Suspending moral judgment is not the immorality of the novel; it is its morality. The morality that stands against the ineradicable human habit of judging instantly, ceaselessly, and everyone; of judging before, and in the absence of, understanding. From the viewpoint of the novel’s wisdom, that fervid readiness to judge is the most detestable stupidity, the most pernicious evil. Not that the novelist utterly denies that moral judgment is legitimate, but that he refuses it a place in the novel. If you like, you can accuse Panurge of cowardice; accuse Emma Bovary, accuse Rastignac—that’s your business; the novelist has nothing to do with it.
Creating the imaginary terrain where moral judgment is suspended was a move of enormous significance: only there could novelistic characters develop—that is, individuals conceived not as a function of some preexistent truth, as examples of good or evil, or as representations of objective laws in conflict, but as autonomous beings grounded in their own morality, in their own laws. Western society habitually presents itself as the society of the rights of man, but before a man could have rights, he had to constitute himself as an individual, to consider himself such and to be considered such; that could not happen without the long experience of the European arts and particularly of the art of the novel, which teaches the reader to be curious about others and to try to comprehend truths that differ from his own. In this sense E. M. Cioran is right to call European society “the society of the novel” and to speak of Europeans as “the children of the novel.”
In Gravity and Grace, the philosopher Simone Weil discusses love and friendship with a kind of aphoristic precision that asks us to consider every sentence carefully, despite its plain and straightforward intelligibility (that the book is in fact produced from her notebooks could account for this style). In any event, I read this passage and was reminded of the vicissitudes of childhood and adolescent friendship:
It is a fault to wish to be understood before we have made ourselves clear to ourselves. It is to seek pleasures in friendship and pleasures which are not deserved. It is something which corrupts even more than love. You would sell your soul for friendship.
1. Before real friendship comes lucid self-awareness. It is challenging to understand oneself; few of us do reliably, achieving at best momentary glimpses of an unpleasantly cagey little creature whose posturing for sympathy or praise, recriminatory mumbling, and moral evasion irritate us. I don’t know what’s worse: that I am he, or that everyone has within them this same little needing demon.
2. But we do not deserve the consolations of friendship if they are based on misrepresented or misunderstood expressions of selfhood, nor do we if they are based on sullied, secret needs. Such consolations aren’t lastingly consolatory anyway: this sort of friendship is a temptation, a trap: one is corrupted by the codependence of need and performance, the filling of frightening silence by unlistening talkers.
3. Know yourself or know none, know nothing, disappear. This lesson wasn’t taught to me, but high school as I remember it was mostly the exchange of blinded and unarticulated selves for approximations of friendship. I don’t know why we seem to be born lonely, but I was always appalled at the naked need in those boys and girls who wondered at their friendlessness —as I did when I was alone— and whose conclusion was that there was something wrong with everyone else.
4. A professor once told me: it is necessary to be mercilessly ‘objective,’ so to speak, with oneself: do not admit into evidence subjectively sympathetic excuses, do not contextualize one’s own actions with justificatory narratives. Judge acts, deeds, consequences, the pain or happiness you bring to others; don’t give quarter to your weakness by making stories of it.
On the other hand, he advised: be endlessly ‘subjective,’ again so to speak, with others: imagine anything and everything one can to excuse them, explain them, understand and love them; make their self your ‘I’ and refuse to consider them only by their acts, deeds, consequences, or whether they bring happiness or pain to the world. Think of them as your own self: a malformed soul being beaten black and blue every day until death.
5. When I have been lonely, I have thought of myself subjectively and others objectively. This is the only real means to the self-pity which defines loneliness: to think of oneself as the world. When one isn’t one’s whole world, loneliness is very different, though still extant.
Learn to thrust friendship aside, or rather the dream of friendship. To desire friendship is a great fault. Friendship should be a gratuitous joy like those afforded by art or life. We must refuse it so that we may be worthy to receive it; it is of the order of grace… It is one of those things which are added unto us. Every dream of friendship deserves to be shattered. It is not by chance that you have never been loved. To wish to escape from solitude is cowardice. Friendship is not to be sought, not to be dreamed, not to be desired; it is to be exercised (it is a virtue). We must have done with all this impure and turbid border of sentiment.
6. Friendship is something one exercises, like compassion; it is a solitary choice, requiring the approval or affection of no one at all. Every desire which seeks a psychological state as its result should be suspected of superficiality at least, but in the case of those who seek friendship as an antidote to loneliness, it is not merely a vice but a countermanding of what’s sought. One is not a friend, of course, when one’s friends are means to an end: means to escape solitude, tools rather than accomplices.
(To consider: "Friendship should be a gratuitous joy like those afforded by art or life." What sort of joys are those? What does it mean that they’re gratuitous?).
Or rather (for we must not prune too severely with ourselves), everything in friendship which does not pass into real exchanges should pass into considered thoughts. It serves no useful purpose to do without the inspiring virtue of friendship. What should be severely forbidden is to dream of its sentimental joys.
7. Earlier in the same chapter —”Love”—, Weil comes close to describing what exists in opposition to sentimental delusions and escapes:
The mind is not forced to believe in the existence of anything… That is why the only organ of contact with existence is acceptance, love. That is why beauty and reality are identical. That is why joy and the sense of reality are identical.
At the moment, I like Simone Weil significantly more than I understand her.