A Poetic Response to “Diana”, and Various Approaches – A Reader’s Response

One of my readers writes…

“When I first read your story “Diana” and its critique, my initial
response to the critic was dismissive. His analysis seemed too heavily
serious for such a light story: as though someone objected to “Peter Rabbit”
on the grounds that it condoned exploitation of landless agricultural
proletarians like Farmer MacGregor. Anyway, it seemed overly literal:
literature needs an allusive, emotional, and ultimately metaphoric reading if
fiction is to have import in the real world. I remembered a poem of Robinson,
one stanza of which appeared to me to clarify your point without possibility
of moral objection:

Meanwhile we do no harm; for they

That with a god have striven,

Not hearing much of what we say,

Take what the god has given;

Though like waves breaking it may be,

Or like a changed, familiar tree,

Or like a stairway to the sea

Where down the blind are driven.

“Unfortunately, I was not able to cease thinking about why the
seemed to me so disturbingly off-base. It was seriously intentioned and
rational in its methods without obvious flaws of logic or sense. It began to
haunt my thoughts. This is, therefore, more an exorcism than an essay.

“Obviously, the reasons why I did and do not find the critique
persuasive may relate to premises. If there is disagreement about premises,
any dialogue will be futile. But I did not see obvious disagreements over
premises between me and your critic, perhaps because the critique is not very
explicit about his or her premises. My exorcism thus consists of thinking
through some premises, some plausible and others less so.

“One possible premise that would completely exculpate your story
the specific criticism given is that literature is to be judged solely
according to artistic criteria, not moral ones. This is certainly not the
premise of the critic nor of any of the responses that you gave or quoted,
nor is it mine. That literature like any other human activity may have
consequences that demand a moral judgment seems to be a shared premise that
does not need to be argued here. But a premise about the kind of moral
calculus that is appropriate may be the wedge that separates me from your
critic. My premise is that the primary purpose of literature, like all the
arts, is to entertain, to give people comfort, joy, rest, and excitement. Seco
ndarily, the purpose of literature, unlike any other of the arts, is to
provide the only ethical laboratory for experimenting with the entire domain
of human potential. Thus, my premise implies a moral calculus such that, if a
piece of literature achieves at least its primary purpose, let alone both its
primary and secondary purposes, it already has enough positive moral value
that it warrants an adverse moral judgment only in essentially unambiguous
cases where the piece is likely to do harm. Here may be the source of my
antipathy to the critique because I not only can, I spontaneously did, read
the story in a sense that seems highly unlikely to have any harmful
consequences to real people.

“A different premise on which we might disagree is the morality of
suicide (assuming for the moment that that is even relevant to the
story). If
suicide is an absolute moral wrong, then that might be a basis for a moral
criticism of your story. Based, however, on what the critic said about the
incident of the German soldier, we appear again to share a common premise:
suicide is not an absolute wrong; it is a wrong merely if committed for
reasons that do not demand such an extreme remedy.

“A third premise on which we might disagree relates to free will.
may well be a side issue, but, if the critic’s argument against your tale is
based solely on the story’s purported denial of the existence of free will,
he will not persuade me until he persuades me to abandon determinism, an
extremely unlikely event. Of course, there is a more involved argument about
free will, starting from this position: whether or not free will exists,
acting as though it does is a fundamental part of the social contract. That I
could agree with. The critic, however, to convince me that your story were
pernicious, would have to assert more; namely, that it is also part of the
social contract to do nothing that would ever require acknowledgment of the
mythic nature of free will. That is not in my copy of the social contract,
which is a contract of informed consent and full disclosure: I need only
abide by, without ever having to attest to, the myth of free will.

“The following might be a defence for your fable. First, what is
divinely ordained is moral by definition. Second, your protagonist violated
those divine ordinances and paid the divinely ordained, and therefore morally
proper, forfeit. “Ours not to question why:” verily, the judgments of the
gods are righteous, and there is “nothing promised that is not performed.”
This defence seemingly implies that every tale is to be judged by the
morality inherent in the imaginary world portrayed. I am extremely dubious
about such a premise: for example, a movie in which Jews are less than human
and so deserve extermination as vermin could not, in my view, be accepted as
morally good or even neutral just because the movie gave many bigots pleasure
or was technically skilled. Nevertheless, many of the comments seem to have
implicitly adopted a premise that the morality of a story is to be assessed
solely in light of the story’s own moral universe. Such a premise, however,
is obviously unimpeachable if the story’s imagined universe is meant to
represent the real universe, and, as an agnostic, I have to admit the
possibility that the religion of classical Greece and Rome is absolutely
true. In that case, when a mortal espies, intentionally or not, Diana and
her nymphs, that is a violation of taboo, of universal law, for which the
inevitable punishment is death; there is no more moral issue involved than if
a person fell off a cliff and some crank asked us to decry the immorality of
gravity: “So each new victim treads unfalteringly/ The never altered circuit
of his fate.” Moreover, “though all the saints revile her,” still the White
Godess with “rowan berry lips” does give us Her precious gift: when with her
right hand “she crooks a finger, smiling,/ How may the King hold back?/
Royally then he barters life for love.” Nor is this barter a bad trade since
we are mortal anyway, and it is just those reviling saints who would deny us
what is good in the only life that we shall ever have. Under such a reading,
“Diana” is a perfectly moral story, and my selection from Robinson was, just
like the above lootings from Graves, a shorthand way of articulating such a
reading. Unhappily, that rationale is persuasive only emotionally even for
me, though I think the result correct, because if taken as a logical
argument, it is so obviously incomplete.

“Indeed, as an agnostic, I must also consider the case from a
angle; namely, that the gods of Olympus are myth. From this angle, it seems
somewhat unlikely that most hikers in the woods of New England suffer
grievous harm there from encountering beauty bare surrounded by her nymphs,
or that many readers are going to interpret the story in any very literal
sense: the story is fantasy. The more obviously a story is depicting an
imaginary reality, the more it is reasonable to interpret it primarily, or
even exclusively, in a metaphoric or figurative sense (again, a premise). I
can easily read your story as metaphor for man alienated from nature by a
civilization dominated by the machine (e.g., the computer), the city (e.g.,
New Haven, a truly unlovely spot), and reductionism (e.g., the psychology of
Yale’s Skinner who tormented rats in boxes) and liberated by erotic
experience intense enough to induce him to abandon a forseeably
unsatisfactory life for a new one that is fundamentally unpredictable and
dangerous, but also human and satisfying. One life ends, metaphorically, as
another begins, but that is both death and birth, and the death of the old is
accepted willingly because the new life is the better one.

“I am not trying to argue that that is the only way to read the
but fantasy invites an open reading: it is not inconsistent with Greek myth
for a mortal encountering the divine to be translated to a different plane of
existence. Not only do I think this is a reasonable way to read the story, I
also believe that it is more consistent with the story’s tone, which seems
life affirming rather than life negating. Given my first premise— that
literature is to be judged immoral only in unambiguous case — and given the
possibility of at least two readings totally at variance with the one that
raises moral issues in your critic’s mind, I find his position perplexing at

“This argument depends critically on the nature of the tale: it
to “Diana” because clearly that story is not directly of the quotidian world;
it would hardly be valid if applied to the morally more questionable
“Chantelle,” a dispassionately told tale of violence, quasi-rape, and
psychological manipulation that undercuts any sensible notion of consensual
sex and is firmly set in what appears to be the actual world in which we
live. Your critic picked the wrong story.

“Anyway, my haunting has been exorcised. As you can see, I react
differently to different stories that you have written. I liked, and approve
of , “Diana.”


As G. called this an exorcism rather than an essay, I have decided not
to respond to it point-by-point. Interesting, though. So much commentary
from one little story…and even I don’t know what was really in my
head when I wrote it. Certainly very little of the above was
consciously in mind. Unconsciously…who knows? – Mary Anne