45C Lectures [C. Altieri]


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Lyrical Ethics and Literary Experience


Charles Altieri

Dept. of English

UC Berkeley

Berkeley Ca 94708-1030

Why "Lyrical Ethics"? The "ethics" component is easy to explain. 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? Then by linking such claims to the lyrical we have at least an opportunity to imagine versions of ethos, if not quite of ethics, that preserve a distance from academic philosophy that I hope to show worth the awkwardness and even the moderately oxymoronic qualities of my title.

This awkwardnes may also help address another even more pressing problem. The very notion of ethical criticism seems to me at once so necessary and so pretentious that it behooves those who engage in it to maintain a considerable amount of embarrassment and some self-disgust. The embarassment stems from taking ourselves as somehow spokespersons for self-congratulatory values in reading that are extremely difficult to state in any public language, and the disgust derives from our succumbing to the manifest social and psychological need that we find means of justifying criticism for a public on grounds that in one register exagerrate our importance to society and in another displace the domain of pleasures and thrills and fascinations and quirky sensualities that may in fact be what we produce for our clients. I hope that by stressing the lyrical dimension of this situation we can both acknowledge its temptations and partially separate ourselves from the seductions of philosophical authority. For we at least have to continue to concentrate on value languages responsive to the intricacies and pleasures that literary experience provides. And then we may not have to participate so completely in the promise that our theorizing will give readers pedigrees entitling them to participate in some 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. Or perhaps it is more accurate to claim only that we may harm these readers less by stressing pleasures than by promising moral worth.

The smugness of my introduction is a high price to pay for negotiating embarrassment. So a even a turn to academic seriousness should seem a welcome shift. Let me begin then 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 how individuals assess motives and actions in texts, in readers imagining or actually entering moral conversations about their assessments, and in the effort to link what readers and critics do to 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. So in this essay I want to concentrate on the problems that haunt critics’ idealizations of these three activities. These problems do not entail rejecting current practices of ethical criticism. They do, however, require recognizing what such criticism misses, and they create a backdrop against which it may be possible to tell value stories that remain pertinent for ethics without having to share its assumptions or methods. Therefore as I try to clarify what I take these fundamental problems to be, I will attempt to develop by contrast dimensions of literary experience and of literary education that are not readily accessible within those critical frameworks, yet are arguably central to our realizing an important range of actual and potential powers in the psyche and in the traditions it feeds upon that can enter into our ethical thinking. I hasten to add that this task does not require melodramatic languages about shattering the self or pursuing polymorphously perverse sensibilities. Rather it is a matter of stressing those ways in which dynamic literary work cultivates aspects of sensibility that problematize or resist the making of any kind of clear moral judgment and that engage 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.

I like to think of my project here as resisting ethics in the name of a richer model for approaching questions about ethos, so that one can envision ways that in the long run allow literary experience to affect what we take ethical judgment to involve.

that we be careful not to place under ethics all our concerns about human values or about what constitutes a good life. Ethics has disciplinary coherence when it is confined to inquiries about how we can assess justifications for actions or elaborate methods for suggesting how we go about making such assessments. Clearly even this narrow sense of the discipline will require constant crossing of borders. But insisting on this separate domain for ethics will help prevent our assuming that most of the values that matter to us can in fact be easily represented within the methods we have for dealing with justification, and it will indicate the need for a somewhat different discursive domain, which I call concerns about ethos, where we explore imaginatively what might modify our understandings of action and require shifts in how we assess justifications.

Philosophers have long been aware of the need for some such distinction. Its usual form consists in separating ethics as a specific discipline for the systematic analysis of how certain modes of justification for actions and policies might be articulated and assessed from a more general "moral philosophy" devoted to speculations on what might constitute good lives for human beings. But I think we have to modify the terms of this distinction if we are to prevent literary experience from being subsumed too easily within philosophical discursive habits. For literature is too tempting a target for those who want to stress the power of speculative moral thinking so that they can modify what seem myopic disciplinary practices. Using literature for such purposes is obviously not a bad idea; indeed it is quite important. However that very importance to those who want to modify ethics from within philosophy makes it almost impossible not to coopt the literary for these philosophical purposes.

We may be able to weaken this temptation or provide better means of resisting it if we had a way of locating focussed resistance to disciplinary ethics not in some other mode of philosophy but in some more general cultural domain that we might call articulations of ethos. Then we can preserve disciplinary integrity for ethical theory while recognizing how its methods will have to be constantly challenged. And

Then we might be able

Clearly literature appeals to those who want to make the latter more powerful in relation to the former. But I think the very desire to modify the ethical from within tends to coopt that which we want to effect the desired changes.

So it is more prudent to stress what is different about literary experience and use it as a challenge to ethics within the overall cultural (not only philosophical) space where versions of idealized ethos must compete.

Even to open the door for such a project I have to begin with I can only offer as a heuristic proposal--

Moreover we might be able to be somewhat more clear on a difference between essentially contested values and possible shareable methods of assessing actions and consequences in particular situations.

This heuristic proposal is obviously both a ground for and consequence of my concern to keep some distance between values central to literary experience and those which are readily formulated within ethical theory.

From this perspective it is a mistake to use looser concepts of ethics and morality that arrogate to themselves the function of defining and assessing values per se for a range of practices, whether or not the values are invoked by first or second-order aspects of justifications proposed for specific actions or agendas. For if we keep the focus limited we can always link actions to situations and specify how we are weighing the available possibilities for assessment. And then we can relegate to the domain of ethos those efforts to establish what values matter within the culture, while acknowledging that this domain will be essentially contested not only for the contents it priveleges but for the modes of assessment that call for such priveleging.

My second claim attempts to show how this heuristic suggestion is reinforced by literary experience. While there there are many ways literary experience invites and sustains ethical discourse even within my suggested parameters for that term, it also becomes important to recognize those values within such experience which might affect how we think about ethos even though, or precisely because, they do not enter directly into most discourse used in assessing justifications of actions. Such values emerge in part because the states of mind which the arts cultivate are not easily correlated with the distanced dispositions required for making careful judgments or for addressing workable ethical criteria, and in part because this concern for ethical judgment puts too much emphasis on the public dimensions of our imaginings and not enough on the egocentric processes of soul making that become possible when we let ourselves participate fully in the organizations of energies that great texts make available. Therefore I will attempt to argue that even for a full grammar of what might go into ethical judgment it is important to understand what in literary experience resists an emphasis on such judgment, especially in relation to those passions and feelings that are manifestly ill at ease within the vocabularies of judgment required for specfic ethical inquires. Pursuing this tension will require considerable reluctantance about leaping to ethical judgments within literary experience, and that reluctance ironically might eventually result in our having richer frameworks to call upon when we do posit and assess justifications for actions.

No decent theorist on the relation between ethics and literary experience ignores the challenges I am trying to sharpen. But still I want to claim that the challenge is rarely fully engaged. The moral readings that I know simply attribute so much authority to the role of spectator and the discerning power of ethical judgments that they not only minimize the force of specific formal properties within the text but they also have to ignore the pressures and the permissions created by the text’s passionate designs upon us. Let me take up each of these charges in turn, for the richer our sense of the problems with the now dominant models of ethical criticism the sharper the demands we can formulate for alternative ways of casting the values at stake in our reading and our criticism.

First, it is difficult for approaches that stress ethical judgments not to cast readers as primarily what Martha Nussbaum calls "judicious spectators" (Poetic Justice, pp. 74-8). Their please has to be located in how they develop interpretations for the actions that texts present or stage. This kind of criticism and the theory that shapes it thereby shortchanges other, more immediate and dynamic aspects of readers’ relations with texts, where our concern is less with judging others than with observing ourselves, or, better, with extending ourselves as fully as we can into the passionate worlds afforded by the specific workings of an authorial will and intelligence. But for most ethical criticism the writer himself or herself becomes little more than a hyper-reader of events that the text records, so it eliminates the specific passions and fantasies that underly the force of the writer’s representation (which we might call "the presentation of the representation").

This ethical criticism does foreground 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. However these emphases also generate what I take to be a second major limitation. If criticism dwells only on these values, there is little opportunity to extend beyond realistic narrative to engage what may be literature’s major contribution to our appreciation of the values at stake in ethical thinking--not its complementing already established notions of agency and of judgment but its broadening our involvement in those passions and states of mind that cannot be easily represented within ethical modes of questioning. 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 self-absorbed 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 of commensurability on which ethical judgment may ultimately depend.

The effect of both limitations is to cast literary experience as primarily a spectator sport: readers retain the distance of the easy chair even as they learn to sympathize with how agents engage their particular imagined worlds. But moral thinking attentive to what lyrical impulses emphasize must go beyond values that spectators reconstruct by observation and by sympathy to the qualities fundamental to how and where we become situated by full participation in the energies organized by the work. 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.

In both kinds of cases participation entails maintaining substantial differences from the attitudes we rely on in all of our practical judgments. Minimally we become attentive to the selves that are possible when we manage to deploy distinctive powers of mind and sensibility. And often 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 learn that there remain available certain states of transport once attributed primarily to religious experience. Here what we often reduce to aesthetic experience provides in the intensity of internal self-gathering that keeps a harmony among diverse elements what it might mean to characterize lives and states as ultimately satisfying ones. We learn to demand that we able to ask ourselves about the kinds of willing that make lives happy or unhappy ones and that sanction imperatives like Rilke’s that one must change one’s life. Such large-scale imperatives do not stem from specific chains of justification but from overall impressions of what we can and cannot make ourselves feel and come to will in relation to those feelings.


I can summarize my project by claiming that I want to provide practical and non-melodramatic 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. This will entail on the one hand showing how ethical criticism becomes subject to Nietzschean critique and on the other demonstrating 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. And it will also provide a basis for the variety of emotions that we take as central to literary experience. Rather than dwelling within the parameters of approval and disapproval in relation to empathy and sympathy, stressing conative states enables theory to explore how we participate in passionate states that range from fear and desparation and confusion about identification to the fullest models our culture has for what Yeats called the "self-delighting, self-appeasing, self-affrighting," 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.

The limitations I keep claiming will come into sharp focus if we simply outline 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 complement 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 particularly important for those who want literary experience to complement traditional ethical inquiry. For it promises to contour judgment to the dense texture of particular lives and hence can partially free itself from the tendency within Anglo-American philosophy to rely on simple representative anecdotes as its means of testing principles. And that shift in turn provides an alternative to the excruciating philosophical task of developing categories where different situations can be seen 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, narrative based modes of judgment that Aristotle characterized as phronesis (see Love’s Knowledge, pp.25-7 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).

Deconstructive and Levinasian ethical criticism is based on a very different notion of concreteness. More affected by Kantian aesthetics than is the ethics of discrmination, 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 strength 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. Its force emerges in reading because there we simultaneously feel the violence of our will to make texts mean something we can state abstractly and the capacity of the desires working within textuality to resist that will. Success in such reading then holds out the promise that we can adapt the same attitudes towards society, keeping ourselves wary of the forms of violence that so easily mask as welfarist principles inattentive to the needs of those for whom we see ourselves speaking.

Clearly both perspectives have a good deal to offer. But they also leave us with substantial problems making it impossible not to have to supplement them with some 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 affords 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 can 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 the Aristotelian concern for how we should live at the center of our inquiry, we have to preserve as formative some kind of larger framework of examples and probably at least some principles which 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. We need then to be able to determine what roles traditional philosophy can play in establishing these principles and even in determining how much 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 problem of wanting supporting categorical principles. And it is willing to take the conceptual risks necessary to deny their aid. But then ideals of letting be must constantly face the possibility that they do become categorical and hence provoke their own forms 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 or so necessarily destructive in the judicious use of categories. Perhaps it might even be able to show why certain kinds of singularity are preferable to others if it could free itself from the singularity-category binary opposition. For then singularity might matter to the degree that it can tilt or bend categories by making articulate certain features or possibilities not usually recognized within certain received categories.

Neither emphasis on concreteness then can sustain a satisfying theoretical position. Deconstruction cannot even postulate much of of an ethical theory for literary experience because it cannot supplement its commitment to singularity without falling into bad faith. I have to admit that Derrida has provided that supplement in relation to a general ethics by developing complex interelations between response, responsiveness, and responsibility. But that is largely because he can rely on residual cultural values for seeking out what is singular in the working desires manifesting aspects of particular persons. But to extend those concepts to literary theory one has to be able to show how they can handle needs for value distinctions among texts and for accounts of what characterizes response and responsibility in relation to various kinds of texts. I do not think this has been done. The situation is somewhat different for the other idealization of concreteness. For there we will find substantial efforts to clarify what values concreteness serves and how those values play roles in more general concerns about personal and social existence. So now I will turn to those efforts, but less to celebrate them than to show that even the most sophisticated efforts to shore up now standard efforts to locate ethical criticism in refinements of spectatorial judgment prove seriously flawed. Yet the more we appreciate the problems involved, the better positioned we will be to see the cultural work one can accomplish by making the center of one’s inquiry into questions about literary ethics not narrative representations but the dynamics of lyric expression.

There are two basic strategies for supplementing concreteness so that it comes to mediate specific values that can engage the generalizing world of philosophical discourse, if not as specific ethical theory then as part of a tradition of moral philosophizing dedicated to articulating what comprises good lives for human beings. One is perfectionist, represented philosophically by Stanley Cavell and in literary theory by Wayne Booth. Since Cavell rarely if ever allies himself explicity with ethical criticism, here I will focus on Booth (while admitting that there are subtantial differences between these positions that I will have to ignore). Perfectionist theory in general is not content with activities of discernment and the development of moral sensibility. It concerns itself with who agents become by virtue of the discriminations they learn to make. And it measures that becoming by the quality of experience or of expression that the agent manifests as a result of the repeated activity of reading in a certain manner. As Booth puts it, reading can modify the desires we come to desire: "What sort of character, what sorts of habits, and 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).

This position is a powerful one in part because it can dignify concrete texts and ways of reading without having to subsume either into general principles or insist upon a close fit with moral philosophy. Booth brings to bear a sense of values that depends entirely on modifications in the quality of experience as that can be measured in relation to a context of other experiences "that are both like and unlike them" (70): appraisal consists in examining whether an experience can be seen as "comparatively desireable, 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. For ultimately ethical criticism asks how texts contribute to virtue. And the questioning about virtue leads to identifying texts with their implied authors and treating the authors in terms of the roles they might play in desireable 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). Are there problems that the text might create for such imaginary friendships such as hidden designs or lack of respect for the audience or shoddy reflection on the activity presented? Conversely when we do allow texts into the company we keep, we in effect define our desires for desire in terms of a pursuit that extends beyond our limited selves and affords a test of value that works by exploring and comparing examples rather than by seeking appropriate principles.

Booth’s work seems to me important on several fronts, especially for its capacity to make the most intimate aspects of valuation in principle public while at the same time he gives the public a mode of existence closely tied to the concrete conditions central to what we treasure in our reading. Yet he can tie close reading to expansive comparative questions and he can specify how at stake in those comparisons are our sense of what matters most to us as human company. But how adequate to our reading are the figure of the friend and company of friends? First that figure seems to me too quiescent. I would rather have the texts I read prove interesting enemies than all admirable friends--not only because I want to be challenged but also because I want the fascination of what refuses to contour itself to the models of dialogue that are allowed by a virtue-based model of friendship. More important, the idea of virtue as a primary criterion for the friends who contribute to happiness seems to me a somewhat pious and inaccurate one. Invoking "virtue" proves too easy a way to have one’s moral generalizability without principle and hence without the invitations to rigorous analysis which we expect to bring to questions of principle. And invoking virtue ultimately undercuts the force of the level of intimacy that the figure of friends as a company seemed to afford. For if we ask about how we establish intimate relations with friends, virtue need not play a central part. At best it is a necessary but not sufficient condition, most of the time. In fact we choose our friends (if "choose" is the right word) for many positive qualities and in terms of many contingent aspects of ourlives. Ironically the more one stresses intimacy with one’s friends, and hence the more one can dwell on reading for its qualities of direct experience submitted to judgment, the weaker the notion of the ethical has to become since that is simply not the basic litmus test for most of us. Consequently Booth’s argument can be said to give texts an awkward intimacy that is too public for most forms of affection and fascination while at the same time failing to develop an adequate public text of what might count as virtue or satisfy specifically ethical conditions of judgment.

Booth’s comparative method ought now enable us to appreciate why Martha Nussbaum’s recent Poetic Justice takes a very different tack. For her one can bring philosophy and literature into satisfying conjunction only by showing how the very concreteness that tests our powers of discrimination also can powerfully mediate what counts as our general models for assessing ethical and political values. Getting clear on how this work matters and what we can learn from its limitations will take me somewhat more time than I spent on Booth, but spending that time will also make us have to find ways to reintroduce the qualities of intimacy and concrete self-questioning for which he gives a secure place (so long as we are willing to jettison discourse about "virtue").

Nussbaum’s previous writings on literature and ethics had recognized the need for supplementing the appealing concreteness of literary experience, but they vacillated between attributing a distinctive ethics to novels and insisting on their fit with or relevance to "even ... Kantians or Utilitarians" (Love’s Knowledge, 27). Her new book takes on the theoretical issues much more directly because it makes an explicit case for the possible fit between the two modes of discourse: the experience of certain narratives "provides insights that should play a role (though not as uncriticized foundations) in the construction of an adequate moral and political theory," and "develops 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). Ethical criticism then has two basic tasks. It sets the background for the literary text by bringing to bear the relevant issues formulated from within philosophy; then it shows how the text "exemplifies and cultivates abilitites 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.

In order to elaborate what I consider exemplary problems in this position I will begin by stressing three shifts in focus from her earlier work that make it possible for Nussbaum to sustain these large claims. The first one is the most important and most revealing. To some literary critics it will suffice to say that she changes her heroic examples from James and Proust to the Dickens of Hard Times. This means that her specific readings are less concerned with processes of discrimination than they are with a relation between comprehension and judgment. And the comprehending can be shown to bear direct philosophical weight because all the emphasis lies on pathos and on the responsiveness that it calls for. Nussbaum wants her novels to participate in the work of contemporary philosophers concerned to "defend 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). Therefore "the idea is to ask how people are doing by asking them 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).

One could try to make this case for James and for Proust, and one could argue along Boothian lines about the quality of lives that certain kinds of friendship allow. But the more that the relevant literature stresses distinctive individual stances, the more difficult it is to fit those specific qualities, those manifestations of possible ethos into any single philosophical idealization. Not so with pathos:

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, to take a case that will figure in my next section, 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).

With pathos the empathic imagination leaps directly to larger value frameworks and has an inherent socializing dimension because it seeks imaginative agreement about ways of redressing the suffering.

But do we really want to make our literary ethics so dependent on pathos, since we have to eliminate some pretty important writers we severely reduce the grammar of values that the literary imagination pursues, and we produce the same kind of false alliance with philosophy that the rich feel towards the poor at charity benefits. But for Nussbaum the risks are worth taking because the pathos cases also sustain a theory of the emotions that for her is at the core of ethical criticism. If one can explain how the emotions extend into philosophical concerns, then one has clearly given an important social role to literary concreteness. And, more specifically, once pathos is the central feature of literary experience there is a clear path for securing a major role for the cognitive theory of emotions that Nussbaum champions. In particular Nussbaum identifies three specific paths by which the emotions organized by literary narrative can sustain that social role.

The first attribution takes place in a passing remark that I think worth stopping for. Unlike many ethical critics, Nussbaum is quite aware that any adequate ethical account of literary experience has to address the strange fact that we take pleasure in its various renderings of pain and of pathos. Why not then use the pleasure as itself an intensifier of moral force. For to the extent that we take pleasure in particular characters from underpriveleged situation, we find their company attractive and we are drawn further into their world and into sympathy with their interests (35). Presumably the same claims would hold for the views of those authors whose writing gives us pleasure. But when we begin to let pleasure in actual views have persuasive force we run into the major problem with any attempt to give emotional intensities heuristic intellectual force. What if the pleasure or the emotion leads us into problematic identifications? Maybe one would play Eliza Doolittle for a Henry Higgins.

It turns out that for Nussbaum’s ethical view to work out emotions have to be linked to rationality in how they are formed and then in how they get applied to the production of various policy stances. If that can be done, ethical criticism can claim to deal not only with ideas about "human flourishing" but with vivid imperatives to participate in bringing about such emotionally satisfying conditions. Her crucial move is to link emotions to perceptions and to interpretations, so that in their inception one can hold them responsible to factual conditions and one can spell out the beliefs that are inseparable from their vitality (61 ff ). Emotions then are aspects of character and as such they are not ‘blind forces that can overwhelm volition," but become part of what enters our deliberations. For how we feel about things that are compatible with reasonable beliefs is a crucial aspect of what value they can said to possess. Again pathos situations make the best example: "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).

Nussbaum now seems to want it both ways: emotions influence rationality, but they have to be tested by reason in order to be worthy of having such an influence. What is to influence rationality must be influenced by rationality. This seems to me magical thinking. Yet Nussbaum does have a powerful strategy for producing the necessary magic. She turns to Adam Smith’s model of the "judicious spectator." Clearly not all emotions will 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. We can do that by assuring that the emotion is that "of a spectator not a participant" (74). In other words we have to seek emotions that are more like those readers regularly have than they are manifestations of deep personal investments. We want our anger or our grief to stand as if it were the emotion of some person with whom we could identify and at same time view from a distance.

It turns out then that the reader’s stance may be the ideal ethical position. From attempting to show how literature fits with moral philosophy we have close to the possiblity that whatever its contents moral philosophy has to learn to exercise itself as if it were an extension of the judgments experienced by an ideal reader of the particular situation. Moral philosophy and idealized readership come together in the figure of the appropriate judge to which Nussbaum devotes her last chapter. 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 see how judicious spectating provides the impulses and even the projections by which they can most fully produce justice in particular situations (82). Indeed this very possibility of impartial yet sympathetic judgment makes the "poetic imagination ... a crucial agent of democratic equality" (119). This imagination not only tries to sympathize with all the relevant points of view, it also builds on its own impartiality to seek from that sympathy those actions which comprise the greater social good. And it deepens our understanding of how we might understand that social good in plural and qualitative terms based on those ideals of human flourishing which repeated acts of sympathy enable us to keep in the forefront of our vision.


These are powerful ideals. But they are considerably less powerful when one calls upon philosophy or literary theory to sanction them. For then we have to dwell on the conceptual problems that erode any grounding that the ideals might have in these domains. And we have to return to the more turbulent and often more self-involved states of mind that in fact are central not only to reading but also to our efforts to think well of ourselves as moral agents. But we also have to recognize how important it is to have thinkers like Nussbaum willing to stretch conceptual systems so that they seem able of encompassing such ideals. For at the least we may come to understand the deep structural problems that beset the entire enterprise of developing a theory responsive to much of the potential force within literary experience function in a harmonious relation with both the discipline of ethical theory and with common sense moral philosophy as it is currently practiced. And that understanding should lead to more powerful readings of how the ethos called for by strong reading provides substantial challenges to those ethical practices.

The first problem has directly to do with ethos. Once we recognize that so much of Nussbaum’s case depends on pathos, on the emotions and on the sense of community created by our witness to suffering, it is hard not to be intrigued by all of those more assertive literary imaginings which base much of their power on the refusal of pathos or on the deliberate effort to explore ideals for the specific egocentric states that literary pleasures make momentarily available. Pathos has roles to play in our imaginary lives and in our ethical commitments. But the theory of literature has to be just as responsive to emotional states like the one offered in 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.

This poem is not merely about the possibilities of satisfying self-assertion. It is also an embodiment of the level of imaginative intensity and pleasure in one’s own eloquent articulateness (which need not be verbal) that comes to constitute a feasible test of how we might find satisfaction and challenge in a variety of psychological states.

One might even argue that an adequate ethics depends on the I coming to believe that its willing of its own identity depends on adapting certain possible identifications that can sustain this kind of pride without making it look ridiculous. One might even argue that for us not only to feel good about our responsiveness to pathos but to act consistently upon it we need a considerable dose of that pride. It is how we have intercourse with creation.

Nussbaums’ theory of emotions seems not to have a place for either of the two 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; inded the poet wants to make his expression approximate absolute emotional conditions. There is no effort at cognition here--in part because there is no clear relation to cognition beyond our participation in what the poem makes available, and in part because these are not states that seek a "fit" with reason. Let reason find its ways of negotiating with what the poem can make so intensely real that it may have more claims upon us than reason can muster, at least so long as we stay within the orbit that the poem so complexly offers. The more we oppose ethos to pathos, the clearer it becomes that while rationality may require Nussbaum’s view of cognitive emotions, there are strong features of literary experience that sharply oppose it. Writers like James and Shakespeare and perhaps even Dante in his effort to characterize a loving intellect whose reason is far beyond our measures of it) share Yeats’s fascination with what we might call pure lyrical power and its fascinations. Such literary experiences ultimately demand our asking not how the emotions can be cognitive and adapted to judicious spectatorship but how they can bring about possible senses of value that have claims on us independent of reason.

This 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 much that is in our possible interest is in conflict with reason as we understand its imperatives, 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 acknowledged, and where society needs shareable principles for assessing actions and agendas. But these claims take hold for us when either we contemplate substantial risks in our actions or when we enter theaters where justification is expected or necessary, that is when disciplinary ethics has a crucial role to play. But much of our lives takes place on quite different planes where justifications can be assumed or where they are not necessary. In these domains we need to know not what is right but what is possible for us to feel and to project and even to speculate upon. And in these domains we need less to worry about the social impact of our actions than the possible impact on our private lives of specific imaginative states and related energy fields.