Literature Criticism Ethics: An Introductory Essay with Some Personal Reflections

Article excerpt

I began writing this essay on September 10, 2001. I returned to it on the morning of the following day, September 11, when my wife called me from her office, telling me frantically to turn the TV on. For the next several hours, I followed on the screen what journalists immediately called the most tragic and disastrous military attack on the United States of America since Pearl Harbor in 1941. As I, together with all people of good will, mourn and pray for the countless victims of such a horrific tragedy and condemn all forms of violence for whatever purpose and cause, I have also become convinced, more so than ever before, of the ethical imperative incumbent upon all people, individually and collectively, and of the special privilege and duty befalling all of us, as educators, to become aware of its far-reaching implications in all aspects of our profession. I also invite all of you to work for peace and join me in a sincere prayer for peace: a deeply felt invocation addressed to the Almighty, each other, and the entire world community, best expressed in the following words of the Bible: "[...] pax in terra hominibus bonae voluntatis" ("[...] peace on earth to people of good will" Luke 2:14).

1. Literature Criticism Ethics: The Ethical Imperative (2)

This 2001 issue of Annali d'italianistica, devoted to the study of the interconnections of literature, criticism, and ethics, is the most challenging of the journal's nineteen monographic volumes published thus far. All of us easily comprehend the reasons of this great challenge. It is due neither to literature nor the practice of criticism, for we, as scholars of literature and practitioners of various critical approaches, always accept, even welcome, the difficulties arising from our scholarly investigations; rather, it is due to the third dimension added by the 2001 issue of AdI, to the reciprocal interplay of literature and criticism, namely, ethics. The study of the ethical implications connected with the analysis of literature, the practice of criticism, and our profession as educators, in fact, makes most of us feel somewhat uneasy, just as, or even more so than, the study of the sacred and religious aspects of literature and poetry does. (3)

And yet, as people who live in a community and depend on human society, we cannot escape the ethical issue. Simply stated, ethics concerns everything we do as humans, as can be easily understood even from the term's strict etymological explanation, whether we employ the one derived from Greek (ethics < ethos) or from Latin (moral < mos, moris), both terms connoting the "custom," "habit," and "habitual character" of people. Any attempt at placing ourselves outside or beyond the ethical sphere, therefore, would be tantamount to situating ourselves outside or even above the human community. The question, nevertheless, remains whether the ethical issue that confronts all of us every day of our lives, is immanent to our nature as individuals and to the human community within which we live, or, rather, whether this ethical issue transcends each and all of us because it comes from outside or above us; or, also, whether it originates in each and all of us, individually and collectively, while also finding its superior or ultimate sanction outside each and all of us, in the supernatural and divine. (4)

The interplay of literature, criticism, and ethics has always been present, albeit in varying degrees, in Italy's literary culture, since its medieval beginnings, rooted in the Western ancient and Judeo-Christian traditions, until contemporary times, during which we have experienced an explosion and implosion of--isms, whose dizzying effects have illumined a few of us, alienated several, and confused many.

Then, today, deeply shaken by the tragedy that has affected the United States of America and the civilized world, we are forced to reflect upon our role as educators and scholars and to understand the connections inextricably linking the artistic product, its critical assessment, and the moral issue inseparable from all human undertakings. …