Ethical criticism: what it is and why it matters.
"Change the name and it's about you, that story." Thus in his Satires (I.1. 69-70) Horace elegantly and succinctly defines the imaginative transposing by which readers identify with fictions. Telling and consuming stories is a fundamental and universal human activity. From the time we are born the sound of story accompanies us like the collective heart beat of humanity, and none of us rejects the opportunity to enlarge ourselves by "trying on" the lives and feelings of fictional characters. We may not all consume a steady diet of what college catalogues sometimes call "great books," but our interactions with stories in one form or another - in commercials, TV programs, movies, song lyrics, sermons, legends, fairy tales, novels, dramas, and so on - is constant and ongoing. The famous command in the opening line of Moby Dick, "Call me Ishmael," is an invitation to the reader not only to identify a character, but to identify with a character: "Imagine your name to be Ishmael and it will be about you, this story. You will learn to see the world through my eyes, to feel the world through my nerve endings. During the time we spend together you will learn to live as if my heart beat in your chest, as if your ears answered to my name."
Transpositions between readers and fictional characters carry obvious ethical significance. Despite current theories in philosophy and criticism about the inescapability of relativism, most of us cannot evade the deep intuition that identifying with characters in stories can exert a powerful influence on the quality and content of our own lives. It is this perspective - stories as an influence on ethos, or who we become - that makes ethical criticism necessary. To analyze how fictions exert this influence and to assess its effects is ethical criticism's job. What the humanities in general need is an ethical criticism that is intellectually defensible, not to replace or displace other critical approaches but to complement them. What literary criticism needs in particular is a theoretical basis for inquiries into and judgments about the potential ethical effects of literature and narrative art in general.(1) We need this theoretical grounding because practical ethical criticism goes on all the time, often conducted in a most helter-skelter, contradictory, and intellectually incoherent way. A firmer theoretical grounding could help us do practical ethical criticism more thoughtfully and responsibly.
Both within the academy and within society as a whole, someone is always claiming that a given novel, movie, or TV program is either uplifting or degrading, inspiring or demeaning, should be read and seen by everyone or shouldn't disgrace either video airwaves or the shelves of the public library. Every time a feminist exposes Hemingway's complicity with the patriarchy, or every time an African-American critic recommends the retrieval of slave narratives because such narratives shame our past and help us shape the future, and every time a Judith Fetterley, a Terry Eagleton, or a Michel Foucault decries the dehumanizing effects of master narratives on subject-readers, such critics are deeply engaged in important versions of ethical criticism that are not at all diminished in robustness for being disguised as any kind of discourse but ethical criticism.
The truth of my claim that ethical criticism goes on constantly in the academy is not obvious. What is obvious is that for the last 100 years - from the time of the "art for art's sake" movement to the present - most literary critics have strongly objected to "ethical" as an adjective for either "literature" or "criticism." Inside the academy, ethical criticism seems immediately to conjure images of Plato packing the poets out of his republic, or the memory of Matthew Arnold talking about "the best that has been thought and said," or the mental image of F. R. Leavis intoning on and on about "the great tradition." Tzvetan Todorov summarizes contemporary criticism's rejection of ethical criticism, but in doing so he also opposes that rejection on the simple grounds that literature and morality cannot be separated even if we desire to do so:
Literature and morality: "how disgusting!" my contemporary will exclaim. I myself, discovering around me a literature subordinated to politics, [once] thought it was essential to break every link and preserve literature from any contact with what is not literature. But the relation to values is inherent in literature; not only because it is impossible to speak of existence without referring to that relation, but also because the act of writing is an act of communication, which implies the possibility of understanding, in the name of common values.(2) (164; emphasis added)
While Todorov is right - "the relation to values is inherent in literature" - it is unfortunately true that every accusation against ethical criticism and ethical critics(3) can be historically and concretely substantiated by the injudiciousness, extremism, shrillness, or dogmatism of some ethical critic or other.(4) Historically, and unfortunately, many of the conspicuous examples of ethical criticism in action present images of dogmatic moralists, zealous religionists, or belligerent burghers trampling art, tolerance, and free speech in the dust with a nasty kind of self-satisfaction.
The Inescapability of Ethical Criticism
But even after the most discrediting facts about the history and practice of ethical criticism have been duly marked, recorded, and apologized for, it remains untrue that ethical criticism has to be or that it has always been dogmatic and pious. Some contemporary critics may want to insist, however, that even when ethical criticism is judicious it is certainly irrelevant. Indeed, their insistence would be irrefutable if, in fact, no one in our society was ever interested in making moral or ethical judgments about literature and other forms of art. But our century-long rejection of ethical criticism is matched in its scope only by the ceaseless talk about ethical issues that goes on inside and outside of the academy. There exists a large and diverse range of issues about fictions that both citizens in general and literary professionals in particular argue about in a manner that is not only deeply passionate, but that is also explicitly ethical and moral. These issues and arguments, which go on all the time, include but are not limited to the following:
* character formation: how poems, TV programs, movies, novels, song lyrics, and so on influence readers' beliefs, imagination, and feelings;
* learning about life: how fictions teach "lessons" about everyday life;
* imitation of values: how readers and viewers imitate the attitudes and values of characters from literature, TV, movies, and other narratives;
* social attitudes: how fictions influence people's understanding or misunderstanding of, sympathy with, or detachment from, such social constituencies as ethnic groups, racial minorities, non-Europeans, non-Americans, women, and handicapped persons;
* civics and civility: how television and rap lyrics influence young people's views about public civility, honesty, violence, authority, social and political institutions, women, race relations, the environment, and the law;
* history and class: how fictions influence readers' views about history, class, democracy, commercialism, and so on.
As foci of constant and passionate controversy, these issues give the lie to ethical criticism's alleged irrelevance. We may not always know how to live with it, but we certainly cannot live without it. We don't even try to live without it. Why is it that we cannot escape questions of morality and ethics? Because human actions are imagined and chosen rather than prescribed or programmed. Because there is a dimension of choice to almost all forms of human conduct, conduct is always subject to moral and ethical evaluation. Since Homo Sapiens is the only species that creates moral categories and since all cultures and individuals employ moral categories as guides for directing and evaluating life with others, the very capacity for making and enforcing moral categories - like the capacities of reasoning, language, aesthetics, and imagination as well - lies close to the center of whatever it means to be human in the first place.
James Q. Wilson argues that a moral sense is the inevitable product of an innate human disposition to be social: "The innate sociability of the child is the vital embryo in which a capacity for sympathy and an inclination to generosity can be found" (45). This claim hardly constitutes a complete argument but it does offer a deep insight. Because human beings are as fundamentally social in nature as ants and bees, but because the forms of our sociability are chosen and cultural rather than programmed and genetic, ethical and moral considerations inevitably arise within the social nexus. Our need to be approved of by our family members, our need to be protected and served "justly" by both our family and by others, and the group's need to create social mechanisms of stability and justice without which the group cannot endure - these needs all contribute to the creation of moral categories as not merely contingent but as integral to human existence. This is not to say what the content of those categories is or should be, but it is to say that moral categories themselves are both persistent and necessary elements of social existence - the only kind of existence available to human beings. In the words of Mary Midgley, our proclivity for integrating morality into the very fabric of human life is a tendency
that we take so deeply for granted [. . .] that we scarcely notice it - namely a sense of continuity with the past, a rootedness in earlier social contracts which can make it deeply shocking to murder others or to desert a friend in difficulties. We should not, of course, forget that human beings sometimes do these deeply shocking things too. But that is something very different from never finding them shocking at all.
This sense of continuity through time - this need to have some coherent image of oneself and one's policy - is surely what accounts for the fact that humans have been driven to develop morality, and have given it so much prominence in their various cultures. If we ask what is the source of the authority of morals, we are not looking outward for a sanction from the rulers, or for a contract. We are looking inward for a need, for some psychological fact about us that makes it deeply distressing to us to live shapelessly, incoherently, discontinuously, meaninglessly - to live without standards. (153)
If we cannot endure living without standards in real life, it follows - since most fictions represent real life - that we cannot endure to read fictions without bringing standards into play there as well. The formalistic view that novels are about language, not about life, fails to explain why people get so caught up liking and disliking different fictional characters or why they deeply desire specific resolutions to certain fictional plots and situations. If ethical questions arise as a natural consequence of first-hand interactions and sociability, then they will also arise as we meet and interact with fictional characters. When we meet new people, we form our impressions of them by asking ourselves questions about them rooted in moral and ethical perspectives, such as "is this person good?" "is this person trustworthy?," "is this person kind, likable, generous, compassionate?," and so on. These ethical categories comprise the most important part of our "reading" of new acquaintances. Not using these categories would make other people appear to us mostly as blanks, mere utilitarian counters like chess pieces or tools, devoid of affective or ethical significance. None of us can imagine living this way. I don't mean only that none of can imagine living happily this way; I mean that none of us can imagine living this way at all. Such an existence would not be human because it would be a kind of existence that Midgley is surely right to say that we could not bear: a life lived "shapelessly, incoherently, discontinuously, meaninglessly - [a life] without standards." But if this is so, then it follows that we will bring our standards into play in all of our social relations, including those we conduct with fictional characters. Whether talking about the characters and events of literature or life, all of us turn to such criteria as better/worst, good/bad, honest/dishonest, fair/unfair, liberated/oppressed, just/unjust, inclusive/exclusive, kind/cruel, humane/inhuman, generous/selfish, self-controlled/self-indulgent, and many others because all such criteria are rooted in assumptions (either explicit or implicit) about such fundamentally ethical categories as moral agency, the "oughtness" or "rightness" of certain social and political practices, or such "should-bes" of the existential condition as "individuals should be allowed freedom of speech and free choice of sexual partners."
If our existence as social creatures explains where ethical criticism comes from, it follows that this same social nature also explains why moral considerations never go away or lose their relevance. Because we never stop being social creatures, the moral dimensions of life are both inevitable and permanent. Human life is saturated with moral considerations, moral judgments, moral categories, and practical moral reasoning. Hardly any of our thoughts about relations with others are morally neutral. Our thoughts about relations with other people are deeply colored by speculations about the impression we are making, about the approval we seek, and about the impression on us that other people make, beginning primarily with the impressions that we all give and receive as moral agents: impressions about such moral features, for example, as honesty, trustworthiness, compassion, kindness, generosity, self-control, and fairness. We may admire people for being strong, clever, brilliant, or talented, but we trust them and love them only when we think they are, at most, truly good or, at least, not malicious. The portraits we draw of other people in our minds' eye - the picture that tells us whether and how much we can afford to trust and love them - are portraits drawn almost entirely in ethical and moral colors.
Deciding who is the trustworthy recipient of a secret or an honor, deciding who is worthy of the offer (or the acceptance) of a marriage proposal, deciding how to rear children and when or if they should be punished for wrong-doing (not to mention deciding what constitutes wrongdoing), or merely deciding whether to agree with the movie Pretty Woman that the Julia Roberts character has attained the highest pinnacle of female happiness by being lifted from her life as a public prostitute in order to become the private prostitute of a wealthy man - all are ethical decisions. Whenever we propose a theory of "oughtness" about how to live and a line of reasoning about how to achieve life's different "goods," we are engaging in ethical criticism. But since the various arguments about the various goods and their status are not self-ranking, we are forced to rank them ourselves. We must always challenge one set of goods against another set of goods. Moral positions must always be argued; there is no way they can simply be invested with the power to work on their own. We must make the case, both in terms of the coherence of the theory and the moral reasoning themselves. Such argumentation is nothing short of a compressed way of respecting others as rational beings. One way we demonstrate that respect is by assisting others, at the same time we rely on their assistance, to become more fully possessed of the fundamental human powers of sociability, language, imagination, and ethical reasoning that we all share. In the words of moral philosopher Robert Louden,
Moral considerations have ultimate importance not (as many philosophers have argued) because they form a tightly packaged set of interests that can be shown to logically "override" all other competing sets of interests but rather because they concern values to which the pursuit of any and all interests, including scientific and technical ones, must answer. Morality is not just one narrow point of view competing against others. [. . . Its]ultimate importance is [a function of its] pervasiveness. Moral considerations literally appear able to pervade or permeate [. . .] more areas and aspects of human life and action (and once they gain entry, to have, somehow, the final word) than do any other kinds of considerations (20). All aspects of human life over which we exercise at least some degree of voluntary control have indirect moral relevance (59). Morality's fundamental importance stems not from its "standing above" everything else but rather from the fact that it literally surrounds everything else, lies underneath everything else, and is continually embedded in everything else. (80)
The popular contemporary view that employing ethical and moral categories is merely a historical, contingent, or discretionary choice - a choice mostly co-opted by society's ruling powers for keeping potential challengers in line - is a shallow view that ignores the deeply compelling necessity for ethics and morality embedded in both the nature of social relations and in our own existential drive to make sense out of our world, in part, by holding standards.
Ethical Criticism and Postmodern Perspectivism
If life and literature are indeed saturated with moral considerations, then how does the academy, which is saturated with epistemological relativism, avoid dealing with them? It doesn't, of course, but it does try to disguise its dealing with them, mostly by pretending that its moral discourse is political discourse. By a linguistic and conceptual sleight-of-hand, the academy makes the language of power, colonization, or marginalization replace the language of good, ought, and bad. Such sleight-of-hand doesn't really replace moral considerations, of course, for political arguments against the oppression of the proletariat by the bourgeoisie or against the Western colonization of people of color are not only linked to ethical views, but express views that are fundamentally ethical to their core. Such views constitute ethical arguments because their main burden is ethical judgments about better and worse ways of living and acting. What these arguments deliver are not just analyses of power but moral judgments about power: judgments that power ought to be reconfigured and that rest on the authority of the frequently unspoken but always present moral assumption that the desired reconfigurations of power would make the world a better place for someone or some group.
Poststructuralists who bury ethical criticism beneath an epistemology of perspectivism inadvertently pull the rug from under their own reformist social agenda. Theorists who take perspectivism seriously, for example, are logically entailed to concede to in theory what they will never concede to in fact - that political brutality, ethnic cleansing, racial genocide, and so on must all be taken as equally serious positions along with democratic reform simply because they are "perspectives." That is, from the standpoint of epistemological perspectivism, they are legitimate logically. That no one, including postmodern perspectivists, thinks they are legitimate morally means that underneath epistemological perspectivism lie at least a few deeply lodged commitments that play the role of absolutes even if they cannot be proven to be absolutes. Acts of genocide, for example, are usually described as "crimes against humanity," not just crimes against ethnicity. To say that the Holocaust was a crime because it destroyed only Jews implies that a holocaust that destroyed some other ethnic or racial group might be less objectionable or even laudatory. Our deep impulse to define what the Nazis did to the Jews in Germany or what the Bosnian Serbs recently did to the Muslims in former Yugoslavia as a crime against human beings as such clearly implies that we view some moral standards as genuinely substantive and authoritative, not just as rhetorical ploys or cultural contingencies.
If all discourse really is only "mere rhetoric," then the reformers' opposition to the rhetoric of the ascendant power groups can only be more of just the same thing - that is, more mere rhetoric - for it has no way of sorting out the right or wrong of specific issues and no way of demonstrating the superiority of the poststructuralists' proposed changes. To try to produce a world with less oppression and brutality in it on the grounds that such a world would be a better world than the one we now have is to appeal to a "better" beyond the pale of mere rhetoric or partial perspectives. Ethnic oppression, the marginalization of women, and racial discrimination are not wrong because they are political positions but because they are morally offensive, and it is their moral offensiveness that makes them politically objectionable, not the other way round. Making political arguments about the reconfiguration of power cannot be made without the arguer assuming that at least some moral judgments and moral arguments are intrinsically and not just contingently compelling. Otherwise the moral authority of arguments becomes moot and arguers are left with only the authority of whatever is or the authority of whatever has enough muscle to displace whatever is. Thus we see that all arguments about politics and power are subsets of moral arguments, for all political judgments are of necessity derived from moral and ethical assumptions about such issues as better, best, and just, terms that literally make no sense outside of an ethical framework of discussion. As Geoffrey Harpham makes clear, this claim is true even for those points of view that most emphatically insist on the primacy of culture and contingency.
Strikingly [says Harpham], it is when culture is analyzed from a Marxist perspective as a self-transforming, self-discovering, self-defining body politic, that the purely social necessity of morality emerges most powerfully. For when cultural values are unworthy, uncertain, or disputed, only an appeal to some imperative that convincingly transcends culture and privatized conceptions of interest can legitimate action. In a society that holds slaves and disempowers women, exploitation and misogyny express shared values, and those who hold these values hold them with confidence. Any effort to question these practices, or indeed the autistic tendencies of any localism, must base itself on some value or standard that lies - again, convincingly - outside the cultural horizon. (53)
While Stanley Fish attempts to get at a postmodern politics of reform through the door of rhetorical analysis, Fish's claim that "everything is rhetorical" (217) winds up being, in practice, far too close to "might makes right" to be considered truly reformist. Fish wants to claim (and does) "that the radically rhetorical insight of Nietzschean/Derridean thought can do radical political work" (217), but he seems unaware that his "everything is rhetorical" view is politically reactionary: it undercuts "radical political work," since "everything is rhetorical" robs "radical political work" of any ability to explain why radical reform will produce a better society than it proposes to replace. Fish cannot escape from this problem by saying that the "betterness" of freedom over oppression is simply self-evident, because to do so would take him out of the "everything is rhetorical" world and into the world of self-evident first principles, the last place a rhetorical relativist wants to find himself. Neither Fish, Rorty, Derrida, nor any of the other proponents of the "radically rhetorical insight" can escape the paradox that this insight not only undercuts the authority of their social agenda but nullifies it. If poststructuralists claim that there are no transcendent or universal principles against which to discredit anyone else's rhetorical messages, then they must concede all domains of power to whoever has the most might, not to those who are right. But since the might of what is is precisely what poststructuralist reformers don't want, they must further concede one of two things. Either they must concede that their discontent with things as they are is intellectually incoherent (because it presumes a better that their own epistemology of "mere rhetoric" denies) or they must concede that they are indeed invested in an authority that lies beyond mere rhetoric. The poststructuralist attempt to disconnect politics and morality cripples their ability to explain why literary and other fictional representations of power, politics, and race, class, and gender are so important. If we disconnect the passion that informs these issues from the moral and ethical considerations that generate that passion, then it becomes hard to say what all the fuss is about.
Moving in the opposite direction from postmodernism's rejection of ethical criticism, Wayne Booth is the leading contemporary critic who has done most to rehabilitate the language and practice of ethical criticism. In The Company We Keep: An Ethics of Fiction, Booth's leading question is "[W]hat kind of company are we keeping as we read or listen [or watch]? What kind of company have we kept?" (10). Booth's operating assumption is that the company we keep as we read, watch, or listen to fiction can be assessed for its potential influence on our hearts and minds just as legitimately as we can assess real life potential influence of the friends and acquaintances who influence our hearts and minds. All of our friends have a potential influence on our "virtues," says Booth, who uses "friends" as a metaphor for fiction's appeal to our desire for the intimate companionship of others, and "virtues" in its older sense of referring not just to our praiseworthy tendencies but to something more general, such as, he says, "the whole range of human 'powers,"strengths,"capacities,' or 'habits of behavior.' Thus an 'ethical' effect here, as in pre-modern discourse, can refer to any strengthening or weakening of a 'virtue,' including those that you or I would consider immoral; a given virtue can be employed viciously" (10). This crucial positioning of the terms "friend" "ethical," and "virtue," then, allows Booth to formulate the following definition of ethical criticism:
If "virtue" covers every kind of genuine strength or power, and if a person's ethos is the total range of his or her virtues [to behave badly or well], then ethical criticism will be any effort to show how the virtues of narratives relate to the virtues of selves and societies, or how the ethos of any story affects or is affected by the ethos - the collection of virtues - of any given reader. (11)
Booth's incisive clarification gives us a chance to gain some real traction on the relationship between politics and morals, as well as helping us avoid the murkiness and self-contradictions foisted on us by postmodernism's butter-fingered grip of these same issues.
Emotivism, Entertainment, and Ethical Discourse
Perspectivism, however, is not the only obstacle facing ethical criticism in today's society. Even though various social, political, and religious groups in our society engage in almost non-stop moralistic mud-slinging, and even though there is hardly any kind of criticism our society engages in more often than ethical criticism, there is also hardly any kind of criticism more discredited and more resisted. This inconsistency points to deep confusions. A friend of mine well-known in the field of educational theory used to say to me in conversation that "when you see smart people doing dumb things you know you're in the presence of powerful forces."(5)
What powerful forces? Alasdair MacIntyre offers a keen insight into this situation when he identifies emotivism as "the doctrine that all evaluative judgments and more specifically all moral judgments are nothing but expressions of preference, expressions of attitude or feeling, insofar as they are moral or evaluative in character" (11) and then avows that "emotivism has become embodied in our culture" (21). What viewer of television programs or teacher of undergraduates could deny the accuracy of these observations? What MacIntyre calls "emotivism" is what soap-opera characters and many students simply call "everyone deciding what's right or wrong for themselves," a view of morality reiterated with billboard simplicity everywhere in contemporary culture. If, at one end of the intellectual spectrum, doctrinaire dogmatism kills moral discussion, what kills it at the other end of the intellectual spectrum is emotivism's conflation of subjective preference and moral claims, as if moral claims had no more general authority than Jane's preference for vanilla ice cream or Bill's taste in clothes. Whether people are talking about social issues or about the ethical significance of literature and the other arts,(6) emotivism empties moral discussion of any real content.
Since emotivism cannot give us traction on moral issues, it attempts to pretend that such issues are really nonissues by relegating them to the domain of entertainment rather than morality, as if entertainment comprises a category of experience that somehow lies beyond moral examination. A colleague of mine who spends a lot of class time pointing out to her students how many representations of women in literature show the evils of the patriarchy is the same person who watches Pretty Woman over and over "just for entertainment." An ethical critic, however, will want to interrogate closely the potential effects of entertainment, when it is clear that when highly-educated and highly-intelligent people think they don't need to employ their critical powers because they are "merely being entertained," then it follows that those are the very moments when their sympathies, feelings, and moral judgments are most vulnerable to influence. Ethical criticism will attempt to help readers understand that there is no such thing as being "merely" entertained, that even at the lowest possible level of engagement, the intellectual and affective exertions that are required just to understand the content, shape, and direction of a story in fact involve a complicitous agreement to let the story have its own way with their beliefs and feelings - at least for the time being. As Wayne Booth says, "[T]he energy I expend in reconstructing the figure [of a fiction] is somehow transferred to retaining the figure itself and bonding with its maker. [. . .] A figure used not only calls for the recognition that a figure has been used but for a special kind of re-creative engagement with the figurer" (299). When readers begin to see, then, that the figures of fiction figure the mind, they can be brought to take seriously, indeed to welcome, the insights of ethical criticism. The way entertainment provides ethical models for direct imitation is discussed below.
Ethical Criticism and Direct Imitation of Literary Models
If, then, neither emotivism nor epistemological relativism gets us off the hook for taking moral and ethical considerations into account and if such considerations do indeed saturate life, then it follows that ethical criticism can claim a natural and important function in the study and evaluation of literature. But saying this does not answer in concrete terms the question of what important work ethical criticism does. I recently had a colleague say to me, "So, as an ethical critic you would object to a novel that gives a vivid and sympathetic portrayal of an ax murderer on the grounds that reading it might turn me into an ax murderer, right?" Well . . . no. I'm not worried in her case that any fiction she reads could ever turn her into a murderer. But, in principle, she has a point. Direct imitations of fiction do occur and clearly have moral and ethical consequences. I venture to assert, moreover, that we all imitate fictional models much more frequently than we think. The reason we think that we're the ones "above" such influence is that we largely think of direct imitation only as it occurs in its most sensationalistic and gross forms. We think of the hoodlums in New York who, immediately after the release of Money Train, killed a man by imitating the movie's horrific scene in which a subway ticket seller is squirted with gasoline and burned to death in his toll booth. Or we remember the two boys who accidentally killed themselves in New Jersey in 1995 when, right after the release of The Program, they tried lying down in the middle of the freeway, intending like the movie heroes to let the cars straddle them harmlessly. Or we remember the large number of young people who, after reading On the Road in the 1960s, bought Volkswagen buses and struck out for the highways and byways of America in direct imitation of Jack Kerouac. In all of these cases we undoubtedly think, "How gullible, how immature, how uncritical, how unlike me. I could never be like that."
But it all depends on what "like that" means. Our confidence in the immovability of our character may be complacent and premature. We all do the same thing as the people in these previous examples, not, to be sure, by committing such immoral or directly imitative actions, but we do imitate less obviously tangible features of fictions such as values and attitudes. In the end, of course, values and attitudes influence action but at such a remove of distance and time as may leave us unaware of how deeply our actions are rooted in fictional models. One of the most incisive, vivid, thoughtful, and developed illustrations of the ethical criticism of narrative role models is conducted by Gustave Flaubert in Madame Bovary.(7) Throughout the novel Emma Bovary is shown to be a delighted and obsessive consumer of sickly romantic novels that provide her with models - fictional friends and companions - who accompany her thoughts all through her life and who, in their shimmering and shallow allure, do much to prevent Emma from ever growing into a mature and ethically sensitive person. Flaubert does not ask us to believe, nor does he himself seem to believe, that Emma's life is ruined by novel reading alone, but at the same time he not only takes narrative modeling as crucially important in Emma Bovary's development, he also takes seriously the ethical criticism of those models. Flaubert's description of the contents of the contraband novels that Emma receives from an old mending woman provides a detailed account of how specific images carry affective and ethical freight. The novels given to Emma by the old maid
were all about love, lovers, sweethearts, persecuted ladies fainting in lonely pavilions, postilions killed at every relay, horses ridden to death on every page, somber forests, heart-aches, vows, sobs, tears and kisses, little boat rides by moonlight, nightingales in shady groves, gentlemen brave as lions, gentle as lambs, virtuous as no one ever was, always well dressed, and weeping like fountains. [. . .] [Illustrations in keepsake books showed such scenes as] a young man in a short cloak, holding in his arms a young girl in a white dress who was wearing an alms-bag at her belt; or there were nameless portraits of English ladies with fair curls, who looked at you from under their round straw hats with their large clear eyes. [. . .] Others, dreaming on sofas with an open letter, gazed at the moon through a slightly open window half draped by a black curtain. The innocent ones, a tear on their cheeks, were kissing doves through the bars of a Gothic cage. (26-27)
I have omitted a good portion of this passage, but there still remains a great wealth of concrete detail to feed the imagination of a fifteen year-old Emma looking for role models to show her the behaviors - the facial expressions, the attitudes, the gestures, the postures, the dresses and hats and how to wear them - that promise her a life of whirlwind excitement, exquisite sensibility, and thunderous passion. What makes Flaubert's criticism of these images - and their ethical influence - so incisive is that Flaubert only shows Emma doing what we all do. In order to come into our humanity, in order to take a place in society and to be recognized as persons, we know that we must assume roles, and we therefore look for models to show us the "look" that expresses our beauty, the posture that communicates our sensibility, or the walk that conveys our power and self-confidence. If no one in real life shows us models of thoughtfulness or reasonableness or self-control or generosity, we will, like Emma, settle for whatever fictional models we can find and never know what we are missing - or what we are becoming.
None of us remains unaffected as moral agents by the models we choose, whether they come from real life or from fictions. As children we tie towels around our necks so we can be as powerful as Superman. As adults we disguise our Superman capes as carefully selected conference wear. Silk ties reveal our sophisticated taste; thick-soled work boots express our populist sympathies; "power suits" assert our aggressive professionalism. We do all of this with deft nonchalance, with more or less conscious awareness. In our classrooms such teaching models as Mr. Chips, Mr. Gradgrind, Jean Brodie, the Clerk of Oxenford, or our favorite college or grad-school teacher hover over our pedagogy like ghosts. We cannot help but be influenced, for good or ill, by those we have taken into our hearts, and the "people" we imitate come just as often from second-hand fictions as from first-hand experience. It follows, then, that the ethical analysis of fictional models, those whom we accept as "friends" (see chapters 6 and 7 of Booth's Company), is not only as permissible as the ethical analysis of real-life models and friends, but, for all those who really care about the quality of their life, just as necessary. Our friends, both real and fictional, play important roles in our formative development. To say this returns us to the necessity of ethical criticism and to the question of how ethical criticism conceives of its work.
Aims of Ethical Criticism
Readerly Understanding of Potential Literary Effects. The aims of ethical criticism do not include thought control, censorship of literature, or the management of others' conduct. Ethical criticism addresses readers of literature (or, more accurately, consumers of fictions both literary and non-literary) with the aim of helping them see, understand, and appreciate the powerful ways in which fictions invite them into specific ways of feeling, thinking, and judging. In addition, ethical criticism tries to help readers see that if these invitations are accepted, especially on a repeated basis, one very likely consequence is a permanent influence on readers' hearts and minds. Until readers understand that their responses to stories occur on a continuum with their responses to real life - until they understand that their responses to fiction are in some important sense a kind of practice at forming responses to real life - they are likely to dismiss the ethical significance of their relationship to fiction.
While ethical criticism helps readers gain (or perhaps regain) a sense of the ethically formative power of story and thus bring them back in touch with the reasons why reading and literature are not only entertaining but important, it also offers the insight that the formative effects of story are always potential rather than determined. Literature invites responses but cannot coerce them. Once we "agree" to let a story have its way with us - an agreement that is generally granted without much critical thought, because it is the foundation for any pleasure the story yields - then we can indeed be, if not coerced, at least led, but this is neither coercion nor hostile takeover. We can always refuse to become engaged, or we can be too tired or too distracted or too ignorant of the contents or setting of a work, in which case the consideration of possible effects becomes moot (see Rabinowitz on how the beliefs and previous experiences of our lives influence our degree of engagement with literary texts, especially what he has to say about genres as "packages of [reading] rules" ). On the other hand, ethical criticism wants readers to understand that more often than not they do agree to accept the fiction's invitations - else there is no payoff - and that, once accepted, the means by which the fiction gets delivered from the author and comprehended by the reader constitute powerful shapings of the mind.
Readerly Understanding of Moral Criteria. Another aim of ethical criticism is to guide readers toward an understanding of the moral criteria that are relevant to making ethical judgments about fictional representations. Like the first aim, this one is also addressed primarily to the intellect: to help readers see that moral and aesthetic responses to texts unfold inside of each other rather than live in separate domains. Any reader who thinks that the ending of Hamlet is genuinely funny or that the wolf really should get to eat the three little pigs is a reader who has not only misapprehended the aesthetic shape of both stories but their different ethical presuppositions as well. Ethical criticism wants to help readers see that they are making ethical judgments every time they decide who the "good and bad guys" are in any story, to help them see that they are not only affirming ethical values within the story every time they identify with fictional characters but that they are affirming ethical values within themselves that their reading of the story has just reinforced.
Critical Recommendations. The third aim of ethical criticism is not so much intellectual as exhortative: it is to proffer readings of texts based on the critic's evaluation of a story's ethical presuppositions and the potential ethical impact of the story on the reader. It is this aim, of course, that gets everyone's back up. Approving or not approving books for moral reasons is considered by many critics to be thoroughly reprehensible. I contend, however, that ethical critics tend to make explicit what nearly everyone else does either implicitly or in non-ethical terms, and that it is only reprehensible when it is done badly, that is, when it is done unintelligently or dishonestly or manipulatively. The truth is, even critics who work with theories far removed from ethical criticism find it very hard not to employ some ethical presuppositions. For example, traditionalists who prefer to teach canonical literature recommend those works because they "bring their readers to an understanding of the timeless circumstances of the human condition."(8) Multiculturalists recommend certain works because they "bring their readers to a greater appreciation and respect for cultural and ethnic diversity." Deconstructionists recommend literary texts because they "bring readers to an ecstatic appreciation of the infinite free play of signification into which readers can throw themselves with joyous abandonment." Translation for all: "reading either the books that I recommend or reading books in the way I recommend will be good for you: good for your social sense, good for your mind, good for your responsibility as a moral agent. Good for you." Ethical critics want to bring the discussion of ethical presuppositions and potential ethical effects out into the open where the claims about them can be criticized, contested, and improved.
The Content of Ethical Criticism
The central content of ethical criticism can be summarized by two propositions. The first proposition is about the formation of selves and the second proposition is about the ethical status of selves. These propositions are not necessarily new or original ideas in themselves, but the use to which ethical criticism puts them is, if not original, strikingly unfamiliar today. I am well aware that by confidently talking about "selves" instead of employing one of postmodernism's preferred terms of displacement for it, such as "subject" or "subject position," I have violated a commonplace dictum to which most postmodern theorists automatically subscribe. Two authors in recent issues of flagship journals in the discipline of English suggest the extent to which postmodern notions of "the subject" rather than "the self" are not only taken for granted but just how much of what is taken for granted is explicitly opposed to notions of the self generally advanced by the traditional humanities. As Pamela Caughie says in a recent issue of PMLA, "[P]oststructuralist theories [. . .] have revealed the humanist subject to be a sham insofar as it is the effect, not the origin, of representation" (26; emphasis added). Likewise, Jeffrey Nealon, in a recent issue of College English, reinforces the unassailability of the postmodern view of "self" as not a stable center of knowledge about itself or the world, but as an unstable product created at the site where language, culture, history, and politics intersect. In Nealon's words, "[A] certain critique of the humanist or Enlightenment subject remains firmly in place. While there is a great deal of sympathy for rethinking notions of subjectivity in the current theoretical field, no one wants anything to do with the appropriating instrumental rationality of the bourgeois subject. In fact, virtually all critical camps [. . .] remain aligned in their attempts to critique a subjectivity that [. . .] understands the other as simply 'like the self'" (129 emphasis added).
With all due respect to Nealon's sweeping - and, dare I add, smug? - confidence that "no one wants anything to do with" the old notions of a humanist self, I must disagree. The self whose existence I assume in this essay is exactly the self that Nealon says I cannot assume (Because Nealon's complacent certitude curiously essentializes all of those anonymous "no ones," he expresses an intellectual rigidity that almost always accompanies dogma rather than thoughtfulness.) Though the sweeping claim that human beings are the product of language and culture is certainly right in many respects, it is almost always insisted on not only in its most extreme version - as if human beings are entirely created by culture rather than influenced by it - but is also insisted on as a dogma rather than advanced as a hypothesis. If you're not a "constructionist," the dogma goes, then you're an "essentialist," and if you're an essentialist then may the Transcendental Signified be with you, you poor slob, because no one else in the humanities will speak to you.
Better and Worse Selves. The first proposition about selfhood that ethical criticism rests on is the assumption that there are ethically better and worse versions of our selves always pending and always being realized. Even though we are all surrounded by a lot of very loud and frequently repeated talk about the inevitability of moral relativism, we all expend a great deal of energy and time trying to decide "the right thing to do" in a whole variety of circumstances. Moreover, we make this expenditure as if "the right thing," such as being honest rather than lying or being responsible rather than irresponsible, were matters of objective reality rather than mere subjective preferences. I have not noticed that poststructuralists who adhere strongly to epistemological perspectivism and moral relativism are any less likely than the rest of us to take seriously their ethical commitments to students, colleagues, and family. When they see people not taking those commitments seriously, they don't say, "Well, everyone has to make up his or her own mind about ethical issues." We all say, instead, humanists and poststructuralists alike, that "sexual harassment is wrong," "cheating on tests is wrong," "habitually showing up to teach classes unprepared is wrong," "humiliating students the teacher doesn't like is wrong," "not carrying one's fair load of departmental duties is wrong," "cheating on spouses is wrong," "beating children is wrong," and on and on. I have been amazed over the years to see that in general there seems to be such little interest in this curious but telling discrepancy between poststructuralists' theories and poststructuralists' conduct. To my mind nothing is more suggestive of the inadequacy of anyone's theories than the fact that the propounders of them cannot live by them. If poststructuralist theories of epistemological relativism are good enough only for our written papers and books but not good enough to guide the way we deal with our students, our colleagues, and our families, then what in fact are they really good enough for at all? In academe many of us may be relativists in our theories but we are quite moral and, indeed, quite moralistic, in our conduct. The strictures of morality and ethics that we observe so scrupulously in our conduct - and no matter how frequently they are violated we never give them up - clearly imply that we all have some notion, perhaps mostly implicit but there nonetheless, of better and worse ethical selves that we may be and that we may become. We don't pay ourselves the disrespect of assuming that what we do in our personal and professional relations does not matter. We think it matters a great deal, and if we fail ourselves or others we feel shame, we apologize, or we resolve to - to what? - we resolve to do "better." Yes: we resolve to become ethically improved versions of ourselves.
Moral Character Always in Motion. To the ethical critic, moral character is always in formation, never fixed. Every choice we make in life is both a reflection of the self we are and a creation of the self we are becoming. This means that as long as we retain command of our intellectual faculties we remain permanently and potentially open to ethical influences from a variety of sources. It also means that becoming a self is something we do, not just something we are. As Aristotle says, "[L]ife consists in action, and its end is a mode of action, not a quality" (62). It also means that becoming a self is not just a consequence of the actions that are done to us by culture, history, language, master narratives, gender, class, race, or bourgeois masters, but is a consequence of the actions that we choose. This is not to say that actions exerted on us from the outside are not formative, but it is to say that the self does not react to these forces with no intervention from inside, i.e., from the individual's will or consciousness. I am not necessarily assuming the existence of some completely stable, completely atomistic self. I am merely assuming that poststructuralist views of an entirely constructed self "built up" at the site of cultural intersections is either an implausible hypothesis or, at best, an exaggerated truth. To make such assertions as are common in contemporary criticism - language speaks us, culture creates us, history shapes us, gender determines us, or to make Marx's claim that the material and political forms of social existence determine consciousness - asserts what is only half true. We are never so situated that we are fully formed and forever fixed. We are not selves just passively molded or shaped by cookie-cutter forces of language or history. We actually negotiate our selves through time by forms of individual resistance, acceptance, and suspension of judgment.
The evidence for this last claim lies in our conduct. Every time we check an impulse, apologize to someone for having yielded to an impulse, bite our tongue to preserve social harmony, choose to vote our conscience rather than our interest, or deliberately choose an act or expression of charity toward another even when we feel unjustly used, we affirm our freedom to choose who we will become as moral agents. Achilles yielding the body of Hector to Priam, Socrates declining his friends' offer to rig a life-saving escape from prison, Atticus Finch being spat on but not spitting back, Sidney Carton going to the guillotine in Charles Darnay's place, civil rights workers in the 1960s practicing passive resistance rather than terrorism, a tired teacher who is eager to go home taking off her coat and spending extra time to counsel a frightened freshman about his low grades on hard-worked essays: such acts of patience, forbearance, forgiveness, generosity, compassion, and kindness may be influenced by but they are certainly not acts of language, history, culture, or gender. They are the acts of individuals choosing. Because in each case the moral agent could have behaved otherwise, in that "could have" lies freedom, the moment of moral choice, the moment we choose this ethos rather than that ethos and thus decide not only who we are but who we are to become. Ethical criticism takes the experience of these moment-by-moment choices as moral character in formation. It insists on our status as persons who are becoming rather than finished. Into the space created by the distance between what we now are and what we may yet become, fiction (along with a great many other forces) finds room to exert its influence. The ethical critic is the taxonomist who eagerly categorizes the forms and kinds of that influence as well as analyzes the mechanisms by which it does its work.
Ethos and the Vicarious Imagination. Another idea about the formation of selves that ethical criticism brings to the table is the importance of the vicarious imagination in determining character. The vicarious imagination gives us the power to identify, to experience others' feelings and ideas and experience - their entire mode of being - as if they were our own. Without reference to the vicarious imagination, we cannot explain how fictional representations get out of the text and into our heads. We know by both description and experience that identification not only "works," but that it determines for us much of the quality of our existence. How identification works seems tied, once we take the craft of the artist for granted, to the way our imagination, acting as a bridge, allows us to leave the boundaries that make up our own sense of self, like passing through some marvelously permeable membrane between souls, in order to take on other senses of selves. Significantly, this temporary and imaginative merging of selves produces clarity rather than confusion. In literary experience we are given the gift of identification without the pathology of delusion.
When we read or see a story, we apply for temporary foreign citizenship in other times, places, and modes of being. We become citizens of the world that the literary characters inhabit. It is such a common thing that we think too seldom about what a profoundly moving and potentially formative thing it is. Sven Birkerts describes "the slow and meditative possession of a book" as "deep reading": "we don't just read the words," says Birkerts, "we dream our lives in their vicinity" (146). Stories take us not just to other places the way a freeway takes us to other places: zipping us through the space of otherness without our feeling or absorbing any of it. On the contrary, stories take us to other places that get vividly realized in our heads, places about which we "know" the details, their aromatic essence, the tactile and emotional feel of the total environment. The mechanism for this is the vicarious imagination. In the words of Eva Brann: "[T]hat seems to be, in sum, the nature of the feeling peculiar to the imaginative state: It is the feeling of that image, be it figure or scene, and of no other; it is its soul or genius loci - at once unarticulable in its particularity and archetypal in its significance, fascinating in its familiarity and elusive in its candor" (769).
Vicarious imagining is a powerful and important form of learning, and, obviously, learning is a powerful and important constituent of character, for what we know is a large part of who we are. In very basic terms, the first and foremost thing we all need to learn is how to be a human being, whatever the social context in which we find ourselves born and reared. Since we are not born with this knowledge programmed into our genes, we have to learn it from others, but life is so limited in its pedagogical resources that no one can or does rely on first-hand experience alone. The most obviously limiting feature of first-hand life is the way it requires us to live at one point in space and time at a time when our education would be vastly larger if we could live in different times and other spaces simultaneously. This constraint is made even more stringent by life's brevity, by the fact that we simply don't live long enough to move across the whole range of life's categories.
Enter stories. Stories are surely human kind's most imaginative answer to the constraints of brevity and linearity. Every human culture has developed an important, universal, and deep way of reflecting on the human condition that cleverly and profoundly transcends the limitations of first-hand life: the way of stories. In fiction we can learn about the quality of lives and the manner of living in times, places, and conditions not our own. This activity gives us those in-depth views of the human condition that existential richness requires, but that the short-armed grasp of first-hand experience is never capacious enough to provide on its own.
The ethical implications of literary experience should now be more clear. We become the ethical and moral agents that we are through the experience of "taking in" from the world around us data, models, ideas, feelings, motives, judgments, and so on. The strands of such knowledge we take in are like threads of the world running one way and threads of life running the other way. We take these crossing threads and weave them into the ever-changing fabric of that thing we call our self, a fabric and a pattern that are always in formation, never complete, never "done." Life and literature both lead us to form reactions that I like to call, after Bellah, habits of the heart: the typical patterns of our intellectual, emotional, and ethical responses.
The Nutritional Analogy. The third idea that ethical criticism brings to the table of discussion is an analogy to the claim of nutritionists that "we are what we eat." For nutritionists, "we are what we eat" is a thumbnail way of saying that our regular diet is an important factor in our overall health. For ethical critics, a similar assumption is that readers' regular imaginative diet - the consistent consumption of fictional images - is an important constituent of moral and ethical health (or ill health). According to the operations of the vicarious imagination and the terms of the analogy, our literary diet helps develop within us such ethical features as emotions, attitudes, values, beliefs, aspirations, and possible actions. This analogy leads to two extensions, one dealing with further implications for the consumer/reader, the other dealing with the role of the nutritional specialist, the ethical critic.
Nutritionists deal with exercise in addition to diet. They know that our bodies become what they are not only because of what we take in, but also because of how we exercise them. Never exercising will certainly offset the benefits of a good diet. In like manner, our minds and hearts become what they are not only because of the moral, intellectual, and emotional content of what we take in, but because of the way that content exercises our minds and hearts. The formal strategies of stories exercise our ethical responses and, over time, shape them into patterns that become distinctive habits of the heart. Every narrative - very narrative commercial, song lyric, novel, TV program, movie, and so on - not only pulls out of us a specific set of responses but also structures those responses. Working our way through a narrative results in an orchestrated, patterned set of responses. As long as we are attentively engaged, as long as we think we understand what is happening, and, most importantly, as long as we desire to receive any profit of pleasure in return for the investment of our time and energy, we are at least potentially open to the kinds of emotional, intellectual, and ethical interactions with literary texts that influence our typical ways of responding to life, not just to fictions.
Kenneth Burke throws light on this issue of ethical exercise. In a chapter that he calls "Literature as Equipment for Living," Burke lays down an argument - sketchy but pregnant - asserting that literature, specifically fiction, "names" the situations of life to which we must form responses and, moreover, helps us adopt the attitudes toward these situations that define and create our own moral agency. By representing these situations in all of their concrete embededness and by helping us "adopt an attitude," Burke argues that fictions provide us with models for how to face and deal with life's situations.
[T]he main point is this: A work like Madame Bovary (or its homely American translation, Babbitt) is the strategic naming of a situation. It singles out a pattern of experience that is sufficiently representative of our social structure [. . .] for people to "need a word for it" and to adopt an attitude toward it. [. . .] Art forms like "tragedy" or "comedy" or "satire" would be treated as equipments for living that size up situations in various ways and in keeping with correspondingly various attitudes.
(296-304; emphasis added)
In adopting attitudes we create character, yet the assumption behind Burke's comment - and behind the nutritional analogy as well - is not that a literary diet is all-determinative of character. Many forces other than story, after all, influence character. However, the influence of our fictional diet is generally underrated as far as effects go and is generally misunderstood as far as go the mechanisms that convey the effects (see Gregory, CEA Critic 1990 and Gregory, Narrative).
For the critic, the main implication of the nutritional analogy touches on one of the most sensitive - that is, controversial - roles of the ethical critic: the attempt to evaluate both the contents and effects of literature in ethical terms. The ethical critic ventures into this field of controversy because the nutritional analogy suggests to him a proper function. As the person who has tried to think long and deeply about the relationship between literature and ethics, the ethical critic has an obligation to assist others to think better about that relationship as well. Nutritionists worth their professional degrees would never let a client who needed to lose weight get by with the flabby argument that, after all, chocolate cake is "merely entertainment," or is subject to a variety of interpretations, or is composed of rhetorically unstable perspectives, or is semantically indeterminate, or must be viewed in its historical context, or is the favorite dessert in the English Department at Duke University. Without being diverted even momentarily by such self-serving and diversionary rationalizations, but also without arrogating or desiring the authority to force the client to forgo chocolate cake, responsible nutritionists would nevertheless be aggressive in presenting the most reasonable and carefully thought-out arguments they can muster for healthy food and against rich desserts.
It is precisely at this point that horrified exclamations of "Oh, my God, we're talking censorship!" begin to appear. But "we" aren't talking censorship. Censorship is a red-herring and has no more to do with ethical criticism in any necessary way than the precious Unities had to do with good drama. Once Samuel Johnson grabbed the Unities by the throat in his "Preface to Shakespeare" (231-33) and demanded that they leave drama alone, they gave up the ghost at once and have never been heard from again. The connection between ethical criticism and censorship should die the same kind of death. No ethical critic supposes that censorship will even or ever work, much less that it will make people virtuous. In Areopagitica, John Milton put this issue to rest as comprehensively and decisively in his day as Johnson put the issue of the Unities to rest in his day: "They are not skillful considerers of human things," says Milton, "who imagine to remove sin by removing the matter of sin" (24). And no ethical critic who has really thought about the complexity of the relationship between ethics and literature has such faith in the infallibility of his or her judgment that he would even want, much less attempt to exercise, the power to coerce other people to do her literary bidding. Those who do wish to censor writers or libraries or readers are not ethical critics but dogmatists. The two should not be confused.
But the ethical critic who warns his or her "friends" (even if they are unknown readers) of a danger that the friends have perhaps not thought about, or warns them of a relationship that may not be as innocent as they suppose, or who makes arguments about the possible negative effects of yielding to certain invitations of feeling, thinking, and judging is not performing a censor's function. To warn is not the same thing as forcibly stopping. Nor is warning the same thing as forcibly ridding the world of the dangers you are warning about. To an ethical critic, censorship simply is not the important issue in ethical criticism. In ethical criticism, the important issue is what we make of ourselves by the choices we make and the actions we perform. None of us chooses our actions or makes our choices in a social and moral vacuum. We seek help from friends, from models, from ideas, from value systems, and from different fields of discourse. Ethical critics attempt to create a kind of discourse about literature's potential effects on feeling, thinking, and judging that will be helpful, sometimes by warning, sometimes by praising, but always by foregrounding for readers the importance of being self-critical about the kinds of literary and other fictional invitations they accept.
Ethical critics can help readers not only by questioning the potentially negative effects of certain fictions, but also by finding grounds for showing the potentially positive effects of other fictions. The attack on literary meaning conducted by many contemporary critics has made it difficult for teachers and other lovers of literature to find grounds on which to defend their literary commitments and has especially made it difficult for teachers to find grounds for recommending the books they love to their students. Ethical criticism finds ways of arguing the positive value of many different kinds of literary encounters. William Kennedy recalls his initial confusion when, as an undergraduate at the University of Virginia, he first heard William Faulkner talk in class about literature's ability to "uplift" the human heart.
This uplift business baffled me. I was reading and rereading The Sound and the Fury, Sanctuary, Light in August, The Wild Palms and Absalom, Absalom! - tales of incest and whoring and rape and dying love and madness and murder and racial hate and miscegenational tragedy and idiocy - and saying to myself, "This is uplift?"
But I kept reading and found I couldn't get enough; I had to reread to satisfy the craving, and came to answer the question in a word: yes. I felt exalted by the man's work, not by reveling in all the disasters, but by learning from his language and his insights and his storytelling genius how certain other people lived and thought. I was privileged to enter into the most private domains of their lives and they became my friends or people I'd keep at least at arm's length or people I pitied, feared or loved. This was truly an uplifting experience, something akin to real friendship, and I began to understand the process by which writing reaches into another person's heart.(9) (35)
Here the friendship and the nutritional analogy both apply: the friends Kennedy took in acted as forms of intellectual, emotional, and ethical nourishment. Thus story works its way into the very nerve endings of our ethical lives.
So ethical criticism does matter. It matters because who we become matters and because literature, or, rather, story in general, as an important midwife to our becoming, helps usher us into the world. Insofar as ethical criticism helps us understand how this influence gets exerted, how our responses get elicited, and how these responses get both shaped up and filled in by literary experience, it contributes to the ongoing human enterprise of getting to know ourselves better in order that, in our improved understanding, we can come closer to creating the kind of world we want rather than settling for the world we have. Ethical criticism can make a contribution to literary study, to the humanities, and to civilized living by helping readers recognize the Janus face of literary experience. While one countenance looks outward at society, the other countenance looks inward at our own souls. Finally, ethical criticism can help us understand how the perspectives of these two countenances eventually merge into the public and private entity we call an ethos. The old adage, "It is never too late to become what you might have been" is pertinent here, for all of us are trying to become what we might have been, and in our efforts we use experience both from first-hand life and from second-hand fictions. These fictions are frequently so powerful, so beautiful, so jolting, so vivid, so intimate, so challenging, so repeated, and so long-lasting in their effects that they sometimes exert a gradually transformative effect: they enter into and partly form the habits of our heart and thus help us see not only who we are but what we might become.
1 Clearly, I am not speaking here of only printed stories or literature written as fine art. I am including the oral stories and fables and apologues of tribal societies and, indeed, of our own society. In short, I am talking about stories in all their shapes and forms and in all the media by which they get conveyed to those who consume them.
2 Helen Gardner makes much the same point in even more detail: "Since imaginative literature gives us images of human life and records human experience, it is inevitably full of moral ideas and moral feelings, strongly engages our moral sympathies, and tests our moral allegiances. [. . .] The writers [. . .] who most notably expand our knowledge of the world and of ourselves [. . .] [are] those who, while they amuse us, evoke our curiosity and engage our sympathies, involve us in a world of moral choice and moral values through our 'fond participation' in imagined adventures, crises, joys and distresses" (37).
3 The following catalog is a short list of some of the accusations against ethical critics that most literary critics for the last 100 years have readily accepted.
* Ethical critics are just censors in sheep's clothing who want to tell artists what they can write and readers what they can read, or at least what will be good for them to write and read.
* Ethical critics think it is literature's job to teach moral lessons and, in consequence, they reductively transform every text into an apologue, a moral fable, or a Sunday School lesson.
* Ethical critics are narrow-minded, doctrinaire moralists who, like the stereotype of the old-fashioned house mother looking for men in a women's dorm, concentrate salaciously on sniffing out sin from its literary hiding places so they can hang both the sin and the book on the gallows of dogma.
* Ethical critics naively believe that reading canonical literature automatically elevates readers' morality.
* Ethical critics are either sexual prudes or religious fundamentalists, neither of whom understand anything about aesthetic imperatives or the first amendment to the Constitution.
* Ethical critics are intellectual guerrillas, both anti-philosophical and anti-theoretical, who ambush literary texts on moral grounds without ever taking into account the ought/is distinction or the fact/value split.
* Ethical critics willfully ignore the wisdom of Henry James's dictum that "questions of art are questions [. . .] of execution; questions of morality are quite another affair" (446); Kant's assertion that "the beautiful, the judging which has at its basis a merely formal purposiveness, i.e., purposiveness without purpose, is quite independent of the concept of the good" (386); Philip Sidney's dictum that "for the poet, he nothing affirms, and therefore never lieth" (149); Northrop Frye's statement that "there's no such thing as a morally bad novel: its moral effect depends entirely on the moral quality of the reader" (94); Derrida's view that "the absence of the transcendental signified extends the domain and interplay of signification ad infinitum" (961); Michel Foucault's assertion, following Roland Barthes's lead, that "the author function [. . .] does not refer purely and simply to a real individual, since it can give rise simultaneously to several selves, to several subjects - positions that can be occupied by different classes of individuals" (153); or Barbara Herrnstein Smith's view that "all value is radically contingent, being neither an inherent property of objects nor an arbitrary projection of subjects but, rather, the product of the dynamics of an economic system" (11); and many other such assertions in the same vein.
4 John Morley railing at Swinburne for "persistently and gleefully [flying] to the animal side of human nature" (880); Robert Buchanan accusing "the fleshly school of verse writers" (Rossetti) of "diligently spreading the seeds of disease broadcast" (889); Elizabeth Rigby attacking the politically incendiary and "anti-christian" tendencies of Jane Eyre (449-50); the trial in which Gustave Flaubert was charged with an "outrage to public morality and religion" (7) for publishing Madame Bovary; the bannings in America of the sale of Lady Chatterly's Lover and The Tropic of Cancer; and the persistent attempts of some parents and some school boards today to pull The Catcher in the Rye and Huckleberry Finn from school libraries.
5 William Perry, author of Forms of Intellectual and Ethical Development in the College Years: A Scheme.
6 Emotivism produces contradictions that sometimes seem hopeless, sometimes seem comic, but that in either case speak to our deep confusions about ethical discourse. Just recently, as I was taking one of my periodic beatings at the faculty lunch table for my interest in ethical criticism, a colleague asserted to me decisively that "literature has no more to do with making moral character than it has to do with making shoes." Two minutes later he was applauding me for my efforts to teach Areopagitica in a freshman class on the grounds that "working through Milton's ideas about censorship will be good for your students." When I hazarded that he had just made a judgment about the (potential) ethical benefits of reading a certain text, he responded, "that's not an ethical judgment; it's just my opinion." The presumption here is what? - that ethical judgments are not opinions, or that mere opinions can never carry the weight of ethical judgment? I think the presumption is simply that making ethical judgments is intellectually retrograde but that opinions are defensible. The danger of such confusion is that it threatens to deprive us of any grounds for conducting moral discourse at all, and the danger of this is that, since moral issues comprise an unavoidable and permanent part of human sociability, depriving ourselves of the ability to discuss these issues only deepens the confusion in which we live and leads to an impoverishing sense of randomness and formlessness.
7 If it seems odd to offer a fiction as an example of the criticism of fiction, I refer my reader to Wayne Booth's incisive comment that "powerful narratives provide our best criticism of other powerful narratives" (283).
8 Here and in the remainder of this paragraph I am not quoting particular persons; the quotation marks indicate typical positions and typical views.
9 Martha Nussbaum corroborates Kennedy's sense of friendship with literary characters and books in a parallel account of her own schooling: "In my school there was nothing that Anglo-American conventions would call 'philosophy.' And yet the questions of this book (which I shall call, broadly, ethical) were raised and investigated. The pursuit of truth there was a certain sort of reflection about literature. And the form the ethical questions took, as the roots of some of them grew into me, was usually that of reflecting and feeling about a particular literary character, a particular novel; or, sometimes, an episode from history, but seen as the material for a dramatic plot of my own imagining. All this was, of course, seen in relation to life itself, which was itself seen, increasingly, in ways influenced by the stories and the sense of life they expressed. Aristotle, Plato, Spinoza, Kant - these were still unknown to me. Dickens, Jane Austen, Aristophanes, Ben Jonson, Euripides, Shakespeare, Dostoyevsky - these were my friends, my spheres of reflection" (11).
Aristotle. Poetics. Trans. S. H. Butcher. New York: Hill and Wang, 1961.
Bellah, Robert N., et. al. Habits of the Heart: Individualism and Commitment in American Life. Berkeley: U of California P, 1985.
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