Oct 26th 2014

Moral Ambiguity: Why We Make Art

by Mary L. Tabor

Mary L. Tabor worked most of her life so that one day she would be able to write full-time. She quit her corporate job when she was 50, put on a backpack and hiking boots to trudge across campus with folks more than half her age. She’s the author of the novel Who by Fire, the memoir (Re)Making Love: a sex after sixty story and the collection of connected short stories The Woman Who Never Cooked. She’s a born and bred liberal who writes lyric essays on the arts for one of the most conservative papers in the country and she hosts a show interviewing authors on Rare Bird Radio. In the picture Mary L.Tabor

Why attempt to create art, I ask, to make something “other” when faced with the dilemmas of existence, with, as I’ve said in one of my own short stories, “all the ways that life betrays the living?”

I’ve written here on Facts and Arts three personal essays on my re-readings of Kafka's The Trial, Virginia Woolf's To the Lighthouse and “Goodness in Leopold Bloom,” my re-reading of Joyce’s Ulysses. These three novels written in the first quarter of the 20th Century, reflect the movement of philosophical thought of the period—and particularly, I argue here, the influence of Friedrich Nietzsche (1844-1900).

In this essay I hope to pull together my thoughts on the struggle for meaning, for a narrative in our lives, and to explore my question, Why make art? I do this not from the perspective of a philosopher, but from that of a writer of fiction and literary memoir and from the perspective of my own search for a moral framework—for a narrative of hope.

Each of the novels I’ve re-read explores the struggle for meaning in the midst of moral ambiguity and expresses a longing for a return of some sort—what I name here, as hope—while also recognizing that the path may never be clear.

In my work, I have found myself turning again and again to Friedrich Nietzsche’s works.

I think the reason is that Nietzsche questioned the very foundation of the moral thought that preceded him. Here is likely his most oft quoted assertion: “‘Whither is God,’ he cried. ‘I shall tell you. We have killed him—you and I. … God is dead.’” (1)

I quote him not as a non-believer, but as a searcher. I’m Jewish by heritage and tradition—not observant, not even as well-schooled as I could be, but a believer nonetheless.

Nietzsche again:  “‘[W]ill to truth’ does not mean ‘I will not let myself be deceived’ but—there is no choice—‘I will not deceive, not even myself’: and with this we are on the ground of morality—of being “truthful at last.”

Nietzsche’s questioning resonates for me because I believe all his work asks the primal question, Is a coherent narrative for our lives possible? And if we have no clear answer to that question, what then?

The three novels I’ve re-read and discussed here on Facts and Arts, reflect the philosophical struggle that comprises the loss of that coherence and the moral ambiguity that brings to our lives.

In all three novels, I see an unfulfilled longing for moral unity for this reason: A search, a longing, characterizes the forward movement of each of the novels.

To clarify the ground I’m on, I turn to formidable critics on these works who agree that the modernist writer moved inward and away from society.

The critic Peter Faulkner argues that “modernist writers fail to see man socially and historically, and so make his alienation, which is a social process, into an absolute.” (2)

The critic Randall Stevenson argues, “Once narrative places ‘everything in the mind’, a sense of significance can be restored to individuals: it becomes once again possible to consider ‘what a terrific thing a person is’—regardless of how diminished … their actual lives in the modern industrial world may be.” (3)

The critic Stephen Spender expressed starkly the move away from society: “In the works of the most characteristically modern writers contemporary civilization was represented as chaotic, decadent, on the point of collapse, anarchic, absurd, the desert of non-values.” (4)

I don’t agree with Spender’s view as it relates to Woolf and Joyce, but I think he’s right about where Kafka leads us. And Kafka, most certainly of the three novelists I discuss here, was an adherent of Nietzsche.

The critic Gerhard Kurz notes the importance of Nietzsche to Kafka: “The study of Kafka’s relation to Nietzsche was long obstructed by Max Brod’s [friend, biographer and literary executor of Kafka’s body of work] denial of such an influence. The relation first came to light in 1954, when Erich Heller named Nietzsche as Kafka’s ‘intellectual predecessor.’ [Kurz explains that Kafka met Nietzsche through his friend Oskar Pollak.].” Kurz asserts, “Kafka remained faithful to Nietzsche’s thinking until death.” (5)

Nietzsche’s Thus Spake Zarathrustra is referenced three times by Joyce in Ulysses, showing, at the very least, that Joyce had read Nietzsche; as an aside, I note that Walter Kaufmann in his introduction to his translation of Nietzsch links the two for their affinity for play on words. (6)

Admittedly, I could find no indication in my critical search that Virginia Woolf had studied Nietzsche, but considering how well-read she was, I find it hard to believe she was unaware of his work.

The critic Ihab Hassan characterizes the nihilism in Nietzsche’s work that illuminates the dilemma I explore here. Hassan notes: “Existentialism, we know, plumbs the solitude of man. It follows through the nihilism of Nietzsche, denies all essences, all a priories in the human condition, and achieves a transvaluation of values despite itself.” (7)

This, in my view, is the dilemma that Woolf, Joyce and Kafka address: how to decide what one ought to do when one is alone, separated from society, and when one believes that society may not offer a set of shared values that work.

All three novels separate their characters from society. Virginia Woolf in her essay “On Being Ill,” said, “Human beings do not go hand in hand the whole stretch of the way. … Here we go alone, and like it better so.” (8)

In To the Lighthouse, Mrs. Ramsay looks out on the constant stroke of the Lighthouse and says inside her head, “It will end, it will end.” (p. 63) She addresses the question of existence and asks herself, “What did it all mean? To this day she had no notion.” (p. 105) The novel’s middle section, “Time Passes,” separates the action of the novel and all the characters from society. The inexorable power of time and nature rule in “this silence, this indifference, this integrity, the thud of something falling” (p. 133), and, in this context, three deaths occur in brackets: Mrs. Ramsay, rather suddenly; her daughter Prue Ramsay, in childbirth; her son Andrew, in the war.

In Ulysses, both Leopold Bloom and Stephen Dedalus are exiles. Bloom is an outsider, a Jew; he is cuckolded by his wife, shunned by others, the object of derision and anti-Semitism. Stephen, recently returned from Paris, is the loner, struggling with refusal to take the sacraments, with his art, with his dissatisfaction with the politics of Ireland; it is Stephen who says, “That is God. ... A shout in the street.” (2: 383-6)

K. in The Trial  is the most cut off from the world. The novel opens with K. excluded from society by the  accusation of guilt. We find no actual events in the novel. The Trial takes places devoid of time or place.

With this separation from society of the characters in these three novels, the movement to the self was perhaps inevitable and technique followed. It is my view that the interior monologue and what came to be known in Joyce’s work as the stream of consciousness arose from a philosophic need to move narrative inside the domain of the “self.”

Ulysses intimidates readers because of its lack of clear narrative thread—though I argue we always know what day it is and what time it is. But those who dismiss the novel argue fairly, I think, that Joyce purposely impedes a clear linear narrative thread. I argue that Joyce is questioning how one finds the narrative of one’s own life.

This question is bleakly explored in Kafka’s The Trial, where the move to the interior in terms of technique is also evident. In the Chapter “The Whipper,” the reader is, likely to conclude that he is inside K.’s mind when, on the day after observing his warders being beaten in the closet, K. opens the door again to find that “everything was still the same, exactly as he had found it the previous evening.” (p. 89) But Kafka does not allow the reader to know for sure that we are inside someone’s consciousness—as I would contend that both Woolf and Joyce do. K.’s seemingly impossible world could be the “real” world.

The critic Hassan comments, “If his [Kafka’s] art stands for anything, it may be this: the dark and clarity of consciousness, the impossible quest for self-apprehension. It is a quest that men neither abandon nor fully attain. Increasing their consciousness of existence, they manage only to intensify the predicament of consciousness.” (9)

Kafka, Woolf and Joyce in their fiction articulated the moral ambiguity that the “self,” Nietzsche’s subjective will “undeceived,” must face, and each then asserts by implication what Nietzsche did directly with these words: “… and with this we are on the ground of morality.” (10) 

What faces the main characters in the three novels I am examining is the struggle to find meaning in the face of Nietzsche’s “undeceived” morality, a nothingness, if you will.

But I assert here that in each novel, the struggle, the very fact that the writer put pen to paper, demonstrates a longing for a world where moral decisions can be—indeed, perhaps they must be—made alone. 

I ask, Is art one of the paths away from nihilism?

The critic Peter Faulkner comments, “It is perhaps the high seriousness of their devotion to art which finally distinguishes the modernists from their successors, who set more store by jokes and language-games.” I think he is certainly correct when he asserts that art was the one value the modernists “adhered to with total devotion in a universe which they knew and showed to be bewilderingly problematic.” (11) 

Woolf expresses faith in art as one of the best possible paths. I think she believed that morality could, in fact, arise out of the artistic endeavor. In her essay “Art and Life,” she said, “If aesthetic beauty is to affect other qualities in the human being, the emotion which we get from beauty must in some way induce us (for example) to do right.” (12)

To the Lighthouse ends with Lily’s completion of her painting and the words “I have had my vision,” as she lays down her brush. (p. 209) Woolf may very well believe that art is not the only way to understand “subject, object and the nature of reality” (p. 23), but it is one path clearly offered in this novel. It is a credit to the novel’s complexity that art is not presented as an “answer.” Clearly, Woolf sees the difficulties of existence as too great to conclude with an answer.

My point here is that she, nonetheless, continues the search, that she longs for a return—the indefinable lighthouse, perhaps? 

Joyce by choosing the Homeric myth of Ulysses, a story of returning, places Bloomsday in that context from the start. He concludes less forcefully in favor of art. Stephen Dedalus is more aesthete than humanist or spiritualist. It is Bloom who is defined as having “the touch of the artist.” As I assert in my essay here on Bloom, the touch of the artist is Joyce’s recognition of the artist’s sensitive nature, the artist’s inability to avoid seeing, to avoid hearing, to avoid the bombardment that is life in a city, in this case Dublin, Ireland. And I add here, that it is Bloom who is most humane, who searches and finds and connects with Stephen.

Perhaps that alone is commentary enough on the artist’s task. For in fact, Joyce chose to write the book and to give us Leopold Bloom, in all his flawed goodness. 

I believe Joyce in Ulysses moved beyond his position in A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, where he describes the artist who “like the God of the creation, remains within or behind or beyond or above his handiwork, invisible, refined out of existence, indifferent, paring his fingernails.” (13)

One may be tempted to assert that that is a good description of Joyce as author of Ulysses, but I find his embrace of humanity in this novel to belie that view. 

Perhaps author and critic Anthony Burgess said it best in these words that refute those who find nihilism in this novel:

“The greatest of man’s achievements, after language, is the community, and Joyce’s Dublin stands for every city-state that ever was. … To Joyce, a community is men meeting, drinking, arguing, recognizing each other in the streets, and one of his peculiar miracles is to make a real historical Dublin (the Dublin that flourished in summer 1904) an eternal pattern of human society. All men gain strength and even a certain nobility from belonging to it, and Bloom and Stephen are equally citizens of a blessed imperfect city, despite their intermittent sense of inner exile.” (14)

The key words here for me are “community”  and “inner exile,” for these are two of the opposing forces that Joyce is confronting: In other words, how to find a narrative for a life when one is exiled from his community. 

Kafka, in contrast creates no such community. K. is the ultimate outsider, and he remains so to the very last line of the novel before he is about to die, “‘Like a dog!’ he said; it was as if the shame of it must outlive him.” (p. 229)

But if there is shame, then there must also be guilt. And though we as readers may be unable to identify the nature of K.’s guilt, or for that matter of our own, a belief in guilt, is also by its very inference an assertion that a search is in place and that a longing for return to something, to some form of meaning, perhaps even to God, lies at the base of this novel. I offer for consideration Kafka’s short parable “Couriers”: 

They were offered the choice between becoming kings or the couriers of kings. The way children would, they all wanted to be couriers. Therefore there are only couriers who hurry about the world, shouting to each other—since there are no kings—messages that have become meaningless. They would like to put an end to this miserable life of theirs but they dare not because of their oaths of service. (15)

What is one to make of the “oath of service”? Kafka provides no answer, but do we not hear echoes of Nietzsche’s words here: “… the meaning of all this, should we dare to comprehend it, is a will to nothingness, a will running counter to life … . ”? (16) 

Could not Kafka’s oath of service be a service to life? In K.’s shame and in the couriers’ oath to service, I find a longing to return to a philosophy of meaning in the face of nihilism. Again, Kafka put pen to paper. He wrote.

Woolf, Joyce, and Kafka wrote monumentally important works that articulate moral ambiguity as a reflection of the philosophic thought of their time, but there is also no question they affirmed—indeed with the force of art—that the struggle to find meaning continued in their work and that struggle continues when we choose to read them, and where we in fact may be transformed by that experience. 

I am not saying that art can replace God, but I am saying that the search for meaning makes a difference in the world. It defies nihilism by the very act of making something, something “other,” that is of the self but not the self.

A writer’s work, the novel in a trunk in the attic, the poems unpublished and in a drawer, the painting stored against the wall may very well be a call with no hope of an answer. But each is still a call.

We know that art gets made even under the most dire of circumstances and that it gets made most often with no hope even of compensation, let alone fame. If the human spirit can’t help but make art, then hope, not despair, resides in that effort.


1.      Friedrich Nietzsche, The Portable Nietzsche, The Gay Science, “The Madman,” ed. and trans. Walter Kaufmann (New York: The Penguin Group, paperbound edition, 1976), p. 95.

2.      Peter Faulkner, Modernism (London: Methuen & Co Ltd, 1977), p. 69.

3.      Randall Stevenson, Modernist Fiction: An Introduction (Hertfordshire, England: Harvester Wheatsheaf, 1992), p. 77.

4.      Stephen Spender, The Struggle of the Modern(California: University of California Press, 1963), p. 208.

5.      Gerhard Kurz, “Nietzsche, Freud, and Kafka,” trans. Neil Donahue, Reading Kafka, ed. Mark Anderson (New York: Schocken Books Inc., 1989), p. 138.

6.      Kaufmann, Nietzsche, p. 6.

7.      Ihab Hassan, The Dismemberment of Orpheus: Toward a Postmodern Literature (Wisconsin: The University of Wisconsin Press, 1982), p. 143.

8.      Virginia Woolf, Collected Essays, Volume IV (New York: Harcourt, Brace & World, Inc., 1967), p. 196.

9.      Hassan, The Dismemberment of Orpheus, p. 121.

10.  Kaufmann, Nietzsche, p. 449.

11.  Faulkner, Modernism, p. 75.

12.  Virginia Woolf, The Essays of Virginia Woolf, Vol. I, 1904-1912, ed. Andrew McNeillie (London: The Hogarth Press, 1986), p.277.

13.  James Joyce, A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man (New York: The Viking Press, 1965), p. 215.

14.  Anthony Burgess, Re Joyce (New York: Ballantine Books, 1966), p. 230.

15.  Franz Kafka, Parables and Paradoxes: in German and English, trans. of “Couriers,” Clement Greenberg (New York: Schocken Books, 1971), p. 175.

16.  Kaufmann, Nietzsche, p. 454.



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