In 1956, W.H. Auden returned to an Oxford University from which he had graduated almost thirty years earlier. He was now the University’s Professor of Poetry, and in his Inaugural Lecture he spoke of an old concern of his—one that he had addressed in very different terms in 1939. In that distant age, in his famous elegy on Yeats, he had asserted that
Mad Ireland hurt you into poetry.
Now Ireland has her madness and her weather still.
For poetry makes nothing happen: it survives
In the valley of its making where executives
Would never want to tamper.
Is it good or bad that “poetry makes nothing happen”? Though it may be regrettable that Yeats’ poetry could not change Ireland, Auden’s sneer at “executives” suggests that poetry’s disconnection from things that happen can be a mark of distinction, a badge of honor. But by the time he got back to Oxford Auden had stopped sneering and had become rather mournful about the uselessness of poetry—though that mournfulness could often be masked by humor. At the beginning of his Inaugural Lecture he said:
I should be feeling less uneasy at this moment than I do, if the duties of the Professor of Poetry were to produce, as occasion should demand, an epithalamium for the nuptials of a Reader in Romance Languages, an elegy on a deceased Canon of Christ Church, a May-day Masque for Somerville [College], or an election ballad for his successor.
Most of Auden’s listeners no doubt thought he was joking, but he wasn’t. By this point in his career Auden had so thoroughly repudiated the splendid isolation of poetry advocated by Romantic and modern writers alike that he had developed a genuine longing for a conception of the writer as a public servant or as an artisan: the fabricator of objects not only for pleasure but also for use.
We should note that Auden’s argument with the Romantic tradition is not the same as that of his modernist predecessors like T. S. Eliot and James Joyce. Whereas those writers chastised Romanticism for its relentless celebration of the self, its “cult of personality,” Auden frowns upon both Romantic and modern poetics for their acceptance of the autonomy of the literary imagination: for him such autonomy may more accurately be described as an enervating and ultimately deadly detachment. In the 1930s another writer, the Franco-Polish poet Oscar Milosz (older cousin of the Nobel Prize winner Czeslaw Milosz), described this isolating and aestheticizing tendency as an “unfortunate deviation” in the long history of poetry, which has “produced a schism and a misunderstanding between the poet and the great human family which has continued to the present.”
Once such a diagnosis has been made, the next question is, how may this “schism” be healed, the family restored to wholeness? What can bring the prodigal poets back into the fold? Such a task is not, we must recognize, only a matter of encouraging writers to renew their ties with their society; it also involves getting readers to unlearn the lessons of literary autonomy which they have learned better perhaps than the writers themselves. Oscar Milosz argues that such a restoration can occur only through the arrival on the scene of a great author, “a modern Homer, Shakespeare, or Dante” who will renounce “his paltry ego” and reestablish a viable connection with the people. But even a possibility as remote as that is beyond Auden’s imagination:
The so-called fine arts have lost the social utility they once had. Since the invention of printing and the spread of literacy, verse no longer has a utility value as a mnemonic, a device by which knowledge and culture were handed on from one generation to the next, and, since the invention of the camera, the draughtsman and the painter are no longer needed to provide visual documentation; they have, consequently, become “pure” arts, that is, gratuitous activities . . . . In the purely gratuitous arts . . . our century has no need, I believe, to be ashamed of its achievements, and in its production of purely utile and functional articles . . . it surpasses every previous age. But whenever it attempts to combine the gratuitous and the utile, to fabricate something which shall be both functional and beautiful, it fails utterly.
Thus Auden has a diagnosis but no prescription for cure: he cannot envision any changes in our world that would restore the arts to the usefulness he believes they once had.
People who nowadays teach and write about literature for a living seem to be prone to the same kind of uneasiness that afflicted Auden and Milosz. The doctrines of literary autonomy have had consequences not only for writers and readers, but also for teachers and students. The current ideological ferment in literary studies—the heated arguments about the political effects of literature and literary study, the increasing skepticism about the validity of purely aesthetic categories, and so on—has been generated by the same social and cultural forces that caused Auden’s nostalgia for a poetic World That Time Forgot. But the arguments prompted by this admirable desire to reconnect the teaching, as well as the writing, of literature with “the great human family” have so far been fruitless, dominated by rhetorical posturing, name-calling, claiming of the moral high ground, and other tactics that contribute little to the potential resolution of the debate, or even to mutual comprehension by the antagonists. This fruitlessness, moreover, is inevitable—if for no other reason, because the vocabulary is so shallow and inflexible, and thus in need of replacement, or at least supplementation, by a language that is better able to account for what literature says to us and how we receive it. In short, we have been talking too much about politics and far too little about ethics.
First of all, using the study of literature as a means for altering the political landscape involves no small amount of hubris. Henry Louis Gates, Jr., now of Harvard University—editor of the forthcoming Norton Anthology of Afro-American Literature and a leading critic of the traditional literary canon—has stated the problem as well as any opponent might do:
The recent turn towards politics and history in literary studies has turned the analysis of texts into a marionette theater of the political, to which we bring all the passions of our real-world commitments. And that’s why it is sometimes necessary to remind ourselves of the distance from the classroom to the streets. Academic critics write essays, “readings” of literature, where the bad guys (you know, racism or patriarchy) lose, where the forces of oppression are subverted by the boundless powers of irony and allegory that no prison can contain, and we glow with hard-won triumph. We pay homage to the marginalized and the demonized, and it feels almost as if we’ve righted an actual injustice.
In other words, a Marxist or feminist “reading” of a literary work is still just a reading: it may be prompted by some political cause or some righteous doctrine, but in the end it tends to be only academic business as usual.
Nor is this state of affairs new. Most newly hatched literary theories are proclaimed by their proponents to be—and at the same time are decried by their opponents for being—“revolutionary,” but the typical college classroom bears none of the battle scars conjured by the vocabulary of revolution. The most recent case of this kind was deconstruction, whose first appearance was either hailed or bewailed as a sign of the eschaton. But it didn’t work out that way. Terry Eagleton, a British Marxist critic, skewered deconstruction’s radical pretensions by noting that “there is little admirable in an authority . . . which can savour the delights of textual agnosticism precisely because it is institutionally secure, and perhaps likely to reinforce that security the more flamboyantly it parades its blindness. Others may not know, but to know that nobody knows is the most privileged knowledge conceivable, well worth trading for a handful of critical certainties.” Thus, Eagleton concludes, “Deconstruction is able to outflank every existing knowledge to absolutely no effect . . . . It cancels all the way through and leaves everything just as it was.” Now, the politically committed professor does everything he can to avoid this ethereal irrelevance—after all, as Marx said and as modern academics seem never to tire of repeating, the point is not to understand the world but to change it. But if Gates is right, then the work of the political ideologues misses that point in very much the same way as the deconstructionists do.
This is not only because a reading is just a reading, and a classroom just a classroom—as opposed to the “real world,” or as Gates would have it, “the streets.” Much political criticism, proclaiming itself to be the living repudiation of formal or structural analyses of texts, in fact mimics such formalism exactly. For despite its often formidable deployment of social and historical knowledge, political criticism tends to put that knowledge in the service of a dominant binary opposition, that between Oppressor and Oppressed, and then seeks to show what side a given text takes. In this way it resembles both Russian formalism and French structuralism, which sought to identify the component parts of a text (usually seeking matching pairs: High/Low, Light/Dark, Helper/Opponent) and then analyze their relations—except that contemporary criticism is much more conscious of the hierarchical tendency that such pairs tend to have. So the same literary critics who proclaim themselves revolutionaries spend a good portion of their time arguing about whether Jane Austen’s fiction serves as an ideological prop for the repressive patriarchy of Regency England (in which case she stands condemned with the Oppressors) or slyly and surreptitiously subverts that tyrannical order (in which case she may properly speak for the Oppressed).
Of course, genuine oppression does go on in the world, and the road that leads you to subtle arguments about how, say, slaves in the American South in the 1830s were somehow complicit in their own oppression, while the slave-owners were in a way victims themselves, is a dangerous road indeed. But the opposition between Oppressor and Oppressed is not, as so many literary critics seem to think, a fulcrum upon which the whole world of discourse can be lifted.
A specific example may help clarify this point. The now-famous first novel of the Nigerian writer Chinua Achebe, Things Fall Apart (1958), is regularly cited as a great protest against colonialism and cultural imperialism. It is indeed that, and yet it is at the same time a profound critique of the features of Achebe’s own Ibo culture which made that culture both ripe for conquest and susceptible to the arguments of Christian missionaries. Achebe says quite openly that one of the reasons Christianity succeeded among many of his people (including his own father) is that it called attention to the fundamental injustice of some Ibo traditions: for instance, excluding some people from the community as osu (ritually unclean outcastes), or leaving twins to die in the forest because they were thought to be evil. This kind of social criticism from within his culture is an important feature of Achebe’s novel, indeed of all his novels, but it is almost always neglected by Western commentators because its complexity doesn’t fit their critical categories. Achebe’s books, while never relativistic or politically ambivalent, simply cannot be broken down into a neat, blunt opposition between the Oppressors and the Oppressed.
Nor is the problem with these categories merely that they are simplistic. What is far more damaging about most political criticism is the way it can conceive of human action only in socio-cultural terms—it cannot recognize personal moral agency. The Oppressor/Oppressed dichotomy will be appealing only to people who cannot conceive of human action except in the limited terminology of groups and classes. Such thinking constitutes politics without ethics, and politics without ethics can at best give a woefully incomplete account of the hows and whys of human action. In other words, what chiefly afflicts current political criticism is a widespread and uncritical acceptance of social constructionism: the belief that human identity is solely the product of social, historical, and cultural forces and therefore the notion of the human “person” or “subject” must be abandoned or at least deconstructed. As Richard Rorty puts it, with his typical disarming clarity and directness, “Socialization goes all the way down.” (The same deconstruction of the person can of course be based on racial and sexual distinctions; and while arguments that depend on race and gender are not precisely identical to those of social constructionism, their logic is quite similar.) Thus many critics use a strictly political vocabulary because for them that has become the only vocabulary available; they have no ethical vocabulary, i.e., a vocabulary of moral agency, because they don’t believe in moral agents. Rorty himself has recently tried to articulate some kind of ethics for social constructionism, but with very poor, sometimes ludicrous, results; and even the effort is unusual.
Without going into a lengthy critique of social constructionism, we find two things worth noting. First, there is the question of cultural anthropology, from which much of the impetus for social constructionism derives. Maurice Bloch, himself a cultural anthropologist, has pointed out (in Ritual, History, and Power) that the members of his profession have a deep personal and professional investment in finding what makes cultures different, and no investment at all in finding what makes them alike. There is, then, a natural tendency for the anthropological literature—without being either dishonest or intentionally misleading—to suggest the fundamental diversity of cultures while at the same time obscuring their common beliefs, habits, and concerns. And academics are all too ready to welcome uncritically any research which generates distinctions that can be turned into books and essays. As Frederick Crews has noted, it is remarkable how few academics, when confronted with the sweeping assertions of a Foucault or a Lyotard, ask the simple question, “Why should I believe that?”
Second, the belief in a universal human nature has been a powerful force for good in the last two centuries. It is difficult to imagine that Frederick Douglass’ and Harriet Tubman’s arguments for the abolition of slavery and the equality of blacks under the law of the United States would ever have made much headway without their compelling appeals to a human nature shared by people regardless of skin color; and one could say the same about the thoroughly humanistic feminist arguments made by, say, Mary Wollstonecraft and Margaret Fuller. Those who want to discard such convictions now, in the belief that they have lost their usefulness—and this group includes not just Rorty but also many feminists and Afrocentrists—should remember that for Douglass and Tubman and Wollstonecraft and Fuller “human nature” and “human dignity” were not mere concepts to be “used,” but rather foundational beliefs forged in the crucible of hard and painful experience.
One is tempted to suspect, then, that belief in social constructionism, with its repudiation of the idea of a common human nature, is a luxury that many people can’t afford; it is likely to be appealing only to self-professed skeptics in Western societies who, deep down and despite all their protests to the contrary, know their credentials as persons to be safe from interrogation. The really significant question here is whether the abandonment of the ideas of human nature and the human person might, in the long run, eventually put those credentials in danger. As Elizabeth Fox-Genovese has written in Feminism Without Illusions, “If we need a justice sensitive to the variations of gender, race, and class, we also need one that can transcend or at least discipline them. For without such an ideal, how do we expect to avoid Hobbes’ nightmare of society as ‘the warre of all against all’?”
If, then, the vast claims of social constructionism fail to compel, we might well consider whether a vocabulary that takes cognizance of personal agency might do a better job of describing how and why we really act—and in the process do a much better job of describing what happens in literary works, and of describing how those works can shape the lives of us, their readers.
Which brings up yet another difficulty for the ideologically and politically minded. That literary works can shape the lives of their readers is for many critics precisely the problem. For many teachers today understand their job to be the liberation of their students from the power that books have over them. A classic example of this impulse comes from Robert Scholes’ influential book Textual Power, subtitled “Literary Theory and the Teaching of English.”
The students who come to us now exist in the most manipulative culture human beings have ever experienced. They are bombarded with signs, with rhetoric, from their daily awakenings until their troubled sleep, especially with signs transmitted by the audio-visual media . . . .What students need from us—and this is true of students in our great universities, our small colleges, and our urban and community colleges—what they need from us now is the kind of knowledge and skill that will enable them to make sense of their worlds, to determine their own interests, both individual and collective, to see through the manipulations of all sorts of texts in all sorts of media, and to express their own views in some appropriate manner . . . .
In an age of manipulation . . . the worst thing we can do is foster in them an attitude of reverence before texts . . . . What is needed is a judicious attitude: scrupulous to understand, alert to probe for blind spots and hidden agendas, and finally, critical, questioning, skeptical.
Though his concern for the influence of the media is admirable, it would appear that the only kind of relationship Scholes can imagine between a text and a reader is one of power: either the reader is manipulated by a text, falls under its sway, becomes subject to its power, or he exerts his own power, the power of interpretation and analysis, over that threatening text. Scholes thereby provides a literary theory for Hobbes’ “warre of all against all.” This makes sense as an account of how to respond to genuinely manipulative media, such as advertisements and political or social propaganda (in which category, one can certainly, especially nowadays, place many works of “literature”), but do we really want to universalize this account of interpretation? When I think about the books I teach—looking at my desk I see Ved Mehta’s memoir The Ledge Between the Streams, Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, Richard Rodriguez’ autobiography Hunger of Memory—I find that Scholes’ account of “textual power” simply fails to describe my experience and, I believe, that of most of my students. Scholes wants his students to be able to “make sense of their worlds”—but can’t we all point to books that, far from threatening to undermine that effort, have actually been enormously helpful to it? Scholes wants his students to “determine their own interests” and “express their own views,” but haven’t we all read books that helped us to understand what our interests are and helped us to form our views? Clearly, we need to be able to think about our reading experiences in more ways than the exclusively militaristic one that Scholes offers.
Another example: in an essay called “When Eve Reads Milton,” Christine Froula seeks to outline a feminist critique of Milton’s Paradise Lost—and by extension, of the whole standard academic canon. She argues that we can employ new strategies of reading these canonical texts that expose the “structures of authority” deep inside them, thereby engaging in “a kind of collective psychoanalysis.” “In so doing, we approach traditional texts not as the mystifying (and self-limiting) ‘best’ that has been thought and said in the world but as a visible past against which we can imagine a different future.” For Froula, we can learn from the past, but what we learn is strictly negative: the past (or at least the past represented by the traditional canon) is no more than a catalogue of sin and error which, through careful study and vigilant self-monitoring, we may be able to avoid repeating. And there is no doubt that Froula’s catalogue of Milton’s sins and errors is pretty convincing: for all his greatness as a poet, his misogyny is obvious and repulsive. But surely the determination to understand all of literary history (or even all of Milton) in these prosecutorial terms is at least as “self-limiting” as the Arnoldian idea of exposing oneself to “the best that has been thought and said.” Like Scholes’ notion of textual power, Froula’s conception of literary history fails to account for the elements of our reading experience that cannot be explained by reference to power relations.
By way of contrast to the thinking of Scholes and Froula, we might consider the belief of the Kentucky poet and farmer Wendell Berry that the tragedy of literary education today is that “teachers and students read the great songs and stories to learn about them, not learn from them.” We talk and write about literature “as if we do not care, as if it does not matter, whether or not it is true.” Now in one sense Froula would agree with Berry: she too wants to learn from “the great songs and stories,” but chiefly to learn what not to do. Berry obviously means something different: he clearly believes that these “great songs and stories” have been called great because of the weight of truth that they carry. Whereas Froula and Scholes want us to test literature against our own personal standards, Berry wants us to test ourselves against the standards of great literature. Berry’s willingness to be taught, his respect for the possibility that those who have walked the earth before him could have learned something valuable, marks an invigorating alternative to the dark visions of Scholes and Froula; nevertheless, one misses in Berry’s picture an acknowledgment of the value of the reader’s response, of disagreement and critique. No work of literature, however “classical,” exhibits wisdom on every subject that it considers; to consider Milton again, one may rejoice in his brilliant evocation of the difference between unfallen and fallen sexuality, yet be properly dismayed by his belief that Adam was made “for God only,” Eve, “for God in him.”
Might it be possible, then, to avoid both Berry’s temptation to excessive reverence and Scholes and Froula’s tendency to cynicism, and to see the literary experience as a simultaneous testing, measuring, of the book and the reader? To ask this question, I believe, is to begin to think ethically about literature. In so doing, we go beyond a vague and essentially content-free reverence for “the classics”; beyond simplistic political polarities; beyond reductive Nietzschean assertions about Power. But what, then, are we getting into? Is there anyone who can describe for us, map out for us, this somehow familiar yet exceedingly complex terrain? As it happens, there has in recent years been a serious renewal of interest in the old and honorable discipline of ethical criticism; and the leaders of this renewal deserve our attention.
We might begin with Wayne Booth, because his book The Company We Keep: An Ethics of Fiction is the starting point for any serious reflection on this subject, a storehouse of information about ethical criticism. In fact, the most important thing to note about it is precisely that, that it is a storehouse. The Company We Keep is a big book, over five hundred pages. Its chapters vary widely in theme and scope. There is a general defense of ethical criticism, an excursus on myths, and reflections on several controversial authors. In addition, the book contains a virtual anthology of quotations about the ethical implications of reading and writing, along with a positively enormous bibliography (in fact, by my count, the quotations and bibliographical entries combined take up a full ninety-six pages in the book). Booth seems to be attempting to provide as full a representation as he can muster of what he calls “a banned discipline,” ethical criticism. The literature of this discipline is so scattered and neglected that Booth has taken it upon himself to gather up the scatterings and bind them together, so that the lengthy and impressive history of ethical reflection about literature can be seen in proper perspective. The apparent sloppiness and patched-together look of the book masks what is in fact its fundamental purpose: not to sustain a single argument, but to give new life to an old and valuable way of thinking about literature.
This is not to say that Booth does not have arguments to make, and important ones, too. One position he explores, for example, to provide a way around the impasse of sheer power versus sheer piety is an argument for the notion of books as friends. Now, one of the things especially admirable about Wayne Booth is his willingness to present this notion quite seriously—though he is no doubt perfectly aware that many of us will immediately recall kindly first-grade teachers admonishing us in gentle tones: “Books are our friends, so let’s take good care of them.” Well, Booth seems to be saying, books—many books, anyway—are our friends. But this is no sentimental notion of friendship: it is, to the contrary, grounded in Aristotle’s complex and sophisticated analysis of the motives for and consequences of friendship; it is constantly aware of the many varieties of friendship and our ways of assessing good and bad friends; and it acknowledges that friendships may develop, or end, unexpectedly.
Booth’s notion of books as friends is important for our concerns here because, as I suggested earlier, it teaches us that we don’t have to think of our reading solely as a power struggle for control of our minds. His model of reading and criticism is, in a word, dialogical, because each party brings something to the meeting: statements and counterstatements are made, proposals are examined and discussed, gifts are offered and accepted or declined. And just such a dialogical approach is necessary if genuine and meaningful ethical reflection is to arise from our reading experiences.
As the Russian genius Mikhail Bakhtin has pointed out, literature particularly invites such dialogical response, and therefore literature particularly invites ethical reflection. Booth’s book tells us how we might bring ethical reflection into the classrooms in which we study, or the books in which we write about, literature. But we can turn that idea around, and in the process turn the argument of this essay around: Bakhtin’s ideas suggest that we also need to bring literature into whatever ethical thinking we already do.
When in college, I took a course in Ethics—this is an all-too-familiar experience for those like me who attended college in the seventies—and the teacher’s typical technique was to introduce a scenario, a little story intended to illustrate ethical conflict, and then break us up into small groups in which we would argue about how to solve the problem. The sorts of scenarios he used are well-known: there are twelve people in a lifeboat but only enough food and water for six, so how do we decide who should live and who should be tossed overboard? Do we save the welfare mother of five or the neurosurgeon? I always enjoyed arguing about these scenarios—after all, how many of us can resist the offer to play God, to separate Those Who Shall Live from Those Who Shall Die?—and, perhaps for that reason, it never occurred to me to ask why these scenarios so little resembled the ethical decisions I made in my own life. How often is any of us faced with an ethical choice in which we know (or even think we know) all the relevant information necessary to make a decision? In real life our choices are much more complex: our information is neither complete nor certain, and our understanding of the potential consequences of our decisions tends to be pretty shaky. For these reasons, Bakhtin has argued, it is in literature, and particularly the great novels, that the most accurate and useful accounts of our moral lives may be found. In the words of Gary Saul Morson and Caryl Emerson, “If ethics were an object of knowledge, then philosophy would be the best moral education. But ethics is a matter not of knowledge, but of wisdom. And wisdom, Bakhtin believed, is not systematizable.” The great novels are an education in just such wisdom.
A perfect example of what Bakhtin is talking about may be found in the greatest of all English novels, George Eliot’s Middlemarch. The moral agent here is the physician Lydgate, who is in charge of an infirmary that is in need of a chaplain. Lydgate is on the committee that will decide, by vote, who that chaplain will be. There are two candidates: one, Mr. Tyke, whom Lydgate does not know, but who is strongly supported by Mr. Bulstrode, the man who hired Lydgate and pays his salary; the other, Mr. Farebrother, whom Lydgate knows and likes, but about whose religious calling and moral seriousness Lydgate has some doubts. Now, when Lydgate arrives at the meeting during which the vote will be taken . . .
But clearly this is not going to work. In my description I have already had to leave out Lydgate’s earlier conversation with Mr. Bulstrode on the subject, and though I have said that Lydgate likes Mr. Farebrother I have not explained how he came to know him, or what precisely his doubts about Farebrother consist of; nor have I said anything about what Mr. Farebrother’s own attitude toward his candidacy is, or about his understanding of Lydgate’s difficult position, or about what he has said to Lydgate on these subjects. And George Eliot’s account of the meeting itself is quite carefully drawn and takes up about a dozen pages, and any mere summary of it would be an injustice too. In the end, I could only use this passage from Middlemarch to illustrate Bakhtin’s argument about the ethical power of great novels if I could cite the whole section of the book relating to Lydgate’s decision; but of course, my very inability to squeeze Eliot’s deep and subtle moral analysis into a few paragraphs of an essay proves as well as anything could Bakhtin’s point.
Readers of Middlemarch know that, in the end, Lydgate’s conscience cannot survive his society’s constant pressure towards compromise and conformity—perhaps his vote for Mr. Tyke marks the beginning of his descent. And this is one of the reasons why another figure in the pantheon of ethical criticism, Robert Coles, assigns Middlemarch to his students at Harvard Medical School. One of his former students, after becoming a doctor, spoke to Coles about his recollections of his reading:
“There are days when I think of George Eliot and her Lydgate, and I come to the conclusion that lots of us doctors fool ourselves very easily, and that’s what Middlemarch has to say to me now, just as it did back then. But maybe there’s hope. I remember the end of the novel, when she pointed out that you never do know how a life will turn out. (I’m sure paraphrasing!) Well, maybe my friend Lydgate will help me turn the corner—go after what I think is right for me to do, for the sake of my wife and son, and for my own sake, too. I’d hate to end up a driven, driven ‘success,’ who is bored by what he does, but is always postponing any moral confrontation with himself!”
How easily such a response could be deconstructed. How quickly and surgically could a practiced critic expose the naïveté of this man’s un-confronted assumptions about meaning, textuality, and the dysfunctional logic of late capitalism. But the same critics who are so quick to dismantle the way Coles and his student think about literature are exceedingly reluctant to interrogate their own discomfort with and resentment of such naïveté. Could such discomfort be that of the professional faced with the student amateur’s claim to use a book in a way not certified by the professional bureaucracy, such resentment that of the carefully trained specialist faced with Coles the generalist?
These are certainly distinctions for which Coles cares little. Indeed, Coles teaches a series of courses at Harvard—in the college, the business school, the Kennedy School of Government, and the law school, as well as the medical school—whose reading lists are comprised exclusively of literary works. (Middlemarch is on several of these lists, so comprehensive is its inquiry into the roots of moral action.) Literature for Coles is a wonderfully versatile tool, useful to him in any number of the tasks he takes on in his academic garden: stories can be counted on to stimulate ethical reflection when other texts seem helpless.
To be sure, the moral pilgrimage of Coles’ student cannot simply be endorsed: he speaks of what he thinks is right for him to do, but we don’t learn what that is, or whether what’s right for him is right for others. Still, it is clear that his comments place us in a wholly different, and far richer, world than the one invoked by Henry Louis Gates’ “marionette theater of the political.” The ethical, dialogical approach to reading and criticism fostered in their different ways by Booth, Bakhtin, and Coles is far superior to that marionette theater—superior in its comprehension of literary works, superior in its accounts of the human person and of the workings of moral agency.
Yet something may be missing. In the commitment that these writers share to dialogue, to conversation, there is a tendency to forget the matter of ends. Why are we conversing? What purpose will this dialogue serve? Will it even in a minor and indirect way help us—a question I hope all Jews and Christians ask—to do justly, and love mercy, and walk humbly with our God? These are important questions, because even if the dialogical approach is conducive to ethical reflection, how happy can we be with that reflection if it in turn doesn’t change the way we act?
This is a problem that Coles seems particularly sensitive to. He quotes a magnificent passage from Anton Chekhov’s story “Gooseberries,” in which the protagonist, Ivan Ivanych, talks about the despair that comes upon him when he confronts a genuinely happy man (who happens to be his brother):
Behind the door of every contented, happy man there ought to be someone standing with a little hammer and continually reminding him with a knock that there are unhappy people, that however happy he may be, life will sooner or later show him its claws, and trouble will come to him—illness, poverty, losses, and then no one will see or hear him, just as now he neither sees nor hears others. But there is no man with a hammer. The happy man lives at his ease, faintly fluttered by small daily cares, like an aspen in the wind—and all is well.
Confronted with Ivan Ivanych’s wish, Coles asks: “How do we find that ‘hammer’ for ourselves? . . . Perhaps (and this is a gloomy thought) the best of us are in the tradition of . . . Dr. Chekhov: we are seized by spasms of genuine moral awareness, but we are pliant as aspens in our capacity to accommodate to the prevailing rhythms of the world we inhabit.” And one danger of the dialogical/ethical approach to literature is just its tendency to accommodate itself to those “prevailing rhythms.” We may enjoy the ethical conversation so deeply, and feel so strongly the need to defend the values of dialogue and conversation, that we forget to ask whether the conversation has a point other than its own continuation.
This is a question that we need to ask Wayne Booth, who, despite the importance of his defense of ethical criticism, has a distressing tendency to back away from the natural consequences of his own approach. For many years Booth has been an articulate and determined advocate of critical pluralism against what he believes to be the very powerful temptations to narrow-mindedness and dogmatism in literary criticism. But as Martha Nussbaum has pointed out, “pluralism” is a word with many meanings, and she contends that Booth uses the word in at least five different ways in The Company We Keep. Some of these usages Nussbaum finds acceptable, even admirable: for instance, Booth’s claim that we should not try to limit the potential ways in which certain books can be good for us, because there are many different goods which it is legitimate to pursue. But Booth conceives of pluralism in other ways that Nussbaum finds troublingly inconsistent with Booth’s emphasis on ethics. For instance, he is so careful not to appear dogmatic that he seems to refer even to his critique of racism as mere elements of his personal “ideology.” To this tendency Nussbaum replies, quite rightly: “First of all, it will not work. Many people will hate this book and will call Booth a reactionary; that is the price he will pay for his defense of reason. Second, it sells out his position. Antiracism, by Booth’s own account, is not just his ‘ideology.’ It is an ethical position both defensible and defended by rational argument.”
Perhaps one of the reasons both Nussbaum and Coles see the dangers of an overly pluralistic, a merely conversational, ethical criticism better than Booth does is that, quite simply, they are not English professors: Coles is a doctor, Nussbaum a philosopher. Neither of them has a professional investment in maintaining the reputation of literature or literary studies as such. Literature for each of them is a resource, a very valuable resource to be sure, but essentially a help, an aid—something to help them in their quest to think better about goodness and to act upon what they think. This way of considering literature can make some English professors uncomfortable: they may feel that it debases literature, makes it the mere handmaiden of other academic disciplines. But is such service really so bad? What would George Eliot have preferred: to be the subject of more professional “readings” or to be read by medical students who find themselves confronted (perhaps for the first time) with the real moral consequences of their professional choices? What Nussbaum and Coles remind us is that literature is simply too important to be left only in the hands of literature professors.
Is there an inconsistency in that last paragraph? At one moment to call literature a mere “tool” and at the next to pronounce it too important to be left to literature professors? The contradiction is only apparent. Auden was right when he claimed that if a poet could make poems both beautiful and useful, he or she would be fulfilling a higher calling than any imagined by the priests of the autonomous imagination. Similarly, Nussbaum contends not only that moral philosophy needs literature, but also that there is a very important sense in which literature needs moral philosophy, or rather, needs for its own fulfillment to be taken seriously as a vehicle of moral knowledge. Thinking of a favorite passage of hers, one in which David Copperfield remembers his unhappy childhood and the time he spent “reading, as it were, for life,” Nussbaum writes:
We do “read for life,” bringing to the literary texts we love . . . our pressing questions and perplexities, searching for images of what we might do and be, and holding these up against the images we derive from our knowledge of other conceptions, literary, philosophical, and religious. And the further pursuit of this enterprise through explicit comparison and explanation is not a diminution of the novels at all, but rather an expression of the depth and breadth of the claims that those who love them make for them.
In other words, the best way we can demonstrate our love for great books is to use them in our search to discover “what we might do and be.” Paradoxically, the elevation of literature to a quasi-sacred status, protected from the messiness of our historical lives and severed from “the great human family,” diminishes literature just as much as the severely prosecutorial power-criticism of Scholes and Froula.
But Nussbaum’s ethics makes no room for religious experience and belief; thus it too must be supplemented. Consider, therefore, a passage from the first book of Augustine’s On Christian Doctrine:
Some things are to be enjoyed, others to be used, and there are others which are to be enjoyed and used. Those things which are to be enjoyed make us blessed. Those things which are to be used help and, as it were, sustain us as we move toward blessedness in order that we may gain and cling to those things which make us blessed. If we who enjoy and use things, being placed in the midst of things of both kinds, wish to enjoy those things which should be used, our course will be impeded and sometimes deflected, so that we are retarded in obtaining those things which are to be enjoyed, or even prevented altogether, shackled by an inferior love.
The love of books is, in Augustine’s scheme, an inferior love, but that does not mean it must be an inappropriate one. It is only when that love loses sight of its inferiority, becomes an end in itself, that it “shackles” us. When we use that love and those books to pursue a better life, indeed to pursue blessedness—and there are many and varied ways in which we may use them in that pursuit—then our reading may be wondrously healthy and life-giving. The rigid orthodoxies of current political criticism, the obsessive wrestling over textual power by writers and readers, may seem to aid in that quest, but in fact they only impede it. The ethically-impelled reading championed by Booth and Coles and Bakhtin and Nussbaum is sloppy, uncertain, and often confusing; it has no specific theoretical program nor a precisely calibrated methodology. But until literary theory produces its own Augustine, or until we start paying attention to the old one, these are our best instructors in the difficult art of “reading for life.”
Alan Jacobs, a frequent contributor to First Things, teaches in the English Department at Wheaton College.
We launched the First Things 2023 Year-End Campaign to keep articles like the one you just read free of charge to everyone.
Measured in dollars and cents, this doesn't make sense. But consider who is able to read First Things: pastors and priests, college students and professors, young professionals and families. Last year, we had more than three million unique readers on firstthings.com.
Informing and inspiring these people is why First Things doesn't only think in terms of dollars and cents. And it's why we urgently need your year-end support.
Will you give today?