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Volume 32,

Number2
Summer 1998
Todd F. Davis and Kenneth Womack
Introduction: Reading Literature and the Ethics of
Criticism / 184
Marshall W. Gregory
Ethical Criticism: What It Is and Why It Matters /
194
Daniel R. Schwarz
The Ethics of Reading Elie Wiesels Night / 221
Adam Zachary Newton
Nothing But Face To Hell with Philosophy?:
Withold Gombrowicz, Bruno Schulz, and the
Scandal of Human Countenance / 243
Kathleen Lundeen
Who Has the Right to Feel?: The Ethics of Literary
Empathy / 261
Charles Altieri
Lyrical Ethics and Literary Experience / 272
Todd F. Davis and Kenneth Womack
Saints, Sinners, and the Dickensian Novel: The
Ethics of Storytelling in John Irvings The Cider
House Rules / 298
James Phelan
Sethes Choice: Beloved and the Ethics of Reading /
318
G. Thomas Couser
Making, Taking, and Faking Lives: The Ethics of
Collaborative Life Writing / 334
Wayne C. Booth
Why Ethical Criticism Can Never Be Simple / 351
Todd F. Davis and Kenneth Womack, Introduction: Reading Literature and the Ethics of
Criticism / 184
By emphasizing the self-reflexive nature of reading, ethical criticism encourages readers to
consider spheres of experience and cultures beyond themselves, to recognize a plurality of
human conditions and realities. Arriving on the critical-theoretical scene during an era when
poststructuralism finds itself under siege for its anti-humanistic and highly politicized
interpretive activities, the ethical paradigm provides literary theory with a means for evaluating
the status of its ideological critique. With its accent upon literary study and its wide-ranging
possibilities for intellectual and interpersonal development, ethical criticism elucidates a great
many of the ways that the life of the text intersects the life of the mind. That ethical criticism
seems to promise an enhanced sense of community is itself an encouraging prospect for the

future of literary studies.


Marshall W. Gregory, Ethical Criticism: What It Is and Why It Matters / 194
Most of us cannot evade the deep intuition that identifying with characters in stories can exert a
powerful influence on the quality and content of our own lives. To analyze how fictions exert
this influence and to assess its effects is ethical criticisms job. What literary criticism needs in
particular is a theoretical basis for inquiries into and judgments about the potential ethical
effects of literature and narrative art in general. We need theoretical grounding because
practical ethical criticism goes on all the time, often conducted in a most helter-skelter,
contradictory, and intellectually incoherent way. Some contemporary critics may want to insist
that ethical criticism is irrelevant, but ethical criticisms century-long rejection in the academy
is matched in scope only by the ceaseless talk about ethical issues that goes on inside and
outside of the academy. The persistence of these issues as foci of constant and passionate
controversy gives the lie to ethical criticisms irrelevance. We may not always know how to live
with it but we certainly cannot live without it. Ethical criticism cannot be evaded by
epistemological relativism, by emotivism, or by the view of art as mere entertainment, for none
of these views engages the overwhelming evidence both in literature and in life that imitations
of fictional models comprise an important source of conduct for most of us much of the time.
The aims of ethical criticism are to lead readers to a better and clearer understanding of certain
issues: that literary effects are always potential, never determined; that moral and ethical
criteria are unavoidable in both understanding and evaluating narratives; and that almost all
critical approaches rest to some extent on ethical presuppositions that may be silent but that are
always present. The content of ethical criticism rests on certain notions about self (ethos) and
self- or ethical-development: that human beings are always negotiating between better and
worst versions of their own ethos; that moral character is always in motion, not fixed; that the
vicarious imagination is the important mechanism that makes the actual transfer of ethical
perspectives from literary works and into the heads of readers; and that the nutritional analogy
(we become what we consume) offers one way to explain both the kind of contribution that
ethical criticism makes and its manner of making it.
Daniel R. Schwarz, The Ethics of Reading Elie Wiesels Night / 221
Readers need to differentiate between an ethic of reading and an ethics while reading. I propose
five stages of the hermeneutical activities in ethical reading and interpretation: (1) immersion
in the process of reading and the discovery of imagined worlds (2) quest for understanding (3)
self-conscious reflection (4) critical analysis (5) cognition in terms of what we know. I then
turn to Wiesels Night as an example. When we read Night, we are aware of the speakers role as
ethical witness and the moral role played by Wiesels taut, spare, parabolic style. We become
conscious of the recurring patterns: everlasting night as moral death, the disruption of fatherson ties, hunger, and fire as an image of the crematorium and ultimately the Holocaust itself.
Reflecting self-consciously on the text and learning about its publication history, we become
aware of the ethical implications of Frans Mauriacs Christian introduction and his misreading.
Wiesels own editing of the original Yiddish version also raises ethical issues about representing
Holocaust memory and trauma. Finally, I turn to the ethical implications of a parallel example
of reading Holocaust narrative: Bettelheims indictment of Anne Franks diary.
Adam Zachary Newton, Nothing But FaceTo Hell with Philosophy?: Withold
Gombrowicz, Bruno Schulz, and the Scandal of Human Countenance / 243
How can one escape from what one is, where is the leverage to come from? Witold

Gombrowicz writes. Our shape penetrates and confines us, as much as from within as from
without. The problem that Form thus introduces is also the problem of Face, and facefamiliar
to philosophers and theorists like Sartre, Levinas, Lacan, and Bakhtin as the phenomenological
site par excellence for human encounter, transference, and answerabilityboth embodies and
bespeaks a permanent scandal, a field of combat, the modernist metonymic trump card to
Culture and Autonomy alike. Bruno Schulz discovers a deep pathos in human faces too, but
unlike his fellow Pole, he links it to the pathos of metaphor and figuration generally: a
fundamental principle of transmigrated form. Using the trope of the facean admittedly minor
feature within a minor modernismthis paper suggests how we might use it to read the
simultaneously larger-in-scale, and thus link nation with narration: Europe at mid-century,
nationalism as an always unstable fixture of identity, Otherness and the minor as vicissitudes
and exigencies within Europe (or between Europes), too.

Kathleen Lundeen, Who Has the Right to Feel?: The Ethics of Literary Empathy / 261
While a show of empathy may enhance ones profile in life, it has of late raised suspicion when
directed toward fictional subjects. Writers or readers who appear to empathize with anothers
life experiences are often accused of arrogating a cultural authority to which they have no
natural claim. The question persists: to what extent is our literary engagement biologically or
culturally determined? An examination of Felicia Hemanss Indian Womans Death-Song reveals
the problematic nature of literary empathy and its ethical consequences.
Charles Altieri, Lyrical Ethics and Literary Experience / 272
Any adequate account of the ethical force potential in literary experience needs to focus on
states most clearly present in lyric experience. Traditionally, models of ethical criticism derive
from the reading of novels and stress the same principles of judgment that apply when we
make assessments of actions in ordinary situations. This situation is fine for clarifying how
moral thinking traditionally works, and even for supplementing its capacity to make
discriminations or use the force that pathos brings as an index of public concerns. But such an
approach cannot do much to show why the aesthetic dimension of literary experience matters
for ethics, and hence it cannot fully address the ways that such experience can modify our
understanding of ethos and our commitments to specific models of the qualities and levels of
intensity that might also function as aspects of our judgements about actions. So by
concentrating on the limitations of representative thinkers like Wayne Booth and Martha
Nussbaum, it may be possible to adapt a modified Nietzschean account of ethical value shaped
by how literary experience stages value for subjects.
Todd F. Davis and Kenneth Womack. Saints, Sinners, and the Dickensian Novel: The
Ethics of Storytelling in John Irvings The Cider House Rules / 298
In The Cider House Rules, John Irving self-consciously adopts the literary form of the
Dickensian novelwith its multiplicity of characters, its narrative mass, its overt sense of
sentimentality, and its generic intersections with such modes as the detective storyas the forum
for constructing the fictions that intentionally challenge his readers value systems. Noting
Irvings insistence that the novel as literary form should address something of human value,
ethical criticism highlights how Irvings own ethics of storytelling transform and determine
many of his narrative practices, especially his use of the particular. By chronicling several
major and minor characters histories in his novel with an uncanny precision and attentiveness,
Irving creates the ethical construct of characterscape, offering inroads into the very human
problem of abortion while resisting any legalistic conclusion or correct political vision.

James Phelan, Sethes Choice: Beloved and the Ethics of Reading / 318
Toni Morrison presents three different tellings of the central event of Beloved, Sethes
instinctive decision to kill her children rather than have them become slaves, but the
triangulation of those tellings does not lead to any clear signal from Morrison about how her
audience should judge that event. This unusual treatment transfers considerable ethical
responsibility to the audience even as it deepens Morrisons case about the horrors of slavery.
Morrisons narrative strategies, then, are designed to increase the affective and political power
of the novel; they also establish a special, albeit uncommon, ethical relation between implied
author and authorial audience.

G. Thomas Couser, Making, Taking, and Faking Lives: The Ethics of Collaborative Life
Writing / 334
Ethical dilemmas seem to be built into collaborative life writing in ways that are peculiar to it,
and critics and writers need to reckon more forthrightly with the economic, political, and
ethical dimensions of collaborative life writing. The ethical difficulties of collaborative
autobiography are rooted in its nearly oxymoronic status. The partners contributions are not
only different but incommensurate entitieson the one hand, lived experience mediated by
memory; on the other, the labor of eliciting, recording, inscribing, and organizing this material.
We might schematize collaborative autobiography by imagining examples as lying along a
continuum from ethnographic autobiography, in which the writer outranks the subject, to
celebrity autobiography, in which the subject outranks the writer. The inherent imbalance
between the partners contributions may be complicated by a political imbalance between them;
often, collaborations involve partners whose relation is hierarchized by some differencein race,
culture, gender, class, age, or (in the case of narratives of illness or disability) somatic
condition. The ethical dilemmas differ according to where on this continuum a particular
collaboration lies. Ethical violationsinequitiesoccur mainly in two distinct but interrelated
aspects of the projectthe portrayal and the partnership.
Wayne C. Booth, Why Ethical Criticism Can Never Be Simple / 351
This essay is one of many recent efforts to challenge two critical schools popular through much
of this century: those who think ethical judgments have nothing to do with genuine literary or
aesthetic quality, and those who think that ethical judgments about stories can never be
anything more than subjective opinion. After tracing some reasons for the neglect of ethical
criticism, I argue that to answer the schools adequately requires us to acknowledge the full
diversity of what stories do to and for us; no one critical method can do justice to more than a
fraction of them. Extending Sheldon Sackss distinction among three kinds of fiction (action,
satire, and apologue), I claim that if ethical criticism is to thrive, critics must recognize that
different modes of narrative invite or respond to radically different ethical approaches.

Introduction: Reading Literature and the Ethics of Criticism. Prema: Davis, Todd F.,
Womack, Kenneth, Style, 00394238, Summer98, Svezak. 32, Broj 2.Baza
podataka: Academic Search Complete.
INTRODUCTION: READING LITERATURE AND THE ETHICS OF CRITICISM

The heart of ethics is the desire for community.


--Tobin Siebers,
The Ethics of Criticism (1988)

The very fact that Style has published such an issue as the one that now rests in
the reader's hands will be disturbing to some in the field of literary study. Despite
(or more likely because of) the fact that numerous journals in the field have
supported, through publication, the efforts of scholars grappling with the role of
ethics in the act of reading literature--PMLA and Salmagundi, like Style, have
devoted entire issues to the discussion of art and ethics--the cry from many in
the academy is that of blasphemy.( n1) As a discipline that grew in large part out
of a feigned innocence of aesthetics, many literary scholars--even those who
accept or practice reading strategies that involve overtly ethical bases--seem to
resist the idea that the literary artifact and its reader have ethical and moral lives
that intersect at times, a relationship that does not result in mechanical
responses, but rather, as with those living creatures we come to know in the texts
of our lives, causes us to think in ways we would not have had we not
encountered them.

In The Company We Keep: An Ethics of Fiction (1998), Wayne C. Booth suggests


that ethical criticism, because of its misuse in the past to censor and repress all
kinds of literature deemed immoral by some, fell on hard times and was replaced
by various formalist theories that ignored the very real ethical or political effects
of literature. In recent decades, however, ethical criticism has enjoyed a revival
of sorts, motivated in part, Booth argues, by the work of "feminist critics asking
embarrassing questions about a male-dominated literary canon and what it has
done to the `consciousness' of both men and women; by black critics pursuing
[...] question[s] about racism in American classics; by neo-Marxists exploring
class biases in European literary traditions; by religious critics attacking modern
literature for its `nihilism' or `atheism'" ( 5). Although much of the modern era
denied the political or ethical nature of literature, claiming that in some mystical
fashion art transcended the boundaries of politics or ethics, postmodern
philosophy has demonstrated the folly in such a claim and argued that art is
indeed political, a product of societal mores and power relations. The mispractice
of ethical criticism has usually involved acts of judgment that in essence imply
that a given literary work is somehow inferior because of its system of morality;
such criticism, reductive in nature, often leads to censorship and produces no
fruitful scholarship. What Booth, among others, wishes to establish is a form of
criticism that examines a work of art in order to discover and make explicit the
moral sensibility informing that work. In On Moral Fiction (1978), John Gardner
argues that moral criticism is absolutely necessary for the health of English
studies, and, despite his often sweeping generalizations about the value of
certain artists, On Moral Fiction must be acknowledged as an important precursor

to the revival of contemporary interest in ethical criticism. Gardner's rage against


the English academy was fueled by his belief that the study of literature had
become morally bankrupt and uninterested in what is most human about
literature. Before his untimely death in 1982, Gardner used his influence as a
noted writer of fiction and as a professor of English in an effort to move the tide
of intellectual thought toward an affirmation of the mystery and beauty of life.
( n2)

If we are to accept the proposition that literature reflects human experience while
at the same time it affects it, that literature is both a product of the social order
and helps establish and maintain it, ethical criticism, in its desire to examine the
moral and ethical nature of a work of art, clearly establishes an important bond
between the life of the text and the life of the reader. This bond, however, should
never be viewed facilely or reductively. Patricia Meyer Spacks contends that while
fictional narratives offer opportunities for ethical reflection, they are not
imperatives for behavior; rather, according to Spacks, "paradigms of fiction
provide an opportunity for moral playfulness: cost-free experimentation" (203).
While it is true that reading offers, above all, the possibility of experience, or
what Spacks calls the "experience of agency or its illusion" (203), one must never
forget that those experiences acquired through the act of reading--although
powerful and affecting--should neither be feared nor repressed. Rather, the act of
reading may be understood as an activity that affords experimentation, the trying
on of new possibilities without the finality or consequences of life outside of the
reading experience. To the detriment of ethical criticism, too many critics in the
past have used this form of reading as a tool for censorship in order to imprison
works whose moral systems conflicted with their own. Reductive and confining,
such behavior has no clear benefit in the discipline of literary studies. Therefore,
as a result of critics' censorious behavior, we have witnessed a backlash against
ethical criticism, an attempt to constrain this form of literary critique. Sadly, such
efforts have prevented critics from engaging in an activity that tenders
potentially profitable readings, readings that connect our study of literary works
with the physical world beyond the text.( n3)

Robert Coles, a professor of psychiatry and medical humanities at Harvard


University, argues with great passion for interpretive modes that examine issues
of an ethical or moral nature. Suggesting that such critical methodologies offer
important contributions to daily living beyond the classroom walls, Coles
contends that "[s]tudents need more opportunity for moral and social reflection
on the problems that they have seen at first hand. [...] Students need the chance
to directly connect books to experience" (A64). Of course, even if they are not
encouraged formally, all readers inevitably make the connections of which Coles
speaks during the act of reading. Part of the human condition demands that such
activity occurs because we have no other way of interpreting sign systems and
events except through comparison to that which we have experienced cognitively
and sensuously in the past. Because humans are finite creatures who come to

understand the world through both physical and mental experience, literary
experience affords readers with opportunities that their physical lives may not.
Those experiences that do occur in the world of the literary text, however, must
still be evaluated by humans whose lives are lived beyond the confines of the
text. Literary experience does not mysteriously neutralize the ethical dimension
of human life; as ethical beings we continue to function with the same capacities
while we read a poem or novel or play as we do while we work or vacation. What
ethical criticism encourages is an awareness of such a condition. Certainly, we
will all be better readers of the ethical life of a text if we are cognizant of our own
ethical systems, as well as those of the writer, the text, and the characters in the
text. Rather than ignore such dimensions in a given text and reading experience,
ethical criticism draws us toward a deeper understanding of these dimensions
and the possibility for ethical reflection in our own lives.

Lynne Tirrell ascribes this phenomenon to a form of "moral agency" in which


literary texts urge us to project our value systems upon their narratives. "It is
through the articulation of events, motives, and characters that we become
moral agents" Tirrell argues, and "in telling stories one develops a sense of self, a
sense of self in relation to others, and a capacity to justify one's decisions" (125).
By challenging readers to reaffirm their existing moral sensibilities through their
textual experiences, ethical criticism encourages prospective students to
consider spheres of experience and cultures beyond themselves, to recognize a
plurality of human conditions and realities. By emphasizing the self-reflexive
nature of reading, ethical criticism offers a wide array of pedagogic possibilities
for educators interested in inspiring their students both to revaluate their own
value systems and to look beyond the often insular boundaries of the self. While
working with students at Middlebury College and capitalizing on such connections
in the classroom, Jay Parini explains that his "interest has been drawn to modes
of criticism that attempt to engage the world. In literary studies, what this often
boils down to is making connections between what we read in books and how we
behave in the so-called real world" (B2). Christopher Butler adds that developing
an ethical terminology for the investigation of literary works in the classroom and
beyond will allow us "to make sense of the life we actually live" (245).

Although ethical criticism continues to assert itself as both an interpretive


reading paradigm and a corrective for the social irrelevance of the theoretical
project's critical machinery, its detractors often question its capacity for
intellectual endurance, as well as its usefulness as a means for ideological
critique. Paul A. Bove's acerbic comments in Intellectuals in Power: A Genealogy
of Critical Humanism (1986) demonstrate the prevailing critical misgivings about
humanism and its application to literary works. "Critical scholarship should seize
the power function of `truth,'" he writes, "and sophistically enlist it for political
work intended not only to reveal the dark side of humanism's oppression but also
to knock the underpinnings from humanism and the dominant regimes it
supports. Criticism must be negative," he continues (309-10). Bove's remarks

clearly illustrate the nature of the theoretical project's anxiety about humanism's
capacity for postulating any sustained political critique. Yet, as Martha C.
Nussbaum reminds us in The Fragility of Goodness: Luck and Ethics in Greek
Tragedy and Philosophy (1986), the ethical study of literary works provides
readers with a powerful means for interpreting the ideological and interpersonal
clashes that define the human experience. The ethical investigation of literature,
she writes, "lays open to view the complexity, the indeterminacy, the sheer
difficulty of actual human deliberation" Such humanistic criticism, she adds,
underscores "the vulnerability of human lives to fortune, the mutability of our
circumstances and our passions, the existence of conflicts among our
commitments" (13-14). In short, contrary to Bove's draconian outlook, the ethical
paradigm supplies us with a useful mechanism for interpreting the political
struggles that invariably plague the human condition.

In addition to Bove's pessimistic arguments regarding what he believes to be the


ideological ineffectuality of humanist forms of literary critique, recent
observations by critics such as Gerald Graft and Morris Dickstein implicitly
problematize the contemporary forcefulness of ethical reading paradigms. While
in "The Future of Theory in the Teaching of Literature" for instance, Graft laments
what he perceives to be the "fragmented" nature of "traditional humanism"
(260), Dickstein, in his review of Nussbaum's Poetic Justice, paternalistically
describes her "love of literature and insistence on its social value" as
"refreshingly old-fashioned" (19). Amazingly, and despite the recent theoretical
achievements of ethical critics such as Booth, Nussbaum, and J. Hillis Miller,
Graft's and Dickstein's comments seem to locate the heyday of humanistic
literary study somewhere in the distant past. Similarly, in his essay "The Common
Touch, or, One Size Fits All" Stanley Fish unflatteringly compares The Company
We Keep, Booth's ethical manifesto, with the regressive and ethically
questionable texts published by several of the infamous culture warriors,
including Allan Bloom, Roger Kimball, and Dinesh D'Souza. In his discourse on the
ethical agenda, Fish unfairly charges writers such as Booth with championing
"moral relativism" and rendering "the act of judgment" into a "meaningless and
trivial" exercise (250-51). But ethical critics such as Booth in fact argue that
morality remains decidedly contingent upon the norms and standards particular
to the localized practices of autonomous selves. As S. L. Goldberg perceptively
recognizes in Agents and Lives: Moral Thinking in Literature (1993), "there is no
unwritten constitutional rule about what everyone should mean by `moral'" (88).
Rather than attempting to articulate any codified systems of behavior, ethical
criticism both strives to address the manner in which individuals arrive at their
decisions and also assesses how the results of those choices affect the larger
human community in which we live.( n4)

Because of its inherently interdisciplinary nature, ethical criticism proves further


illuminating as a reading methodology for a host of other fields of study,
including feminist criticism and rhetorical study.( n5) The recent emergence of

ethical criticism as a viable reading methodology may yet prove beneficial to the
fractious contemporary life of the theoretical project as well. Arriving on the
critical-theoretical scene during an era when poststructuralism finds itself under
siege for its anti-humanistic and highly politicized interpretive activities, the
ethical paradigm provides literary theory with a means for evaluating the status
of its ideological critique. As Robert Scholes reminds us, "To have an ethics means
to have standards, canons, protocols" (154). Ethical criticism, with its emphasis
upon the observation of interpretive norms and the value systems of readers,
furnishes critical theorists with a meaningful context for addressing the direction
of literary study as the new century rapidly approaches. "Any critical act is an
expression of values," Christopher Clausen argues in The Moral Imagination:
Essays on Literature and Ethics (1986), and "much conservative criticism is
overtly or covertly moral. So is most radical and feminist criticism," he continues,
"even if often disguised as ideological critique" (22). The infusion of an ethical
imperative into the various subgenres of critical theory during this latepoststructuralist moment might indeed provide scholars with a useful discourse
for contextualizing the theoretical project's current internal reassessment of its
value systems and interpretive norms.

The contemporary preoccupation with ethical concerns also underscores the


ethical paradigm's value as a progressive and pluralistic means of direction for
the future of literary study in a cynical era of institutional budget restrictions and
shrinking employment opportunities in higher education. It should hardly be
surprising, then, that the ethical revaluation of literary theory emerges during a
period in post-secondary education characterized by its adherence to a bottomline mentality and the necessity of self-justification. Vincent P. Pecora further
attributes the apotheosis of ethics to ideological fluctuations on the international
political scene. "It is perhaps no accident that at a time when the possibility of a
viable adversary politics in Western Democracies [...] has been once again
reduced to mere neurotic fantasy" Pecora writes, "ethics should return to critical
discourse" (204). Regardless of the reasons for its recent incarnation as a reading
paradigm, ethical criticism supplies its proponents with an intelligible parlance for
articulating the value of literary study to a Western populace in significant need
of a critical methodology that elevates cultural pluralism and communal
responsibility over cynical and monoculturalist theoretical agendas. In "Is There
an Ethics of Reading?" J. Hillis Miller concedes that "surely no one can be
expected to master the intricate rigor of the deconstructive way of reading and
apply it habitually. We need to get on with it," he adds, referring to the business
of ethically reinvigorating our existing methods of literary critique (80). By
demonstrating the usefulness of secular humanism and contemporary moral
philosophy to literary study, ethical criticism highlights the pedagogic and
interdisciplinary value of literary study to an increasingly diverse and expanding
global community. "Philosophy is the childhood of the intellect" Thomas Nagel
warns us in The View from Nowhere (1986), "and a culture that tries to skip it will
never grow up" (12). With its accent upon literary study and its wide-ranging
possibilities for intellectual and interpersonal development, ethical criticism

elucidates a great many of the ways that the life of the text intersects the life of
the mind. That ethical criticism seems to promise an enhanced sense of
community is itself an encouraging prospect for the future of literary studies.

The essays in the present volume offer a wide range of perspectives on ethical
criticism and its application to literary interpretation. In "Ethical Criticism: What It
Is and Why It Matters," Marshall W. Gregory explores the "ethical significance"
that readers ascribe to the array of texts that they consume. Gregory argues that
the ethical consideration of literature not only matters, but is an "inescapable"
aspect of our humanity. Ethical criticism, Gregory writes, allows us both to look
outward at our society and inward at "our own souls." Daniel R. Schwarz's "The
Ethics of Reading Elie Wiesel's Night" usefully differentiates between an ethics of
reading and an ethics while reading. In addition to mapping out the hermeneutic
activities involved in ethical reading and interpretation, Schwarz investigates the
ethical implications of reading Wiesel's fictionalized autobiographical memoir of
the Holocaust. In "`Nothing But Face'--`To Hell with Philosophy'?: Witold
Gombrowicz, Bruno Schulz, and the Scandal of Human Countenance," Adam
Zachary Newton examines the various "silhouettes" of the self in works by
Gombrowicz and Schulz. Newton devotes particular attention to the "intersubjective spaces" inherent in the human countenance, or "the face that begets
other faces as well as the face of human encounter that transposes into the face
of reading." Kathleen Lundeen's "Who has the Right to Feel?: The Ethics of
Literary Empathy" discusses the ironic juxtaposition of empathy: in life, it is
praised as a virtue, while the world of literary criticism often sees it as a form of
cultural arrogance. Using Felicia Hemans's "Indian Woman's Death-Song,"
Lundeen explores the problematic nature of literary empathy and its ethical
possibilities.

In "Lyrical Ethics and Literary Experience," Charles Altieri addresses the centrality
of the lyrical as a means for measuring our emotional and ethical responses to
literary experience. Altieri problematizes ethical criticism's role in the theoretical
project, arguing that our surrender to its interpretive aims may succeed in
establishing passive strictures of morality and the sublimation of our capacity for
rendering sound aesthetic judgments. Todd F. Davis and Kenneth Womack's
"Saints, Sinners, and the Dickensian Novel: The Ethics of Storytelling in John
Irving's The Cider House Rules" explores the Dickensian novel as a narrative
mode with deliberate ethical goals. Davis and Womack argue that in their
narratives novelists such as Dickens and Irving fashion ethical
"characterscapes"--the description of specific incidents that reflect the inner life
of a given character's personhood. In "Sethe's Choice: Beloved and the Ethics of
Reading," James Phelan draws upon a rhetorical framework in his analysis of
Morrison's novel in order to account for Sethe's decision to kill her children and
spare them the traumas of slavery. Phelan argues that this central crisis in
Beloved establishes an ethical relation between implied author and audience. In
"Making, Taking, and Faking Lives: The Ethics of Collaborative Life Writing," G.

Thomas Couser examines the ethical difficulties inherent in the act of


collaborative autobiography. Using such texts as Ruth Sienkiewicz-Mercer and
Steven B. Kaplan's I Raise My Eyes to Say Yes, Couser encounters a variety of
ethical issues in his study, particularly regarding hierarchies of race, culture,
gender, class, age, and illness or disability. Finally, Wayne C. Booth's "Why Ethical
Criticism Can Never Be Simple" explores the "undeniable" power of narrative to
change our lives--for good or ill. In addition to noting that ethical judgments are
inevitably "controversial," Booth underscores the value of ethical criticism as a
means for understanding narrative's capacity for registering an ethical and
aesthetic impact upon the human condition.
Notes
(n1) The intellectual skepticism regarding the theoretical relevance of the latest
incarnation of ethical criticism is best exemplified by Richard A. Posner's recent
argument against the moral evaluation of literature in "Against Ethical Criticism."
Posner contends that ethical criticism advocates the disavowal of literary works
that confront us with problematic images or value systems that may be
dramatically different from our own. In his essay, Posner also charges ethical
criticism with "assigning" literature "the role of making the reader a more moral
individual." Ethical criticism "gives literature too solemn and even puritanical an
air," he adds (20).

(n2) Since Gardner's On Moral Fiction appeared in 1978, many other critics have
entered the debate over the viability and profitability of ethical criticism. Perhaps
surprisingly, one of the most vocal advocates of ethical criticism is J. Hillis Miller.
In The Ethics of Reading (1987) and Versions of Pygmalion (1990), Miller
examines the ethical nature of reading from a deconstructive position, arguing
that what is ethical or moral cannot be understood or confronted directly:
"Storytelling is the impurity which is necessary in any discourse about the moral
law as such. [...] There is no theory of ethics, no theory of the moral law [...]
without storytelling" (Ethics 23). Because the range of critics who work in the
field of ethical or moral criticism is indeed diverse, it comes as no surprise to find
different theoretical ideas being produced in a discipline that has heretofore been
neglected and now yields a truly important harvest. A critic of note in the field of
ethical criticism is Terrence Des Pres, who, like Elie Wiesel, the writer he most
admires, concentrates on the efforts of certain artists, especially Jewish writers,
who use their craft as a means of protest and therapy against the tragic and
heinous events of the Holocaust. Other critics rethinking and recreating the field
of ethical criticism include Frederick J. Antczak, whose work focuses on the ethical
nature of rhetoric; Martha C. Nussbaum, whose study centers itself on moral
philosophy and uses literature selectively to better understand "real life" ethical
conundrums; Susan Resneck Parr, whose research deals exclusively with the
effects of ethical criticism on practices in secondary-education classrooms; and
Christopher Clausen, whose writing follows the more traditional patterns of
literary study as practiced by Wayne C. Booth, among others. Because their
efforts have clearly contributed to ethical criticism's recent renewal, they mark a

significant addition to literary studies. Recent scholarly monographs such as


David Parker's Ethics, Theory, and the Novel (1994) and Kim L. Worthington's Self
as Narrative: Subjectivity and Community in Contemporary Fiction (1996) further
the examination of the ethical life of the text espoused by theorists such as
Booth, Nussbaum, and Miller.

(n3) In Love's Knowledge: Essays on Philosophy and Literature (1990), Nussbaum


explains that when she first began to investigate the relationship between ethical
study and literary study, she "rarely found anything but contempt for ethical
criticism of literature" (13). Ironically, the academy, in its attempts to combat the
negative effects of ethical criticism, namely censorship, found itself censoring
academic freedom. Such censorious behavior has most certainly led to the loss of
many profitable readings. Ironically, although New Critics attempted to argue that
art in some fashion transcends the ethical or moral, they actually were
participating in a system of valuation that was itself ethical. Postmodern critics
argue that the transcendence New Critics claim for art is an impossibility,
unattainable in this world because of the nature of existence: all acts are ethical
and political.

(n4) In Find You the Virtue: Ethics, Image, and Desire in Literature (1987), Irving
Massey argues that readers also engage in the ethical investigation of literary
works in order to locate the moral structures unavailable to them within the
boundaries of their real lives. "Even in this postliterate, postaesthetic, and
possibly postethical age, we all continue to seek out art, with its unnameable
ethical satisfactions, ambiguous as the very status of ethics itself may be. If
ethics be a delusion," he adds, "it is at least a delusion shared by saints and
sinners alike" (189).

(n5) In "Moral Understandings: Alternative `Epistemology' for a Feminist Ethics,"


for instance, Margaret Urban Walker elaborates upon ethical criticism's value to
feminist criticism. "Feminist ethics clarifies the moral legitimacy and necessity of
the kinds of social, political, and personal changes that feminism demands in
order to end male domination," she writes, "or perhaps to end domination
generally" (165). Likewise, in "Teaching Rhetoric and Teaching Morality: Some
Problems and Possibilities of Ethical Criticism," Frederick J. Antczak discusses
ethical criticism's contributions to contemporary rhetorical study. "We can teach
our students," Antczak observes, "how to see ethical issues taking shape in and
shaping the most important material for the constitution of their characters, the
most important medium for their ethically significant choosing, acting, and
living--that is, for their rhetoric" (22).
Works Cited

Antczak, Frederick J. "Teaching Rhetoric and Teaching Morality: Some Problems


and Possibilities of Ethical Criticism." Rhetoric Society Quarterly 19 (1989): 15-22.
Booth, Wayne C. The Company We Keep: An Ethics of Fiction. Berkeley: U of
California P, 1988.
Bove, Paul A. Intellectuals in Power: A Genealogy of Critical Humanism. New York:
Columbia UP, 1986.
Butler, Christopher. "The Future of Theory: Saving the Reader." Cohen 229-49.
Clausen, Christopher. The Moral Imagination: Essays on Literature and Ethics.
Iowa City: U of Iowa P, 1986.
Cohen, Ralph, ed. The Future of Literary Theory. London: Routledge, 1989.
Coles, Robert. "Putting Head and Heart on the Line." The Chronicle of Higher
Education 41 (26 Oct. 1994): A64.
Des Pres, Terrence. Writing into the World: Essays, 1973-1987. New York: Viking,
1991.
Dickstein, Morris. Review of Poetic Justice: The Literary Imagination and Public
Life, by Martha C. Nussbaum. New York Times Book Review 17 April 1996: 19.
Fish, Stanley. "The Common Touch, or, One Size Fits All." The Politics of Liberal
Education. Ed. Darryl J. Gless and Barbara Herrnstein Smith. Durham: Duke UP,
1991. 241-66.
Gardner, John. On Moral Fiction. New York: Basic, 1978.
Goldberg. S. L. Agents and Lives: Moral Thinking in Literature. Cambridge:
Cambridge UP, 1993.
Graff, Gerald. "The Future of Theory in the Teaching of Literature." Cohen 25067.
Massey, Irving. Find You the Virtue: Ethics, Image, and Desire in Literature.
Fairfax: George Mason UP, 1987.
Miller, J. Hillis. The Ethics of Reading: Kant, de Man, Eliot, Trollope, James, and
Benjamin. New York: Columbia UP, 1987.
-----. "Is There an Ethics of Reading?" Reading Narrative: Form, Ethics, Ideology.
Ed. James Phelan. Columbus: Ohio State UP, 1988.79-101.

-----. Versions of Pygmalion. Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1990.


Nagel, Thomas. The View from Nowhere. Oxford: Oxford UP, 1986.
Nussbaum, Martha C. The Fragility of Goodness: Luck and Ethics in Greek Tragedy
and Philosophy. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1986.

-----. Love's Knowledge: Essays on Philosophy and Literature. New York: Oxford
UP, 1990.
Parini, Jay. "Rekindling the Spirit of the '60s." The Chronicle of Higher Education
(26 April 1996): B1-B2.
Parker, David. Ethics, Theory, and the Novel. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1994.
Parr, Susan Resneck. The Moral of the Story: Literature, Values, and American
Education. New York: Teachers College, 1982.
Pecora, Vincent P. "Ethics, Politics, and the Middle Voice." Literature and the
Ethical Question. Ed. Claire Nouvet. New Haven: Yale UP, 1991. 203-30.
PMLA. Special issue. "Ethics and Literary Criticism." 114.1 (January 1999).
Posner, Richard A. "Against Ethical Criticism." Philosophy and Literature 21
(1997): 1-27.
Salmagundi. Special issue. "Art and Ethics: A Symposium." 111 (Summer 1996).
Scholes, Robert E. Protocols of Reading. New Haven: Yale UP, 1989.
Siebers, Tobin. The Ethics of Criticism. Ithaca: Cornell UP, 1988.
Spacks, Patricia Meyer. "The Novel as Ethical Paradigm." Why the Novel Matters:
A Postmodern Perplex. Ed. Mark Spilka and Caroline McCracken-Flesher.
Bloomington: Indiana UP, 1990. 199-206.
Tirrell, Lynne. "Storytelling and Moral Agency." The Journal of Aesthetics and Art
Criticism 48 (Spring 1990): 115-26.
Walker, Margaret Urban. "Moral Understandings: Alternative `Epistemology' for a
Feminist Ethics." Explorations in Feminist Ethics: Theory and Practice. Ed. Eve
Browning Cole and Susan Coultrap-McQuin. Bloomington: Indiana UP, 1992. 16575.
Worthington, Kim L. Self as Narrative: Subjectivity and Community in
Contemporary Fiction. Oxford: Clarendon, 1996.
~~~~~~~~
By Todd F. Davis and Kenneth Womack

Naslov: Ethical Criticism: What It Is and Why It Matters. Prema: Gregory, Marshall,
Style, 00394238, Summer98, Svezak. 32, Broj 2.Baza podataka: Academic Search
Complete.

ETHICAL CRITICISM: WHAT IT IS AND WHY IT MATTERS

Introduction

"Change the name and it's about you, that story." Thus in his Satires (I. 1.69-70)
Horace elegantly and succinctly defines the imaginative transposing by which
readers identify with fictions. Telling and consuming stories is a fundamental and
universal human activity. From the time we are born the sound of story
accompanies us like the collective heart beat of humanity, and none of us rejects
the opportunity to enlarge ourselves by "trying on" the lives and feelings of
fictional characters. We may not all consume a steady diet of what college
catalogues sometimes call "great books," but our interactions with stories in one
form or another--in commercials, TV programs, movies, song lyrics, sermons,
legends, fairy tales, novels, dramas, and so on--is constant and ongoing. The
famous command in the opening line of Moby Dick, "Call me Ishmael," is an
invitation to the reader not only to identify a character, but to identify with a
character: "Imagine your name to be Ishmael and it will be about you, this story.
You will learn to see the world through my eyes, to feel the world through my
nerve endings. During the time we spend together you will learn to live as if my
heart beat in your chest, as if your ears answered to my name."

Transpositions between readers and fictional characters carry obvious ethical


significance. Despite current theories in philosophy and criticism about the
inescapability of relativism, most of us cannot evade the deep intuition that
identifying with characters in stories can exert a powerful influence on the quality
and content of our own lives. It is this perspective--stories as an influence on
ethos, or who we become--that makes ethical criticism necessary. To analyze how
fictions exert this influence and to assess its effects is ethical criticism's job. What
the humanities in general need is an ethical criticism that is intellectually
defensible, not to replace or displace other critical approaches but to
complement them. What literary criticism needs in particular is a theoretical
basis for inquiries into and judgments about the potential ethical effects of
literature and narrative art in general.( n1) We need this theoretical grounding
because practical ethical criticism goes on all the time, often conducted in a most
helter-skelter, contradictory, and intellectually incoherent way. A firmer
theoretical grounding could help us do practical ethical criticism more
thoughtfully and responsibly.

Both within the academy and within society as a whole, someone is always
claiming that a given novel, movie, or TV program is either uplifting or degrading,
inspiring or demeaning, should be read and seen by everyone or shouldn't
disgrace either video airwaves or the shelves of the public library. Every time a
feminist exposes Hemingway's complicity with the patriarchy, or every time an
African-American critic recommends the retrieval of slave narratives because
such narratives shame our past and help us shape the future, and every time a

Judith Fetterley, a Terry Eagleton, or a Michel Foucault decries the dehumanizing


effects of master narratives on subject-readers, such critics are deeply engaged
in important versions of ethical criticism that are not at all diminished in
robustness for being disguised as any kind of discourse but ethical criticism.

The truth of my claim that ethical criticism goes on constantly in the academy is
not obvious. What is obvious is that for the last 100 years--from the time of the
"art for art's sake" movement to the present--most literary critics have strongly
objected to "ethical" as an adjective for either "literature" or "criticism." Inside
the academy, ethical criticism seems immediately to conjure images of Plato
packing the poets out of his republic, or the memory of Matthew Arnold talking
about "the best that has been thought and said," or the mental image of F. R.
Leavis intoning on and on about "the great tradition." Tzvetan Todorov
summarizes contemporary criticism's rejection of ethical criticism, but in doing so
he also opposes that rejection on the simple grounds that literature and morality
cannot be separated even if we desire to do so:

Literature and morality: "how disgusting!" my contemporary will exclaim. I


myself, discovering around me a literature subordinated to politics, [once]
thought it was essential to break every link and preserve literature from any
contact with what is not literature. But the relation to values is inherent in
literature; not only because it is impossible to speak of existence without
referring to that relation, but also because the act of writing is an act of
communication, which implies the possibility of understanding, in the name of
common values.( n2) (164; emphasis added)

While Todorov is right--"the relation to values is inherent in literature"--it is


unfortunately true that every accusation against ethical criticism and ethical
critics( n3) can be historically and concretely substantiated by the
injudiciousness, extremism, shrillness, or dogmatism of some ethical critic or
other.(n4) Historically, and unfortunately, many of the conspicuous examples of
ethical criticism in action present images of dogmatic moralists, zealous
religionists, or belligerent burghers trampling art, tolerance, and free speech in
the dust with a nasty kind of self-satisfaction.
The Inescapability of Ethical Criticism
But even after the most discrediting facts about the history and practice of
ethical criticism have been duly marked, recorded, and apologized for, it remains
untrue that ethical criticism has to be or that it has always been dogmatic and
pious. Some contemporary critics may want to insist, however, that even when
ethical criticism is judicious it is certainly irrelevant. Indeed, their insistence
would be irrefutable if, in fact, no one in our society was ever interested in
making moral or ethical judgments about literature and other forms of art. But

our century-long rejection of ethical criticism is matched in its scope only by the
ceaseless talk about ethical issues that goes on inside and outside of the
academy. There exists a large and diverse range of issues about fictions that both
citizens in general and literary professionals in particular argue about in a
manner that is not only deeply passionate, but that is also explicitly ethical and
moral. These issues and arguments, which go on all the time, include but are not
limited to the following:
character formation: how poems, TV programs, movies, novels, song lyrics, and
so on influence readers' beliefs, imagination, and feelings;
learning about life: how fictions teach "lessons" about everyday life;
imitation of values: how readers and viewers imitate the attitudes and values of
characters from literature, TV, movies, and other narratives;
social attitudes: how fictions influence people's understanding or
misunderstanding of, sympathy with, or detachment from, such social
constituencies as ethnic groups, racial minorities, non-Europeans, non-Americans,
women, and handicapped persons;
civics and civility: how television and rap lyrics influence young people's views
about public civility, honesty, violence, authority, social and political institutions,
women, race relations, the environment, and the law;
history and class: how fictions influence readers' views about history, class,
democracy, commercialism, and so on.

As foci of constant and passionate controversy, these issues give the lie to ethical
criticism's alleged irrelevance. We may not always know how to live with it, but
we certainly cannot live without it. We don't even try to live without it. Why is it
that we cannot escape questions of morality and ethics? Because human actions
are imagined and chosen rather than prescribed or programmed. Because there
is a dimension of choice to almost all forms of human conduct, conduct is always
subject to moral and ethical evaluation. Since Homo Sapiens is the only species
that creates moral categories and since all cultures and individuals employ moral
categories as guides for directing and evaluating life with others, the very
capacity for making and enforcing moral categories--like the capacities of
reasoning, language, aesthetics, and imagination as well--lies close to the center
of whatever it means to be human in the first place.

James Q. Wilson argues that a moral sense is the inevitable product of an innate
human disposition to be social: "The innate sociability of the child is the vital
embryo in which a capacity for sympathy and an inclination to generosity can be
found" (45). This claim hardly constitutes a complete argument but it does offer a
deep insight. Because human beings are as fundamentally social in nature as

ants and bees, but because the forms of our sociability are chosen and cultural
rather than programmed and genetic, ethical and moral considerations inevitably
arise within the social nexus. Our need to be approved of by our family members,
our need to be protected and served "justly" by both our family and by others,
and the group's need to create social mechanisms of stability and justice without
which the group cannot endure--these needs all contribute to the creation of
moral categories as not merely contingent but as integral to human existence.
This is not to say what the content of those categories is or should be, but it is to
say that moral categories themselves are both persistent and necessary
elements of social existence--the only kind of existence available to human
beings. In the words of Mary Midgley, our proclivity for integrating morality into
the very fabric of human life is a tendency

that we take so deeply for granted [...] that we scarcely notice it--namely a sense
of continuity with the past, a rootedness in earlier social contracts which can
make it deeply shocking to murder others or to desert a friend in difficulties. We
should not, of course, forget that human beings sometimes do these deeply
shocking things too. But that is something very different from never finding them
shocking at all.

This sense of continuity through time--this need to have some coherent image of
oneself and one's policy--is surely what accounts for the fact that humans have
been driven to develop morality, and have given it so much prominence in their
various cultures. If we ask what is the source of the authority of morals, we are
not looking outward for a sanction from the rulers, or for a contract. We are
looking inward for a need, for some psychological fact about us that makes it
deeply distressing to us to live shapelessly, incoherently, discontinuously,
meaninglessly--to live without standards. (153)

If we cannot endure living without standards in real life, it follows--since most


fictions represent real life--that we cannot endure to read fictions without
bringing standards into play there as well. The formalistic view that novels are
about language, not about life, fails to explain why people get so caught up liking
and disliking different fictional characters or why they deeply desire specific
resolutions to certain fictional plots and situations. If ethical questions arise as a
natural consequence of first-hand interactions and sociability, then they will also
arise as we meet and interact with fictional characters. When we meet new
people, we form our impressions of them by asking ourselves questions about
them rooted in moral and ethical perspectives, such as "is this person good?," "is
this person trustworthy?," "is this person kind, likable, generous,
compassionate?," and so on. These ethical categories comprise the most
important part of our "reading" of new acquaintances. Not using these categories
would make other people appear to us mostly as blanks, mere utilitarian counters

like chess pieces or tools, devoid of affective or ethical significance. None of us


can imagine living this way. I don't mean only that none of can imagine living
happily this way; I mean that none of us can imagine living this way at all. Such
an existence would not be human because it would be a kind of existence that
Midgley is surely right to say that we could not bear: a life lived "shapelessly,
incoherently, discontinuously, meaninglessly--[a life] without standards." But if
this is so, then it follows that we will bring our standards into play in all of our
social relations, including those we conduct with fictional characters. Whether
talking about the characters and events of literature or life, all of us turn to such
criteria as better/worst, good/bad, honest/dishonest, fair/unfair,
liberated/oppressed, just/unjust, inclusive/exclusive, kind/cruel,
humane/inhuman, generous/selfish, self-controlled/self-indulgent, and many
others because all such criteria are rooted in assumptions (either explicit or
implicit) about such fundamentally ethical categories as moral agency, the
"oughtness" or "rightness" of certain social and political practices, or such
"should-bes" of the existential condition as "individuals should be allowed
freedom of speech and free choice of sexual partners."

If our existence as social creatures explains where ethical criticism comes from, it
follows that this same social nature also explains why moral considerations never
go away or lose their relevance. Because we never stop being social creatures,
the moral dimensions of life are both inevitable and permanent. Human life is
saturated with moral considerations, moral judgments, moral categories, and
practical moral reasoning. Hardly any of our thoughts about relations with others
are morally neutral. Our thoughts about relations with other people are deeply
colored by speculations about the impression we are making, about the approval
we seek, and about the impression on us that other people make, beginning
primarily with the impressions that we all give and receive as moral agents:
impressions about such moral features, for example, as honesty, trustworthiness,
compassion, kindness, generosity, self-control, and fairness. We may admire
people for being strong, clever, brilliant, or talented, but we trust them and love
them only when we think they are, at most, truly good or, at least, not malicious.
The portraits we draw of other people in our minds' eye--the picture that tells us
whether and how much we can afford to trust and love them--are portraits drawn
almost entirely in ethical and moral colors.

Deciding who is the trustworthy recipient of a secret or an honor, deciding who is


worthy of the offer (or the acceptance) of a marriage proposal, deciding how to
rear children and when or if they should be punished for wrong-doing (not to
mention deciding what constitutes wrongdoing), or merely deciding whether to
agree with the movie Pretty Woman that the Julia Roberts character has attained
the highest pinnacle of female happiness by being lifted from her life as a public
prostitute in order to become the private prostitute of a wealthy man--all are
ethical decisions. Whenever we propose a theory of "oughtness" about how to
live and a line of reasoning about how to achieve life's different "goods" we are

engaging in ethical criticism. But since the various arguments about the various
goods and their status are not self-ranking, we are forced to rank them ourselves.
We must always challenge one set of goods against another set of goods. Moral
positions must always be argued; there is no way they can simply be invested
with the power to work on their own. We must make the case, both in terms of
the coherence of the theory and the moral reasoning themselves. Such
argumentation is nothing short of a compressed way of respecting others as
rational beings. One way we demonstrate that respect is by assisting others, at
the same time we rely on their assistance, to become more fully possessed of the
fundamental human powers of sociability, language, imagination, and ethical
reasoning that we all share. In the words of moral philosopher Robert Louden,

Moral considerations have ultimate importance not (as many philosophers have
argued) because they form a tightly packaged set of interests that can be shown
to logically "override" all other competing sets of interests but rather because
they concern values to which the pursuit of any and all interests, including
scientific and technical ones, must answer. Morality is not just one narrow point of
view competing against others. [... Its] ultimate importance is [a function of its]
pervasiveness. Moral considerations literally appear able to pervade or permeate
[...] more areas and aspects of human life and action (and once they gain entry,
to have, somehow, the final word) than do any other kinds of considerations (20).
All aspects of human life over which we exercise at least some degree of
voluntary control have indirect moral relevance (59). Morality's fundamental
importance stems not from its "standing above" everything else but rather from
the fact that it literally surrounds everything else, lies underneath everything
else, and is continually embedded in everything else. (80)

The popular contemporary view that employing ethical and moral categories is
merely a historical, contingent, or discretionary choice--a choice mostly co-opted
by society's ruling powers for keeping potential challengers in line--is a shallow
view that ignores the deeply compelling necessity for ethics and morality
embedded in both the nature of social relations and in our own existential drive
to make sense out of our world, in part, by holding standards.
Ethical Criticism and Postmodern Perspectivism
If life and literature are indeed saturated with moral considerations, then how
does the academy, which is saturated with epistemological relativism, avoid
dealing with them? It doesn't, of course, but it does try to disguise its dealing
with them, mostly by pretending that its moral discourse is political discourse. By
a linguistic and conceptual sleight-of-hand, the academy makes the language of
power, colonization, or marginalization replace the language of good, ought, and
bad. Such sleight-of-hand doesn't really replace moral considerations, of course,
for political arguments against the oppression of the proletariat by the
bourgeoisie or against the Western colonization of people of color are not only

linked to ethical views, but express views that are fundamentally ethical to their
core. Such views constitute ethical arguments because their main burden is
ethical judgments about better and worse ways of living and acting. What these
arguments deliver are not just analyses of power but moral judgments about
power: judgments that power ought to be reconfigured and that rest on the
authority of the frequently unspoken but always present moral assumption that
the desired reconfigurations of power would make the world a better place for
someone or some group.

Poststructuralists who bury ethical criticism beneath an epistemology of


perspectivism inadvertently pull the rug from under their own reformist social
agenda. Theorists who take perspectivism seriously, for example, are logically
entailed to concede to in theory what they will never concede to in fact--that
political brutality, ethnic cleansing, racial genocide, and so on must all be taken
as equally serious positions along with democratic reform simply because they
are "perspectives." That is, from the standpoint of epistemological perspectivism,
they are legitimate logically. That no one, including postmodern perspectivists,
thinks they are legitimate morally means that underneath epistemological
perspectivism lie at least a few deeply lodged commitments that play the role of
absolutes even if they cannot be proven to be absolutes. Acts of genocide, for
example, are usually described as "crimes against humanity," not just crimes
against ethnicity. To say that the Holocaust was a crime because it destroyed only
Jews implies that a holocaust that destroyed some other ethnic or racial group
might be less objectionable or even laudatory. Our deep impulse to define what
the Nazis did to the Jews in Germany or what the Bosnian Serbs recently did to
the Muslims in former Yugoslavia as a crime against human beings as such
clearly implies that we view some moral standards as genuinely substantive and
authoritative, not just as rhetorical ploys or cultural contingencies.

If all discourse really is only "mere rhetoric," then the reformers' opposition to the
rhetoric of the ascendant power groups can only be more of just the same thing-that is, more mere rhetoric--for it has no way of sorting out the right or wrong of
specific issues and no way of demonstrating the superiority of the
poststructuralists' proposed changes. To try to produce a world with less
oppression and brutality in it on the grounds that such a world would be a better
world than the one we now have is to appeal to a "better" beyond the pale of
mere rhetoric or partial perspectives. Ethnic oppression, the marginalization of
women, and racial discrimination are not wrong because they are political
positions but because they are morally offensive, and it is their moral
offensiveness that makes them politically objectionable, not the other way round.
Making political arguments about the reconfiguration of power cannot be made
without the arguer assuming that at least some moral judgments and moral
arguments are intrinsically and not just contingently compelling. Otherwise the
moral authority of arguments becomes moot and arguers are left with only the
authority of whatever is or the authority of whatever has enough muscle to

displace whatever is. Thus we see that all arguments about politics and power
are subsets of moral arguments, for all political judgments are of necessity
derived from moral and ethical assumptions about such issues as better, best,
and just, terms that literally make no sense outside of an ethical framework of
discussion. As Geoffrey Harpham makes clear, this claim is true even for those
points of view that most emphatically insist on the primacy of culture and
contingency.

Strikingly [says Harpham], it is when culture is analyzed from a Marxist


perspective as a self-transforming, self-discovering, self-defining body politic, that
the purely social necessity of morality emerges most powerfully. For when
cultural values are unworthy, uncertain, or disputed, only an appeal to some
imperative that convincingly transcends culture and privatized conceptions of
interest can legitimate action. In a society that holds slaves and disempowers
women, exploitation and misogyny express shared values, and those who hold
these values hold them with confidence. Any effort to question these practices, or
indeed the autistic tendencies of any localism, must base itself on some value or
standard that lies--again, convincingly-outside the cultural horizon. (53)

While Stanley Fish attempts to get at a postmodern politics of reform through the
door of rhetorical analysis, Fish's claim that "everything is rhetorical" (217) winds
up being, in practice, far too close to "might makes right" to be considered truly
reformist. Fish wants to claim (and does) "that the radically rhetorical insight of
Nietzschean/Derridean thought can do radical political work" (217), but he seems
unaware that his "everything is rhetorical" view is politically reactionary: it
undercuts "radical political work" since "everything is rhetorical" robs "radical
political work" of any ability to explain why radical reform will produce a better
society than it proposes to replace. Fish cannot escape from this problem by
saying that the "betterness" of freedom over oppression is simply self-evident,
because to do so would take him out of the "everything is rhetorical" world and
into the world of self-evident first principles, the last place a rhetorical relativist
wants to find himself. Neither Fish, Rorty, Derrida, nor any of the other
proponents of the "radically rhetorical insight" can escape the paradox that this
insight not only undercuts the authority of their social agenda but nullifies it. If
poststructuralists claim that there are no transcendent or universal principles
against which to discredit anyone else's rhetorical messages, then they must
concede all domains of power to whoever has the most might, not to those who
are right. But since the might of what is is precisely what poststructuralist
reformers don't want, they must further concede one of two things. Either they
must concede that their discontent with things as they are is intellectually
incoherent (because it presumes a better that their own epistemology of "mere
rhetoric" denies) or they must concede that they are indeed invested in an
authority that lies beyond mere rhetoric. The poststructuralist attempt to
disconnect politics and morality cripples their ability to explain why literary and
other fictional representations of power, politics, and race, class, and gender are

so important. If we disconnect the passion that informs these issues from the
moral and ethical considerations that generate that passion, then it becomes
hard to say what all the fuss is about.

Moving in the opposite direction from postmodernism's rejection of ethical


criticism, Wayne Booth is the leading contemporary critic who has done most to
rehabilitate the language and practice of ethical criticism. In The Company We
Keep: An Ethics of Fiction, Booth's leading question is "[W]hat kind of company
are we keeping as we read or listen [or watch]? What kind of company have we
kept?" (10). Booth's operating assumption is that the company we keep as we
read, watch, or listen to fiction can be assessed for its potential influence on our
hearts and minds just as legitimately as we can assess real life potential
influence of the friends and acquaintances who influence our hearts and minds.
All of our friends have a potential influence on our "virtues," says Booth, who
uses "friends" as a metaphor for fiction's appeal to our desire for the intimate
companionship of others, and "virtues" in its older sense of referring not just to
our praiseworthy tendencies but to something more general, such as, he says,
"the whole range of human `powers,' `strengths,' `capacities,' or `habits of
behavior.' Thus an `ethical' effect here, as in pre-modern discourse, can refer to
any strengthening or weakening of a `virtue,' including those that you or I would
consider immoral; a given virtue can be employed viciously" (10). This crucial
positioning of the terms "friend," "ethical," and "virtue," then, allows Booth to
formulate the following definition of ethical criticism:

If "virtue" covers every kind of genuine strength or power, and if a person's ethos
is the total range of his or her virtues [to behave badly or well], then ethical
criticism will be any effort to show how the virtues of narratives relate to the
virtues of selves and societies, or how the ethos of any story affects or is affected
by the ethos--the collection of virtues--of any given reader. (11)

Booth's incisive clarification gives us a chance to gain some real traction on the
relationship between politics and morals, as well as helping us avoid the
murkiness and self-contradictions foisted on us by postmodernism's butterfingered grip of these same issues.
Emotivism, Entertainment, and Ethical Discourse
Perspectivism, however, is not the only obstacle facing ethical criticism in today's
society. Even though various social, political, and religious groups in our society
engage in almost non-stop moralistic mud-slinging, and even though there is
hardly any kind of criticism our society engages in more often than ethical
criticism, there is also hardly any kind of criticism more discredited and more
resisted. This inconsistency points to deep confusions. A friend of mine wellknown in the field of educational theory used to say to me in conversation that

"when you see smart people doing dumb things you know you're in the presence
of powerful forces."(n5)

What powerful forces? Alasdair MacIntyre offers a keen insight into this situation
when he identifies emotivism as "the doctrine that all evaluative judgments and
more specifically all moral judgments are: nothing but expressions of preference,
expressions of attitude or feeling, insofar as they are moral or evaluative in
character" (11) and then avows that "emotivism has become embodied in our
culture" (21). What viewer of television programs or teacher of undergraduates
could deny the accuracy of these observations? What MacIntyre calls "emotivism"
is what soap-opera characters and many students simply call "everyone deciding
what's right or wrong for themselves," a view of morality reiterated with billboard
simplicity everywhere in contemporary culture. If, at one end of the intellectual
spectrum, doctrinaire dogmatism kills moral discussion, what kills it at the other
end of the intellectual spectrum is emotivism's conflation of subjective
preference and moral claims, as if moral claims had no more general authority
than Jane's preference for vanilla ice cream or Bill's taste in clothes. Whether
people are talking about social issues or about the ethical significance of
literature and the other arts,(n6) emotivism empties moral discussion of any real
content.

Since emotivism cannot give us traction on moral issues, it attempts to pretend


that such issues are really nonissues by relegating them to the domain of
entertainment rather than morality, as if entertainment comprises a category of
experience that somehow lies beyond moral examination. A colleague of mine
who spends a lot of class time pointing out to her students how many
representations of women in literature show the evils of the patriarchy is the
same person who watches Pretty Woman over and over "just for entertainment."
An ethical critic, however, will want to interrogate closely the potential effects of
entertainment, when it is clear that when highly-educated and highly-intelligent
people think they don't need to employ their critical powers because they are
"merely being entertained," then it follows that those are the very moments
when their sympathies, feelings, and moral judgments are most vulnerable to
influence. Ethical criticism will attempt to help readers understand that there is
no such thing as being "merely" entertained, that even at the lowest possible
level of engagement, the intellectual and affective exertions that are required
just to understand the content, shape, and direction of a story in fact involve a
complicitous agreement to let the story have its own way with their beliefs and
feelings--at least for the time being. As Wayne Booth says, "[T]he energy I
expend in reconstructing the figure [of a fiction] is somehow transferred to
retaining the figure itself and bonding with its maker. [...] A figure used not only
calls for the recognition that a figure has been used but for a special kind of recreative engagement with the figurer" (299). When readers begin to see, then,
that the figures of fiction figure the mind, they can be brought to take seriously,

indeed to welcome, the insights of ethical criticism. The way entertainment


provides ethical models for direct imitation is discussed below.
Ethical Criticism and Direct Imitation of Literary Models
If, then, neither emotivism nor epistemological relativism gets us off the hook for
taking moral and ethical considerations into account and if such considerations
do indeed saturate life, then it follows that ethical criticism can claim a natural
and important function in the study and evaluation of literature. But saying this
does not answer in concrete terms the question of what important work ethical
criticism does. I recently had a colleague say to me, "So, as an ethical critic you
would object to a novel that gives a vivid and sympathetic portrayal of an ax
murderer on the grounds that reading it might turn me into an ax murderer,
right?" Well... no. I'm not worried in her case that any fiction she reads could ever
turn her into a murderer. But, in principle, she has a point. Direct imitations of
fiction do occur and clearly have moral and ethical consequences. I venture to
assert, moreover, that we all imitate fictional models much more frequently than
we think. The reason we think that we're the ones "above" such influence is that
we largely think of direct imitation only as it occurs in its most sensationalistic
and gross forms. We think of the hoodlums in New York who, immediately after
the release of Money Train, killed a man by imitating the movie's horrific scene in
which a subway ticket seller is squirted with gasoline and burned to death in his
toll booth. Or we remember the two boys who accidentally killed themselves in
New Jersey in 1995 when, right after the release of The Program, they tried lying
down in the middle of the freeway, intending like the movie heroes to let the cars
straddle them harmlessly. Or we remember the large number of young people
who, after reading On the Road in the 1960s, bought Volkswagen buses and
struck out for the highways and byways of America in direct imitation of Jack
Kerouac. In all of these cases we undoubtedly think, "How gullible, how immature,
how uncritical, how unlike me. I could never be like that."

But it all depends on what "like that" means. Our confidence in the immovability
of our character may be complacent and premature. We all do the same thing as
the people in these previous examples, not, to be sure, by committing such
immoral or directly imitative actions, but we do imitate less obviously tangible
features of fictions such as values and attitudes. In the end, of course, values and
attitudes influence action but at such a remove of distance and time as may
leave us unaware of how deeply our actions are rooted in fictional models. One of
the most incisive, vivid, thoughtful, and developed illustrations of the ethical
criticism of narrative role models is conducted by Gustave Flaubert in Madame
Bovary.(n7) Throughout the novel Emma Bovary is shown to be a delighted and
obsessive consumer of sickly romantic novels that provide her with models-fictional friends and companions--who accompany her thoughts all through her
life and who, in their shimmering and shallow allure, do much to prevent Emma
from ever growing into a mature and ethically sensitive person. Flaubert does not
ask us to believe, nor does he himself seem to believe, that Emma's life is ruined
by novel reading alone, but at the same time he not only takes narrative

modeling as crucially important in Emma Bovary's development, he also takes


seriously the ethical criticism of those models. Flaubert's description of the
contents of the contraband novels that Emma receives from an old mending
woman provides a detailed account of how specific images carry affective and
ethical freight. The novels given to Emma by the old maid

were all about love, lovers, sweethearts, persecuted ladies fainting in lonely
pavilions, postilions killed at every relay, horses ridden to death on every page,
somber forests, heart-aches, vows, sobs, tears and kisses, little boat rides by
moonlight, nightingales in shady groves, gentlemen brave as lions, gentle as
lambs, virtuous as no one ever was, always well dressed, and weeping like
fountains. [...] [Illustrations in keepsake books showed such scenes as] a young
man in a short cloak, holding in his arms a young girl in a white dress who was
wearing an alms-bag at her belt; or there were nameless portraits of English
ladies with fair curls, who looked at you from under their round straw hats with
their large clear eyes. [...] Others, dreaming on sofas with an open letter, gazed
at the moon through a slightly open window half draped by a black curtain. The
innocent ones, a tear on their cheeks, were kissing doves through the bars of a
Gothic cage. (26-27)

I have omitted a good portion of this passage, but there still remains a great
wealth of concrete detail to feed the imagination of a fifteen year-old Emma
looking for role models to show her the behaviors--the facial expressions, the
attitudes, the gestures, the postures, the dresses and hats and how to wear
them--that promise her a life of whirlwind excitement, exquisite sensibility, and
thunderous passion. What makes Flaubert's criticism of these images--and their
ethical influence--so incisive is that Flaubert only shows Emma doing what we all
do. In order to come into our humanity, in order to take a place in society and to
be recognized as persons, we know that we must assume roles, and we therefore
look for models to show us the "look" that expresses our beauty, the posture that
communicates our sensibility, or the walk that conveys our power and selfconfidence. If no one in real life shows us models of thoughtfulness or
reasonableness or self-control or generosity, we will, like Emma, settle for
whatever fictional models we can find and never know what we are missing--or
what we are becoming.

None of us remains unaffected as moral agents by the models we choose,


whether they come from real life or from fictions. As children we tie towels
around our necks so we can be as powerful as Superman. As adults we disguise
our Superman capes as carefully selected conference wear. Silk ties reveal our
sophisticated taste; thick-soled work boots express our populist sympathies;
"power suits" assert our aggressive professionalism. We do all of this with deft
nonchalance, with more or less conscious awareness. In our classrooms such

teaching models as Mr. Chips, Mr. Gradgrind, Jean Brodie, the Clerk of Oxenford,
or our favorite college or grad-school teacher hover over our pedagogy like
ghosts. We cannot help but be influenced, for good or ill, by those we have taken
into our hearts, and the "people" we imitate come just as often from second-hand
fictions as from first-hand experience. It follows, then, that the ethical analysis of
fictional models, those whom we accept as "friends" (see chapters 6 and 7 of
Booth's Company), is not only as permissible as the ethical analysis of real-life
models and friends, but, for all those who really care about the quality of their
life, just as necessary. Our friends, both real and fictional, play important roles in
our formative development. To say this returns us to the necessity of ethical
criticism and to the question of how ethical criticism conceives of its work.
Aims of Ethical Criticism
Readerly Understanding of Potential Literary Effects. The aims of ethical
criticism do not include thought control, censorship of literature, or the
management of others' conduct. Ethical criticism addresses readers of literature
(or, more accurately, consumers of fictions both literary and non-literary) with the
aim of helping them see, understand, and appreciate the powerful ways in which
fictions invite them into specific ways of feeling, thinking, and judging. In
addition, ethical criticism tries to help readers see that if these invitations are
accepted, especially on a repeated basis, one very likely consequence is a
permanent influence on readers' hearts and minds. Until readers understand that
their responses to stories occur on a continuum with their responses to real life-until they understand that their responses to fiction are in some important sense
a kind of practice at forming responses to real life-they are likely to dismiss the
ethical significance of their relationship to fiction.

While ethical criticism helps readers gain (or perhaps regain) a sense of the
ethically formative power of story and thus bring them back in touch with the
reasons why reading and literature are not only entertaining but important, it also
offers the insight that the formative effects of story are always potential rather
than determined. Literature invites responses but cannot coerce them. Once we
"agree" to let a story have its way with us--an agreement that is generally
granted without much critical thought, because it is the foundation for any
pleasure the story yields--then we can indeed be, if not coerced, at least led, but
this is neither coercion nor hostile takeover. We can always refuse to become
engaged, or we can be too tired or too distracted or too ignorant of the contents
or setting of a work, in which case the consideration of possible effects becomes
moot (see Rabinowitz on how the beliefs and previous experiences of our lives
influence our degree of engagement with literary texts, especially what he has to
say about genres as "packages of [reading] rules" [177]). On the other hand,
ethical criticism wants readers to understand that more often than not they do
agree to accept the fiction's invitations--else there is no payoff--and that, once
accepted, the means by which the fiction gets delivered from the author and
comprehended by the reader constitute powerful shapings of the mind.

Readerly Understanding of Moral Criteria. Another aim of ethical criticism is to


guide readers toward an understanding of the moral criteria that are relevant to
making ethical judgments about fictional representations. Like the first aim, this
one is also addressed primarily to the intellect: to help readers see that moral
and aesthetic responses to texts unfold inside of each other rather than live in
separate domains. Any reader who thinks that the ending of Hamlet is genuinely
funny or that the wolf really should get to eat the three little pigs is a reader who
has not only misapprehended the aesthetic shape of both stories but their
different ethical presuppositions as well. Ethical criticism wants to help readers
see that they are making ethical judgments every time they decide who the
"good and bad guys" are in any story, to help them see that they are not only
affirming ethical values within the story every time they identify with fictional
characters but that they are affirming ethical values within themselves that their
reading of the story has just reinforced.

Critical Recommendations. The third aim of ethical criticism is not so much


intellectual as exhortative: it is to proffer readings of texts based on the critic's
evaluation of a story's ethical presuppositions and the potential ethical impact of
the story on the reader. It is this aim, of course, that gets everyone's back up.
Approving or not approving books for moral reasons is considered by many critics
to be thoroughly reprehensible. I contend, however, that ethical critics tend to
make explicit what nearly everyone else does either implicitly or in non-ethical
terms, and that it is only reprehensible when it is done badly, that is, when it is
done unintelligently or dishonestly or manipulatively. The truth is, even critics
who work with theories far removed from ethical criticism find it very hard not to
employ some ethical presuppositions. For example, traditionalists who prefer to
teach canonical literature recommend those works because they "bring their
readers to an understanding of the timeless circumstances of the human
condition."(n8) Multiculturalists recommend certain works because they "bring
their readers to a greater appreciation and respect for cultural and ethnic
diversity." Deconstructionists recommend literary texts because they "bring
readers to an ecstatic appreciation of the infinite free play of signification into
which readers can throw themselves with joyous abandonment." Translation for
all: "reading either the books that I recommend or reading books in the way I
recommend will be good for you: good for your social sense, good for your mind,
good for your responsibility as a moral agent. Good for you." Ethical critics want
to bring the discussion of ethical presuppositions and potential ethical effects out
into the open where the claims about them can be criticized, contested, and
improved.
The Content of Ethical Criticism
The central content of ethical criticism can be summarized by two propositions.
The first proposition is about the formation of selves and the second proposition
is about the ethical status of selves. These propositions are not necessarily new

or original ideas in themselves, but the use to which ethical criticism puts them
is, if not original, strikingly unfamiliar today. I am well aware that by confidently
talking about "selves" instead of employing one of postmodernism's preferred
terms of displacement for it, such as "subject" or "subject position," I have
violated a commonplace dictum to which most postmodern theorists
automatically subscribe. Two authors in recent issues of flagship journals in the
discipline of English suggest the extent to which postmodern notions of "the
subject" rather than "the self" are not only taken for granted but just how much
of what is taken for granted is explicitly opposed to notions of the self generally
advanced by the traditional humanities. As Pamela Caughie says in a recent issue
of PMLA, "[P]oststructuralist theories [...] have revealed the humanist subject to
be a sham insofar as it is the effect, not the origin, of representation" (26;
emphasis added). Likewise, Jeffrey Nealon, in a recent issue of College English,
reinforces the unassailability of the postmodern view of "self" as not a stable
center of knowledge about itself or the world, but as an unstable product created
at the site where language, culture, history, and politics intersect. In Nealon's
words, "[A] certain critique of the humanist or Enlightenment subject remains
firmly in place. While there is a great deal of sympathy for rethinking notions of
subjectivity in the current theoretical field, no one wants anything to do with the
appropriating instrumental rationality of the bourgeois subject. In fact, virtually
all critical camps [...] remain aligned in their attempts to critique a subjectivity
that [...] understands the other as simply `like the self'" (129 emphasis added).

With all due respect to Nealon's sweeping--and, dare I add, smug?--confidence


that "no one wants anything to do with" the old notions of a humanist self, I must
disagree. The self whose existence I assume in this essay is exactly the self that
Nealon says I cannot assume (Because Nealon's complacent certitude curiously
essentializes all of those anonymous "no ones," he expresses an intellectual
rigidity that almost always accompanies dogma rather than thoughtfulness.)
Though the sweeping claim that human beings are the product of language and
culture is certainly right in many respects, it is almost always insisted on not only
in its most extreme version--as if human beings are entirely created by culture
rather than influenced by it--but is also insisted on as a dogma rather than
advanced as a hypothesis. If you're not a "constructionist," the dogma goes, then
you're an "essentialist," and if you're an essentialist then may the Transcendental
Signified be with you, you poor slob, because no one else in the humanities will
speak to you.

Better and Worse Selves. The first proposition about selfhood that ethical
criticism rests on is the assumption that there are ethically better and worse
versions of our selves always pending and always being realized. Even though we
are all surrounded by a lot of very loud and frequently repeated talk about the
inevitability of moral relativism, we all expend a great deal of energy and time
trying to decide "the right thing to do" in a whole variety of circumstances.
Moreover, we make this expenditure as if "the right thing," such as being honest

rather than lying or being responsible rather than irresponsible, were matters of
objective reality rather than mere subjective preferences. I have not noticed that
poststructuralists who adhere strongly to epistemological perspectivism and
moral relativism are any less likely than the rest of us to take seriously their
ethical commitments to students, colleagues, and family. When they see people
not taking those commitments seriously, they don't say, "Well, everyone has to
make up his or her own mind about ethical issues." We all say, instead,
humanists and poststructuralists alike, that "sexual harassment is wrong,"
"cheating on tests is wrong," "habitually showing up to teach classes unprepared
is wrong," "humiliating students the teacher doesn't like is wrong" "not carrying
one's fair load of departmental duties is wrong," "cheating on spouses is wrong,"
"beating children is wrong," and on and on. I have been amazed over the years to
see that in general there seems to be such little interest in this curious but telling
discrepancy between poststructuralists' theories and poststructuralists' conduct.
To my mind nothing is more suggestive of the inadequacy of anyone's theories
than the fact that the propounders of them cannot live by them. If
poststructuralist theories of epistemological relativism are good enough only for
our written papers and books but not good enough to guide the way we deal with
our students, our colleagues, and our families, then what in fact are they really
good enough for at all? In academe many of us may be relativists in our theories
but we are quite moral and, indeed, quite moralistic, in our conduct. The
strictures of morality and ethics that we observe so scrupulously in our conduct-and no matter how frequently they are violated we never give them up--clearly
imply that we all have some notion, perhaps mostly implicit but there
nonetheless, of better and worse ethical selves that we may be and that we may
become. We don't pay ourselves the disrespect of assuming that what we do in
our personal and professional relations does not matter. We think it matters a
great deal, and if we fail ourselves or others we feel shame, we apologize, or we
resolve to--to what?--we resolve to do "better." Yes: we resolve to become
ethically improved versions of ourselves.

Moral Character Always in Motion. To the ethical critic, moral character is always
in formation, never fixed. Every choice we make in life is both a reflection of the
self we are and a creation of the self we are becoming. This means that as long
as we retain command of our intellectual faculties we remain permanently and
potentially open to ethical influences from a variety of sources. It also means that
becoming a self is something we do, not just something we are. As Aristotle says,
"[L]ife consists in action, and its end is a mode of action, not a quality" (62). It
also means that becoming a self is not just a consequence of the actions that are
done to us by culture, history, language, master narratives, gender, class, race,
or bourgeois masters, but is a consequence of the actions that we choose. This is
not to say that actions exerted on us from the outside are not formative, but it is
to say that the self does not react to these forces with no intervention from
inside, i.e., from the individual's will or consciousness. I am not necessarily
assuming the existence of some completely stable, completely atomistic self. I
am merely assuming that poststructuralist views of an entirely constructed self

"built up" at the site of cultural intersections is either an implausible hypothesis


or, at best, an exaggerated truth. To make such assertions as are common in
contemporary criticism--language speaks us, culture creates us, history shapes
us, gender determines us, or to make Marx's claim that the material and political
forms of social existence determine consciousness--asserts what is only half true.
We are never so situated that we are fully formed and forever fixed. We are not
selves just passively molded or shaped by cookie-cutter forces of language or
history. We actually negotiate our selves through time by forms of individual
resistance, acceptance, and suspension of judgment.

The evidence for this last claim lies in our conduct. Every time we check an
impulse, apologize to someone for having yielded to an impulse, bite our tongue
to preserve social harmony, choose to vote our conscience rather than our
interest, or deliberately choose an act or expression of charity toward another
even when we feel unjustly used, we affirm our freedom to choose who we will
become as moral agents. Achilles yielding the body of Hector to Priam, Socrates
declining his friends' offer to rig a life-saving escape from prison, Atticus Finch
being spat on but not spitting back, Sidney Carton going to the guillotine in
Charles Darnay's place, civil rights workers in the 1960s practicing passive
resistance rather than terrorism, a tired teacher who is eager to go home taking
off her coat and spending extra time to counsel a frightened freshman about his
low grades on hard-worked essays: such acts of patience, forbearance,
forgiveness, generosity, compassion, and kindness may be influenced by but they
are certainly not acts of language, history, culture, or gender. They are the acts of
individuals choosing. Because in each case the moral agent could have behaved
otherwise, in that "could have" lies freedom, the moment of moral choice, the
moment we choose this ethos rather than that ethos and thus decide not only
who we are but who we are to become. Ethical criticism takes the experience of
these moment-by-moment choices as moral character in formation. It insists on
our status as persons who are becoming rather than finished. Into the space
created by the distance between what we now are and what we may yet become,
fiction (along with a great many other forces) finds room to exert its influence.
The ethical critic is the taxonomist who eagerly categorizes the forms and kinds
of that influence as well as analyzes the mechanisms by which it does its work.

Ethos and the Vicarious Imagination. Another idea about the formation of selves
that ethical criticism brings to the table is the importance of the vicarious
imagination in determining character. The vicarious imagination gives us the
power to identify, to experience others' feelings and ideas and experience--their
entire mode of being--as if they were our own. Without reference to the vicarious
imagination, we cannot explain how fictional representations get out of the text
and into our heads. We know by both description and experience that
identification not only "works," but that it determines for us much of the quality
of our existence. How identification works seems tied, once we take the craft of
the artist for granted, to the way our imagination, acting as a bridge, allows us to

leave the boundaries that make up our own sense of self, like passing through
some marvelously permeable membrane between souls, in order to take on other
senses of selves. Significantly, this temporary and imaginative merging of selves
produces clarity rather than confusion. In literary experience we are given the gift
of identification without the pathology of delusion.

When we read or see a story, we apply for temporary foreign citizenship in other
times, places, and modes of being. We become citizens of the world that the
literary characters inhabit. It is such a common thing that we think too seldom
about what a profoundly moving and potentially formative thing it is. Sven
Birkerts describes "the slow and meditative possession of a book" as "deep
reading": "we don't just read the words," says Birkerts, "we dream our lives in
their vicinity" (146). Stories take us not just to other places the way a freeway
takes us to other places: zipping us through the space of otherness without our
feeling or absorbing any of it. On the contrary, stories take us to other places that
get vividly realized in our heads, places about which we "know" the details, their
aromatic essence, the tactile and emotional feel of the total environment. The
mechanism for this is the vicarious imagination. In the words of Eva Brann:
"[T]hat seems to be, in sum, the nature of the feeling peculiar to the imaginative
state: It is the feeling of that image, be it figure or scene, and of no other; it is its
soul or genius loci--at once unarticulable in its particularity and archetypal in its
significance, fascinating in its familiarity and elusive in its candor" (769).

Vicarious imagining is a powerful and important form of learning, and, obviously,


learning is a powerful and important constituent of character, for what we know
is a large part of who we are. In very basic terms, the first and foremost thing we
all need to learn is how to be a human being, whatever the social context in
which we find ourselves born and reared. Since we are not born with this
knowledge programmed into our genes, we have to learn it from others, but life is
so limited in its pedagogical resources that no one can or does rely on first-hand
experience alone. The most obviously limiting feature of first-hand life is the way
it requires us to live at one point in space and time at a time when our education
would be vastly larger if we could live in different times and other spaces
simultaneously. This constraint is made even more stringent by life's brevity, by
the fact that we simply don't live long enough to move across the whole range of
life's categories.

Enter stories. Stories are surely human kind's most imaginative answer to the
constraints of brevity and linearity. Every human culture has developed an
important, universal, and deep way of reflecting on the human condition that
cleverly and profoundly transcends the limitations of first-hand life: the way of
stories. In fiction we can learn about the quality of lives and the manner of living
in times, places, and conditions not our own. This activity gives us those in-depth

views of the human condition that existential richness requires, but that the
short-armed grasp of first-hand experience is never capacious enough to provide
on its own.

The ethical implications of literary experience should now be more clear. We


become the ethical and moral agents that we are through the experience of
"taking in" from the world around us data, models, ideas, feelings, motives,
judgments, and so on. The strands of such knowledge we take in are like threads
of the world running one way and threads of life running the other way. We take
these crossing threads and weave them into the ever-changing fabric of that
thing we call our self, a fabric and a pattern that are always in formation, never
complete, never "done." Life and literature both lead us to form reactions that I
like to call, after Bellah, habits of the heart: the typical patterns of our
intellectual, emotional, and ethical responses.

The Nutritional Analogy. The third idea that ethical criticism brings to the table
of discussion is an analogy to the claim of nutritionists that "we are what we eat."
For nutritionists, "we are what we eat" is a thumbnail way of saying that our
regular diet is an important factor in our overall health. For ethical critics, a
similar assumption is that readers' regular imaginative diet--the consistent
consumption of fictional images--is an important constituent of moral and ethical
health (or ill health). According to the operations of the vicarious imagination and
the terms of the analogy, our literary diet helps develop within us such ethical
features as emotions, attitudes, values, beliefs, aspirations, and possible actions.
This analogy leads to two extensions, one dealing with further implications for the
consumer/reader, the other dealing with the role of the nutritional specialist, the
ethical critic.

Nutritionists deal with exercise in addition to diet. They know that our bodies
become what they are not only because of what we take in, but also because of
how we exercise them. Never exercising will certainly offset the benefits of a
good diet. In like manner, our minds and hearts become what they are not only
because of the moral, intellectual, and emotional content of what we take in, but
because of the way that content exercises our minds and hearts. The formal
strategies of stories exercise our ethical responses and, over time, shape them
into patterns that become distinctive habits of the heart. Every narrative--every
narrative commercial, song lyric, novel, TV program, movie, and so on--not only
pulls out of us a specific set of responses but also structures those responses.
Working our way through a narrative results in an orchestrated, patterned set of
responses. As long as we are attentively engaged, as long as we think we
understand what is happening, and, most importantly, as long as we desire to
receive any profit of pleasure in return for the investment of our time and energy,
we are at least potentially open to the kinds of emotional, intellectual, and ethical

interactions with literary texts that influence our typical ways of responding to
life, not just to fictions.

Kenneth Burke throws light on this issue of ethical exercise. In a chapter that he
calls "Literature as Equipment for Living," Burke lays down an argument--sketchy
but pregnant--asserting that literature, specifically fiction, "names" the situations
of life to which we must form responses and, moreover, helps us adopt the
attitudes toward these situations that define and create our own moral agency.
By representing these situations in all of their concrete embededness and by
helping us "adopt an attitude," Burke argues that fictions provide us with models
for how to face and deal with life's situations.

[T]he main point is this: A work like Madame Bovary (or its homely American
translation, Babbitt) is the strategic naming of a situation. It singles out a pattern
of experience that is sufficiently representative of our social structure [...] for
people to "need a word for it" and to adopt an attitude toward it. [...] Art forms
like "tragedy" or "comedy" or "satire" would be treated as equipment for living
that size up situations in various ways and in keeping with correspondingly
various attitudes. (296-304; emphasis added)

In adopting attitudes we create character, yet the assumption behind Burke's


comment--and behind the nutritional analogy as well--is not that a literary diet is
all-determinative of character. Many forces other than story, after all, influence
character. However, the influence of our fictional diet is generally underrated as
far as effects go and is generally misunderstood as far as go the mechanisms
that convey the effects (see Gregory, CEA Critic 1990 and Gregory, Narrative).

For the critic, the main implication of the nutritional analogy touches on one of
the most sensitive--that is, controversial--roles of the ethical critic: the attempt to
evaluate both the contents and effects of literature in ethical terms. The ethical
critic ventures into this field of controversy because the nutritional analogy
suggests to him a proper function. As the person who has tried to think long and
deeply about the relationship between literature and ethics, the ethical critic has
an obligation to assist others to think better about that relationship as well.
Nutritionists worth their professional degrees would never let a client who needed
to lose weight get by with the flabby argument that, after all, chocolate cake is
"merely entertainment," or is subject to a variety of interpretations, or is
composed of rhetorically unstable perspectives, or is semantically indeterminate,
or must be viewed in its historical context, or is the favorite dessert in the English
Department at Duke University. Without being diverted even momentarily by
such self-serving and diversionary rationalizations, but also without arrogating or
desiring the authority to force the client to forgo chocolate cake, responsible

nutritionists would nevertheless be aggressive in presenting the most reasonable


and carefully thought-out arguments they can muster for healthy food and
against rich desserts.

It is precisely at this point that horrified exclamations of "Oh, my God, we're


talking censorship!" begin to appear. But "we" aren't talking censorship.
Censorship is a red-herring and has no more to do with ethical criticism in any
necessary way than the precious Unities had to do with good drama. Once
Samuel Johnson grabbed the Unities by the throat in his "Preface to Shakespeare"
(231-33) and demanded that they leave drama alone, they gave up the ghost at
once and have never been heard from again. The connection between ethical
criticism and censorship should die the same kind of death. No ethical critic
supposes that censorship will even or ever work, much less that it will make
people virtuous. In Areopagitica, John Milton put this issue to rest as
comprehensively and decisively in his day as Johnson put the issue of the Unities
to rest in his day: "They are not skillful considerers of human things" says Milton,
"who imagine to remove sin by removing the matter of sin" (24). And no ethical
critic who has really thought about the complexity of the relationship between
ethics and literature has such faith in the infallibility of his or her judgment that
he would even want, much less attempt to exercise, the power to coerce other
people to do her literary bidding. Those who do wish to censor writers or libraries
or readers are not ethical critics but dogmatists. The two should not be confused.

But the ethical critic who warns his or her "friends" (even if they are unknown
readers) of a danger that the friends have perhaps not thought about, or warns
them of a relationship that may not be as innocent as they suppose, or who
makes arguments about the possible negative effects of yielding to certain
invitations of feeling, thinking, and judging is not performing a censor's function.
To warn is not the same thing as forcibly stopping. Nor is warning the same thing
as forcibly ridding the world of the dangers you are warning about. To an ethical
critic, censorship simply is not the important issue in ethical criticism. In ethical
criticism, the important issue is what we make of ourselves by the choices we
make and the actions we perform. None of us chooses our actions or makes our
choices in a social and moral vacuum. We seek help from friends, from models,
from ideas, from value systems, and from different fields of discourse. Ethical
critics attempt to create a kind of discourse about literature's potential effects on
feeling, thinking, and judging that will be helpful, sometimes by warning,
sometimes by praising, but always by foregrounding for readers the importance
of being self-critical about the kinds of literary and other fictional invitations they
accept.

Ethical critics can help readers not only by questioning the potentially negative
effects of certain fictions, but also by finding grounds for showing the potentially

positive effects of other fictions. The attack on literary meaning conducted by


many contemporary critics has made it difficult for teachers and other lovers of
literature to find grounds on which to defend their literary commitments and has
especially made it difficult for teachers to find grounds for recommending the
books they love to their students. Ethical criticism finds ways of arguing the
positive value of many different kinds of literary encounters. William Kennedy
recalls his initial confusion when, as an undergraduate at the University of
Virginia, he first heard William Faulkner talk in class about literature's ability to
"uplift" the human heart.

This uplift business baffled me. I was reading and rereading The Sound and the
Fury, Sanctuary, Light in August, The Wild Palms and Absalom, Absalom!--tales of
incest and whoring and rape and dying love and madness and murder and racial
hate and miscegenational tragedy and idiocy--and saying to myself, "This is
uplift?"

But I kept reading and found I couldn't get enough; I had to reread to satisfy the
craving, and came to answer the question in a word: yes. I felt exalted by the
man's work, not by reveling in all the disasters, but by learning from his language
and his insights and his storytelling genius how certain other people lived and
thought. I was privileged to enter into the most private domains of their lives and
they became my friends or people I'd keep at least at arm's length or people I
pitied, feared or loved. This was truly an uplifting experience, something akin to
real friendship, and I began to understand the process by which writing reaches
into another person's heart.(n9) (35)

Here the friendship and the nutritional analogy both apply: the friends Kennedy
took in acted as forms of intellectual, emotional, and ethical nourishment. Thus
story works its way into the very nerve endings of our ethical lives.
Conclusion
So ethical criticism does matter. It matters because who we become matters and
because literature, or, rather, story in general, as an important midwife to our
becoming, helps usher us into the world. Insofar as ethical criticism helps us
understand how this influence gets exerted, how our responses get elicited, and
how these responses get both shaped up and filled in by literary experience, it
contributes to the ongoing human enterprise of getting to know ourselves better
in order that, in our improved understanding, we can come closer to creating the
kind of world we want rather than settling for the world we have. Ethical criticism
can make a contribution to literary study, to the humanities, and to civilized living
by helping readers recognize the Janus face of literary experience. While one
countenance looks outward at society, the other countenance looks inward at our
own souls. Finally, ethical criticism can help us understand how the perspectives

of these two countenances eventually merge into the public and private entity we
call an ethos. The old adage, "It is never too late to become what you might have
been" is pertinent here, for all of us are trying to become what we might have
been, and in our efforts we use experience both from first-hand life and from
second-hand fictions. These fictions are frequently so powerful, so beautiful, so
jolting, so vivid, so intimate, so challenging, so repeated, and so long-lasting in
their effects that they sometimes exert a gradually transformative effect: they
enter into and partly form the habits of our heart and thus help us see not only
who we are but what we might become.
Notes
(n1) Clearly, I am not speaking here of only printed stories or literature written
as fine art. I am including the oral stories and fables and apologues of tribal
societies and, indeed, of our own society. In short, I am talking about stories in all
their shapes and forms and in all the media by which they get conveyed to those
who consume them.

(n2) Helen Gardner makes much the same point in even more detail: "Since
imaginative literature gives us images of human life and records human
experience, it is inevitably full of moral ideas and moral feelings, strongly
engages our moral sympathies, and tests our moral allegiances. [...] The writers
[...] who most notably expand our knowledge of the world and of ourselves [...]
[are] those who, while they amuse us, evoke our curiosity and engage our
sympathies, involve us in a world of moral choice and moral values through our
`fond participation' in imagined adventures, crises, joys and distresses" (37).

(n3) The following catalog is a short list of some of the accusations against
ethical critics that most literary critics for the last 100 years have readily
accepted.
Ethical critics are just censors in sheep's clothing who want to tell artists what
they can write and readers what they can read, or at least what will be good for
them to write and read.
Ethical critics think it is literature's job to teach moral lessons and, in
consequence, they reductively transform every text into an apologue, a moral
fable, or a Sunday School lesson.
Ethical critics are narrow-minded, doctrinaire moralists who, like the stereotype
of the old-fashioned house mother looking for men in a women's dorm,
concentrate salaciously on sniffing out sin from its literary hiding places so they
can hang both the sin and the book on the gallows of dogma.
Ethical critics naively believe that reading canonical literature automatically
elevates readers' morality.

Ethical critics are either sexual prudes or religious fundamentalists, neither of


whom understand anything about aesthetic imperatives or the first amendment
to the Constitution.
Ethical critics are intellectual guerrillas, both anti-philosophical and antitheoretical, who ambush literary texts on moral grounds without ever taking into
account the ought/is distinction or the fact/value split.
Ethical critics willfully ignore the wisdom of Henry James's dictum that
"questions of art are questions [...] of execution; questions of morality are quite
another affair" (446); Kant's assertion that "the beautiful, the judging which has
at its basis a merely formal purposiveness, i.e., purposiveness without purpose, is
quite independent of the concept of the good" (386); Philip Sidney's dictum that
"for the poet, he nothing affirms, and therefore never lieth" (149); Northrop Frye's
statement that "there's no such thing as a morally bad novel: its moral effect
depends entirely on the moral quality of the reader" (94); Derrida's view that "the
absence of the transcendental signified extends the domain and interplay of
signification ad infinitum" (961); Michel Foucault's assertion, following Roland
Barthes's lead, that "the author function [...] does not refer purely and simply to a
real individual, since it can give rise simultaneously to several selves, to several
subjects--positions that can be occupied by different classes of individuals" (153);
or Barbara Herrnstein Smith's view that "all value is radically contingent, being
neither an inherent property of objects nor an arbitrary projection of subjects but,
rather, the product of the dynamics of an economic system" (11); and many
other such assertions in the same vein.

(n4) John Morley railing at Swinburne for "persistently and gleefully [flying] to the
animal side of human nature" (880); Robert Buchanan accusing "the fleshly
school of verse writers" (Rossetti) of "diligently spreading the seeds of disease
broadcast" (889); Elizabeth Rigby attacking the politically incendiary and "antichristian" tendencies of Jane Eyre (449-50); the trial in which Gustave Flaubert
was charged with an "outrage to public morality and religion" (7) for publishing
Madame Bovary; the bannings in America of the sale of Lady Chatterly's Lover
and The Tropic of Cancer; and the persistent attempts of some parents and some
school boards today to pull The Catcher in the Rye and Huckleberry Finn from
school libraries.

(n5) William Perry, author of Forms of Intellectual and Ethical Development in the
College Years: A Scheme.

(n6) Emotivism produces contradictions that sometimes seem hopeless,


sometimes seem comic, but that in either case speak to our deep confusions
about ethical discourse. Just recently, as I was taking one of my periodic beatings
at the faculty lunch table for my interest in ethical criticism, a colleague asserted

to me decisively that "literature has no more to do with making moral character


than it has to do with making shoes." Two minutes later he was applauding me
for my efforts to teach Areopagitica in a freshman class on the grounds that
"working through Milton's ideas about censorship will be good for your students."
When I hazarded that he had just made a judgment about the (potential) ethical
benefits of reading a certain text, he responded, "that's not an ethical judgment;
it's just my opinion." The presumption here is what?--that ethical judgments are
not opinions, or that mere opinions can never carry the weight of ethical
judgment? I think the presumption is simply that making ethical judgments is
intellectually retrograde but that opinions are defensible. The danger of such
confusion is that it threatens to deprive us of any grounds for conducting moral
discourse at all, and the danger of this is that, since moral issues comprise an
unavoidable and permanent part of human sociability, depriving ourselves of the
ability to discuss these issues only deepens the confusion in which we live and
leads to an impoverishing sense of randomness and formlessness.

(n7) If it seems odd to offer a fiction as an example of the criticism of fiction, I


refer my reader to Wayne Booth's incisive comment that "powerful narratives
provide our best criticism of other powerful narratives" (283).

(n8) Here and in the remainder of this paragraph I am not quoting particular
persons; the quotation marks indicate typical positions and typical views.

(n9) Martha Nussbaum corroborates Kennedy's sense of friendship with literary


characters and books in a parallel account of her own schooling: "In my school
there was nothing that Anglo-American conventions would call `philosophy.' And
yet the questions of this book (which I shall call, broadly, ethical) were raised and
investigated. The pursuit of truth there was a certain sort of reflection about
literature. And the form the ethical questions took, as the roots of some of them
grew into me, was usually that of reflecting and feeling about a particular literary
character, a particular novel; or, sometimes, an episode from history, but seen as
the material for a dramatic plot of my own imagining. All this was, of course, seen
in relation to life itself, which was itself seen, increasingly, in ways influenced by
the stories and the sense of life they expressed. Aristotle, Plato, Spinoza, Kant-these were still unknown to me. Dickens, Jane Austen, Aristophanes, Ben Jonson,
Euripides, Shakespeare, Dostoyevsky--these were my friends, my spheres of
reflection" (11).
Works Cited
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Bellah, Robert N., et. al. Habits of the Heart: Individualism and Commitment in
American Life. Berkeley: U of California P, 1985.

Birkerts, Sven. The Gutenberg Elegies: The Fate of Reading in an Electronic Age.
New York: Fawcett, 1994.
Booth, Wayne C. The Company We Keep: An Ethics of Fiction. Berkeley: U of
California P, 1988.
Brann, Eva T. H. The World of Imagination: Sum and Substance. Lanham, MD:
Rowman & Littlefield, 1994.
Buchanan, Robert. "The Fleshly School of Poetry: Mr. D. G. Rossetti." Victorian
Poetry and Poetics. 2nd ed. Ed. Walter E. Houghton and G. Robert Stange. Boston:
Houghton Mifflin, 1968: 888-98.
Burke, Kenneth. The Philosophy of Literary Form: Studies in Symbolic Action. 2nd
ed. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State UP, 1941, 1967.
Caughie, Pamela L. "Let It Pass: Changing the Subject, Once Again." PMLA 112.1
(January 1997): 26-39.
Fish, Stanley. "Rhetoric." Critical Terms for Literary Study. 2nd. ed. Ed. Frank
Lentricchia and Thomas McLaughlin. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1995: 20322.
Flaubert, Gustave. Madame Bovary. Ed. and trans. Paul de Man. New York: Norton,
1965.
Foucault, Michel. "What Is an Author?" Textual Strategies: Perspectives in PostStructuralist Criticism. Trans. and ed. Josue V. Harari. Ithaca, NY: Cornell UP, 1979:
141-60.
Frye, Northrop. The Educated Imagination. Bloomington: Indiana UP, 1964.
Gardner, Helen. In Defence of the Imagination. Cambridge, MA: Harvard UP,
1982.
Gregory, Marshall. "Humanism's Heat, Postmodernism's Cool." CEA Critic 57.2
(Winter 1995): 1-25.
-----. "The Sound of Story: An Inquiry Into Literature and Ethos." Narrative 3.1
(January 1995): 33-56.
-----. "Character Formation in the Literary Classroom." CEA Critic 53.2 (Winter,
1990): 5-21.
Harpham, Geoffrey Galt. Getting It Right: Language, Literature, and Ethics.
Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1992.
Horace. The Satires of Horace. Ed. Arthur Palmer. New York: St. Martin's, 1959.
James, Henry. "The Art of Fiction." The Critical Tradition: Classic Texts and
Contemporary Trends. 2nd ed. Ed. David H. Richter. New York: St. Martin's, 1998:
436-47.

Johnson, Samuel. "Preface to Shakespeare." The Critical Tradition: Classic Texts


and Contemporary Trends. 2nd ed. Ed. David H. Richter. New York: St. Martin's,
1998: 224-38.
Kant, Immanuel. "Critique of Judgment." Critical Theory Since Plato. Ed. Hazard
Adams. New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich: 377-99.
Kennedy, William. "Why I Took So Long." New York Times Book Review, 20 May
1990:1 +.
LaCapra, Dominick. Madame Bovary on Trial. Ithaca, NY: Cornell UP, 1982.
Louden, Robert B. Morality and Moral Theory: A Reappraisal and Reaffirmation.
New York: Oxford UP, 1992.
MacIntyre, Alasdair. After Virtue: A Study in Moral Theory. Notre Dame, IN: U Notre
Dame P, 1981.
Midgley, Mary. Can't We Make Moral Judgements? New York: St. Martin's, 1991.
Milton, John. Areopagitica. 1664. Santa Barbara, CA: Bandanna Books, 1992.
Morley, John. "Mr. Swinburne's New Poems: Poems and Ballads." Victorian Poetry
and Poetics. 2nd ed. Ed. Walter E. Houghton and G. Robert Stange. Boston:
Houghton Mifflin, 1968: 880-84.
Nealon, Jeffrey T. "The Ethics of Dialogue: Bakhtin and Levinas." College English
59.2 (February 1997): 129-48.
Norris, Christopher. Truth and the Ethics of Criticism. Manchester: Manchester UP,
1994.
Nussbaum, Martha. Love's Knowledge: Essays on Philosophy and Literature. New
York: Oxford UP, 1990.
Perry, William. Forms of Intellectual and Ethical Development in the College Years:
A Scheme. New York: Holt, Rinehart, and Winston, 1970.
Plato. Symposium. Trans. Alexander Nehamas and Paul Woodruff. Indianapolis:
Hackett, 1989.
Rabinowitz, Peter J. Before Reading: Narrative Conventions and the Politics of
Interpretation. Ithaca, NY: Cornell UP, 1987.
Rigby, Elizabeth. "An Anti-Christian Composition." Jane Eyre: An Authoritative
Text, Backgrounds, Criticism. Ed. Richard J. Dunn. New York: Norton, 1971: 44953.
Sidney, Philip. "An Apology for Poetry." The Critical Tradition: Classic Texts and
Contemporary Trends. 2nd ed. Ed. David H. Richter. New York: St. Martin's, 1998:
134-59.

Smith, Barbara Herrnstein. "Contingencies of Value." Critical Inquiry 10.1


(September 1983): 1-35.
Todorov, Tzvetan. Literature and Its Theorists. Trans. Catherine Porter. Ithaca, NY:
Cornell UP, 1987.
Wilson, James Q. The Moral Sense. New York: Free Press, 1993.
~~~~~~~~
By Marshall Gregory, Butler University

Naslov: The Ethics of Reading Elie Wiesel's Night. Prema: Schwarz, Daniel R.,
Style, 00394238, Summer98, Svezak. 32, Broj 2.
THE ETHICS OF READING ELIE WIESEL'S NIGHT

Select: American Accent Australian Accent British Accent

A Dead Child Speaks

My mother held me by my hand.


Then someone raised the knife of parting:
So that it should not strike me,
My mother loosed her hand from mine.
But she lightly touched my thighs once more
And her hand was bleeding--

After that the knife of parting


Cut in two each bite I swallowed-It rose before me with the sun at dawn
And began to sharpen itself in my eyes-Wind and water ground in my ear
And every voice of comfort pierced my heart-As I was led to death

I still felt in the last moment


The unsheathing of the great knife of parting.

--Nelly Sachs

The survivor [...] is a disturber of the peace. He is a runner of the blockade men
erect against knowledge of "unspeakable" things. About these he aims to speak,
and in so doing he undermines, without intending to, the validity of existing
norms. He is a genuine transgressor, and here he is made to feel real guilt. The
world to which he appeals does not admit him, and since he has looked to this
world as the source of moral order, he begins to doubt himself. And that is not the
end, for now his guilt is doubled by betrayal--of himself, of his task, of his vow to
the dead. The final guilt is not to bear witness. The survivor's worst torment is not
to be able to speak

--Terence Des Pres


I
In considering ethical reading, we should differentiate between an ethics of
reading and an ethics while reading. For me, an ethics of reading includes
acknowledging who we are and what are our biases and interests. An ethics of
reading speaks of our reading as if, no matter how brilliant, it were proposing
some possibilities rather than vatically providing the solution to Daniel's
prophetic reading of handwriting on the wall; it means reading from multiple
perspectives, or at least empathetically entering into the readings of those who
are situated differently. For me, an ethics while reading would try to understand
what the author was saying to her original imagined audience and both why and
how the actual polyauditory audience might have responded and for what
reasons. An ethics while reading is different from but, in its attention to a valueoriented epistemology, related to an ethics of reading. An ethics while reading
implies attention to moral issues generated by events described within an
imagined world. It asks what ethical questions are involved in the act of
transforming life into art, and notices such issues as Pound's or Eliot's antiSemitism and the patronizing racism of some American-nineteenth- and early
twentieth-century writers. What we choose to read and especially what to include
on syllabi have an ethical dimension. Thus, I will choose to select other Conrad
works for my undergraduate lecture course than the unfortunately titled The
Nigger of the Narcissus.

Let me tentatively propose five stages of the hermeneutical activities involved in


ethical reading and interpretation. Even while acknowledging that my model is

suggestive rather than rigorous, I believe that we do perceive in stages that


move from a naive response or surface interpretation to critical or in-depth
interpretation and, finally, to understanding our readings conceptually and
ethically in terms of other knowledge. Awareness of such stages enables us to
read ethically. My stages are:
1. Immersion in the process of reading and the discovery of imagined worlds.
Reading is a place where text and reader meet in a transaction. As we open a
text, we and the author meet as if together we were going to draw a map on an
uncharted space. We partially suspend our sense of our world as we enter into
the imagined world; we respond in experimental terms to the episodes, the story,
the physical setting, the individualized characters as humans and, the telling
voice. While it has become fashionable to speak dismissively of such reading as
"naive," or the result of the "mimetic illusion," in fact how many of us do not read
in that way with pleasure and delight--and with ethical judgments? Who of us
would be teaching and studying literature had we not learned to read
mimetically?
2. Quest for understanding. Our quest is closely related to the diachronic, linear,
temporal activity of reading. The quest speaks to the gap between "what did you
say?" and "what did you mean?" In writing, as opposed to speech, the speaker
cannot correct, intrude, or qualify; she cannot use gestures or adjust the delivery
of her discourse. Because in writing we lack the speaker's help, we must make
our own adjustments in our reading. As Paul Ricouer notes, "What the text says
now matters more than what the author meant to say, and every exegesis
unfolds its procedures within the circumference of a meaning that has broken its
moorings to the psychology of its author" (191). We complete the sign of the
imagined world by providing the signified, but no sooner do we complete a sign
than it becomes a signifier in search of a new signified. In modern and
postmodern texts, our search for necessary information will be much more of a
factor than in traditional texts. In this stage, as we are actively unraveling the
complexities of plot, we also seek to discover the principles or world-view by
which the author expects us to understand characters' behavior in terms of
motives and values. Moreover, we make ethical judgments of intersubjective
relations and authorial choices.
3. Self-conscious reflection. Reflection speaks to the gap between "what did you
mean?" and "what does that mean?" Upon reflection, we may adjust our
perspective or see new ones. What the interpretive reader does--particularly with
spare, implicatory modern literature--is fill the gaps left by the text to create an
explanatory text or midrash on the text itself. As Iser puts it, 'What is said only
appears to take on significance as a reference to what is not said; it is the
implications and not the statements that give shape and weight to the meaning"
(Suleiman and Crosman 111). While the reader half-perceives, half-creates his
original "immersed" reading of the text, he retrospectively--from the vantage
point of knowing the whole--imposes shape and form on his story of reading. He
discovers its significance in relation to his other experiences, including other
reading experiences, and in terms of the interpretive communities to which he

belongs. He reasons posteriorly from effects to causes. He is aware of


referentiality to the anterior world--how that world informs the author's mimesis-and to the world in which he lives. He begins--more in modern texts, but even in
traditional texts--to separate his own version of what is really meant from what is
said, and to place ethical issues in the context of larger value issues.

Here Todorov's distinction between signification and symbolization is useful.


"Signified facts are understood: all we need is knowledge of the language in
which the text is written. Symbolization facts are interpreted: and interpretations
vary from one subject to another" (Suleiman and Crosman 73). A problem is that,
in practice, what is understood or judged by one reader as signified facts may
require interpretation or a different ethical judgment by another.

4. Critical analysis. As Paul Ricouer writes, "To understand a text is to follow its
movement from sense to reference, from what it says to what it talks about"
(214). In the process, we always move from signifier to signified; for no sooner do
we understand what the original signifiers signify within the imagined world than
these signifieds in turn become signifiers for larger issues and symbolic
constructions in the world beyond the text. And we respond in terms of the
values enacted by the agon and, as with Eliot's and Pound's anti-Semitism, resist
where texts disturb our sense of fairness.

While the reader responds to texts in such multiple ways and for such diverse
reasons that we cannot speak of a correct reading, we can speak of a dialogue
among plausible readings. Drawing upon our interpretive strategies, we reflect on
generic, intertextual, linguistic, and biographical relationships that disrupt linear
reading; we move back and forth from the whole to the part. My responses to my
reading are a function of what I know, what I have recently been reading, my last
experience of reading a particular author, my knowledge of the period in which
she wrote as well as the influences upon her and her influence on others, and my
current values. My responses also depend both on how willing I am to suspend
my irony and detachment and enter into the imagined world of the text and on
how much of the text my memory retains.

5. Cognition in terms of what we know. Drawing upon our interpretive strategies,


we reflect on generic, intertextual, linguistic, and biographical relationships that
disrupt linear reading; we move back and forth from the whole to the part. As
Ricouer writes: "The reconstruction of the text as a whole is implied in the
recognition of the parts. And reciprocally, it is in constructing the details that we
construe the whole" (204). We return to the original reading experience and text
and subsequently modify our conceptual hypotheses about genre, period, author,
canon, themes, and most of all, values. We integrate what we have read into our

reading of other texts and into our way of looking at ourselves and the world.
Here we consciously use our values and our categorizing sensibility--our rage for
order--to make sense of our reading experience and our way of being in our
world. In the final stage, the interpretive reader may become a critic who writes
his own text about the "transaction" between himself and the text--and this
response has an ethical component. Novels raise different ethical questions, ones
that enable us to consider not only how we would behave in certain
circumstances, but also whether--even as we empathetically read a text--we
should maintain some stance of resistance by which to judge that text's ethical
implications.
II
Let us now turn to our example. Elie Wiesel begins Night, his fictionalized
autobiographical memoir of the Holocaust with a description of Moshe the
Beadle, an insignificant figure in a small town in Transylvania who taught the
narrator about the cabbala: "They called him Moshe the Beadle, as though he
had never had a surname in his life. He was a man of all work at a Hasidic
synagogue. The Jews of Sighet--that little town in Transylvania where I spent my
childhood--were very fond of him. He was very poor and lived humbly. [...] He was
a past master in the art of making himself insignificant, of seeming invisible. [...] I
loved his great, dreaming eyes, their gaze lost in the distance" (1). But Moshe is
expelled in early 1942 because he is a foreign Jew, and is not heard of for several
months. He unexpectedly returns to tell of his miraculous escape from a Gestapo
slaughter of Jews in the Polish Forests. But no one believes him. Moshe cries:
"Jews, listen to me. [...] Only listen to me" (5). But everyone assumes that he has
gone mad. And the narrator--still a young boy--recalls asking him: "Why are you
so anxious that people should believe what you say? In your place, I shouldn't
care whether they believed me or not" (5).

Let us consider the significance of Moshe the Beadle. For one thing, Wiesel is
using him as metonymy for himself in his present role as narrator who is, as he
writes, calling on us to listen to his words as he tells his relentless tale of his own
miraculous escape from Nazi terror. Implicitly, he is urging us that it is our ethical
responsibility not to turn away from the Witnessing Voice--Moshe, himself, indeed
all those who have seen, specifically, the Holocaust, and metonymically, for us,
man's inhumanity to man--whether it occurs in Bosnia, Northern Ireland, or
Somalia.

Night is a narrative that traces the dissolution of the Jewish community in Sighet,
the ghettoes, deportations, concentration camps, crematoriums, death marches,
and, finally, liberation. Distilling memoir into narrative form, Night traces the
growth of adolescent courage and the loss of religious faith. Wiesel's original
Yiddish title for Night was Un di velt hot geshvign, or in English, And the World
Remained Silent. He distilled 862 pages to the 245 of the published Yiddish

edition and Jerome Lindon, the French publisher, further edited it to 178 pages. I
am interested not in the indictment of Wiesel for transforming his nominalistic
memoir into novelistic form, but in how, in response to publishing circumstances
and perhaps his own transformation, he reconfigured an existential novel about
the descent into moral night into a somewhat affirmative reemergence to life.
While the narrator is a fifteen year old boy, Wiesel was born in 1928 and would
have been sixteen for most of the 1944-5 period. Is not this age discrepancy one
reason why we ought think of Night as a novel as well as a memoir?

Another more important reason Night is a novel is that there was a substantive
change from the original Yiddish text submitted in 1954, months before he met
Francois Mauriac, and 1958 when the French version was published. In 1956, it
was volume 117 of a series on Polish Jews entitled Dos polyishe yidntum (Polish
Jewry). Wiesel's title was Un di velt. Seidman writes:

What distinguishes the Yiddish from the French is not so much length as attention
to detail, an adherence to that principle of comprehensiveness so valued by the
editors and reviewers of the Polish Jewry series. Thus, whereas the first page of
Night succintly and picturesquely describes Sighet as "that little town in
Transylvania where I spent my childhood," Un di velt introduces Sighet as "the
most important city [shtot] and the one with the largest Jewish population in the
province of Marmarosh." The Yiddish goes on to provide a historical account of
the region: "Until the First World War, Sighet belonged to Austro-Hungary. Then it
became part of Romania. In 1940, Hungary acquired it again." And while the
French memoir is dedicated "in memory of my parents and of my little sister,
Tsipora," the Yiddish names both victims and perpetrators: "This book is
dedicated to the eternal memory of my mother Sarah, my father Shlomo, and my
little sister Tsipora--who were killed by the German murderers."

The Yiddish text may have been only lightly edited in the transition to French, but
the effect of this editing was to position the memoir within a different literary
genre. Even the title Un di velt hot geshvign signifies a kind of silence very
distant from the mystical silence at the heart of Night. The Yiddish title indicts the
world that did nothing to stop the Holocaust and allows its perpetrators to carry
on normal lives; La Nuit names no human or even divine agents in the events it
describes. From the historical and political specificities of Yiddish documentary
testimony, Wiesel and his French publishing house fashioned something closer to
mythopoetic narrative. (5)

What Seidman calls the "mythopoetic narrative," I would call a novel with a
central agon, a structure of affects, a narrative voice, an imagined narratee, and
an ending that transforms, modifies, and reformulates what precedes.

Whether a novel or memoir, Night depends upon and affirms the concept of
individual agency, for the speaker tells a wondrous and horrible tale of saving his
life and shaping his role as Witness, perhaps our Daniel. As Terence Des Pres
writes:

Silence is the only adequate response, but the pressure of the scream persists.
This is the obsessive center of Wiesel's writing: his protagonists desire a silence
they cannot keep. [...] The conflict between silence and the scream, so prominent
in Wiesel's novels, is in fact a battle between death and life, between allegiance
to the dead and care for the living, which rages in the survivor and resolves itself
in the act of bearing witness. [...] Silence, in its primal aspect, is a consequence
of terror, of a dissolution of self and world that, once known, can never be fully
dispelled. But in retrospect it becomes something else. Silence constitutes the
realm of the dead. It is the palpable substance of those millions murdered, the
world no longer present, that intimate absence--of God, of man, of love--by which
the survivor is haunted. In the survivor's voice the dead's own scream is active.
(36)

In Night we see dramatized the process of the narrator's developing into his role
of ethical witness in the face of historical forces that would obliterate his
humanity, his individuality, and his voice. Notwithstanding the efficiency of Nazi
cultural production and the technology of the death camps and gas chambers,
the narrator recreates himself through language. In the sense of the
technological fulfillment of an ordered state that subordinated individual rights to
the national purpose of the State, Nazi ideology has been thought of as a product
of modernism. For those, like Wiesel, who have experienced the Holocaust first
hand--for whom Auschwitz is not a metaphor but a memory--language is more
than the free play of signifiers. For these people and others on the political edge,
their very telling--their very living--testifies to will, agency, and a desire to
survive that resists and renders morally irrelevant simple positivistic explanations
arguing that an author's language is culturally produced. One might ask why
Wiesel writes. For one thing, it is to bear witness; for another, it is an act of selftherapy; for a third, it is a kind of transference; and as the dedication stresses
("In memory of my parents and my little sister, Tsipora,") it is an act of homage.
Furthermore, in psychoanalytic linguistic terms, the narrator's telling is a
resistance to the way in which the word "Jew" was culturally produced to mean
inferior people who were progressively discounted, deprived of basic rights as
citizens, labeled with a Yellow Star of David, imprisoned, enslaved, and killed. We
might recall how all male German Jews were required to take the middle name
"Israel," all females the name "Sarah."

Modernism, as James Clifford notes, takes "as its problem--and opportunity-the


fragmentation and juxtaposition of cultural values" (117). Wiesel's novel/memoir
Night is an essentialist rejection of that fragmentation and juxtaposition even
while it records the grotesque consequences in Europe of their occurrence.
According to Wiesel, "the Holocaust in its enormity defies language and art, and
yet both must be used to tell the tale, the tale that must be told" (Muschamp 1).
The very opening, "They called him Moshe the Beadle," is a storyteller's invitation
to step into another world. As with any life writing, the selection and arrangement
into narrative blur the line between fiction and fact, and the inclusion of dialogue,
recalled at an immense distance of years, contributes to the novelistic aspect of
his memoir.

Wiesel explains in his essay "An Interview Unlike Any Other" why he waited ten
years to write his memoir:

I knew the role of the survivor was to testify. Only I did not know how. I lacked
experience, I lacked a framework. I mistrusted the tools, the procedures. Should
one say it all or hold it all back? Should one shout or whisper? Place the emphasis
on those who were gone or on their heirs? How does one describe the
indescribable? How does one use restraint in re-creating the fall of mankind and
the eclipse of the gods? And then, how can one be sure that the words, once
uttered, will not betray, distort the message they bear?

So heavy was my anguish that I made a vow: not to speak, not to touch upon the
essential for at least ten years. Long enough to see clearly. Long enough to learn
to listen to the voices crying inside my own. Long enough to regain possession of
my memory. Long enough to unite the language of man with the silence of the
dead. (A Jew Today 15)

Night is a spare, rough-hewn text that is an eloquent testimony depending on


human agency and ethical commitment. Night reminds us, too, that the concept
of author-function as a substitute for the creating intelligence does not do justice
to the way in which language and art express the individual psyche. Readers will
recall that the book's signification depends on a taut structure underpinning an
apparently primitive testimony, and, depends, too, on its spare, even sparse
style. Its eloquence derives from its apparent ingenuousness. Yet Night speaks on
behalf of meaning, on behalf of will--the will to survive, the will to witness--and on
behalf of language's signification. Night eloquently reminds us of a grotesque
historical irony, namely, that with its use of modern technology and
Enlightenment rationality, Western man's progress led to the efficiency of the
Nazi transport system, Nazi work camps, and Nazi gas chambers. Night is a text
that resists irony and deconstruction, and cries out in its eloquence, pain, and

anger as it enacts the power of language. The text traces the death of the
narrator's mother, a sister, and finally, his father; it witnesses an encroaching
horrible moral NIGHT, a night that includes the speaker's loss of religious belief in
the face of historical events. Notwithstanding his religious upbringing, Wiesel
parts company from those who, as Dawidowicz explains, accept the Holocaust as
God's will:

For believing Jews the conviction that their sacrifice was required as a testimony
to Almighty God was more comforting than the supposition that He had
abandoned them altogether. To be sure, God's design was concealed from them,
but they would remain steadfast in their faith. Morale was sustained by rabbis
and pious Jews who, by their own resolute and exalted stance, provided a model
of how Jews should encounter death. (308)

We should think of the text as a physical object and note its slimness, its titleless
chapters, its breaks between anecdotes. We wonder what could be added in
those white spaces, whether his loss of faith, for example, is gradual? But the
slim volume, the white spaces, become a kind of correlative or metonomy to
emptiness, to his "starved stomach" (50). The short paragraphs give a kind of
cinematic effect as if the paragraphs are like frames in an evolving film. The very
simplicity--the almost childlike quality--of the imagery gives the work its parabolic
quality.

Wiesel draws upon a tradition of prophetic hyperbole: "Never shall I forget that
night, the first night in camp, which has turned my life into one long night, seven
times cursed and seven times sealed. [...] Never shall I forget those moments
which murdered my God and my soul and turned my dreams to dust. Never shall
I forget these things, even if I am condemned to live as long as God Himself.
Never" (32). The camps dissolve traditional morality and replace it with extreme
conditions that make the struggle to survive the only value. Thus the death of his
father "frees" him to save himself; he is at once "free at last" and emotionally
anaesthetized: "nothing could touch me any more" (106-07). We might recall the
words of Lucy Dawidowicz:

The wish to live, the inability to believe in one's own imminent death, the
universal human faith in one's own immunity to disaster--all these factors
conspired to make the Jews believe that resettlement, not death, was the fact.
"At bottom," wrote Freud, "nobody believes in his own death." Not gullibility, or
suggestibility, but universal human optimism encouraged them to believe in the
deceptions that the Germans perpetrated. In the process of repressing and
denying the overpowering threat that confronted them, perceptual distortion and
skewed interpretation based on wishful thinking managed to reconcile the illogic

and inconsistencies of their fears and hopes. Without accurate information,


without corrective feedback from authoritative sources on the course of events,
their isolation helped give credence to their distorted and distorting evaluation of
their predicament. This mechanism of denial, this arming oneself against
disquieting facts, was not pathological, but, as psychologists point out, a tool of
adaptation, a means of coping with an intolerable situation in the absence of any
possibility for defensive action. The alternative was despair, the quiet stunned
reaction of the defeated. (306)

Wiesel's text is written in the biblical style in which highlighted moments full of
significance are presented without the careful concatenation of events we find in
the realistic novel. Yet, he has an eye for details that may owe something to his
journalistic career in the years prior to meeting Mauriac. The biblical style owes
itself to his being steeped not only in the Old Testament--a text that pays little
attention to background or setting, and eschews gradual introductions of its
heightened and sublime moments--but also to a Talmudic tradition by which
parabolic anecdotes are used to illustrate important themes. Rather than gradual
change when he loses faith, a change developing from the Nazi arrival, he
experiences loss of faith as an epiphanic moment. Unlike the realistic novel or
memoir, we cannot relate his role of passionate witness to a grammar of specific
causes such as his father's tears:

For the first time, I felt revolt rise up in me. Why should I bless His name? The
Eternal, Lord of the Universe, the All-Powerful and Terrible, was silent. What had I
to thank Him for? (31)

Assuming in its form--especially its prophetic voice--an ethical narratee, Night


also demands an ethical response. By that I mean a real attention to issues that
pertain to how life is lived within imagined worlds. Truth in novels takes place
within the hypothesis "as if" which is another way of saying that, as we think
about our reading we are never completely unaware of the metaphoricity of
literature. At one time, some critics may have naively ignored the metaphoricity
of language and confused characterization with actual human character. But have
not some theorists reached the other pole of willfully denying analogies to human
life and naively repressing the possibilities of significance? We shall see that
Holocaust fiction--like Night--has an ethical narrator, demands an ethical
narratee, believes at least hypothetically in essential truths, insists on strong
analogies to life lived within the Holocaust, and has faith that language signifies.

Rereading Night is a powerful experience, one that requires self-conscious


reflection about how language can rescue meaning from the moral vacuum
surrounding Holocaust events. What strikes the reader is its efficiency as a work

of art. Derived, as we have seen, from a much longer Yiddish typescript, the
precise, lucid, and laconic telling is in ironic juxtaposition to the historical
complexity in Europe, but appropriate for the simple cause and effect of
annihilating an entire people. Such stark imagery as that with which he described
a work detail--"we were so many dried up trees in the heart of a desert"--(Night
35) is all the more effective for its spareness. Wiesel has written:

There are some words I cannot bring myself to use; they paralyze me. I cannot
write the words "concentration," "night and fog," "selection," or "transport"
without a feeling of sacrilege. Another difficulty, of a different type: I write in
French, but I learned the language from books and therefore I am not good at
slang.

All my subsequent works are written in the same deliberately spare style as
Night. It is the style of the chroniclers of the ghettos, where everything had to be
said swiftly, in one breath. You never knew when the enemy might kick in the
door, sweeping us away into nothingness. Every phrase was a testament. There
was no time or reason for anything superfluous. Words must not be imprisoned or
harnessed, not even in the silence of the page. And yet, it must be held tightly. If
the violin is to sing, its strings must be stretched so tight as to risk breaking;
slack, they are merely threads.

To write is to plumb the unfathomable depths of being. Writing lies within the
domain of mystery. The space between any two words is vaster than the distance
between heaven and earth. To bridge it you must close your eyes and leap. A
Hasidic tradition tells us that in the Torah the white spaces, too, are God-given.
Ultimately, to write is an act of faith. (Memoirs 321)

The English translation of Night was published in the U.S. in 1960 by Hill and
Wang; it sold only a few thousand copies in its first few years. As Wiesel recalls,

As for Night, despite Mauriac's preface and the favorable reviews in the French,
Belgian, and Swiss press, the big publishers hesitated, debated, and ultimately
sent their regrets. Some thought the book too slender (American readers seemed
to prefer fatter volumes), others too depressing (American readers seemed to
prefer optimistic books). Some felt its subject was too little known, others that it
was too well known. In short, it was suggested over and over again that we try
elsewhere. Refusing to lose heart, Georges [Borchardt, a New York literary agent]
kept trying. In the end Hill and Wang agreed to take the risk. (Memoirs 325)

Although the basic unit of form is the retrospective memory of the teller who
wrote after a ten year hiatus, the book is also organized around a number of
motifs. The most important is the loss of faith in the face of evidence that God
can do or will do nothing to prevent the Holocaust. Young Wiesel has a
transvaluation of faith to disbelief and unbelief. He loses all illusions about a
purposeful world. As Naomi Seidman put it:

In the description of the first night Eliezer spends in the concentration camp,
silence signals the turn from the immediate terrors to a larger cosmic drama,
from stunned realism to theology. In the felt absence of divine justice or
compassion, silence becomes the agency of an immune, murderous power that
permanently transforms the narrator. (1)

Let us continue our critical analysis. As if the narrator were struggling to stay
alive, as if he were having trouble breathing, the unnumbered and untitled
chapters get shorter; the last three of nine chapters take up only seventeen
pages. That he moves, on occasion, to a postwar retrospective gives the reader
the sense, as in Conrad's Marlow's telling in Heart of Darkness that his memory is
struggling with the narrative and that at times he needs to avoid the horrors.
Wiesel's breaks between anecdotes has the same effect, as if a pithy anecdote
was all the narrator could stand to tell before being overcome. The recurring term
"empty" reminds us of how, except for the will to live, his life had become a
negation--that is, an absence of love, comfort, health, food. But in the retelling it
reminds us of how he has become spiritually anaesthetized and how he has left
behind everything he had on the written page. The verbal correlatives to "empty"
include "Night" and "Never" and of course anticipate the survivors mantra,
"Never Again."

Never shall I forget that night, the first night in camp, which has turned my life
into one long night, seven times cursed and seven times sealed. Never shall I
forget that smoke. Never shall I forget the little faces of the children, whose
bodies I saw turned into wreaths of smoke beneath a silent blue sky.

Never shall I forget those flames which consumed my faith forever.

Never shall I forget that nocturnal silence which deprived me, for all eternity, of
the desire to live. Never shall I forget those moments which murdered my God
and my soul and turned my dreams to dust. Never shall I forget these things,
even if I am condemned to live as long as God Himself. Never. (32)

The observant young boy who at the outset wished to be initiated into the
mysteries of the cabbala feels the "void" of unbelief; the void is the alternative to
the plenitude of belief (66, 93).

Why, but why should I bless Him? In every fiber I rebelled. Because He had had
thousands of children burned in His pits? Because He kept six crematories
working night and day, on Sundays and feast days? Because in His great might
He had created Auschwitz, Birkenau, Buna, and so many factories of death? How
could I say to Him: "Blessed art Thou, Eternal, Master of the Universe, Who chose
us from among the races to be tortured day and night, to see our father, our
mothers, our brothers, end in the crematory? Praised be Thy Holy Name, Thou
Who hast chosen us to be butchered on Thine altar?

This day I had ceased to plead. I was no longer capable of lamentation. On the
contrary, I felt very strong. I was the accuser, God the accused. My eyes were
open and I was alone--terribly alone in a world without God and without man.
Without love or mercy. I had ceased to be anything but ashes, yet I felt myself to
be stronger than the Almighty, to whom my life had been tied for so long. (64,
65)
III
Our ethics of reading requires that we look back and understand how the themes
organize the agon. The title motif of Night is moral death, or historical void.
Antithetical to light and its association with understanding--the Enlightenment of
Europe--and with inner faith and wisdom, "night" is the dominant pattern around
which the novel is organized. In Night, death is the antagonist, an active principle
present at every moment. During the death march from Auschwitz, Wiesel
recalls:

Death wrapped itself around me till I was stifled. It stuck to me. I felt that I could
touch it. The idea of dying, of no longer being, began to fascinate me. Not to exist
any longer. Not to feel the horrible pains in my foot. Not to feel anything, neither
weariness, nor cold, nor anything. To break the ranks, to let oneself slide to the
edge of the road. (82)

During the transport to Buchenwald, he remarks:

Indifference deadened the spirit. Here or elsewhere--what difference did it make?


To die today or tomorrow, or later? The night was long and never ending. (93)

Yet, as Des Pres writes, Wiesel's narrative gives the lie to indifference and moral
nights:

Survivors do not bear witness to guilt, neither theirs nor ours, but to objective
conditions of evil. In the literature of survival we find an image of things so grim,
so heartbreaking, so starkly unbearable, that inevitably the survivor's scream
begins to be our own. When this happens the role of spectator is no longer
enough. But the testimony of survivors is valuable for something else as well. By
the very fact that they came to be written, these documents are evidence that
the moral self can resurrect itself from the inhuman depths through which it must
pass. These books are proof that human heroism is possible. (Des Pres 49-50)

At first night is juxtaposed to day, but gradually it devours day:

The night was gone. The morning star was shining in the sky. I too had become a
completely different person. The student of the Talmud, the child that I was, had
been consumed in the flames. There remained only a shape that looked like me.
A dark flame had entered into my soul and devoured it. (Night 34)

That last sentence contains a major motif. Night becomes something that nullifies
and obliterates; finally night overwhelms light, language, and meaning:

The days were like nights, and the nights left the dregs of their darkness in our
souls. The train was traveling slowly, often stopping for several hours and then
setting off again. It never ceased snowing. All through these days and nights we
stayed crouching, one on top of the other, never speaking a word. We were no
more than frozen bodies. Our eyes closed, we waited merely for the next stop, so
that we could unload our dead. (94-95)

On the death march, when he recalls that "the night had now set in. The snow
had ceased to fall" (88), it is rich with metaphorical meaning. We recall his words
as he is leaving Buna:

The last night in Buna. Yet another last night. The last night at home, the last
night in the ghetto, the last night in the train, and, now, the last night in Buna.

How much longer were our lives to be dragged out from one "last night" to
another? (79)

Night threatens everything, even the cosmos:

Night. No one prayed, so that the night would pass quickly. The stars were only
sparks of the fire which devoured us. Should that fire die out one day, there
would be nothing left in the sky but dead stars, dead eyes. (18)

An important image is that of fire and burning. When during the death march, he
feels his infected foot "burning" we recall Madame Schachter's prophetic delirious
nightmare on the train to Auschwitz:

"Jews, listen to me! I can see a fire! There are huge flames! It is a furnace!"

It was as though she were possessed by an evil spirit which spoke from the
depths of her being. (23)

Note how fire and death are associated with night. Her words turn out to be all to
true: "Jews, look! Look through the window! Flames! Look!"

And as the train stopped, we saw this time that flames were gushing out of a tall
chimney into the black sky.

Madame Schachter was silent herself. Once more she had become dumb,
indifferent, absent, and had gone back to her corner.

We looked at the flames in the darkness. There was an abominable odor floating
in the air. Suddenly, our doors opened. Some odd-looking characters, dressed in
striped shirts and black trousers leapt into the wagon. They held electric torches
and truncheons. They began to strike out to right and left shouting:

"Everybody get out! Everyone out of the wagon! Quickly!"

We jumped out. I threw a last glance toward Madame Schachter. Her little boy
was holding her hand.

In front of us flames. In the air that smell of burning flesh. It must have been
about midnight. We had arrived--at Birkenau, reception center for Auschwitz. (25
-26)

Within Wiesel's dramatization of Madame Schachter's psyche are the warnings of


Moishe, the rumors of cremation, the anxiety about the two sons and husbands
being deported early. But she also is part of the prophetic and mystical tradition
when she foresees the fire. Of course, the very meaning of the word Holocaust is
the complete destruction of people or animals by fire, and an offering the whole
of which is burned.

As in other Holocaust texts, hunger is a dominant theme in Auschwitz. The


narrator recalls he soon

took little interest in anything except my daily plate of soup and my crust of stale
bread. Bread, soup--these were my whole life. I was a body. Perhaps less than
that even: a starved stomach. The stomach alone was aware of the passage of
time. (50)

After a hanging he recalls: "I remember that I found the soup excellent that
evening" (60). Or, after another hanging,

Behind me, I heard the same man asking: "Where is God now?" And I heard a
voice within me answer him: "Where is He? Here He is--He is hanging here on this
gallows [...]" That night the soup tasted of corpses. (62)

We might ask whether the last sentence is a metaphor or a searing actuality? Is


"soup" that "tasted of corpses" a tactile transference of his feelings to his senses
or vice versa? We recall Des Pres's words about how survival depended on
fulfilling basic needs at the loss of ethics:

To oppose their fate in the death camps, survivors had to choose life at the cost
of moral injury; they had to sustain spiritual damage and still keep going without
losing sight of the difference between strategic compromise and demoralization.
Hard choices had to be made and not everyone was equal to the task, no one
less than the kind of person whose goodness was most evident, most admired,
but least available for action. (131)

Another motif is the father-son tie, one that is so essential in Jewish life. Within
the horrors of the Holocaust, these bonds threaten to dissolve. In an awful scene
after the evacuation of Auschwitz, when he and his father are being transported
to Buchenwald, a son fights his father for bread:

"Melt. Meir, my boy! Don't you recognize me? I'm your father [...] you're hurting
me [...] you're killing your father! I've got some bread [...] for you too [...] for you
too. [...]"

He collapsed. His fist was still clenched around a small piece. He tried to carry it
to his mouth. But the other one threw himself upon him and snatched it. The old
man again whispered something, let out a rattle, and died amid the general
indifference. His son searched him, took the bread, and began to devour it. He
was not able to get very far. Two men had seen and hurled themselves upon him.
Others joined in. When they withdrew, next to me were two corpses, side by side,
the father and the son.

I was fifteen years old. (96)

On another occation, a son--a pipel, that is, a boy belonging to the Kapo--beats
his own father for not making his bed well (60). Whenever Wiesel thinks fleetingly
of his father as a burden, he feels pangs of guilt. Indeed, his loyalty to his father
is among the text's most touching motifs. He rejects the terrible advice of "the
head of the block" (104).

"Don't forget that you're in a concentration camp. Here, every man has to fight
for himself and not think of anyone else. Even of his father. Here, there are no
fathers, no brothers, no friends. Everyone lives and dies for himself alone. I'll give
you a sound piece of advice--don't give your ration of bread and soup to your old
father. There's nothing you can do for him. And you're killing yourself. Instead,
you ought to be having his ration."

I listened to him without interrupting. He was right, I thought in the most secret
region of my heart, but I dared not admit it. It's too late to save your old father, I
said to myself. You ought to be having two rations of bread, two rations of soup.
[...]

Only a fraction of a second, but I felt guilty. I ran to find a little soup to give my
father. But he did not want it. All he wanted was water. (105)

By contrast Wiesel's devotion to his father, the son of another inmate, Rabbi
Eliahou

wanted to get rid of his father! He had felt that his father was growing weak, he
had believed that the end was near and had sought this separation in order to
get rid of the burden, to free himself from an encumbrance which could lessen his
own chances of survival. (87)

While Wiesel's narrative is informed by retrospective guilt, we ask what more


could Wiesel, the son, have done? Isn't Wiesel's guilt disproportionate to his
behavior. In a way, the father represents the tradition for which he has departed,
the man he would have been. His early perceptions are informed by his Jewish
upbringing. Describing the SS Office when he arrived at the barracks, he writes as
if the German were stamped with the mark of Cain, who would kill his brother:

An SS officer had come in and, with him, the odor of the Angel of Death. [...] A tall
man, about thirty, with crime inscribed upon his brow and in the pupils of his
eyes. He looked us over as if we were a pack of leprous dogs hanging onto our
lives. (35-36)

His father is the eternal flame to which he returns as a boy and his memory
returns in the telling.

One terrible irony is that the bad luck of a choice he and his father made is a
cause of their worst days:

I learned after the war the fate of those who had stayed behind in the hospital.
They were quite simply liberated by the Russians two days after the evacuation.
(78)

But how could he and his father have known that if they had stayed behind in the
hospital as they could have, that they could have been liberated two days later
and that his father would have lived. The dramatic action is filled with missed
chances; the opportunity of emigrating to Palestine (6); the missed warning by
the Hungarian police inspector because they didn't open the window in time: "It
was not until after the war that I learned who it was that had knocked" (12); the
maid Martha who could have hidden them in her village, and of course Moshe's
warning. Palestine becomes the anti-tale, the Utopian alternative. He meets two
brothers in Auschwitz:

Having once belonged to a Zionist youth organization, they knew innumerable


Hebrew chants. Thus we would often hum tunes evoking the calm waters of
Jordan and the majestic sanctity of Jerusalem. And we would often talk of
Palestine. Their parents, like mine, had lacked the courage to wind up their affairs
and emigrate while there was still time. We decided that, if we were granted our
lives until the liberation, we would not stay in Europe a day longer. We would take
the first boat for Haifa. (48)

Transformation is as much a theme here as it is in Kafka. By showing us how life


was in Sighet at the outset, we can see the terrible transformation in young
Wiesel and his father. When he writes of the masquerade of clothes before the
death march, we think of the clown motif in Picasso and the grotesque carnival in
James Ensor:

Prisoners appeared in strange outfits: it was like a masquerade. Everyone had put
on several garments, one on top of the other, in order to keep out the cold. Poor
mountebanks, wider than they were tall, more dead than alive; poor clowns, their
ghostlike faces emerging from piles of prison clothes! Buffoons! (79)

When we see his father as a virtual corpse--broken in spirit, a musulman--before


dying, we realize how little time had passed since he was a respected fifty year
old senior member of his village.

My father was a cultured, rather unsentimental man. There was never any display
of emotion, even at home. He was more concerned with others than with his own

family. The Jewish community in Sighet held him in the greatest esteem. They
often used to consult him about public matters and even about private ones. (2)

As in Primo Levi's Survival in Auschwitz, recurring memorable characters,


employed in relationship to the evolving plot give the text unity: Juliek, the
violinist who plays Beethoven--in violation of the German prohibition of
Beethoven--when they arrive in Gleiwitz; and who is dead in the morning.

I could hear only the violin, and it was as though Juliek's soul were the bow. He
was playing his life. The whole of his life was gliding on the strings--his lost
hopes, his charred past, his extinguished future. He played as he would never
play again (90);

Madame Schachter with her prophetic nightmares; Idek the psychotic kapo; Rabbi
Eliahou; Meir Katz, the healthy giant who finally gives up and dies; the faceless
cynic in the hospital who says: "I've got more faith in Hitler than in anyone else.
He's the only one who's kept his promises, all his promises, to the Jewish people"
(77).

Wiesel occasionally moves to the present as when he tells us what he learned


after the war about the liberation of Auschwitz, when he speaks of the man who
knocked on the window to warn his family, or the women throwing coins to the
poor in Aden, or when he concludes his testament with a searing bridge across
time:

One day I was able to get up, after gathering all my strength. I wanted to see
myself the mirror hanging on the opposite wall. I had not seen myself since the
ghetto.

From the depths of the mirror, a corpse gazed back at me.

The look in his eyes, as they stared into mine, has never left me. (109)

The mirror as a reflection of the inner self--the other self--is the recurring image in
modernism, but the mirror is also a traditional image of realistic representation in
the Western tradition. By his act of writing, Wiesel rejects the corpse as his

double. In both cases, he makes a rhetorical gesture that positions himself within
Western culture and away from his iconoclastic position as witness or as one of
the humble anonymous Lamed Vov or Just Men. As Seidman puts it,

In the final lines of Night when the recently liberated Eliezer gazes at his own
face in a mirror, the reader is presented with the survivor as both subject and
object, through his inner experience and through outward image of what he has
become. (3)

But when we note how different this is from the original ending, we begin to place
our reading in the context of what we now know. In his 1995 Memoirs: All Rivers
Run to the Sea, Wiesel recalls the original ending before Lindon edited it:

The book ended this way (I only quote it for its relevance today):

I looked at myself in the mirror. A skeleton stared back at me.

Nothing but skin and bone.

It was the image of myself after death. It was at that instant that the will to live
awakened within me.

Without knowing why, I raised my fist and shattered the glass, along with the
image it held. I lost consciousness.

After I got better, I stayed in bed for several days, jotting down notes for the work
that you, dear reader, now hold in your hands.

But [...]

Today, ten years after Buchenwald, I realize that the world forgets. German is a
sovereign state. The German army has been reborn. Ilse Koch, the sadist of
Buchenwald, is a happy wife and mother. War criminals stroll in the streets of
Hamburg and Munich. The past has been erased, buried.

Germans and anti-Semites tell the world that the story of six million Jewish
victims is but a myth, and the world, in its naivete, will believe it, if not today,
then tomorrow or the next day.

So it occurred to me that it might be useful to publish in book form these notes


taken down in Buchenwald.

I am not so naive as to believe that this work will change the course of history or
shake the conscience of humanity.

Books no longer command the power they once did.

Those who yesterday held their tongues will keep their silence tomorrow.

That is why, ten years after Buchenwald, I ask myself the question, Was I right to
break that mirror? (Memoirs 319-20)

He questions whether his breaking the mirror as an affirmation of his decision to


live is appropriate. Seidman comments:

By stopping when it does, Night provides an entirely different account of the


experience of the survivor. Night and the stories about its composition depict the
survivor as a witness and as an expression of silence and death, projecting the
recently liberated Eliezer's death-haunted face into the postwar years when
Wiesel would become a familiar figure. By contrast, the Yiddish survivor shatters
that image as soon as he sees it, destroying the deathly existence the Nazis
willed on him. The Yiddish survivor is filled with rage and the desire to live, to
take revenge, to write. Indeed, according to the Yiddish memoir, Eliezer began to
write not ten years after the events of the Holocaust but immediately upon
liberation, as the first expression of his mental and physical recovery. In the
Yiddish we meet a survivor who, ten years after liberation, is furious with the
world's disinterest [sic] in his history, frustrated with the failure of the Jews to
fulfill "the historical commandment of revenge;' depressed by the apparent
pointlessness of writing a book. (7-8)

But should we not also notice how Seidman, too, especially in the last of the
above sentences, appropriates Wiesel for her own purposes, namely to indict
Wiesel and his successors for eschewing a rhetoric of revenge. As Seidman puts
it, "Un di velt does not spell out what form this retribution might take, only that it
is sanctioned--even commanded--by Jewish history and tradition" (6).
IV
We continue to our final phase of hermeneutics--cognition in terms of what we
know--when we turn to the introduction to the French edition. Originally, when
Wiesel was a young unknown, Francois Mauriac, a French Catholic Nobel
Laureate, not only helped him get his book published in France but also wrote the
introduction which with its Christian meditation on the narrator's loss, became
part of the text:

And I, who believe that God is love, what answer could I give my young
questioner, whose dark eyes still held the reflection of that angelic sadness which
had appeared one day upon the face of the hanged child? What did I say to him?
Did I speak of that other Jew, his brother, who may have resembled him--the
Crucified, whose Cross has conquered the world? Did I affirm that the stumbling
block to his faith was the cornerstone of mine, and that the conformity between
the Cross and the suffering of men was in my eyes the key to that impenetrable
mystery whereon the faith of his childhood had perished? Zion, however, has
risen up again from the crematories and the charnel houses. The Jewish nation
has been resurrected from among its thousands of dead. It is through them that it
lives again. We do not know the worth of one single drop of blood, one single
tear. Ail is grace. If the Eternal is the Eternal, the last word for each one of us
belongs to Him. This is what I should have told this Jewish child. But I could only
embrace him, weeping. (Night x-xi)

The introduction frames the book in a Christian context and implies a different set
of beliefs. Mauriac was the kind of cultural icon who gave legitimacy to the novel.
It were as if a young writer were now being published under Wiesel's auspices. In
1963, as Wiesel notes in his Memoirs, Mauriac wrote in his newspaper column:

Someday Elie Wiesel will take me to the Holy Land. He desires it greatly, having a
most singular knowledge of Christ, whom he pictures wearing phylacteries, as
Chagall saw him, a son of the synagogue, a pious Jew submitting to the Law, and
who did not die, "because being human he was made God" Elie Wiesel stands on
the borders of the two testaments: he is of the race of John the Baptist. (271)

There can be no doubt that Mauriac's introduction shapes the response of some
readers into a more Christian reading. For example, when a child is among three
condemned prisoners, Christian students see the parallel to a crucifixion scene,
and see the longer and slower death of "a child with a refined and beautiful face"
as a Christ figure (Night 60). Yet, didn't Wiesel mean the scene as a challenge to
the original Christian readers--whether Poles or French, most of whom had--while
night engulfed Europe--either remained silent or done far worse? In his memoir
he distances himself from Mauriac's teleology:

Where I come from and from where I stand, one cannot be Jew and Christian at
the same time. Jesus was Jewish, but those who claim allegiance to him today are
not. In no way does this mean that Jews are better or worse than Christians, but
simply that each of us has the right, if not the duty, to be what we are. (Memoirs
271)

But has he written a novel that fulfills the paradigm of rebirth and resurrection to
use Mauriac's words "of a Lazarus risen from the dead" and does he really speak
to us not as a twenty-six year old adult but as a child, as Mauriac contends?

The child who tells us his story here was one of God's elect. From the time when
his conscience first awoke, he had lived only for God and had been reared on the
Talmud, aspiring to initiation into the cabbala, dedicated to the Eternal. Have we
ever thought about the consequence of a horror that, though less apparent, less
striking than the other outrages, is yet the worst of all to those of us who have
faith: the death of God in the soul of a child who suddenly discovers absolute
evil? [...] It was then that I understood what had first drawn me to the young Jew:
that look, as of a Lazarus risen from the dead, yet still a prisoner within the
confines where he had strayed, stumbling among the shameful corpses. (Night
viii-ix)

Is Mauriac's construction not only a Christian appropriation of Night's angst, but,


no matter how well meant, an ethical transgression? It is as if, for Mauriac, Wiesel
were the Christ child, an archetype for all victims whose suffering was
redemptive. Seidman writes:

The friendship between the older Christian and younger Jew began, then, with
Wiesel relinquishing his aim of manipulating Mauriac for Jewish purposes and
turning, in all sincerity, to the man himself. With the psychological shift, Wiesel
began his transformation from Hebrew journalist and (still unpublished) Yiddish
memoirist to European, or French writer. [...] The French reworking of Un di velt

hot geshvign and Mauriac's framing of this text together suggest that La Nuit-read so consistently as authentically Jewish, autobiographical, direct--represents
a compromise between Jewish expression and the capacities and desires of nonJewish readers, Mauriac first among them. (13, 14)

She concludes:

Was it worth "unshattering" the mirror the Yiddish Eli breaks, reviving the image
of the Jew as the Nazis wished him to be, as the Christians prepared to accept
him, the emblem of suffering silence rather than living rage? In the complex
negotiations that resulted in the manuscript of Night, did the astonishing gains
make good the tremendous losses? It is over this unspoken question that the
culture of Holocaust discourse has arisen and taken shape, (16)
V
What is the grammar of cause and effect within Wiesel's testament? To a
contemporary reader, historical ironies abound. Why did the Germans continue to
persecute Jews when they needed every resource to stem defeat? Was it an
attempt on the part of a compulsive if not psychotic collective group psychology-or should we say psychopathology?--to shift blame and erase evidence. Why did
they use Jewish slave labor mostly for useless tasks and systematically starve
that labor? As Des Pres puts it,

But here too, for all its madness, there was method and reason. This special kind
of evil is a natural outcome of power when it becomes absolute, and in the
totalitarian world of the camps it very nearly was. The SS could kill anyone they
happened to run into. Criminal Kapos would walk about in groups of two and
three, making bets among themselves on who could kill a prisoner with a single
blow. The pathological rage of such men, their uncontrollable fury when rules
were broken, is evidence of a boundless desire to annihilate, to destroy, to smash
everything not mobilized within the movement of their own authority. And
inevitably, the mere act of killing is not enough; for if a man dies without
surrender, if something within him remains unbroken to the end, then the power
which destroyed him has not after all crushed everything. (59)

By confronting the horrors of the Holocaust and insisting on bearing witness (and
resisting Mauriac's Christian gloss), Wiesel's text is an antidote to the way that
Anne Frank's story had been manipulated to "glorify," as Bruno Bettelheim puts
it, "the ability to retreat into an extremely private, gentle, sensitive world, and
there to cling as much as possible to what have been one's usual attitudes and
activities, although surrounded by a maelstrom apt to engulf one at any moment"

(Survivors and Other Essays 247). In the play and film, we hear Anne's voice from
beyond saying, "In spite of everything, I still believe that people are really good
at heart," but Bettelheim argues passionately that this statement is not
supported or justified Anne's diary:

This improbable sentiment is supposedly from a girl who had been starved to
death, had watched her sister meet the same fate before she did, knew that her
mother had been murdered, and had watched untold thousands of adults and
children being killed. This statement is not justified by anything Anne actually
told her diary. (Bettelheim 250)

But, of course, we see Anne's last word as ironic because she has been killed.
Bettelheim is quite harsh in his judgments:

Those Jews who submitted passively to Nazi persecution came to depend on


primitive and infantile thought processes: wishful thinking and disregard for the
possibility of death. Many persuaded themselves that they, out of all the others,
would be spared. Many more simply disbelieved in the possibility of their own
death. Not believing in it, they did not take what seemed to them desperate
precautions, such as giving up everything to hide out singly; or trying to escape
even if it meant risking their lives in doing so; or preparing to fight for their lives
when no escape was possible and death had become an immediate possibility.
(251)

In an essay entitled "Freedom From Ghetto Thinking," Bettelheim defines "Ghetto


thinking": "to believe that one can ingratiate oneself with a mortal enemy by
denying that his lashes sting, to deny one's own degradation in return for a
moment's respite, to support one's enemy who will only use his strength the
better to destroy one. All that is part of Ghetto philosophy" (Freud's Vienna and
Other Essays 261). For him the Franks embody ghetto thinking:

The Frank family created a ghetto in the annex, the Hinter Haus, where they went
to live; it was an intellectual ghetto, a sensitive one, but a ghetto nevertheless. I
think we should contrast their story with those of other Jewish families who went
into hiding in Holland. These families, from the moment they dug in, planned
escape routes for the time when the police might come looking for them. Unlike
the Franks, they did not barricade themselves in rooms without exits; they did not
wish to be trapped. In preparation, some of them planned and rehearsed how the
father, if the police should come, would try to argue with them or resist in order
to give his wife and children time to escape. Sometimes when the police came

the parents physically attacked them, knowing they would be killed but thus
saving a child. (Freud's Vienna 270)

Bettelheim, who himself committed suicide, writes in his essay "Surviving" how
the survivor "knows very well that he is not guilty, as I, for one know about
myself, but that this does not change the fact that the humanity of such a
person, as a fellow being, requires that he feel guilty, and he does. This is a most
significant aspect of survivorship" (Surviving 297). Bettelheim reminds how, while
the foremost condition for survival was luck, other factors helped, such as, to
quote Bettelheim,

correctly assessing one's situation and taking advantage of opportunities, in


short, acting independently and with courage, decision and conviction. [...]
Survival was, of course, greatly helped if one had entered the camps in a good
state of physical health. But most of all, as I have intimated all along, autonomy,
self-respect, inner integration, a rich inner life, and the ability to relate to others
in meaningful ways were the psychological conditions which, more than any
others, permitted one to survive in the camps as much a whole human being as
overall conditions and chance would permit. ("Owners of their Faces," Surviving
109)

Whether we agree with Bettelheim and whether we chide him for letting his rage
distort and appropriate Anne Frank's text as Mauriac and Seidman have
appropriated Wiesel, his words give us some sense of how difficult it is for us
readers of Holocaust texts to respond ethically to such a searing and heartrendering narrative of memory, trauma, and literary imagination as Night.
Works Cited
Bettelheim, Bruno. Freud's Vienna and Other Essays. New York: Vintage, 1991.
-----. Surviving and Other Essays. New York: Vintage, 1980.
Dawidowicz, Lucy. The War Against the Jews, 1933-1945. 1975. New York:
Bantam, 1986.
Des Pres, Terence. The Survivor.' An Anatomy of Life in the Death Camps. New
York: Oxford UP, 1970.
Clifford, James. The Predicament of Culture: Twentieth-Century Ethnography,
Literature, and Art. Cambridge, MA: Harvard UP, 1988.
Muschamp, Herbert, "Shaping a Monument's Memory." New York Times 1993:1
(Art and Leisure).

Ricouer, Paul. "The Model of the Text." Social Research 5.1 (Spring 1984): 185218.
Sachs, Nellie. "A Dead Child Speaks." Trans. Ruth and Matthew Mead. Holocaust
Poetry. Ed. Hilda Schiff. New York: St. Martin's, 1995.67.
Seidman, Naomi, "Elie Wiesel and the Scandal Rage." Jewish Social Studies:
History, Culture and Society 3.1 (Fall 1996): 1-19.
Suleiman, Susan and Inge Crossman, eds. The Reader in the Text: Essays on
Audience and Interpretation. Princeton: Princeton UP, 1980.
Wiesel, Elie. A Jew Today, Trans. Marion Wiesel. New York: Random House, 1978.
-----. Memoirs: All Rivers Run to the Sea. New York: Knopf, 1995.
-----. Night. 1958. Trans. Stella Rodney. New York: Bantam, 1960.
~~~~~~~~
By Daniel R. Schwarz, Cornell University

Naslov: `Nothing But Face'--`To Hell with Philosophy'?: Witold Gombrowicz, Bruno
Schulz, and the Scandal of Human Countenance. Prema: Newton, Adam Zachary,
Style, 00394238, Summer98, Svezak. 32, Broj 2.Baza podataka: Academic Search
Complete.
`NOTHING BUT FACE'--`TO HELL WITH PHILOSOPHY'?: WITOLD GOMBROWICZ,
BRUNO SCHULZ, AND THE SCANDAL OF HUMAN COUNTENANCE

Scene One: A Railway in Argentina

Sitting in an Argentine train compartment, seething at the press of others, the


twentieth-century Polish emigre writer Witold Gombrowicz begins his Diary entry
for the year 1962 this way:

That mug ten centimeters away. The teary, reddish pupils? Little hairs on this
ear? I don't want this! Away! I will not go on about his chapped skin! By what
right did this find itself so close that I practically have to breathe him in, yet at
the same time feel his hot trickles on my ear and neck? We rest our unseeing
gazes on each other from a very near distance [...E]ach person is curling up,
rolling up, shutting, shrinking, limiting to a minimum his eyes, ears, lips, trying to
be as little as possible. (3:17)

While the entry makes it clear that its ressentiment is centered chiefly on the
numbers of people compressed into the same car as Gombrowicz himself, "that
mug ten centimeters away" does not exactly fade from readers' sight. It stays
vivid (Gombrowicz has ensured as much), but partly because of the uncanny little
scene that embeds it.

Literature, with criticism's help, has accustomed us by now to a whole scenic


pallet, diminutive theaters of figural enactment: Mirror Scenes, Scenes of Writing,
Scenes of Reading, Scenes of Instruction, Scenes of Eating, even Scenes of
Fasting (in Kafka's case). Gombrowicz offers, in their place, a Scene of Facing.
Indeed, it is fair to assume that Gombrowicz expects readers of his Diary who are
already familiar with his work--the 1937 novel Ferdydurke, in particular--to
recognize such a scene as a lately-added snapshot to a much larger portfolio of
signature studies in the face-to-face.( n1)

Thus, against the background of the author's abiding concern with the space
between two persons( n2), that mug ten centimeters away denotes not so much
a countenance positioned opposite as an incitement to Opposition itself. The
gauntlet-slap delivered to Gombrowicz's face is the fact that another faces him.
The slap that answers it is his counter-face grimacing in return.

Przyprawienie geby ("fitting someone with a mug") describes the norm of human
interaction in Gombrowicz, a relentless duel of face-making, face-wearing, faceimposing. One face creates the other; a grimace responds. Both faces remain in
dependent relation, face and grimace, mug and countenance, tracing a double
helix of mutual deformation on into the negative infinity.( n3) There is no
sublation or sublimation. Higher, theoretical operations merely repeat rather than
resolve an almost chthonic drama.

Nothing but face, says a character in Ferdydurke who is looking for authentic
countenance: the face that looks at me and the face it imposes on mine and the
face I adopt in return and all the faces, mugs, grimaces, and permutations of phiz
that pass between us. Just as that definitive paradox of Gombrowiczian
space--"from a very near distance"--overrides any proprietary ideas about
autonomous identity, so face is synecdochic shorthand for the face-to-face
relation, for the scandal of one's own face forced into self-consciousness and
counter-move by the face of another.( n4) One wears a face; one doesn't own it.

The sufficiency of my own private physiognomy is always being interrupted or


compromised by the intervening faces of others. Even more, that desire is

ridiculed by the unruliness of the face to begin with, by its enslavement not only
to the faces of others, but also to one's own body. Thus, sometimes in Ferdydurke
face just signifies personhood; other times, it means "the agony of outward
form." As above, in extended form, "Nothing but face, nothing sincere or natural,
everything false, imitated, and artificial" (3:199). Physiognomy--as
counterintuitive but also deeply intuitive as it sounds--is anything but private
property. That is the obvious point about the train compartment. Even if I seem
finished to myself, a facing other will make me seem unfinished, de-shaped.

And I endure a ludicrous self-sabotage, too. Standing up to the top of my height, I


am still mocked by the very backside that joins trunk to head.( n5) The very fact
of thighs calls consciousness down from its lofty perch. Digits and toes conduct
their own duel of grimaces in repeating each other, hand to foot. Human forms
aren't unified or consolidated; they're composite, an aggregate of parts. Faces
are their own mugs because self-identity is self-parody. The face is a kind of
double agent: the seat and sign of personal identity but also just another
composite body part. Selfhood isn't realism, but rather innately surrealistic.

"How can one escape from what one is, where is the leverage to come from?"
Gombrowicz writes. "Our shape penetrates and confines us, as much as from
within as from without" (3:49).( n6) My face is also my mask, not just a saving
and necessary heteroglossia in Bakhtin's sense, but a hetero-physiognomia, a
blend of my features and the faces opposite mine. And if "it is impossible to
detach from other people" (3:77), it is no less impossible to free the face from its
own mugs and grimaces. The socializing stick shaken by parents at
children--"don't make such faces or they'll get stuck"--has the ring of deepest
ontological truth, face as rictus. (Indeed, that's how parents and children make
each other up, precisely needing each other to do so.)

But this isn't the whole story. There is more to Gombrowicz, in other words, than
just face. There is even philosophy. The mini-opera above that ends with "curling
up, rolling up, shutting, shrinking and trying to be as little as possible," while it
may tap the figural marrow of Gombrowicz's work,( n7) connects him, quite selfconsciously, to a whole matrix of continental thought--though Poland's exact
place on that continent is merely another way of putting Gombrowicz's central
question. Countries, as my coda on Bruno Schulz suggests, have faces too. The
railway set-piece, nested within Diary as a whole, itself the culminating work of
Gombrowicz's ouevre, can, without too much of a stretch, be understood to
allegorize his own keen awareness of writing in the presence of reading others,
the aggregate mugs, reddish pupils, and tiny hairs of writerly/readerly nearness.

Diary is where Gombrowicz achieves a Form possible only with readers'


complicity. Unlike more "tactful" French diaries, he wants his own to be "more
modern and more conscious, and let it be permeated by the idea that my talent
can only arise in connection with you, that only you can excite me to talent, or
what's more that only you can create it in me" (1:35). But Diary is also where he
relates anecdotes like the one above or first cousins to it like the following, set
against the backdrop of Argentina's Museo Nacional de Bellas Artes:

There were ten other people besides ourselves who walked up, looked, then
walked away. The mechanical quality of their movements, their muteness, gave
them the appearance of marionettes and their faces were nonexistent compared
to the faces that peered out of the canvas. This is not the first time that the face
of art has irritated me by extinguishing the faces of the living [...] Here in the
museum, the paintings are crowded, the amount crowds the quality,
masterpieces counted in the dozens stop being masterpieces. Who can look
closely at a Murillo when the Tiepolo next to it demands attention and thirty other
paintings shout: look at us! (1:22)

This kind of nausea is, in its way, profounder than Existentialist dread, because it
draws a continuous line between the Sartrean "L'enfer, c'est l'autres" and the
"hell which is other paintings or other books or even this book or this painting
directly in front of me." While the image is obviously more dramatic for
portraiture, Gombrowicz projects a face onto literature and philosophy, too: I
don't just look at books, they hector me, shouting "look at US."

"Ferdydurke was published in 1937," Gombrowicz writes, "before Sartre


formulated his theory of the regard d'autrui. But it is owing to the popularization
of Sartrean concepts that this aspect of my book has been better understood and
assimilated" (3:8).( n8) In Diary volume 3, he lays claim to having similarly
presaged French Structuralism. Ferdydurke predates Merleau Ponty (The
Phenomenology of Perception), Elias Canetti (Crowds and Power), Georges Poulet
("Criticism and the Experience of Interiority"), and, most relevant of all perhaps,
the philosophical thought of Emmanuel Levinas, in which the figure of the face
occupies an absolutely central position, the place where ethics is manifested and
where the Other cuts across the grain of Self.( n9)

But form such a gallery around Gombrowicz, and the philosophers become so
many Murillos and Tiepolos, shouting "look at us! Look at out affinities, our
tangencies! See the mugs we fit each other with!"( n10) Along with the same
character in Ferdydurke who exclaims, "Nothing but face!" one wants to say, "To
hell with philosophy!" The ruthlessly consistent vector of Gombrowicz's thought is
itself a kind of face that will not stop irrevocably facing, staring, grimacing. To

read him is to become intensely self-conscious that he forms the accusative case
of your reading, as you, reciprocally, play direct or indirect object to his
authorship. In other words, the scandal of human countenance is also a face-toface mediated by the Book: the face-to-book-to-face. Is such glowering as
thaumaturgic as, say, the imprecation signaled by the title of a Manuel Puig
novel, "Cursed be the Reader of These Pages," or as collusive as Abbie Hoffman's
"Steal This Book"? It is certainly no less insistent about the gauntlets it flings
down. For as a dueling character in Ferdydurke exclaims, "There are faces! There
are slaps!"

Take the case of Sartre, whom Gombrowicz mentions frequently in Diary. A


Sartrean reading of the chapped skin, little hairs on the ear, hot trickles,
contraction-of-the self, and nearness of the Other in the train compartment scene
would have visage held hostage to regard, face at the mercy of gaze, the ForItself haunted by an all-too-present staring Other. But perhaps the scene works
the other way around, as a rejoinder to Sartre, a face to counter a look, an
oblique way of acknowledging uneasily shared intellectual space.( n11) That
becomes a less figurative possibility when one comes upon another anecdote
only pages later about the young Jean-Paul Sartre himself that bears for
Gombrowicz a wholly Gombrowiczian stamp. (He even admits at the outset how
much the anecdote resonates for him, for it is "not the first time that anecdotes
add up like this" in his experience.)
Scene Two: A Street in Paris.
Strolling in heavy traffic on l'avenue de l'Opera one night, Sartre the prephilosopher is caught up by a surging crowd of pedestrians who suddenly appear
to him paradoxically as both nonentities and sources of dread.

It was especially hideous (as he confessed to friends later), when we experience


a man a short distance away as an almost physical threat, yet if, at the same
time, he is dehumanized by the mass, only the thousandth repetition of a man, a
duplicate, an example, almost a monkey; when he is therefore, simultaneously,
because of the numbers, very close and awfully far. Having found himself in this
throng-crush, this people-nonpeople, our still young, nonauthor of Being and
Nothingness takes to summoning loneliness withhis whole soul: O! To stand out!
Be apart! Break away? Escape! But people were standing on his feet." (3:40)

The experience becomes formative. Sartre decides to seek refuge in philosophy,


mounting a defensive retreat into his consciousness and the concreteness of his
personal existence--"a double wall with which he hermetically sealed himself
from others, having slammed the doors of his `I' after him" (Gombrowicz
interrupts the flow of the story to tell us that evidently Sartre's existentialism
began "in a crowd.")

Sartre reluctantly admits that after immuring himself in his selfhood, he grew less
happy with the idea of isolation as being sustained, existentially, in isolation. He
notices, "in his peripheral vision, that it would find a glad repose in the thousands
of [other] souls threatened by numbers." This confusion between "philosophy and
numbers" between one's own thought and the press of others, between a spot
taken up in a museum and dozens of staring paintings, Sartre cannot seem to
transcend: "Neither Consciousness nor the Concrete has the right to grow fat on
such yeast."

Worse even than this resurfacing terror--"isolation fattened by numbers"--is the


realization that this fear itself is not alone: "It immediately became magnified by
the numbers of all those others whom he could identify himself with--and the
burning of a tree became a conflagration of an entire forest in our philosopher."
Sartre turns to himself one more time--"in being the Only One, I cannot be one of
the many!"--and decides to resuscitate the Other whom he had previously
annihilated philosophically--"rediscover, recognize, reinstitute, re-establish my
bond with him!" He recognizes the Other's freedom, gives the Other the
character of Subject, calls the Other into being. The horrifying consequence? "Our
philosopher has found himself face-to-face with full numbers. He who took fright
at the Parisian mob now saw himself facing all mobs, all individuals, everywhere
and always."

Sartre presses on. Being and Nothingness is published. He throws himself into
political causes, holds fast to the Sartrean pillars of responsibility and
engagement, once again endeavors to "take humanity onto his shoulders."

And he might have made it, if not for this, if not for the fact that numbers had
again mixed into the whole, including everyone, overflowing in a way that was
really indecent [...] the number of copies of his work [...] the number of editions
[...] the number of readers [...] the number of commentaries [...] the number of
thoughts that hatched out of his thoughts and the number of thoughts hatching
out of these thoughts [...] and the number of all the different variants of these
variants. (3:42)

Far worse now than any "throng-crush" of "people-nonpeople" who approach or


surround one on the street is the infinitely greater upsurge of readers, being
besieged by whom (as Gombrowicz puts it in Ferdydurke) "is like being born in a
thousand narrow minds (17)." To paraphrase Sartre's famous observation about
Flaubert, on est lire--one is read.

The anecdote ends on a note of deflationary resignation. Sartre is distraught,


wants to commit suicide, tries to commit suicide, but finally consoles himself with
the thought that even though the swelling tide of readers is catastrophic because
of the sheer numbers, at the end of the day it all comes to nothing "as a result of
these same numbers," since dispersal actually hides a secret cushion: the more
thought and language are disseminated, the less they're really understood:
"people talk but no one knows about what, one about this, another about that,
and somehow nothing comes of it" (3:42).

The end result is not so very different from that of the railway compartment:
"each person is curling up, rolling up, shutting, shrinking, limiting to a minimum
his eyes, ears, lips, trying to be as little as possible." Where the one is a duel, the
other is a skirmish. As Gombrowicz puts it in Diary, "I am tumbling into publicism
along with you and the rest of the world" (1:35). And it is face--textual and
interpersonal--that drags me out of the amnion and clandestinity of "me," and
pushes me into public view. Thus do faces not only "answer" backsides in
Gombrowicz, they deliver kicks to them, and send their owners tumbling.

The train compartment and Sartre versus everybody, the face-to-face and the
book-as-face: Gombrowicz makes human countenance a scandal in both. In the
railway compartment it was the too-close Other, a foil or antagonist, a counterface, a synechoche for the crowd. In the case of Sartre, it is a crowd that is finally
only imagined but just as threatening--a virtual throng, the surplus of unseeable
reading Others who lock eyes onto him through his book.( n12) Medusa or the
Maenads: stared at, or dispersed into pieces. A facial claustrophobia or its
agoraphobic counterpart. Hairs, sweat, and pupils, or "those human opinions, the
abyss of views and criticisms of your intelligence, your heart, every detail of your
being, which opens up in front of you when you have incautiously clothed your
thoughts in words, put them on paper and spread them among men!" (1: 16-17).

But instead of leaving the impression of a tidy opposition, I see these two scenes
of otherness either squared off against me or catching me by surprise as
converging upon a third, from a Diary entry that precedes the other two by only
pages, that combines features of both.
Scene Three: Poland; or the Space of Literature
Bruno.

I have long known about this edition prepared with such painstaking effort, yet
when I finally saw the book [a recent French translation of Schulz's Cinnamon

Shops] I winced [...] He first showed up at my place, on Sluzewska, after the


publication of Cinnamon Shops. He was small, strange, chimerical, focused,
intense, almost feverish and this is how our conversations got started, usually on
walks. That we needed one another is indisputable. We found ourselves in a
vacuum, our literary situations were permeated with a void, our admirers were
spectral [...] After reading my first book, Bruno discovered a companion in me, for
me to furnish him with the Outside without which an inner life is condemned to a
monologue--and he wanted me to use him in the same way [...] And here is
where the "miss" or "dislocation," to use the language of our works, came in; for
his extended hand did not meet my own. I did not return his regard, I gave him
abysmally little, almost nothing, of myself, our relationship was a fiasco; but
perhaps this secretly worked to our advantage? Perhaps he and I needed fiasco
rather than happy symbiosis. Today I can speak of this openly because he has
died. (3:3)

The rest of this extended reflection on Gombrowicz's fellow writer and Pole, Bruno
Schulz, is forthright, unsparing, and often brutal, almost as though Gombrowicz
and Schulz are positioned opposite one another in a railway compartment (as
indeed they often are, figuratively speaking, when critics speak about them in the
same breath).( n13) Put another way, it is almost as if Gombrowicz's reading of
Schulz summons up a face for him which he must deflect apotropaically, not
merely by "wincing" or turning away "Bruno's regard," but by fitting him with a
mug. Put a third way, Bruno is made to suffer Sartre's fate, a writer at the mercy
of a reader's grimacing.

Schulz himself, in the last work of fiction published before his death, provides a
kind of inadvertent confirmation of Gombrowicz's insight (though an author's
fiction should never serve as affidavit for the life):

You rub against somebody, attach your homelessness and nothingness to


someone alive and warm. The other person walks away and does not feel your
burden, does not notice that he is carrying you on his shoulders, that like a
parasite you cling momentarily to his life.( n14) (Complete Fiction 298)

Gombrowicz mounts a sustained diatribe against such symbiosis, the alternative


to which--"fiasco"--etches into much sharper relief the rubbing, clinging, carrying,
burdening of mutual need whose parasitism is also allergy.

The fiasco of the Other, of the self pressed against, subjected to, provoked by
otherness is what I have termed a "scandal"--the ordeal of inter-subjectivity as

physiognomy, as exteriority, but also as reading, in both cases what will not leave
off inexorably facing. Gombrowicz's stand is the one of most resistance, since the
integrity of one's own face is at stake: one has to stare back, and dole out
grimaces and mugs in the same measure that they are received. But the stand
Gombrowicz takes against Schulz exceeds the stuff of private discomfiture, since
it takes place as a "tumbling into publicism" on the plane of Diary itself. Schulz
and Gombrowicz are not alone in this particular compartment, the dominant to
his submissive,( n15) for to witness the face-to-face is also to become a party to
it. The real scandal of countenance is that it is a conjoint phenomenon; no one-not even readers--gets a free look.

Inasmuch as the Self is created or deformed from the outside, it wears a face.
Inasmuch as the Self can lay claim to a latency or capacity for estrangement
within, it wears a face. Inasmuch as the Other always enters unannounced, it
wears a face. And at Gombrowicz's most authorially self-conscious, inasmuch as
face looks out onto the space of reading, the bearing and imposing of faces is
also something texts, authors, and writers can be said to undergo.

In the introduction to the Spanish edition of Ferdydurke, Gombrowicz addresses


his readers in closing,

I therefore beg you to keep silent [...] For the time being--if you wish to let me
know that the book pleased you--when you see me simply touch your right ear. If
you touch your left ear, I shall know that you didn't like it, and if you touch your
nose it will mean that you are not sure [...T]hus we shall avoid uncomfortable and
even ridiculous situations and understand each other in silence. My greetings to
all. ( 9)

The Diary, his culminating and most personalized work in a flagrantly


personalized oeuvre, transposes that virtual encounter onto the plane of reading
itself. The figuration is less distinct--as in both the Schulz and the Sartre
anecdotes, one has to "conjure" the face oneself--but the self-consciousness
about being under the eyes of reading others is, if anything, even more profound.
The Gombrowiczian face, one could say, is a kind of symptom (in Lacan's sense):
summoned in the act of being warded off.( n16)

What of the face in Schulz, the Schulzian face? It deserves more than a cameo
appearance here, so I pivot to it by way of contrast, and conclude. His relative
obscurity, the frustration of a provincial fate, the ambient pathos of his
personality, his Jewishness in a Catholic and pre-war Poland--if anything, Schulz

was even more conscious of the spell cast by the face, and his own need to
conjure and ward it off. His fiction and his surviving correspondence show a writer
in overdetermined relationship to readers--those whose faces he knew,(n17) as
well as prospective ones he could only invoke or imply.

Unlike its counterpart in Gombrowicz, however, the Schulzian face throws down
no gauntlet. It does not believe in dueling. Nor does it proliferate, finding refuge
in metonymy, safety in numbers. Instead, it lives a wholly metaphorical life. It is
subject to the same forces that preside over everything else in Schulz's mythified
fictional world: a fundamental principle of transmigrated form, objects turned into
signs, persons collapsed into allegories of themselves, private space and time
contracted into further depths of privacy or else dispersed into otherness. The
face appears, only to recede again, much as Gombrowicz says of Schulz himself
in Diary, "extraneous," "superfluous." But perhaps there lies its significance, a
minor element in a minor modernism that nonetheless reads the larger-in-scale.

The very first story of Cinnamon Shops, "August," describes a "half-wit girl,"
Touya, whose face "works like the bellows of an accordion. Every now and then a
sorrowful grimace folds it into a thousand vertical pleats, but astonishment soon
straightens it out again" (Schulz 6). The simile that conveys this figure (or her
face) promises a kind of plenitude, the opposite pole to which--hollowed out or
contracted space--is emblematized by Touya's mother, "white as a wafer and
motionless like a glove from which a hand had been withdrawn" ( 7). The story
ends with a face which is the empty glove to Touya's accordion:

[Emil's] pale flabby face, seemed from day to day to lose its outline, to become a
white blank with a pale network of veins, like lines on an old map [...] He was
sitting on a small, low sofa [and] it seemed as if it were only his clothes that had
been thrown, crumpled and empty, over a chair. His face seemed like the breath
of a face--a smudge which an unknown passer-by had left in the air. From the
mist of his face, the protruding white of a pale eye emerged with difficulty,
enticing me with a wink [...] but all fell away again and his face receded into
indifference and became absent and finally faded away altogether." ( 10)

The pulse of Schulz's fiction oscillates between such fadings or diminishings, and
corresponding pullulations of "immoderate fertility," as in the story "Pan":

It was the face of a tramp or a drunkard. A tuft of filthy hair bristled over his
broad forehead rounded like a stone washed by a stream. That forehead was now
creased into deep furrows. I did not know whether it was the pain. The burning

heat of the sun, or that superhuman effort that had eaten into his face and
stretched those features near to cracking. His dark eyes bored into me with a
fixedness of supreme despair or suffering. He both looked at me and did not, he
saw me and did not see. His eyes were like bursting shells, strained in a transport
of pain or the wild delights of inspiration. (Complete Fiction 47)

The face in Schulz folds in on its own metaphoricity, producing exquisite similes
that, in John Updike's trenchant description from his introduction to the Penguin
edition of Schulz's Sanatorium Under the Sign of the Hourglass, evince both the
prose's strenuous artifice and its harrowing effect (Updike xiii-xiv). The faces are
their metaphors, wholly figural productions of language. There, are, thus (as
there must be in Gombrowicz), neither counter-faces nor mugs. "It is part of my
existence," says a character in Sanatorium Under the Sign of the Hourglass, "to
be the parasite of metaphors, so easily am I carried away by the first simile that
comes along" (Complete Fiction 309),(n18) a fate shared by the Schulzian face as
well. The counterpart in Schulz to Gombrowicz's train compartment scene might
therefore be this:

For a time I had the company of a man in a ragged railwayman's uniform--silent,


engrossed in his thoughts. He pressed a handkerchief to his swollen, aching face.
Later even he disappeared, having slipped out unobserved at some stop. He left
behind him the mark of his body in the straw that lay on the floor, and a shabby
black suitcase he had forgotten. (Complete Fiction 242)

Only in the story "Tailor's Dummies" from Cinnamon Shops, where Schulz lays
claim to his most extravagant of pathetic fallacies, does he approximate
Gombrowicz's notion of face as something imposed rather than simply
possessed, faces or expressions that "imprison" or coerce the simulacra
(waxwork figures, dummies) that wear them, but the seeming cruelty here is
merely the special case of a general principle: "a certain monism of the life
substance" for which "specific objects are nothing more than mask. The life of the
substance consists in the assuming and consuming of numberless masks. The
migration of forms is the essence of life" (Letters 113).

How Schulz might have extended or complicated such mythopoesis is a question


that remains fixed in the grimace imposed upon it by a Gestapo officer's bullet in
1942.(n19) Schulz's death, as Gombrowicz coldly notes, licenses a different kind
of facing--something Gombrowicz had already prefigured during Schulz's lifetime,
when he drew him out in an exchange of open letters, exposing his face in public.
(n20)

Gombrowicz, it seems, required foils and counter-faces to articulate the features


of his own. To this degree, his criticism and his demeanor as public intellectual
were of a piece with his art. Intersubjective space becomes an infinite regress of
metonymy, the face that begets other faces as well as the face of human
encounter that transposes into the face of reading. Schulz also sustains a
consistency between life and art, but it is the more vulnerable, because fixed,
consistency of metaphor. Faces don't transpose, but transubstantiate instead.
Moreover, there is no face-to-face. The face is an object, a kind of pure passivity,
held out by the fiction to be stared at (as to read Schulz's fiction, analogously, is
typically the experience of languor and torpid assent, an almost post-coital
feeling of abeyance).(n21)

Even away from his fiction, when Schulz wrote correspondence to others, or
answered Gombrowicz's open letter with one of his own, or produced critical
essays on the subconscious or the mythologizing of reality or a Republic of
Dreams, the face--as simply one metaphoric emblem among multiple others--is
asked to do a different kind of work than in Gombrowicz. "A consecration by the
ceremony of the spectacle" (Sartre, What is Literature 57): that is Sartre's
description of the face-to-face instituted by reading, and it accurately conveys
the religiosity of Schulz's prose, its air of nunc starts that put Gombrowicz so ill at
ease.(n22) If, thus, a parallel Sartrean exemplification to the one in Gombrowicz
can be found for Schulz, it would be the aesthetic first principle spelled out in
Sartre's essay "Why Write?": "Kant believes that the work of art first exists as fact
and that it is then seen. Whereas it exists only if one looks at it and if it is first
appeal, pure exigence to exist [...] The work of art is a value because it is an
appeal" (57). Consider this last scene.
Scene Four: Europe; or the Space of Myth and History
During his lifetime [Napoleon's] face may have been the face of an individual.
Certainly, those near him knew that smile, that clouding brow, the flashes the
moment lit up on his face. To us, from a distance, individual traits increasingly
dim and blur, they seem to give out a radiance from within, as of larger, more
massive features carrying in themselves hundreds of lost and irrecoverable faces.
In the act of dying, merging with eternity, that face flickers with memories, roams
through a series of faces, ever paler, more condensed, until out of the heaping of
those faces there settles on it at last, and hardens into its final mask, the
countenance of Poland--forever. (Letters 62)

That is the conclusion of a critical essay, "The Formation of Legends," that Schulz
wrote to commemorate the death of Jozef Pitsudski, Marshal of Poland. It treats
greatness in an abstract sense, but also as the lasting effect personified by
Napoleon Western Europe has had over its Central and Eastern European Other.
The receding of individual features that permits a heightening of more massive
ones, the merging, condensation, and heaping of Faces into Mask, the expense of

Others that silhouettes a Self: the scandal of countenance here is the scandal of
metaphor generally in Schulz, an equipoise of line and shadow.

The face, one could say, is the condition of chiarascuro, and spatializes a similar
notion from Sanatorium Under the Sign of the Hourglass about time:

What it is to be done with events that have no place of their own in time; events
that have occurred too late, after the whole of time has been distributed, divided,
and allotted; events that have been left in the cold, unregistered, hanging in the
air; homeless, and errant? Could it be that time is too narrow for all events? Could
it be that all the seats within time might have been sold? (Complete Fiction 131)

An axis of substitution shunts branch lines of time or supernumerary faces into a


zone of irrecoverability, where they are nevertheless preserved metaphorically.
Perhaps this exorbitancy of metaphor, the transporting of contraband that cannot
otherwise be registered (as Schulz puts it in Sanatorium), is what Gombrowicz
meant when he charged Schulz of approaching art "as if it were a lake he
intended to drown in" (3:6). Without endorsing Gombrowicz's manichean
distinctions between himself and Schulz as laid out in his Diary--"Bruno was a
man denying himself. I was seeking myself. He wanted annihilation. I wanted
realization. He was born to be a slave. I was born to be a master. He was of the
Jewish race. I was from a family of Polish gentry" (3:6)--the Schulzian face does
what the Gombrowiczian face cannot. It doesn't flinch or recompose itself. Not
staring--or grimacing or wincing or mugging--back is how it stares back.

His face matured early, and strange to say while experience and the trials of
living spared the empty inviolability, the strange marginality of his life, his
features reflected experiences that had passed him by, elements in a biography
never to be fulfilled; these experiences, although completely illusory, molded and
sculpted his face into the mask of a great tragedian, which expressed the wisdom
and sadness of his existence. (Complete Fiction 275)

Witold Gombrowicz was born on an estate at Maloszyce in southeast Poland, lived


in Warsaw as a child, became stranded in Argentina on the eve of World War II,
and returned to Europe in 1963 an internationally recognized writer, four years
before his death. Bruno Schulz lived, wrote, and died in the southeastern
provincial town of Drohobycz. Even in life, they seem to personify different
rhetorical figures. Between them is suspended the countenance of Poland in the
middle decades of the twentieth century, Janus-faced and self-estranged, itself
haunted by the death's head of National Socialism at one end and the grimace of

Communism at the Other. But in tracking the scandal of face on a lesser scale in
both writers, one descries the outline of that same national countenance, as
reading makes one stumble ineluctably from ethics to politics to history, from one
publicism into another. From that vantage, metonymy and metaphor are merely
different ways of filling in its features.

Witold Gombrowicz, Polish classist exile, facing Argentine train passenger, or,
East European Other facing South American counterpart. Witold Gombrowicz,
author, facing Jean-Paul Sartre, philosopher, or, hyper-kynical modernist(n23)
facing modern intellectual Napoleon. Witold Gombrowicz, diarist and novelist,
facing a multiplicity of readers, or, writing subject facing lecteurs et semblables
infini. Witold Gombrowicz facing Bruno Schulz, or, Polish emigre dead of heart
failure in 1969 facing Polish Jew murdered in 1942, or, wholly original writer who
sustained an aesthetic politics of facing to the end facing wholly original writer
whose "spiritual genealogy" Fate chose to preserve in amber. Witold Gombrowicz
facing this article's own author and this author's readers, or, W. G. facing A. Z. N.
and...

To read Gombrowicz, thus, is to become subject to what another face-obsessed


writer, Thomas De Quincey, called "the Piranesi effect," the multiplication of face
as in a hall of mirrors, from which (as Sartre might say), there is no exit, no
about-face. If I have seemed to compress those many planes or images here, it is
owing in no small part to the experience of reading Gombrowicz, whose
uncanniness resembles nothing so much as the twinning of forced otherness and
extreme self-consciousness in a staring contest. From that vantage, the scandal
of facing is also its reason for being. One takes up the gauntlet and reads.
Notes
(n1) Gombrowicz and Erving Goffman converge at more than just a shared place
in the alphabet. See especially Interaction Ritual: Essay in Face-to-Face Behavior,
where Goffman describes the sociology of encounter in terms of "face-work," and
Stigma: Notes on the Management of Spoiled Identity.

(n2) "Face" joins "Part," "Immaturity," and especially "Form" in Gombrowicz's


specialized vocabulary for expressing the primacy of the inter-human. The
following crucial explanation of the role played by Form in all of Gombrowicz's
work comes from Diary, volume 1: "The most important, most extreme, and most
incurable dispute is that waged in us by two of our most basic strivings: the one
that desires form, shape, definition, and the other which protests against shape,
and does not want form [...] That entire philosophical and ethical dialectic of ours
takes place against an immensity, which is called shapelessnesss, which is
neither darkness nor light, but exactly a mixture of everything: ferment, disorder,
purity, and accident" (93). See also the extended remarks on Form in Diary,

volume 2, 3-5 and 184-85; chapter 5 of A Kind of Testament, a short


autobiographical work published shortly before Gombrowicz's death, 69-82; and
of course the fictive exploration of this construct in the novels Ferdydurke,
Cosmos, and Pornografia. Ewa M. Thompson's Witold Gombrowicz and Tomislav Z.
Longinovi's Borderline Culture: The Politics of Identity in Four Twentieth-Century
Slavic Novels offer helpful secondary treatments, as does the recently published
essay collection, Gombrowicz's Grimaces: Modernism, Gender, Nationality.

(n3) Compare, for example, Ferdydurke: "Oh, if I could have seen just one
undistorted face to enable me to feel the distortion of my own! But alas! Around
me were nothing but battered, laundered and ironed faces which reflected my
own as in a distorting mirror--and I was held captive by this facial mirage" (4950).

(n4) Later on in Diary, volume 3, Gombrowicz will indulge in a "close scrutiny of


bodies": "I drew physical defects out of the crowds, oh look, flat chest, anemia of
the neck, hunchback, twisted trunk, the tragedy of those limbs [...] I was
persistent about seeking out a certain defect, a kind of very French inelegance
dancing about their very lips, noses, not of all Frenchman but quite a few" (87).

(n5) For the face is also made scandalous by the "backside" or "thigh" as
Gombrowicz parcels out the body into various parts in Ferdydurke. An otherness
infiltrates the root of a person's metaphysical integrity quite independently of any
human Other, a species of alienation Gombrowicz calls "the rump" to suggest
than any Self Project is already undermined by the innate surrealism of the body.
"I even imagined that my body was not entirely homogeneous [...] that my head
was laughing at and mocking my thigh, that my thigh was making merry at my
head, that my finger was ridiculing my heart and my heart my brain, while my
eye made sport of my nose and my nose of my eye [...] my limbs and the various
parts of my body violently ridiculing each other in a general atmosphere of
caustic and wounding raillery" (13-14).

(n6) In the introduction to Pornografia, Gombrowicz writes, "Man, tortured by his


mask, fabricates secretly [...] a secondary domain of compensation" (8).

(n7) A parallel moment, for instance, occurs in Diary, volume 2: "I was walking
along a eucalyptus-lined avenue when a cow sauntered out from behind a tree. I
stopped and we looked each other in the eye. Her cowness shocked my
humanness to such a degree--the moment our eyes met was so tense--I stopped
dead in my tracks and lost my beatings as a man, that is, as a member of the

human species. The strange feeling that I was apparently discovering for the first
time was the shame of a man come face-to-face with an animal. I allowed here to
look and see me--this made us equal--and resulted in my also becoming an
animal--but a strange even forbidden one, I would say. I continued my walk, but I
felt uncomfortable [...] in nature, surrounding me on all sides, as if it were [...]
watching me" (24). The volume closes with an extended episode (231-239) that
contains the following: "Face to face. Alone. Hand to Hand. Foot to foot. Knee to
knee. Face to face. Until this stupid identity begins to irritate me in the room, and
I think, how is it that he repeats me, that I repeat him, face to face" (231).

(n8) See also Diary 1, 181-187. In A Kind of Testament, Gombrowicz makes


similar claims about structuralism: "Yes I am a structuralist just as I am an
existentialist. I am bound to structuralism by my approach to Form. Of course the
human personality, which I believe is created `between men,' in the human
context which defines a system of dependencies by no means dissimilar to a
`structure.' In what I wrote before the war you will find expressions which have
now been incorporated by the structuralists" (152). In Diary, volume 3, he says
irascibly, "and please replace the word form with structuralism and you will see
me at the center of today's French intellectual issues" (182).

(n9) The provenance of the face trope in Levinas is probably dual, appearing
conspicuously at the end of Franz Rosenzweig's The Star of Redemption, a work
that influenced Levinas deeply, but also saturating the Biblical and Rabbinic texts
that undergird much of Levinas's philosophy. In Hebrew, the word for face also
means presence or selfhood, and it appears in numerous scenes of encounter in
the Pentateuch. As Moses "hides his face" from God on Sinai in Exodus 10, for
example, so God's answering threat of absence from the plane of human events
is called hister panim--the hiding of face--in Deuteronomy. Though not particularly
Levinasian, perhaps most relevant in the light of Gombrowicz's fiction may be the
verses in Genesis 31:2, "And Jacob saw that Laban's face was not with him, as it
had been in the best," and 31:5, "Laban's face is not to me as it was previously."
As Avivah Zornberg brilliantly reads them in her The Beginning of Desire:
Reflections on Genesis, "Laban's face is part of Jacob's world; he carries its
impress, its changing looks around with him." She adduces a homiletic gloss on a
related Talmudic passage (Berakhot 6b) that centers on the self-consciousness
induced by the gaze of others: "one who is too much affected by other's faces
finds his own face turning all colors, blushing and paling in response to their
changing expressions." (206)

(n10) The credible parallels Ewa M. Thompson draws between Gombrowicz and
the work of Jacques Lacan and Rene Girard in Witold Gombrowicz (139-56) make
the Levinasian resemblance, through French phenomenology, by comparison,
unsurprising. The most uncannnily Levinasian moment in Diary--as though it

came from Totality and Infinity itself--occurs in volume 3: "The point is (and I have
noticed it for quite a while) that some sort of theory [...] imposes itself upon me
in my relation to people: I know that essence powerfully [...] and I try to rouse the
fight reflex in myself. I know, I feel, the "how" and "whence" and "why" of this
other's "approaching" or "emerging" and what our "disposition" is toward one
another should not be a matter of indifference; I know that it should be more
fundamental than one can express in words; and that it should be "introductory,"
or "preceding" my other sensation constituting something like a background"
(23). But perhaps the closest family ties, fittingly enough, can be tracked to the
novel La Came de Rend (Rene's Flesh), by the Cuban writer Virgilio Pinero (whom
Gombrowicz knew in Argentina, and to whom he delegated the responsibility of
translating Ferdydurke into Spanish). Pinero's novel features a relentless bodyconsciousness, the sado-masochism of pedagogy, and various scenes of
grimacing and distorted face that all undoubtedly echo Ferdydurke.

(n11) Speaking of Sartre again, for instance, at the end of the entry for 1962,
Gombrowicz chides him for his "cacophony of levels, tones, concepts," his
"sudden tumbling from the peaks onto the flat plain," the switch from one voice
expressive of "the spirit," to a second voice one associates with "a schoolmaster
and moralist." He tells the following anecdote. "After going to bed with an
elevator boy, the heroine of one of Thomas Mann's novels cries out in exaltation,
`What, I, Madame so-and-so, a poet, lady of society, in bed with a naked elevator
boy!' I think this anecdote is fight for Sartre not so much because of the dialectics
of the `base' which it contains as for the `superstructure,' the elevator. For even
in our time, one occasionally comes upon one of those scrupulous people who,
panic-stricken that not his own substance but a mechanism is raising him aloft
presses the button of the same machine to ride down as quickly as possible" (2:
60-61). And in the entry for 1963, he opines, "Half of his deductions from Being
and Nothingness are unacceptable to me, they do not correspond to my truest
experiences in life" (3:93). Later in the same volume, he tells us, perversely, that
he only writes about Sartre anyway in order to distract himself from visiting Berlin
on a Ford Foundation grant: "It is obvious--never write `about Berlin, `Paris,' only
about oneself [...] in Berlin and Paris" (110).

(n12) Or in other words, a regard de l'autrui completely unimaginable within the


pages of Being and Nothingness. In happier days--at least as recounted by an
adult Sartre looking back on his childhood--a very different relationship to being
read is imagined in a passage which describes with immense pleasure the
prospect of becoming a "precipitate of language" disseminated through writing.
"My bones are made of leather and cardboard, my parchment-skinned flesh
smells of glue and mushrooms, I sit in state through a hundred thirty pounds of'
paper, thoroughly at ease. I am reborn, I at last become a whole man. [...] Hands
take me down, open me, spread me flat on the table, smooth me, and sometimes
make me creak. [...] My mind is in bits and pieces. All the better. People read me,
I leap to the eye; they talk to me. I'm in everyone's mouth, a universal and

individual language: I become a prospective curiosity in millions of gazes; to him


who can love me, I step aside and disappear: I exist nowhere, at last I am, I'm
everywhere. I'm a parasite on mankind, my blessings eat into it and force it to
keep reviving my absence" (The Words 194-195).

(n13) Unfortunately, most of this discussion is carried on in languages other than


English. See, however, Russell E. Brown's Myths and Relatives: Seven Essays on
Bruno Schulz, Diana Kuprel's "Errant Events on the Branch Tracks of Time: Bruno
Schulz and Mythical Consciousness," and David Jarrett's "Bruno Schulz and the
Map of Poland."

(n14) The passage comes from perhaps Schulz's most Gombrowicz-like story,
"The Old Age Pensioner," which parallels Ferdydurke in its description of an
adult's juvenilization.

(n15) The entry on Schulz is laced with the vocabulary of perversion and pyschopathology, and the lineaments of Gombrowicz's own personality, not least his
homosexuality, can be discerned between its lines--which is only fitting, since the
face-to-face in Gombrowicz is, in this sense, always interlinear--a stretto or
stichomythia.

(n16) In The Sublime Object of Ideology, Slavoj Zizek explains the dual meaning
of the symptom in Lacan, an index to human personality as well as a semiotic
choice:

The Lacanian answer to the question: From where does the repressed return? is
[...] paradoxically: From the future. Symptoms are meaningless traces, their
meaning is not discovered, excavated from the hidden depth of the past, but
constructed retroactively--the analysis produces the truth; that is, the signifying
frame which gives the symptoms their symbolic place and meaning [...] What we
must bear in mind here is the radical ontological status of symptom: symptom,
conceived as sinthome, [Lacan's coinage, meaning (among other things), a
synthesis between symptom and fantasy] is literally our only substance, the
positive support of our being, the only point that gives consistency to the subject.
(55, 75)

The way in which it takes shape between analyst and analysand is analogous to
the double bind of literary interpretation, chaining writer and reader in a complex

exchange of cathexes. See in this context Hanjo Berressem's The "Evil Eye" of
Painting: Jacques Lacan and Witold Gombrowicz of the Gaze.

(n17) One of his letters begins, "Dear Classmate, of course I remember you, and
your face springs vividly before my eyes" (Letters 89).

(n18) Compare also the story, "Sanatorium Under the Sign of the Hourglass," for
the description of a man-dog: "How great is the power of prejudice! How powerful
the hold of fear! How blind I had been! It was not a dog, it was a man. A chained
man, whom by a simplifying metaphoric error, I had taken for a dog." (Complete
Fiction 269)

(n19) In a letter to a publisher dated October 10, 1935, Schulz says that The
Messiah (since lost) will be "the continuation of Cinnamon Shops" (Letters 103).

(n20) In his "Open Letter to Bruno Schulz" from two years earlier, Gombrowicz
accuses his compatriot of a mandarin facade that remains opaque to the
common reader ("the doctor's wife"), exhorting him at the end to "show us this
expression on your face, give us one look at it, how gentle Bruno shakes off the
opinion of the doctor's wife from Line 18" (Schulz, Letters 119). Schulz's riposte
was witty and unafraid, and certainly places Gombrowicz's assessment of him
there and in his Diary in a different light. Two years after this exchange, Schulz
published a review of Ferdydurke in the journal Skamander in 1938, which, to use
Gombrowicz's terms, reflects almost undistilled "symbiosis." One of its organizing
metaphors, however, is telling: "Both the troubles, the misfortunes, and the puns
of form, and the torture of man on form's Procrustean bed, excite and move him
passionately. But how meager and dry, how poor is the skeleton of those
problems lifted out of the living organism of the novel Ferdydurke. It is scarcely
one cross-section of the living, whirling bulk of its body, hardly one of the
thousand aspects of this thousand-faceted creature. Here we finally encounter a
natural, first-hand mind that has not been stuffed full of readymade ideas.
Whenever we lay our hands on the flesh of this work, we feel a powerful
musculature of thought, muscles, and sinews of an athletic anatomy that needs
no artificial padding. This book bursts from an abundance of ideas, overflows with
creative and destructive energy." The same somatic conceit concludes the piece,
reproving criticism in its clinical impropriety: "Yet how much must the work,
through this sort of stripping and medical prepping of the bare skeleton suffer
damage to its unlimited perspective [...] that bestows on Gombrowicz's ideas the
value of a microcosmos, the value of a universal model of the world and life!"
(Letters 163-64).

(n21) Which is to say of the prose's sexual energies, that, unlike Gombrowicz's,
there is no friction. It is worth pursuing the question of eros as a differentiating
category for these two writers, say, along lines suggested by Barthes's distinction
between texts of plaisir and those of jouissance in The Pleasure of the Text. If
texts of pleasure can be linked to a "comfortable practice of reading," and texts
of bliss to "a state of loss" or discomfort ( 14), Gombrowicz and Schulz might be
thought of, likewise, in terms of the text that chafes or abrades on the one hand,
and the text that slides and slips away on the other.

(n22) "He was a fanatic of art, its slave. He entered this cloister and submitted to
its rigors, carrying out its strictest injunctions with great humility in order to
attain perfection. [...] Falling to his knees before the Spirit, he experienced
sensual pleasure. He wanted to be a servant, nothing more. He craved
nonexistence" ( 7).

(n23) See Peter Sloterdijk's highly Gombrowiczian Critique of Cynical Reason,


especially the section "Pyschosomatics of the Zeitgeist" and its first chapter,
"Physiognomic Main Text." I thank Felicia Steele for discussions about
Gombrowicz in this regard.
Works Cited
Barthes, Roland. The Pleasure of the Text. Trans. Richard Miller. New York: Hill and
Wang, 1975.
Berressem, Hanjo. The "Evil Eye" of Painting: Jacques Lacan and Witold
Gombrowicz of the Gaze. Albany: State U of New York P, 1995.
Brown, Russell E. Myths and Relatives: Seven Essays on Bruno Schulz. Munchen:
Verlag Otto Sagner, 1991.
Goffman, Erving. Interaction Ritual: Essay in Face-to-Face Behavior. Chicago:
Adline, 1967.
-----. Stigma: Notes on the Management of Spoiled Identity. Englewood Cliffs, NJ:
Prentice-Hall, 1963. Gombrowicz, Witold. Diary. 3 vols. Trans. Lillian Vallee.
Evanston: Northwestern UP, 1988-93.
-----. Ferdydurke. Trans. Eric Mosbacher. London: MacGibbon & Kee, 1961.
-----. A Kind of Testament. Trans. Alastair Hamilton. London: Calder and Boyars,
1973.
-----. Pornografia. Trans. Alastair Hamilton. London: Calder and Boyars, 1966.
Jarrett, David. "Bruno Schulz and the Map of Poland." Chicago Review 40. 1
(1994): 73-84.

Kuprel, Diana. "Errant Events on the Branch Tracks of Time: Bruno Schulz and
Mythical Consciousness." Slavic & East European Journal 40.1 (Spring 1996): 10017.
Levinas, Emmanuel. Basic Philosophical Writings. Bloomfield: Indiana UP, 1996.
-----. Collected Philosophical Papers. Trans. Alphonso Lingis. The Hague: Martinus
Nijhoff, 1987.
-----. Totality and Infinity: An Essay on Exteriority. Trans. Alfonso Lingis. Pittsburgh:
Duquesne UP, 1969.
Longinovi, Tomislav Z. Borderline Culture: The Politics of Identity in Four
Twentieth-Century Slavic Novels. Fayetteville: U of Arkansas P, 1993.
Newton, Adam Zachary. Facing Black and Jew: Literature as Public Space in
Twentieth-Century America. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1999.
-----. The Fence and the Neighbor: Emmanuel Levinas, Yeshayahu Leibowitz, and
Israel Among the Nations. Forthcoming.
-----. Narrative Ethics. Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1995.
Pinero, Virgilio. Rene's Flesh. Trans. Mark Schafen New York: Marsilio, 1989.
Sartre, Jean-Paul. The Words. Trans. Bernard Frechtman. New York: George
Braziller, 1964.
-----. "What is Literature?" and Other Essays. Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1988.
Schulz, Bruno. The Complete Fiction of Bruno Schulz. Trans. Celia Wieniewska.
New York: Walker, 1989.
-----. Letters and Drawings of Bruno Schulz. New York: Harper and Row, 1988.
Sloterdijk, Peter. Critique of Cynical Reason. Trans. Michael Elred. Minneapolis: U
of Minnesota P, 1987.
-----. Thompson, Ewa M. Witold Gombrowicz. Boston: Twayne, 1979.
Updike, John. Introduction. Sanatorium Under the Sign of the Hourglass. By Bruno
Schulz. Trans. Celia Wieniewska. New York: Penguin, 1979.
Ziarek, Ewa Ponoswka, ed. Gombrowicz's Grimaces: Modernism, Gender,
Nationality. Albany: State U of New York P, 1998.
Zizek, Slavoj. The Sublime Object of Ideology. London: Verso, 1989.
Zornberg, Avivah. The Beginning of Desire: Reflections on Genesis. New York:
Doubleday, 1996.
~~~~~~~~
By Adam Zachary Newton, University of Texas at Austin

Naslov: Who Has the Right to Feel?: The Ethics of Literary Empathy. Prema:
Lundeen, Kathleen, Style, 00394238, Summer98, Svezak. 32, Broj 2.Baza
podataka: Academic Search Complete.
WHO HAS THE RIGHT TO FEEL?: THE ETHICS OF LITERARY EMPATHY

Like most golden rules, empathy is seen as more than a virtue; for many, it is a
litmus test of one's humanity. In the political realm it is lobbied for in the form of
social legislation and demanded of elected officials who must "relate" to their
constituents. As privacy has become a public commodity and the talk show host
the prototype of a leader, politically motivated empathy has on occasion
escalated to the point of being maudlin. Though Bill Clinton is hardly ubiquitous,
surprisingly few challenged him when he declared to a heterogeneous electorate,
"I feel your pain." But while a show of empathy may enhance a person's profile in
real-life encounters, it has of late raised suspicion when directed toward fictional
subjects. Writers or readers who appear to empathize with another's life
experiences are often accused of arrogating a cultural authority to which they
have no natural claim.

Discourse of all kinds--poetic, fictional, critical--is taken at this time to be an


artifact of social identity; the language of a particular text is thus treated as the
secret code of those who share a designated mark of social identification.
Moreover, since everyone is marked by society in a number of ways (through, for
instance, ethnicity, class, sex, religion, age, physical mobility, and nationality), if
we were to insist on shared identity in all areas, writers would only be fit to
represent themselves, and readers, to understand representations of themselves.
By this logic, autobiography would emerge as the sole legitimate creative genre
and it would be suitable only for a readership of one: its author.

Though no one proposes surrendering to such an extreme position, questions


linger about the degree to which social identity insinuates itself into literary art.
David Palumbo-Liu's musing on his experience as an assistant professor is worth
noting since his account, which is hardly unique, reminds us that assumptions
about literary empathy have real consequences:

what do we do when called on (over and over again) to guest-teach The Woman
Warrior? or The Color Purple or Ceremony and so on? Do we insist that skin color
has no bearing on the ability or right of anyone to teach a particular work and
enter once again into the debates that inevitably follow regarding the politics of

hiring faculty members of color? Is the request that I teach Maxine Hong Kingston
a sign of the dreaded ethnic ghettoization or a sign of respect? (1078)

The question persists: to what extent is our literary engagement biologically or


culturally determined?

Narrowing the authority of writers, readers, or teachers obviously reduces the


scope of their literary activities, but it poses an even greater threat to culture: it
debunks a fundamental assumption about cultural expression--namely, that
representation presupposes a capacity for empathy. That particular assumption is
so rooted in human consciousness that it has endured in the face of the
shrewdest of arguments about the nature of representation. Notwithstanding
postmodern pronouncements that all systems of representation are mechanisms
of distortion (a claim that tacitly argues there is a truth to be distorted), the
collective faith that representation is possible has not diminished. We might have
expected in the wake of deconstruction to witness the long, withdrawing roar of
verbal activity, but, of course, we have not. Though postmodern critique has not
preempted representational acts, it has left many in a duplicitous relationship
with culture, one in which they exercise their faith in language by speaking and
writing, but remain skeptical of others' verbal expression, always keeping an eye
out for the ways they are being had.

In 1828, Felicia Hemans published a poem that, were it not for the problems it
raises about literary empathy, might be dismissed as unmemorable. "Indian
Woman's Death-Song" was inspired by an account of a woman who, distraught by
the abandonment of her husband, drowned herself and her two young children in
the Mississippi River. In the poem, Hemans romanticizes the mother's murder and
suicide by presenting them as an act of courage. Preceding her sentimental
rendering of the event, her several epigraphs to the poem, especially the
quotation from James Fenimore Cooper's The Prairie: "Let not my child be a girl,
for very sad is the life of a woman," signal her editorial position. Hemans's refusal
to question the woman's actions poses an ethical dilemma for her readers,
however: is her empathy with the woman a testament to her freedom from
cultural hegemony, or is it evidence of a self-serving ploy by which she can
exploit another culture for her own psychological gain?

Hemans learns of the drowning incident from William Keating's Narrative of an


Expedition to the Source of St. Peter's River. Keating's retelling is telling. In the
report, Keating makes the American Indians sound suspiciously English in
sensibility:

An Indian of the Dacota nation had united himself early in life to a youthful
female, whose name was Ampota Sapa, which signifies the dark day; with her he
lived happily for several years, apparently enjoying every comfort which the
savage life can afford. Their union had been blessed with two children, on whom
both parents doated with that depth of feeling which is unknown to such as have
other treasures beside those that spring from nature. (310)

Keating goes on to explain that the husband, unbeknownst to his spouse,


acquires a second wife to increase his stature in the community. Once again, the
word choice, syntax, and overall decorum of the prose reveal that Keating's
narrative has been filtered through Anglo-American consciousness:

Being desirous to introduce his bride into his lodge in the manner which should
be least offensive to the mother of his children, for whom he still retained much
regard, he introduced the subject in these words: "You know," said he, "that I love
no woman so fondly as I doat upon you. With regret, have I seen you of late
subjected to toils, which must be oppressive to you, and from which I would
gladly relieve you, yet I know no other way of doing so than by associating to you
in the household duties one, who shall relieve you from the trouble of
entertaining the numerous guests, whom my growing importance in the nation
collects around me. I have, therefore, resolved upon taking another wife, but she
shall always be subject to your control, as she will always rank in my affections
second to you." With the utmost anxiety, and the deepest concern, did his
companion listen to this unexpected proposal. She expostulated in the kindest
terms, entreated him with all the arguments which undisguised love and the
purest conjugal affection could suggest. (311)

Throughout his account, even as Keating refers to the natives as "savages," he


portrays them as genteel folk who never miss an opportunity for felicitous
phrasing. In the preface to the book, far from apologizing for editorial intrusions,
he expresses regret for not being able to render all of his account in decorous
language:

The compiler has found it impossible, in the description of the scenery of the
Mississippi, &c. to avoid the introduction of several words, which, although they
are not sanctioned by the dictionaries, seem to be characteristic and essential in
such descriptions: of this nature are the words--bluff, prairie, &c. The term creek,
being used in different acceptations in England and America, has been avoided in
all cases, though with some inconvenience. The word run will, it is believed, be
found but once in the body of the work. Lest any false impression should be
drawn from the introduction of the term estuary, it may be proper to state, that it
has been inadvertently used in several cases to designate the outlets of streams

where the tides do not reciprocate. In compiling from notes written by many
persons under the disadvantages of fatigues, hardships, and privations, it is not
easy, however it may be desirable, to avoid the use of all objectionable terms.
(ix)

For nineteenth-century reporters, the rules of the game were clearly different
from those for their twentieth-century counterparts. In his account, Keating
appears to privilege propriety over authenticity. Though he never suggests that
he may have compromised the "facts" through his rhetorical discretion, he, as a
journalist, nevertheless, has a problem: if geographical terms will make his
readers blush, how can he possibly find a suitably delicate language to describe a
mother murdering her child? Presumably, he represents American Indian culture
through European literary conventions to mitigate the horror of the infanticide
and thus avoid offending his refined readers.( n1) Even more disturbing than his
unfaithful rendering of the American Indian's speech, however, is his implicit
suggestion that the native woman's actions are sanctioned by her people. Not
once in his account does he suggest that the tragedy may have been an
anomalous act of a desperate woman. Rather, he presents it as data from which
readers can extrapolate the character of the Dacota tribe. At the end of this
account, he writes:

it is stated by the Indians that often in the morning a voice has been heard to
sing a doleful ditty along the edge of the fall, and that it ever dwells upon the
inconstancy of her husband. Nay, some assert that her spirit has been seen
wandering near the spot with her children wrapped to her bosom. Such are the
tales or traditions which the Indians treasure up, and which they relate to the
voyager, forcing a tear from the eyes of the most relentless. (312-13)

Keating's report that the tragedy achieved a mythological status within the
Dacota nation argues against its sociological relevance. Had it been a common
event, it probably would not have been related to "voyagers" at all.

Unwittingly, Keating sends mixed signals to his readers. As mentioned earlier,


while he fashions the American Indians after Europeans in speech and sensibility,
he continually reminds his reader that these quasi-Europeans are at some level
"savage." The frontispiece to his book itself offers a mixed visual signal. Titled
"Wanotan and his son," the engraving shows an Indian adult posing, as it were,
for a European portrait artist (fig. 1). Hand on hip with one leg bent and Nordic
facial features, he looks suspiciously like Sir Walter Raleigh in an Indian costume
(fig. 2). A cursory glance at the engraving suggests that culture is little more than
the cut of one's jib, but a closer look shows the son to be holding a spear.
Keating's patronizing gestures are as transparent in his account as they are in the

engraving. Nowhere in his narrative does he wrestle with the contradiction in


portraying the Indians as benign curiosities who are "just like us" (except, of
course, for their barbaric nature), but rather implies that "noble savage" is not an
oxymoron.

Like Keating, Hemans strains the story of the native woman through a sieve of
Western conventions. Her purpose is different, however. Whereas Keating
sanitizes the murder and suicide so as not to offend his readers, Hemans
celebrates it as a way of expressing, without expressing, her own death wish.

Hemans begins the poem by depicting the canoe as fragile and vulnerable, and
thus allows it to be seen as a metonym for the Indian woman:
Down a broad river of the western wilds,
Piercing thick forest glooms, a light canoe
Swept with the current: fearful was the speed

Of the frail bark, as by a tempest's wing


Borne leaf-like on to where the mist of spray
Rose with the cataract's thunder.

Like the canoe, which is simply a vessel for the woman, we infer that the woman,
in her earthly form, is but a temporary container for her immortal self. Moreover,
we intimate from the metonym that the woman is as helpless and inculpable as
"the frail bark" in which she rides. Hemans continues:
--Yet within,
Proudly, and dauntlessly, and all alone,
Save that a babe lay sleeping at her breast,
A woman stood.

Though it is highly improbable that an Olympic kayaker could stand in a canoe in


a rushing river, Hemans shows the mother confronting death in full stature. In so
doing, she manages to finesse an image of a woman who is both in control of her
destiny and involuntarily swept away by circumstances.

She completes the opening of the poem by revealing the woman to be a poet:
She press'd her child,
In its bright slumber, to her beating heart,
And lifted her sweet voice, that rose awhile
Above the sound of waters, high and clear,
Wafting a wild proud strain, her Song of Death.

The very notion of a "death-song" suggests Hemans's refusal to recognize the full
implications of the woman's actions. As Anthony Harding notes, "Death, in
[Hemans's] poems, is not so much the enemy of domestic affection as the
necessary dark backdrop against which the affections show their true brightness.
At times, death virtually becomes a kind of guarantee of the significance of a life,
particularly of a woman's life" (138). In "Indian Woman's Death-Song," death
appears to be little more than conveyance to a happier, safer place. Thus, the
mother leaves the earth singing, as if art can transport her child and her into
another world.

In her poem (which is Rousseauvian with a feminist twist), Hemans portrays the
native woman as having an affinity with the natural universe and implies that this
enables her to express the universal grief of womanhood. It is no surprise that
"Indian Woman's Death-Song" was published in Hemans's Records of Woman
since ethnicity exists in the poem solely in the service of gender. Like Keating,
Hemans has a double attitude toward race. Simultaneously accentuating and
minimizing racial difference, she conceives of the native woman in her own
Western image. Not only does her Indian woman speak British English, she does
so within the conventions of English lyrical verse:

Will he not miss the bounding step that met him from the chase? The heart of
love that made his home an ever sunny place? The hand that spread the hunter's
board, and deck'd his couch of yore? He will not!--roll, dark foaming stream, on to
the better shore!

Through the rhymed iambic heptameter, the epithets ("the bounding step," "dark
foaming stream"), and the synecdoches (the heart, the hand), Hemans
transplants American Indian experience from its own cultural ground to English
soil. She even presents Native American religion in a Western form: the Indian
woman, in what sounds like a prayer to the Christian God, clasps her child to her
breast and implores the "Father of Ancient Waters" to "bear our lives with thee!"

Toward the end of the poem she sings to her child, assuring her that she is taking
her to "the glorious bowers where none are heard to weep,/And where th'unkind
one hath no power again to trouble sleep;/And where the soul shall find its youth,
as wakening from a dream"-a place that closely resembles the orthodox Christian
heaven.

The conventions Hemans uses were familiar to the readers of her day since at the
time she wrote the poem, Anglo-American writers had appropriated the Indian
death-song (as reported by those who had met Native Americans) and recast it as
an English literary genre (see Goslee 246-47). From a late twentieth-century
perspective, it might appear that Hemans commits an act of double jeopardy,
first colonizing her subject and then placing her in a colonized genre. Hemans's
representational act is complicated, however, by the fact that she and her subject
are both women. She assumes an affinity with the Indian woman, who in the
poem is Anglicized so that she is in all respects like Hemans. In all respects, that
is, but one. The Indian woman has the courage to leave her mortal life and take
her child with her.

By documenting the source of her poetic narrative in a prefatory note to the


poem, Hemans lends authority to her rendering of the event. In stating that the
Indian woman's voice "was heard from the shore singing a mournful death-song,"
she suggests that the song in the poem may be transcription rather than
imaginative construction. But she neglects to say in the note that the poem is the
product of a heavily mediated event. The drowning was witnessed by a woman of
the Dacota nation who told it to her son. He, in turn, related it to Stephen Long
(who led the expedition recorded by Keating); Long passed it on to Keating, and
Keating (via his written account) to Hemans, who presents it to her readers as a
poetic narrative. Thus, the prefatory note to the poem overauthorizes her
account by omitting the fact that the event was filtered through several
imaginations. Undoubtedly, in Hemans's day, many an unsuspecting reader
assumed the song was more-or-less authentic.

In 1818, ten years before Hemans wrote the poem, her husband deserted her and
their five children, one of whom was a newborn. Though Hemans's refusal to
condemn, or even question, the native woman's act might appear to argue in
favor of cultural tolerance, her own domestic trials offer another explanation--that
she ennobles an act of violence, a form of conduct unsanctioned by English
society, in order to valorize by proxy her own unspeakable desire. Like Keating,
Hemans intimates that the woman's actions are native to her culture. In the
narrative blank verse that introduces the song itself, she writes: "Upon her Indian
brow! Sat a strange gladness, and her dark hair wav'd/As if triumphantly." The
smoothly orchestrated death, accompanied by a lyrical script (the woman's
death-song), takes on the character of a tribal ritual. Since in the best of English

families of the early nineteenth century, mothers did not drown themselves and
their children, Hemans, it appears, appropriates non-White culture as a filter for
her own desperate voice. The poem is, thus, a cultural conundrum in that
Hemans speaks on behalf of a native woman so that the native woman can speak
for her. The apparent reciprocity between the women, however well Hemans
intended it, is nevertheless little more than a rhetorical construction since to
admire in hiding--to empathize in secret--is simultaneously to seek and shun
identification with another. Like metaphor, empathy claims that something is like,
but is not, something else, so that even when openly expressed, it is at once a
condition of sympathy and alienation. Or, to put it another way, empathy
manifests the apparent affinity one person has with another, but in so doing it
magnifies the differences between them.

In several respects Hemans's poem resembles what Susan Ritchie has referred to
as "ventriloquist folklore," literature that "presumes to speak on the behalf of
some voiceless group or individual" (366-67). According to Ritchie, one of the
features of this cultural expression is that it "ignores the ways in which context
mediates presentation" (367). Further, it "establishes the folklorist as [a] kind of
medium or channeler, who presents the true voices of those otherwise lost to an
audience so eager for diverse articulations that they fail to note this `diversity'
[...] issues from folklore's single disciplinary throat" (367). Admittedly, situating
"Indian Woman's Death-Song" in a matrix of present-day cultural issues is
anachronistic, an empathic overstepping, since Hemans never intimates a
political agenda, either in the poem itself or in her preface to the poem. Nowhere
does she hint that the poem is designed to give a voice to a silenced member of
an underrepresented group. Her sole desire appears to be to give herself a voice,
something she can do only by proxy.

Just as Hemans may be more interested in hearing her own voice in the poem
than in hearing the Indian woman's voice, many readers are more eager to hear
their own voices in the poem than those of Hemans or the Indian woman.
Demanding the empathy of literary writers, readers ask them to speak on their
behalf, to validate their values, articulate their idealism. Derrida has argued:
"What we call literature (not belles-lettres or poetry) implies that license is given
to the writer to say everything he wants to or everything he can, while remaining
shielded, safe from all censorships, be it religious or political" (37). License is also
given, however, to readers of literature (including belles-lettres and poetry) who
internalize such texts and make demands on them that they don't make on other
kinds of writing. From a reader's perspective, literature doesn't denote that which
is unreal so much as that which is hyperreal. Thus, readers want to hear literary
voices as if they were their own in a clarified form. In "Indian Woman's DeathSong," the narrator's voice appears to merge with the native woman's voice since
there is no comment by the narrator after the Indian woman concludes her song.
As a result, given the absence of an alternative view of the event, the reader is
involuntarily implicated in this questionable empathy.

Occasionally, one reads in the newspaper about tragedies such as the one
described in Hemans's poem. A few years ago, the following item appeared in
American newspapers:

A woman who said she wanted to show her 6-year-old daughter the view from the
top of a 22-story office building had planned a "suicide ritual" that led to their
death plunge.( n2)

The brief report mentioned that the woman was "embroiled in a child-support
case" with her former husband. Though this straightforward, unsentimental
report undoubtedly elicited some sympathy for the obviously desperate woman,
it also provoked outrage. Perhaps it is Hemans's lack of outrage that is most
chilling in her poem. Perhaps, to paraphrase Keats, what is disturbing is not
Hemans's envy of the native woman's happy (fortunate) lot, but Hemans being
too happy in her happiness, an affective state that reveals empathy to be
potentially as dehumanizing as hatred or indifference.

The ethical dilemma inherent in empathy--forever finding oneself either too close
or not close enough to the object of self-identification--is inherent in language
itself, which embodies a self-contradictory dynamic. Every verbal act is
essentially solitary in that it is initiated by an individual; it is recognized as
language, however, only by consensus--that is, only if it is already understood by
the listener or reader. Though language is a means of individuation, its materials
come from a communally owned source. Thus, in the act of articulation, a writer's
voice is amplified so that the most confessional discourse resonates as if it were
a collective utterance, spoken in unison. Wayne Booth articulates a reconciliation
of the opposing impulses in language by deconstructing the binary of self and
society:

We talk about political actions as some kind of obligation that we owe, as


individuals, to society, to others: we should be altruistic, not "self-centered." But
if we are characters, social creatures by origin and definition, political and
philanthropic actions are not performed out of duty to others but as acts of "self"preservation; if the others are in me, "altruism"--the service of alterity--and
selfishness must either not be contrasted at all, or if they are contrasted the lines
must be drawn in new ways. (243-44)

Since writers and readers can at some level make choices that circumvent the
apparent conflict between self expression and the accurate portrayal of others,

Booth's argument informs the ethical issues surrounding representation.


Nevertheless, at a deeper level writers and readers are often stymied between
emotional autonomy and empathy. Since language is simultaneously a solitary
and social phenomenon, the issue ceases to be whether writers and readers have
the authority to show empathy but rather how they resolve the tension created
by their joint impulses to individualize their response to something and to identify
with another's response. Empathy, in essence, is an ideal of differentiated union
with another, and that paradox should remind us that in literature as in life, there
are shared borders of identity that we are compelled to recognize but cannot
cross.
Notes
(n1) Though Keating was a professor at the University of Pennsylvania, his book
was published by a London press and thus enjoyed an English readership.

(n2) The incident, which was reported in The Bellingham Herald, occurred in
Phoenix, Arizona.

PHOTO (BLACK & WHITE): Figure 1. "Wanotan and His Son," by unknown artist,
published in 1825. By permission of The British Library (item number BL 1050
LP).

PHOTO (BLACK & WHITE): Figure 2. "Sir Walter Raleigh and His Eldest Son
Walter," by unknown artist, 1602. By permission of the National Portrait Gallery,
London (item number 3914).
Works Cited
Booth, Wayne C. The Company We Keep: An Ethics of Fiction. Berkeley: U of
California P, 1988.
Derrida, Jacques. Acts of Literature. Ed. Derek Attridge. New York: Routledge,
1992.
Goslee, Nancy Moore. "Hemans's `Red Indians': Reading Stereotypes."
Romanticism, Race, and Imperial Culture, 1780-1834. Eds. Alan Richardson and
Sonia Hofkosh. Bloomington: Indiana UP, 1996. 237-61.
Harding, Anthony John. "Felicia Hemans and the Effacement of Woman."
Romantic Women Writers: Voices and Countervoices. Ed. Paula R. Feldman and
Theresa M. Kelley. Hanover: UP of New England, 1995. 138-49.
Keating, William H., A.M.&c. Narrative of an Expedition to the Source of St. Peter's
River, Lake Winnepeek, Lake of the Woods, &c., performed in the year 1823, by

order of the Hon. J. C. Calhoun, Secretary of War, under the command of Stephen
H. Long, U.S.T.E. Vol. 1. London: Geo. B. Whittaker, Ave-Maria-Lane, 1825.
Palumbo-Liu, David. "Historical Permutations of the Place of Race." PMLA 111.5
(October 1996): 1075-78.
"Police Say Mother Planned `Suicide Ritual.'" The Bellingham Herald, 4 February
1996:
Ritchie, Susan. "Ventriloquist Folklore: Who Speaks for Representation?" Western
Folklore 52 (1993): 365-78
~~~~~~~~
By Kathleen Lundeen, Western Washington University

Naslov: Lyrical Ethics and Literary Experience. Prema: Altieri, Charles, Style,
00394238, Summer98, Svezak. 32, Broj 2.Baza podataka: Academic Search
Complete.

LYRICAL ETHICS AND LITERARY EXPERIENCE

What sense can it make to attach the adjective "lyrical" to the term "ethics"? It is
all too clear why writers and critics might want the attachment to ethics, for it
seems as if literary criticism has to be able to idealize ethics now that it has
manifestly failed to affect politics. Claims about ethics enable us to continue to
feel good about ourselves by staking our work on values less easy to check up
on: who can tell if the moral fiber of a literary audience or the audience
comprised by our classes undergoes some kind of modification? But why
complicate that position by introducing the now largely neglected concern for
anything distinctively lyrical within literary experience? In my case the answer is
simply that I am angry and frustrated with the criticism and theory now
arrogating to itself the aura that invoking "ethics" still seems to promise. Here
then I will attempt to provide reasons for these reactions, then use my criticisms
in order to develop contrasts which I think offer readers an opportunity to
speculate on how stressing qualities of ethos established by the lyrical can
modify the relations we project between literary texts and moral philosophy.

Tony Cascardi once remarked to me that the only people to whom we should
listen on the topic of ethics are those who are evidently embarrassed by their
talk. Let me begin by establishing the appropriate credentials. For literary critics
at least, this embarrassment can, or should, stem from taking ourselves as

spokespersons for self-congratulatory values in reading that are extremely


difficult to state in any public language. And with this embarrassment there
probably ought be some self-disgust, since our claims to understand and use
ethics seek a self-promoting and perhaps unwarranted dignity for what we do
while they also displace the domain of pleasures and thrills and fascinations and
quirky sensualities that may in fact be what we produce for our clients.( n1) At
the least then we need a theoretical stance that can acknowledge our selfinterest without succumbing to the temptation to defend ourselves by assuming
the mantle of ironic distance.

This is where the lyrical becomes important. Emphasizing its centrality for literary
experience allows us to stress the various ways that this experience is concerned
with exploring modes of ethos involving psychological states and inviting
affective responses capable of challenging the models of agency that dominate
moral discourses. This challenge addresses both the specific values philosophers
bring to bear in that discourse and philosophy's tendency to make itself the
arbiter of what differences make substantial differences in how criticism
discusses values. More important, even to begin taking up the challenge,
criticism itself must treat the specific intricacies and pleasures that literary
experience provides in terms that lead beyond the aesthetic: criticism must show
how what matters for the aesthetic also has consequences for the questions
posed by moral philosophy. I am tempted to claim that having to face the
challenge will help critics resist what now often seems a grand ethical dog show
where we all get one turn around the arena before a table of discerning judges,
judges who have probably forgotten what it feels like to be able to prance. But it
is probably more accurate to claim only that this shift in critical perspective will at
least lead us to do less harm than we do now because we need not promise
moral worth but can stress simply those states that attentive pleasure makes
available.
I
Let me begin by attempting to clarify what I mean when I refer to ethical criticism
in relation to literary studies. Ethical criticism occurs in at least three activities--in
individuals evaluating motives and actions in texts, in readers imagining or
actually entering moral conversations about their assessments, and in critics
using texts to enter the discourses about morality carried out by professional
philosophers. All three activities stage reading as a culturally vital practice
because they require testing our moral vocabularies, making careful distinctions
in our judgments, and even assessing public policies, at least in broad terms that
reflect upon the ends that these processes serve and the imaginations about
human value that go into shaping those ends. But all three activities also involve
substantial risks of subordinating what might be distinctive within literary
experience to those frameworks and mental economies that are attuned to
modes of judgment shaped by other non-textual and (usually) less directly
imaginary worldly demands.

Responding to these risks need not require melodramatic languages about


shattering the self or pursuing polymorphously perverse sensibilities. It simply
requires pushing back against the practices of ethical criticism to show what they
negate and to provide a contrasting story stressing aspects of literary experience
that they cannot adequately address. My version of that story will emphasize how
texts develop affective states much more in tension with our ideals of judgment
than those cultivated by what we might call the new "emotion-friendly" versions
of moral reason popular in ethical criticism. By resisting the standard claims of
ethical criticism, we may develop a richer model for clarifying how aspects of
ethos become a force in these texts. Then it becomes feasible to treat literary
experience as actually capable of influencing what we take ethical judgment to
involve.(n2)

This proposal is hardly revolutionary. No decent theorist on the relation between


ethics and literary experience ignores the challenges I am trying to sharpen.(n3)
But, still, I want to claim that the challenge is rarely fully engaged. Clearly, ethical
criticism often calls our attention to two aspects of literary experience that are
central to many of the texts that matter to most of us, especially classic novels--a
will to accurate and dense, relatively impartial concrete description and a
corresponding quest for a generalizing scope by which the text can establish an
exemplary version of certain qualities of compassion and evaluative judgment. If
criticism dwells on only these values, however, it offers little opportunity to
extend beyond realistic narrative to engage one of literature's major
contributions to our appreciation of what is fundamentally at stake in ethical
thinking. Literary modes like lyric often ask us to participate in states that are
either too elemental or too transcendental or too absolute or too satisfyingly selfabsorbed to engage ethical criticism. Yet these states can have enormous impact
on how and why we are concerned with values of all kinds, including those that
we pursue by ethical reasoning. Minimally, they bring to bear examples of
positive intensities that any ethics might have to take into account. And at their
richest these works explore the limitations of all judgmental stances by requiring
complex blends of sympathy and distance, and hence eliciting our fascination
with extreme states of mind while complicating any possible grasp of how one
might put such states into the categories affording commensurability on which
ethical judgment must ultimately depend.

Some of those energies are focussed by acts of identification; others depend on


where works situate us, that is, on the specific qualities of imaginative vitality
offered by certain dispositions, including those states of transport once sustained
by religious experience. In such cases, participation entails maintaining
substantial differences from the attitudes we rely on in our practical judgments.
We become attentive to the selves that are possible when we manage to deploy
distinctive powers of mind and sensibility. Often, moreover, the focus is much less

on how we perceive or interpret the world beyond ourselves than on how we


manage to achieve states of will or of satisfaction or of painful separation in
relation to events and even to overall assessments about how life might be worth
living. Through art (but not only through art) we learn to demand of ourselves
something more grand and perhaps more threatening than that we be justified in
our actions or that we be able to appreciate how others might be justified or not
justified. And through art (but not only through art) we find the will engaged not
simply in terms of languages of justification but also in terms of principles of
satisfaction. It does not suffice to have made the best decision among available
options. Rather, these engagements of will involve levels of consciousness where
we glimpse what it takes to make the world of a happy person different from that
of an unhappy person. We understand, that is, how there is a dimension of ethics
that cannot be put into words but must be approached through Wittgenstein's
dictum that ethics and aesthetics are one (Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus 6.4216.43). And, conversely, the richer our alternative to standard ethical criticism, the
better the case we can make that ethical analyses be limited to situations where
we are concerned with the justification of specific actions or with the
characterization of how we might go about making these assessments. More
general questions about value can then be relegated to the general cultural
theater where we have to acknowledge constant struggle not only over which
specific aspects of ethos will prevail but also over which ways of determining
among the values make the most practical sense.

I can summarize my project by claiming that I want to provide practical and nonmelodramatic ways of adapting to literary criticism Nietzsche's contrast between
orientations shaped by a will to truth and orientations shaped by a will to power.
(n4) Therefore I will have to show how ethical criticism becomes subject to
Nietzschean critique, and I will have to demonstrate how we can recuperate a
good deal of what Nietzsche attributed to the will to power simply by
concentrating on the conative aspects of those energies within our responses to
art that cannot be located in the roles of spectator or judge. This then also
requires altering the conceptual models we have for the emotions fundamental to
the reading enterprise. Rather than dwelling within the parameters of approval
and disapproval generated by empathy and sympathy, stressing conative states
enables theory to explore how we participate in passions that range from fear
and desperation and confusion about identification to the fullest models our
culture has for what Yeats called the "self-delighting, self-appeasing, selfaffrighting" soul realizing "its own sweet will is heaven's will" ("Prayer for my
Daughter"). As Yeats knew, it is precisely the relation between such states of soul
and possible dispositions of will that makes the lyrical fundamental to the ethos
within ethics: without it we may find ourselves comfortable judging others but we
will have impoverished terms for putting into our moral calculi what satisfactions
are most important to pursue for and as ourselves.
II

Now it is time to be specific about the limitations within various versions of


ethical literary criticism so that we at least appreciate the pressure to come up
with alternative versions of how literary experience affects existential values. I
suggest we begin by distinguishing four characteristic ways of performing ethical
criticism. The first two are mirror images of one another. Each stresses the ethical
importance of attending to dense concrete presentations of particular actions
because such attention provides a powerful supplement to more abstract and
categorical modes of ethical inquiry. At one pole we have an emphasis on how
involvement in concrete situations enriches our capacities for making
discriminations and keeps our judgments in close relation to the emotions of
sympathy and empathy; at the other we have a deconstructive concern for an
ethics of letting be that is acutely aware of the imperializing work usually done by
professions of empathy and of sympathy since it is the responder who gets to
specify what those emotions involve.

The first emphasis is especially important for those who want literary experience
to complement traditional ethical inquiry. It promises to contour judgment to the
dense texture of particular lives and hence can partially free us from the
tendency within Anglo-American philosophy to rely on simple representative
anecdotes as its means of testing principles. Moreover, that shift provides an
alternative to the excruciating philosophical task of developing categories
enabling us to treat different situations as subsumable under one commensurate
framework within which relative worth can be assessed. Ethical literary criticism
makes it clear that we simply cannot rely on such abstract principles for any
aspects of experience without also bringing to bear the more flexible, narrativebased modes of judgment that Aristotle characterized as phronesis (see Martha
Nussbaum, Love's Knowledge 25-27 and 168-94). And where philosophy seeks
impersonal and disinterested modes of judgment centered on the giving and
testing of reasons, literary experience explores the degree to which our emotions
can be heuristic features of the judgmental process: we can be impartial without
being unmoved (so long as our emotions are spectator emotions).(n5)

Deconstructive and Levinasian ethical criticism is based on a very different notion


of concreteness. More affected by Kantian aesthetic ideals than they are by
ethical claims based on practical judgment, these theorists concentrate not on
dramatic situations but on the ethical force that one can attribute to the
purposiveness of the particular text as an authorial action. Here the central value
lies in adapting oneself to strong particulars by letting them be, that is, by
coming to appreciate their power as the articulation of working desire, a mode of
desire manifest primarily as a direct function of their ability to ward off the
categories that moral judgment tries to impose. The ethical here is sharply
opposed to the moral, the domain of principle. Ethical values emerge in reading
because there we feel the violence of our will to make texts mean something we
can state abstractly while we also have to recognize the capacity of the desires
working within textuality to resist that will. Analogously, we can learn to adapt

the same attitudes towards society, since our attention is oriented towards forms
of violence that easily mask as welfarist principles yet in fact are not responsive
to the needs of those for whom we see ourselves speaking.

Clearly, both stances have roles to play in literary criticism. But they also leave
us with substantial problems making it impossible not to have to reach out for
additional theoretical terms. There arises immediately the question of how we
reconcile the two quite different views of concreteness and the two quite different
views of the values that ethical judgment seeks. Does dwelling on the denseness
of particular actions afford a richer model of ethical judgment or does it
encourage casuistries that evade the clear and necessary application of
principles? Once these two alternatives emerge, we clearly cannot rely on the
concrete experience of texts to help us determine which one is to be preferred.
For returning to the concrete case for our answer will, in theory at least, produce
endless regress unless one c, an somehow relink such concreteness either
directly to universals or to methods of judgment that somehow have a more
flexible version of generality built into them. If we are to keep at the center of our
inquiry the Aristotelian concern for how we should live, we have to preserve as a
background invoked through the particulars some kind of larger framework of
examples and probably at least some principles that give resonance to the
concepts of good with which we want to work. Yet once we begin seeking
explanatory principles we put at risk the very concreteness that we want to
celebrate. There is then substantial pressure to have traditional philosophy
articulate these principles and determine to what degree concrete cases can
sanction our swerving from them?

Deconstructive theory seems capable of turning my objections to its interests,


since it can insist that, unlike the discrimination view, it at least faces up to the
gulf between particulars and supporting categorical principles. But its ways of
engaging that gulf run a serious risk. For it seems as if the ideal of letting be
takes on the function of a moral category and hence produces its own form of
violence. And, more disturbing, deconstructive literary ethics has to face the
problem of its so far not having done very much to specify what is so valuable
about singularity per se in relation to literature or so necessarily destructive in
the judicious use of categories. This version of ethical criticism may rely on the
very individualist values sustaining the modern philosophy that it is quick to
reject. And if it is to attribute specific values to what singularities perform,
deconstruction may have to find some rapprochement with the expressivist
theory developed by Charles Taylor and others. This rapprochement would free
deconstruction from relying on a binary opposition between singularity and the
categorical, and it would enable it to stress what persons accomplish as they
bend rather than break from the categories giving meaning to their actions.
III

Neither deconstructive nor discernment versions of concreteness can produce a


satisfying theoretical position. On the one hand, deconstruction cannot even
postulate much of an ethical theory for literary experience because it cannot
supplement its commitment to singularity without falling into bad faith.(n6)
Discernment theories, on the other hand, invite conceptual elaboration, since
they so clearly cry out for some account of the more general values at stake in
our close concern with the elements that go into ethical judgments. But these
efforts only deepen the problem by showing how difficult it is to establish the
necessary conceptual supplements. Therefore I will now turn to two versions of
ethical criticism that do provide this conceptual framework. Even though the two
models differ from the first two, we will nonetheless find essentially the same
difficulties plaguing these as well.

The first conceptual structure for these supplements can be seen as a set of
variants on perfectionist principles because its primary concern is with the
versions of virtue and the qualities of life produced or reinforced by specific ways
of reading. Stanley Cavell is the best-known thinker representing the relevant
conceptual moves. But since I have written about him critically on other
occasions and since to the best of my knowledge he does not identify himself as
an ethical critic, I will turn to the somewhat different but related theorizing of
Wayne Booth. There is no clearer rendering of how perfectionist ideals can be
realized within literary examples. For Booth sees reading as fundamentally the
exploration of desires we may come to desire(n7):

"What sort of character, what sorts of habits, am I likely to take on or reinforce"


as "I decipher this immensely compact bundle of actions, thought, and allusions?"
"What `better desires' does it lead me to desire?" (The Company We Keep 274)

Formulations like these enable Booth to provide a powerful answer to how texts
mediate ethical values without his having either to subsume texts under general
principles or to insist upon their close fit with moral philosophy. The values that
matter emerge through comparisons we make among the qualities of experience
in texts "that are both like and unlike" (70) each other. For we appraise works by
examining whether an experience can be seen as "comparatively desirable,
admirable, lovable, or, on the other hand, comparatively repugnant,
contemptible, or hateful" (71).

Such appraisal is not merely a matter of intuitions or the expression of


sensibilities. Booth shows there are clear standards that enter our judgments
because ethical criticism is founded on the question of how texts contribute to
virtue. To address this concern, critics have to begin with the issue of
intentionality, for we cannot have virtue without agency. We have to postulate

implied authors, then inquire about the roles these authors might play in
conversations about ethical values. The "key question in the ethics of narration
[...] becomes: Is the pattern of life that this would-be friend offers one that friends
might well pursue together?" (222). Now we have both an object of ethical
reflection--the friendship relation--and we have an obvious locus for making
assessments of texts. We are invited to ask whether the basic qualities of the text
contribute to forging such imaginary friendships or if these qualities present
hindrances to friendship such as hidden designs or lack of respect for the
audience or shoddy reflection on the activity presented? In either case Booth
shows that by thinking about texts in terms of questions about the company we
keep, we do not need abstract principles as grounds of their worth because we
have clear personal measures based on how the modes of desire for desire they
delineate stand up in relation to works to which they can be compared. We do not
determine who our friends are because of the conditions they satisfy; rather we
determine who we are in terms of the quite concrete company we choose, and
the company we reject. Responsibility remains a matter of individual selfdefinition, yet it brings with it appropriate contexts in which choices can be
characterized and judged.

In my view, Booth's is a powerful theoretical position precisely because it appeals


so directly to matters of ethos. Nonetheless it is difficult to accept this figure of
friendship as an adequate principle for either the qualities distinguishing
individual valuations by readers or for the frameworks that give such choices
public significance. First, this figure makes it difficult to have theory remain
responsive to the full range of values explored by literary texts or to account for
the often contradictory values that emerge within this range. Booth's concern for
the company one keeps does support a limited pluralism (no single principle is
likely to determine our range of friendships). But I suspect we would rather have
some of the texts we value highly prove interesting enemies rather than all be
admirable friends--not only because we want to be challenged but also because
we want the fascination of engaging what refuses to contour itself to the models
of dialogue allowed by a virtue-based model of friendship. More important, the
idea of virtue itself seems to me to offer a somewhat pious and inaccurate
primary criterion for how the friendships contribute to happiness. Invoking
"virtue" makes it seem that criticism can admit plural possibilities of value while
also achieving a public representativeness based simply on examples and
cultural traditions. Yet "virtue" proves an irreducibly equivocal concept because in
one register it is simply a measure of power or conative strength, with no
distinguishing "ethical" qualities, while in another it brings to bear certain deep
moral values in a society.

One can then use Booth for a Nietzschean reading of how literary experience
becomes formative for certain groups highly conscious of how their sense of
shared strengths makes them different from those bound to social mores. Or one
can tilt one's sense of virtue as Booth himself does towards friendships that

remain judgeable within moral frameworks, even if it the ground is a set of


examples rather than principles. But the more one tilts Booth's way, the more
one undercuts the force of the level of intimacy that the figure of friends as a
company seemed to afford. The general seems to precede the particular. But in
fact we choose our friends (if choose is the right word) for many different positive
qualities and in terms of many contingent aspects of our lives. Consequently,
Booth's effort to keep the moral force of "virtue" seems an uncomfortable
compromise. It evokes an awkward intimacy that is too public for most forms of
affection and fascination, while the public register it provides may well not be
sufficiently determinate to establish firm criteria for ethical judgments.

Given this ambiguity around virtue when it is defineable only in terms of affective
relations, it is not surprising that most philosophers seek different grounds for
ethical criticism. So I will turn for my fourth alternative to Martha Nussbaum's
recent Poetic Justice because that book offers the best case I know for bringing
narrative literature into close proximity with the concerns and the language of
traditional moral philosophy. Getting clear on how this work matters and what we
can learn from its limitations will take me somewhat more time than I have spent
on Booth, but spending that time will also demonstrate why it will ultimately be
necessary to return to the Nietzschean possibilities in Booth's argument. These
afford models for the interests agents have in ethical values that are lacking in
Nussbaum's reliance on Aristotelian rationality.

Nussbaum's previous writings on literature and ethics had stressed the


importance of concrete moral discrimination, but always with a keen sense of
interpreting that concreteness as a contribution to concerns basic to "even [...]
Kantians or Utilitarians" (Love's Knowledge 27).(n8) Her new book is distinctive
for its efforts to extend the "fit" between narrative fiction and moral philosophy
beyond issues of judging individual actions to considerations of public policy. She
then makes it possible to test the degree to which one can make literary
concreteness a medium for more overtly generalized moral discourses.
Nussbaum argues that reading narrative fiction actually provides "insights that
should play a role (though not as uncriticized foundations) in the construction of
an adequate moral and political theory," while at the same time the particular
interpretive processes that the narratives invite help develop specific "moral
capacities without which citizens will not succeed in making reality out of the
normative conclusions of any moral or political theory, however excellent" (Poetic
Justice 12). If it is to pursue these ends, ethical criticism has two basic tasks. By
bringing to bear the relevant issues formulated from within philosophy, it must
first establish a context enabling us to see how the literary text operates in moral
terms; then it must show how the text "exemplifies and cultivates abilities of
imagination that are essential to the intelligent making" of the relevant
"assessments, in public as well as private life" (52). For if literature really has
philosophical force, then it ought exercise that force in the same public domain
that philosophical concepts try to influence. Where Booth talks of texts as friends,

Nussbaum wants to create a context in which we can see deep links between the
roles of reader and of judge.

Nussbaum's enterprise is a noble one. But her making explicit the need to project
beyond concrete reading to visible public principles seems to me to lay bare the
underlying logic of all ethical criticism--in ways that raise very serious problems.
Consider for example the fact that to make the arguments of Poetic Justice work
she has to turn away from James and from Proust, the major figures of her earlier
work on ethical criticism, to the Charles Dickens of Hard Times. While Dickens is
clearly a major writer, there are few literary theorists who would want to use Hard
Times as their exemplary text, for exactly the reasons that tempt Nussbaum to
make the effort. For where developing ethical claims from James and Proust
requires stressing the play of a very complex moral intelligence, developing
claims for the Dickens of Hard Times entails stressing not so much the processes
of judgment in particular dense situations as the ability to develop stances
towards large social issues. Dickens is less interested in assessing how characters
respond to intricate patricular situations than he is in displaying how agents can
respond adequately to the general social conditions making demands on them.

Such generalizing scope is not something to condemn, but neither is it something


to which most writers aspire directly because of the limited means that fiction
has at its disposal to create the appropriate effects. Hard Times gains its moral
scope by its extraordinary ability to manipulate pathos and hence to position a
responsive audience in a situation where it both registers suffering and
understands plausible public causes of that suffering. Nussbaum then is quite
right to argue that this novel shares with some contemporary philosophers the
project of defending "an approach to quality of life measurement based on a
notion of human functioning and human capability, rather than on either
opulence or utility" (51). Dickens's pathos allows his fiction an immediate and
compelling "measure of how people are doing" because he can bring emotional
resonance to "questions of how well their form of life has enabled them to
function in a variety of distinct areas, including but not limited to mobility, health,
education, political participation, and social relations" (51). From this the leap to
contemporary philosophy is not a large one:

Since we read a novel like Hard Times with the thought that we ourselves might
be in the character's position--since our emotion is based in part on this sort of
empathic identification--we will naturally be most concerned with the lot of those
whose position is worst, and we will begin to think of ways in which that position
might have been other than it is, might be made better than it is. [...] If one could
not imagine what it was like to be Stephen Blackpool, then it would be all too
easy to neglect this situation as Bounderby does, portraying workers as grasping
insensitive beings. Similarly, [...] if one cannot imagine what women suffer from

sexual harassment on the job, one won't have a vivid sense of that offense as a
serious social infringement that the law should remedy. (91)

This stress on pathos both allows the empathic imagination to leap directly to
large value frameworks and produces an inherent socializing dimension for
literary texts because it seeks imaginative agreement about ways of redressing
the suffering. Yet I think it important to ask whether these advantages outweigh
the disadvantages of letting our literary ethics be so dependent on that one
emotional attitude. James for example is careful to make characters tempted by
the appeal of pathos, like Hyacinth Robinson, have to learn to make judgments
critical of the temptations to self-righteousness that occur when one lets one's
awareness of public issues outweigh the need for concrete self-understanding.
One could argue, moreover, that this emphasis on pathos allows precious little
room for a corresponding emphasis on the various modes of ethos that literary
imaginations pursue. In fact one could use this contrast between ethos and
pathos as a basic way of challenging assumptions fundamental to Nussbaum's
ethical criticism and perhaps to any criticism content to ally itself with moral
philosophy. This contrast is especially important for clarifying the various roles
that accounts of the emotions might play in our perspectives on literary values.
For once pathos is the central link between the literary and the ethical, then
Nussbaum's cognitive theory of emotions clearly provides the dynamic energies
securing the interactions between the two domains. In my view, however, the
costs exacted by this way of linking the domains makes it crucial that we turn
from pathos to ethos and see what conceptions of emotion then best articulate
the values provided by literary experience.

Nussbaum identifies three specific means by which the emotions elicited within
literary narrative can support and extend the work of moral philosophy. While the
first is mentioned only in a passing remark, I think it has to play a major role in a
full statement of her theory. I refer to the need to make moral sense of the simple
but elemental fact that literature seeks to confer pleasure. What kind of pleasure
instructs, especially when pathos is the vehicle of instruction? Nietzsche would
suggest that we be suspicious of the kinds of pleasures we take in identifying
with other people's suffering, since nothing secures bourgeois self-satisfaction so
well as sympathy with those who lack the same possessions. Nussbaum is more
generous and in some respects more subtle. She sees that pleasure affords a
means of making identification attractive, and hence of allowing us to orient
cognitive interests towards suffering while resisting the need to locate the
pleasure in our own melodramatic consciousness of ourselves as pity producers.
For to the extent that we take pleasure in particular characters from
underprivileged situations, we are likely to find their company attractive so that
we are drawn further into their world and into sympathy with their interests (35).
We do not have to let the pleasure be absorbed within our own senses of selfimportance.

But any effort to link literary pleasure to moral philosophy brings back another
version of the problem with concreteness that we have already considered. For
one has to be able to say which pleasures contribute to moral values and which
do not. This is why Nussbaum links pleasure to her cognitive theory of emotions.
If emotions can provide a kind of knowledge in their own right, then we can
secure their role in moral thinking without prescribing in advance what emotions
we will allow. Indeed, there are many respects in which emotions produce
knowledge and complement what on other grounds we establish as truths.
Emotions clearly establish salience conditions by stressing what might matter in
particular perceptual fields, and they bring to bear belief contexts that we have
to go on to assess if we are to understand how and why particular options for
actions might matter to us. The emotions organized by a sense of pathos provide
excellent examples. For pathos attunes us to the facts contributing to someone's
suffering, and it brings beliefs to bear that orient us toward specific actions if
they prove true (just as pleasure facilitates identifications). As Nussbaum puts it,
"The person deprived of the evaluations contained in pity seems to be deprived
of ethical information without which such situations cannot be adequately,
rationally appraised" (65). Yet because the emotions are bound to beliefs, they do
not lock us into attitudes but can be modified by relevant information (such as
information that the one bidding for our sympathy is faking it).

The greater the cognitive claims for emotions, however, the more pressing is that
same old specter: there seems no stable and capacious way to connect an
emphasis on concrete discriminations to the authority of clear principles. There
are emotions that provide sustenance for reason. But how do we decide which
emotions do and do not have the power to modify reason, especially when we are
dealing with imaginary constructs? It seems as if these emotions have to be
tested by reason in order to be worthy of having such an influence. Then,
however, ethical criticism enters a vicious circle where what is to influence
rationality must be influenced by rationality. This prospect does not scare
Nussbaum. She handles the danger of circularity by adapting a version of Booth's
position where specific human exemplars become the possible mediation defining
how emotions can affect what we take reason to be. But rather than invoke the
figure of the friend, she relies on Adam Smith's model of the "judicious spectator"
because that enables her to tie emotions to dispositions of character. Her focus
then is not on how we come to desire to desire but on how we attach ourselves to
the general forms of idealizable desire that constitute ethical lives.

Smith develops his model of spectatorship in order to address the fact that many
emotions obviously do not prove good guides for our actions. So to assure that
the emotion is appropriate we have to determine that it is a "true view of what is
going on" (74). And then we have to be sure that the viewer will not
overdetermine that truth because of problematic private interests. Theory can

make the appropriate distinctions if it can find a way of assuring that the emotion
is that "of a spectator not a participant" (74). In a single stroke literary
experience moves from being marginal to philosophy to having claims for
centrality, since there is no better model for the psychic economies Smith calls
for than the self-discipline fundamental to attentive reading. Reading reduces its
object to banality if it simply imposes an individual's needs and desires.
Conversely, the promise held out for readers requires that they assume
spectatorial roles through which they manage both to feel the relevant emotions
and to appreciate them for the energies and values they organize. Reading shows
how we can treat anger or grief or love as if at the same time we could identify
with their intensities and maintain the distance necessary to make judgments
about and through our involvement in the particulars.

Suggestive as this account of reading is in itself, Nussbaum's primary interest


resides in the social implications she can draw from it. This figure of the
"judicious spectator" allows her to project on to reading important links to the
entire dynamics of making social judgments because it gives the agent an
interest in being responsive to public measures of the good. Hence the dramatic
climax of her book consists in an elaborate effort to put reading as a judicious
spectator at the heart of how judges make decisions. Judges have to know
principles and procedures. But they also have to know the limitations of the
abstractness built into principles and procedures, and they have to find ways to
make those imaginative projections necessary for producing justice in particular
situations (82). So if one can make literary experience an exemplar for the
working of an impartial yet sympathetic judgment, one can then treat the "poetic
imagination" as "a crucial agent of democratic equality" (119). This imagination
not only tries to sympathize with all the relevant points of view, but it also builds
on its own impartiality to seek from that sympathy those actions comprising the
greater social good. And this imagination requires casting that understanding in
plural and qualitative terms based on those ideals of human flourishing that
repeated acts of sympathy enable us to keep in the forefront of our vision.
IV
I dwell on Nussbaum at such length in part because I want to make readers feel a
deep emotional problem that her theorizing about emotions in literature raises
for me and perhaps for the very practice of ethical criticism. On the one hand, I
am made uneasy by the self-confidence and imperialist philosophizing that
reduces the great imaginative range of literary experience to the intellectually
undemanding but quite important moral and political truths promulgated by a
philosophy devoted to spreading the values of human flourishing. On the other
hand, I am not happy with myself for being so easily seduced into the equally
distressing arrogance of the literary critic appalled at our marvelous complexity
being oversimplified merely because someone who has devoted her life to the
project wants to use literature for making the world a better place for large
segments of its population. I am forced to confront the fact that my view of
literary experience can promise only partial modifications in how some

individuals approach the world, so it cannot even approximate the kind of social
impact that Nussbaum projects for literary texts and that writers like Dickens are
in fact capable of producing. Yet I still want to argue that the very grandeur of her
enterprise leads our attention away from those concrete processes by which
literature does affect individual lives in ways that noble sentiments about public
welfare simply cannot accomplish. While my alternative perspective may not be
able to demonstrate how literary experience makes better moral agents of us, it
can show how that experience offers substantial values very difficult to get
elsewhere.

In Nussbaum's account, on the other hand, literature is primarily an instrument


for teaching us discernment and for eliciting from us thoughtful pity. Literature
remains subject to philosophy, which ultimately controls how values are
characterized and assessed. And while literature proves useful in resisting the
utilitarian and rationalist models of assessment that Nussbaum attacks, its
relevance in this regard stems less from the passions it mediates than from the
inadequacies of those philosophical stances. Therefore I think that in asking
literary criticism to pursue clearly defined, public ethical ends, we risk losing
sight of what are usually the most compelling and most persuasive experiential
qualities the relevant texts produce. And we do so without gaining much more
than ideological reinforcement for values that have their sponsoring energies and
relevant conditions of judgment elsewhere.

My resistance to Nussbaum does not entail returning to some kind of


aestheticism or adapting discourses about singularity and difference and
empowerment. The literary values that I want to foreground hover in the shadows
cast by work that overmoralizes them, so the best way to appreciate all that
lyricism involves may be simply to reflect on why there might be good reasons to
remain in constant struggle against ethical criticism. Such struggle promises not
only to renew attention to particular qualities of literary experience but also to
preserve a tension between ethos and ethics perhaps necessary for an adequate
grasp of how we make and maintain investments in the entire structure of
concerns that ethical theory adjudicates. Therefore I will close by being as clear
as I can on what I take to be three insuperable problems in contemporary ethical
criticism, in the hope that we can deepen our appreciation of how literary
experience is capable of challenging those philosophical stances that want to
domesticate it by making it submit to their conditions for praise.

We have already addressed the first problem, which lies in the logical structure of
ethical criticism. This criticism insists on there being something distinctive in how
concrete texts engage our moral attention, and yet it has to interpret the value of
that engagement in terms of the very philosophical methods and generalizations
from which the concrete reading deviates. As Derrida might put it, ethical theory

wants the concrete both to establish values and to supplement value schemes,
yet the very role of supplement undercuts the concreteness by making it
dependent on abstractions, and it undercuts the abstractions by making them
dependent for their realization on something that philosophy apparently cannot
provide on its own. Because I have nothing more to say about the abstract form
of this problem, I will shift to a quite specific and I think telling manifestation of
the issues brought into focus by Nussbaum and, indirectly, by Booth. When we
realize how philosophy has to strain for the fit that melds it with literary
experience, we also understand the pressure to let pathos take over from ethos,
or to become the sole relevant ethos, and we understand why it is so tempting to
vacillate between different meanings of "virtue." That realization in turn leads us
to what I am claiming is the shadows or margins of ethical discourse, where we
might value literary experiments in ethos precisely because they do not depend
on the same kind of underlying distinctively moral sentiments as do examples
drenched in pathos and, more important, because they allow us to appreciate
imaginative states as directly affecting our experience of values without our
having to postulate those underlying reasons. Examples of ethos make their
appeal to us in terms of the dynamic capacities they afford our quite particular
states of self-awareness as we explore the energies they make available, with no
sanction beyond the qualities made possible by a text for intellectual, emotional,
and intersubjective intensities.

There is no better contrast to the ethics of literary pathos than W.B. Yeats's poem
"He and She":
As the moon sidles up
Must she sidle up,
As trips the scared moon
Away must she trip:
`His light had struck me blind
Dared I stop'.

She sings as the moon sings:


`I am I, am I;
The greater grows my light
The further that I fly'.
All creation shivers
With that sweet cry. (286-87)

The first stanza tries to render something like the essence of pathos. For here the
character cannot speak for herself but must be represented by another, except
for the one moment when she gets to utter her dilemma. And every move seems
driven by forces to which the character is unwillingly bound. By the second
stanza the very intensity of the pain seems to open a possible fascination with
the opposite pole, with more assertive egocentric states that poetry might not
only represent but also help focus. At first this stanza also depends on a narrator
in order to situate the speaker. But after one line the content of the singing takes
over from its visual representation, and the mode of consciousness within that
singing then entirely dominates the scene. Just the absoluteness of the singing in
turn suffices to produce an assertion of an `T' identical to itself: there seems
simply no gap between the subject singing and the objective state that is the
song made physical.

Technically speaking, such assertions cannot have any philosophical force, since
only god can experience the complete coincidence of subjectivity and objectivity.
But the poem is less interested in the truth of its assertion than in the energies
and desires that it can make visible by the effort to purify song of everything but
the `T' who as its singer, or better as it singing, manages to glimpse what it
means to experience the coincidence of subject and object states. While the
poem does not point to any empirical test of the truth of this assertion, it does
offer significant formal features that at least give a kind of substance to the
desire it speaks. The utter simplicity of the situation in the second stanza, for
example, shaped only by a contrast to the dependencies registered in the
preceding one, gives us a world in which there might be nothing but the singing,
with all impurities driven away by the need to separate oneself from what the
moon dominates. Here lyric seems to approach its own inner possibilities-presenting not any one role, any one version of ethos, but the essence of what
any role becomes when it can be entirely the matter of song. And, as song, the
poem's physical qualities deepen the all-absorbing nature of the "I am I." Long I
sounds literally take the poem over, spreading the light produced by and as the
`T' of the singing. That intensity in turn becomes so great that self-absorption
cannot rest in narcissistic states. Just as the "she" of the first stanza is bound to
the ways of the moon, the `T' of the second must return to its setting. Only now
the self-absorption constitutes a fantasy lover bringing to creation its deepest
sexual pleasure because finally creation has an opposite active enough to make
its own presence felt, and hence to make creation itself once again something to
be loved and not merely feared or respected or moralized.

Had I the time, I would go on to poems that explore the same level of intensity
but attach it quite different emotional orientations. Yeats's "Lullaby," for example,
completely absorbs the ego within that traditional folk form, using literary selfconsciousness as its vehicle for giving to care itself a mode of absorption that

extends far beyond what would suffice for moral judgment. But my one example
is strong enough to allow my going directly to the generalization that what
matters most in these literary states is not how they might be justified morally
but how they justify themselves as invitations to imaginative participation within
what the text elicits from its ways of bringing the world and the psyche into
language. Excess lies down with extreme, precise care; no wonder creation
shivers. And perhaps ethics can learn from this display. For it seems to me
arguable that here we have a telling illustration of how the lyrical dimension of
experience influences what Booth calls the desire for desires--not simply because
specific states appeal to us but also because we encounter concrete qualities of
those desires that become exemplars for what a range of emotions might provide
were we attuned to appreciate their intensities. Both ways of encountering
emotional fields then have the power to affect how we adapt or modify ethical
stances. Lyrical emotions can make certain states attractive because of the
modes of self-identification that they allow--here the best example may be the
qualities of moral responsiveness that we find in the great epic poets. Or these
emotions can affect ethics by giving us standards for what levels of emotional life
we might find worth taking pride in as we explore possible dispositions, only
some of which are thematizably moral. By this logic we might even claim that
concerns about ethos prove central to how we let ourselves be affected by
pathos.
V
The second of the three basic problems I see facing ethical criticism will help me
elaborate the specific ways that literary experience develops emotions that affect
our visions of ethos even though they are not easily represented within ethical
theory. The problem is simply the danger that criticism devoted to ethics will find
itself not sufficiently honoring those qualities and values traditionally most
important to writers and to the interpretive discourses fostered by their work.
Considered logically, this problem repeats the same structure as the one we saw
in dealing with claims about concreteness. For on the one hand, ethical criticism
has to insist that literature gives moral philosophy access to emotions mediating
kinds of knowledge and of investment not available within the conceptual modes
of judgment usually called upon by ethical theory. Yet, on the other, while the
emotions have to be different, they also have to be contained, overtly or covertly,
by the very rationality that they are seen as supplementing--hence Nussbaum's
reliance on the cognitive theory of emotions. But if we stop with the logical
problems, we might miss the force and possible social relevance of those aspects
of literary emotions that do not so readily adapt to ethical theory. Therefore I
want to dwell on one particular instance of the logical problem.

I will take as my example Nussbaum's use of Bigger Thomas in Richard Wright's


Native Son because there we find the cognitive theory of emotions simply unable
to deal with the intensities generated by the text, so that Nussbaum's effort to
moralize emotions seems to repress some quite different and threatening aspect
of the text's emotional force. Nussbaum claims that readers of this text clearly

find their emotional responses also serving as cognitive instruments--both in


generating sympathy for Bigger and in pushing whites to examine their
assumptions towards such young black males. Moreover, Nussbaum can also
show, Wright is careful to complicate and qualify that sympathy so that it meets
real world conditions. Rather than make the easy appeal to figures of universal
brotherhood, the novel demands we acknowledge the degree to which social
factors have also made literal brotherhood very hard to envision, at least for
bourgeois whites. The result of that demand is a deeper sympathy leading the
judicious spectator to feel and to think, "This is a human being, with the basic
equipment to lead a productive life; [for we] see how not only the external
circumstances of action, but also anger, fear, and desire have been deformed by
racial hatred and its institutional expression. The unlikeness that repels
identification becomes the chief object of our concern" (94).

But Nussbaum's rich analysis of the difficulties whites feel in relating to Bigger
makes that unlikeness more problematic than her theory lets her grant. It is clear
that Wright's text deepens our capacity to understand Bigger in his unlikeness.
Yet the deeper whites come to appreciate how wounded Bigger is by his
upbringing in a racist society, the more difficult it is to link that knowledge to
unequivocal sympathy. He raises a complex set of emotions in whites (and
perhaps not only in whites) involving fear and self-preservation and the resulting
need to evade self-contempt. And once those emotions enter it is not possible
simply to translate the sympathy Bigger elicits from the judicious spectator into a
moral orientation towards specific actions.

Nussbaum is confident that "the reader, while judging Bigger culpable (the
degree of his culpability is certainly debatable), is likely to be, other things being
equal, inclined to mercy in the imposition of punishment, seeing how much of his
character was the product of circumstances created by others" (95). Yet I am not
sure that the emotions he raises produce that judgment, nor that Wright even
wanted that judgment.(n9) For the sympathy Wright calls for engages us with a
seriously wounded psyche that for many readers will not elicit mercy, at least in
relation to what they expect of the legal system. It is perfectly possible to respect
Bigger's independence so much that one wants him kept away from the white
world at all costs. Once sympathy aligns us with his character, and not just with
his actions, we have very good reason to think that nothing so merely
institutional as a relatively short jail sentence is likely to produce any change in
Bigger. Instrumental reason then may well find itself using this sympathy to seek
ways of eliminating the threat rather than improving the condition of the one
found threatening.

Almost anyone reading Nussbaum's essay is likely to share a desire that mercy
temper punishment in cases like Bigger's. But I suspect we cannot arrive at this

judgment because of anything our emotions for him tell us. In fact the motivating
force here has very little to do with our emotional relation to Bigger's specific
condition. Rather, what moves us to that mercy for Bigger is our affective
investment in certain images of ourselves based on our overall political
commitments. These investments do seem to me crucial to politics and are
certainly affected by literary experience. But not quite by the experience of
sympathy, or any other pathos-oriented attitude, and certainly not by what
Nussbaum celebrates as the emotions of a judicious spectator who manages to
control the impulses of the empirical self. For what in part leads us to go against
what we know from our sympathy with Bigger is an intensely personal
commitment to aligning ourselves with the politics of hope rather than the
politics of despair, and with a willingness to take political risks rather than to
insist on safe order. These impulses are strengthened not by sympathy per se but
by developing investments in positive identifications, if not with specific role
models then with imaginary worlds that literary texts help us envision and
populate with possible judges whom we want to please by acting as nobly as we
can. Nussbaum's cognitive model of emotions can neither handle the dangers
attendant on what we do come to know in passionate ways nor address the role
of noncognitive fantasized identifications as fundamental to morality, and to the
impact literary experience can have in affecting morality by influencing
identifications.(n10)

If I am right, the limitations of Nussbaum's cognitive theory of emotions provide a


superb contrastive stage on which to put our spotlight back on Yeats's poem. It
seems clear that her position cannot adequately address either of the
fundamental lyrical states in the poem--the dependency by which the speaker
understands what power is and the assertiveness by which she explores her own
access to it. Both are extreme states that require the spectator to suspend
impersonal judiciousness. The central drama is less a matter of what we come to
know about the world than it is of what our participation in the poem makes
available as concrete, elemental abstraction. So from Yeats's point of view it is
reason that must learn to accommodate states like those that the poem can
make so intensely real and so appealing as representations of what the desire for
desire might look like in its pure form. Yeats's poem sets ethos against pathos,
insisting that while rationality may require Nussbaum's view of cognitive
emotions, there are strong features of literary experience that sharply oppose it,
features like Wright's desire to leave his audience in despairing awe at Bigger's
life. Where cognition might have been, there Yeats wants fascination to reign,
since fascination opens the reader to what we might call pure lyrical power and
its capacities to produce modes of satisfying self-reflection. And where Yeats is,
there too we might find writers as diverse as James and Shakespeare and
perhaps even Dante in his effort to characterize a loving intellect whose reason is
far beyond any representations we might produce for it.

My praise of these states does not mean that we as agents can survive without
heeding the claims of reason. It does mean that we as agents are not likely to
thrive until we recognize how our possible interest in states of self-absorption
conflicts with reason, or at least with how philosophers like Nussbaum understand
its imperatives. Reason has its claims because we have to act in a world where
accurate information is crucial, where laws of all kinds need to be honored, and
where society needs shareable principles for assessing actions and agendas. But
these claims have to take precedence for us only when we actually need to justify
actions (and non-actions) or when we have to make analogous judgments about
actions or agendas. Then we need disciplinary ethics, and disciplinary ethics
requires the background provided by discussions in moral philosophy. But many
aspects of our lives take place on quite different planes where justifications can
be assumed or where they are clearly after the fact and hence not fundamental.
In these domains the worry about what is right is less pressing than the need to
discover what is possible for us to feel and to project and even to speculate upon.
(n11) And in these domains the social impact of our actions proves less central
than the possible impact on our private lives produced by specific imaginative
states and related energy fields.
VI
And so I come to the last positive point that I think is sharpened by dwelling on
what is problematic within ethical criticism. I want to show how an emphasis on
ethos helps clarify the kinds of willing that are fundamental to literary
experience, and I want to suggest the possibility that many of the values basic to
these experiences emerge in the modes of challenge and provocation, and not
simply in exemplary cognitive judgments. That in turn means we have to
establish ideals of judgment capable of clarifying how the establishing of
challenges can be an accomplishment central to the development of moral
values. By examining how we are motivated to action and how aspects of will are
brought to the fore in literary experience we can develop a fresh perspective on
just how important ethos is to ethics.

Nussbaum's cognitive theory of emotions seems to rest in part on an assumption


that the connection between philosophical reasoning and discriminating,
sympathetic literary experience is matched by a direct fit between what we come
to think is right, how we then make social identifications, and how we go on to
act. Therefore if one can specify the fit between empirical judgments and the
appropriate emotions, one has powerful terms for handling those psychological
factors enabling ethical reading to carry over into influencing ethical practice.
Booth, on the other hand, introduces what seems a crucial third term for this
psychology. In his scheme one cannot explain actions simply in terms of percept,
concept, and elicited spectatorial emotions. One also has to postulate a
motivating factor specific to the complexity of individual situations.(n12) The
figure of the company we keep then provides the motivating factor. That
company is not merely something constructed by our judgments about texts. It
also takes on the capacity to judge us, to influence what desires we desire and

consequently to provide both a measure of failure and a penalty for not keeping
our will in alignment with our ideals. Failing those ideals is failing membership
within this community.

Booth, however, sets unnecessary constraints on what might constitute the


relevant community, and he severely limits the range of motives and interests by
which literary experience influences both the decisions we make and the selfrepresentations or modes of awareness that shape our understanding of those
decisions. As we have seen, the image of texts as friends simply does not capture
the many different kinds of intimate relations texts enter in our lives, nor does it
quite address the variety of productive energies brought into play by those
intimate relations. Our affective lives can be strongly touched by pleasures,
fascinations, and challenges that have their power because they refuse the
domesticating ideal of friendship for other less stable and less comforting modes
of presence. Moreover, these pleasures, fascinations, and challenges are not as
easy as to subsume under criteria compatible with moral discourse as are
appeals to friendship.

Admitting these different lines of relation affects our understanding of the will in
two basic ways. First we gain some space enabling us to show how some acts of
will need not be governed by specific conceptual categories or idealizing
languages charged with providing representations of ourselves to ourselves. Texts
appeal as particulars with their own distinctive promise of a relation which allows
us to feel ourselves endowed with specific powers or capable of maintaining
certain images of ourselves--by identification or by active struggle against
domination. Indeed, the more identity issues seem directly at stake, the more we
will find it impossible to interpret the specific affirmations as relying on concepts
or on specifiable criteria. Instead, we must envision will emerging simply as an
extension of where we find our energies satisfyingly disposed. Consider again
how identification is invited by Yeats's poem--not because the poem somehow
provides us an idea affording a specific image for the self but because we find
ourselves taking on the poem's own work of gathering an intensity of productive
self-consciousness as its response to the utter loss of personal power represented
in the initial situation. In our experiences of the lyrical at least, willing often takes
place less through an interpretation of what is true or good about the text than
an attachment to what is powerful within it.

This claim about the will is not incompatible with the capacity of literary texts to
state the truth or to represent the good. For the willing elicited by imaginative
power simply occupies a different plane: it can accompany a range of judgments
or perceptions because it simply determines the degree to which the person
places stakes upon the particular state. Hence my second claim. Even when we
do stress the truth value of an intense literary experience, our affirmation of it as

an experience may depend less on the truth it offers than on our finding
ourselves intensely identified with how its specific efforts at articulation provide a
sense of discovery or sharpen what we thought we knew. We may affirm a text
for how it represents moral situations, or we may affirm ourselves in relation to
that text for how we find ourselves becoming moved in its presence. And,
analogously, when we are moved to pity, we may respond directly to the object
of pity or to the states of subjective intensity that the text offers us because of
who we can become in our pitying.

Here then we enter another possibility for appreciating why Wittgenstein thought
ethics and aesthetics were one. There is a deep connection between how we
affirm our own relation to the states or actions we inhabit and how we ultimately
come to affirm the sense of completeness and of intense participation afforded us
by works of art. From the point of view of ethics, the comparison to aesthetics
foregrounds how closely our awareness of various exemplary states, of what
carries force as ethos, becomes fundamental to our own senses of identity. We
are what we will most intensely, whether the object be our investment in reason
or our investments in what provides material for reason to work upon. In both
cases one important measure of who we are as persons consists in the range of
passions that we can occupy self-reflexively so that we take responsibility for the
roles they play in our lives and in our representations of our lives. Conversely
what we call aesthetic emotion is trivialized if we take it as only a reaction to the
power of form. I think aesthetic emotion is a condition of will that accompanies
our regarding the work as offering a distinctive and powerful state of mind.
Aesthetic emotion may even be considered a strange kind of affect because it
tends not to be focussed on any particulars within the work but to characterize
the force by which we respond to the piece as a whole, as if we were willing to
take responsibility for who we became by virtue of our participation in it.(n13)
When we make such affirmative judgments, it seems as if we cannot but want
this text to be part of our world and we cannot but want ourselves to make this
text part of how we see possibilities for affirming our own capacities within that
world. On some occasions we could give ethical reasons for such judgments, but
we also often find the emotions themselves capable of modifying the quality or
degree of investments once relegated only to moral categories.
VII
Even those texts that tempt us by contrast and challenge to explore what such
willing against the moral might feel like become part of the company we keep.
But they do so less as friends than as imaginative presences not only defining the
most powerful and fascinating states of consciousness we know but also holding
out the promise that by identifying provisionally with them we are likely to
encounter ourselves at our most vital and most capacious. Where ethical
criticism is forced, often against its best instincts, to treat texts as ultimately
examples of something that philosophy can clarify and help assess, the ethosbased criticism that I am proposing deals directly with the examples as
manifestations of qualities and powers that establish what is possible within

certain ways of engaging the world. When we reflect on these examples we may
decide we have to reject their long term claims upon our loyalties because what
they offer us in moments of intensity simply will not fit with the economies we
work out as ways of directing our lives. But if we have experienced these works
fully, we are hard-pressed to dismiss them as simply behavior we can judge or
mistaken identifications we can easily dispel. Think of the continuing impact
Shelley and Milton have had on poets who think they should know better. So
these presences remain with us as challenges and as measures of the levels of
intensity and commitment that we can continue to offer those texts with which
we continue to identify.

Among its many lacks, ethical criticism usually has little to say about this kind of
struggle, or indeed about any kind of struggle between competing forces. In this
respect it is probably not even good philosophy. For example, in Nussbaum there
is substantial struggle against other philosophical positions, but her
representation of reading makes it seem that all we need do is let the emotions
compatible with judicious spectatorship have their way with us, while all writers
need is themselves to learn the role of judicious spectators. And both
deconstructive and Heideggerean versions of letting be put the burden of error
simply on whether we succumb to categorical thinking and hence submit to some
fantasy of the law. This situation makes me long for the psychomachias much
loved in classical literature. There at least we find a plausible emblem for what
happened to authors as they read their peers and as they struggled to formulate
desires for desires that neither made them ashamed before their chosen
company nor left them passive followers of the moon in any of its social
manifestations.

Perhaps ethical criticism has surrendered that view of the psyche's activity in
reading major texts so that it could at least secure for literary experience the
possibility of helping us dwell imaginatively within the sense of the self promised
by our moral theories. If we are to feel we have any moral control over ourselves
at all, we may be tempted to think we have to renounce visions of imaginative
activity as a constant challenge to the will. But yielding to such suspicions seems
to me to pay too high a price. Minimally, we risk rejecting the demand made by
many literary texts that we be worthy of them by bringing to bear a selfconsciousness so intensely invested that questions of how a will stands towards
the material become inescapable. What's more, we may risk settling for too
passive or self-satisfied a morality that either comes to substitute for will or to
lose its imaginative hold on us to become a mere wardrobe we reuse for social
purposes because we have surrendered any fantasy that we can dress so as to
turn an eye and engage a mind. These are reasons enough to make me wary of
letting ethical criticism be a major participant in the company our major texts
invite us to keep.
Notes

(n1) I have an additional reason for worrying about embarrassment and selfdisgust because I want to use this occasion to address what I think are
misunderstandings of my previous writings on the topic of ethical criticism by
those very few people who have engaged them at all. Because I talk about
responsibility and the "purposive performance of identity," it is easy to assume
that I subsume the work of art under moral categories. But this is by no means a
necessary reading of purposiveness or of responsibility, since those concepts
point our attention simply to performative features of the work and to its status
as the articulation of ethos rather than its quest for justification in moral terms. In
particular I want to address Mark Erwin's essay "Wittgenstein and The Waste
Land" because of the way it attributes to me a "grammatical pragmatism" that it
then uses as a contrast to Erwin's challenge "what sort of responsible selfexpression we can adopt by reading a modern poem like The Waste Land." Erwin
suggests that instead of that grammatical pragmatism we turn to a
Wittgensteinian mysticism: "For the Wittgenstein of the Notebooks, ethics and
aesthetics are one, not because they express `purposiveness,' but because they
manifest a way of looking at the world, seeing it either as a happy world or as an
unhappy world. Ethics and aesthetics are both forms of vision" (280).

But on what do we focus in order to care abou the achievement of happy or


unhappy worlds? That is one important question that leads me not to
"grammatical pragmatism" but to an expressivism derived from Kant and
Nietzsche. They enable us to shift our focus to how investments are shaped and
maintained in relation to visions, and they keep us concerned with issues of how
agents take responsibility for those investments. For how I see this expressivism
applying to Eliot's Waste Land, Erwin might have looked at my Painterly
Abstraction in Modernist American Poetry.

(n2) Philosophers have long been aware of the need for some such distinction
between ethics as concerned specifically with processes of justification and more
general questions about values and ends. Perhaps the most useful contemporary
formulation can be found in Nussbaum's Love's Knowledge, where she
distinguishes between ethical theory as "the study of substantive ethical
positions" and "moral philosophy" as a "general and inclusive rubric covering [...]
many different types of ethical investigations" (169). This formulation is certainly
preferable to the popular distinction between "ethics" as somehow the domain of
high principle and "morals" as the mere social coding of those principles in
different circumstances because it gets at the distinctive roles played by
theorizing within professional philosophical discourse and more general
speculations on "how should human beings live" (15). Yet the very generality she
wins for the rubric "moral philosophy" runs the risk of collapsing literature's
general concern with how values are pursued into a discourse that turns out to
look very much like "ethics." Assessing those concerns turns out to require the
specific terms of moral philosophy. Consequently, ethical criticism feels licensed
to seek "reasons" for the kinds of action that in fact are beggared by assuming

that we arrive at them by moral calculi. Moreover, these philosophical


assumptions are probably not sufficiently attuned to the deep conflicts in how to
talk about values that emerge among different cultural practices.

(n3) Martha Nussbaum's account of her shifting attitudes towards tensions


between passionate love and "the ethical viewpoint" provides a good example of
an ethical theorist acknowledging these challenges (Love's Knowledge 50-53, and
her essay "Steerforth's Arm" in the same collection). But her resolution of the
problem by insisting on a "deep link between erotic attachment and a new, more
yielding sort of moral rightness" (53) seems also a good example of how the
challenge is usually ultimately resolved in terms that restore the ethical, with
more chastened but also more imperious interpretive authority.

(n4) Several of my recent essays explore various aspects of this Nietzschean


contrast, especially "Poetry as `Untruth': Revising Modern Claims for Literary
Truth."

(n5) Moral realism puts a somewhat different ontological spin on the ideals of
judgment since it treats literary texts less as interpreting values than as
instances of value claims to be treated as we treat other facts in the world. But
moral realism does preserve the same underlying hegemony of philosophical
reasoning as do more hermeneutic and perfectionist approaches to texts. I
attempt a more elaborate criticism of the relation between moral realism and
literary studies in my Subjective Agency 139-50, where I respond to Terry
Eagleton's recent work.

(n6) I have to admit that Derrida has gone a long way in addressing this problem
within his general ethics by developing complex interrelations between response,
responsiveness, and responsibility. Yet while Derrida certainly does not invoke
traditional moral values, I think that he manages to evoke them in the
background as his way of dignifying his focus on texts as singular working
signatures. Without Western morality there would be no reason to care about this
singularity, yet Derrida seems to presupposes that singularity can stand as an
ultimate value (or as close as his thinking comes to an ultimate value).

(n7) I misspeak. There is one much preferable perfectionist model for talking
about the ethical in literary works, namely the treatment of poesis developed by
Richard Eldridge in Leading a Human Life. But Eldridge's actual applications of
this model to literary texts in the literary criticism seem to me still hampered by

the effort to make his dramatic situations correlate with stateable principles for
what constitutes human flourishing.

(n8) Let me support this claim with specific quotations. This is the literary
Nussbaum: "Certain truths about human life can only be fittingly and accurately
stated in the language and forms characteristic of the narrative artist" (Love's
Knowledge 5). Repeated acts of complex sympathy and empathy in relation to
these narrative situations help forge a "distinctive ethical conception" (26) in
their own right because they help us envison what constitutes a good life for
human beings and what values make that life shareable. But then on the very
next page she is content to argue that we should "add the study of certain novels
to the study" of classical works in philosophical ethics, "on the grounds that
without them we will not have a fully adequate statement of a powerful ethical
conception" that we "ought to investigate." I find the claim that only "certain
novels" should be studied especially difficult to reconcile with any argument that
there is a distinctive contribution made to ethics by literary experience. At best
one can argue that these certain novels support or enrich her enlightened
Aristotelianism.

(n9) In conversation Bryan Glaser pointed out to me that Wright himself uses the
courtroom parts of his novel to raise questions about judgment which seem to
lead away from any possible institutional response to Bigger: to sympathize is
patronizing; to execute utterly inhumane. Wright can raise such questions
because his larger ambition is to make us see the forces producing our impasse,
and to respond to those forces we cannot just sympathize. We have to make our
sympathy one feature of a complex political judgment suspicious of all dreams
that moral identities matter very much at all in relation to what needs to be done.

(n10) In conversation Richard Wollheim has made it clear to me the cost involved
in linking emotions only to perceptions, as cognitive theory does, and hence
denying all the fantasy dimensions that give the emotions their intensity and
their hold on our lives. For a good example of problems that arise when this
fantasy dimension is overlooked, see Nussbaum's Poetic Justice 64.

(n11) In the book I am writing I argue that the cognitive theory of the emotions
makes a perfect fit with ethical criticism's emphasis on narrative fiction because
the kinds of emotion stressed are those that can be negotiated by the phronesis
providing the basic mode of judgment in that domain. But the realm of affects
contains much more than the emotions that enter this fit. If one comes to the
affects through the experience of lyric states, two other affective domains
become at least equally important. These are the feelings, which I take to be the
range of ways that our affective being spreads out into the world in particular

moments, and the passions, which I take to be those emotions in which the
identity of the agent is overtly and intensely at stake.

(n12) One could argue that Nussbaum's judicious spectator creates the same
problems of moving between ethical reason and empirical personal situations
that one finds in Kant and in Rawls. I find Bernard Williams's Ethics and the Limits
of Philosophy the most useful treatment of this topic, but I should also mention
Michael Sandel's Liberalism and the Limits of Justice, an influential critique of
Rawls along these lines. In Kant will is not an issue because will is inseparable
from reason: if one can enter the impersonal domain of reason, one will have to
will--reason is active and self-defining.

(n13) This version of responsibility is what Wittgenstein probably was referring to


when he said that ethics and aesthetics are one.
Works Cited
Altieri, Charles. Painterly Abstraction in Modernist American Poetry: The
Contemporaneity of Modernism (Literature & Philosophy). Cambridge: Cambridge
UP, 1990.
-----. "Poetics as `Untruth': Revising Modern Claims for Literary Truth." New
Literary History 29 (Spring 1998): 305-28.
-----. Subjective Agency: A Theory of First-Person Expressivity and its Social
Implications. Oxford: Blackwell, 1994.
Booth, Wayne. The Company We Keep: An Ethics of Fiction. Berkeley: U of
California P, 1988.
Eldridge, Richard. Leading a Human Life: Wittgenstein, Intentionality, and
Romanticism. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1997.
Erwin, Mark. "Wittgenstein and The Waste Land." Philosophy and Literature 21
(1997): 279-91.
Nussbaum, Martha. Love's Knowledge: Essays on Philosophy and Literature. New
York: Oxford UP, 1990.
-----. Poetic Justice: The Literary Imagination and Public Life. Boston: Beacon,
1995.
Sandel, Michael. Liberalism and the Limits of Justice. Cambridge: Cambridge UP,
1982.
Williams, Bernard. Ethics and the Limits of Philosophy. Cambridge: Harvard UP,
1985.

Wittgenstein, Ludwig. Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus. Trans. D.F. Pears and B.F.


McGuinness. London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1961.
Yeats, William Butler. The Poems of William Butler Yeats. Ed. Richard Finneran.
New York: Macmillan, 1983.
~~~~~~~~
By Charles Altieri, University of California-Berkeley

Naslov: Saints, Sinners, and the Dickensian Novel: The Ethics of Storytelling in
John Irving's The Cider House Rules. Prema: Davis, Todd F., Womack, Kenneth,
Style, 00394238, Summer98, Svezak. 32, Broj 2.Baza podataka: Academic Search
Complete.
SAINTS, SINNERS, AND THE DICKENSIAN NOVEL: THE ETHICS OF STORYTELLING
IN JOHN IRVING'S THE CIDER HOUSE RULES

The intention of a novel by Charles Dickens is to move you emotionally, not


intellectually; and it is by emotional means that Dickens intends to influence you
socially.
--John Irving, "The King of the Novel"
In addition to affording readers the critical machinery for exploring the nature of
concepts such as community, stylistics, and goodness in narratives, ethical
criticism provides us with a useful rhetoric for examining the function of
storytelling in literary works. The act of narration--or what Adam Zachary Newton
refers to in Narrative Ethics (1995) as the "performative function of storytelling"
(58)--can itself offer significant insight into the ethical properties of a given text.
Ethical criticism presupposes that through their depictions of so many morally
disparate heroes and villains, works of art necessarily implore us to render value
judgments based upon our experiences as readers and members of the larger
human community. Yet the act of storytelling--the manner in which writers
deliberately construct their narratives so as to register moral or social impacts
upon their readers--remains largely unexamined in the considerable and growing
literature devoted to the interpretive mode of ethical criticism.( n1) In Story Line:
Exploring the Literature of the Appalachian Trail (1998), Ian Marshall notes that
literary criticism's purpose "is not simply to help us understand literature but to
help us understand our lives, and sometimes our lives and the literature we read
help us understand critical theories" ( 8). Marshall's observation about the
reflexivity of literary criticism underscores one of ethical criticism's principal
functions: to provide readers not only with a mechanism for comprehending the
vicissitudes of human experience, but also with the interpretive tools for
recognizing the ways in which writers create meaning through storytelling.

In Cultivating Humanity: A Classical Defense of Reform in Liberal Education


(1997), Martha C. Nussbaum reminds us that "a central role of art is to challenge
conventional wisdom and values" (99). In his novels, John Irving continues to
experiment with a narrative voice that seeks to thwart deliberately his readers'
expectations, to upset our notions of conventionality, and to blur the boundaries
that linger between good and evil, right and wrong. From the life-affirming
presence of the "good, smart bears" in The Hotel New Hampshire (1981) and
Owen Meany's shrill voice of reason in A Prayer for Owen Meany (1989) to the
convoluted sexual politics of The 158-Pound Marriage (1974) and the conspicuous
proximity of the "Under Toad" and the tragedy of the Ellen Jamesians in The World
According to Garp (1978), Irving adorns his fictions with a host of ethical signifiers
that challenge readers at every turn throughout his labyrinthine, deliberately
Dickensian fictions. Irving makes little secret of his affinity for Dickens and in
particular for the Victorian writer's eye for complexity of narrative and literary
character. In "King of the Novels," Irving writes that "Dickens was abundant and
magnificent with description, with the atmosphere surrounding everything--and
with the tactile, with every detail that was terrifying or viscerally felt" (364). As
with Dickens, because Irving loads his own narratives with considerable detail
and description, he makes it virtually impossible for readers to render facile
ethical decisions in the face of so much information about a given character's
humanity. Irving self-consciously adopts the literary form of the Dickensian
novel--with its multiplicity of characters, its narrative mass, its overt sense of
sentimentality, and its generic intersections with such modes as the detective
story--as the forum for constructing the fictions that intentionally challenge his
readers' value systems. In short, for Irving the choice of the narrative form of the
Dickensian novel itself represents an ethical move.

The essential formulation of the Dickensian novel as a narrative form finds its
origins in Dickens's dynamic approach to literary character. In Poetic Justice: The
Literary Imagination and Public Life (1995), Nussbaum remarks that Dickens
endows his characters with "physical and moral attributes that make it possible
for us to distinguish every one from every other. We are made to attend to their
ways of moving and talking, the shapes of their bodies, the expressions on their
faces, the sentiments of their hearts. The inner life of each is displayed as having
psychological depth and complexity," she adds, and "we see that as humans they
share certain common problems and common hopes" (27). Yet Dickens's
characters are far more than mere vessels of transport for the essential elements
of genuine human behavior. The effectiveness of Dickens's characters as human
representations lies in their peculiar lack of ethical certainty, in their capacity for
mimicking the elusive qualities that often define human nature. Dickens's
"characters do not so much recreate actual individuals as re-create the reactions
to actual individuals, and particularly the difficulties and dilemmas," Brian
Rosenberg writes in Little Dorrit's Shadows: Character and Contradiction in
Dickens (1996); "his doubts about the potential for understanding others capture
a nearly universal uncertainty, and his struggle to make sense of conflicting,
unreliable pieces of information mirrors a struggle we undergo daily. Shunning

the rounded and definite, he leaves the reader," Rosenberg continues, "like many
of the figures in his novels, always contending with the elusive and irreconcilable"
(30).

As a literary model, the Dickensian novel provides the narrative structure for
Irving's own ethics of storytelling. In The Cider House Rules (1985), Irving avails
himself of many of the Dickensian form's classic narratological elements,
including its intentionally conflicted melange of characters, its intricate layering
of plots, its penchant for the detective story, and even its frequent depiction of
orphans, the occupants of society's most innocent and vulnerable stations. The
Cider House Rules also affords Irving a venue for challenging our assumptions,
fears, and prejudices about abortion, that most fractious of social issues. Rather
than merely rendering an overt decision about the ethics of abortion, Irving,
using the Dickensian mode of characterization, chooses to confront his readers
with detailed, fully realized visions of the complications and uncertainties that
comprise the human condition.( n2) Despite Irving's careful and deliberately
indeterminate depiction of human nature in his novel, Carol C. Harter and James
R. Thompson argue that as a polemic The Cider House Rules "is seriously flawed,"
and because "Irving's `correct political vision' sometimes distorts the book's
larger theme--the problematical nature of personal and social `rules'--the
difficulties with Irving's new fiction are considerable" (134).( n3) Yet Harter and
Thompson's critique of The Cider House Rules neglects to allow for the
tremendous import of Irving's ethics of storytelling in the novel. As an essentially
Dickensian novelist, Irving simply refuses to permit his readers to resort to easy
and obvious decisions about either his own ethos or the ethical systems of his
characters. With its variegated landscape of humanity--and the elusiveness and
uncertainty that genuine humanity necessarily entails--the Dickensian novel
functions in The Cider House Rules as the ethical vehicle via which Irving
challenges his readers to consider the abortion debate from a host of vantage
points, rather than merely adopting a "correct political vision."

In Ethics, Evil, and Fiction (1997), Colin McGinn writes that "the fictional world is
really the ideal world in which to go on ethical expeditions: it is safe, convenient,
inconsequential, and expressly designed for our exploration and delight" (177).
Irving's own approach to storytelling--his technique, as well as his understanding
of its purposes--demonstrates the ethical force of the narrative act as he
conceives it. "Art has an aesthetic responsibility to be entertaining," Irving
argues. "The writer's responsibility is to take hard stuff and make it as accessible
as the stuff can be made" ("An Interview" 186). In contrast to the contemporary
direction of much poststructuralist literary criticism, however, Irving does not
mean to suggest that those narratives that entertain are somehow less serious or
less ethically challenging. On the contrary--as Dickens's Victorian-era canon and
Irving's late twentieth-century oeuvre seem to demonstrate--to entertain one's
readers is to capture their hearts and minds in such a way that draws them into
the lives of characters who populate stories that truly matter within the larger

narrative of our shared humanity. "John Irving belongs to a small group of


American writers," Terrence Des Pres suggests in Writing into the World (1991),
"whose work has inspired respect for the plainest of reasons--these people write
a kind of fiction useful, as genuine art must always be useful, to spiritual need"
(102). In his attempt to entertain and enlighten readers, as Irving creates texts
rich with the vibrancy and contrariness of existence, he portrays not only our
"spiritual need" but also ways of coping with that need. In fact, the very form of
Irving's storytelling seems to suggest a means for coping spiritually, for it offers a
process that brings no final answers but invites us to take part in an
unforgettable journey. As he tells his story, Irving moves his readers beyond the
present moment in the text into a deep history of both the characters in the story
and the communities in which they live; he compels his readers to wrestle with
the same ethical dilemmas that the story's characters must confront; he causes
us to see and feel the joy, anger, and sorrow that inevitably visits itself upon the
saints and sinners who populate the landscape of his fiction. Like the wrestler he
was--indeed, he is--Irving deliberately weaves his tales into the emotional lives of
his readers. Snaking his characters' arms and legs around one another, he leaves
us in the most improbable and compromising positions: entwined on the mat of
his story, struggling not to be pinned by the weight of the lives we enter
vicariously.

How, then, does Irving achieve this kind of connection with his readers, and why
do the characters within Irving's fictional world remain vivid in the minds of both
his devoted popular readership and the literati? Writing against the grain of much
contemporary artistic practice, Irving grounds his achievement in his use of the
particular and his consistent desire for the subject of his fictions to be
recognizable in the world beyond the text.( n4) In his published interviews and
memoirs, Irving laments the shift in contemporary fiction away from the actual
world in which we live toward the world of metafiction. In a 1979 interview, Irving
addresses the debate taking place during that era between John Gardner and
William Gass about the "necessity or irrelevancy of art's allegiance to morality":
"Gardner has been very careless about a number of things he's said, so it's easier
to pick on Gardner than it is to pick on Gass," Irving explains; "on the other hand,
it seems to me that Gardner has tried to say a lot more about literature than
Gass, and I have to admire him for that. I'd also have to agree with Gardner that
literature should be a sign of life rather than a celebration of death," Irving
concludes, "and if a novel doesn't address itself to something of human value, I
don't see much worth in it" ("An Interview" 187). Irving's insistence that the novel
as literary form should address "something of human value" continues to
determine many of his narrative practices, especially his use of the particular.
( n5) By chronicling several major and minor characters' histories in his novels
with an uncanny precision and attentiveness, Irving creates an ethical construct
that for the purposes of this essay we shall refer to as "characterscape."

While novelists must in some manner establish character for their readers, not all
writers agree about its import or the techniques necessary to produce it. In Find
You the Virtue: Ethics, Image, and Desire in Literature (1987), Irving Massey
contends that the ethics of particularity, the ability to see the individual rather
than the universal, illustrates the folly in ideas of repetition and categorization:
"Things just do not repeat themselves, unless we are passive to them: if they
exist for us fully, we do not experience them under the aspect of sameness or
uniformity. Categories have something of the fraud about them" (34).( n6) The
ability to see human events and experiences for what they are, to be fully
attentive to their originality, is a central concept in Irving's creation of
characterscape.( n7) In order to understand more fully the notion of
characterscape, it should be noted that this construct does not differ significantly
from the creation of character in terms of technique, but it does differ radically in
terms of intention. As with the creation of character, characterscape requires the
description of specific incidents that reflect the inner life of a given character's
personhood; fundamental elements of anatomy, dress, physical movements,
professional habits, and the like must be foregrounded for readers. In contrast
with mere characterization, however, characterscape operates upon a scale of
grand proportion. This is not to say that a given character is necessarily
grandiose or ethical in his or her own right; on the contrary, in The Cider House
Rules Irving borrows from Dickens by making an orphan of diminutive and humble
stature a central figure in the action of his novel. Instead, the concept of
proportion relates to the amount of narrative space used to create a vivid
rendering of a particular character. This process might best be compared to
William Least Heat-Moon's appropriation of landscape in PrairyErth: A Deep Map
(1991). The subtitle of Heat-Moon's opus underscores the issue at hand: we must
examine what lies within the deeper structures of the worlds that we inhabit to
understand fully what lives before our eyes. By probing beneath the surface of
Chase County, Kansas, and viewing it from nearly every imaginable position,
Heat-Moon confronts his readers with a mental image that transcends landscape;
it is as if the writer has found a way not only to transform the two-dimensional art
of words on the printed page into a three-dimensional representation, but also
has discovered a vehicle to transport readers into other dimensions that fuse the
physical and the spiritual, the animal and the human into a single landscape.

As with Heat-Moon's work of creative nonfiction, Irving's fictional-world


characterscapes offer multidimensional perspectives. Certainly, The Cider House
Rules might be told more succinctly if we were not presented first with the history
of St. Cloud's--including such ephemeral facts as how the town's name acquired
an apostrophe--and then with the history of Wilbur Larch and his circuitous
journey into medicine and the practice of abortion. Yet if such material were
excised, the novel's range would be radically truncated and Larch's complicated
motivations for performing abortions would not be fully realized. Characterscape
demands that many of the issues and incidents to which we are not privy in our
workaday lives beyond the confines of the text--especially such wonderful artifice
as The Cider House Rules's epilogue that permits us not only to see the past, but

also the past in the context of the future--be presented in such a way that our
understanding of the fictional persons that we encounter as we consume the
story expands voluminously toward an ethical illumination of far-reaching
consequence. Of course, not all readers will accept the invitation to enter fully
into Irving's fictive world, but because of its narrative mass the sheer number of
hours that such storytelling requires makes possible this kind of revelatory
relationship.

By carefully and expansively layering his presentation of character, Irving


satisfies his own demand that philosophical issues be subservient to the ways in
which people live. Characterscape functions as Irving's central ethic: the physical
world of human activity--which he attempts to make as vibrantly alive as
possible--must never be lost in a philosophical debate about notions of right and
wrong. As with William Carlos Williams, Irving dismisses the abstract and
embraces the physical. In The Call of Stories: Teaching and the Moral Imagination
(1989), Robert Coles explains that Williams's "repeated call to arms, the wellknown phrase `no ideas but in things,' is a prelude to distinctions he kept making
between poetry and life; between ideas and action; between the abstract and the
concrete; between theory and practice; and not least, between art and conduct"
(193). In similar fashion, Irving also proclaims adamantly that fiction must
originate in the concrete and the physical as opposed to the philosophical, and he
offers a litany of complaints against those novels that seem more about a
particular ideology than about the lives that transpire within a given text: "I guess
another way to put this" explains Irving, "is that I don't like to see a thesis about
life, or people, disguised as a novel. I don't think the greatest novels of our time
or any other time are theses. Great novels succeed much better when they are
broad expressions or portraits than when they confine themselves to the
singularity of an idea" ("An Interview" 195).

Although The Cider House Rules has been both criticized and lauded as an "idea"
book, one that crusades for a singular position on the abortion issue, we would do
well to note the author's own account of the novel's genesis: "I wanted to write
an orphan novel. It was a year before abortion entered the story," Irving remarks,
"but it made perfect sense. In the early part of the century, what doctor would be
most sympathetic to performing abortions but a doctor who delivered unwanted
babies, then cared for them in an orphanage?" (Fein 25). Repeating his litany in
an interview with Alison Freeland--"a novel is not single-issue politics, or if it is,
it's not a novel" (140)--Irving derides those critics who read The Cider House
Rules in terms of a single political vision. This narrowness of vision, of course,
demonstrates precisely the problem with Harter and Thompson's critique of the
novel as "polemic" While Irving admits that The Cider House Rules is perhaps his
first polemical novel, Harter and Thompson's understanding of Irving's use of the
polemic fails to account for the significance of the characterscapes that undergird
Irving's fictions. Undoubtedly, Irving proffers a novel that sets forth an argument
of great controversy, but, as is his practice elsewhere, the lives of his characters

and the events that transpire remain too broad and various to represent a single,
essentialist position within the abortion debate. Irving's confession that the novel
has a polemic quality merely asserts the reality that the historic stage upon
which his players strut has for its backdrop an orphanage where, in the words of
Larch, some babies and some mothers are "delivered." Arguing that this notion
functions as the political vision of the novel neglects the character motivations
and histories of both Wilbur Larch and Homer Wells. While Larch indeed crusades
in covert and overt ways for the right of women to choose, he remains in the
novel but one character among many whose past seems to compromise his
ideological position in the present. The same may be said of Homer as he
grapples with his role in performing abortions, as well as of the many different
women who receive abortions during the course of the novel and their markedly
different motivations for seeking out such a dramatic and final solution. In his
review of The Cider House Rules, Benjamin DeMott contends that the value of
Irving's novel lies in its treatment of abortion as a subject rooted both in our
collective past and in the heterogeneous ways in which we live in the present.
Irving's approach to this subject actually demonstrates the impossibility of
rendering a facile ethical decision when confronted with such a divisive issue. In
"an age ill at ease with the notion that art can have a subject" (25), DeMott
praises Irving for his awareness of human relationships where abstract
philosophies and political ideologies play themselves out. "Irving draws the
readers close in the space of his imagination" says DeMott, "to an understanding
of essential links, commonalties--even unities--between factions now seething
with hatred for each other" ( 1).

For this reason, Irving focuses significant time and energy upon narrating
intricate accounts of numerous characters' lives. In The Cider House Rules, Irving
offers detailed histories not only of the novel's two main characters, Wilbur Larch
and Homer Wells, but also of Melony, Wally Worthington, and Candy Kendall,
among others. In "The King of the Novel," John Irving observes that "you cannot
encounter the prisons in Dickens's novels and ever again feel completely selfrighteous about prisoners being where they belong; you cannot encounter a
lawyer of Mr. Jaggers's terrifying ambiguity and ever again put yourself willingly
in a lawyer's hands--Jaggers, although only a minor character in Great
Expectations, may be our literature's greatest indictment of living by abstract
rules" (349). The same might be said of Irving's own depiction of abortion and the
figure of Wilbur Larch, obstetrician and abortionist, in The Cider House Rules. Like
Dickens, Irving derides the notion of living by abstract rules, and in the person of
Larch he begins his assault upon the "rules" that govern the concept of abortion.

Although his associates at the orphanage refer to him as St. Larch, Irving makes
perfectly clear that Larch's sainthood comes with a price. Upon Larch's admission
to and imminent departure for medical school, Larch's father purchases for Wilbur
an evening with a local prostitute, Mrs. Eames. This rather embarrassing evening
of sexual initiation concludes with Wilbur dressing in the glow of a cigar being

smoked by Mrs. Eames's daughter, who enters unannounced while Wilbur


drowses in post-coital bliss. What Larch seems to take from this experience--in
addition to gonorrhea, which he studies in bacteriology at Harvard Medical
School--is a substantial measure of remorse. Wilbur compounds his guilty
conscience through a series of events that bring Mrs. Eames and her daughter
back into his life. While working as a young intern at the South End Branch of the
Boston Lying-In, Larch treats Mrs. Eames, whom he discovers has been taking an
aborticide that leaves her organs in a state of "fragile jelly." After six days of
Larch's care, Mrs. Eames dies, and in the ensuing autopsy Larch learns from the
pathologist that she has expired as a result of scurvy. A day later, as only
happens in the fabulistic world of Dickens and Irving, where coincidences are
indispensable to the connective tissue of characterscape, Mrs. Eames's daughter
visits Larch. She shows him the aborticide that her mother ingested--a "French
Lunar Solution" said to restore "Female Monthly Regularity!" (57)--and asks him
to perform an abortion for her: "I ain't quick! I ain't quick, I said!" she screams at
Larch (59). But the consequences of the procedure frighten Larch and he
hesitates. A week later Larch finds her beaten and in grave condition after
receiving an abortion at the shady clinic known only as "Off Harrison." He
discovers a note pinned to her battered body: "DOCTOR LARCH--SHIT OR GET OFF
THE POT!" (60). As with her mother only days before, Mrs. Eames's daughter also
dies in the care of Larch, but her death prompts him to visit "Off Harrison" and
confront the abortionist who runs the clinic, an elderly woman known locally as
Mrs. Santa Claus. This scene allows readers to see the tools of abortion, and,
along with Larch, to be shocked by the awful conditions and misguided methods
under which illegal abortions are conducted. This experience also serves as the
catalyst for Larch's ultimate role as abortionist in the novel. In short, the kinds of
metaphorical gifts that Mrs. Claus delivers challenge Larch to seek a practical and
immediate solution for such women in need as Mrs. Eames and her daughter--a
solution generated out of the pragmatics of physical circumstance as opposed to
legalistic ideology.

With each horrific incident, Irving adds one more layer to Larch's characterscape,
but, in so doing, Irving refuses to render any overt value judgments and offers
nothing more than the precarious elements of human storytelling. Although
abortion clearly lies at the center of these passages, Irving carefully avoids
entering into a philosophical debate about when life actually begins or whose
rights must be protected. Irving eschews any theological discussion that might
affect the actions of his characters or the manner in which readers might
interpret those actions. Interestingly, Larch's decision seems to spring from his
understanding of his own fallibility, his own fallen nature. Through his interaction
with Mrs. Eames and her daughter he recognizes the culpability of his own
conduct, as well as that of a society that tacitly condones the creation of orphans,
prostitutes, and unwanted pregnancies. In a particularly telling moment of
reflection, Larch contemplates the peculiar interrelationship between celibacy
and moral condemnation:

On his mind was Mrs. Eames's daughter's last puff of cigar breath in his face as
he bent over her before she died--reminding him, of course, of the night he
needed her puffing cigar to find his clothes. If pride was a sin, thought Dr. Larch,
the greatest sin was moral pride. He had slept with someone's mother and
dressed himself in the light of her daughter's cigar. He could quite comfortably
abstain from having sex for the rest of his life, but how could he ever condemn
another person for having sex? (61)

Larch's unspoken vow of celibacy and his assumption of sainthood, like the
disorderly nature of all genuinely human activity, finds its roots in interpersonal
relationships, and in his relationships with women, Larch continually falters. As
with his addiction to ether--which begins as a practical remedy to the gonorrhea
he contracts from Mrs. Eames and later becomes a means for both relaxing and,
perhaps, escaping temporarily from his guilt--his response to abortion represents
the actions of a pragmatic doctor doing the practical things necessary for his
patients and the community in which he lives. After denying Mrs. Eames's
daughter an abortion, he never again pauses to consider the legal or ethical
ramifications of abortion when faced with a mother in need. Instead, as Larch
explains in A Brief History of St. Cloud's, "Here in St. Cloud's we would waste our
limited energy and our limited imagination by regarding the sordid facts of life as
if they were problems" (34). For Larch, pragmatism reigns; because the "sordid
facts of life" can never be changed, one's moral position must never be lorded
over the physical needs of another.( n8) Later within the very same chapter, "The
Lord's Work," in which he offers his first pronouncement of celibacy and his
confession that moral pride amounts to the worst of sins, Larch reaffirms this
notion in the precise language of the earlier passage. In this manner, the saint of
both orphans and mothers establishes a mantra that allows him to carry on with
his duties:

Later, when he would have occasion to doubt himself, he would force himself to
remember: he had slept with someone's mother and dressed himself in the light
of her daughter's cigar. He could quite comfortably abstain from having sex for
the rest of his life, but how could he ever condemn another person for having
sex? He would remember, too, what he hadn't done for Mrs. Eames's daughter,
and what that had cost.

He would deliver babies. He would deliver mothers, too. (75)

Yet the most significant test of Latch's resolve comes not with the first abortion
he performs for the young girl he rescues from "Off Harrison" or the subsequent

requests by others in the neighborhood community who find themselves in


similar straits, but from a wealthy family, the Channing-Peabodys of Boston, who
summer in Portland, Maine. Larch has gone to Maine to apply for a position in
obstetrics, escaping Boston where he "had become, in the view of the erring, the
sanctuary to which to flee" (69). Larch ostensibly visits the Channing-Peabodys's
palatial mansion for what he assumes will be a dinner party. Neither poor nor
downtrodden like the women who sought out Larch in South Boston, the
Channing-Peabodys prove insufferable in their moral superiority and in their
presumption that their money can relieve them of any set of unpleasant or
undesired circumstances. Despite such arrogance, Larch still cannot bring himself
to pass judgment upon Missy, the woman in need of his services. Instead of
refusing the Channing-Peabodys, he insists that the young man responsible for
impregnating Missy be sent in to watch the procedure--and, as Larch hopes, the
young man vomits all over himself. Additionally, taking the money with which the
Channing-Peabodys attempt to "buy" his services and his silence, Larch chooses
to distribute it among the servants who help him perform the abortion, as well as
among those others who work throughout the great house. Such a scene,
particularly important in the creation of Larch's own character-scape,
demonstrates his ethical determination to refuse to judge the woman in need of
his care. While Larch indeed passes judgment upon those characters who seem
to stand in supposed moral superiority over Missy for becoming pregnant and
over him for becoming a doctor who would perform abortions, he will not deny
any woman, in this instance Missy, whom he clearly sees as a victim.

By availing himself of the ethos of characterscape, Irving establishes the


motivations and the ideology of Larch, a man who claims to do both "the Lord's
work and the Devil's work."( n9) He further complicates our understanding of
Larch as both saint and sinner by introducing the figure of Homer Wells, the
eternal orphan who becomes a surrogate son for Larch, as well as his professional
successor. Homer's presence in the frame of Irving's story exemplifies the ethics
of characterscape by illustrating the marked importance of human
interrelationships in the construction of characterscape. Just as a landscape artist
needs a horizon and a sky, a foreground and a background to capture properly
the spirit of a place, the writer who hopes to achieve a fully articulated portrait of
a character must place the person in close relation to another character of
consequence within a given narrative. While Irving devotes the bulk of The Cider
House Rules's narrative space to Homer's story, the orphan would not achieve his
full semblance of personhood without the character of Larch to bring him into
bas-relief.

As the boy whose adoption never comes to pass, Homer undergoes a trial by fire
of sorts that consists of several horribly fantastic adoptive experiences, including
in one instance his "buggering" by a sibling and in another case the death of his
new parents in a thunderous rushing flood of logs and water on a camping
expedition. As he inevitably returns to St. Cloud's, he develops a special

relationship, unique and full of mutual love, with Larch. Because Homer grows to
the age of "usefulness," as Larch calls it, while still residing at St. Cloud's, Larch
initiates him into the world of the orphanage, first as a caregiver and later as an
obstetrician. For example, Larch assigns Homer the nightly task of reading works
by Dickens and Bronte to the orphans in both the girls' and boys' divisions.( n10)
In this capacity, Homer develops a relationship with another "older" orphan,
Melony, who, like himself, has yet to be adopted successfully. Melony functions as
the first female character to affect Homer's understanding of the world of
sexuality and trust. As with Larch, Homer's feelings about abortion, sex, and
procreation become fundamentally altered by his relations with women. In the
Dickensian tradition of the detective story, Melony's character provides Irving
with the means for availing himself of the generic conventions of the detective
mode to trace one of the principal desires of many orphans: to know the identity
of their parents and to know who loves them. Melony's menacing attitude toward
her undiscovered parents, as well as her promise to Homer that she will perform
fellatio upon him if he locates the records of her parents' identity in Larch's office,
inaugurates the quirky commitment that exists between Melony and Homer.
Although her first investigation as Irving's de facto detective fails because Larch
makes it a practice not to maintain adoption records, Melony searches for love in
the person of Homer, whom she coerces into a promise that, in the fleeting world
of St. Cloud's, must inevitably be broken:

"If I stay, you'll stay--is that what you're saying?" Melony asked him. Is that what I
mean? thought Homer Wells. But Melony, as usual, gave him no time to think.
"Promise me you'll stay as long as I stay, Sunshine," Melony said. She moved
closer to him; she took his hand and opened his fingers and put his index finger
in her mouth. (105)

While Homer and Melony develop a sexual relationship, even a loving relationship
of sorts, Homer ultimately breaks his commitment to Melony when he goes to live
at Heart's Rock upon the invitation of Wally Worthington and Candy Kendall.

Irving later reintroduces the Dickensian detective story after Melony searches for
Homer and finally confronts him in the Worthington's orchard. In addition to
immediately recognizing Angel as Homer and Candy's son, Irving's orphan cum
detective later succeeds in finding Homer, despite her untimely death, when her
cadaver tracks Homer to St. Cloud's and metaphorically unravels his secret
identity as Dr. F. Stone. While Irving employs the detective mode to entertain his
readers with suspense--as with the detective story that undergirds the latter third
of his most recent novel, A Widow for One Year (1998)--the ethics of storytelling
insists that Irving employ Melony's investigation to establish a layer in Homer's
characterscape that will eventually contribute to his return to St. Cloud's as
Larch's replacement. While Melony's detective tale allows Irving to establish the

gravity of Homer's betrayal of her, as well as that of his subsequent betrayal of


Wally Worthington, it also affects the manner in which he sees the "sins" of
others. As with Latch's convoluted relationships with women in The Cider House
Rules, Homer's broken promise to Melony and his secret love for Candy teach him
to see life's variegated shades of meaning, to understand the foibles of human
interaction, and to recognize that a legalistic approach to "rules" never reveals
the full complexity of any situation.

Yet for Homer such a lesson comes slowly. To this end, Irving offers three
extraordinary scenes that demonstrate Homer's exceptional compassion, his
devotion to the delivery of babies and their mothers. The first encounter takes
place when Homer is relatively young but old enough to have been instructed by
Larch to be of some "use." Because of orphan Fuzzy Stone's coughing and the
noise the machines make that help Fuzzy breathe, on certain nights Homer roams
the halls of the orphanage, often seeking out the baby room or the mothers'
room. On this particular night, while standing in the mothers' room, a mysterious
pregnant woman asks Homer if he would, at his age, leave the orphanage with a
family who wishes to adopt him. He replies that he would not. Of course, the
woman asks this question because she wants to be reassured that her baby will
find an adoptive home and be cared for in ways she cannot offer. Homer does not
sense this at first, however, and despite several attempts on the mother's part to
elicit a "yes" from Homer, he seems fixed in his opinion that St. Cloud's is the
only home he will ever know. The mother begins to cry and asks Homer if he
wishes to be of "use" and touch her pregnant belly:

"No one but me ever put a hand on me, to feel that baby. No one wanted to put
his ear against it and listen," the woman said. "You shouldn't have a baby if
there's no one who wants to feel it kick, or listen to it move." (87-88)

The woman asks Homer again if he wishes to be of use and suggests that he
"sleep right here" where the baby rests beneath her stomach. Homer feigns sleep
until the woman's water breaks. After the birth of the child, Homer plays a game
with himself. Because of his "nighttime vigil with his face upon the mother's
jumping belly" he hopes to recognize her child. This incident profoundly affects
the way Homer looks at not only the women who come to St. Cloud's to be
delivered of some of their problems--"Importantly, Homer knew they did not look
delivered of all their problems when they left. No one he had seen looked more
miserable than those women" (30)--but also the way that he looks at their
pregnant bellies, the potential lives that will either be aborted or delivered by the
hands of St. Larch. Because of his sympathetic vigil upon the belly of this mother,
Homer cannot bring himself to believe what Larch preaches about abortion. At
the same time, because of his relationship with Larch he cannot condemn his
"father's" actions either.( n11)

Shortly before his departure to Heart's Rock, Homer experiences an epiphany of


sorts about his own right to choose what he will believe regarding abortion. In
this second scene, Homer examines a fetus that bled to death during a failed
delivery performed by Larch:

Homer felt there was nothing as simple as anyone's fault involved; it was not
Larch's fault--Larch did what he believed in. If Wilbur Larch was a saint to Nurse
Angela and to Nurse Edna, he was both a saint and a father to Homer Wells.
Larch knew what he was doing--and for whom. But that quick and not-quick stuff:
it didn't work for Homer Wells. You can call it a fetus, or an embryo, or the
products of conception, thought Homer Wells, but whatever you call it, it's alive.
And whatever you do to it, Homer thought--and whatever you call what you dry-you're killing it. [...] Let Larch call it whatever he wants, thought Homer Wells. It's
his choice--if it's a fetus, to him, that's fine. It's a baby to me, thought Homer
Wells. If Larch has a choice, I have a choice, too. (169)

Later at Heart's Rock, after Candy becomes pregnant and mentions a trip to St.
Cloud's for a possible abortion, Homer--motivated by his intense convictions
about the sanctity of human life--tells her that "it's my baby, too" (386), that he
also bears responsibility for the life that they created together and in which he
wishes to participate. Unlike Larch, who in his later years withdraws more deeply
into his ether addiction and his medical routine because he believes that "love
was certainly not safe--not ever" (381), Homer self-consciously shares his love
with others and cannot imagine a life without Candy or his newly conceived baby.
Because he believes that Wally died in the war, Homer avoids confronting his
guilt over the love he has shared with Candy or his betrayal of his best friend.
Soon after the birth of Angel-baptized symbolically by a drop of Larch's sweat as
he delivers him--the news that Wally has been found alive tests Homer's love for
Candy, Wally, and Angel. Yet Homer's real challenge comes fifteen years later,
shortly after the death of Larch by an accidental ether overdose.

In the third scene, Irving--using relational characterscape in conjunction with the


Dickensian grand style of convergence--assembles all of the characters who have
affected Homer's life most profoundly. In the novel's final chapter, aptly entitled
"Breaking the Rules," Homer faces multiple, nearly simultaneous decisions
regarding various "rules" of ethical behavior. The impact of these decisions upon
those characters that he loves and lives with make these issues especially
difficult. As the title of the chapter intimates, Homer will "break the rules," and, in
so doing, he will come to understand that ethical law cannot be approached
legalistically, a point that Irving underscores via his own method of storytelling.
While certain rules once governed Homer's silence about his love for Candy and
their true relationship to one another and their son Angel, in the end Homer

recognizes --courtesy of Melony's recognition of the child's lineage--that the truth


must be told. Similarly, such remarkably human situations force Homer to
contemplate the possibility that certain abstract rules cannot be reconciled with
the practical, physical needs of the moment, that human suffering cannot be
judged or sacrificed to legalism. As the foreman of the orchard for the last fifteen
years, moreover, Homer bears the responsibility for posting "the cider house
rules." At times, the fact that the work crew does not follow the rules bothers
Homer. In a conversation with Mr. Rose, however, Homer begins to realize that
the ways in which people live together in human community actually govern the
"rules"; those rules established by forces outside the community cannot produce
this same effect. Mr. Rose explains, for example, that within the black community
of migrant workers who live at the orchard during harvest there emerge
unwritten rules engendered from human relationships that have nothing to do
with Homer's rules. Yet Homer cannot bring himself fully to accept the relational
as well as contextual aspects of ethical rules; he finds it difficult to comprehend
that those rules imposed from without "never asked" but "told" (429)--a fact that
itself explains the ineffectiveness of legalistic codes in contrast with ethical rules.
( n12)

Ultimately, Homer's decision to perform an abortion for Rose Rose, Mr. Rose's
pregnant daughter and Angel's first love, alters his perspective about the
procedure, but Homer does not reach this decision easily. A few weeks before
Rose Rose's crisis, Homer writes to Larch in order to refuse his invitation to come
to St. Cloud's and replace St. Larch in the operation of the orphanage. As he
writes in his laconic, numbered letter to Larch:
1. I AM NOT A DOCTOR.
2. I BELIEVE THE FETUS HAS A SOUL.
3. I'M SORRY. (513)
In short, Homer refuses to break the "rules" that govern the practice of medicine.
He also feels that he cannot perform an abortion because of an ethical belief in
the sanctity of the human soul. At the same time, he regrets these decisions
because of his loyalty and love for his "father," St. Larch. While both his belief in
the sanctity of the human soul and his conviction that the fetus is fully human
remain static, Homer, when faced with Larch's untimely death and his own status
as the only person available to perform a safe abortion on Rose Rose, simply
cannot refuse his patient's wish to abort her pregnancy. Although Irving depicts
Homer's first abortion as representative of the most extreme and awful form of
conception--Rose Rose has been impregnated by her own father, breaking all of
the rules--Homer nevertheless believes as strongly in the sanctity of Rose Rose's
fetus as he would in the sanctity of any other fetus conceived under less ethically
challenging circumstances. As he confesses to Candy, Homer finds abortion
problematic, for he considers it tantamount to "killing" a human being:

"I'm a little nervous,' Homer admitted to Candy. "It's certainly not a matter of
technique, and I've got everything I need--I know I can do it. It's just that, to me,
it is a living human being. I can't describe to you what it feels like--just to hold the
curette, for example. When living tissue is touched, it responds--somehow,"
Homer said, but Candy cut him off. (533-34)
Homer's decision to perform the abortion illustrates the ethical imperative
embodied by Irving's act of storytelling. Clearly, The Cider House Rules should
not be read as a novel that finally embraces the act of abortion. Homer's own
belief system radically contradicts such a conclusion. The novel demonstrates the
conflicted nature of human dealings and the inadequacy of legalism as a means
for responding to our most pressing needs. While Homer decides to assume the
constructed identity that Larch invents for him--as Dr. F. Stone, a missionary
obstetrician newly arrived from India--Homer recognizes that he cannot deny
strangers what he would give freely to those he loves and those he knows:
"Because he knew now that he couldn't play God in the worst sense; if he could
operate on Rose Rose, how could he refuse to help a stranger? How could he
refuse anyone? Only a god makes that kind of decision. I'll just give them what
they want, he thought. An orphan or an abortion" (535). For Homer, then, rules
do not account for the fact that we are all saints and all sinners, rather than being
one or the other. Legalism offers no true, compassionate, or humane answers to
the abortion issue because it operates from the abstract, not from the tangible.
Irving's ethics of storytelling makes all too clear that the ways our lives intersect
and the impossible decisions that the business of living forces us to make cannot
be handled under a single system of rules. In Irving's fictive universe--and,
indeed, in our own corporeal world--only the sanctity of individual choice in
relation to human community can determine the system of ethical values that
governs our lives.
In this manner, Irving's appropriation of the Dickensian form establishes
--especially through its use of extensive narratological and characterological
detail--an ethics of particularity in which a multiperspectival history comes to
bear upon our understanding of a given narrative situation. The Dickensian novel
as literary mode demands that we see the ethical dimensions of the lives
represented in the text as something that ethical "rules"--whether they be the
rules that dictate life in a cider house or rules that govern a promise between
orphans--cannot adequately address. Using the abidingly fractious issue of
abortion as the background for his story of an orphanage, Irving refuses to
conclude his novel with any facile statement either for or against abortion.
Rather, as storyteller he insists that any genuine contemplation about the
abortion issue must take place within the context of human relationships, and, as
a disciple of Dickens, he paints characterscapes of such layered detail that we
see the conflicted nature of human resolution. Only by providing his readership
with fully realized portraits of humanity can Irving construct an adequate fictional
tableau for narrating the moral dilemmas that trouble our society and the ways
that we live now. As with Dickens, Irving intuitively recognizes that readers "want
catharsis, they want to be stretched and tested, they want to be frightened and
come through it, they want to be scared, taken out of their familiar surroundings--

intellectual, visceral, spiritual--and to be reexposed to things" ("An Interview"


187). In The Cider House Rules, Irving offers precisely such an ethically complex
and conflicted narrative. While some form of judgment must inevitably be
rendered in the novel, clearly Homer's decision to return to St. Cloud's as Dr. F.
Stone is not motivated by any "rule" about the goodness of abortion or the
absolute belief that women must have a choice in the matter. As with Dr. Larch's
initial decision to perform an abortion, Homer's return to St. Cloud's and all that it
entails finds its origins in his genuinely human relationships with women--with
Candy and Melony and Rose Rose--not out of any ideologically pure ethic. By
delivering his compelling narratives and vast characterscapes through the artifice
of the Dickensian novel, Irving narrates the equally captivating and convoluted
stories of our own lives.
Notes
(n1) In his discussion of the responsibilities that writers and readers implicitly are
in the reading process, Wayne C. Booth provides us with a useful foundation for
considering the ethical implications of storytelling, particularly regarding
literature's frequently debated didactic function. Booth reminds us that the
"distinction between genuine literature (or 'poetry') and 'rhetoric' or 'didactic'
literature is entirely misleading if it suggests that some stories, those that we
seem to read just for enjoyment, are purged of all teaching." For instance, Booth
reasons, "every joke about stupidity depends upon and reinforces the value of
being clever, and most of them depend upon and reinforce our sense that certain
kinds of people are most likely to be stupid" (151-52).

(n2) In an interview with Alison Freeland, Irving underscores the significance of


literary character in the act of storytelling: "What you remember about a novel is
the emotional effect that the characters had on you. Long after the story, the
plot, the intricacies of what happens, to whom, when--long after that stuff is out
of your mind, out of memory, and you really need to read the book again in order
to familiarize yourself with exactly how the story unfolds, a novel keeps working
its magic on readers because of the emotional impact of characters that just
can't be duplicated in a short story, even a short novel" (139).

(n3) In his review of The Cider House Rules, Christopher Lehmann-Haupt concurs
with this thread of Harter and Thompson's argument, contending that the
novelist's central point "is driven home with the sledgehammer effect that John
Irving usually uses" (20).

(n4) In his essay "Against the Under Toad," collected in Writing into the World:
Essays, 1973-1987 (1991), Des Pres also stresses the intimate relationship
between fiction and the world beyond in a moving passage of great ethical force:
"Fiction speaks to us, touches our deepest fears and wishes, in so far as it

articulates our embattled sense of being in the world, thereby confirming the self
in its struggle to face and endure the besetting difficulties of a time and
condition" (102-03).

(n5) While Irving attacks many avant-garde, postmodern writers, he avails


himself nevertheless of some of the metafictional tools of postmodernity. In
several instances, he employs metafiction to critique what he deems most
vacuous and least admirable in contemporary fiction. Speaking about the minor
character Helmbart who appears in both The Water-Method Man (1972) and The
158-Pound Marriage (1974), Jerome Klinkowitz contends that Helmbart's name is
an "obvious play on the occasional duo-syllabic pronunciation of Donald
Barthelme's last name," and like Barthelme and Gass, Helmbart is an advocate
for "the new novel." Klinkowitz contends that "Irving's objection to Helmbart's
work and his contrary method in his own establishes the central purposes of
Irving's art: that fiction cannot be just about the act or theory of writing, but must
incorporate the act or theory into a fiction that's still about life. His favorite writer
is Charles Dickens, who balanced sentimentality with the attractive and
persuasive powers of life itself" (36).

(n6) In an interesting but insightful coincidence during an interview conducted by


Image, Irving echoes Massey's denouncement of categorization: "I have a horror
of the instinct to categorize; I don't do it, and when I feel it's being done to me, I
behave as perversely opposite to the offensive presumption as I can" (49).

(n7) Reflecting upon his own time spent in Europe as a young writer, Irving
suggests that what was most significant about his days as an expatriate has little
to do with location. Going so far as to suggest that Alaska or Tokyo would have
been equally conducive to his maturation, he suggests, rather, that the
dislocation accompanying any move into unfamiliar surroundings served as the
catalyst for his transformation. "What I felt very strongly happen to me," Irving
explains, "is that the European experience--again, it could have been the Tokyo
experience, or I could have gone to Alaska, and I think Alaska would have
become a kind of Vienna for me--I just needed to be someplace that removed me
from looking with complacency at all the trivia of my surroundings--suddenly it
made things not trivial anymore" (Miller 181). Irving's capacity for not
overlooking the details of everyday existence, for taking on a perspective that
elevates the mundane and the commonplace, allows him to use detail--much as
Dickens did--to render ethical statements about the ways in which we approach
the act of living. For a novelist like Irving who hopes to make his characters
incredibly alive and indispensable to his readers--so much so that, as he explains
in an interview with the New England Review, "what you remember about a novel
is the emotional effect that the characters had on you" (139)--the gathering of
detail and its placement within the narrative take on a level of importance not

found in all forms of storytelling. For example, the minimalist school of fiction, as
well as the postmodernist metafictionists--both openly abhorred and denigrated
on numerous occasions by Irving in essays and interviews--do not work toward
what Irving calls "exuberance," the vitality of life somehow represented on the
page. "Exuberance is unfashionable," Irving remarks in an interview with Image.
"I point to the recent foolishness regarding 'minimalism' in the novel. [...] The
idea of a 'minimalist' novel makes me gag. A novel is as much as you can bite off;
if it's minimal, that says what you are" (49).

(n8) While Larch believes that he has a duty to perform abortions for the women
who request his services during the course of The Cider House Rules, he does not
argue for the ethical correctness of the procedure. In fact, as Larch explains to
Homer Wells, "I'm not saying it's [abortion] right, you understand? I'm saying it's
her choice--it's a woman's choice. She's got a right to have a choice, you
understand?" (115).

(n9) Early in his life as an obstetrician, Larch realizes that much of the world
wishes to categorize and dichotomize what he does. Larch instinctively fights
such arbitrary definitions: "He was an obstetrician; he delivered babies into the
world," Irving writes; "his colleagues called this 'the Lord's work.' And he was an
abortionist; he delivered mothers, too. His colleagues called this 'the Devil's
work,' but it was all the Lord's work to Wilbur Larch. As Mrs. Maxwell observes in
the novel: 'The true physician's soul cannot be too broad and gentle'" (75). Later,
during his tenure at St. Cloud's, the terms "Lord's work" and "Devil's work" prove
helpful in distinguishing for Larch and his nurses between the kinds of procedures
they are preparing to perform. After serving as a physician in World War I,
moreover, Larch adamantly claims to have seen the genuine work of the Devil:
"the Devil worked with shell and grenade fragments, with shrapnel and with the
little, dirty bits of clothing carried with a missile into a wound. The Devil's work
was gas bacillus infection, that scourge of the First World War-Wilbur Larch would
never forget how it crackled to the touch" (76). Larch finds it difficult to
understand how a nation could proudly support the Devil's work in war, yet
outlaw the abortions he performs at the orphanage during peacetime. In a letter
to his nurses sent from the military hospital where he works, Larch asks that his
replacement at the orphanage, a doctor who refuses to perform abortions
because he believes them to be immoral and unethical, be told that "the work at
the orphanage is all the Lord's work--everything you do, you do for the orphans,
you deliver them!" (76).

(n10) The narrative significance of the orphanage's nightly readings has been
noted by several critics, including Debra Shostak, who observes that "Irving's
debt to Dickens is repaid in a variety of ways--the bizarre or eccentric characters
who populate his fictional terrain, the comic names, the homage in The Cider

House Rules by way of numerous allusions to David Copperfield and Great


Expectations, which are bibles to the orphan Homer Wells" (133).

(n11) Irving emphasizes the bond between Homer and Larch so that later in the
novel we are not surprised by Homer's return to St. Cloud's or his decision to
perform an abortion. In order to achieve such an effect, Irving makes use of
relational characterscape, a form of characterscape in which we come to
understand better both characters within the same scene because of their
interaction. In a dramatic sequence that includes the first father-son kiss shared
by Homer and Larch, Irving depicts Homer saving a woman suffering: from
eclampsia, a condition that threatens the life of both the mother and the unborn
child because of puerperal convulsions. Absent because he has gone to track
down a cadaver that he plans to use in Homer's medical training, Larch upon his
return discovers Homer asleep and the mother and infant in good health after the
exhausting thirty-hour ordeal. Proud of Homer's fine performance, Larch is moved
to kiss Homer as he sleeps. At the scene's conclusion, we are told that Homer
only feigns sleep while Larch kisses him: "Homer Wells felt his tears come
silently; there were more tears than he remembered crying the last time he had
cried. [...] He cried because he had received his first fatherly kisses. [...] If Homer
Wells had received his first fatherly kisses, Dr. Larch had given the first kisses he
had ever given-fatherly, or otherwise--since the day in the Portland boarding
house when he caught the clap from Mrs. Eames. [...] Oh God, thought Wilbur
Larch, what will happen to me when Homer has to go?" (138-39).

(n12) For additional discussion about legalism and its dramatization in Irving's
novel, see Bruce L. Rockwood's "Abortion Stories: Uncivil Discourse and 'Cider
House Rules.'"
Works Cited
Booth, Wayne C. The Company We Keep: An Ethics of Fiction. Berkeley: U of
California P, 1988.
Coles, Robert. The Call of Stories: Teaching and the Moral Imagination. Boston:
Houghton Mifflin, 1989.
DeMott, Benjamin. Review of The Cider House Rules, by John Irving. New York
Times Book Review 26 May 1985: 1, 25.
Des Pres, Terrence. "Against the Under Toad: The Novels of John Irving." Writing
into the World: Essays, 1973-1987. New York: Viking, 1991. 97-103.
Fein, Esther B. "Costly Pleasures." New York Times Book Review, 26 May 1985:
25.
Harter, Carol C., and James R. Thompson. John Irving. Boston: Twayne, 1986.

Heat-Moon, William Least. PrairyErth: A Deep Map. Boston: Houghton Mifflin,


1991.
Irving, John. Cider House Rules. New York: Morrow, 1985.
-----. "A Conversation with John Irving." Image 2 (1992): 45-57.
-----. "A Conversation with John Irving." Interview with Alison Freeland. New
England Review 18 (1997): 135-42.
-----. The Hotel New Hampshire. New York: Dutton, 1981.
-----. "An Interview with John Irving." Anything Can Happen: Interviews with
Contemporary American Novelists. Ed. Tom LeClair and Larry McCaffery. Urbana:
U of Illinois P, 1988. 176-98.
-----. "The King of the Novel." Trying to Save Piggy Sneed. By Irving. New York:
Arcade, 1996. 347-81.
-----. A Prayer for Owen Meany. New York: Morrow, 1989.
-----. Three by Irving: Setting Free the Bears, The Water-Method Man, [and] The
158-Pound Marriage. 1969, 1972, 1974. New York: Random House, 1980.
-----. A Widow for One Year. New York: Random House, 1998.
-----. The World According to Garp. New York: Dutton, 1978.
Klinkowitz, Jerome. Literary Subversions: New American Fiction and the Practice
of Criticism. Carbondale: Southern Illinois UP, 1985.
Lehmann-Haupt, Christopher. Review of The Cider House Rules, by John Irving.
New York Times 20 May 1985: 20.
Marshall, Ian. Story Line: Exploring the Literature of the Appalachian Trail.
Charlottesville: UP of Virginia, 1998.
Massey, Irving. Find You the Virtue: Ethics, Image, and Desire in Literature.
Lanham: George Mason UP, 1987.
McGinn, Colin. Ethics, Evil, and Fiction. Oxford: Clarendon, 1997.
Miller, Gabriel. John Irving. New York: Ungar, 1982.
Newton, Adam Zachary. Narrative Ethics. Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1995.
Nussbaum, Martha C. Cultivating Humanity: A Classical Defense of Reform in
Liberal Education. Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1997.
-----. Poetic Justice: The Literary Imagination and Public Life. Boston: Beacon,
1995.

Rockwood, Bruce L. "Abortion Stories: Uncivil Discourse and 'Cider House Rules.'"
Law and Literature Perspectives. Ed. Rockwood. New York: Lang, 1996. 289-340.
Rosenberg, Brian. Little Dorrit's Shadows: Character and Contradiction in Dickens.
Columbia: U of Missouri P, 1996.
Shostak, Debra. "The Family Romances of John Irving." Essays in Literature 21
(1994): 129-45.
~~~~~~~~
By Todd F. Davis and Kenneth Womack

Naslov: Sethe's Choice: Beloved and the Ethics of Reading. Prema: Phelan, James,
Style, 00394238, Summer98, Svezak. 32, Broj 2.Baza podataka: Academic Search
Complete.

SETHE'S CHOICE: BELOVED AND THE ETHICS OF READING


Morrison's Unusual Guidance

Now, too late, [Stamp Paid] understood [Baby Suggs]. The heart that pumped out
love, the mouth that spoke the Word, didn't count. They came in her yard anyway
and she could not approve or condemn Sethe's rough choice. (180)

"Sethe's rough choice," her decision to kill her daughter rather than have her
become a slave at the plantation they called Sweet Home, is at once the most
stunning and most important event in Morrison's novel. Stunning for obvious
reasons: how can the love of a mother for her child lead her to murder the child?
Important not only because the temporal, psychological, structural, and thematic
logic of the novel flows from that event but also because Morrison's treatment of
it presents her audience with a difficult and unusual ethical problem. In order to
appreciate the events of the present time of the narrative--1873--we need to
know what happened in the woodshed behind 124 Bluestone Rd. on an August
afternoon in 1855. In order to understand the characters of Sethe, Denver, and
Beloved in 1873, we need to know that on that afternoon Sethe reached for the
handsaw before schoolteacher could reach for her or her children. In order to
come to terms with the novel's progression, affective power, and thematic
import, we need to come to ethical terms with Sethe's choice to pull the handsaw
across the neck of her daughter.( n1) The problem arises because Morrison stops
short of taking any clear ethical stand on Sethe's rough choice, but instead
presents it as something that she, like Baby Suggs, can neither approve nor
condemn. This essay will seek to explore the ethics of reading Sethe's choice by (

1) contextualizing Morrison's treatment of it in relation to the typical relation


between implied author and audience in ethically complex texts; ( 2) analyzing
the narrative strategies Morrison uses to offer some limited guidance to our
ethical judgment without clearly signaling her own assessment; and ( 3)
examining the consequences of that treatment for our relation to Sethe and,
ultimately, to Morrison herself; and (4) considering the implications of Morrison's
treatment for any larger conclusions we might draw about the ethical dimension
of reading narrative. Let me begin by sketching my approach to the ethics of
reading.

I regard the ethical dimension of reading as an inextricable part of approaching


narrative as rhetoric. To approach narrative as rhetoric is to understand narrative
as a rhetorical act: somebody telling somebody else on some occasion and for
some purpose that something happened. This rhetorical act involves a multileveled communication from author to audience, one that involves the audience's
intellect, emotions, psyche, and values. Furthermore, these levels interact with
each other. Our values and those set forth by the implied author affect our
judgments of characters, our judgments affect our emotions, and the trajectory of
our feelings is linked to the psychological and thematic effects of the narrative.
Furthermore, the communicative situation of narrative--somebody telling
somebody else that something happened--is itself an ethical situation. The teller's
treatment of the events will inevitably convey certain attitudes toward the
audience, attitudes that indicate his or her sense of responsibility to and regard
for the audience. Similarly, the audience's response to the narrative will indicate
their commitments to the teller, the narrative situation, and to the values
expressed in the narrative.( n2)

Among the many approaches to ethics now being developed, this one is most
closely related to those of Wayne C. Booth and of Adam Zachary Newton.( n3)
Each of them, like me, wants to root narrative ethics in narrative itself rather than
in some abstract ethical system. Indeed, Booth emphasizes the pervasiveness of
ethics in critical responses to literature, and Newton says that he wants to
conceive of "narrative as ethics." Each of them moves, in his own way, from
narrative to theoretical treatments of narrative and then back to narrative. In
Booth's case, those theoretical treatments can be found in his own earlier work
on the rhetoric of literature. His title, The Company We Keep, and his main
metaphor, books as friends, grow out of his earlier exploration of the way that
writing and reading make possible a meeting of minds between author and
reader. The Company We Keep moves beyond Booth's earlier major emphasis on
how such meetings occur to the contemplation of how our values are engaged in
such meetings; the book is especially concerned with the ethical consequences of
desiring as the text invites us to desire. The Company We Keep also gives greater
emphasis to the communal nature of ethical response, suggesting that the
activity of discussing the values of texts, what Booth calls coducing, is ethically
more important than getting the text "right."

Newton investigates the "ethical consequences of narrating story and


fictionalizing person, and the reciprocal claims binding teller, listener, witness,
and reader in that process" (11). His investigation leads him to describe three
kinds of ethical structure in narrative: the narrational, the representational, and
the hermeneutic. Narrational ethics are those associated with the telling; they
occur along the line of narrative transmission from author to narrator to narratee
to reader. Representational ethics are those associated with "fictionalizing
person" or creating character. Hermeneutic ethics are those associated with
reading and interpreting, the obligations readers and critics have to the text.
Newton synthesizes work of Mikhail Bakhtin, Stanley Cavell, and Emmanuel
Levinas as he does his analyses, borrowing especially Bakhtin's concept of
vhzivanie or live-entering (empathy with the Other without loss of self), Cavell's
concept of acknowledging (being in a position of having to respond), and
Levinas's of Saying (performing a telling) and Facing (looking at or looking away).

While I share much with Booth and with Newton, I do not want to adopt Booth's
overarching metaphor of books as friends, because it seems too limiting, or
Newton's idea that narrative is equivalent to ethics, because that seems not to
recognize all the other things narrative is as well. Furthermore, although I find
Bakhtin, Cavell, and Levinas all to be strong theorists, I am less inclined than
Newton to look to theory for recurrent ethical concerns and more inclined to let
individual narratives develop their own sets of ethical topoi. Like both Booth and
Newton, I focus on how the very act of reading entails ethical engagement and
response, but I attend more than either of them does to the links among
technique (the signals offered by the text) and the reader's cognitive
understanding, emotional response, and ethical positioning. Indeed, the central
construct in my approach to the ethics of reading is position, a concept that
combines acting from and being placed in an ethical location. Our ethical position
at any point in a narrative results from the dynamic interaction of four ethical
situations:
that of the characters within the story world;
that of the narrator in relation to the telling and to the audience; unreliable
narration, for example, constitutes a different ethical position from reliable
narration; different kinds of focalization also position the audience differently;
that of the implied author in relation to the authorial audience; the implied
author's choices to adopt one narrative strategy rather than another will affect
the audience's ethical response to the characters; each choice will also convey
the author's attitudes toward the audience;
that of the flesh and blood reader in relation to the set of values, beliefs, and
locations that the narrative invites one to occupy.

While the ethical dimension of reading engages our values and judgments, it is
deeply intertwined with cognition, emotion, and desire: our understanding
influences our sense of which values the text is calling forth, the activation of
those values influences our judgments, our judgments influence our feelings, and
our feelings our desires. And the other way around.

As this sketch indicates, I assume that authors will attempt to guide us toward
particular ethical positions on their characters' actions, and it is easy to show that
authorial practice provides a strong warrant for the assumption. In some cases,
the guidance is very clear and the position easy to occupy: Henry Fielding, for
example, guides us to recognize that Tom Jones's actions are always ethically
superior to those of Blifil. In some cases, the key to the narrative progression is
the evolution of the protagonists' own ethical understanding and corresponding
behavior: Jane Austen, for example, positions us to recognize the initial ethical
deficiencies of both Elizabeth Bennett and Fitzwilliam Darcy and then represents
the amelioration of those deficiencies, an amelioration that in turn prepares the
way for their happy union. In some cases, authors will present us with characters
who face difficult ethical decisions and then guide us to see both the difficulty
and their own judgment of the situation: Joseph Conrad, for example, allows Jim
to tell the story of how he jumped from the Patna but uses characters such as
Briefly, who commits suicide because he sees himself in Jim, and the French
lieutenant, who clearly states that the sailor's duty is to say with the ship, to
indicate both the depth of Jim's temptation and the unequivocal negative
judgment of his action. In some cases, authors will show characters who
transgress standard societal and legal norms but nevertheless follow an ethically
superior path: Ken Kesey, for example, represents Chief Bromden's killing of the
lobotomized McMurphy not as a horrible murder but rather as an act of both
mercy and courage. Even in situations where authors have written famously
ambiguous narratives, the ethical positions within each side of the ambiguity are
likely to be clearly delineated: Henry James in The Turn of the Screw, for example,
has sketched a portrait either of a heroic governess who risks her own safety in
order to protect the children in her care against evil ghosts or of a psychotic
woman whose delusions constitute a serious threat to those children.

In short, providing ethical guidance to their audiences is one of the chief things
that implied authors do: writing narrative involves taking ethical stands and
communicating those stands explicitly or implicitly, heavy-handedly or subtly--or
anything in between--to one's audience. Indeed, recognizing this communication
helps us recognize that the default ethical relation between implied author and
authorial audience in narrative is one of reciprocity. Each party both gives and
receives. Authors give, among other things, guidance through ethical complexity
and expect to receive in return their audiences' interest and attention. Audiences
give that interest and attention and expect to receive in return authorial
guidance. The default assumption of course need not always be in place, but
deviating from it necessarily entails certain risks. Audiences who place their own

interests (ideologies, politics, ethics) at the center of their reading risk turning
reading into a repetitious activity that misses the ways in which authors can
extend their vision of human possibility and experience. Authors who don't
provide guidance or who take aggressive stances toward their audiences risk
alienating those audiences to the point of losing them. An author who stops short
of conveying her own ethical judgment of an action that is central to her
narrative is doing something extraordinarily unusual--and extraordinarily risky.
The narrative may fall apart because the center will not hold, or the narrative will
become an inscrutable black hole, which absorbs every element of the work into
its inscrutability. That Beloved escapes both risks is one sign of Morrison's
remarkable achievement.
Establishing Ethical Position
As we turn to look at the interaction in Beloved among the four ethical situations I
identified above, the third one--the relation of the implied author to the telling
and to the authorial audience--stands out as the key to the ethical problem of the
novel. If we can work through the ethical implications of Morrison's narrative
strategies, we should be able to come to terms with her decision not to take a
final stand on Sethe's choice. That working through means attending to the
ethical consequences of several key authorial decisions: ( 1) about where in the
progression of the narrative to disclose the information about Sethe's choice--at
the end of Part One rather than earlier or later, after some hints about the event
before it is revealed; ( 2) about how to disclose the information--through three
different tellings, one focalized through the white men who come to reclaim
Sethe and her children for Sweet Home; one focalized through Stamp Paid; and
one from Sethe's own perspective; and ( 3) about how to link those tellings to
other key moments in the narrative where her ethical stances are clearer.

Morrison's now famous opening focuses on the ghostly presence of a baby in the
female space of 124 Bluestone Rd.: "124 was spiteful. Full of baby's venom" ( 3).
Shortly after that, Morrison has the narrator add a cryptic reference to the baby's
dying as part of a summary of Sethe's situation: "not only did she have to live out
her years in a house palsied by the baby's fury at having its throat cut, but those
ten minutes she spent pressed up against dawn-colored stone studded with star
chips, her knees wide open as the grave, were longer than life, more alive, more
pulsating than the baby blood that soaked her fingers like oil" (5 my emphasis).
In one of Sethe's early conversations with Paul D about Denver, she makes
reference to the events of August 1855 without telling the whole story:

"And when the schoolteacher found us and came busting in here with the law and
a shotgun--"

"Schoolteacher found you?"

"Took a while, but he did. Finally."

"And he didn't take you back?"

"Oh, no, I wasn't going back there. I don't care who found who. Any life but that
one. I went to jail instead. [...]"

Paul D turned away. He wanted to know more about it, but jail put him back in
Alfred, Georgia. (42)

The first half of the novel is, in fact, filled with such incomplete, indirect, or
cryptic allusions and references to Sethe's rough choice.(n4) Consequently,
Morrison establishes a significant tension between the implied author (and the
narrator), who know about Sethe's rough choice, and the authorial audience who
get only these partial, indirect, and cryptic references. This tension creates an
aura not just of mystery but also of privilege around the mystery; each reference
increases the audience's sense of its importance and the audience's desire to
resolve the tension. The strategy of deferral establishes an ethical obligation on
Morrison's part to provide some resolution to the tension, even as it compliments
the audience on its abilities to register the various hints and to wait for the
resolution. In the meantime, Morrison is providing careful ethical guidance
through her complex narrative.

Although that guidance is carefully nuanced, its broad outlines are clear. First, by
employing a protean narrator who exercises the privilege of giving us inside
views of the major characters--Sethe, Paul D, Denver, and Baby Suggs--and who
also comments directly on the action and the characters, Morrison seeks to
multiply the number of valorized ethical perspectives. For example, Sethe, Paul
D, and Denver all have very different feelings and judgments about Paul D's
entering the house at 124 Bluestone Rd. Rather than privileging any one
character's view and the values upon which it is based, Morrison asks us to enter
into each character's consciousness and to recognize the validity of his or her
feelings and judgments.(n5) Second, Morrison establishes slavery not just as an
abstract evil but as one that even in 1873 has continuing and profound negative
effects on Sethe and Paul D--and thus, on Denver and every one else in their
circle. Indeed, Morrison's representation of slavery guides us to recognize the
historical validity of Baby Suggs's conclusion that "there is no bad luck in the
world but whitefolks" (89). This ethical position is all the more compelling
because slavery at the Garners' Sweet Home plantation was relatively

benevolent. Third, Morrison identifies Sethe's habit of "beating back the past,"
her efforts to repress the events of 1855, as both impossible and dangerous; the
consequence of this move is to increase the pressure on the revelation of those
events--Sethe's future will be determined by what happens when she faces rather
than beats back that past.

While establishing this context, Morrison builds toward the revelation of Sethe's
choice by both providing enough information about 1855 for us to understand
what is at stake for Sethe when schoolteacher arrives at 124 and by taking the
events of 1873 forward to the point where Paul D asks her to have his child. The
resolution of the tension, then, not only provides the audience with crucial
information that makes the situation in 1873 intelligible but it also provides a
major turning point in the development of that situation. Each of the three
tellings--and the triangulation of all three--contributes to the resolution and
especially to the ethical guidance Morrison does and does not provide. As noted
above, the first telling is focalized through the white men who come to return
Sethe and her children to slavery; the following passage, in which the focalization
begins with the slave catcher and then shifts to schoolteacher, is a representative
example:(n6)

Inside, two boys bled in the sawdust and dirt at the feet of a nigger woman
holding a blood-soaked child to her chest with one hand and an infant by the
heels in the other. She did not look at them; she simply swung the baby toward
the wall planks, missed and tried to connect a second time, when out of
nowhere--in the ticking time the men spent staring at what there was to stare at-the old nigger boy, still mewing, ran through the door behind them and snatched
the baby from the arch of its mother's swing.

Right off, it was clear, to schoolteacher especially, that there was nothing there to
claim. [...S]he'd gone wild, due to the mishandling of the nephew who'd overbeat
her and made her cut and run. Schoolteacher had chastised that nephew, telling
him to think--just think what would his own horse do if you beat it to beyond the
point of education. Or Chipper, or Samson. Suppose you beat the hounds past
that point thataway. Never again could you trust them in the woods or anywhere
else. You'd be feeding them maybe, holding out a piece of rabbit in your hand
and the animal would revert--bite your hand clean off. [...] The whole lot was lost
now. Five. He could claim the baby struggling in the arms of the mewing old man,
but who'd tend her? Because the woman--something was wrong with her. She
was looking at him now, and if his other nephew could see that look he would
learn the lesson for sure: you just can't mishandle creatures and expect success.
(149-50)

By unraveling the mystery this way, Morrison provides a highly unsettling


experience for the audience. After seeing Sethe from the inside for so long, we
feel emotionally, psychologically--and ethically--jarred by seeing her from what is
such an alien perspective, one that thinks of her as "a nigger woman" and as a
"creature" equivalent to a horse or a hound. Indeed, Morrison has chosen to
narrate this first telling from an ethical perspective that we easily repudiate. Not
only does schoolteacher regard Sethe as a dog who no longer trusts its master,
but he is also concerned only with himself and his loss, not at all with Sethe or
her children. Strikingly, however, Morrison's strategy of moving away from
Sethe's perspective and describing her actions from the outside highlights both
the inadequacy of schoolteacher's racist perspective and the horror of what
Sethe is doing: "holding a blood-soaked child to her chest with one hand and an
infant by the heels in the other [...] she simply swung the baby toward the wall
planks, missed and tried to connect a second time." If the shift in perspective is
jarring, the revelation of Sethe's action is shocking. The physical description is
not pretty, and it is not possible to find a way to make it pretty. At the same time,
the physical description is not loaded with any ethical evaluation from Morrison.
Instead, she just leaves it out there uncorrected--the description may be from the
slave catcher's angle of vision, but there is no sign that the angle distorts his
view of the physical action--and asks us to come to terms with it on our own.

Morrison does, however, leave space for us to defer that coming to terms. Since
this first telling picks up the story after the white men have entered the shed, it
does not explain how or why Sethe went there with her children. In the second
telling, Morrison addresses that aspect of the story. The perspective here belongs
to Stamp Paid; the telling occurs as part of a recollection he is prepared to share
with Paul D but does not because Paul insists that the woman in the newspaper
story Stamp gives him cannot be Sethe:

So Stamp Paid did not tell him how she flew, snatching up her children like a
hawk on the wing; how her face beaked, how her hands worked like claws, how
she collected them every which way; one on her shoulder, one under her arm,
one by the hand, the other shouted forward into the woodshed filled with just
sunlight and shavings now because there wasn't any wood. The party had used it
all, which is why he was chopping some. Nothing was in that shed, he knew,
having been there early that morning. Nothing but sunlight. Sunlight, shavings, a
shovel. The ax he himself took out. Nothing was in there except the shovel--and
of course the saw. (157)

Because Paul D holds fast to his belief that the woman in the story was not Sethe,
Stamp wonders "if it had happened at all, eighteen years ago, that while he and
Baby Suggs were looking the wrong way, a pretty little slavegirl had recognized a
hat, and split to the woodshed to kill her children" (158).

Stamp Paid, too, sees Sethe from the outside, and though he also compares her
to an animal, he does not reduce her to one. Indeed, the comparison of Sethe
with a hawk on the wing works to illuminate the how and why: because Sethe
senses danger, she instinctively reacts, fiercely and swiftly gathering her children
into the shed. Because the perspective remains outside of Sethe and because the
emphasis is on her instinctive reaction, Morrison's technique again stops short of
rendering any clear ethical judgment. But Stamp Paid's final thought once again
foregrounds the horror of what Sethe is doing: "a pretty little slavegirl [...] split to
the woodshed to kill her children." The contrast between the condescending
description, "pretty little slavegirl" and the plain statement of her purpose, "to kill
her children" has complex ethical effects. The plain statement, when juxtaposed
to the description of Sethe swinging her baby toward the wall, may initially move
us toward concluding that Sethe's instinctive reaction is ultimately wrong-however instinctive, it's a frightening overreaction. But the condescending
description, in combination with the power of our previous sympathy for Sethe,
gives us space to defer any final conclusion yet again. If Stamp Paid is wrong
about who Sethe is, perhaps he's also wrong about her purpose. But even as we
defer a final judgment, we continue to contemplate the almost unbelievable
horror of what Sethe has done. We may wish to adopt Paul D's attitude of denial,
but, with this second telling through a more sympathetic focalizer, Morrison has
effectively eliminated that coping strategy from our repertoire.

Sethe's own telling to Paul D--with occasional further commentary by the


narrator--is, not surprisingly, the longest version of the story. Sethe circles the
room as she talks, much as the novel has circled the event up until these three
tellings. Sethe begins not with the day that the four horsemen rode into the yard
but rather with her arrival at 124 twenty days earlier and the pride and love she
felt as a result of that accomplishment:

"We was here. Each and every one of my babies and me too. I birthed them and I
got em out and it wasn't no accident. I did that. [...] It felt good. Good and right. I
was big, Paul D, and deep and wide and when I stretched out my arms all my
children could get in between. I was that wide. Look like I loved em more after I
got here. Or maybe I couldn't love em proper in Kentucky because they wasn't
mine to love. But when I got here, when I jumped down off that wagon--there
wasn't nobody in the world I couldn't love if I wanted to."

"[...] I couldn't let her nor any of em live under schoolteacher." (162-63)

With Sethe's words to Paul D as background, Morrison shifts to Sethe's thoughts:

Sethe knew that [...] she could never close in, pin it down for anybody who had to
ask. If they didn't get it right off--she could never explain. Because the truth was
simple. [... W]hen she saw them coming and recognized schoolteacher's hat, she
heard wings. Little hummingbirds stuck their needle beaks right through her
headcloth into her hair and beat their wings. If she thought anything it was No.
No. Nono. Nonono. Simple. She just flew. Collected every bit of life she had made,
all the parts of her that were precious and fine and beautiful, and carried,
pushed, dragged them through the veil, out, away, over there where no one
could hurt them. Over there outside this place, where they would be safe. [...]

"I stopped him," she said, staring at the place where the fence used to be. "I took
and put my babies where they'd be safe." (163-64).

Sethe's version is obviously a strong counter to the earlier two: her purpose was
not to kill but to protect, her motivation was love, and the action was a success.
She does act instinctively, but the instincts are those of motherlove. The animal
imagery here does not suggest anything about her agency but rather about an
association between schoolteacher and a feeling in her head--a matter I will
return to below.

Thus, the progression of the stories gives us a progression of possibilities for


ethical judgment: Sethe has committed a subhuman action; Sethe has done the
wrong thing but done it instinctively and understandably; Sethe has done
something difficult but heroic because it is done for the best motives and it turns
out to be a success. Since the progression of the narrative perspectives, from
outside to inside, from the white men's to Stamp Paid's to Sethe's, is a
progression toward increasingly sympathetic views, we might be inclined to
conclude that Morrison is guiding us toward accepting Sethe's version.
Furthermore, if we stay inside Sethe's perspective, her account is very
compelling. But the triangulation of all three stories indicates that Morrison
doesn't want Sethe's story to be the authoritative version because that
triangulation calls attention to what Sethe leaves out of her account: the
handsaw, the slit throat, the blood, the swinging of the baby toward the wall. In
short, Sethe's telling isn't definitive because it erases the horror of her murdering
her child under its talk of motivations (love) and purpose (safety).

Furthermore, before the third telling concludes, Morrison uses Paul D to provide
an internal counter to Sethe's perspective. Paul D, of course, is the most
sympathetic audience Sethe could find within the world of the novel, someone
who knows first-hand the evils of slavery and who also loves her. But Paul D

immediately rejects Sethe's judgments and imposes his own, much harsher ones.
Morrison's narrator shows that he immediately thinks, "[W]hat she wanted for her
children was exactly what was missing in 124: safety" (164). Morrison also has
Paul D say to Sethe that "your love is too thick," that "what you did was wrong,
Sethe," and that "you got two feet, Sethe, not four" (163-65).

Of these responses, the first resonates most with the authorial audience. Our own
experience of the narrative to this point shows that 124 has not been a safe
place: it is literally haunted by the ghost of the dead baby and her return as
Beloved, metaphorically haunted by the consequences of Sethe's rough choice.
Furthermore, Sethe's own constant work "of beating back the past" indicates that
her narrative does not accurately capture the complexity of her choice. Part Two
will give further evidence, in Sethe's extreme efforts to expiate her guilt toward
Beloved, that she herself does not fully believe that her choice was the right one.

But Morrison also gives us reason not to endorse the rest of Paul's negative
judgments. His remark that Sethe has "two feet not four" clearly links his
assessment with schoolteacher's, and that link affects our response to each one's
judgment. On the one hand, Paul D's seeing Sethe's action in the same terms as
schoolteacher does reminds us of the horror of the physical description of what
schoolteacher saw. But on the other, if Paul D adopts schoolteacher's terms, his
assessment clearly cannot be entirely right. Again, Morrison's technique leads us
to rule out certain ethical responses--schoolteacher's racist one, Sethe's own
heroic one--without leading us to a clear position.
Connections
If the three tellings do not themselves position us clearly, perhaps the
connections between these tellings and other parts of the novel will. I would like
to look at the two most significant connections, both of which give greater weight
to Sethe's perspective on her choice without finally indicating that Morrison
endorses that perspective. Consider, first, the retrospective light cast by Sethe's
account to Beloved about what happened when she overheard one of
schoolteacher's lessons:

This is the first time I'm telling it and I'm telling it to you because it might help
explain something to you although I know you don't need me to do it. To tell it or
even think over it. You don't have to listen either, if you don't want to. But I
couldn't help listening to what I heard that day. He was talking to his pupils and I
heard him say, "Which one are you doing?" And one the boys said, "Sethe."
That's when I stopped because I heard my name, and then I took a few steps to
where I could see what they was doing. Schoolteacher was standing over one of
them with one hand behind his back. He licked a forefinger a couple of times and
turned a few pages. Slow. I was about to turn around and keep on my way to

where the muslin was, when I heard him say, "No, no. That's not the way. I told
you to put her human characteristics on the left; her animal ones on the right.
And don't forget to line them up." I commenced to walk backward, didn't even
look behind me to find out where I was headed. I just kept lifting my feet and
pushing back. When I bumped up against a tree my scalp was prickly. One of the
dogs was licking out a pan in the yard. I got to the grape arbor fast enough, but I
didn't have the muslin. Flies settled all over your face, rubbing their hands. My
head itched like the devil. Like somebody was sticking fine needles in my scalp. I
never told Halle or nobody. (193)

The retrospective light of this passage illuminates Sethe's choice in the following
ways: ( 1) It explains why the sight of schoolteacher at 124 Bluestone Rd. makes
Sethe feel as if hummingbirds are sticking their "needle beaks" in her scalp. ( 2)
In so doing, it provides further motivation for her instinctive response; having
tasted freedom for herself and her children, how can she desire anything other
than to put them all somewhere safe? ( 3) It shows how deeply racist
schoolteacher's response to Sethe's rough choice is: her horrible actions do not
cause him to think of her as a horse or a hound, but those terms provide the only
way in which he can process the scene he witnesses. For these reasons, the
retrospective light shines most brightly and most favorably on Sethe's telling. I
will discuss the significance of this effect after looking at the second connection.

This connection involves Sethe and Paul D. In the very first chapter of the novel,
Sethe tells Paul about how she came to get the "tree" on her back.
"Men don't know nothing much," said Paul D, tucking his pouch back into his vest
pocket, "but they do know a suckling can't be away from its mother for long."
"Then they know what it's like to send your children off when your breasts are
full."
"We was talking 'bout a tree, Sethe."
"After I left you, those boys came in there and took my milk. That's what they
came in there for. Held me down and took it. I told Mrs. Garner on em. [...] Them
boys found out I told on em. Schoolteacher made one open up my back, and
when it closed it made a tree. It grows there still."
"They used cowhide on you?"
"And they took my milk."
"They beat you and you was pregnant."
"And they took my milk!" (16-17)

Paul D's failure to understand that Sethe felt more violated by the white men's
taking her milk than by their whipping her back shows that he does not
understand what motherhood means to Sethe. His judgment that her "love is too
thick" can be seen as a similar failure of understanding. Although Paul D knows
the evils of slavery, he does not know what it is like to be both parent and slave,
let alone both mother and slave. Reading Paul D's judgment of Sethe's choice in
light of this earlier scene, we see that Morrison wants us to suspect his quick and
sure negative response. Paul D is once again thinking like a man without children
rather than like a mother.(n7)

Since each connection works in its own way to support Sethe's narrative, we may
be inclined to conclude that the weight of evidence now suggests that Morrison is
directing us to endorse Sethe's view of her actions. But since neither connection
actually addresses the recalcitrance Sethe's narrative encounters--the horror of
child murder, the lack of true safety in her life--the better conclusion is that
Morrison assumes that her harder task will be to maintain sympathy for Sethe
once the events of August 1855 are revealed.
Consequences
In sum, I have been arguing that Morrison clearly designates some positions that
we ought not occupy--Sethe deserves Paul D's harsh judgment; Sethe's own
account should be endorsed--without positively establishing her own ethical
assessment. As we have seen in the epigraph, Morrison incorporates this attitude
into the narrative through the character of the wise Baby Suggs, a source of
knowledge and wisdom throughout the novel: she is finally unable either to
approve or condemn Sethe's choice. Unlike Baby Suggs, however, the responsible
audience member can not simply withdraw from the ethical demands of the
narrative and give his or her days over to the contemplation of color. Instead, we
need to deal with the way Morrison requires us to recognize that Sethe's choice is
somehow beyond the reach of standard ethical judgment--an action at once
instinctive and unnatural, motivated by love but destructive to life. Consequently,
the ethically irresponsible thing to do is to resolve the problem by reaching a
clear and fixed judgment of Sethe's action. If other flesh and blood readers are at
all like me, they are likely to find their judgments of Sethe fluctuating--sometimes
the horror of the murder will dominate our consciousness, while at others Sethe's
desperation, motivation, and purpose will make her choice seem, if not fully
defensible, at least comprehensible.

This inability to fix a position on the central action complicates our relation to
Sethe as the central actor without disrupting our sympathy for her. Sethe
becomes a character who was once pushed beyond the limits of human
endurance and reacted to that pushing in this extraordinary way. Consequently,
we turn our judgment on the institution that pushed her beyond the limits:
slavery. It is of course easy to say that slavery is evil, but it's another thing for

readers in the late twentieth century--especially white readers--to feel the force
of that statement, to comprehend the effects of slavery on individual human
lives. Morrison's treatment of Sethe's rough choice moves readers toward such
comprehension: in the space where we wrestle with the ethical dilemma
presented by Sethe's choice, we must imaginatively engage with Sethe's
instinctive decision that, when faced with the prospect of slavery, loving her
children means murdering them. Such engagement transforms slavery from an
abstract evil to a palpable one. Such engagement is also crucial to Morrison's
larger purpose of challenging her audience to come to terms with slavery's
continuing effects on the United States.(n8)

At the level of author-audience communication, Morrison's unusual treatment of


Sethe's choice also creates an unusual ethical relationship with her audience. The
treatment is simultaneously a challenge and a compliment. She challenges us to
have the negative capability to refrain from any irritable reaching after ethical
closure about Sethe's rough choice, even as that challenge implies her faith that
we will be equal to the task. Morrison's treatment retains the basic reciprocal
relation between author and audience that underlies the ethical dimension of
their communication, but it gives a new twist to that reciprocity. By limiting her
guidance, Morrison gives up some authorial responsibility and transfers it to the
audience. By accepting that responsibility--and attending to the parameters
within which Morrison asks us to exercise it--we have a more difficult and
demanding but also richer reading experience. By guiding us less, Morrison gives
us more. By exercising the responsibility Morrison transfers to us, we get more
out of what she offers. For this flesh and blood reader, this ethical relationship is
a key reason Beloved is one of the most unsettling and most rewarding narratives
I have ever read.
Notes
(n1) In the eleven years since its publication, Beloved has attracted a great deal
of critical attention, becoming the subject of over two hundred books and articles,
yet no one, to my knowledge, has directly addressed the ethics of Sethe's choice.
The existing criticism is especially strong on the novel's many thematic
components from history and memory to motherhood and identity as well as on
its relation to previous American narratives and its mingling of Western and
African cultural values. For a sample of this work, see Christian, Handley (on
Western and African culture), Armstrong, Moreland, Travis (on relation to previous
traditions), Hirsch, Wilt, Wyatt (on motherhood and its related issues), and
Hartman and Moglen (on history and memory). For essays that focus on issues of
narrative theory and technique, see Homans, Rimmon-Kenan, and Phelan.

(n2) For further discussion of this approach, see my Narrative as Rhetoric,


especially the Introduction.

(n3) The ethical turn in literary studies over the past decade or so is a
phenomenon that should be seen in relation to other, larger developments in the
institution. The ethical turn, I believe, is part of the general reaction against the
formalism of Yale-school deconstruction in the wake of the revelations of Paul de
Man's wartime writings; it is also compatible with, though distinguishable from,
the continuing power of feminist criticism and theory and the rising influence of
African-American, multicultural, and queer criticism and theory, all of which
ground themselves in sets of ethico-political commitments. The ethical turn in
narrative studies is also part of a growing attention to the uses of narrative
across the disciplines and in "everyday life."

From this perspective, we can see J. Hillis Miller's work on ethics as an effort to
address the connection between the formal concerns of Yale deconstruction and
the turn toward ethics. That ethics becomes, for Miller, another way of doing
deconstruction is testimony to both the power and limits of deconstruction's
conception of language as undecidable. We can also see Martha Nussbaum's
philosophical investigation into narrative's capacity to offer thick descriptions of
moral problems and moral reasoning as a rich instance of interdisciplinary
interest in narrative. For other important work, see Harpham, the recent issue of
PMLA devoted to ethical criticism, and of course the other essays in this special
issue.

(n4) For other allusions, see pages 12, 14, 15, 19, 37, 38, 42, 45, 70, 73, 96.

(n5) I don't mean to suggest that Morrison never exposes the limits of some
values and beliefs held by the main characters. For example, she asks us to
recognize both the immaturity of Denver's view of Paul D as an unwelcome
intruder and the good reasons why she clings so strongly to that view.

(n6) "Representative" in the sense that it provides an appropriate focus for my


discussion of the ethical dimension of the first telling, but not "representative" in
the sense that all sections of the telling work the way this one does.

(n7) There is one more very suggestive consequence of following the connections
between Schoolteacher's lesson and his and Paul D's judgment of Sethe. These
connections, along with a few other moments in the text, suggest that Morrison
wants to question the distinction--or at least to question the usual assumed
hierarchy of the distinction--at the heart of schoolteacher's lesson, that between
the human and the animal. The inversion of the hierarchy is, of course, very
much a part of the passage describing the lesson: Sethe has a kind of self-

consciousness that we don't usually attribute to animals, whereas Schoolteacher


has lost all sense of what we usually think of as humanity in his assumptions
about Sethe as subhuman. But Morrison goes further than that in the way in
which the distinction operates in the larger narrative. First, as A. S. Byatt points
out in her review of the novel, Sethe's giving birth to Denver depends on her
going on all fours, on her acting as if she has four legs not two. Indeed, the
symbolic forest that springs up between Sethe and Paul D after he renders his
judgment may very well be the forest through which Sethe crawled on the night
of her flight from Sweet Home, the night before Denver was born. Moreover, if
Paul D's comment applies to Sethe's murder of Beloved, it also applies to Sethe's
most unambiguous demonstration of motherly love and devotion.

Paul D's remark also is complicated by his own past actions that might suggest
that he has four legs not two, particularly his finding sexual release by rutting
with cows. Schoolteacher's lesson, Morrison's suggestions about inverting the
usual hierarchies, Paul D's comment to Sethe about how many legs she has, the
Sweet Home men's sexual practices: all these elements of the narrative suggest
that Morrison is very much interested in questioning the boundaries of the
human, very much trying to suggest that the lines between the human and the
animal are not as clear and clean as some one such as Schoolteacher would like
his pupils to believe.

(n8) For a discussion of how Morrison incorporates this challenge into the ending
of the novel, see my "Toward a Rhetorical Readers Response Criticism."
Works Cited
Armstrong, Nancy. "Why Daughters Die: The Racial Logic of American
Sentimentalism." The Yale Journal of Criticism 7.2 (1994): 1-24
Booth, Wayne C. The Company We Keep: An Ethics of Fiction. Berkeley: U of
California P, 1988.
Byatt, A. S. Passions of the Mind: Selected Writings. New York: Vintage, 1993.
Christian, Barbara. "Beloved, She's Ours." Narrative 5 (1997): 36-49.
Handley, William R. "The House a Ghost Built: Nommo, Allegory, and the Ethics of
Reading in Toni Morrison's Beloved." Contemporary Literature 36 (1995): 676701.
Harpham, Geoffrey. Getting It Right: Language, Literature, and Ethics. Chicago: U
of Chicago P, 1992.
Hartman, Geoffrey H. "Public Memory and Its Discontents." The Uses of Literary
History. Ed. Marshall Brown. Durham: Duke UP, 1995.73-91.

Hirsch, Marianne. "Maternity and Rememory: Toni Morrison's Beloved."


Representations of Motherhood. Ed. Donna Bassin, Margaret Honey, and Meryle
Mahrer Kaplan. New Haven: Yale UP, 1994. 92-110.
Homans, Margaret. "Feminist Fictions and Feminist Theories of Narrative."
Narrative 2 (1994): 3-16.
Miller, J. Hillis. The Ethics of Reading: Kant, de Man, Trollope, Eliot, James,
Benjamin. New York: Columbia UP, 1987.
Moglen, Helene. "Redeeming History: Toni Morrison's Beloved." Subjects in Black
and White: Race, Psychoanalysis, Feminism. Ed. Elizabeth Abel, Barbara Christian,
and Moglen. Berkeley: U of California P, 1997. 201-20.
Moreland, Richard C. "`He Wants to Put His Story Next to Hers': Putting Twain's
Story Next to Hers in Morrison's Beloved." Modern Fiction Studies 39.3-4 (1993):
501-25.
Morrison, Toni. Beloved. New York: Knopf, 1987.
Newton, Adam Zachary. Narrative Ethics. Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1995.
Nussbaum, Martha. Love's Knowledge: Essays on Philosophy and Literature. New
York: Oxford UP, 1990.
Phelan, James. "Toward a Rhetorical Reader-Response Criticism: The Difficult, The
Stubborn, and the Ending of Beloved." Narrative as Rhetoric. Columbus: Ohio
State UP, 1996. 173-89.
PMLA. Special issue. "Ethics and Literary Criticism." 114.1 (January 1999).
Rigney, Barbara. The Voices of Toni Morrison. Columbus: Ohio State UP, 1994.
Rimmon-Kenan, Shlomith. A Glance Beyond Doubt: Narration, Representation,
Subjectivity. Columbus: Ohio State UP, 1996.
Travis, Molly. "Speaking from the Silence of the Slave Narrative: Beloved and
African-American Women's History." The Texas Review 13.1-2 (1992): 6981.
Wilt, Judith. Abortion, Choice, and Contemporary Fiction. Chicago: U of Chicago P,
1989.
Wyatt, Jean. "Giving Body to the Word: The Maternal Symbolic in Toni Morrison's
Beloved." PMLA 108 (1993): 474-88.
~~~~~~~~
By James Phelan, Ohio State University

Naslov: Making, Taking, and Faking Lives: The Ethics of Collaborative Life Writing.
Prema: Couser, G. Thomas, Style, 00394238, Summer98, Svezak. 32, Broj 2.Baza
podataka: Academic Search Complete.

MAKING, TAKING, AND FAKING LIVES: THE ETHICS OF COLLABORATIVE LIFE


WRITING
Whose book is this?

--Malcolm X

Although issues of literary ethics may arise in any genre, ethical dilemmas seem
to be built into collaborative life writing in ways peculiar to it.( n1) With fiction,
ethical criticism is usually concerned with issues of meaning and of reception: in
the simplest terms, does the text have beneficial or harmful effects on its
audience? But nonfiction generally and life writing specifically raise other
concerns. Indeed, although Wayne Booth limits his scope to fiction in The
Company We Keep, he asks key questions that are perhaps even more compelling
for life writing than for fiction: e.g., "What Are the Author's Responsibilities to
Those Whose Lives Are Used as 'Material'" (130), "What Are the Author's
Responsibilities to Others Whose Labor Is Exploited to Make the Work of Art
Possible?" (131), and "What Are Responsibilities of the Author to Truth?" (132).
With collaborative life writing, especially, ethical concerns begin with the
production of the narrative and extend to the relation of the text to the historical
record of which it forms a part.

Ethical issues may be particularly acute in collaborative autobiography because it


occupies an awkward niche between more established, more prestigious forms of
life writing. On one side is solo autobiography, in which the writer, the narrator,
and the subject (or protagonist) of the narrative are all the same person; at least,
they share the same name.( n2) On the other side is biography, in which the
writer and narrator are one person, while the subject is someone else.( n3) In the
middle, combining features of the adjacent forms--and thus challenging the
common-sense distinction between them--is as-told-to autobiography, in which
the writer is one person, but the narrator and subject are someone else.(n4) The
ethical difficulties of collaborative autobiography are rooted in its nearly
oxymoronic status; the single narrative voice--a simulation by one person of the
voice of another--is always in danger of breaking, exposing conflicts of interest
that are not present in solo autobiography. Although the process by which the
text is produced is dialogical, the product is monological; the two voices are
permitted to engage in dialogue only in supplementary texts--forewords and
afterwords--and even there, the dialogue is managed and presented by one

party, the nominal author. Insofar as the process is admitted into the narrative,
then, it is exclusively in supplementary texts, and generally as a chapter of the
writer's life. Though critics are not in a position to mandate disclosure of the
process, fuller disclosure is likely to reflect a more ethical collaboration; such
disclosure is certainly rhetorically effective, insofar as it suggests that the
nominal author has nothing to hide.

Autobiographical collaborations are rather like marriages and other domestic


partnerships(n5): partners enter into a relationship of some duration, they "make
life" together, and they produce an offspring that will derive traits from each of
them. Each partner has a strong interest in the fate of that offspring, which will
reflect on each in a different way. Much of this is true of any collaborative
authorship, of course; with autobiography, however, the fact that the joint
product is a life story raises the stakes--at least for the subject. It is easy enough
to articulate ethical principles that should govern the production of collaborative
autobiography. The fundamental one might be a variant of the Golden Rule: do
unto your partner as you would have your partner do unto you. Thus,
autobiographical collaborations should be egalitarian; neither partner should
abuse or exploit the other. Given the subject's stake in the textual product, a
corollary principle would be that the subject should always have the right to audit
and edit the manuscript before publication. As we shall see, however, in some
circumstances, this is easier said than done.

The vast majority of collaborative life stories result from partnerships that are
voluntary, amicable, and mutually beneficial. Still, there is a thin and not always
clear line between making, taking, and faking the life of another person in print.
Co-authoring another's life can be a creative or a destructive act, a service or a
disservice, an act of homage or of appropriation. The potential for abuse lies
partly in something the term itself tends to elide: the process, though
cooperative, is usually not in the literal sense a matter of collaborative writing
(which has its own problems). Rather, some of the difficulty comes from the
disparity between the contributions of the two partners. Obviously, there are
different kinds and degrees of collaboration, but, in most cases, one member
supplies the "life" while the other provides the "writing." The extent to which this
is an oversimplification of the process depends on a number of things. I do not
mean to endorse a model under which "writing" is taken too literally; as
contemporary rhetorical theory insists, in some sense the entire process of
composition, from initiation and invention to copyediting, is "writing." Nor do I
mean to imply that the "writer" is entirely dependent on the subject for the
"story"; most writers are drawn to their subjects by previous knowledge of them,
and most supplement interviews with independent research. Nor do I mean to
identify "form" exclusively with "writing" and "content" with "life," or to imply that
the "writing" does not affect the content; any mediation carries its own
message(s). Indeed, as we shall see, mediation can be a source of ethical
problems, especially in cases of cross-cultural collaboration; for example, when

the implications of the form are unavailable to the subject, there is the danger of
misrepresentation that will go undetected by him or her. Ultimately, however, no
matter how involved the subject is at each stage of the project, the partners
bring different skills and contributions to the final project; their labor is of
different kinds, and most of the wording of the final text is attributable to the
"writer." In the final analysis, then, the partners' contributions are not only
different, but incommensurate, entities--on the one hand, lived experience
mediated by memory; on the other, the labor of eliciting, recording, inscribing,
and organizing this material.

The inherent imbalance between the partners' contributions may be complicated


by a political imbalance between them; often, collaborations involve partners
whose relation is hierarchized by some difference--in race, culture, gender, class,
age, or (in the case of narratives of illness or disability) somatic condition. Having
power or rank over someone is not the same as overpowering that person, of
course; the latter is a pitfall that may be evaded. In the scenario typical of
ethnographic autobiography, however, the subject may indeed be subject to the
writer's domination, in part because the subject is likely to be one of "those who
do not write"--in Philippe Lejeune's phrase. This has historically been the case
with American racial minorities--African Americans in the case of slave narrative
and Native Americans in the case of what Arnold Krupat calls Indian
autobiography (30), and much recent criticism has been devoted to recuperating
the point of view of subjects who are people of colon My own recent work on
narratives of illness and disability suggests that, like other marginalized groups,
people who are ill or disabled may therefore also be at a disadvantage with
respect to their collaborators. The political imbalance latent in narratives of
illness and disability is perhaps most obvious and most problematic in those
cases in which the completion and publication of the narrative devolve upon a
survivor who narrates another's terminal illness. For example, I have found that
relational (particularly parental) narratives of gay men who die of AIDS are often
unwittingly homophobic to some degree; because they are generally written and
published posthumously, the subject has no opportunity to audit them.(n6) But
there are other circumstances in which disability or illness may compromise the
ethics of the collaboration; for example, disabilities that make solo autobiography
impossible may also make it difficult for the subject to review the manuscript and
mandate changes.

Even where such review is possible, the process may involve unintentional
misrepresentation. A case in point is that of I Raise My Eyes to Say Yes, by Ruth
Sienkiewicz-Mercer and Steven B. Kaplan. Sienkiewicz-Mercer has been severely
disabled from birth by cerebral palsy, so that she can neither speak nor write;
unable to keep her at home, her family sent her to a state facility where she was
misdiagnosed as mentally retarded and in effect "warehoused"--supervised rather
than educated. Eventually, she was able to make her abilities known, and partly
in response to the disability rights movement, she has been able to move out of

the state facility. Her story--which, as a story of liberation, is akin to a slave


narrative--was written with the collaboration of a lawyer and advocate for people
with disabilities through an extremely labor-intensive process. Sienkiewicz-Mercer
would scan customized word-boards to select a category, and through a process
of questions and answers she would sketch out a skeletal account of an incident;
Kaplan would then flesh this out and read it back to her for any corrections.

I see no reason to doubt the accuracy of her narrative, which Sienkiewicz-Mercer


had the opportunity to edit. And there is no question of exploitation: Kaplan
serves deliberately and faithfully as her advocate. But there is a serious
discrepancy between Sienkiewicz-Mercer's level of literacy--as Kaplan describes
it, she reads "at best, at a first-grade level, recognizing only simple words placed
before her in a familiar context" (vii)--and the voice of the narrative, which is that
of a college graduate and fluent writer. Such discrepancies may be characteristic
of many ghost-written or collaborative narratives, and they may not always be as
problematic as academics make them out to be. One could argue that an account
relying on her diction and syntax might have been unpublishable (and virtually
unreadable); is it not better to have a text written from her point of view than no
story at all? Furthermore, a text reflecting her level of literacy might have given a
misleading indication of her sensibility and intelligence: simple syntax may
connote, even if it does not properly signify, simple mindedness. Still, when
mediation is ignored, the resulting text may be (mis)taken for a transparent lens
through which we have direct access to its subject (rather than to its author). And
it is here that the veracity of the narrative as a first-person account of
Sienkiewicz-Mercer's life may be called into question. On the one hand, Kaplan
professes his concerns about possible distortions; on the other, he produces a
text that Sienkiewicz-Mercer could never have produced even if some wondrous
technology could transpose words directly from her mind to the page. Kaplan's
claim that though "most of the words were not generated by Ruth [...] the
thoughts and emotions, the impressions and observations expressed by these
words, are Ruth's alone" (xii) assumes too much independence of content from
form, message from medium. The liberties Kaplan takes with "translation" in
effect hypernormalize Sienkiewicz-Mercer (if that is not an oxymoron). The
problem is that the monological prose belies the very labor-intensive dialogical
process by which it was produced; in fundamental ways, it masks or erases the
disability that has so profoundly shaped its subject's life. Here, then, we have an
odd ethical dilemma; the very mediation that seemingly empowers SienkiewiczMercer is deceptive in some fundamental way. Representation in the political
sense and representation in the mimetic sense seem fundamentally at odds: in
his desire to speak for her, Kaplan speaks as her in a way that mis-speaks her.

In the scenario typical of celebrity autobiography,(n7) the political dynamics are


reversed: here the subject typically outranks the writer in wealth and clout. The
balance of power favors the better known partner; there is only one Madonna,
and she can presumably have her pick of partners.(n8) We might schematize

collaborative autobiography, then, by imagining examples as lying along a


continuum from ethnographic autobiography, in which the writer outranks the
subject, to celebrity autobiography, in which the subject outranks the writer.
Although I would estimate that most collaborative narratives are situated at the
ends of the continuum, significant numbers of texts can be found closer to the
middle. At the very center, we would find texts produced by partners who are
true peers--e.g., dual autobiographies--in which each partner contributes a
separate narrative, and truly co-authored (rather than as-told-to)
autobiographies.(n9) Close to the center, but toward the ethnographic end of the
continuum, would be found those single-author texts that Paul John Eakin calls
relational lives--e.g., Spiegelman's Maus--and that I call "auto/biographies," for
memoirs of proximate others, such as close relatives or partners, are often
collaborative in some sense or degree. In these texts there is more than one
subject, and the act of collaboration may itself be part of the narrative rather
than treated in supplementary texts, as is the case at the ends of the continuum.

Wherever we are on the continuum, it makes little sense to discuss the "ethics" of
collaborative autobiography in isolation from the politics of collaboration--or, for
that matter, the economics of collaboration--for ethical problems are most likely
to occur where there is a substantial political or economic differential between
partners. Furthermore, different ethical issues tend to arise depending upon
where the texts are located on this continuum. For example, violation of privacy
tends to be more of an issue in relational lives, where the partners know each
other intimately, than in most other forms of collaborative autobiography.

Ethical violations--inequities--occur mainly in two distinct but interrelated aspects


of the project--the portrayal and the partnership. The justice of the portrayal has
to do with whether the text represents its subject the way the subject would like
to be represented, with whether that portrayal is in the subject's best interests,
with the extent to which the subject has determined it, and with the degree and
kind of harm done by any misrepresentation. Harm can be done to the subject's
privacy, to his or her reputation, even to his or her integrity as an individual.
Problems in the portrayal may be manifest in the text--or in its relation to other
texts--and thus relatively easy for critics to detect. (Of course, as critics, we
cannot correct but only correct for these problems.) Problems with portrayal are
most likely to crop up when the subject's ability to audit and edit the manuscript
is limited--that is, mainly in the ethnographic scenario. In cases like this, the critic
may act, in effect, as the advocate of the subject, whose life may have been
inaccurately portrayed or unfairly appropriated.

In many, perhaps most, cases of ethnographic collaboration, the subjects never


confront their published alter egos; their "lives" appear in print elsewhere, among
those who do write, and they are damaged neither by the process nor by its

product (which is not to say that the process may not be in some way
exploitative). Black Elk Speaks, by John G. Neihardt, however, offers an
interesting case in which the subject of the narrative was discomfited by it in
ways he could not have anticipated.(n10) The production of this story involved
not just translation from Black Elk's Lakota to Neihardt's English but a complex
cross-cultural collaboration involving members of Black Elk's family and tribe and
members of Neihardt's family. Despite Neihardt's good intentions, it is now
possible to tell, thanks to the recuperative work of Raymond DeMallie, that--and
how--Neihardt imposed his own agenda on the resulting text. In particular, he
was at pains to suppress the evidence of Black Elk's acculturation. To this end,
Neihardt ended the narrative with the massacre at Wounded Knee in 1890 and
omitted any mention or acknowledgement of Black Elk's conversion to Roman
Catholicism early in the twentieth century.

In theory, it would have been possible for Black Elk to have reviewed the text; it
could have been translated back to him by the same collaborators who produced
the transcripts. Such a process would have been difficult, however, and it would
not necessarily have enabled him to assess the implications of publishing this
account of his life. As it happened, he was not given the opportunity to audit the
text. And, as DeMallie reveals, when the book was published, it became a source
of some discomfort to him. The reservation clergy were upset that the book
portrayed their model convert as an unreconstructed "longhair." Although we
have no way of knowing Black Elk's full response to this, we do know that he felt
impelled to "speak" again--in a document that reaffirmed his Christian faith.
Indeed, he complained that he had wanted Neihardt to include a chapter
narrating his conversion. Although it is tempting to read these complaints as
induced by clerical pressure, it appears that Neihardt's representation of Black
Elk did not completely conform to his self-image and the accepted image of him
in his community. The aftermath of publication suggests that he felt that the book
did him some injustice (DeMallie 60).(n11)

The equity of the partnership has to do with the conditions and division of labor
and the distribution of the proceeds. Since this aspect has more to do with the
process than with the textual product of the collaboration, violations here may
not be manifest in the text and are less easy for critics to detect. (Issues of
ownership and distribution of the proceeds of the collaboration are generally
least accessible to our inspection.) In the case of Black Elk, the equity of the
partnership, as well as of the portrayal, have come into question: DeMallie's
research uncovered a letter in which Black Elk complained that he had not been
compensated as promised for his contribution to the book (DeMallie 59-63).

A prime concern with any partnership is whether collaboration is truly voluntary


or somehow coerced. Most of us would imagine inequities of partnership as

occurring exclusively in the ethnographic scenario, as part of its presumably


imperialistic nature, but they may occur in the celebrity scenario as well. There
the relationship between subject and writer is sometimes effectively that
between employer and employee, with all the potential for abuse that lies in such
relations. According to Andrew Szanton, a professional writer of autobiographies,
(n12) writers have more at risk economically in these collaborations than subjects
do, since the project often represents the writers' livelihood but rarely that of the
subjects, who are generally financially secure. That economic security may, of
course, make them generous. In some instances, subjects may in effect give
away their life stories, but these are generally not the most marketable ones. In
any case, there is some potential even in the celebrity scenario for economic
exploitation.

A case of a writer claiming exploitation is that of William Novak, who agreed to a


flat fee for writing his first celebrity autobiography, Iacocca, which then surprised
him by becoming a best-seller. When his request for a share of the paperback
royalties was turned down, Novak felt he had been cheated out of his fair share of
the proceeds. He complained publicly, to no avail (Wyden). Despite any inequity
in the distributions of proceeds, Novak had no legal recourse, having signed a
contract that afforded him no royalties, and his ethical position was undermined
by the fact that Iacocca donated his royalties to charity. In any case, to the extent
that his career took off after (and as a result of) his writing of Iacocca, the
inequity was at least partially redressed.

Another ethical dilemma characteristic of celebrity autobiography is the possible


conflict between the writer's obligation to portray the subject as he or she would
wish and the obligation to the historical record. Michael Korda has written
instructively on the problem that Ronald Reagan's selective memory posed for his
collaborator, Robert Lindsey. For example, Reagan remembered a tete a tete with
Mikhail Gorbachev in a boathouse on Lake Geneva as a turning point in his
negotiations with Gorbachev in November 1985; in fact, the two had not been
alone together but rather surrounded by a number of translators and security
people (Korda 92). More problematically, although Reagan spent the war years in
Hollywood, he remembered having been present with the United States Signal
Corps at the liberation of the German concentration camps--a memory
appropriated from documentary film of that process (93). Such lapses in memory
force collaborators to choose between serving as compliant corroborators and
functioning as reality checks, between loyalty to their subjects and fidelity to
historical truth. Each collaborator needs to decide how aggressively and
extensively to check the accuracy of the record he is helping to create. The
biographer's position is different: for him or her, there is a clear obligation to
check the record and no necessary obligation to the subject--except in the case
of the authorized biographer. Autobiographers, interestingly, are generally not
viewed as obliged to research their own lives; the presumed subjectivity of the
genre gains them a degree of latitude.

The professional autobiographer may, like Andrew Szanton, think of his role as
analogous to that of the defense attorney, who may know more than he divulges
and whose ethical obligation is to put the best possible face on his client's
behavior without outright deception. This may be the proper ethical stance for
the professional collaborator; the professional critic, however, is justified in
putting a higher value on historical truth. In cases, especially ethnographic ones,
in which the model, or source, is taken advantage of by the writer, the ethical
duty of the critic may be to defend the disenfranchised subject; in the case of
celebrity autobiography, the ethical duty of the critic may be to protect the
historical record.

Collaborations, like these, with celebrities are always consensual; in any case,
they also have built-in checks and balances that may deter or at least minimize
exploitation. Each partner may use for leverage the indispensability of his or her
contribution. Celebrity subjects would seem to have the upper hand, since
presumably their stories are the sine qua non of the project(n13); they can
threaten to cease cooperating and choose other partners. But their lives are not
copyrightable, and if they cease cooperating, their collaborators may point out
that, in order to protect their investment of time and labor, their only alternative
is to turn what were to be autobiographies into biographies. Their leverage lies in
the fact that, though presumably not as marketable as collaborative
autobiographies, biographies do not have to be as flattering. (Biographers' ethical
obligations to their subjects are quite different from those of collaborators;
indeed, contemporary biography would suggest that biographers feel little or no
ethical obligation to their subjects.(n14)) In the case of collaborative celebrity
autobiography, then, the dynamics of the collaboration serve to minimize the
potential for inequity in both dimensions--that of the portrayal and that of the
partnership; subjects unhappy with their portrayals can demand revisions; writers
unhappy with the terms of the collaboration can try to renegotiate them.

Nevertheless, such checks and balances sometimes fail to prevent dissension;


like the marriages to which they are often compared, collaborative partnerships
sometimes come apart, sometimes acrimoniously. A pertinent case here is the
story of the failed collaboration between Fay Vincent, the former commissioner of
baseball, and David A. Kaplan. Vincent withdrew from the collaboration on his
memoir, Baseball Breaks Your Heart, as the manuscript was nearing completion
in 1994, apparently because he was reluctant to publish a book that would revive
the controversies in which he had been involved (Sandomir). (Vincent did not
challenge the accuracy of the manuscript but rather its tone; the real issue
seemed to be hostile references to people he was dealing with at the time, such
as George Steinbrenner. Implicitly, then, he was suggesting that publication of
the book would do him harm: cause him pain by rekindling some of the
antagonisms of his years in office.) In the summer of 1997, Kaplan took Vincent

to court, claiming the right, as co-author and joint copyright owner, to publish the
book on his own; his claim was, in effect, that Vincent had deprived him of the
fruits of his labor.

Such a conflict between collaborators points up an issue close to the heart of


collaborative autobiography: whose property is the collaboratively produced life
story? Vincent's position is that, although he shared copyright with Kaplan, he
retained control of the final manuscript; as his lawyer remarked: "How could it be
any other way? Otherwise, it's giving your life story to someone else." The
answer to the question "Whose life is it, anyway?" may not be as simple as
Vincent's lawyer suggests, since the manuscript in question was in part the
product of Kaplan's work--including independent research. The nonpartisan legal
opinions cited in the New York Times, however, come down mostly on Vincent's
side, on the principle that, unless he explicitly gave up control over the
manuscript, he should still be assumed to have it. As one copyright lawyer put it:
"people working on a collaboration about their own lives tend to control their
stories, until they give up control." (This is not as tautological as it sounds.) But
Vincent's case rests uneasily on "oral agreements" he claims to have made with
Kaplan; in a preliminary ruling, the judge "wrote that he was not persuaded that
the co-authors were bound by an oral contract."

In ethnographic autobiography, where the balance of power favors the writer


over the subject, the ethical pitfalls are quite different. Collaboration is
supposedly a matter of give and take, but in the ethnographic scenario the most
obvious danger is the taking of liberties--the appropriation of a life story for
purposes not shared, understood, or consented to by the subject. This is a
particular danger of the ethnographic scenario because--as was evidently the
case with Black Elk--differences of culture may impede or prevent the obtaining
of truly informed consent. The same may be true, as indicated above, of
differences in age or somatic condition; indeed, I would put most parental
memoirs of children and some disability narratives in the ethnographic category.
For instance, Michael Dorris's Broken Cord, his account of raising an adopted son
whose development was affected by Fetal Alcohol Syndrome, fits both categories:
it is a parental memoir of a disabled child that conforms disturbingly to the
ethnographic scenario. One consequence of Dorris's discovery of the source of
Adam's problems--his birth-mother's alcoholism--is the tendency to treat him as a
type rather than as an individual. While the early chapters focus on Adam's
problems of development, he is portrayed there as a fully individualized
character. As is the case in most parental narratives of impaired children, the
emphasis is on efforts to maximize his potential, despite his limitations. Emphasis
begins to shift to what Adam cannot do after Dorris and Erdrich adopt other
Native American children, who exemplify "norms" that Adam doesn't measure up
to (see, for example, 120, 127-29). This tendency culminates in the book's
peroration, which offers a litany of things Adam will never understand or
appreciate (264).

After the moment of "diagnosis," Adam tends to become a type and his story a
case history; emphasis shifts to his generic (genetic) traits and to larger cultural
problems. And eventually, as narrator, Dorris abandons the role of advocate for
his son and takes up the role of crusader against the use of alcohol by pregnant
women. Indeed, insofar as Adam's problems are seen to result from cultural
pathology in the Native American community, the book veers toward
ethnographic life writing, or even ethnography proper. Dorris assumes the role of
the outside expert or anthropological authority--usually a non-native--who enlists
in a collaborative life-writing project a native subject not otherwise inclined to
generate an autobiography. It is unusual, and troubling, that in this instance the
role of the anthropologist is assumed by a parent and that the "informant" is his
son. The crucial difference from most ethnography, however, is that here the
disparity between the two parties is not a difference in race or culture; rather,
that disparity is a function of Adam's congenital FAS-related cognitive disabilities,
which, though related to patterns of Indian alcohol abuse, are not intrinsic to his
cultural heritage. In practice, then, though for very different reasons than those
operating in most earlier texts, this book's production involved the sort of
asymmetrical collaboration typical of ethnographic autobiography, in which the
editor tends to exercise cultural authority over his "subject."(n15)

What is tendered as autonomous self-representation--the appended narrative by


the son, "The Story of Adam Dorris by Adam Dorris"--is in effect mediated in ways
the putative autobiographer cannot understand or control. Just as he seemed
incapable of adjusting his appearance in everyday life to the expectations of
others, Adam could not fully imagine, and thus could not censor, the way he was
being presented to a reading public. In this case, the subject is put at a
disadvantage not so much by his culture as by his disability. Despite Dorris's
noble intentions, then, he produced a book in which disability assumes the role of
cultural difference in defining and subjugating the Other in anthropological
discourse. Although Dorris did elicit Adam's testimony, that testimony serves
mainly to corroborate Dorris's characterization of Adam in the narrative that
precedes and introduces it. Adam's text is contained and defined by his father's.
On the whole, then, Dorris seems to have arrogated authority in ways reminiscent
of "colonial" ethnography.

Collaborative autobiography is inherently ventriloquistic. The dynamics of the


ventriloquism, however--the direction in which the voice is "thrown"--may vary
with the location of the collaboration on the continuum described earlier. In
ethnographic autobiography, the danger tends to be that of attributing to the
subject a voice and narrative not originating with him or her--and that he or she
may not have edited. Black Elk Speaks is a classic example; indeed, the most
frequently quoted paragraphs have turned out to be wholly Neihardt's invention.
This danger exists, of course, in celebrity autobiography, as well; some

celebrities--notably Darryl Strawberry and Ronald Reagan--have notoriously not


read, much less written, their so-called "autobiographies." But, unlike Black Elk,
they could have reviewed the prose ascribed to them. In celebrity autobiography,
perhaps the greater danger is the reverse dynamic, in which the subject assumes
or is given more credit for the writing than is legitimate. Although I am otherwise
excluding ghostwritten autobiography from consideration here--that is, the use of
an unacknowledged collaborator--I would point out that, by academic standards,
ghostwritten autobiography is tantamount to plagiarism. If the ghostwriter
consents to being anonymous, as is usually the case, the process is not
plagiarism in the sense of appropriation of another's intellectual property without
permission: the arrangement is that the writer's compensation takes the form of
a paycheck and not a byline,(n16) so there's no violation of the partnership. And
of course the wide acceptance of the practice--like that of Presidential
speechwriting by ghosts--suggests that there is not considered to be any
dishonesty involved because none but the most naive might be fooled. Here is a
good example of a case where the ethics of trade publishing and those of
academic publishing differ sharply. But a ghostwritten autobiography does, I
think, raise a minor ethical issue with regard to the truthfulness of the portrayal.
The text implicitly falsifies both the history of its subject--who did not in fact labor
singlehandedly to produce it--and his or her image: he or she may not be a
person capable of writing such a text.

Looked at from another angle, the projection of the voice of the writer or
interlocutor onto the subject is tantamount to forgery.(n17) This occurs mainly
with ghostwritten celebrity autobiography, where the signature of the source may
be worth more than the signature of the writer. As Philippe Lejeune points out,
with ethnographic collaboration, the "story takes its value, in the eyes of the
reader, from the fact that [the subjects] belong (that they are perceived as
belonging) to a culture other than his own, a culture defined by the exclusion of
writing" (196). A complex but relatively mild form of this problem seems to have
occurred in the literary aftermath of the death of Diana Spencer. Andrew Morton,
the author of a biography called Diana, Her True Story, claimed, after her death,
that his title had been an understatement: the book was not merely a true story
but her story in the sense that she was its principle source (Hoge). Accordingly,
he rushed into print a new version with the amended title: Diana, Her True Story-In Her Own Words. In effect, then, Morton claimed that a book presented
originally as "his" biography of her was in fact a covertly collaborative life-writing
project--a sort of ghostwritten biography, or pseudonymous autobiography in the
third person. His claims raise ethical issues aside from the questionable propriety
of his attempt to capitalize on Diana's death by reviving his "life" of her. If his
claim is not true, then this case is an instance of one ethical violation, forgery-the false attribution of material to the "subject" of the book in order to heighten
its apparent authenticity (and thus, not incidentally, its already considerable
commercial value). If it is true, the act is probably a violation of a pledge to keep
her contribution confidential.

Forged or ventriloquistic autobiography may take less benign forms than this--if
we broaden our scope beyond those practices usually deemed literary or
anthropological. As Margreta de Grazia has pointed out, a false confession
obtained by means of torture might euphemistically be described as
"collaborative autobiography"; such a text would obviously involve inequity in
portrayal as well as of "partnership"; in such cases, both the process and the
product may be extremely harmful to the subject. Indeed, here the faking of a life
may quite literally involve the taking of a life. The extortion of a true confession-that is, a confession to a crime the confessor did commit--could also be described
only euphemistically as a collaborative autobiography. The dynamics of the
"confessions" of condemned prisoners in England in the eighteenth century can
illustrate how the ethnographic and the celebrity scenarios may complement one
another. In-house confessions "dictated" to prison ordinaries and distributed at
the time of execution--as if spontaneous and simultaneous with the execution-were sometimes supplemented by extramural accounts written by journalists for
a popular audience. The in-house "confessions," which were coerced, sometimes
by torture, reflected the authority of the state in more than one sense: they were
scripted according to narrow conventions and reflected the apparent
internalization of self-condemning social norms. (They were confessions in the
religious and moral as well as the legal sense.) In contrast, convicts might
arrange to produce, with the collaboration of an independent journalist like Daniel
Defoe, a quite different sort of testimony--a kind of criminal's celebrity memoir.
Prisoners would be treated more favorably in terms of both process and portrayal
in the extramural confessions than in the intramural ones. Though they might be
formulaic, these texts were more voluntarily produced, and the subject was more
in control of his own representation. While these accounts might be preferred on
ethical grounds because of their less compulsory quality, they would of course be
more at odds with the official ethos.(n18)

Further examples of subtly coercive--and thus unethical--collaborative life writing


may be found in abuses of psychiatric practice. Most forms of psychotherapy
involve--indeed, consist of--what might be seen as "collaborative autobiography."
What is ideally a benign and therapeutic process, however, is liable to ethical
misuse (like any collaboration with a professional, such as a physician or lawyer).
Obvious examples may be found in the "recovering" of false memories of abuse
or other trauma--except that here we have not coerced confession but coerced
accusation--autobiography as character assassination.

Another relevant distinction between collaborative life-writing scenarios may be


found in the degree of professionalization of the authors. Today, ethnography in
the narrow sense is produced by professional anthropologists, who are currently
haunted by the complicity of ethnography in imperialism, cultural or otherwise.
Indeed, ethnography and ethnographic life writing have been so thoroughly

theorized and analyzed as to have been virtually paralyzed. By a broader


definition, of course, the ethnographic scenario includes amateur practices, such
as Neihardt's collaboration with Black Elk, in which professional ethics are
nonexistent or not highly developed. Similarly, those who write celebrity
autobiography for a living are not organized professionally; they are a relatively
small number of freelancers who function according to their own lights, rather
than any established ethical discourse or guidelines (Szanton interview). Finally,
those who collaborate in scenarios toward the middle of the continuum between
ethnographic and celebrity collaboration--for example, parental biographers of
children or those who collaborate with the ill and the disabled to write their lives-are generally even less conscious of being part of a professional group with
ethical restraints.

Collaborative autobiography is practiced today with great frequency and


openness. At least, this is one implication of a recent Steiner cartoon in the New
Yorker. The scene is an elementary school classroom, complete with a globe on
the teacher's desk and a flag in the corner. Two students, a boy and a girl, stand
next to the teacher's desk, facing the rest of their class. The boy smiles smugly,
hands clasped behind his back, while the girl reads from a paper she is holding:
"`What I did last summer,' by Scott Sweningen, as told to Samantha Gerhart."
The teacher's expression is impossible to read, but one wonders about the
elementary ethics here; what would clearly be cheating, if done surreptitiously-the writing of one student's composition by another--is apparently acceptable
when done openly. The joke is, I guess, that collaborative autobiography has
trickled down to the level of the cliched first assignment of the school year. If this
cartoon is an indication, collaborative autobiography will only become more
common; if that is so, we need to extend and intensify our consideration of the
full range of ethical issues it raises.

We may apply ethical standards in two different scenarios. One is retrospective;


we may investigate and stand in judgment of the ethics of published texts. The
other is prospective; we may seek to head off ethical violations by setting forth
guidelines to influence future life writing. Whichever scenario we operate within,
our influence and power are indirect and diffuse. We need to remember that, as
critics of life writing, we occupy a distinct and awkward position with respect to
the practice of it; our ethics may be at odds with the ethics of those--professional
as well as amateur--who practice collaborative life writing. And we need to be
attentive to the benefits as well as the liabilities of collaboration. For example, it
may be tempting to decry ethnographic autobiography insofar as it may seem
inherently to reduce its subjects to types. But such an objection to ethnography
may invoke values, such as that of the uniqueness of the individual, that are alien
to some of the cultures it seeks to represent. It may be, too, that the recuperative
benefits of ethnography outweigh its costs. For example, it could be argued that,
despite Neihardt's taking of some liberties in his collaboration with Black Elk, the
text they produced collaboratively has helped to preserve and to disseminate

Lakota culture; Black Elk and his people have benefitted from the collaboration in
ways he may not fully have anticipated. In any case, it may be unwise for us to
devise ethical principles that would effectively censor or censure whole genres of
life writing. Literary critics may have an important role to play in the ongoing
development of collaborative life writing--particularly if we extend our
consideration beyond the texts traditionally considered literary--but we need to
be careful of self-righteousness--of devising, in the isolation of the ivory tower,
excessively fastidious principles.
Notes
(n1) Other forms of life writing also involve collaboration--more so than is
sometimes acknowledged. Biography--even when not authorized--is never done
single-handedly, at least when living sources are consulted. Autobiography is
often, perhaps almost always, a relational enterprise. Even when it is not, it may
require backstage consultation with others to fill in memory's gaps. I confine
myself, however, to autobiographical projects that involve conscious and active
cooperation.

(n2) More technical terms for narrator and protagonist are "the subject speaking"
and "the subject spoken," as used by de Grazia (290). While useful, these terms
also seem to me clumsy.

(n3) "Subject" is today an ambiguous, multivalent term: grammatically, it


suggests agency; politically, it suggests the opposite--passivity or subordination;
in poststructuralism, it suggests constructedness and provisionality. Here I use it
in none of these senses, but rather the everyday sense of "topic"--in this case,
the person the book is about.

Some critics refer to the subject of collaborative autobiography as the "dictator"


others as the "speaker." In the case of ethnographic autobiography, "dictator"
seems too often ironic, in view of the political meaning of that term; that is, it
implies a kind of dominance not characteristic of the usual speaker; in the cases
of celebrity autobiography, it may be more apt, but even there it underestimates
the agency of the collaborator.

The problem with using the term "speaker" for those Philippe Lejeune refers to as
"those who do not write" is that some who do not write do not speak either. I am
thinking here not so much of deaf people, who may use Sign to communicate
their narratives and who generally can read the written narrative their
collaborators produce, but rather those whose disability may prevent speech and
Sign as well as writing--such as those with cerebral palsy or other such disorders.

In any case, "speaker" implies the ability to speak, which is not universally the
case, and cases of disability are extremely interesting and problematic in this
regard. See my discussion of Sienkiewicz-Mercer below.

What to call the other partner is also problematic: "author" is sometimes


technically correct, but sometimes the collaborators are co-authors. Even when
they are not, "author" may ascribe the resulting text unfairly to one partner.
Similarly, "writer" may overstate the interviewer's role, while "editor" usually
understates it. Because in most cases one partner does most of what we usually
mean by "write"--inscribe words by hand in lasting form--I use "writer" for the
partner more responsible for the composition of the text.

(n4) In the classic analysis of "The Autobiography of Those Who Do Not Write,"
Philippe Lejeune minimizes the difference between solo and collaborative
autobiography, arguing that collaborative autobiography exposes the different
roles involved even in the production of solo autobiography:

A person is always several people when he is writing, even all alone, even his
own life. [...] By relatively isolating the roles, the collaborative autobiography
calls into question again the belief in a unity that underlies, in the
autobiographical genre, the notion of author and that of person. We can divide
the work in this way only because it is in fact always divided in this way, even
when the people who are writing fail to recognize this, because they assume the
different roles themselves. Anyone who decides to write his life story acts as if he
were his own ghostwriter. (188)

While this is a shrewd observation, it can be disregarded here because an


intrapersonal division of labor does not raise the ethical issues inherent in an
interpersonal collaboration.

(n5) And, as it happens, those in the publishing business sometimes use the
marriage analogy for collaborative writing partnerships.

(n6) See my chapter "HIV/AIDS and Its Stories" in Recovering Bodies: Illness,
Disability, and Life Writing, especially the section "Family Plots: Relational AIDS
Memoirs."

(n7) I am tempted to call this form of life writing "celebritory" [sic] autobiography;
I regard it as a peculiar modern version of hagiography.

(n8) Rosemary J. Coombe has argued that celebrity identity is authored


collaboratively and collectively, rather than individually. Nevertheless, in the
marketplace, the celebrity has the advantage of licensing his/her own replication.

(n9) An example of the former would be Cancer in Two Voices by Sandra Butler
and Barbara Rosenblum.

(n10) For a fuller account of this example, see my chapter "Black Elk Speaks With
Forked Tongue," in Altered Egos: Authority in American Autobiography, 189-209.

(n11) I do not want to portray Black Elk as merely a victim in this process. It is
likely that the book reflected his shrewd use of an unfamiliar medium-autobiography--to convey his vision to a larger audience. Each partner may have
used the other in ways of which the other was unaware.

(n12) Szanton has written the memoirs of Eugene Wigner, a Hungarian-born


Manhattan Project physicist, and of Charles Evers, a civil rights leader and
brother of Medgar Evers; he is currently writing the memoirs of former
Massachusetts Senator, Edward Brooke.

(n13) Such stories are not always worth what publishers pay for them. For
example, according to Michael Korda, of Simon and Schuster, although
Presidential memoirs usually lose money, publishers may still be seduced by the
glamour of having an ex-president as a "author" (88).

(n14) It is hard to imagine a contemporary biographer concluding, as M.O.W.


Oliphant did one hundred years ago, that a biographer who discovers unexpected
flaws in his or her subject "might well consider not writing the biography at all"
(Bergmann 3).

(n15) For a full consideration of this book, see my essay "Raising Adam."

(n16) Indeed, just as writers who take pride in their craft may insist on controlling
the final text, they might also prefer not to have attributed to them a work that
reflects the verbal invention of their subjects.

(n17) See de Grazia on the distinction between plagiarism and forgery (299).

(n18) My account of these memoirs is indebted to Hal Gladfelder's 1997 MLA


paper, "`I Want to Tell You': Ghost Authors and Criminal Subjects in the
Eighteenth Century."
Works Cited
Bergmann, Linda S. "Widows, Hacks, and Biographers: The Voice of
Professionalism in Elizabeth Agassiz's Louis Agassiz: His Life and
Correspondence." A/B: Auto/Biography Studies 12.1 (Spring 1997): 1-21.
Booth, Wayne C. The Company We Keep: An Ethics of Fiction. Berkeley: U of
California P, 1988.
Butler, Sandra, and Barbara Rosenblum. Cancer in Two Voices. San Francisco:
Spinsters, 1991.
Coombe, Rosemary J. "Author/izing the Celebrity: Publicity Rights, Postmodern
Politics, and Unauthorized Genders." Woodmansee 101-31.
Couser, G. Thomas. Altered Egos: Authority in American Autobiography. New York:
Oxford UP, 1989.
-----. "Raising Adam: Ethnicity, Disability, and the Ethics of Life Writing in Michael
Dorris's The Broken Cord." Biography 21.4 (1998): 421-44.
-----. Recovering Bodies: Illness, Disability, and Life Writing. Madison: U of
Wisconsin P, 1997. de Grazia, Margreta. "Sanctioning Voice: Quotation Marks, the
Abolition of Torture, and the Fifth Amendment." Woodmansee 281-302.
DeMallie, Raymond J. Introduction. The Sixth Grandfather: Black Elk's Teachings
as Given to John G. Neihardt. Ed. Raymond J. DeMallie. Lincoln: U of Nebraska P,
1984. 3-99.
Eakin, Paul John. "Relational Selves, Relational Lives: The Story of the Story." True
Relations: Essays on Autobiography and the Postmodern. Ed. G. Thomas Couser
and Joseph Fichtelberg. Westport: Greenwood, 1998.6381.
Gladfelder, Hal Gibson. "`I Want to Tell You': Ghost Authors and Criminal Subjects
in the Eighteenth Century." Unpublished paper. MLA, Toronto, 28 December 1997.
Haley, Alex. "Epilogue." The Autobiography of Malcolm X, by Malcolm X, with Alex
Haley. New York: Grove, 1965. 383-456.

Hoge, Warren. "Now It Can Be Told: 1992 Tell-All Book's Source Was Diana." New
York Times, 30 September 1997: A7.
Korda, Michael. "Prompting the President." New Yorker 6 October 1997: 88-95.
Krupat, Arnold. For Those Who Come After: A Study of Native American
Autobiography. Berkeley: U of California P, 1985.
Lejeune, Philippe. "The Autobiography of Those Who Do Not Write." On
Autobiography. Minneapolis: U of Minnesota P, 1989. 185-215.
Sandomir, Richard. "Co-Author Sues to Publish Vincent Book." New York Times, 11
August 1997: 21, 25 (Sports).
Spiegelman, Art. Maus I: A Survivor's Tale; My Father Bleeds History. New York:
Pantheon, 1986.
-----. Maus II: A Survivor's Tale; And Here My Troubles Began. New York: Pantheon,
1991.
Steiner, P. Cartoon. New Yorker 15 September 1997: 72.
Szanton, Andrew. The Recollections of Eugene P. Wigner, as told to Andrew
Szanton. New York: Plenum, 1992.
-----. Telephone interview. 11 November 1997.
-----, and Charles Evers. Have No Fear: The Charles Evers Story. New York: John
Wiley, 1997.
Woodmansee, Martha, and Peter Jaszi, eds. The Construction of Authorship:
Textual Appropriation in Law and Literature. Durham: Duke UP, 1994.
Wyden, Peter. "The Blockbustering of Lee Iacocca." New York Times Book Review
13 September 1987: 1, 54-55.
~~~~~~~~
By G. Thomas Couser, Hofstra University

Naslov: Why Ethical Criticism Can Never Be Simple. Prema: Booth, Wayne C.,
Style, 00394238, Summer98, Svezak. 32, Broj 2.Baza podataka: Academic Search
Complete.

WHY ETHICAL CRITICISM CAN NEVER BE SIMPLE

Auden's assertion that poetry doesn't make things happen is a tidy conceit for a
melancholy afternoon's tea break, but as the prayers smoke from the mosque

and the young thousands chant rap, my era will re-examine what is happening.
Nor in that circum-audient air can one deny--terrifying, some of it--the power of
prose.

--Hortense Calisher
I
This essay is one of many recent efforts, by myself and others, to challenge two
critical schools popular through much of this century: those who think ethical
judgments have nothing to do with genuine "literary" or "aesthetic" criticism, and
those who think that ethical judgments about stories can never be anything more
than subjective opinion. My thesis is thus double: ethical criticism is relevant to
all literature, no matter how broadly or narrowly we define that controversial
term; and such criticism, when done responsibly, can be a genuine form of
rational inquiry. It is true that it will never produce results nearly as
uncontroversial as deciding whether it rained in New York yesterday, or even
whether President Clinton lied. What's more, many of its judgments, such as
Plato's exaggerated attacks on Homer, will be rejected by most serious ethical
critics. Yet when responsible readers of powerful stories engage in genuine
inquiry about their ethical value, they can produce results that deserve the tricky
label "knowledge."( n1)

The very phrase "ethical inquiry" is for some thinkers an oxymoron. Ethical
indictment of a story? Of course you can have that, as a personal expression.
Ethical celebration? All right, if it will please a collection of fellow believers. But
inquiry? The word implies the chance of arriving at established, decisive
conclusions: knowledge. About ethics, many still claim, there can be no such
conclusions--and thus no genuine inquiry about them. For some these days, the
claim has been strengthened by a flood of aggressive and often carelessly
performed denigrations of first-class works on grounds of sexism, racism, antiSemitism, or "classism." Though seldom travelling under moral or ethical
terminology, these intrusions of "ideological" interests have seemed to some a
total corruption of the formal or structural standards that dominated criticism in
mid-century.( n2)

Meanwhile, over-confident ethical or moral indictments and calls for censorship


seem increasingly fashionable, many of them pursued so irrationally as to provide
evidence that genuine inquiry may flee whenever questions about ethics enter
the room. The responses to those would-be censors are often equally subjective
and opinionated, too often divorced from any serious digging into the potential
dangers for readers who really listen to what the story-teller tells. (From here on I
use the term "listen" to cover all serious engagement with stories, whether by
readers or viewers or listeners). Many of the defenders against censorship,

resting strictly on first amendment grounds, talk as if to engage in ethical or


moral criticism is itself an act of censorship: once we step onto the slippery
slope--"this story is ethically faulty"--the censors will buy our words and hurtle us
on to the bottom.

More challenging efforts to rule out ethical criticism come from those who fear
that it will destroy our most precious narrative possession: the "aesthetic"
domain, the world of true art, a world that is not just different from the quotidian
world of moral conflict but in effect far superior to it. As Wendy Steiner says in
the conclusion to The Scandal of Pleasure, genuine art "occupies a different moral
space" from the world of practical affairs. For her, since art is obviously "virtual,"
not primarily concerned about "reality," it should not be subject to the kind of
moral criticism we offer when everyday behavior in the so-called real world
offends us (211).

What is striking, however, is that whether or not critics defend or attack ethical
criticism, and whether or not "ideological" critics use ethical terms, nearly
everyone concedes that no matter what we do or say about the ethical powers of
art, those powers are real. Not even the most ardent opponents of censorship or
ethical criticism deny that many stories can actually harm at least some of those
who "take them in." And even the most ardent attackers on immoral art works
imply by their every gesture that certain other works, in contrast, are not just
morally defensible, not just beneficial, but essential to any full human life.

Claims about the transformative ethical power of all art are perhaps least
questionable when we turn from "all art" to literary art, art that, because its very
nature entails language loaded with ethical judgments, implants views about how
to live or not to live. When the word "literature" is expanded to include all stories
that we may listen to--not just novels, plays, and poems, but also operas,
memoirs, gossip, soap operas, TV and movie dramas, fictional and "real," stories
heard in childhood--the power of narrative to change our lives, for good or ill,
becomes undeniable.

That power is, however, tacitly denied by many a critic, simply by writing as if the
ethical effects of stories are irrelevant to quality. In a recent lengthy favorable
account of the thirty novels by Stephen King, Mark Singer has not a word about
what King's three hundred million sold copies have taught the world's mostly
unsophisticated readers: about what actions are really contemptible or
admirable, about what views concerning aliens and phantoms are naive or
sophisticated or mentally destructive, about what narrative devices are in effect
ethical corruptions. The only ethical judgments Singer intrudes are against critics

like me, what he calls "arbiters": those who, "without bothering to read King, feel
comfortable dismissing him as a hack."( n3)

As my ambiguous use so far of the words "ethical" and "moral" suggests, one
reason no progress is made in our battles is that too many reduce both terms to
the narrowest possible moral codes. The essential issue for critics--perhaps in
contrast with politicians--is not whether some part of a given story violates this or
that moral code; rather, it is the overall effect on the ethos, the character, of the
listener. And that effect is not to be measured by some simple study of overt
behavior after listening: it must include the very quality of the life lived while
listening.

Actual effects on behavior are extremely elusive and will, I suspect, never be
conclusively demonstrated. It's true that whenever I ask adult readers if they can
think of works that changed their lives in a significant way, whether recently or in
childhood, almost all of them offer at least one powerful example. Sometimes
they stress their regret ("How I wish I had not stumbled upon Jack Kerouac's On
the Road when I was sixteen; I went `on the road' for a full year, selfdestructively").( n4) More often they express deep gratitude ("Reading Tolstoy's
Resurrection in my forties transformed my attitude toward religion; I had been an
atheist for twenty years, and after reading that work--thank God!--I was not").
When the question is generalized--"Do you think that a large share of your ethical
education, your construction as a person, was performed by stories, from infancy
on?"--most answer decisively "Yes." They agree that when we really engage with
the characters we meet and the moral choices those characters face, ethical
changes occur in us, for good or ill--especially when we are young.

To underline my point once again: no one who has thought about it for long can
deny that we are at least partly constructed, in our most fundamental moral
character, by the stories we have heard, or read, or viewed, or acted out in
amateur theatricals: the stories we have really listened to. Their authors built
successful stories by creating characters, characters exhibiting an ethos that
could be thought of as a collection of virtues and vices, presented as admirable
or contemptible.( n5) Though many modern authors try to disguise this fact by
dealing overtly with character qualities not ordinarily thought of in moral terms-such virtues as uncompromising pursuit of existential truth or honest probing of
post-modernist mysteries--I can think of no published story that does not exhibit
its author's implied judgments about how to live and what to believe about how
to live.

The point is underlined when we think about how the world's most successful
moral teachers have taken it for granted: they have chosen to tell stories. Rather

than resorting to blunt, non-narrative preaching, they have implanted their


messages into engaging narrative worlds. While it's true that some moralizers
have turned their tales into prosaic sermons, with simple summarizing moral
tags, the most effective teachers--those who recognize moral complexities--have
chosen narrative, with its inevitable ambiguities, as the chief vehicle.

Why did the authors of the Bible choose mainly to be storytellers rather than
blunt exhorters with a moral tag at the end of each story? They did not rest with
the laying down of bare codes, like a list of flat commandments. Though they
sometimes tried the brief commandment line,( n6) they more often told stories,
like the one about a troubled abandoned-child-hero who, as leader of his
liberated people, almost botches the job of obtaining some divine rules printed
on a tablet, and about a people who largely botch the job of receiving and
abiding by them. The pious preachers did not just print out the sermons of a
savior; they placed the sermons into a story, and they surrounded them with
other stories, especially the one about how the hero himself grappled with
questions about his status as savior, and about how he told scores of radically
ambiguous parables that forced his listeners into moral thought. They did not
openly preach that for God to be incarnated as a man entails irresolvable
paradoxes; they told a story about how the God/man at the moment of supreme
moral testing is ridden with doubt and cries out, as any of us would have done,
"My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?"

All those biblical authors must have known, perhaps without knowing what they
knew, that serious stories educate morally--and they do so more powerfully than
do story-free sermons. Just imagine how little effect on the world John Bunyan
would have had if he had put into non-narrative prose the various messages
embodied in Pilgrim's Progress.( n7)

In short, the great tellers and most of us listeners have known in our bones that
stories, whether fictional or historical, in prose or in verse, whether told by
mothers to infants or by rabbis and priests to the elderly and dying, whether
labeled as sacred or profane or as teaching good morality or bad--stories are our
major moral teachers. Some stories teach only a particular moral perspective,
one that can be captured with a moral tag, as in some of Aesop's fables and the
simpler biblical tales. Many of them teach a morality that you and I would reject.
But all of them teach, and thus in a sense they are open to moral inquiry, even
when they do not seem to invite or tolerate it.

In the face of this general acknowledgement of the power of stories, how could it
happen that entire critical schools have rejected criticism that deals with such
power? One obvious answer is that critics have wanted to escape the threatening

flood of controversial judgments we land in as soon as ethical judgments are


invited into aesthetic territory. Ethical judgments are by their nature
controversial: the very point of uttering them is to awaken or challenge those
who have missed the point. Consequently whenever a feminist critic, say, judges
a novel or poem to be sexist, she can be sure to be attacked by someone who
sees her values as skewed. To praise or condemn for political correctness is
widely scoffed at as absurd: political judgments are merely subjective. To judge
all or part of a poem according to religious values is seen as even more absurd,
since religious views are widely seen as even less subject to rational argument.

A second powerful reason for suppression is the fear already mentioned: that
ethical criticism of any kind, even when critics agree with the proclaimed values,
is an invasion of "aesthetic" territory. As Charles Altieri reports in "Lyrical Ethics
and Literary Experience" (above), to be seen as an ethical critic can trigger
thoughtless responses from purists who fear that the "lyrical" or the "beautiful"
will be sacrificed to preaching.

The third reason, my main interest in this essay, is too often overlooked in
today's controversies. "Literature" itself is not just a controversial term: the works
it covers are ethically and aesthetically so diverse, both in their intent and in their
realization in multiple acts of listening, that any one critical method can at best
"cover" no more than a fraction of actual works. The consequence is that a large
share of attempted ethical criticism deserves to be attacked as unfair or
irrelevant; methods and stances appropriate to one kind of story can be useless
or destructive when applied to other kinds.

In what follows, I explore, for the five hundredth time in the history of criticism,
some of the varieties of literary intention, as they inevitably reinforce the
conflicts about ethical criticism. My basic argument is that only a fully developed
critical pluralism, of principles, of methods, of purposes, and of definitions of
subject matter can ever reduce the quantity of pointless quarreling over ethical
matters. Different genres, different intentions, invite or reject different ethical
judgments.( n8)
II
Even the word "intention" already lands us in deep controversy. The antiintentionalists have dominated many fields in recent decades, as they have for
the most part ignored the powerful arguments and distinctions made by William
Empson, Ronald Crane, E. D. Hirsch and others throughout the "New Critical"
wars.( n9) The most important of these distinctions, obscuredby all of those who
have declared the author and his or her intentions dead, is between the fleshand-blood author, whose intentions, whether or not recorded outside the work,
are only loosely relevant to one's reading of the work, and the actualized text's

intentions: what one can infer from the collection of choices that every work
worth bothering about reveals. The author implied by those choices made them,
consciously or unconsciously, and our judgments of the worth of any work
depend on our decision, again conscious or unconscious, about whether the
choices were good ones. Whether we use the word "intentions" or not, we are all
dependent, in everything we say about a work, on an implied relation between
our intentions and the intentions embedded in the author's choices.( n10)

Now as everyone who ever consults her own soul knows, our intentions in real
life, as in any construction of a novel or poem, are manifold in kind and often
confused or ambivalent in product. We are social selves, multiple selves, most of
us moving always, or almost always, in many directions at once. Though
sometimes we manage some degree of focus in daily choices, our genuine
focusing usually comes when we move in the direction of artistic or technological
production: the effort to pull the parts of life into some coherent interrelation. It is
when we aim for a goal, especially when we try to make something coherent,
that our multiplicity sometimes becomes reduced to a single, however complex,
target. Like the badge-winning infantry rifleman I aimed to become in my World
War II basic training, we concentrate so intently on the target that everything
else is, for the time being, simply forgotten.

Artists--painters, musicians, novelists, poets--generally achieve something like


that concentration, sloughing off many, though usually not all, of their rival
selves. Many have testified to the way in which, as they pursue draft after draft,
the manifold possibilities get reduced to a range of centered choices. Even those
who have pretended to have no center, to celebrate their own uncontrollable
richness, have in fact been forced, by the very nature of producing anything
whatever, into a reduction of multiple or divided selves toward what critics used
to call a "unity."

My favorite illustration of this point, one that I've printed several times before,
was my encounter with Saul Bellow, back in 1962 or 1963. Memory reports it like
this:
WB: What are you up to, Saul?
SB: Well, I'm spending about four hours a day revising a novel that's still much
too long.
WB: What'll it be called?
SB: Herzog.
WB: What are you actually doing, as you spend four hours a day revising?

SB: Oh, just cutting out those parts of myself that I don't like.
It is important to remember that he was not only cutting out parts of his "self"
that he did not like (actually his manifold manuscripts reveal several selves that
he was wise to remove); he was cutting out parts of the book that did not
harmonize with other parts of that particular making. He was changing the text's
intentions, which slowly became a different thing from the flesh-and-blood
author's original muddied intentions as he wrote many earlier drafts: a new and
presumably superior self was being created.

It is the ignoring of that process by the "author-is-dead" crowd that has so often
torn their criticism away from the ethical relation between the work, as published,
and the reader. If there is no author, how can you talk about an ethical relation
with anything? But if there is an author inflicting choices upon me, I have not only
a right but a responsibility to think about whether those choices are ethically
good or bad.
III
Once we revive the notion that texts do have intentions, we are still faced with a
far more overwhelming multiplicity than most criticism acknowledges. Even the
more sophisticated post-modernist works tend to lump all literature into a single
pile, to be explored for this or that preconceived kind of data, as if all literary
works were of the same kind. Such lumping is disastrous for every critical effort,
but especially for ethical criticism. To judge a work as ethically praiseworthy or
contemptible without determining what its implied author's intent was is like
judging a dish of food not by tasting it but by how the waiter's description fits
your preconceptions.

Of all the mistakes made by the enemies of ethical criticism, the most absurd is
failing to recognize that a great proportion of what we call literary works are not
only implicitly ethical, in the ways I have just described, but explicitly designed to
elicit ethical responses. Unlike the authors of some lyrical poems and some
playful or farcical stories, the authors of many works we consider worth our
attention would feel offended if we ruled aside all consideration of ethical
message (often in political form). Indeed, for some of our greatest authors-Milton, Dante, Swift--overt message is the center, and for many others--Dickens,
George Eliot, Tolstoy, Wallace Stevens, T. S. Eliot--to leave the work untouched by
the message would be to miss the full experience.

Yet these works cannot be lumped as inviting the same ethical attention. The
potential chaos requires us to turn to the distinctions that, as I said at the
beginning, are disastrously ignored by those who would divorce the aesthetic
from the ethical or moral.( n11)

How many kinds of literary effect are there? It will be useful first to trace Sheldon
Sacks's three, though to me they fall far short of exhausting the pile.

First, think of the absurdity of ruling out ethical criticism when we deal with works
that are overtly polemical: stories that reveal themselves to every experienced
reader as satires.( n12) Such stories, if they earn any lasting interest, do exhibit a
great many literary or aesthetic qualities: original style, gripping plots, amusing
characters. But in reading them (or viewing dramatic productions), our attention
is not primarily on the action they present as action but on the targets they are
attacking. To read 1984 as a "novel," as if it were designed primarily to yield
pleasure or excitement about its plot, is to be an ignorant reader. To engage in
criticism of such a work without appraising the validity of Orwell's attack on
various political and moral outrages would offend not only the implied author,
"George Orwell." The flesh-and-blood author, Eric Blair, would call us just plain
stupid. To discuss the movie Dr. Strangelove without addressing its satirical
message might pass in some cinematographic quarters, but the makers of the
film would feel simply bypassed.

The difference between such satires and other stories can be determined--when
controversy arises--by whether or not all of the text's choices can be defended as
in the service of the satirical point. In every satire, one finds elements that would
not be justified if the point of it all were only to engage us in a powerful story. On
the other hand, if the satirical force is in any detail sacrificed for the sake of
heightening a beautiful, coherent plot, then the work is not fully a satire: it's
either a bungled mixture or it has become--something else. Whatever that
something else is will be subjectable to ethical inquiry, but since it does not
demand it openly, as the center of an appropriate response, the inquiry will itself
be transformed into--something else, something radically different from what is
invited by satire.

Turning from satire to a second kind, think how absurd it would be to rule out
ethical considerations from any discussion of Dante's Divine Comedy, or Milton's
Paradise Lost, or Toni Morrison's Beloved or Paradise. In all of those works, as in
thousands of contemporary so-called novels, the central organizational point is
not the effective action or plot, and also not a specific satirical target, but the
probing or inculcation of an idea or collection of ideas that the author is
dramatizing. While such works will never succeed without employing innumerable
literary devices, including interesting story lines, the ultimate drive is toward
patterning the world of ideas in a persuasive form. They are what Sheldon Sacks
called apologues.

Just imagine how Toni Morrison must feel when critics misread and dismiss
Paradise for having a muddied plot line, when what she wrote is an immensely
complex, difficult work that enforces, line by line, thought about race relations
about temptations to violence and about how forms of "white" violence have
infiltrated the "black" world. To discuss her Beloved according to its novelistic
structure, appraising it as either a gripping or moving or bungled story, without
discussing one's agreement or disagreement with its ever-present penetrating
thought, would be, I feel sure, offensive to the author--at least to the implied
author.( n13)

Moving beyond satire and apologue, we come to works that are designed to grip
us as what Sacks called "actions": novels like those of Jane Austen or Cormac
McCarthy or, moving down the line in quality, Agatha Christie or Louis L'Amour.
Though they often contain satirical and apologic elements, those elements are
subordinated to the center, which is the action--the engagement with characters
who are themselves caught in an action that the proper reader comes to care
about. Every detail, when examined closely, reveals itself as having been chosen
to heighten the effect of the action, and thus of the reader's engagement with
the story line. It is not surprising that many an author who has tried to write an
effective action has been furious when post-modernists and ethicists have
imposed ethical criticism on this or that value implicit in the action or made
explicit by heroes or narrators. Nor is it surprising that anti-ethical critics object
strongly when we ethicists criticize first-class action-creators for anti-Semitism,
racism, or sexism. For them, the beautifully formed action, conveyed in beautiful
or witty or original style, is what counts. Consign the ethicists to hell, where they
belong.

Unlike satires and apologues, action-stories thus do not openly demand ethical
criticism. They in effect imply a battle between the implied author and any
ethical critic who comes ploughing into the scene asking, "Is reading this story
good or bad for you?" That battle must be conducted in ways entirely different
from the encounters invited by satires and apologues.

So much for Sheldon Sacks's account of three major kinds of authorial invitation.
Though Sacks himself never made this point, it is to me obvious that he was
classifying fictions precisely as philosophers--from Plato through Kant to the
present--have classified human goals in general: authors pursue either the good
(through satire, attempting to make the world better), or the true (through
apologue, teaching a truth) or the beautiful (through creating perfected actions
or plots). Much controversy could be avoided if critics made clear just which of
these three goals they pursue as they praise or condemn this or that story.

But these three piles are much too general to deal with the many different
varieties of goods and truths and beauties that authors have pursued. For
example, as Charles Altieri argues, the trouble with too many defenses of ethical
criticism, even those that honor one kind of beautiful structure, is that they have
ignored the ethical import of one aspect, or kind, of the beautiful: what he calls
the lyrical.( n14) Toward the end of his life, Sacks himself was exploring the need
to add a fourth kind to his three, using Altieri's word for it. Reading and re-reading
Virginia Woolf's novels, he could not get them to fit under the labels of satire,
apologue, or action. What they pursued was an evocation of the full aesthetic
feeling of life when dramatized beautifully, but not as a coherent plot or action
but rather almost like a series of beautiful illustrations. They did not really work
as actions: readers were offered nothing remotely resembling a powerful plot.
Even more obviously they did not work either as apologues, teachers of coherent
thought, or as satires, attackers on sins or follies in the world. To judge this lyrical
kind by the same standards one would apply to the other three would be, he was
beginning to suspect, a radical distortion.

But the expansion to this fourth kind still oversimplifies the landscape of story. It
can never be reduced to a final list of kinds.( n15) Though the kinds cannot be
infinite, it seems clear that literary devices and qualities can be used to achieve
every conceivable (or defensible) effect: sheer farce, for the romping fun of it (a
special form of "lyricism?"); sheer warning about impending disaster (a subversion of the pursuit of "goodness," but quite different from satires or
apologues); stimulation of intense but disorganized thought and linguistic
probing, as in Finnegans Wake (in the sense a pursuit of "truth," but a truth so
diverse and unpin-downable that no truth emerges; it would be absurd to
condemn this novel because one or another line or character was considered
morally offensive). With a little effort we can twist any literary experience into the
service of improving thought, improving the world, or creating a new piece of
beauty.
IV
The literary kind that I think is most important in all considerations of ethical
criticism (and the one I care for most) has no label and is most resistant to simple
ethical categories. When stories manage not only to engage us in serious thought
about ethical matters, based on the reinforcement of certain ethical positions as
admirable and others as questionable or indefensible, but also hook us into plotsof-conflict that are inseparable from that thinking, we meet what I consider the
most admirable invitation to ethical criticism. The plot, in such stories, does not
just present virtue and vice in conflict; the story itself consists of the conflict of
defensible moral or ethical stances; the action takes place both within the
characters in the story and inside the mind of the reader, as she grapples with
conflicting choices that irresistibly demand the reader's judgment.

Take as a prime example the novels of Henry James, which are sometimes
described as above morality or immune to ethical criticism. His tales are never
moralistic, in the sense of being reducible to a simple code, obedience to which
will produce ultimate blessing. On the other hand, they always reveal, to any
careful reader, an extensive list of judgments about what constitutes defensible
and indefensible human behavior. Nothing is more naive than criticism of his
works as if they were ethically neutral. Any reader of The Portrait of a Lady who
fails to judge Gilbert Osmond as a monstrously immoral villain would shock me
and perhaps infuriate James. How can we think that any author who would revise,
for a second edition, Osmond's view of Isabel from "as bright and soft as an April
cloud" to "as smooth to his general need of her as handled ivory to the palm,"
was not wanting to guarantee a negative judgment of the manipulator.( n16) At
the same time, no reader can reduce the action to any easily resolved conflict
between such a villain and our heroine. James thus doubles the plot: it is enacted
both within the story as written and within the mind of the reader who engages
fully with the dilemma faced by Isabel.

An even more striking example of this unnamed sub-class of apologue, the


thought-inducing action that resists reduction to summary or thesis, is James's
The Wings of the Dove. The plot cannot be summarized adequately, because it
takes place in four different minds: within the mind of Kate Croy, as she
experiences the conflicts James lands her in throughout; within the mind of
Merton Densher, as he experiences a different set of conflicts forcefully
dramatized by the author, and within the minds of the reader and author as they
experience the double conflicts of Kate and Merton and the intricacies of point-ofview that the complex story demands.

Some of the moral values of this novel are indeed as unequivocal as in any
Sunday School tract or open apologue: for example, James implies but never
states that it is always, in all circumstances, wrong to plot for the estate of a
helpless dying woman by pretending to court her when you are really engaged to
another woman. Merton knows it; James knows it; the readers James hopes for
know it, though of course some will not catch it or will reject it when they do,
perhaps deciding that it doesn't matter one way or another.( n17) But what would
James think of any critic who attempted to appraise the literary merit of Wings
without mentioning the brilliance with which he places Kate's essential admirable
qualities into moral decline? Criticism that ignores the ethical center of this
aesthetic achievement is simply naive. And criticism that merely describes the
conflicts, without permitting any statement of agreement or disagreement, is
cowardly. Any reader who thinks Densher should have gone all the way with
Kate's despicable plan should say so, up front, earning James's and my
disapproval: the full aesthetic effect of the work as intended has been denied to
any such reader, who may well reply: the novel is not as great as people say,
because it touts that mistaken Puritan (or middle-class, or Victorian) virtue.

It is from such disagreements that the most productive literary criticism can
emerge: when undertaken seriously neither side is likely to feel fully victorious.
Both sides will have learned something overlooked, either about the work itself or
about the world of ethical values in which we all live. And both sides, whether in
reading the work or in discussing it, are undergoing the ethical growth that
serious encounters with such conflict can produce.

Nothing I have written here can be said to prove either of my two theses, if by
prove we mean "move toward the impossibility of reasonable disagreement." Our
cultural moment will ensure the production of many more claims, by the purists,
that ethical and political views are irrelevant to literary judgment, and by the
remaining defenders of the fact/value split that whenever values intrude, genuine
knowledge and true rationality fly out the window. Intellectual fashions fade much
more slowly than clothing styles. But while we wait patiently for the fading, we
can continue to remind the purists and value-dodgers that whenever they engage
with a story, privately or publicly, they encounter evidence that refutes their
dogmas.
Notes
(n1) A few paragraphs that follow are slightly adapted from my recent "Of the
Standard of Moral Taste: Literary Criticism as Moral Inquiry." Permission for
modified quotation has been granted by the Woodrow Wilson Center.

(n2) The most aggressive rejections of my most extensive work of ethical


criticism, The Company We Keep: An Ethics of Fiction, came from purists and
"aestheticists" who objected to such offenses as my criticizing Rabelais' sexism.

(n3) Have I really read King? Well, I've tried to.

(n4) When the recent Random House list of 100 greatest novels in English of the
twentieth century was published, most of my friends joined my annoyance about
seeing this poorly written, thoughtless book on the weird list. There you see
again, as in my King comment: my own judgments will emerge throughout here,
some of them perhaps chargeable as biases, and only some of them, unlike this
one, defended with rational argument.

(n5) While working on a final revision of this essay, I stumbled on an account by


Stephen Greenblatt of the story-power of prosecutor Kenneth Staff's report on the

Clinton/Lewinsky affair. Start hired two lawyers to write the section called
"Narrative." One of the authors, Stephen Bates, "once studied advanced fiction
writing at Harvard." The other had studied narrative theory. Start knew the
ethical powers of story. Bates and his colleague knew the ethical powers of story.
Greenblatt knows those powers: his case is a strong ethical indictment, showing
just how and why the narrator of the story is more and more "unreliable"--though
not intended to be seen as such. Greenblatt does not, however, openly address
ethics or morality. Facing ethical issues, as a "cultural critic," he chooses to dodge
the language. See Greenblatt (A31).

(n6) For examples that have caused endless trouble for commentators, Jews and
Christians, and rich fodder for skeptics, see Judges 19-21, or Deuteronomy
21:1821 and 22:20-22.

(n7) Some critics would say that Bunyan's story has only one message: embrace
his one right version of Christianity. They should read the complex story again.

(n8) My engagement with critical pluralism here depends on years of living with
"Chicago school" pluralists: Richard McKeon, Ronald Crane, and Elder Olsen were
my mentors (see Crane's Critics and Criticism, Ancient and Modern); Sheldon
Sacks was my colleague. His sadly neglected book, Fiction and the Shape of
Belief, is most directly pertinent to my distinction of literary kinds.

(n9) Some who have not read Empson's Seven Types of Ambiguity carefully have
reported it as anti- intentionalist. They should read it again.

(n10) Since I have publicly mocked some authors for referring to their own works
too frequently, I hereupon resist offering any reference whatever to The Rhetoric
of Fiction, a much-neglected work that explores the issues I am describing here.

(n11) See essays engaging in ethical controversy by Richard Posner, Martha


Nussbaum, and myself in Philosophy and Literature 22.2 (1998).

(n12) Inexperienced readers do sometimes still read Gulliver's Travels as a


travelogue or adventure story, breaking Swift's heart.

(n13) The only work I've met that deals adequately with the unique critical
challenges presented by apologues that are called novels is David Richter's
brilliant Fable's End: Completeness and Closure in Rhetorical Fiction.

(n14) See Altieri, p. 274 above.

(n15) See my "What Does it Take to Make a New Literary Species?"

(n16) A great deal of James's later revisions for his New York edition were
specifically addressed to heightening the reader's awareness of moral judgments.
See especially what he does to the various choices of the manipulative narrator
in The Aspern Papers.

(n17) For a full encounter with the ethical effects of reading The Wings of the
Dove, see my "The Ethics of Forms: Taking Flight with The Wings of the Dove" in
Understanding Narrative. For a further extensive discussion of this kind of
"casuistical apologue"--to coin a label that she might object to and that will never
catch on, see Nussbaum's discussion of James's The Golden Bowl in Love's
Knowledge (125-47).
Works Cited
Booth, Wayne C. The Company We Keep: An Ethics of Fiction. Berkeley: U of
California P, 1988.
-----. "The Ethics of Forms: Taking Flight with The Wings of the Dove."
Understanding Narrative. Ed. James Phelan and Peter J. Rabinowitz. Columbus:
Ohio State UP, 1994. 99-135.
-----. "Of the Standard of Moral Taste: Literary Criticism as Moral Inquiry." In Face
of the Facts: Moral Inquiry in American Scholarship. Ed. Richard Wightman Fox
and Robert B. Westbrook. New York: Woodrow Wilson Center, 1998. 149-80.
-----. The Rhetoric of Fiction. 2nd ed. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1983.
-----. "What Does it Take to Make a New Literary Species?" Hypotheses: NeoAristotelian Analysis 15 (Fall 1995): 11-12.
-----. "Why Banning Ethical Criticism is a Serious Mistake." Philosophy and
Literature 22.2 (1998): 366-93.
Calisher, Hortense. "Portrait of a Pseudonym." The American Scholar 67.3 (1998):
53-61.

Crane, R. S., ed. Critics and Criticism, Ancient and Modern. Chicago: U of Chicago
P, 1952.
Empson, William. Seven Types of Ambiguity. New York: New Directions, 1966.
Greenblatt, Stephen. "A Story Told with Evil Intent." New York Times, 22
September 1998:A31+.
Hirsch, E. D. Validity in Interpretation. New Haven: Yale UP, 1967.
Nussbaum, Martha C. Love's Knowledge: Essays on Philosophy and Literature.
New York: Oxford UP, 1990.
-----. "Exactly and Responsibly: A Defense of Ethical Criticism." Philosophy and
Literature 22.2 (1998): 343-65.
Posner, Richard. "Against Ethical Criticism: Part II." Philosophy and Literature 22.2
(1998): 394-412.
Richter, David. Fable's End: Completeness and Closure in Rhetorical Fiction.
Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1974.
Sacks, Sheldon. Fiction and the Shape of Belief' A Study of Henry Fielding with
Glances at Swift, Johnson, and Richardson. Berkeley: U of California P, 1964.
Singer, Mark. "What Are You Afraid Of?: Terror Is Stephen King's Medium, But It's
Not the Only Reason He's So Popular--and So Frightening." The New Yorker, 7
September 1998: 56-67.
Steiner, Wendy. The Scandal of Pleasure. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1995.
~~~~~~~~
By Wayne C. Booth, University of Chicago

Naslov: Book Reviews. Prema: Carrard, Philippe, Style, 00394238, Summer98,


Svezak. 32, Broj 2.Baza podataka: Academic Search Complete.

Gerard Genette. Paratexts: Thresholds of Interpretation. Trans. Jane E. Lewin.


Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1997. xxv + 427 pp. $59.95 cloth;
$22.95 paper.
Gerard Genette. Paratexts: Thresholds of Interpretation. Trans. Jane E. Lewin.
Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1997. xxv + 427 pp. $59.95 cloth;
$22.95 paper.

Over the past twenty years, Gerard Genette has produced a comprehensive
theory of what he calls "transtextuality": of the relations of texts to genre
(Introduction a l'architexte, 1979), to other texts (Palimpsestes, 1982), and to the
paratext (Seuils, 1987). As Richard Macksey observes in his foreword to this
translation of the latter, and David Gorman has documented in a recent
"checklist" of Genette's works, English-language versions of these studies have
been slow to come. The Architext: An Introduction appeared in 1992, Palimpsests:
Literature in the Second Degree and Paratexts: Thresholds of Interpretation in
1997--between ten and fifteen years after their initial publication in French. That
time lag certainly has had consequences. For many English-speaking scholars not
conversant with French, Genette has remained primarily the author of Narrative
Discourse (1972; trans. 1980) and Narrative Discourse Revisited (1983, trans.
1988): a researcher mostly concerned with constructing models of storytelling,
who believes in such discredited notions as the "closure of the text" and is
uninterested in the aspects of the literary communication that cannot be
formalized--for instance, in the reading process.

The almost simultaneous publication of Palimpsests and Paratexts in English,


(and, let us add, though these studies do not concern transtextuality, of
Mimologics and The Work of Art) should go a long way towards dispelling this
limited view of Genette's endeavor. If Palimpsests covers a field that is wellknown to specialists in literature--intertextuality--Paratexts explores less familiar
territories. Under the label "paratext," Genette designates the "undefined zone"
which lies "between text and off-text," and which is less a fixed boundary than a
"threshold," offering a book's prospective readers the "possibility of either
stepping inside or turning back" (2). Such thresholds, according to Genette, play
a decisive role in the "correct" decoding of a text, and they deserve more
attention than the scholarly community has given them so far. For example,
Genette asks not so rhetorically, "limited to the text alone [...] how would we read
Joyce's Ulysses if it were not entitled Ulysses?" The title, here like in many other
cases, provides a "guiding set of directions," which indeed prove necessary if we
are to "take" the work as it is supposed to be taken.

Genette's analyses by and large follow the order in which readers usually receive
the messages sent by the paratext. They successively consider the publisher's
peritext (i.e., the book's format, cover, title page, typesetting, and printing); the
name of the author; the titles; the "please-insert" (i.e., the blurbs); the
dedications and the inscriptions; the epigraphs; the prefaces (introductions,
forewords, postfaces, etc.); the intertitles; the notes; the public epitext (i.e., the
elements not materially appended to the text that are addressed to the public,
like reviews and interviews); and finally the private epitext (i.e., the elements not
materially attached to the text that are addressed to a confidant, like letters and
diaries). Genette basically asks the same questions about each of these
constituents: where is it located? when can we find it? (e.g., did the notes come
with the original text or were they added later?), how is it textually manifested?

by whom is it sent? to whom? and to do what? Of course, Genette does not grant
equal space to each item. Thus, he takes about one page to establish that
"series" exist because "publishing [...] is structured by subject" (23), whereas he
devotes a whole chapter and forty pages (196-236) to dissecting the "functions of
the original preface."

Paratexts is in many respects an outstanding piece of work. Genette, as he did


with narrative discourse and intertextuality, brings order to an area whose
components had been investigated separately (there are valuable studies by
other people of such subjects as notes, titles, and prefaces), but never surveyed
in a comprehensive manner. In the course of these explorations, moreover,
Genette combines approaches that sometimes are regarded as incompatible, and
even antinomic. On the one hand, he uses current methods of analysis and
classification, generally borrowed from fields like semiotics and speech-act
theory. On the other, he supplies a steady flow of examples that testify to his
outstanding knowledge of traditional scholarship ("erudition") and literature itself.
William Nelles, in his review of the French original, noted that the index of the
authors cited includes 675 names, and he stressed that the list is "wide-ranging"
(142). Indeed, Genette can mention Dashiell Hammett and John Barth on the
same page, observing that the cover of the French, "Carte Noir" edition of The
Drain Curse accommodates "an ad for American cigarettes," and that one of
Barth's aims, while writing The Sot-Weed Factor, was to write a book long and
thick enough "so that its title could be printed in a single horizontal line on the
spine" (26). In the same ecumenical spirit, Genette constantly provides both
synchronic and diachronic analyses. True, he states early that his book is "an
attempt at a general picture, not a history of the paratext," adding that this
remark is prompted "by the belief that it is appropriate to define objects before
one studies their evolution" (13). Yet most chapters include an examination of the
development of the form under scrutiny, an examination sometimes explicitly
introduced by means of intertitles like "Historical Survey" (144), "Prehistory"
(163), and "History" (309). Furthermore, the fact that Genette should consistently
ask the question "when?" shows that he does not regard the phenomena he is
investigating as stable and permanent. Indeed, while the paratextual component
of "epigraphs" has a diachronic dimension, individual epigraphs (as well as
individual blurbs, titles, dedications, prefaces, notes, etc.) also have a history of
their own; they can, among other things, disappear, be modified, and reappear
over the years and the editions--changes that Genette faithfully chronicles when
they are relevant to his purpose.

If Genette carefully examines the structure and evolution of the paratext, he also
concerns himself with its function(s), that is, the effect(s) it is supposed to have
on readers. To state this otherwise, the paratext for Genette is not only a set of
textual marks that can be described by way of semiotic analysis. It also
constitutes a zone of "transaction" (2), where a sender (the author) transmits a
message to an addressee (whether the public at large or more restrictively the

reader of the text). That message may have an "illocutionary force" (10). For
example, the generic indication "novel" on some covers or title pages does not
signify "this book is a novel" but "please look on this book as a novel," as the
authorial indication "Stendhal" does mean "my name is Stendhal" but "I choose
the pseudonym Stendhar" (11). Genette's originality in the analysis of these
negotiations consists of focusing not on the reader (as American literary theory
and criticism have done for the past twenty years), but on the author "and his
allies" (2), that is, on such figures as the publisher, the editor, and whoever may
write the blurbs or the dedication. According to Genette, the author's "viewpoint"
indeed "sustains," "inspires," and "anchors" the paratextual performance, and
critics intent on contradicting that viewpoint must first "assimilate" it (408-09). Of
course, Genette is aware that readers of the paratext are not necessarily "docile"
(3), nor "obligated" (4). But he maintains that "what one cannot ignore, one is
better off knowing" (409), in this instance, that critics must reconstruct the
author's intentions before assuming that what he or she writes has "no true
meaning," or that it has a meaning but he or she "cannot know it" (408).

The manner of Paratexts will surprise readers who are not acquainted (yet) with
Palimpsests, Mimologics, or The Work of Art. Admittedly, Genette is still
enamored with typologies, and one of his chief goals remains to classify the
phenomena he is investigating with as much precision as possible. But the book
does not have the stern, solemn, and humorless tone that often characterized the
productions of French criticism during the 1960s, when it was seeking to make
itself into a "science of literature." Thus, Genette frequently makes ironic, wittily
self-reflexive comments about his own endeavor, noting for example that
epigraphs in his system have four functions "[n]o doubt because I didn't look for
more" (156), or that the table of contents in Les Miserables (a paratextual
monument in itself with its five parts, 48 books, and 365 chapters) includes 418
titles "unless I've miscounted" (308). Veteran Genette translator Jane E. Lewin
has done a remarkable job conveying Paratexts's rigor as well as its occasional
playfulness, and one cannot blame her for occasionally missing a pun, or rather
part of a pun. For example, the slogan "A poele Descartes!" (29) that figures on
the band of one of Jean-Claude Hemery's books cannot (only) be understood as
"Descartes to the stake," "poele" denoting a "stove" or a "frying pan"; it also
means "Descartes, take your clothes off!", as "poele" is homonymous with "poil,"
and the injunction "a poil!" ("get undressed!") is frequently used in popular
French, either literally or as a provocation ("a poil l' auteur!"). Along the same
lines, it is difficult not to notice that Lewin has shied away from the terseness and
metaphoricity of the French title Seuils, choosing instead immediately to name
the subject of the book and make the trope "thresholds" part of the subtitle. But
can we hold Lewin solely responsible for this decision? Did she have "allies" while
making it? More precisely, did the publisher intervene? And was Genette
consulted? I don't know, and I didn't ask. But the fact that such questions arise
after reading the book clearly makes Genette's point, namely, that the paratext in
general, and titles in particular, are essential to understanding a text. In brief, it

is difficult upon finishing Genette's study not to "watch out for the paratext!"
(410), or, at least temporarily, not to watch out more, or to watch out better.
Other Works Cited
Genette, Gerard. Introduction a l'architext. Pads: Seuil, 1979.
-----. Mimologics. Trans. Thais E. Morgan. Lincoln: U of Nebraska P, 1995. Of
Mimologiques: Voyage en Cratylie. Paris: Seuil, 1976.
-----. Palimpsestes: La litterature au second degre. Paris: Seuil, 1982.
-----. Seuils. Pads: Seuil, 1987.
-----. The Work of Art: Immanence and Transcendence. Trans. G. M. Goshgarian.
Ithaca: Cornell UP, 1997. Of L'Oeuvre de l'art: Immanence et transcendance.
Pads: Seuil, 1994.
Gorman, David. "Gerard Genette: An Anglo-French Checklist to 1996." Style 30
(1996): 539-50.
Nelles, William. Review of Seuils, by Gerard Genette. Style 23 (1989): 141-47.

~~~~~~~~

By Philippe Carrard, University of Vermont