Magazine article World Literature Today

The Ethics of Ethics and Literature

Magazine article World Literature Today

The Ethics of Ethics and Literature

Article excerpt

In common with other debates that are at least as old as Plato is one that refuses to die a suitable philosophical death. Does reading fiction, being exposed to the fruits of aesthetic imagination, make you as a person better or worse? Each side has its distinguished advocates. Martha Nussbaum and Wayne Booth have argued, with great passion if not always matching precision, that reading fiction is an ethical pursuit, a matter of building empathy and character. Richard Posner, in his influential 1997 essay "Against Ethical Criticism," calmly demolished most of their arguments: empathy can be felt for the devil as well as the divine; only sly special pleading makes a list of books one that will improve character, and then only if such character is in the mood for improving. To evaluate literature on ethical grounds is transparently to commit a categorical mistake, and one that can only do a disservice to the literature in the name of ethics. In the words of Helen Vendler, "Treating fictions as moral pep-pills or moral emetics is repugnant to anyone who realizes the complex psychological and moral motives of a work of art."

The implication here is clear: anyone who indulges in the pep-pill theory is, in effect, a bad reader, insufficiently sophisticated with respect to the experience of art. Such readers may be found in suburban reading groups, perhaps, complaining that they didn't care for a novel because they found none of its characters likeable, but we true readers of fiction know better. There is a moral dimension in play here, Vendler suggests, but it is some kind of higher or a more refined, anyway distinct, notion of aesthetic morality, a morality that bonds writer and reader together in some manner irreducible to ethical instruction or, still more, parable-style bottom lines.

I am not unsympathetic to this line of objection; in fact, it strikes me as quite likely valid and needful, especially for challenging what might threaten to become a popular critical consensus in favor of edifying or uplifting narratives, the Oprah's Book Club "some improving book" school of appreciation. A more recent, and more winning, version of the position can be found, for example, in Jenny Davidson's delightful new book, Reading Style: A Life in Sentences. "I've always been bothered by the notion that literature is worth reading chiefly for what it teaches us about life," runs the first sentence of this volume. "Of course we learn things about life from literature: it's self-evident that a book may make its reader wiser or more philosophical in some measure consequent upon the nature of the book itself. . . . But there is also something intolerably banal about the idea that the main reward of reading a novel by Leo Tolstoy or George Eliot should be my becoming a slightly better person."

There are important nuances in this declaration. Davidson does not sharply distinguish, though one could (Poser does, for instance), between becoming ethically better and becoming wiser. To learn about life is not at all necessarily to become a better person, even slightly. In any event, the suggestion that improvement of whatever kind might be the main reason for reading literature is "intolerably banal." Like Vendler, Davidson has another card to play: such banality about the reading experience misses a deeper, or higher, ethical point about immersion in fiction, "a form of intellectual play that seems to me ultimately as ethical as its lesson-driven counterpart." She herself focuses on literary style, in particular as conveyed in fictive sentences (hence the book's title). "By stripping literary language down to its constituent parts, I perversely gain a sense of transcendence, an emotional as well as intellectual liberation that comes by way of the most precise considerations of details of language." It may not be immediately obvious what is ethical about this precision, except that, soon after, we find Davidson explaining why she feels "furious" with the sentimentality or paranoia of a given novel: "This is one of the ways in which morality enters into even the most stringently formalist ways of reading. …

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