still say it’s wrong.
Ideas are the sort of meaning you find in a science fiction story published in Analog. You can speculate about the possibility that people in the future will take their employer’s last name rather than their father’s without making a value judgement about it.
The values of the Iliad, Beowulf, and Conan are taken as given. If heroes asked “Why is it good to rape these women, but good to die protecting these other women?”, everything would have fallen apart. They’d have been unable to really throw themselves into slaughtering and enslaving their neighbors, and would have been slaughtered and enslaved themselves.
Eventually somebody, maybe Greece in the 5th century BC, created a new thing: Morals. Morals are values derived from other values via thinking and feeling. They make it possible to build new social structures never encountered in evolutionary history that don’t rely entirely on brute force to prop them up.
I objected to calling sex gratuitous because it’s applying a value judgement to literature. But if I try to write stories without making arbitrary value judgements, I’m left with ideas, feelings, and technique. In other words, post-modernist fiction.
I was trying to find meaning without choosing an arbitrary set of values. Maybe you can’t do that. Maybe meaning is just a story that feels worthwhile. We search for meaning by finding stories that mesmerize us. We try to figure out what’s important in the stories that do, and call that mix of values, feelings, and ideas our morality. And while the stories, values, and morals we develop can never be correct, we can argue with each other about which ones are right, and build enough of a consensus to build a better life for us all.
There’s still the possibility that you can find some objectively true values–and in fact I think I may have found some–and write stories with meaning based on those values. But most humans don’t respond much to stories about such abstract ideas. The closest things I can even think of are some Borges stories such as “The God’s Script”.
This leaves me in the uncomfortable business of writing stories to discover morals that aren’t correct. This feels bizarre to anyone with a scientific mindset. Why devote oneself to disclosing things that are not in fact true, when you can be a scientist and uncover actual truths?
Stories and social morals are correct on a meta-level: You need them to build a society. It’s like running a business: You’ll never find the single best business strategy, but you’d better pick one, or you’ll be out of business.