Postwar Academic Fiction: Satire, Ethics, Community

By Kenneth Womack | Go to book overview

Notes

Chapter 1: Introduction

1
As Wayne C. Booth observes in The Company We Keep: an Ethics of Fiction (1988), “the word ‘ethical’ may mistakenly suggest a project concentrating on quite limited moral standards: of honesty, perhaps, or of decency or tolerance.” In Booth's postulation, however, “ethical” refers to “the entire range of effects on the ‘character’ or ‘person’ or ‘self.’ ‘Moral’ judgments are only a small part of it” (8). In this study, I will elaborate upon Booth's usage of the term in order to share in the establishment of a reading paradigm that, in its effort to investigate the interconnections between the lives of readers and their textual experiences, eschews censorship and the codification of moral standards.
2
Although in this instance ethical criticism operates as a partial rejoinder to the excesses of the poststructuralist theoretical project, the notion of reading ethically finds its foundations in a number of historical antecedents. Aristotle's Nicomachean Ethics, for example, establishes precedents for the understanding of happiness (1.5), goodness (1.7), virtue (2.5), pleasure (3.10), justice (5.1), and friendship (8.3). In “The Poet” (1844), Ralph Waldo Emerson calls for a transcendental artificer to engage nature and language as a “sayer,” a “namer,” and a “liberating god” who can articulate the value of reason, love, and beauty to an emerging nation (219, 231). Similarly, in his controversial volume, The Renaissance (1873), Walter Pater endured charges of hedonism for his examinations of art and its power to yield both aesthetic meaning as well as an expanded sense of consciousness: “Great passions may give us this quickened sense of life, ecstasy and sorrow of love, the various forms of enthusiastic activity, disinterested or otherwise, which come naturally to many of us,” he writes. “Of such wisdom, the poetic passion, the desire of beauty, the love of art for its own sake, has most. For art comes to you proposing frankly to give nothing but the highest quality to your moments as they pass, and simply for those moments' sake” (153). While his arguments ultimately border on censorship and critical exclusion because of his unduly high literary and moral standards, F. R. Leavis in The Great Tradition (1948) ascribed value to the works of writers that celebrated the moral fabric of the human community. Such writers, Leavis writes, “are significant in terms of the human awareness they promote; awareness of the possibilities of life” (10). Finally, Northrop Frye's Anatomy of Criticism: Four Essays (1957) posits that the concept of an ethical criticism presupposes the idea of artists as moral focalizers for their communities: “The social context of art is also the moral context of art,” Frye notes. “Hence the moral view of the artist is invariably that he ought

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