'An Unbecoming Virulence:’ The Politics of the Ethical Criticism Debate

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'An Unbecoming Virulence:’ The Politics of the Ethical Criticism Debate

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  185 Simon Stow Philosophy and Literature, © 2000, 24: 185–196 Notes and Fragments UNBECOMING VIRULENCE:THE POLITICS OF THE ETHICAL CRITICISM DEBATEby   Simon Stow D espite their  familiarity with the classics,” K. K. Ruthven famously observed, “professors of literature do not appear to lead betterlives than other people, and frequently display unbecoming virulenceon the subject of one another’s shortcomings.” 1 P HILOSOPHY     AND  L ITERATURE ’ S 1998 symposium on ethical criticism might suggest, however, that Ruthven’s comments apply equally to all professors who choose to writeabout literature, regardless of their specializations. My aim in this piece will not be to add to the thinly veiled rancor which marked theexchanges in that discussion, but rather to identify—and hopefully toease—some of the tensions which might account for it. I shall do this by highlighting certain assumptions underpinning the arguments of WayneBooth, Martha Nussbaum, and Richard Posner which suggest that theirdisagreements are not so much literary as  political  , in the broadest senseof that term, meant to encapsulate not simply matters of policy but larger questions about human nature and the structure of society. It isthese political commitments which, I shall argue, provide the frame- work and set the limits on the ethical criticism debate. Only by recognizing the impact of these commitments, I will suggest, can wehope to move forward in our attempts to gain an understanding of thepotential role for literature in our moral and political life.The ethical criticism debate, as formulated by the writers understudy, revolves around two key issues: first, whether or not it is everappropriate to judge a literary work on ethical grounds; and second, “  186 Philosophy and Literature  whether or not reading particular novels will make one a better citizenof a democratic polity. As we shall see, however, the two issues are very closely interrelated. The fi rst aspect of the debate —  whether or not onecan or should judge literary works on ethical grounds — is largely theconcern of Richard Posner and Wayne Booth. In his book The Company We Keep  , 2 Booth sets out a rich conception of ethical criticism centeredaround the metaphor of friendship: by associating with certain types of characters in fi ction, he believes, we can become better people.Consequently, he suggests, we can and should judge books on ethicalgrounds according to whether or not they promote particular values which we hold dear. Central to this undertaking is, he argues, “ coduction, ”  the process by which we come to an agreement of theethical value of a text in conversation with others. Ethical criticism isnot then, Booth suggests, a solipsistic enterprise. For Richard Posner,on the other hand, reading appears to be an entirely private affair.Making literature a subject of public debate, especially in conjunction with some notion of ethical criticism, raises for him the specter of government regulation. Fear of censorship is not, however, Posner ’ ssole reason for rejecting Booth ’ s claims. He identi fi es himself as anaesthete and cites his support for Oscar Wilde ’ s famous dictum that: “ there is no such thing as a moral or an immoral book. Books are well written or badly written. That is all. ” 3  Consequently Posner appearsunwilling to brook any suggestion that we might ever judge a text onethical grounds.Given the entrenched positions of both protagonists in this con fl ict it is perhaps unsurprising that their debate proves so unproductive. At times the discussion is reduced to exchanging barbs — Posner fi ndssome of Booth ’ s examples “ hilarious, ” 4  while Booth puzzles over the “ deep inconsistency  ” 5  of Posner ’ s stated position — and, it might benoted, the tone of this exchange is mild when compared to that between Posner and Nussbaum. 6  Even when the writers do try toengage one another, however, it often appears as if they are speakingdifferent languages. A case in point is Booth ’ s attempt to demonstratethat Posner ’ s criticism is ethical rather than aesthetic by rewriting great  works of literature. Booth believes that much of Posner ’ s criticism isactually ethical   criticism and aims to prove as much by seeking to changethe ethics of particular pieces, such as Keats ’ s “ Ode to Melancholy, ”  while leaving their aesthetics intact. Booth believes that he can achievethis (considerable) feat by changing speci fi c words in the texts of poems, words which, he believes, do nothing to alter the aesthetics of   187 Simon Stow the text, but which nevertheless change its moral message. In suchcircumstances, Booth concludes, Posner would be forced to admit that he preferred the srcinal to the revised version, and this, argues Booth,is an ethical   rather than an aesthetic   judgment. This rather strange claimis, perhaps, best explained by noting Booth ’ s belief that artistic appre-ciation is a matter of appreciating something about the artist   ratherthan the art. In the case of The Merchant of Venice  , for example, Boothsketches out alternative versions in which Shylock is made alternatively more and less anti-Semitic, and argues that in preferring the work of the real Shakespeare (as he believes Posner would), Posner would bemaking an ethical judgment, one predicated upon his valuing the ethos  of the srcinal author.That Booth ’ s arguments here can be so easily refuted suggests that this excursion into word replacement and play rewriting is somethingof a blind alley as far as the ethical criticism debate goes. In the fi rst instance, comments such as: “ There is no way in which the word ‘ stroke ’ is more ugly than ‘ feed ’”  ( BEC  , p. 385) suggest  — paradoxically giventhe quality of Booth ’ s other critical work — little genuine appreciationfor poetry. His belief that in changing the words of a poem he is not  — because he is not changing the rhyme or the meter — thereby alteringthe poem ’ s aesthetic is, as Posner points out: “  Absurd! ”  ( AEC2  , p. 406).It is not just modesty which leads me to believe that the lines: “ In theroom the women come and go / Talking of Mister Simon Stow  ”  are lessbeautiful, less allusive and less evocative than Eliot  ’ s srcinal. Similarly,Booth ’ s alternate versions of The Merchant of Venice   are merely hypotheti-cal, and when faced with a choice between a classic text and an as-yet-unwritten version, most people would probably choose the existingtext, especially if it has survived for 400 years. Their choice would, Ibelieve, have little to do with the author and his ethos, and rather moreto do with the qualities of the text. As such, Booth ’ s counterexamplesappear to prove little. Furthermore, his assertion that we admire anartist like Duchamp because we admire his “ fuck-the-traditionalistsethos ”  ( BEC  , p. 379) may be true, but it does not generalize for allartists and for all art. 7  Indeed, admiring the ethos of Andy Warholbecause his silk screen of Marilyn Monroe recently sold for more than$17 million (another Booth example, BEC  , p. 379) would seem to besomething of a second-order response to the work, especially to thoseof us who appreciate the colors and compositions of Warhol ’ s silk-screens.If, however, Booth fails to prove his point that all criticism is, or  188 Philosophy and Literature should be, ethical   criticism, Posner ’ s arguments are far from convincing.There is, in fact, something very plausible to the claim that, despitehimself, Richard Posner does indeed indulge in ethical criticism,though not necessarily along the lines set out by Wayne Booth. In Law and Literature  , Posner seeks to defend his favorite authors against theclaims of Marxists, feminists, and other “ radicals ”  arguing that they seekto “ . . . borrow the prestige of great literature for political, ideologicalor ethical ends to which the literature is not germane. ” 8  The spark of ambiguity in this statement  — the possibility that there may well bepolitical values to which Posner believes they are   germane — is fanned by his later comments in defense of Shakespeare. Contrary to what new historicists and cultural materialists would have us believe, Posnerargues, Shakespeare “ . . . aspired to be, and eventually became, an ‘ establishment  ’   fi gure, and his plays seem for the most part (though with many quali fi cations and undertones) to approve establishment  values ”  ( LAL  , p. 98). Just why Posner, an avowed aesthete, feels theneed to construct and defend Shakespeare against such politicalcharges is not immediately clear, until that is, one takes a closer look at his de fi nition of the term “ aesthetic. ”   “ The aesthetic outlook is  , ”  writesPosner without the slightest hint of irony, “ a moral outlook, one that stresses the values of openness, detachment, hedonism, curiosity,tolerance, the cultivation of the self, and the preservation of a privatesphere — in short, the values of liberal individualism ”  ( AEC  , p. 2).That the debate between Posner and Booth over ethical criticismshould come down to a con fl ict over the proper de fi nition of “ ethical ’ is, perhaps, no surprise. Certainly the protagonists seem to be aware of the problem: Posner describes Booth ’ s de fi nition of “ ethical ”  as having “ promiscuous breadth ”  ( AEC2  , p. 405); while Booth notes that Oscar Wilde, Posner ’ s stated role model, was “ . . . always trying to implant new  values in place of the old ones ”  and that his “ lifetime quest could thusbe called ethical, or even moral in the broadest sense ”  ( BEC  , p. 373). I wish to argue, however, that what divides these two critics is more thande fi nitional. I wish to suggest that this con fl ict over the meaning of the word “ ethical ”  is in fact symptomatic of a much deeper divide separat-ing Booth and Posner: their rival conceptions of politics.In After Virtue  , Alasdair MacIntyre claims that “ . . . the slightly shrilltone of so much moral debate ”  arises from the fact that in ourpluralistic culture we lack shared moral assumptions, and that conse-quently arguments become a matter of “ pure assertion and counter-assertion. ” 9  Whether or not this thesis is generalizable to the culture at   189 Simon Stow large, it certainly seems to be applicable to the ethical criticism debate:all of these writers appear, at times, to be guilty of Ruthven ’ s “ unbecom-ing virulence. ”  That a lack of shared assumptions is indeed the problemis perhaps symbolized by the titles of Booth and Posner ’ s respectivearticles in the symposium. Booth ’ s “  Why Banning Ethical Criticism is aSerious Mistake, ”  for example, bespeaks a (political) world in whichbeing against   something is akin to seeking to have it banned  . This isclearly not the more cosmopolitan polity of Posner ’ s article “  Against Ethical Criticism, ”  where, like the good liberal 10  that he is, Posneraccepts the existence of ethical criticism, but simply notes that “ . . . thepolitical are not the best   terms in which to understand and enjoy  ” particular novels ( AEC2  , p. 401, my emphasis). It is not just the titles of Booth and Posner ’ s articles, however, which indicate their respectivepolitical differences: almost everything that they say puts these writers fi rmly into an Aristotelian or a liberal camp, and it is to thesedifferences that we should turn when seeking to explain their differingapproaches to literary criticism. In the case of Wayne Booth, it is Booth ’ s political Aristotelianism which informs his literary-critical perspective. Taking the Aristotelianmetaphor of friendship as the model for his  political   community  — Booth believes that we seek friendship with others through ourdiscussion of texts in a process he calls “ coduction ”— he applies thesame metaphor to our relationship with texts, indeed, the second part of The Company We Keep   is subtitled: “ The Making Of Friends AndCommonwealths: Criticism As Ethical Culture. ”  For Booth, readingbecomes a process by which we sort through the values of characters intexts seeking out those with whom we would wish to associate and those whom we would wish to shun, becoming, in the process, somewhat more like the characters our culture admires. It is in this fashion that Booth believes reading can make us better people, though with atypically Aristotelian twist, he also believes that we must already havethe potential for this improvement within us. “ No story, ”  he writes, “  willproduce changes in readers unless they are already in some respect susceptible to a given kind of in fl uence ”  ( BEC  , p. 368). Booth alsoadmits that the process by which this improvement comes about issomewhat mysterious and far from direct: “ No strictly speaking scienti fi cstudy will ever prove that a given story has been the   cause of a givenchange in any one reader, let alone that it was the   cause of a suicideepidemic. Our evidence will always consist mainly of anecdotes — most often memories or responses to stories in our early, more malleable
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