FICTIONAL CHARACTERS, REAL PROBLEMS: THE SEARCH FOR ETHICAL CONTENT IN LITERATURE.
Fictional Characters, Real Problems: The Search for Ethical Content in Literature addresses an emergent-or better yet, reemergent-interest in the complicated relationship between ethics and literature. Its purpose is not to make ethical judgements about the value of a particular literary work or author; rather, according to editor Garry L. Hagberg, its intent is "to investigate a number of literary and philosophical cases-conceptually telling ones-that bring to light both the intricacy and the interwoven character of ethical-aesthetic relations and how they manifest themselves in literary art" (Hagberg, 1). The collection of essays is divided into six parts, whose themes are both distinct and overlying. Each part comprises three individually-authored chapters and tackles a prominent debate about ethical-aesthetic relations in literature. Humanities scholars in the fields of philosophy, literature, language and culture weigh in on these debates.
Following Hagberg's introduction, Part I: Ways of Reading for Ethical Content examines how philosophers talk about literature. In "Sophie, Antigone, Elizabeth-Rethinking Ethics by Reading Literature," Nora Hamalainen distinguishes three ways moral philosophers use narrative literature in their works. One of these approaches, thin use, refers to "literature as example"(15). We see this in Greenspan, who brings up the calamitous decision in Styron's Sophie's Choice to propose a moral dilemma, without dwelling on the ancillary complexities of the entire novel. The second term, thick use, refers to an approach "that attempts to enter into dialogue with the literary work--with all its complexities" (20). Nussbaum's comprehensive study of Sophocles' Antigone qualifies as thick use. Finally, in open-ended use, "the act of translation from literature to philosophy, from representation to argument, from experience to explanation" (23) remains in some sense abstract and irresolute. Diamond's method of decentralizing the primacy of animal rights in J. M. Coetzee's The Lives of Animals exemplifies open-ended use. Hamalainen constructs a helpful methodology for thinking about how literature and moral philosophy intersect and studies three approaches taken by Anglo-American ethicists in recent decades.
In the next chapter, Eileen John focuses her attention on the fictional character. John contends that we often come to care for characters, not quite as real people, but as representational activities of language. Fictional characters "serve as occasions for more, and more intense, representational activities than do most real people. But they are also manifestations of an ordinary activity, of putting into words how people and their lives are found to be" (46). As readers, we care about representations of character, no matter how realistic, because we are invested in the 'live possibilities' they evoke.
Robert B. Pierce analyzes one of the world's most well-known literary personages, the titular character of Shakespeare's Hamlet. Hamlet, according to Pierce, is not the hero of Shakespeare's celebrated tragedy because of his conduct. He is the hero because he "articulates with remarkable intelligence and acuity of feeling what we all encounter" (48): those experiences that make us ask why we act and interrogate the circumstances that drive our behavior.
Part II: Matters of Character delves further into the issues of character, both in how we think about literary characters, and in turn, the philosophy of ethical character. Inquiry into a literary character's morality inherently shares in some of the questions moral philosophers pose, as Gary L. Hagberg shows in his chapter by reconsidering Aristotle's notions of ethical character. Hagberg sees Shakespeare's Othello as an opportunity to discuss ethical character because the play's "diabolical genius" (61), Iago, presents the problem of distinguishing moral appearance from moral reality.
In "Character, Social Information, the Challenge of Psychology," Noel Carroll questions the long-held assumption that fictional characters provide readers with "social information"(83) about the real world. Carroll brings the social psychology of situationalism to the discussion of fictional character--a perspective that casts doubt on reading fictional characters as individuals with distinctive traits and instead sees them as parts of a larger literary situation. Carroll examines the Western The Big Country and concludes, however, that some social information can still be derived from characters, despite the situationalist perspective. In the subsequent chapter, Valerie Wainwright follows a situationalist framework, taking the character-versus-situation debate to Jane Austen's Emma. Positioning herself against critics who read Emma's character as defective, Wainwright examines "situational variables" rather than "putative character variables" (103) to unpack the behavior of Austen's tetchy protagonist.
When pushed far enough, matters of character overlap with matters of subjectivity and subject position; those ideas are investigated in Part III: Literature, Subjectivity and Poetic Vision.
Richard Eldridge, for example, questions whether literary works can present truth in any sense of the word. He surveys a number of Fregean and neo-Fregean perspectives in contrast to Hegel's Lectures in Fine Art, which highlight a literary author's poetische Auffassungder Welt, or poetic grasp of the world. Eldridge concludes, "debates about whether literary art embodies significant truth-content in a form of presentation that is in any way reliable are likely to persist" (137).
Informed by Aristotle and Heidegger, J. Jeremy Wisnewski claims that the aim of moral philosophy is not to argue for a particular position, nor is it about developing a universal heuristic for right and wrong. Moral philosophy demands a kind of seeing or perception that cannot be condensed to strictly "propositional content" (139). Working through examples from J.M. Coetzee's Disgrace and Elizabeth Costello, Wisnewski explores how "literature allows us to think our way into contexts that are wholly unique--that emphasize particularity--and that can educate the moral imagination" (146). In the following chapter, "Heidegger, Breton, and Nadja at the Limits of Language," Jonathon Strauss shows how a work of philosophy can give meaning to a work of literature, putting Being and Time in dialogue with Andre Breton's surrealist novel Nadja. Eschewing historicists that read Breton in light of Hegel, Bergson or Freud, Strauss demonstrates how Heidegger is better suited for bringing out Breton's theory of subjectivity.
Part IV: Language, Dialogical Identity and Self-Understanding discusses the dialogic processes through which the ethical content of literature is communicated. Anthony Gash considers an established view of Shakespeare's Hamlet, in which the audience gleans the hero's isolated, inner consciousness, a "subjectivity of their hearts and minds and the privacy of their own character," as Hegel once argued (177). Gash proposes instead that the language of the play is essentially dialogic, and thus, relational. Hamlet's speech (including the infamous sixth soliloquy) is always projected outwardly, "to those who surround him, the dead person whom he mourns, and the audience in the theater" (178). Those dialogic interactions form the basis of Gash's study of ethical-aesthetic relations in the work.
Next, Richard Dawson turns to the pages of Jane Austen's Persuasion for a productive discussion about Gadamer's hermeneutic philosophy of self-understanding and its relationship to conversation. Reading Persuasion as a study of "the transformative power of conversation" (194), Dawson defends Austen from critics who argue the author hardly treated matters of philosophy in her literature.
In "Quartet: Wallace's Wittgenstein, Moran's Amis," Stephen Mulhall harmonizes distinct strands--the trace of Wittgenstein's Philosophical Investigations in David Foster Wallace, and Richard Moran's reading of Kingsley Amis--to examine how they articulate "language's capacity to be carried by the irreducible variety of individual voices and their unpredictable, improvised interactions and contradictions...from starting-points which always have a prior history to end-points that are always open to continuation" (216). In the end, Mulhall questions whether Wallace's works are the trappings of a shallow postmodernism or testaments to the writer's ultimate intimacy with the reader.
Narrative literature often details a progression of events, and thus, the following section, Part V: Patterns and Possibilities of Moral Growth, seeks to study representations of ethical content that elapse over the course of narrative time. Alan Goldman returns to Austen's Pride and Prejudice to discuss its depiction of moral maturity and judgment. "Austen is aware," he argues, "of all the distinct capacities required for fully mature judgment: empathy, decentrated discerning perception, self-knowledge and recognition of fallibility, and the will to act on one's reflectively endorsed judgments made in exercising these other capacities" (240). The growth of a literary character, whether major or minor, allows readers an opportunity for self-reflection.
In the succeeding chapter, "The Breadth of Moral Character," Daniel Brudney responds to Barbara Herman's reading of Kant. Substantiating his position with readings from Austen's Pride and Prejudice and E.M. Forster's Howards End, Brundney argues that "there is more to moral description than can be fitted into a Kantian's philosophy" (256). Such novels, according to Brudney, present moral dilemmas, whose philosophical implications point to the limits of Kantian and neo-Kantian conceptions of reason and virtue.
Mitchell S. Green's "Learning To Be Good (or Bad) in (or Through) Literature," argues that literary texts "can change us morally" (283). But one of his skeptical insights is that if literature has the capacity to improve, it has an equal capacity to corrupt. An empathic response to literature can be both "good and bad," depending on who the reader is empathizing with. Green's position is trot out in (or through) literary classics as well as popular works of genre fiction from Dashiell Hammett's The Maltese Falcon to Joyce Carol Oates' Zombie.
The final section, Part VI: Historical Genealogies of Moral-Aesthetic Concepts traces the development of the ethical-aesthetic dialectic across three broadly-conceived historical periods: ancient, modern, and recent. Humberto Brito returns to Aristotle's Poetics, a text that has been foundational to debates about the delicate relationship between ethics and art since the beginning of Western philosophy. Martin Donougho provides the early modern example by examining the intellectual lineage of Shaftesbury, which he demonstrates descends from fifteenth-century Italian courtly traditions and continues through Kant, romanticism, and modernism. According to Donougho, "Aesthetic distinction" (325) is contingent on historical formations in which value and status were entangled. In "Fate, Philology and Freud," Jules Brody discusses the etymology of words such as Fate, or counterparts like Necessity and Destiny. Stemming from Freud's understanding, Brody shows that Fate was an ethical paradigm for the ancients: "in inventing his deities, whatever their specific properties, man is saying that there are certain things he cannot have and certain things he may not do" (246). Brody's study thus concludes that "the ordering principle of human behavior is the acceptance and internalization of Necessity" (366). Together, these last three chapters point to some historical contingencies at play in the ethical-aesthetic distinction.
Fictional Characters, Real Problems is a valuable survey of perspectives for scholars in the humanities and social sciences, for philosophies of mind and language, or ethics, for literary scholars in English or comparative studies. This collection is of special interest to certain author-area studies, with its healthy samplings of Shakespeare, Jane Austen, and J. M. Coetzee. As a comparatist, I remain curious about ethical-aesthetic relations in the innumerable literatures of the world, and to observe whether, and the degree to which, those relations emerge cross-culturally Fictional Characters, Real Problems provides a worthwhile methodology for thinking about the relationship between moral philosophy and a literary work, inviting us to take account of what make-believe literature can do for the comportment of real people.
SIMONE MARIA PULEO
University of Connecticut
Commencing his detailed introduction which covers the overall rationale and thematic components of this collection of 18 essays, Garry L. Hagberg conducts a frightening thought experiment: consider, if you will, what would be lost if all of literature were to suddenly disappear. To borrow from Jane Austen, who figures prominently in some of the essays, a truth we might anticipate would be universally acknowledged is that, as Hagberg puts it, "a great deal more--indeed profoundly more-than mere opportunities for entertainment or diversion" (1) would be lost. Certainly, as Hagberg asserts, the magnitude and nature of what would be lost could not be briefly stated, and "the fact that any such attempt to encapsulate the content of the loss would of necessity fail is itself a measure of the depth and complexity of literature" (1). Hagberg capitalizes on the vacuum thus created by calling attention to the existence of a single "set of aspects" which, he says, constitutes "literature's ethical dimension" (1)-the realm explored by the 18 chapter contributors (including Hagberg himself).
Of course, as the thought experiment confirms, literature has a great many dimensions, but there is one other dimension which stands out as being of particular relevance here. In the exceedingly complex annals of literary history, as is well documented, proponents of literature's ethical or moral dimension have often been deeply troubled by adherents of its apparently polar opposite: the aesthetic dimension (and vice-versa). Moreover, these dimensions have been known to turn out, on closer inspection, to be not merely in opposition but inextricably intertwined, operating along the lines of the age-old classical-romantic dialectic which is itself indicative of the close interrelation of philosophy and literature historically. It is not surprising, then, to discover that the aesthetic dimension is the next to materialize from the vacuum (albeit less directly), creating an ethical-aesthetic basis for Hagberg's differentiation of the collection from preceding debates in the critical field.
"Increasingly in recent years," Hagberg writes, "there have been helpful and illuminating discussions of the relation between literature and moral value, and a number of these have put forward general positions, often labeled [sic] with 'isms'--moralism (of strong, moderate, or weak varieties), autonomism, aestheticism (from a somewhat earlier era), etc.--concluding that ethical elements can, or cannot, be factored into aesthetic evaluation, that ethical values always, sometimes, or never trump aesthetic ones, that a work can be at one and the same time an aesthetic triumph and yet warrant moral condemnation, and so forth" (1). Hagberg's response is to proceed instead "with a different kind of philosophical aspiration: the project is to investigate a number of literary and philosophical cases--conceptually telling ones--that bring to light both the intricacy and the interwoven character of ethical-aesthetic relations and how they manifest themselves in literary art" (1). Ultimately, the "ocular" (1) approach and aim of the collection is to help provide, Hagberg says, "a vision or way of seeing ethical considerations as they are already inextricably intertwined, or indissolubly united with, multiple and diverse forms of literary expression... this collection investigates five fundamental aspects of the ethical content of literature and literary experience, put together so as to afford a complex and finely particularized vision of ethical content" (2).
As promising as all of this sounds, however, quite how Hagberg arrives at and justifies his key set of "five fundamental aspects" is unclear, beyond his early reference to a single "set of aspects" in the context of the vacuum created by the thought experiment. The collection consists of six parts (containing three essays each), which are entitled respectively: Ways of Reading for Ethical Content; Matters of Character; Literature, Subjectivity, and Poetic Vision; Language, Dialogical Identity, and Self-Understanding; Patterns and Possibilities of Moral Growth; and Historical Genealogies of Moral-Aesthetic Concepts. Parts I to V are evidently the aspects he refers to, yet only within the summary of Part IV is there actual, explicit reference to this being an "aspect of the ethical content of literature" (6/7). Moreover, as such titles indicate, each of the five aspects is in fact multiple or multifaceted, thematically encompassing three essays which also contain particular aspects on their own individual terms. Potentially, this is a recipe for conceptual surfeit and confusion--for instance, there are also references to five elements in Valerie Wainwright's essay entitled "Emma's Extravagance: Jane Austen and the Character-Situation Debate" in Part II (the Five-Factor Model of personality); in Jeremy Wisnewski's essay entitled "The Moral Relevance of Literature and the Limits of Argument: Lessons from Heidegger, Aristotle, and Coetzee" in Part III (Aristotle's five modes of virtue in Book Z of Nicomachean Ethics: phronesis, techne, sophia, episteme and nous); and in Stephen Mulhall's essay entitled "Quartet: Wallace's Wittgenstein, Moran's Amis" in Part IV(the five sections of David Foster Wallace's "Octet"). While all of the essays, methodically and meticulously summarized by Hagberg upfront, duly explore and contribute to elucidation of ethical content, the lack of any intensely focused, thorough and cohesive discussion of the specific origins and nature of the core five aspects in play, individually and collectively, severely hampers the prospect of the emergence of a holistic vision, despite Hagberg's valid and repeated attempts at fostering a sense of interrelatedness and unity by flagging factors linking back to issues in previous parts.
That said, the wide-ranging but closely investigative essays are generally excellent, covering many interesting topics (including truth and truthfulness, character development and moral growth, and selfhood and identity) as well as raising compelling questions (such as why do we care about fictional characters as people and does literature make us morally deeper, better persons?) that will undoubtedly appeal to philosophy and literature scholars alike. Indeed, this is a book which should perhaps not be judged by its cover and title, given that the interdisciplinary spirit of the collection might not be as readily evident to potential readers, at first sight, as it is to the editor and publisher. With such works as George Orwell's Animal Farm and William Golding's Lord of the Flies, for instance, having appeared for decades on English Literature curricula at secondary school level internationally, it can hardly be suggested or claimed at advanced higher education level that there is anything particularly novel or special per se about considering fictional characters in terms of real-world problems (as important and rewarding as such considerations can be), or about searching for ethical content in literature which, in any case, need not extend very far or take very long, let alone require a sizeable search party. It is only after the predominantly philosophical rather than merely literary credentials of the contributors have been gleaned from the opening notes (including leading lights such as Richard Eldridge and Stephen Mulhall), and the distinctly philosophical inclination of the essays delineated by Hagberg in the introduction is appreciated, that the title and collection really take on the intended interdisciplinary charge and slant.
While the hallmark and appeal of the collection is therefore its strong emphasis on philosophical concerns in relation to literature, potential readers should be forewarned, however, that the presiding critical focus on the ethical dimension, primarily, means there are inherent limitations in regard to selection and treatment (including of the aesthetic dimension) of literary case studies. It is not that the range of literary examples is too small--in fact, there are plenty of excellent choices (including Jane Austen, Andre Breton, Charlotte Bronte, Joyce Carol Oates, J. M. Coetzee, E. M. Forster and Shakespeare), as with the philosophical sources (including Aristotle, Hegel, Heidegger, Kant, Plato, Socrates and Wittgenstein). Nor is it the case that the intertwinement of the ethical and aesthetic is fundamentally underappreciated--quite the reverse. Hagberg is at pains in the introduction to convey that "the binding of aesthetics to ethics does not join at a single seam" (2) and that for "a subject as complex and intricate as ethics, then put together with a concept as multifarious and wide-ranging as literature (and where we on investigation discover the two to be not put together, but indeed already intertwined down to the level of the finest detail), the danger of desensitizing oversimplification is everywhere" (11). Nevertheless, if there is a major criticism to be levelled at this collection, it is that an understandable lop-sidedness symptomatic of the critical leaning towards the ethical dimension can, at times, greatly undermine itself.
A glaring deficiency, for instance, is that the generous range of literary examples scrutinized does not include, or feature reference to, some of the key figures of nineteenth-century Aestheticism and/or Decadence whose theories and works do intersect with the key ethical concerns of the collection. Austen, Coetzee and Shakespeare are recurring presences--all well and good--but when Hagberg reports, for instance, that in Alan Goldman's essay entitled "Moral Development in Pride and Prejudice" in Part V, we see that literary depiction "is not only that: it is also an occasion for moral self-reflection" (8), or when Hagberg reflects that "certain literary works show us how to be good (or bad)" and "literature, as [Mitchell S.] Green argues [in "Learning To Be Good (or Bad) in (or Through) Literature" in Part V], can contribute to moral development or degeneracy in its readers" (9), it is surely a critical imbalance to neglect to mention or engage with the likes of Oscar Wilde and Walter Pater, among others, from those key periods. Astonishingly, such figures are also absent from Part VI: Historical Genealogies of Moral-Aesthetic Concepts, where the Victorian/Aestheticism and Decadence periods are not even explicitly mentioned concerning the lineage traced in Martin Donougho's essay entitled "Shaftesbury as Virtuoso: Or, the Birth of Aesthetics Out of a Spirit of Civility" which runs from "fifteenth-century Italian court society through various figures and cultural fields up to Kant, Romanticism, and into modernism" (10). To his credit, Hagberg does state in the introduction that the collection differs markedly from while also being meant in part as a contribution to preceding debates [including regarding "aestheticism (from a somewhat earlier era)"], and is far from exhaustive. Still, to adapt a famous quotation from The Importance of Being Earnest to the absence of Pater and Wilde: "To lose one... may be regarded as a misfortune; to lose both looks like carelessness."
D.Phil., University of Oxford
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|Author:||Puleo, Simone Maria; Murphy, Jaron|
|Publication:||Journal of Comparative Literature and Aesthetics|
|Article Type:||Book review|
|Date:||Sep 22, 2019|
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