Thursday, January 19, 2006

fiction's gift

The early hours are best for me, increasingly. Awake before Sarah – at least this morning, for usually she rises early too, and then everything’s disturbed, with animals noising about the house and the radio on or one of those awful ‘good morning’ TV programs – I’m able to grab that half-hour or so for reading. I’m reading John Murray’s ‘A Few Short Notes on Tropical Butterflies’, stories often with a medical them running through them, but mainly about the confusion and difficulty of life and our sometimes pathetic but also inspiring attempts to wrest something out of what has been made of us. It’s a sort of modernisation of the territory Chekhov covered more than a century ago, in which details and incidents mount up to create an atmosphere, a mood and a character in whom our sympathies are totally engaged. This is the best fiction I’ve read in a while, and it reminds me of what the best stories can do for us in the moral sphere.

I recall that a few years ago I was reading a little textbook called ‘Equality’, one of those things in a commissioned series designed to introduce political ideas to uni undergraduates. Sarah’s daughter Catherine, someone for whom the term ‘chardonnay socialist’ might’ve been coined, was surprised and delighted to find me reading such a text. I was annoyed, partly because she always liked to treat me as some sort of political novice (whereas I was sure that it was she who was the novice), but more importantly because she seemed to imagine that such a book could teach anyone about real equality or inequality, or even that such concepts could be extracted from the mess of life as actually lived without being rendered more or less useless. The textbook was useful in distinguishing between the notion of equality of inputs and that of equality of outcomes. It clarified such notions as equality of opportunity and equality before the law. Good fiction, though, teaches us the hard truth that there is no equality of opportunity, no equality before the law, and that inputs and outcomes are as hard to measure and weigh as the air on a squally day.


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