Hardly anybody—even if they believe it to be true—acts as if Nietzsche was right to say that our morality is a slave morality, mired in ressentiment, and so must be done away with. But there is a reluctance to talk seriously about moral issues.
The Latinate sense of the word ‘moral’, meaning ‘relating to manners and custom’, is more or less lost to the English language. What we hear most strongly in the word today is a tone of overbearing disapproval. The reluctance to speak of things moral is probably to do with the desire to avoid associating too closely with socially conservative values. Morality was for too long the domain of the Church, and under its tutelage one tiny subcategory, sexual morality, took on a hugely disproportionate importance. Of course we today know full well that morality has absolutely nothing to do with an outmoded institution’s censorious (and prurient) interest in the sexual conduct of its members, but it’s difficult to shake off the association.
The moral function has always been central to literature, or at any rate to the theorization of literature. Few theorists, from the Renaissance on, have neglected to take account of the judgement of Horace:
Aut prodesse uolunt aut delectare poetaeand:
aut simul et iucunda et idonea dicere uitae
Poets wish either to profit or to delight; or to say things both enjoyable and useful for life at the same time.
Omne tulit punctum qui miscuit utile dulci,Horace’s ‘profit’ and ‘utility’ were understood for much of the modern era in terms of a quite narrowly defined kind of moral instruction.
lectorem delectando pariterque monendo
He has won every vote who has mingled the useful with the pleasant, in equal measure delighting and instructing the reader.
The medieval accesus ad auctores, whose underlying schemes persisted into the Renaissance and beyond, with classical notions (such as those found in Horace) bolted on, drew on a very powerful moral resource. They could understand the content of any text in moral-ethical terms, by framing it in terms of example and negative example. This is a powerful scheme because it is very difficult to imagine any utterance that would not fit: all literature is edifying, even the apparently scabrous stuff, if we understand it to be furnishing examples (of behaviour, ways of thinking, uses of language) to be followed or avoided. If an author writes something abhorrent to our sensibilities, he intended it as a kind of aversion therapy. All that’s required is to posit a serious moral intention on the part of the author, even where there appears to be none.
This seems to be a very crude method, but in fact it enabled (in some medieval commentators, at any rate) remarkable displays of subtlety and agility of mind.
Many Renaissance thinkers didn’t appreciate the ‘unsophisticated’ medieval way of reading texts, so they tricked it out with rhetorical theory. But the framework of exemplarity persisted. Now imaginative literature was understood primarily in the epideictic mode. This was really just a different way of saying much the same thing: that the author wants us to admire some things, and despise other things, and to this end he uses more or less veiled strategies of language.
bonae litterae cum bonis moribus, ‘good letters and good morals’: these two concepts were hopelessly intertwined. By the time they began to unravel, the notion of ‘good letters’ had been so long wrapped around the form of the moral that its own shape was irrevocably warped. Good literature had taken on the contours of good morals, and no matter how much one tried to straighten it out, it always snapped back to its accustomed form.
Today we don’t tend to look to imaginative literature as a source for moral instruction: we don’t tend to compile commonplace books of moral sentences, organized according to schemes of example and negative example. We tend to minimize or skirt around the role of morality in literature—and where we acknowledge it, we call it by other names.
Today it is customary to uphold the weak version of the thesis that literature has a moral function. The weak version says: reading books makes you a better person (somehow). We can probably accept this as axiomatic, but it does not follow that everything deriving from it is true.
For example: some people think that reading literature is all about arriving, through sympathy, at a better understanding of human experience in all its varieties. This is contingent upon the privilege granted to the portrayal of character in the modern novel, particularly the realist novel in the nineteenth-century tradition. But this is just one of a range of possible ways of reading—and, it seems to me, quite a feeble one. If your moral universe is bounded by the ability to identify with fictional characters, it is unlikely that reading will do anything to challenge your moral judgements. Sympathy is a selfish emotion. If your enjoyment of books is dependent on your capacity to identify with the characters they portray, reading will tend to be a mere exercise in affirming your preconceptions.
At this point we can take a longer view, and look beyond what literature is supposed to do, to what we do when we read literature. From this perspective, the account of literature I just outlined (the ‘pathetic’ version) is, along with all the others, seen to be contained within a larger moral sphere. To prize characterization so highly is to value certain moral concepts masquerading as artistic ones: sincerity, complexity, subtlety, etc. —or as ‘readerly’ ones: empathy, understanding, compassion.
Value judgements about literature always conceal an unspoken major premise that is moral. Northrop Frye, in his Anatomy of Criticism, makes some penetrating remarks about how the hierarchies of literary value have always masked socio-cultural values. He makes the point that the concept of literary decorum relies on the class distinction between high, middle, and low. Frye says:
Rhetorical value-judgements are closely related to social values, and are usually cleared through a customs-house of moral metaphors: sincerity, economy, subtlety, simplicity, and the like.Certain modes of reading (which may be called ‘formalist’) propose to exclude moral considerations: but they are not themselves without moral force. The elitism implied in these approaches (l’art pour l’art, but not l’art pour le vulgaire) may conceal a sense of social and moral distinction.
To take this to its absurd conclusion: any theory, form of ideas, speech act, implies a moral choice, since to take any position is to tacitly assume that it is more effective, instructive, edifying, virtuous than other possible positions.
I think—and perhaps here I part company with Frye—that this state of affairs is healthy: it is morally good. To want to do away with distinctions between high and low culture merely because they have a basis in moral assumptions is to beg the question. Criticism (good criticism anyway) should be about trying to discover why certain forms of culture are morally better than other forms: in other words, it should be about the cultivation of judgement. In this sense, the exercise of discrimination is necessary, and good.
Perhaps we can rehabilitate the moral component of literature, and restore it to its rightful place at the centre of our concern. Exposing hypocrisy, blasting complacency and pusillanimity, exploding falsehoods, examining unexamined habits of thought, sweeping away banalities and shallow ideas; and promoting elegancies of language, prizing imagination, complexity and depth of thought, deploying hard-won truths with force and conviction—or with quiet dignity: these are functions of great moral importance.
Oh, and puncturing pomposity of course.