The Loving Reader

Dorothy W. over at Of Books and Bicycles mentioned only the other day Martha Nussbaum, the professor of law who writes about the interplay between philosophy and literature, and who provides some of the most coolly incisive analysis of the emotions that I’ve ever had the pleasure to read. Flicking through her Love’s Knowledge, a collected volume of her essays on intellectual history, I became caught up in the chapter entitled ‘Reading for Life’ which explores the possibility of what Nussbaum calls an ‘ethical criticism of literature’. Her analysis is based on a book by Stephen Booth, The Company We Keep: An Ethics of Fiction. As Booth describes it, ‘ethical’ here means answering the question ‘How should one live?’ by studying what sense of life is expressed in a book as a whole. This is not to reduce literature to a sprawling user’s manual or to ask it to dogmatically preach a moral code, but to trace within it stands taken for or against such negative forces as sadism, racism, sexism, sloppiness, vulgarity and trivialisation. This sifting of information is subsequently used to explore the position of the reader: what becomes of readers as they read? How do works of literature shape their desires and imaginations? Booth’s central metaphor is to understand the book as the reader’s friend, with a view to assessing our literary friendships the same way we do our real life ones: his point is that we can be judged ‘by the company we keep’. Like Aristotle, he believes that friendships are based in pleasure, usefulness and good character, and that all three inform our reading choices. However, Nussbaum points out that the distance implied in Aristotle’s description of friendship is lost in Booth’s account, overtaken by a more impassioned vocabulary ‘of erotic seduction’. This language is necessary to explain how ‘we surrender trustingly to the forms of desire in the text, allowing it, so to speak, to have its way with us’, and this ‘is crucial to his case for saying that ethical assessment is urgently required.’ If books can be so influential, then we need to consider the devices used to deploy that influence as well as judging the (un)ethical nature of literature’s content. What Nussbaum goes on to say interests me greatly:

‘But philosophical texts, on the whole, do not invite the reader to fall in love. Indeed, they repudiate that aim. They ask the reader to be wary and sceptical, examining each move and premise. Mistrust, rather than trust, is the professional norm since Socrates, if not earlier.

Texts built along these lines embody a distinctive view of what is important in communication and of how one ought to treat another human being – a view in which erotic love plays little part. Indeed, in very many philosophical works affection and friendship do not play a part either: the text repudiates the idea that any relationship at all is underway between vulnerable, incomplete, desiring human beings. […]

Novels, however, are in many cases both friendly and erotic. They both enlist the reader as a participant by sympathy and compassion, and also lure her with more mysterious and romantic charms. They ask the reader to join in a public moral world and also, at times, lure her away from that world into a more shadowy passionate world, asking her to assent, to succumb. Allowing oneself to be in some sense passive and malleable, open to new and sometimes mysterious influences, is part of the transaction and a part of its value. Reading novels, as David Copperfield learned, is a practice for falling in love. And it is in part because novels prepare the reader for love that they make the valuable contribution they do to society and to moral development.’

What is it about the process of reading that makes us so vulnerable? Even when discussing philosophy, the implication, as far as I can see, is that the language of the text covertly warns readers against foolishly laying themselves open to seduction. To repudiate a relationship is by no means the same as there being no relationship between those desiring human beings of which Nussbaum speaks. The intimate communion of reading seems to leave the reader in a state of open, undefended submission. Freud believed that transgressive, forbidden thoughts were exchanged between reader and author in the reading encounter, and that this was what made the process so enjoyable. Another vote, then, for literature as mental kissing. I’m intrigued by this lexicon of romance that seems to cover the spectrum from surreptitious seduction to subversive passion to amorous pedagogical intent. What does Nussbaum mean when she proposes that stories teach us to love? I recognise so much of my own vocabulary in this extract; I often talk of seduction and passion and love when analysing texts, and it feels natural to do so. But how far is it possible to take the romance? Can one truly fall in love with an author, or does one only ever fall in love with his or her words? Too many fascinating questions, to which I have too few answers… And if Booth is right, and we need to be protected against such amoral seductions, what would the reading process look like then? Is defended reading a viable option?

9 thoughts on “The Loving Reader

  1. I get crushes on academic writers sometimes. Joan Williams, who is a feminist legal academic is one. I just love the way she writes. She manages to meld impeccable scholarship with the perspective of an activist and at the same time you get a really strong feeling for who she is. She has shaped the way I think and live and I would love eventually to write as well as she does.

  2. She sounds fantastic. Don’t suppose she ever turns her attention to the odd novel here or there? I must say I do find that when lawyers move beyond their patch they produce some pretty fabulous stuff.

  3. I simply must read Nussbaum. I like to think about emotions and reading a lot, and she would help me tremendously. I read Alberto Manguel’s book A History of Reading recently, which brought up some of the same questions you are discussing — the relationship of writer and reader, the seductions of reading. And I very much like to think about what reading can possible teach us — or at least what it can teach readers who are open to learning something.

  4. Very interesting food for thought. When we fall in love with a human being, aren’t we really falling in love with our own idealization of who and what that person is? He/she can’t live up to it, and ultimately disappoints us, but then, we move beyond that “falling in love” feeling, fighting stridently to preserve the person we feel he/she really is, despite these faults (if we don’t just throw in the towel) and come to love in a deeper way, accepting that the person has faults, but we can see beyond them. When we fall in love with a book (or an author), it all remains in that magical “no-fault” state. We never (at least most of us don’t) meet the author (or, of course, as noted in earlier posts, we meet authors and turn into bumbling idiots, so we never get to know them), and we certainly don’t meet the characters from novels. They, then, are the one thing that stays in this “pure,” “madly-in-love” form, created simply from what our imaginations want (and maybe need) them to be. No wonder those of us who love to read so often use the word “addiction.” That state of falling in love, being able to live on no sleep, thinking life is grand, and believing you’ve finally discovered all the secrets, is so addictive; isn’t it?

  5. I’ve definitely been ‘seduced’ by those amoral writers….I loved Fante’s “Ask the Dust,” yet at the same time I was utterly appalled by his treatment of women and Hispanics. But I loved the book, loved the sentences, loved the flawed narrator. Emily’s comment about ‘no-fault’ love is really true with these writers we’ve never met. With Fante and most writers, I’ll rationalize those flaws away (“he doesn’t really believe that, he’s a product of his time,” etc). It is ‘pure,’ which is probably why most of my literary crushes have outlasted my people-crushes. I’m going to have to pick up “Love’s Knowledge” now….

  6. Wow, what a wonderful discussion! I wish I had some answers…or even some thoughts! I’m going to have to return to this subject after I’ve processed it for a bit. The idea of vulnerability and reading particularly interests me – I know my students often felt vulnerable, especially when approaching ‘difficult’ texts. Scared to get ‘it’ wrong, not open to the possibility of multiple readings. But that isn’t the kind of vulnerability you are speaking of here.

    In terms of falling in love, I used to have dreams that I met and married Mr. Darcy. How cliche and sad is that? But boy, were they good dreams!

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