Monday, October 17, 2011

Literature and Morality

Response to something written by a friend:

...I enjoyed reading your essay. It covers a lot of ground and is taxonomically useful. The heart of the essay to my mind, where you get most serious and interesting, is your dealing with “Liberal Moralism,” which also happens to pertain to Trilling. That’s what I’ll comment on though of course there’s lots to say on other parts of your essay.

I’d note though before commenting on that part that the distinction between “aestheticism” and “moralism” seems an exercise in futility. Some may argue as do Pater or less gloriously George Moore; and some may argue as do the “Critical Roundheads.” But why should we care? At their extreme, which is your opening characterization of them, they are middle-excluding and time wasting positions for any practical consideration of the issues Liberal Moralism addresses.

One of the problems with your essay is that you don’t distinguish sufficiently among different arts or within different arts. That said, I’ll confine most of my comments to the novel.

In contrast with the extreme positions you sketch, each excluding the other by definition, you note that most moralist critics “…accept that there is an irreducible aesthetic element in all art.” (That sounds like a truism.) But, as you note, they deny aesthetic autonomy, which you qualify to mean that artistic (or aesthetic) value depends on “moral value.” You don’t define what “moral value” means.

For this I’d go back to your opening discussion of the non-distinction between aesthetic effects and moral and cognitive effects, rightly seeing the latter within the aesthetic and within the direct effects of art. What I’d emphasize though is (using your word) the primacy of art as irreducibly aesthetic or artistic, which is to say, the moral dimension and cognitive dimension of a work must be seen—in being critically responsive—as an integral part of the artistry of a work, not something to be detached and then discussed, that detachment inveighed against by Susan Sontag in Against Interpretation.

In these terms "moral" in a novel is, I’d argue, coterminus with theme, and theme has no meaning save for how it arises from form or style. For form and content are, ultimately, intrinsically related ways of speaking about the same thing—the work as a whole, whether seen as process or as product.

Thinking about the novel this way makes irrelevant the a priori argument in favour of “the primacy of the moral”--that being the primacy of the moral in considering courses of action. The question of primacy here is a non question, for critics are right to focus responsively on any aspect of the novel they choose, whether it be the symbolism and imagery of the river in Huckleberry Finn, its themes, the critical problem of its ending or anything else that it or any
book properly gives rise to.

And, too, thinking about the novel this way displaces any thought that its artistry or aesthetic value depends on its moral content—a thought you say is common to all liberal moralists. Really, on reflection, it’s the other way around. The resonance and power of a novel’s view of the world—which is theme, properly understood—emerge from its formal artistry, and is, as I say, ultimately and conceptually indivisible from that artistry. So if the liberal moralists say what you say they say, then I say they don’t understand the art of the novel.

I’ll conclude this note with a comment about what you call, inconsistently, at the end of Part VI and the beginning of Part VII both the intrinsic nature of art and the intrinsic values of art. I say “inconsistently” because nature and values are conceptually separable. Regardless, you get into interesting territory in summarizing the moral impact of art. I note though that there is some slippage in that summary given your categories because about half of that summarized impact is psychological and cognitive and not moral—“the psychological effects of…”—the other half being the promotion of imaginative sympathy.

Again, regardless, I accept the first half and have doubts about the second, based on my own experience and not being familiar with “the literature” on art's moral impact. I, a more than average reader, am not a whit more empathetic because of it. My wife, who reads considerably less than I, is infinitely more compassionate and empathetic than I. There is no line that I can draw around people I know who are quantitatively above average readers, cordoning them off for their heightened sense of compassion and empathy.
So I reject that putative moral benefit.

And, finally, finally, what “serious positive moral impact” does seeing a tragedy produce other than that which is affective? Naturally we are moved more by tragedy because of its very nature; that its impact is great is a truism. But against that the whole idea of catharsis on experiencing tragedy in art is a superimposition and if a true effect, which I doubt, then certainly not a universal one. And, certainly, the idea of catharsis doesn't lend itself either to description of, or prescription for, the nature of tragic drama .

We are in some sense better for having seen, experienced, tragic drama, but no more than for seeing, experiencing, the paintings of Modigliani. But, no, we are not better morally for either of those experiences though some feel the need to think they are. I say to be better morally we need more than to have our consciousnesses heightened, though that is no small thing. We would need to be moved by what we experience to do good works for art to be morally beneficent. Otherwise, “moral impact” is a high falutin self-flattery for those who would see themselves so morally bettered.

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