eFORUM (feat. Eva-Lynn Jagoe, Emma Planinc & Simon Stern) [☛ Event]
THE ETHICS AND POLITICS OF READING
Professor of Comparative Literature & Spanish and Portuguese, University of Toronto
I have two things to say about ethics and literature, and when I think about them, I sometimes don’t know how to square the circle of my strongly held assertions. I’ll try to do it here. So, the first one:
We live in a culture of efficiency and speed . . . . Sound bites, opinion pieces, and online essays that announce at the top how many minutes it will take you to read it. We seek quick fixes to our complicated selves in the form of solution-based strategies such as behavioural therapy, self-fulfillment workshops, and management meetings. And, in terms of narrative, we consume indiscriminately, swallowing so many stories in the form of bestsellers and action movies. With each of those stories, we get a jolt of satisfaction as all the loose ends are tied up, closure is achieved, narrative predictability is fulfilled.
But there is something to be gained from something that takes a long time, something like reading Proust’s In Search of Lost Time or Thomas Mann’s The Magic Mountain. Those novels resist revelation, as they build a world of emotions, descriptions, interactions, and experiences. The reader resides in this world as she spends the weeks or maybe months that it takes to read one of these novels. And as she does, she lives in the space of not knowing that the novel creates. It doesn’t give easy answers, either to the reader or to the narrator or to the characters, who fumble their way through things, not understanding their own motivations or reactions. The novel forces the reader to reside in the space of ignorance and confusion that it creates as it takes long detours, follows lines of thought, and retells an event from different perspectives.
I particularly love the moment that no one ever remembers from Proust, attracted as we all are to the beauty of the madeleine moment, which opens up a whole train of associations and memories. But what about that time when the narrator is a passenger in a carriage that drives by three trees on a hill. He sees them and feels that he is about to have a revelation, that they hold great significance and meaning. And then the carriage passes on, and he doesn’t ever discover what it was that he thought he was going to understand.
This matters so much to me because I believe that this is how we do the necessary work of inhabiting ourselves. Yes, of course we should try to know ourselves, and many self-help books give us tips on how to do that better. What we have trouble with is acknowledging how much we don’t know. What happens to us when we reside in the uncomfortable space of not knowing, of realizing that many of the stories that we tell ourselves about our motivations or actions or beliefs are just that, stories? Those stories are, we have to admit, just one interpretation, an attempt to pin meaning down. And that can serve us, except when it doesn’t. When we find ourselves behaving unethically towards others in ways that belie our intentions or our belief in ourselves.
A student once told me that he felt that Infinite Jest had been profoundly reassuring to him when he was most depressed. I was surprised, given that the novel has so many dark episodes and is written by a man who killed himself. But the student said that, in reading the strange thoughts and observations that the characters make, he recognized his own ways of thinking and felt less alienated. In those fictional people, he found resonances with bits of himself and stopped seeing himself as disturbingly separate from the world around him.
Okay, so now I have you thinking that I believe in the powerful potential of the novel to give us glimpses into our own psyches and our interiorities. I do. I really do. And yet . . . . Why are novels about individuals and their moral adventures? This is the definition of the modern realist novel, one in which an individual, usually a bourgeois one, undergoes many realizations and experiences. Novels are narratives of identity. Why are novels not written about crowds, about collectives, about communities? If literature is important, if we are going to stake a claim for it as ethical, then we need to interrogate what ethics we are talking about. Because I wonder if ethics and politics have become conflated, and if it has become common parlance to think of identity as political.
I take my cue here from Amitav Ghosh’s powerful essays in The Great Derangement: Climate Change and the Unthinkable. Specifically, he talks about how difficult it is to write a realist novel that is not about an individual, and that takes into account large-scale events like climate change. For him, climate change needs to be a political issue, but, as he puts it, “political energy has increasingly come to be focussed on issues that relate, in one way or another, to questions of identity: religion, caste, ethnicity, language, gender rights, and so on . . . . The political is no longer about the commonweal or the “body politic” and the making of collective decisions.”
Instead of talking about ethics and literature, which I think leads us down the path of individualizing imaginaries, narratives of identity and the self, what if we think about the problem of politics and literature, and ask whether literature has the capacity to narrate the crowd, the collective, the non-human, the event. It seems that sci-fi, or maybe even television can do this in a way that could potentially awaken its readers/viewers to the need for a comprehension, a compassion, and an action that goes beyond the self and towards the interconnected interdependent world that we live in.
I have a problem with the novel. And that is that I fear that it replicates the neoliberal injunction towards individualism. On Facebook, in the board room, and as entrepreneurs of ourself, we each emphasize our unique perspectives and personal experiences. But if we make individual difference the basis of our politics, how do we strive towards collectivity?
How can our cultural forms, literature in particular, shape stories that allow for us to come together, to think beyond the individual and to imagine new forms, new ways of being with each other?
READING LITERATURE AS PRACTICE WISDOM
Department of Political Science, University of Toronto
Richard Posner and the critics upon which he focuses (in Against Ethical Criticism) seem to gravitate toward three axes of discussion: first, whether or not the ethical principles of the authors matter; second, whether authors have an obligation to be moral; and third, whether or not reading literature actually can make us better people (about which Posner is very skeptical).
Mark Kingwell (in The Ethics of Ethics and Literature) is less skeptical on the third. On Posner’s reading, Mark claims, if works of literature have no ethical demand on the reader, the same can be said of ethical treatises. Mark claims that if treatises excite the imagination, so much so, then, do novels; not because they will necessarily make readers better people, but because “this is one of the essential ways by which we humans reflect on our own possibilities.”
Reading a book, Mark writes, is “consciousness in action.”
He cites Engelby: “without good examples such as preserved in literature there would be nothing to live up to, no sense of transcendence.”
Reading literature he thus ties to Aristotle’s contemplative mode, seeing this as, “rather than simple ethical action,” the highest or most divine activity of the human soul.
I want to stay in Aristotle’s world (also dabbling a bit in Plato at the end) to discuss this claim; but rather than discussing the contemplative Aristotle, I do want to talk about the practical side. That is, what can literature say about practical wisdom itself?
Much of the focus in the materials on philosophy and literature are about authorship and I want to focus instead on the readers, to whom Mark also turns in the conclusion of his piece. That is – not is literature ethical, does it have an obligation to be ethical, is it right or wrong to abstract ethical principles from what authors have written, but can reading literature cultivate practical wisdom?
It is more about, in my analysis here anyhow, the activity of reading, and the form of the novel itself – its focus on particulars, and particular lives, as opposed to abstract principles. This, I believe, is what lends literature, and the form of the novel, to the cultivation of what Aristotle calls practical wisdom. Novels, much more than treatises have the capacity to make us better people.
In his Nicomachean Ethics, Aristotle indeed claims that the highest activity of the human soul is the contemplative life. But much of the ethics is spent describing moral virtue, or the cultivation of what he calls practical wisdom (which is itself an intellectual virtue – founded on the exercising of moral virtue).
The virtues, he claims, are states of character that are cultivated; and a virtuous man is one who has the state of character that “makes a man good and allows him to do his own work well.”
Aristotle famously claims that “it is possible to fail in many ways . . . men are good in but one way, but bad in many.”
This seemingly dogmatic claim is, however, much more dynamic than it first appears. Aristotle describes the determination of virtuous activity as finding the mean between extremes: the middling state between excesses and deficiencies.
Aristotle immediately proceeds to describe this mean between extremes not in abstract terms, but in relation to persons who could be seen to embody this mean:
“With regard to the truth, the intermediate is a truthful sort of person.”
“With regard to pleasantness in the giving of amusement the intermediate person is ready-witted.”
“The intermediate person is modest.”
The definition of moral virtue itself relies on a qualifier, which is that it is demonstrable in a man of practical wisdom. Virtue requires particular exemplars.
In terms of our own lives, then, and in terms of seeing virtue in the world in the form of exemplars, practical wisdom, Aristotle claims, must recognize the particulars.
In terms of cultivating virtue in ourselves we must also “incline sometimes towards the excesses, and sometimes toward the deficiencies, for so shall we most easily hit the mean and what is right.”
This is precisely what literature allows us to do. In the interest of time, I will say two things that I think are the most integral.
Firstly, novels, and literature, are by definition focused on particulars. They are focused on particular people, and the narratives of particular lives, as opposed to abstract universals. If Aristotle is right, as I believe he is, that moral virtue is cultivated through the examples of persons, the form of the novel is exemplary of this understanding of how one comes to determine a mean.
So, then, secondly, Aristotle’s claim that one must experience both the excesses and deficiencies, is integral here. Debates about the obligations of writers to cultivate proper empathy, or whether they ought to impart ethical principles, here become moot, I would claim, from the perspective of the reader. Novels and literature that make us uncomfortable, that present unsavoury characters, flawed characters (as most of them do – and certainly as the good ones do), are doing the most work for us ethically. Contrary to popular opinion, novels are themselves the ultimate safe spaces to experience these things – to see excesses and deficiencies that will allow us to think through and determine a mean for ourselves.
So literature, and novels, say in their form something that is foundationally true about human life, I would argue. That ethics involves particular persons, and that being a good person involves cultivating a state of character that recognizes the flaws in other human beings, and adapts to the world.
Practical ethics – actually being good in the world – is something that is small. That is, it is always a particular and bounded endeavour, contingent not on sweeping philosophic theories, and metaphysics, but on the physical; those persons who are around you and who matter to the narrative of your life.
In this respect, fiction and literature are the most expressive of this truth of the human condition; a truth which Aristotle understood when he was describing moral virtue always in terms of particularities, and engagement with particular persons.
Novels tell small stories about particular persons – slices of narrative (or narratives) that attempt to say something true about specific human lives.
I will however speak to the one objection that I am sure is in everyone’s minds, which is that Aristotle, of course, grounded his account of the cultivation of moral virtue in action, not in the reading of books.
This action is, however, dependent on the formation of habit. For Aristotle, this depends not only on the exemplars around you, but on the regime in which you find yourself. This too depends on the type of education you receive.
Mark discusses Plato in his piece as the example of the censorship of fiction due to its negative effects. But Plato too, of course, employed the very narrative devices he criticized, and emphasized the importance of early childhood education, because what you hear when you are young sticks. The formation of habit begins early.
Here then I am certainly employing my own narrative to make a point – – – which is that I spent a lot more time with books than I did with people when I was growing up. I spent as much time reading every Goosebumps novels as I did reading other more ”elevating” things – and spent equal amounts of time reading the Babysitter’s club, Encyclopedia Brown, and pulp science fiction novels.
While this was not action per se, it was certainly an activity, and one that has had very real consequences on the way I act in the world because of the diversity of materials that I read when I was a kid.
So it is again not about the content but the activity; not, as Nussbaum claims, really about empathizing with the other and so on, but primarily about experiencing a diversity of characters, narratives, and persons, and thus cultivating a habit of drawing means between extremes. The habit of reading and experiencing extremes prepares you for the world, and to encounter the world with, I think, an habituated sense of reflection and moderation when you have to begin to act – and act with and amongst real and diverse persons.
Ultimately, then, I think is where Mark and I are in agreement – that literature is a kind of exploratory space. But it is one, I would argue, that has very real consequences, as it must. These are not merely “narratives about interior possibility,” but narratives that also cut deeply into the territory of exterior possibilities.
Most importantly, novels prepare you to deal with particular people, when the narrative of your life intersects with theirs. It is not, then, so much that novels are themselves morally instructive, but the act of reading them is.
Discussions of ethics and literature, like discussions of law and literature, tend to fall into a couple of familiar patterns. One part of the discussion is concerned with the representation of ethical relations in literature, and when commentators focus on this question, they’re generally also concerned with the ethical effects of reading fiction, almost always fiction close the higher end of the spectrum that seeks to measure literary value. Some of these arguments are rehearsed in Mark Kingwell’s essay, The Ethics of Ethics and Literature; the participants in that discussion include a number of literary critics and philosophers, and, more recently, various psychologists who have tried to study the question empirically (as in Mar et al., “Bookworms versus Nerds”). This kind of argument resembles one that continues to remain influential among some scholars of law and literature, who argue that Charles Dickens’s Hard Times, Susan Glaspell’s “A Jury of Her Peers,” Franz Kafka’s The Trial, and Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird are important parts of a legal education because they expose students to the legal plight of those who are mistreated, marginalized, subordinated, or ignored by the legal system, and that being exposed to the thoughts and perspectives of characters in this situation will make students better lawyers – better able to listen to their clients, better able to tell stories that represent clients faithfully, better able to recognize the discriminatory effects of laws that are supposedly neutral.
Objections to this kind of argument reflect the same concerns that Kingwell raises about the instrumental use of fiction, although the objection, among those who write on law and literature, is usually cast in disciplinary terms: when the aim is to use novels to cure law students of the ills that law school breeds, the novels tend to be reduced to a propositional form, and the exercise often ignores many of the novel’s literary features, even though they were selected precisely because they were seen as having literary value rather than as being merely entertaining. The disciplinary objection thus emphasizes that when we translate novels into ethical propositions, the problem isn’t just that we’re instrumentalizing them, but that we’re not reading them as literary works any more – we’re forgetting that they draw on or rebel against certain generic conventions, that they control the reader’s access to the characters’ thoughts in various ways, and that they have their own designs on us, which we can only recognize if we ask how they are made rather than simply accepting them as given. This worry would, doubtless, apply with much the same force in the context of law and ethics, and indeed it may simply be a recharacterization of Kingwell’s observation about the instrumental use of literary texts: that is, to read them non-instrumentally would be to read them as literary texts, and therefore to be concerned with the literary features I’ve just mentioned.
Another part of the discussion asks how literature, and particularly Victorian fiction, became interested in, and concerned about, its ethical potential. In the work on law and literature, these arguments find a parallel in the historical research that examines the literary manifestations of particular developments in law, such as the Prisoners Counsel Act of 1836. Notably, in both areas – that is, in both ethics and literature, and law and literature, this part of the discussion has been dominated almost entirely by literary critics. In the writing on ethics and literature, the emphasis has been not on what effects novels might have on readers, but rather on the patterns we can discern in various aspects of plot and narration when novels reflect a degree of self-consciousness about their ethical potential. Some of the critics who have taken up these questions include my colleague Audrey Jaffe, in her books Scenes of Sympathy: Identity and Representation in Victorian Fiction (2000); and also Rachel Ablow, The Marriage of Minds: Reading Sympathy and the Victorian Marriage Plot (2007); Adela Pinch, Thinking about Other People in Nineteenth-Century British Writing (2010); Rae Greiner, Sympathetic Realism in Nineteenth-Century British Fiction (2012); Jesse Rosenthal, Good Form: The Ethical Experience of the Victorian Novel (2016), and some work in progress by Patrick Fessenbecker, in a book manuscript titled Novels and Ideas (and, in a related but slightly different vein, a terrific new book by Marta Figlerowicz, called Flat Protagonists.) It’s not easy to summarize the thrust of this line of work, but one of its concerns has involved the particular kinds of literary devices that writers use, when they take the novel’s ethical possibilities to be a question rather than a given: the concept of character that comes into play, and the ways in which narration is managed. In that regard, it is perhaps worth noting that Kingwell’s essay implicitly points in this direction: he notes that the novels he’s interested in are “those with the kind of supple, free-indirect narration that are the high-water-marks of the realist tradition,” which is to say, novels from the 19th and 20th centuries. Free indirect narration, in particular – the device by which novelists purport to give us unmediated access to a character’s thoughts – was not a pervasive feature of fictional prose until the 19th century (it’s often associated with Austen’s novels) and its use has been an abiding concern in the line of research that I’ve just sketched.
Finally, some of the work in law and literature has shown how certain imaginative works exhibit legal styles of thought or explanation, and arguably we see something similar in the point that Kingwell’s essay ends with – his discussion of “the free play of images, characters, and ideas” and of the “contemplative mode of being.” One way of to make sense of this would be to say that the ethical potential of imaginative writing lies not in its propositional use, but in its penchant for avoiding that kind of use. The penchant for free play pushes us towards a pleasure in ambiguity, indecision, and uncertainty, akin to the “negative capability” that John Keats described. This way of engaging with a novel – not trying to extract propositional conclusions but seeing how it refrains from asserting them – generally involves attending to the very literary features that the search for morally uplifting attitudes would ignore. But if so, the willingness to approach a novel in this fashion still depends on the reader’s disposition – the disposition to revel in this kind of uncertainty instead of finding it off-putting, for example. Novels can help to cultivate that attitude in a reader who is already inclined in that direction, but not everyone shares even the inclination, to begin with.