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"New Ethics, New Formalism?"


Henrik Skov Nielsen

UNIVERSITY OF RHUS
1) Introduction

In this paper I try to sketch out some ideas for combining formalist readings with ethical interests and cont
oriented, political readings.

Inspired by Dorothy Hale and her recent publications on formalism and on ethics, respectively, I will argue
ignoring literary form and novelistic aesthetics is a bad idea if one wants to discuss the ethics and politics o
novels. Rather than turning from one to the other - from aesthetics to ethics and from form to politics - one
to explore how they are necessarily intertwined in the novel and also in short stories. I will discuss the ethic
positioning of the reader in a rather formalist reading of a specific short story by the Danish author Steen S
Blicher where the reader is positioned as a judge. The reading will combine narratological with poststructur
insights.

2) Ethics and literary theory, Poststructuralism and Narratology

Among the uncountable turns that have been identified in recent year's literary theory, the ethical turn is
undoubtedly one of the most powerful and important.

In particular the ethical turn has played a crucial role within deconstruction and within narratology. One can
oneself why this is so, and one could even dare to make the educated guess that these theoretical schools
more than many others have had to face a demand to legitimize what the do, and to defend themselves ag
accusations of, respectively, unworldly, negative nihilism and futile formalist classification.

As Liesbeth Korthals has described in Routledge Encyclopedia of Narrative Theory deconstructive thinkers a
narrative theorists often draw quite different conclusions and use different texts when talking about ethics a
reading. Deconstructionists like Nicholas Royle and Geoffrey Bennington inherit much of their thinking abo
from Levinas and Blanchot via Derrida. The same heritage is almost violently renounced by many narrative
theorists - among these e.g. James Phelan and Dorothy Hale who instead take Wayne Booth and Henry Jam
prominent sources of inspiration.

In this article I will take my point of departure in Hale's book from 1998, Social Formalism and in her recen
in Narrative "Fiction as Restriction: Self-Binding in New Ethical Theories of the Novel". In my view two maj
efforts in Hale's writing during the last ten years is first the combination of formalist and context oriented, p
readings in Social Formalism, and second the attempts to combine insights from narratology with insights f
poststructuralism.

In Social Formalism Hale demonstrates that literary critics turned cultural critics are in fact much more dep
on literary theory than they know. In the introduction she argues that many of these theorists fail to theori
they use literature. She warns against the tendency to dismiss literary theory while paradoxically still using
as a road to describing historical and social realities - only now without theoretical rigour and relevant meth

In her recent article "Fiction as Restriction: Self-Binding in New Ethical Theories of the Novel" Hale argues t
many of the new ethicist thinkers associated with post-structuralism at some points have much more in com
with Wayne C. Booth and Martha Nussbaum, when they discuss the role of the reader and the ethics of the
than they acknowledge.

Combining narratological insights with poststructuralist ones may seem like an obvious thing to do - at leas
certain point of view. But in fact it has definitely not been done much. It would be a gross understatement
that poststructuralism and deconstruction has not been in vogue in narratological circles the last decade. In
poststructuralism and especially deconstruction and particularly the man called Derrida has been the "Vol
of narratology. Derrida is the "He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named". His name is also curiously absent from Hale's
on deconstructive ethical thinkers. So when Hale attributes a neglect of the ethical tradition from Booth and
James to the new ethicists, one has to add that the neglect goes both ways. And I readily acknowledge tha
is also a certain logic behind the non-communication between the two sides. As Stefan Iversen once said to
How can they talk to each other?: one side (narratology) explicitly views books as friends, the other side
(deconstruction) just as emphatically views friends as books.

On a more serious note, the argument can be made that the prototypical narratological and the prototypica
deconstructive approach over-generalize in opposite directions by normally presupposing an "always" in the
of, respectively: "The strong literary work of art is always ultimately edifying, coherent and decodable in a w
that rules out any reading that does not sufficiently consider what the work actually says" and, conversely:
strong literary work of art is always ultimately strange, enigmatic and self-contradictory in a way that open
readings that do not commit the mistake of confusing and conflating interpretation and decipherment".

However one conclusion in this article will be that deconstruction and narrative theory actually both have a
common when it comes to ethics and literature, and that they have something to say to each other about t
things they do not have in common. You could even say that they are - to my mind - both necessary to kee
other at bay.

In the vast landscape of problems and questions connected to ethics and narratives, I will focus on one sing
problem or topic. The topic is the ethical positioning of the reader as a judge. Not just as someone making
judgments or even ethical judgments. But as a judge who has to pass a verdict on who is guilty and who is
innocent. In order to present this problem of the reader as a judge I will have to briefly say just a few word
the way James Phelan and Dorothy Hale thinks about the ethical positioning of the reader. Inspired by his f
and teacher Wayne Booth, James Phelan has taken great interest in the ethics and the rhetoric of narrative
Booth' influence on narrative theory has to do especially with his notion of the implied author and his ethica
approach to narratives. The two things are very closely related since for Booth ethical effects are very impo
parts of what makes reading literature a worthwhile effort, and since the administering of these effects in a
way is an imperative for any author worthy of his name as an author. Booth' book from 1988 is The Compa
Keep. An Ethics of Fiction, and we are supposed to understand both title and subtitle in a quite literal sense
and reading are described in terms of friendship and one should be careful to not suddenly find oneself in b
company. Bad company in this context would be unethical implied or real authors. In the mentioned article
Dorothy Hale, >Fiction as Restriction: Self-Binding in New Ethical Theories of the Novel<, Hale quotes Boot
these two points:

Because novels have such sway over their readers, Booth feels compelled to argue that implied authors bin
themselves to a positive ethical standard. (199)

For every.Henry James we meet, we meet scores of Genets and William Burroughs and Henry Millers and A
Dworkins and Mickey Spillanes and hundreds of even less admirable self-pitying and aggrandizing pleaders.
fallen creatures have a direct and seductive access to our emotions, and unless we have somehow been ino
with the bugs of criticism.they can devastate our souls. (pp 199-200)

Fallen creatures and devastated souls! No less. The horizon here is quite explicitly a theological one. And Bo
work is probably the most important background for the way the ethical turn has influenced narrative theor
only in the work of Phelan and Hale but also in Peter Rabinowitz', David Richter's and Adam Zachary Newto
which all build on ideas on the relation between author, text, reader and ethics.

As is obvious from just a quick glance on some of the titles of Phelan's recent books (Narrative as Rhetoric:
Technique, Audiences, Ethics, Ideology (1996), Living to Tell About It: A Rhetoric and Ethics of Character
Narration(2005) and Experiencing Fiction: Judgments, Progressions, and the Rhetorical Theory of
Narrative (2007)) rhetoric and ethics are key notions in his approach to narratives. For Phelan narratives ar
privileged places for ethical reflexion. And perhaps the key concept is the concept of "position":

Indeed, the central construct in our approach to the ethics of reading is position, a concept that combines a
from and being placed in an ethical location. (Phelan and Martin, 100)

Phelan and Martin go on to say that the ethical positions of character, narrator and implied author are deep
intertwined. In this sense all Phelan's readings are constructed on the background of an assumption that th
place the reader in a position where he or she must make ethical choices and ethical judgments about thes
entities; the characters, the narrator and the implied author. Turning again to Dorothy Hale, she wants in th
mentioned article to demonstrate that the new ethicists - by which she means poststructuralist thinkers like
Butler and Hillis Miller - think of the reader not as friend, but as a judge, but - and this is crucial to her poin
article - how this is very close to what Booth already says. Hale states:

On Miller's view, James is worthy of study not because the story world of his novels contain a positive answ
ethical questions such as "what constitutes human flourishing?" (Altieri "Lyrical Ethics" 56) or "how human
should live" (Nussbaum 15) [that would be the reader looking for a friend, a guide in life and good compan
because James's novels allow the law-abiding reader, the reader who can fully inhabit the ethical position p
for him through his projection of literary narrative, to live that admirable ethical life in the process of readin
James's novels. James actively hails the reader by placing her in the position of judge-by asking her to hon
recognize the law of the text. But part of what it means for the reader to take the position of judge is for he
become self-conscious about her own responsibility in projecting the law of the text as a projection. [.] The
he continues, is "put on trial in a way that is not wholly pleasant. Certainly it is not relaxed or merely recep
(Conduct 15). (193)

She then adds the following question and comment:

How can a reader be both constructed by the text and take responsibility for that construction? How can th
be "put on trial" if she has been placed there by Henry James? The reader's response to the call of the text
her as judge judgeable, accountable. The very uncomfortableness of this position is proof of the ethical effi
ethical self-binding. (193)

So if the reader is a judge it is only because he is appointed by his friend and guide, the implied author, acc
to Hale.

With these remarks on the positioning of the reader as a context, I will now turn to the short story and exa
the question of the reader as a judge in a specifically interesting text from as early as 1829 by the Danish a
Steen Steensen Blicher.

3) The Parson at Vejlbye

In an American Newspaper in 1909 the story was presented this way:


The article is complete with a direct question to the reader and a finger pointing directly at the "you" of the
and asking her: "Would you convict on circumstantial evidence?". There is some historical truth behind Blic
story. To say, as the newspaper, that the story, as presented, is a true story, is more than a little imprecise,
however.

I am aware that few non-Danish readers will know Blicher's text. In Denmark however it is can
and I hope very much to present it in a way that will not be too hard to follow. The perspectives
believe, very general.
In each of the cases discussed by Miller and Hale there is a certain degree of figural speaking since there ne
be and there is not "an actual trial", "an actual judge", "a actual crime" in the narratives discussed. All of th
however, is present in Blicher's short story as will be clear from the following very short resume:

The narrator, who is a small time judge and sheriff in a small country society, falls in love with the
daughter of the parson with whom he becomes a friend.
The parson is very hot-tempered, but a good man.
The villain, Morten Bruus, tries to bribe the narrator, the judge.
We later find out that Morten was himself in love with the parson's daughter.
Morten's brother, Niels Bruus, is hit by the parson with a spade.
The parson claims that Niels then runs away.
Later a body - seemingly that of Niels - is found in the parson's garden and the parson is accused o
murder.
The parson is put on trial and convicted and sentenced to death by the narrator, the judge even tho
feels it is a tragedy and tries to avoid it.
The parson is decapitated.
Only some 20 years later it turns out that it was a judicial murder [Justizmord] and that Niels is no
after all. The dead body belonged to a hapless servant of Morten Bruus.
All parties have been setup by the villain, Morten, who has himself buried the corpse while dressed
parson's nightgown.
When the narrator hears this, he dies from a heart attack and the tragedy is complete.

If the reader has the uncanny feeling that he has read the story although he knows, he has not, then it is p
because he has Mark Twain's Tom Sawyer, Detective. Larger parts of the plot in Twain's story are stolen fro
Blicher via some our textual sources, but this is not a concern in the present article. The largest difference
between the two texts is that Blicher's text is a tragedy because there is no Tom Sawyer and therefore no
competent detective coming to the rescue of the accused parson.

Blicher's text is through and through about law and justice and the relation between the two. It is also a na
about signs and interpretation and about how to make judgments on the basis of signs and interpretations.
about law and justice and it is so in a way so it seizes and grasps the reader. In the end the reader is unabl
position herself outside the very question of justice and verdict.

To see this let us take a look at the narrator. Let us first notice that he is, literally

speaking, a friend and a judge of the man he convicts. And he is, as a sheriff, also the principal investigato
crime. He is also a very two-sided character: On the one hand he is almost inhumanly righteous and morall
Not only will he not take bribe and he will not make judgments in favour of himself, his friends, or influentia
persons - we learn all that in the beginning - when is comes to the decisive situation he sacrifices the life a
happiness of himself, his fianc and her father to let justice happen. It seems that absolutely nothing can m
narrator sway away from justice:

My own heart, too, argued for his innocence, but the reason of the judge cannot be swayed by the counsels
pleading of the heart; neither love nor hate, reverence nor contempt, gain nor bereavement can weigh by s
as a grain of sand in the even scales of justice.

On the other hand he is, as I will indicate in the following, extremely slapdash and careless in his investigat
hence in the way he takes care of his responsibility - as a friend and a judge - to see that justice be done to
parson.

To the alert reader there are two competing narratives; the narrator's narrative about the parson AND the
narrative that the reader constructs about the narrator. From the second it is possible to see that the event
one do not quite lead from one to the other with the necessity postulated by the narrator. I will not demons
this in detail, but just mention that he does not really investigate anything. He doesn't even take a look at
corpse before specifically asked to - and even then he doesn't examine it to see, e.g. how long it has been
etc.

Even worse is the way he treats the testimonies of the witnesses. Actually there is a conflict between the
testimonies since the last witnesses testify to having seen a man carry a sack presumably with a corpse ba
the woods. The narrator reflects on this:

This struck me as most extraordinary, and it had occurred to me at once that their testimony might conflict
our earlier version of the case, and the man's innocence thus be demonstrated.

But, alas, his thought about this crucial fact is - in his own word - "cursory", "fleeting".

Finally another unfortunate tendency of the narrator must be mentioned. At several occasions he quite clum
associates the parson with the dead body without evidence. Already before the trial and at a point where th
parson is just a suspect the narrator refers to him in his diary as "murderer". And similarly before he even
the corpse in the garden he refers to the dead person as the "slain man". Very early he also refers to Morte
as "the terrible blood-avenger" - An expression that directly entails that the parson is a murderer.

So our narrator, the sheriff and judge, seems to have decided upon the facts of the case before venturing in
investigation. Therefore he commits a judicial murder - that much is clear, but what is the moral of it all, we
ask.

As mentioned the narrator is an extremely just and extremely careless person. He refuses to do anything th
doesn't believe to be right, but what he believes to be right is in fact wrong. He is so careless that it border
immorality in itself. The judicial murder is the direct result of the clash between the accuser Morten Bruus,
all inventiveness and no moral on the one side, and the narrator and judge who is all moral and no inventiv
on the other side. He sees himself as an instrument without a will of its own, and acts as a mere bookkeepe
justice, which is also a way of saying that he does not truly take responsibility for the verdict or the parson
the verdict the reader can pass on the narrator is not a lenient one, but a harsh one. He is not innocent, bu
responsible for the judicial murder.

But our job is not quite done with this verdict of characters and narrator. We should also ask in a broader
perspective what questions the text asks its readers and how it ethically positions the reader who faces all
questions of signs, interpretation and justice?

We can start by noticing that a reading that concludes by passing verdict on the narrator ends right where
himself begins in the first words of the first entry of his diary:

IN THE NAME of Our Lord, Jesus Christ! Now at last, by the will of God, and through the generosity of my d
patron, I am elevated, all unworthily, to the office of County Sheriff and Judge over this people.

Characterizing himself as unworthy is the probably the truest statement by the narrator altogether, one cou
argue.

But second time round we should also ask if we do justice to the narrator and to the text by demonstrating
contrary to appearances he is not innocent in the injustice done to the parson. In that context the narrator
significantly feels himself placed before a judge and a jury at several places. Two examples are:

The new witnesses are to appear in court to-morrow, and I am as despondent as if it were myself that they
to testify against.

And shortly after alone with the parson:

At last he roused himself, sat up, and fastened his eyes upon me. I waited in breathless silence as if it were
own doom I was about to hear - as indeed in a sense it was.

By explicitly putting himself on trial, the narrator establishes a firm link between his judgments of others, a
reader's and other's judgment of him. Therefore the first thing the canny reader notices is that: "The Parso
Veilbye" is just as much about judging the narrator as it is about the verdict of the parson. But that said,
thing we find we have to conclude that: "The Parson at Veilbye" is just as much about judging the narrato
about the verdict of the parson.

So for the reader the problem is that she suddenly finds herself placed in the position of a judge, but more
that: She finds herself placed, as a reader, in exactly the same position as the character on whom she feels
has to pass verdict.

This is not to plead for acquittal. Acquittal is also a verdict.

Phelan and Martin's concept of position, and of being placed in an ethical location seems here to acquire a f
dimension. Not only do "The ethical dimension of reading engage our values and judgments". In addition th
reader finds herself implied in the very ethical dilemma raised in the text, the dilemma of judging on circum
evidence. The reader is unable to find a place outside of the very verdict she has to pass, and thus runs the
acting in a headless way if she lets the sword fall on the accused narrator.

To sum up "The Parson at Vejlbye" eminently stages a convergence between an ethics of interpretation and
ethics of compassionate humanity. The narrator is both an interpreter and a judge, and can be accused of h
his responsibility righteous but careless. The reader's decision on this accusation places her in an ethical po
and dilemma very much like the narrator's own.

4)

To conclude I will return to Dorothy Hale and to her somewhat surprising use of the new ethicists as a mea
coming Booth to the rescue:

[.] the ethical theorists whom I have been discussing can in turn show us something new about Booth's the
implied agents. Booth's definition of the implied author is so famous it hardly needs quoting: "The author c
in short, an image of himself and another image of his reader; he makes his reader, as he makes his secon
and the most successful reading is one in which the created selves, author and reader, can find complete
agreement" (Rhetoric 138). This description has been challenged on logical grounds as circular logic or delu
subjectivism. Doesn't the reader simply interpret the work according to her own values-and then name this
reflection the implied author's intention? But if we think about Booth's theory of implied agents in light of n
ethical theory, we see that self-projection is in fact limited by the voluntary self-binding undertaken by the
who responds positively to the text's hailing." (199)

While I am completely sympathetic to the effort to put stress on the fact that interpretation is not the resul
reader's unlimited, free play with signifiers, I think that Hale underemphasises the deconstructive insight th
decipherment is just as irresponsible as the free, non-binding play. This is one thing I think that Geoffrey
Bennington puts well in a rather simple and fundamental way in his article called "Deconstruction and Ethic

No text can make any particular reading of itself necessary [.] but equally no text can open itself to just
any reading [.] Texts [.] leave open an essential latitude of freedom which is just what constitutes
reading as reading rather than as passive decipherment. [.] (Hermeneutics is the dream of closing that ope
(277)

For Bennington this ultimately means in a less simple and fundamental way that there is no ethics without
invention, but invention is not unlimited or unbound:

In this sense an ethical act worthy of its name is always inventive, and inventive not at all in the interest of
expressing the "subjective" freedom of the agent, but in response and responsibility to the other (here the
being read). (279)

Before this interpretation of ethics and justice was Bennington's it was Derrida's. And before it was Derride
was German. Or more precisely Kantian - At least Derrida presents a very similar idea as a more or less inv
reading of Kant in The Force of Law:

If I were content to apply a just rule, without a spirit of justice and without in some way and each time inve
the rule and the example, I might be sheltered from criticism, under the protection of law, my action confo
law, but I would not be just. I would act, Kant would say, in conformity with duty but not through duty [.] (
245)

The narrator in Blicher's story is arguably applying just rules and acting in conformity with law, but being u
the same. He is "sheltered from criticism, under the protection of law, [his] action conforming to law, but [.
[.] just." (Derrida 245).

I think that the stressing of the reader's self-binding and obligation towards the actual signs in the actual te
many narrative theorists) and the stressing of the reader's active innovation and obligation towards the ope
of the text (of many deconstructionists) are equally important when reading many literary texts. I do think,
however, that Bennington is much too sweeping when he talks about all texts:

No text can make any particular reading of itself necessary [.] but equally no text can open itself to just
any reading [.] Texts [.] leave open an essential latitude of freedom which is just what constitutes
reading as reading rather than as passive decipherment.

It may be true that no text can make any particular reading of itself necessary, but it is certainly the case f
many texts that one particular reading is much desirable and advisable. I'd even say that some texts cry fo
decipherment. Take cook books or car manuals. They are built upon the very principle that different reader
supposed to read them in the same way and get to the same result. Or take medicine labels describing the
use and dosage of the medicine. I am sure an inventive reading of these texts is a bad idea.

But hidden behind this elementary critique may lie an interesting conclusion about the intersection of ethics
narrative, since it seems to lead to the conclusion that some narratives and some texts - pre-eminently per
many literary narratives - that these narrative texts provide excellent training grounds for learning that our
possible responsibilities and responses are rarely limited to one, and just as rarely unlimited. In that respec
Parson at Vejlby" is paradigmatic. It poses questions about right and justice and interpretation to the reade
thematic as well as at a structural level. If there is some truth to the statement that narratological and
deconstructive approaches often tend to over-generalize in opposite directions, they allow us, in combinatio
see how Blicher's short story as a literary exegesis of "judge not lest ye be judged" is edifying - not in spite
fact, but because of the fact that it denies the reader a position from where she can safely make ethical jud
about the characters and the narrator.

References
Attridge, Derek (1999) "Innovation, Literature, Ethics" in Culler, Jonathan (2003): Deconstruction.

Critical Concepts in Literary and Cultural Studies, vol. I-IV, New York, Routledge.

Attridge, Derek (2004): The Singularity of Literature, London & New York, Routledge.

Blicher [1829]: "Prsten i Vejlbye" in Noveller og Digte, 1, Det danske Forlag, Kbenhavn 1943.

Blicher [1829]: "The Parson at Vejlby"; http://gaslight.mtroyal.ca/vejlby.htm

Wayne C. Booth (1988): The Company We Keep: An Ethics of Fiction, Los Angeles, University of California Press.

Derrida (2002 [1990]): "Force of Law" in Acts of Religion 2002, Routledge, New York.

Kant, Immanuel (1974 [1787]): Kritik der praktischen Vernunft, Hamburg, Felix Meiner Verlag.

Newton, Adam (1995) Narrative Ethics, Cambridge, Harvard University Press.

Phelan: James (1996): Narrative as rhetoric: technique, audiences, ethics, ideology, Ohio State University Press.

Phelan (2005): Living to tell about it: a rhetoric and ethics of character narration, Cornell University Press.

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