Interpretation, Deconstruction, and Ideology: An Introduction to Some Current Issues in Literary Theory

By Christopher Butler | Go to book overview
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6.4 The Moral and the Political

The basic line of attack here is on the universality and immutability of moral concepts, and the anchoring of them in individuals. Thus Jameson argues that 'ethical thought projects as permanent features of human "experience" and thus as a kind of "wisdom" about personal life and inter-personal relations, what are in reality the historical and institutional specifics of a determinate type of group solidarity for class cohesion.'1 And Eagleton believes that once an analysis on these lines is given, we can abolish 'morality' as an 'autonomous discourse': 'The notion that there is a privileged "moral level" at which the object is to be evaluated disappears: the moral becomes coterminous with the political'.2

Individualist moral concepts are thus seen as entrenched in historical circumstances in a way which the humanist will deny, and the Marxist demonstrate. We may doubt the universality of moral judgements (or of associated literary doctrines such as that of the 'eternal human heart') once we realize that complexes of moral beliefs change through time (or at least relative to one another) and so may be taken to express in historical context the power relations and the typologies of character that subserve them. Shakespeare has a particular view of the virtues of a king; George Eliot seems to emphasize the 'feminine' moral virtues of compassion, tolerance, and resignation, which confirm the subordinate role of women; and we may think the Sicilian's act of revenge wrong whereas his community thinks it right. Indeed, the moral views of a social community like that of the English in India as represented by E. M. Forster or Paul Scott, may seem as restricted and defensive of power relations as those of the Sicilians. However novels such as those I have just alluded to also seem to concentrate upon a 'liberal' independent and individualist moral judgement, which seems to arise from a hostility to the use of moral judgement to strengthen class cohesion.

The Marxist view may thus far be universally true, but trivially so. By this I mean that all moral codes will reflect more or less temporary consensual agreements amongst individuals who have a more or less homogeneous social standing, and who accept that moral discourse will be bound up with the authority or power of individuals or groups, if only to make praise or blame effective. However, although there may be interesting cases of the abuse of

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