The Terrible Power of a Minor Guilt: Literary Essays

Article excerpt

by Abraham B. Yehoshua, translated by Ora Cummings. Syracuse University Press, 2000. 145 pp. $26.95.

Israel's prominent novelist and essayist, A.B. Yehoshua, is also a professor of literature. In this book, which grew out of a course he has taught, he examines moral issues in a broad array of literary texts.

His point of departure is a lament that literary criticism has by and large withdrawn from moral discussion. Yehoshua outlines a number of reasons for this phenomenon. Chief among them is the growth of psychology and psychological reading, which encourages readers to analyze characters rather than judge them. In addition, in contemporary society legal debate often crowds out moral debate. Similarly, with its speed and ability to reach mass audiences, media treatment of social issues has preempted literature as a forum for discussion of new developments and ethical challenges. Academics, for their part, have come to focus on aesthetics and prefer to address a narrow professional readership. A final factor Yehoshua mentions is a fear, on the part of critics, that if they direct attention to moral issues they will introduce ideological censorship into their work. This assertion at first seems anomalous, since there is in fact a great deal of ideological reading and interpretation nowadays -- in, for example, post-colonial, feminist, and canon studies. Yehoshua's explanation makes sense, though, in the specific context of Israeli literary history; he is not discounting recent critical trends so much as commenting on a longstanding aversion, in Israel, to the excesses of dogmatic reading that prevailed there in the 1940s and 1950s.

All told, the status of literature has changed and the nature of literary study is quite different now from what it was in the past. Once widely regarded as a source of moral guidance, it has a much diminished role today. At times, Yehoshua observes, "it seems to literature that nothing is left but to save its honor and hide away in its own little neurotic comer and try to pluck out yet another undiscovered psychological nuance or two -- or to bemoan the superficiality of modern life". A corrective to this sorry state of affairs is what Yehoshua hopes to offer through his approach. Convinced of the distinctiveness of literature and advocating for it, he argues that imaginative writing brings people to empathy in ways that the media cannot. He also believes that literary rhetoric shapes readers' thinking and moral direction in ways that open debate would not -- that is, through identification with characters. What he means by "moral" he indicates by noting, "every image or statement that contains a demand for absoluteness and generality -- that signals to an individual what he or she must and must not do with regard to human relations -- is of moral significance." Furthermore, he adds, "the moral statement incorporates a demand whose force lies in the fact that it does not relate to a personal issue. Rather it is a general demand that is unbound by time or person". Yet those moral truths are reached in fiction not through abstractions or generalities but through identifying with individuals and their particular circumstances.

The texts Yehoshua deals with include Euripides' Alcestis, Camus' "The Guest," Faulkner's "A Rose for Emily," and Raymond Carver's "The Cathedral." The title of the volume, The Terrible Power of a Minor Guilt, is drawn from a chapter on Dostoevsky's The Eternal Husband, a novel that offers rich and complex psychological explorations of its characters' behavior. Despite all the psychological investigation, Yehoshua claims, at the core of the narrative stands a very small transgression that, minor as it is, nonetheless governs all other events. "[N]one of the complex psychological rationales has the ability to cancel out the power of that guilt". Of most interest in this volume for Jewish studies are three chapters: one on the biblical story of Cain and Abel; one on fiction by J. …