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Rod Downey, The Moralist (Great Mirror Press, Ormond Beach, Florida, 2001)
This book is available from Amazone  

A review by Tom O'Carroll

As solipsistic books go, this is as glabrous as it gets.

Stick with it, it gets easier. Let me put it another way. Is it a bird? Is it a plane? No, it's Super Ped! Or Super Red, seeing as how the hero is a guy rejoicing in the name of Red Rover – like the children's game – who is publicly a boy lover, privately a pederast, but just don't mention the other "p" word.

Red, fighting fit at fifty, is a man with a mission. He is a moral revolutionary playing for high stakes, putting his high-flying career in public relations on the line in a bold bid to capture the ear of his native America. Some see him as a Quixotic figure, a knight-all-too-errant on a mission impossible. But even that understates his task. Don Quixote's craziness was to tilt at windmills, whereas Red's enemies are real giants: rabid media figures and cops – people who seriously think it is better to be dead than Red; powerful people who can inflict serious harm.

Yet, amazingly, armed with courage, media skills, high culture and low cunning, Red makes his mark on US television and – once taken up in Europe, where the sophisticates know literary talent when they see it – becomes a celebrated writer. The irony is that it is arguably a Pyrrhic victory. Red's mission is to oppose "moral principle", with its wretched downside of love-killing rules imposed by authority. Instead of rules, he says, we should be ruled only by our hearts. There is no higher law than the love we feel – including the love of a beautiful boy. Yet the very act of proclaiming this gospel of beauty and love (and the truth of our existential condition that binds the two together), precipitates the "outing" of Red's deepest relationship with a boy. A tragedy then?

Readers may judge for themselves. All I should say is that Red's love for Jonathan, a gifted child he "mentors" in a programme to develop young literary talent, is a thread skillfully woven throughout a book with a well paced plot, a goodly seasoning of philosophical discourse and some dramatically lively lessons on communicating in a hostile media environment.

Notice I say "book", not "novel". One day, if the author achieves as much literary celebrity as his hero Red, there could be an exam question for college kids: "Is Downey's The Moralist a novel?" Well, we know it is not a bird, or a plane, but what sort of book is it? The question arises because Downey teases his readers as to whether it is indeed a novel, a work of fiction, or whether it is near as damn it pure autobiography. If the latter, its author and his young lover will be damned themselves unless an element of deniability is built in.

In Downey's capable hands the resultant collision of life with art produces a stunning hall of mirrors effect: the author, Rod, is himself a PR guru who has tackled the media on boy love; so is his hero Red; and Red is also writing an "autobiographical" (maybe) novel called The Moralist! It is teasing, tantalizing, post-modern in its self-referential aspects, and utterly queer in the "queer theory" sense that it confounds categorisation. Red is even depicted as reading reviews of this other The Moralist that eerily anticipate the observations I am keying in at this very moment. Red is a benign sorcerer in Jonathan's eyes. And Rod? Has he bewitched me into writing what he wants? Jeez, this is making me dizzy!

In a more straightforward way, Downey is good with dialogue too. The gripping scenes in which Jonathan valiantly battles to thwart a good cop/bad cop routine when interrogated over his friendship with Red, reminded me of John Grisham's The Client. And while the subject matter of The Moralist (to say nothing of the title) invites comparison with Gide, I found the dialectical handling of the philosophical issues reminiscent of Gore Vidal. As for the evocation of Red's "sorcery" with Jonathan, it is a triumph with few parallels this side of the ancient classics. Some may chafe at what may seem the author's self-congratulatory tone, given that we could be talking of autobiography. But that tone comes in a balanced context. Earlier in life, he confesses, "he had not a clue how to bag his prey. He was Aschenbach at twenty-six."

Nor is this glancing reference to Mann's Death In Venice the only example I could give of many subtle ways in which Downey seems to anticipate every conceivable line of criticism. The clearest chink in this Quixote's armour lies not in his skills as a writer or advocate, nor in his "predatory" love life, if that is what is being related. His often thinly disguised shadowing of real life BL political activism is likewise not a problem: the fact that I could identify no fewer than 17 real characters depicted under changed names just added to my interest. No, the vulnerability is philosophical.

While one cannot have too much "glabrous" youth in a book, what are we to make of one grounded in "solipsistic" moral philosophy? If only Red's ideas are at stake, not Rod's, then Rod has no problem. In this scenario, the literary character's ideas can be as off the wall as the author pleases: the character's living out of those ideas on the page may be just as illuminating as if his stance is rock solid. But what if Red is Rod, period? What if Rod is not looking for deniability in this area but is keen to nail his own colours to the mast?

In that case, he'd better make sure his ground is defensible against all comers. Red's/Rod's key perception was that "Good and evil were simply window dressing to justify whatever we want. 'Good' was what we wanted. 'Evil' was what we didn't." It is a view that seems to vaporise existentialism ("the philosophy of choice in the 20th century" as Red wittily put it). Each of us has no choice but to have a subjective position, comprising our own wants and preferences. We cannot choose what we "want to want," so to speak. And what we want is inevitably what we choose, if we can get it.

It is no new perception. Hume argued long ago that the distinction between good and evil must derive from our feelings, not from our reason. Kant took the completely opposite view. His privileging of abstract reason in the search for moral principles looks unrealistic these days but the debate is by no means over.
Kant was full of cant – in his private life too – but philosophers to this day, such as Thomas Nagel and Michael Smith, are finding ingenious ways to reinstate objectivity in moral debate.

Red is more a Nietzsche man, though not afraid to tilt at that giant either. Our reasoned choices are just "a second-generation copy of desire", he insists. He is full of flashy aphorisms like this, another reason why The Moralist is a delight to read. One senses Downey is steeped in the assertive manner of the German romantic philosophers, and a romantic individualist his hero certainly is.

He is utterly unfazed by science's important claim to have unlocked the secret origins of morality in the evolution of mutual cooperation. Darwin's heirs, he might have added, can explain love too. But then he seeks to slay the dragon of science: "All we really knew without question was that we exist. Science would forever seek to cast this final net over consciousness without success. Because the episteme depended on consciousness as its source, consciousness would always be larger than knowledge."

He makes too much of this. A house will always be larger than its rooms. But you don't go in the bathroom or the bedrooms when you need the kitchen. They are irrelevant, just as are Red's argument and the admitted mysticism he retreats into when cornered. Mysticism implies mysteries, a feature which sits oddly with the confident, got-it-all-figured-out swagger of Red's usual style. The only reason Red's philosophy seems remotely plausible is because this mystical, romantic, revolutionary has style. He cuts a dash. Without laughing, one can see Tom Cruise in the role. And, most important of all, a boy admires and loves him.

But what if the hero were a little more flawed? Let's imagine Hannibal Lekter saying to himself "What I want is good." What he famously wants is to eat people. So why can't we accept this as morally acceptable? Is it just because we happen to have different wants? Is it because most of us (presumably) do not wish to eat people? No, it is because we do not wish to be eaten. Hannibal's wants are inconsistent with ours, so we need some system – some reasoned, principled system we can agree on – to arbitrate between competing wants. This engages law as well as morality, but both systems of restrictions on behaviour ultimately derive their authority from beliefs as to what is harmful.

Downey goes some way to tackle the Lekter factor. His hero's morality is thus based not just on any old whimsical desires a body might have, but on love. It is right and good to follow our hearts, to be guided by our desires. But the major and highly disputable premise is that we will all wish to act with love. Well, that's still no problem for Hannibal Lekter. He just loves eating people!

This might sound a mere semantic game, a trivial way of cheating. But it is not. It is serious. If subjective moral accounting is the name of the game, it can quickly become as dodgy as Enron's financial accounting. A much more serious example is to be seen in Dostoevsky's hero Raskolnikov, in Crime and Punishment. He too, just like Red, is a man with a heart. He is capable of love, tenderness, noblility of soul. And like Red he finds very good – highly subjective – reasons for breaking all the rules, for standing above them. He too is a philosopher, with a perceived destiny to do great things for the world. But, like Napoleon, he cannot be expected to be bound as are ordinary mortals to petty notions of right conduct. Great achievements sometimes require the will to shed blood…

"The moral struggle is not between good and evil, right and wrong, but self and society," Red avers. But "society" is not just government, it is not just authority telling us what to do. It is us, as well as them. It speaks volumes about our alienation in modern society that we lose sight of this. Other people – friends, family, lovers, colleagues – all want subjective "good" things that differ both subtly and drastically from one person to another. The way out of the problems this creates is the mutually advantageous resort to reason and, yes, moral principle. This need not result in the tightly defined codes and rules that are the authoritarian's paradise. It does not imply God-given fundamental truths as to what is good, but rather a consensus of shared feelings – a consensus more easily reached with close, like-minded friends than with distant, hostile forces.

But don't let these reservations of mine over the hero's moral vision put you off reading this wonderful book. I mean no criticism of Red’s lifestyle or Rod’s implied endorsement of it. Quite the reverse. And in the end it is indeed a novel rather than a philosophical treatise. The latter tend to give us headaches, but Downey stimulates real thought in a more entertaining way – and that alone does philosophy a service.

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