I noticed recently both Stephanie and Dorothy W posting wonderful pieces on books as friends, but today I wanted to return to the notion of ethical criticism with a view to considering books that become the enemy. Ethical criticism (as proposed by Wayne Booth) suggests that we can assess the literary company we keep in terms of the ethical stances taken by books. Because books affect us so deeply, it becomes culturally urgent to explore the beliefs that quietly influence the narrative, as they can sometimes provide a disquieting backdrop to the surface action. For instance, Martha Nussbaum recounts how Booth was motivated to create a new form of ethical criticism following the reaction of his young, black teaching colleague, Paul Moses, to Huckleberry Finn. Moses refused to teach the book because ‘Its assumptions about the proper relations of liberated slaves toward whites and its distorted portrayals of blacks seemed to him “just bad education”.’ Initially, Booth found it hard to comprehend his colleague’s position, but eventually he realised that not only is he right to take this stance, but that it is imperative we assess all literature for its ethical implications.
I feel profoundly conflicted about this approach: on the one hand I warmly embrace any form of ideological thinking that encourages respect, understanding and tolerance in our increasingly aggressive and fractured world. On the other hand, I see students arriving at my university every year for whom political correctness is the only approach to literature they have been taught and who in consequence produce the most unthinking and trite analysis of the works they are given. Perhaps it’s unfair to call the students to my aid here. Let’s return instead to Huckleberry Finn. When I read the book, I was naturally aware of a highly complex portrayal of race relations, but I didn’t feel it was my place, as a white, middle-class, educated woman living in the 21st century, brought up in a predominantly white community, to tackle a reading based upon it; it would have seemed to me presumptuous. I don’t mind if other white women feel they have the necessary insight; it was just that I personally wasn’t ready to go there. Now, does that mean that my reading is inevitably incomplete and flawed? Would it only become a valid reading if I were to take on board the dimension of race embedded in the text, and thus turn the reading into something I didn’t feel was in the real sense ‘mine’?
This is in no way to suggest that ethical reading isn’t a necessary component of modern critical analysis. All stories take place within a moral universe constructed by their author, and it’s always interesting to have a look at it. What I mean by ‘moral universe’ is effectively, who wins and who loses, how are good and evil rewarded and punished? So, for instance, when my 12-year old niece returned from watching Poseidon at the cinema, she was able to tell me that it was easy to spot who was going to suffer a horrible watery death. ‘There was one man in a scene near the beginning of the film,’ she told me, ‘who pushed his way into the front of the queue and was rude. You knew he was going to get it.’ Absolutely. That’s the clear-cut, politically correct Hollywood ethic at work for you: stand in line nicely or you die. As a general rule of thumb, a work becomes more literary the more complex its moral universe. What’s interesting is that the moral universe is very fundamental to the shapeliness of fiction, however conflicted or hidden it may be: to simply put life on the page in this respect would be unreadable and unbearably depressing for the average reader. We feel cheated if conflicts are not resolved, if good does not find some kind of reward, and increasingly we are highly sensitised to the way that women, ethnic minorities, the disabled and the marginal are treated within stories.
But of course it’s the work of great literature to disturb, trouble and overturn our neat judgements about how things ought to be. It’s been a staple part of avant-garde and experimental fiction to shock and offend. Sometimes this is simply childishness, but sometimes there is a valid point to be made; it’s an unfortunate tendency of ethical thinking to slip into complacency and self-righteousness, to become prescriptive and dogmatic and, in extreme cases to deaden creativity by the imposition of blanket rules and regulations. At the same time, we can’t call ourselves card-carrying members of the human race unless we remain perpetually vigilant on ethical issues.
Another brief example: one of my all-time favourite books is Albert Camus’s The Outsider, the story of the eccentric Meursault, a Frenchman who does not cry at his mother’s funeral and refuses to tell his girlfriend that he loves her. Meursault is initially repellent to the reader because he won’t engage with emotional intelligence in his life the way we expect people to do. Instead he is entirely bound up with the sensory domain, given over to the feel of the sun and the sea and the soft crispness of the hand towel in the men’s toilets. Blind to the ethical dimension, Meursault ends up falling in with a bad lot and is therefore carrying another man’s gun when he ends up on the beach by chance in the full glare of the midday sun with the only other person in sight a young Arab man. There is implicit threat here, but it seems mostly to come from the intolerable heat of the sun. The two men engage in a strange stand off and then, as if something must occur to break the stasis, Meursault shoots and kills him.
The second part of the novel finds him in jail awaiting trial. His lawyer visits him and tries to get him to concoct a story to explain what occurred. Meursault refuses; he did what he did because of the sun, there is no other excuse for it. The priest visits him, urging him to repent and regret his actions. Meursault refuses, he wished he had not done it, but he won’t admit to feelings he doesn’t have. Over the course of these conversations I found that I was gaining a sneaking respect for Meursault’s honesty. He knows he is responsible and is prepared to face the consequences; what he will not do is tell half-truths the way society wants him to, in order to save his skin. In the end Meursault will go to the gallows for his actions, but he does so having had time to transform his unthought instinctual relationship to life into a considered philosophy; he loves life, just for what it is to him and he won’t tell stories that mask the simple truth in order to dress it up for public acceptance; he embraces an ethics of absolute honesty and he is willing to die for it. And Camus creates an extraordinary narrative that revolves around an act of violence that he will not dignify with a meaning. The death of the Arab can’t be made to mean something comforting; instead it is resolutely unresolved, awkward, jarring. If I love this book, it’s not because it is a pleasure to read, it’s because it is so provocative, so difficult, so uncompromising. A politically correct reading, one that would have simply to condemn outright Meursault’s unforgivable murder of an innocent Arab, would overwhelm the highly complex ethical philosophy that the novel is attempting to sketch. If I read this book as a telling indication of the company I keep, then I can easily see my own beliefs reflected in it: I cannot abide knee-jerk reactions, and easy judgements; I think every situation can only be analysed in its own particular context and history and condemnation is something I reserve for only a tiny handful of extreme cases. And what would Booth’s ethical criticism make of this novel? Nussbaum clearly rates Booth’s work very highly indeed, and it may well be that he would provide all the answers to any queries I might have – I accept I’m at a disadvantage considering his theories through Nussbaum’s (undeniably clear and sophisticated) reading of them. But one thing worries me: Nussbaum talks of the way that Booth, who loves Rabelais, is forced to concede that his works present an offensive view of women. And so ‘his esteem for Rabelais is consequently diminished.’ This is the part of ethicial criticism I am unsure about; should we ban Huckleberry Finn from the syllabus, close the book of Rabelais’ works with a sad shake of our heads? Put back on the shelf all those works that don’t live up to the demanding criteria of the twenty-first century? I’d like to know how Rabelais was supposed to have enlightened views on women, living in 17th century France. It seems to risk denying the actuality of these stories’ historical context, the social horizons in which they were produced. A final thought: I can’t feel able to undertake ethical criticism on the grounds of race, but I can and do read texts from a feminist perspective, and it always struck me that we ought to be grateful for novels from the likes of Norman Mailer. There would be no progression in ideological thought if we didn’t have stories blatantly celebrating their prejudices.