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The Ethics of Modernism: Moral Ideas in Yeats, Eliot, Joyce, Woolf, and Beckett.

The Ethics of Modernism: Moral Ideas in Yeats, Eliot, Joyce, Woolf, and Beckett. Lee Oser. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2007. ISBN 13 987-0-521-86725-2. Pp. ix+185. $88.00.

In his opening paragraph, and almost as a refrain thereafter, Lee Oser formulates the "moral project" of the five modernist authors named in his title: "to transform human nature through the use of art" (1). In describing human nature he (problematically and somewhat arbitrarily) sees "the issue as a choice between two alternatives,' New Darwinism and Aristotelian virtue ethics, "both ambitious and imperfect" (1). The principal exhibit for the first is a book by the cognitive psychologist Steven Pinker, The Blank Slate: The Modern Denial of Human Nature (2002). On the perennial issue of nature versus nurture, Pinker registers vigorous dissent from established opinion makers (among whom he includes modernist authors and critics) who favor nurture, operating on the premise that human beings are "blank slates" ready to receive whatever is imposed on them. Pinker counters that there is a human nature, formed over eons by evolution that presets in complex ways what we are and how we act. That underlying human nature provides Oser his point of departure.

If he avoids systematic discussion of virtue ethics as such, Aristotle is Oser's norm. "The Aristotelian body," a recurrent phrase in his pages, refers to individual human beings who have contact with the real world where they perform particular moral actions within a community. "Naturalistic" "realistic" and "teleological" are among the adjectives most frequently invoked. So constituted, human nature "fosters ethical narrativity"; the resulting accounts of human action are "mimetic" (9). The dominant countervailing position, strongly deplored, is a split between mind and body, "the Cartesian bias against human nature" (3) that has displaced Aristotle from the sixteenth century onward.

Oser takes modernism as a major cultural expression of the Cartesian split: "Individual consciousness is the privileged medium of the modernist view of things" (7). Its agenda is to replace the Aristotelian body with "the modernist body, ... an aesthetic body ... an image in the mind" (9, italics in original). Oser finds the conflict between these two positions anticipated by the two leading Victorian critics, Matthew Arnold and Walter Pater. Arnold "makes the last major defense of human nature in literature" (11). Following Aristotle, he puts action at the center of poetry, action involving both body and mind and deriving its value from the "great primary human affections" (Arnold quoted, 11). Pater, conversely, moves away from common human experience to individualized, "higher" levels of consciousness. If Aristotle's ethics founded virtue on habit, Pater's aestheticized outlook found habit deadening to the uniquely intense experience that he celebrated in art and life.

The book itself is short (133 pages of text, 32 of endnotes), and each of the five modernist masters is prolific, complex, copiously commented on. Such subject matter imposes rigorous selectivity in the chapter-length overview of each author. The ambitious aims of the book generate another layer of complexity. Both a literary study and a work of cultural criticism, it deals with literature as well as discursive texts. The latter include intellectual history, even philosophy, written not only by modernists but a variety of influential thinkers. In the best of the chapters--those on Yeats, Woolf, and Beckett--literary analysis reinforces investigation of ideas to delineate clear patterns of development. In the chapters on Eliot and Joyce disproportion skews the line of argument.

The Yeats chapter traces that poet's pursuit of an other-than-worldly site of consciousness through early explorations in Symbolism, Blake, and Shelley through later probings in Nietzsche, Berkeley, and Wyndham Lewis as the Irish poet strove to capture a never-realized "Unity of Being" in the system he articulated at length in A Vision. In Oser's summation: "All became spirit, but matter was lost" (43).

Oser situates Woolf first in relation to G. E. Moore and his Principia Ethica. For the philosopher, consciousness of beauty is what mainly has value; good itself is a "non-natural property attaching to consciousness" (89). Oser then shows that in the key novels Woolf gives aestheticized consciousness a culminating role. Lily Briscoe, the painter in To the Lighthouse, transforms a mother seen with her young son into a triangular purple shape; Bernard, the novelist in The Waves, reduces distinctions in the world and the self to "the complex whole of his formalized mind" (101). As a postscript, Oser severely questions whether such refined consciousness is worth a novelistic obliteration of the real world.

Beckett's demolition is far more radical than Woolf's. Oser's inventory of the resulting ruins includes art, language, the canon of past writing, the body, teleology, any usual notion of ethics itself. But the arduousness of Beckett's quest finally earns Oser's respect. Its goal may be unreachable, even uncertain, but it cannot be evaded. To good advantage, Oser engages thinkers of the stature of Kierkegaard (quoted 109), whose "existence spheres: the esthetic, the ethical, the religious" enable him to find a way in this uncharted cosmos. The Dane's third or religious phase, which like the goal of Beckett's questing resists formulation, leaves anything like an Aristotelian system--indeed modernism itself--far behind.

The Eliot chapter relegates virtually all the poetic texts except The Cocktail Party to passing comment. Treatment of the prose is heavily embedded in larger discussions of Aristotle, the philosopher E H. Bradley, and Matthew Arnold. Oser carefully examines important issues such as Eliot's relation to Aristotle and to Arnold as well as Arnold's own Aristotelianism. But to cut through those intricacies he must resort to conceptual coups de grace. Thus, "Eliot, in a lightning stroke, turns Aristotle into a modernist" by retranslating a term in the opening of The Posterior Analytics" (50). Then, in eulogizing his accomplice E H. Bradley, Eliot "stamps on the grave" of Arnold, "the last great English critic" (57), whose reputation both are seen as decisive in burying. Oser divides poets between those linked to society through "the nervous system and the blood stream" ("literary citizen [s]" like Dante) and those who are not ("literary exile[s]" such as Jules Laforgue) (53). The ironic early Eliot belongs with the latter group. But to accommodate Eliot's Christian poetry, indeed to map his entire career, Oser invokes Bradley's distinction between a naturalist--because evolutionary--ethics in which we adhere to the norms of our culture and a Protestant theological ethic in which we detach ourselves from nature and put our wills wholly in the will of God. Thus, The Cocktail Party dramatizes that dichotomy in the solitary "mystical heroism" (56) of Celia against the socially sanctioned morality of Edward, Lavinia, and Peter. The play serves to illustrate Oser's schematics, but where body / mind and body / soul questions are at stake, one can hardly pass over the mature reflections of Four Quartets, where Incarnation is a pivotal theme and symbol. The sharp-angled shapes that Oser accumulates throughout the chapter leave a caricature rather than a holistic picture of Eliot.

Oser approves Joyce's early work, Stephen Hero and Dubliners, for situating action, in an Aristotelian manner, within communities--"the common paths of life and feeling" (69). But Portrait of the Artist turns modernist by progressively isolating its protagonist and "supplanting mimetic language with writing that has its own autonomy ... subordinat[ing] nature to the unifying aesthetic consciousness" (74). Such formulations work for Stephen Dedalus, but Leopold Bloom is another matter. To dissect that modern Ulysses, Oser moves to a critique of the sympathetic imagination. Taking on that faculty as ungrounded in socially shared values, along with the multifaceted narrative of Ulysses, is a task unmanageable in eight pages, replete with undeveloped ideas and questionable overstatements. It is taken as "bare fact" that "Bloom's interior monologue does not provide an accurate model of the mind" (81). (Is there any narrative point of view that does?) Joyce's irony gets reduced en bloc to "romantic irony," "which ... usher[s] the individual into the subjective void" (82). Aristotelian pity is called in to discredit sympathetic imagination for its lack of connection to socially shared virtue--though virtue is scarcely broached in either the definition or the passage from the Rhetoric that enumerates the situations where pity is possible--many of which would readily apply to Bloom.

It would be well here to recall a warning that Fritz Senn, the dean of Joyce scholars, once made at a conference: we should be careful in claiming too confidently that Joyce says any one thing because in the same work we will also find him saying the opposite. Oser claims that Joyce assigns no "mediating role for habits and usages to play with respect to sympathy" (80), hence for a socially shared ethics. One of Bloom's main projects for the day is to join fellow Dubliners in collecting funds for the widow and children of Paddy Dignam, whose funeral he has attended before noon. About 1 p.m. he hears from Josie Brown that Mina Purefoy is in the third day of labor with her ninth child; in the evening he visits the maternity hospital to inquire about her. Once we start noting such exchanges, it is difficult to stop. They yield a Dublin, and a Bloom, quite different from Oser's.

Oser's book makes a significant, if circumscribed, contribution to our understanding of the ethical ramifications of literary modernism. He is to be commended for unapologetically asserting the centrality of ethics in a prevailing climate of moral relativism. I find substantive merit in his choice of Aristotle as an ethical model--one more likely to be congenial to Roman Catholics, however, than to Christians from other traditions. And although theology is peripheral to his main concerns, he is informed, indeed sympathetic, in his treatment of religion. What he delivers, however, falls short of his ambitious rhetoric: he can do little more than sketch Aristotelian answers to the far-reaching ethical and cultural questions he raises. Within the narrower aims of literary criticism, the book carries much greater authority. Its aggregate view of modernism as a movement whose energies were directed at remaking the world in artistic terms is well supported by both literary and nonliterary texts. His readings of a number of key texts (e.g., Yeats's Byzantium poems, Joyce's Stephen Hero, Woolf's To the Lighthouse) deserve attention for their analytic skill and sensitivity to implication.

In the larger perspective, I have an additional reservation about the book. Though he rightly laments the marginalization of ethics in our culture, Oser joins prevailing opinion by minimizing aesthetics. Rather than being an activity peripheral to the human nature that Oser is at pains to uphold, aesthetics is integral to it. Validation of the aesthetic is, moreover, authentically Aristotelian. In the Poetics, not only does the philosopher expend considerable effort in describing the optimal structure of tragedy, he accords tragedy primacy among literary genres precisely on the aesthetic ground of its superior construction. (In significant contrast, his Renaissance interpreters ranked epic over tragedy, for efficacy in teaching morality). Where the modernists themselves are concerned, it is fair to say that the reason why we keep reading and discussing them is, in significant part, the breakthroughs they made in deploying language not only to convey meaning and values but as a complexly diversified aesthetic medium.

Oser contrasted Arnold and Pater to launch his argument. Their differences serve well to end these remarks. He finds in Arnold's criticism the ideas about human nature and commonly shared ethical values that are, in his view, needed to qualify the Victorian as an eminent Aristotelian. He finds in Pater a retreat to solitary aesthetic consciousness that set an anti-Aristotelian paradigm for modernist writers. But that scheme does not play out so neatly in the collected works of either writer. In the Preface to his 1853 collection, Arnold, at his most Aristotelian, explained why he omitted Empedocles on Etna, the long title poem of an earlier volume: it failed to deliver on his own philosophical demands. Indeed, in his poetry Arnold keeps returning the theme of his age's, and his own, inability to articulate precisely the socially shared values that Oser seeks.

Where imaginative literature is concerned, I think we are more likely to find them most closely approximated in Pater--not in The Renaissance (1873), arguably the founding text of the Aesthetic Movement, but in Marius the Epicurean (1885). Dismissed by Oser as one of Pater's "Imaginary Portraits" Marius is better viewed as a novel of development whose protagonist, rather than abandoning his aesthetic sense, integrates it into a maturing moral consciousness. The body plays a key role: Marius parts company with the Stoic Aurelius in that "the philosophic emperor was a despiser of the body" (Ch. XVIII); Marius, "the humbler follower of the bodily eye" (Ch. XIV), strives "to live in the concrete" (Ch X). The entire novel traces Marius's quest for a community where moral ideals can be found in a form accessible to the eye. He successively discards the "unseen celestial city" of Aurelius and his tutor the rhetorician Fronto, the ideal republic of Plato, or the neo-Platonist Apuleius's "fantastic visions" (Ch. XX) of a vague intermediary realm. Though he does not formally become a member, Marius is able to see his ideals realized among the Christians who gather at Cecilia's house, where beauty and morality are concretely embodied in community life. At last, despite himself, Marius performs a supremely moral act of self-sacrifice to save the life of his friend Cornelius. In Pater's novel--and in varying degrees among the modernist masters--relations between ethics and aesthetic are charged with paradox and complexity. Its clear and distinct conceptualizations notwithstanding, Oser's book leaves our questions about them far from closed.

Joseph Sendry

Catholic University
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Author:Sendry, Joseph
Publication:Christianity and Literature
Article Type:Book review
Date:Jan 1, 2010
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