How Does Literature Teach Ethics?

By Harpham, Geoffrey | Journal of Philosophy: A Cross Disciplinary Inquiry, Fall 2009 | Go to article overview

How Does Literature Teach Ethics?


Harpham, Geoffrey, Journal of Philosophy: A Cross Disciplinary Inquiry


The connection between literature and ethics has been more intuited than demonstrated. The one position that sophisticated people seem willing to defend is that literature does not have an immediate positive ethical impact. And yet, there are radicals who believe that the literature of the past constitutes a judgment on the present. There are liberals who believe that progressive values are embedded in literary critique, and there are conservatives who believe that children who read about patriots will become themselves patriotic. The general fact suggested by this curious disjunction is that while people do not believe that literature teaches people to be ethical, and reject literature that tries to impart ethical advice as manipulative, boring, and somehow unliterary, they-especially those who are heavily invested in literary study-do feel that literature and the study of literature are good in some obscure way, that the interests of literature and the interests of ethics-two discourses defined by "disinterestedness"-are somehow coordinated or co-implicated, even if they are not directly linked.

Indirectness is, in fact, the key to the argument I wish to make, which is that literature "teaches ethics" on the condition that the lesson is not learned immediately, directly, or even wittingly. Another way of putting this would be to say that we learn ethics from literature only when, and only what, we do not know we learn. In order for literature to be ethically productive, there must be a gap between the literary experience and ethical understanding-a gap in the first instance of time, in which what we read mutates in the memory, is disassembled and reassembled, is forgotten and found again, loses its specific form or even chunks of its content, to emerge later in partial, distorted, combined, or translated forms. When the text has suffered a sufficient sea-change in our memory, some bits or aspects of it might begin to function in apparently unrelated contexts as a component of our ethical knowledge. This component might even function as part of our "conscience," which appears, apparently out of nowhere, in the form of an autonomous and acontextual guide to the right. What I am suggesting, in short, is that a true account of the ethical productivity of literature should begin with the premise that this productivity is realized only remotely or indirectly, and that a certain unconsciousness or unknowingness-misprision, meconnaissance, misrecognition, misplacement-is its ground-condition.

There are many ways literature can teach ethics, but I want to outline three that are defined by this particular kind of indirection. My examples will apply primarily to extended prose narratives. Since they are all taken from "western" literature, the arguments they exemplify may well reflect a cultural bias. I will concede this possibility, but will not readily surrender the more fundamental point, that our sense of what constitutes an ethical conception is intimately related to our understanding of imaginative literature.

The first of the ways by which literature teaches ethics is through the apprehension of literary form. Form is one of the most elemental literary experiences we have. Indeed, if we do not somehow grasp the form of a work, we cannot be said to have grasped the work at all, since form is the most salient difference between experience and an aesthetic mimesis of experience. Of all formal elements, perhaps the most fundamental, in the case of a prose narrative, is plot. What do we know about a work if we do not know the plot? Plot is a fact; it is in fact the fact about the work, the feature of the work that requires no interpretation or judgment, that cannot be contested, that is available equally to all readers. Put this way, the apprehension of form does not seem to involve ethical issues at all. But form in a prose narrative is a bit mysterious. It is generally felt that narrative form involves a beginning, a middle, and an end. …

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