The company we keep: An Ethics of Fiction 
by Wayne Booth.
California, 485 pp., $29.55, November 1988, 0 520 06203 5
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Wayne Booth begins his new book by recalling how in the early Sixties he and his colleagues at the University of Chicago could ignore the distress of a young black assistant professor, Paul Moses, who declared that he would no longer teach Huckleberry Finn because he found the portrayal of Jim offensive. Booth remembers with more than a twinge of conscience that he and his colleagues found the challenge to Mark Twain’s great novel offensive because it violated ‘academic norms of objectivity’. Anyone teaching literature and writing criticism nowadays knows that the appeal to objectivity will no longer do. Indeed, any such appeal may even be suspected – for instance, in the case of Huckleberry Finn – of masking a racist bias. Booth does not admit a racist bias in the invoking of academic norms, but he is convinced that the peremptory dismissal of Moses’ challenge to a canonical work was profoundly wrong and The company we keep is in part an attempt to show why.

Booth undertakes to reread Huckleberry Finn with the challenge in mind, in order to see what he can learn about the book and about his own ethical assumptions in reading it. In a similar spirit, he engages the feminist challenge to Rabelais’s sexism in Gargantua and Pantagruel, and to Jane Austen’s complicity with male authority in Emma, works he has long loved and admired. The reconsiderations of Rabelais, Austen and Twain, however, are only a part of a larger enterprise to rehabilitate the nearly lost practice of ethical criticism.

There is no single account of why ethical criticism has lost authority. My own explanation would focus on a ‘conspiracy’ of Structuralists (anticipated by Northrop Frye’s attempt to put criticism on a scientific basis) and radically sceptical Post-Structuralists who in effect confined evaluative criticism to the capricious history of taste. With the advent of a more theoretically rigorous criticism, the immense critical authority of moral critics like F.R. Leavis and Lionel Trilling virtually disappeared in the Sixties. Richard Rorty speaks of ‘the current struggle in American literary circles between ... old-fashioned storytelling novelists and ironist critics’ as ‘a symptom of the inability of intellectuals to take such novels seriously as moral testimonies’. If one takes seriously ‘ambiguity, intertextuality and the like’, as ironist critics do, one could not, Rorty argues, ‘really recognise morality as a possible form of life’. This formulation misleadingly opposes morality and ambiguity, because it confounds moral life with doctrine or dogma. We need only the reminder of Henry James, who, while cautioning against any ‘moral restrictions set upon the field of consciousness’, affirmed the moral character of art: ‘to count out the moral element in one’s appreciation of an artistic total is exactly as sane as it would be (if the total were a poem) to eliminate all the words in three syllables.’ Rorty’s statement is symptomatic of the low repute into which ethical criticism has fallen.

This is not, however, the whole story. While the moral criticism practised in the Fifties has lost authority, the ethical has returned sometimes in the guise of political ideology, gender and race. It is not fortuitous that Booth begins his work with Paul Moses. The challenge to Huckleberry Finn in the early Sixties was a harbinger of the revolts in the latter part of the decade, revolts which persist in the academic politics of the Eighties. The ethical has not only returned, it has become inescapable.

The company we keep (nine years in the making) has appeared at a moment when ethical issues have already established themselves as a matter of renewed literary and philosophical concern. I have in mind the recent work of Hillis Miller (The Ethics of Reading), Tobin Sieber (The Ethics of Criticism), Alisdair MacIntyre (After Virtue) and Barbara Hernnstein Smith (Contingencies of Value). What Booth has rediscovered is that ethical criticism is in a sense a redundancy, since all criticism, whether it knows it or not, is value-laden, even criticism that thinks of itself as value-neutral. Booth chooses to call ethical what others might call ideological.

‘Ideological’ evokes the demystifying aggressiveness of much of the advanced criticism being written now. Ideology, in other words, is concerned with issues of power. The ideological critic may, for instance, unmask the moral pretences of arbitrary power, may reveal the ways in which an ethical language naturalises structures of oppression: but if he or she is committed to a Foucaultian view of the ultimate importance of the power motive, then the terrain of criticism becomes simply the power struggle. Ethical criticism assumes the possibility that questions of justice and morality can be addressed in a more or less disinterested way, that there is, at the very least, a tension between (moral) reason and power. However responsive an ethical critic may be to conclusions that are arrived at by way of ideology, the ethical critic must resist the language of power. (The difference between ethical and ideological critics corresponds to the difference between Socrates and the sophists. Disinterested truth remains a possibility in the Socratic tradition. The sophists, the ideologues of antiquity, deny the distinction between knowledge and opinion in teaching a rhetoric of power.) The ideological critic represents a constituency, usually the dispossessed; the ethical critic speaks for him or herself – the struggle is for the individual soul.

Booth’s stance, liberal or pluralist as he likes to call it, is a scrupulously generous effort to respond to the ideological challenges in the ethical style. His strategy is disarming. He will very rarely do battle with books (i.e. implied authors) or critics. His metaphor for the world of books is a commonwealth of friends. Each book offers him the prospect of friendship, though its realisation may be an arduous critical process. Even a writer like D.H. Lawrence for whom Booth has always had an instinctive aversion must be recuperated for the commonwealth.

His method is to begin with an indictment:

Can you think of any major novelist, other than Dreiser perhaps, who provides more invitation to stop reading and start complaining about style?.. But troubles with style are only the beginning ... We have by now had generations of novelists and psychologists claiming to save the world through some phallic redemption ... but after decades of such talk, after the multiplying sex manuals and Playboy philosophisings, it can seem old hat ... My resistances extend beyond the sexual nostrums to the whole range of panaceas offered in the Salvator Mundi.

‘The friend replies’ by insisting on a rereading of the text (in this case, Women in Love), in which Lawrence seems to endorse Birkin’s megalomaniacal preference of his own madness to sanity. Booth now reproaches himself for having ‘missed the point’. ‘Lawrence was experimenting with what it means for a novelist to lose his own distinct voice in the voices of his characters. In the search for an authentic self, any sensitive modern spirit living without love must end either in despair like Ursula’s or in a half-mad ecstasy like Birkin’s. By dramatising their conclusions as if they were conclusive, Lawrence tries, consciously or unconsciously, to build in us a longing for the only condition that he thinks can save us – a longing for what he elsewhere calls “the Holy Ghost” of self-purged selfhood.’ He winds up valuing Lawrence for his ‘dialogical’ responsiveness to the other, his knowledge that ‘human beings cannot be saved except in loving others.’ Booth has seen the openness that Lawrence’s dogmatic manner often conceals. His conversion is impressive, though I feel the presence of an ulterior motive – the desire for a new friendship.

In deciding to submit to the test his cherished books Gargantua and Pantagruel, Huckleberry Finn and Emma, under pressure from a criticism sensitive to sexism and racism, he allows his new attention to the works to preserve his relationship with them on a new basis. And in the process he befriends the critics. Booth has the least trouble in responding to the criticism that Jane Austen identifies the happiness of her female characters (e.g. Emma) with the world as males constitute it. In an eloquent discussion of Austen’s work he strengthens his relationship to it. He concedes that the conventional form of the novel requires the resolution of a marriage plot, with the woman in effect submitting to male authority. But he discovers an ‘antidote’ in the implied author (a concept Booth first formulated in The Rhetoric of Fiction), ‘who provides the subtle clues to Knightley’s own egotism ... she creates for us the imaginative and witty vitality of Emma herself, as a criticism of the one-sided wisdom and stately power of Knightley.’

The challenge of Rabelais is more formidable. Booth will no longer simply accept the ideal of sexual equality promoted by the Abbey of Theleme. The concrete evidence of a comically-endorsed scurrilous treatment of women would seem to support feminist indignation at Rabelais. ‘How are we to respond, for example, to the famous episode that almost everyone would consider as in itself sexist, the trick Panurge plays upon the Lady of Paris who refuses his advances? He sprinkles her gown with ground-up pieces of genitals of a bitch in heat and then withdraws to watch the sport, as all the male dogs of Paris assemble to piss on her, head to toe ... Her offence, remember, is simply that she turned Panurge down and – I suppose – that she is a woman of high degree.’ Booth entertains and rejects Bakhtin’s defence of Rabelaisian scatological laughter as a ‘progressive force, the expression of an ideology that opposes the official and authoritarian languages that dominate our surfaces’. He rejects the defence because the laughter in this instance and others is directed, not against authoritarian languages, but against women. Women and their sexuality are a blind spot in Rabelais’s writing and for that matter in Bakhtin’s as well. Booth entertains various historical defences – for example, that Rabelais ‘wrote before anyone ... had thought more than ten minutes about what equality for women might mean’ – but he rejects them in the name of the present. ‘The historical defence scants my responsibility to myself and my living friends.’ It is not clear why reading cannot be double-minded, at once historical and contemporary. But Booth’s critique has a different and a more troubling implication.

What he says about Rabelais could be said about any funny joke at the expense of women, blacks, Jews and Poles. He seems troubled by Rabelais’s failure to distance himself from Panurge’s scandalous behaviour, but that strikes me as an irrelevant consideration. Cruel as the joke is, it is funny, and by distancing himself, the teller of the joke would only take away from the fun. One should tell the story as it should be told for its full impact or simply not tell it. I know that movements for equality and rights tend to breed a solemnity that leads some to say that such jokes should disappear. Ethical consciousness cannot be an all-in-all, because it would atrophy, for instance, the sense of comedy, in which cruelty plays a part. Booth knows that ethical consciousness has its limits in the imaginative life. He cites Mark Twain’s caution that ‘finding a moral in a tale’ can destroy a story, and he admits that ‘my ethical criticism has for me weakened some of the comic power of Panurge’s prank.’ It is surprising that Booth, good Aristotelian that he is, does not defend the homeopathic value of comedy, however cruel, in venting feelings that would otherwise be repressed or, worse, express themselves in noxious ways. I know of no evidence in psychological or sociological research to suggest that jokes establish or perpetuate dangerously racist or sexist practices.

In defending the cathartic cruelty of humour, I may be recuperating the cruelty for ethical criticism – in effect, saying that it is good for the psyche to be able to laugh aggressively without inhibitions, and good for society to be able to discharge vicious feelings in the safety of laughter. It may be the case that certain groups in society have suffered so terribly, and continue to be so vulnerable, that no joke, however funny, can deflect the cruelty. Equally, it is a mark of ethnic or racial confidence that the object of humour becomes complicit in the enjoyment of it. Booth may be conceding too much too soon. And what about the immoralities of racism or sexism that are not necessarily funny? The problems even with Huckleberry Finn do not essentially involve comedy. There are also instances that Booth does not address – The Merchant of Venice, Pound’s Cantos, the list could be very long. One might defend ethically noxious artistic representations in the interests of the imagination. V.S. Naipaul writes admiringly of Trollope’s prejudices, not because they are morally justifiable, but because they belong to his imaginative energy and clarity. ‘I wonder whether anyone anywhere will ever be able again to write with his Mid-Victorian certainty ... that unapologetic display of outrageous prejudices (I hate Baptists like poison), that fairness, that cruel humour without a tinge of self-satire, that deep sense of religion and good business.’ Naipaul, of course, is revealing himself in this judgment.

Ethical criticism does not necessarily resolve issues of interpretation and aesthetic criticism. It complicates the reading, divides the reader against himself, creates tension. Now convinced of ‘Twain’s full indifference’ to Jim’s plight – the occasion of fun and games for Huck and Tom Sawyer – and to ‘the full meaning of slavery and emancipation’, Booth experiences ‘a distressing disparity between the force of my objections ... and the strength of my continuing love for the book’. He continues to value Twain’s ‘pre-eminent comic genius’, his ‘providing him with ‘a kind of moral holiday while stimulating my thoughts about moral issues’.

But Booth is not truly distressed, for he immediately appropriates the distress to his pluralist vision of ‘imaginative worlds ... constituted of manifold values that can never be fully realised in any one work or any one critic’s endeavour’. Booth here reminds one of Bakhtin, whose work represents a continual equivocation between a model of conflict and one of dialogue in which the conflict is almost always accommodated to a benign outcome. Above all, he wants to hear the voice of the other, to allow the adversary to speak, and even to make a friend of him. He does nothing to jeopardise his friendship both with Paul Moses and with Mark Twain.

Pluralism does not receive a good press these days, a surprising fact in the light of ‘authoritative’ claims on the part of self-described neo-pragmatic, anti-foundationalist critics that all truth-claims are subjectively-determined, and that we have no way of establishing the objective superiority of any particular perspective. The reason is that perspectivism has become a doctrine justifying insurgencies, particularly of blacks and women, against established cultural and political authority. Pluralism has come to be associated with a vapid, undiscriminating hospitality to all points of view, so that the repressed voice demanding its right to be heard may be drowned in sheer multiplicity. Booth protects himself against the charge of a vapid pluralism by characterising his version as a ‘pluralism with limits’ and by vigorously demonstrating it in a close reading of texts. But his tone never becomes shrill with indignation. He wants to do right by books and the world, but he is not an agent for transforming the world.

Pluralism in The company we keep is a multiple role-playing self always available to new possibilities of experience and self-realisation. In affirming the proliferation of the self, Booth does not fear the loss of integrity, because I think he is implicitly committed to an Aristotelian idea of potentiality. Roles are not gratuitously bestowed: they reflect a strategy of ‘building a richer character’. Our virtues ‘are originally gained by practices that our enemies might call faking, our friends perhaps something like aspiring or emulating’. Booth wittily calls this moral process ‘an honourable upward hypocrisy’. It is a stroke of genuine imagination for him to have appropriated contemporary ‘discourse’ of inauthenticity for ethical criticism.

He can dissociate himself, therefore, from the sentiment of Nathan Zuckerman, the novelist hero of Philip Roth’s The Counterlife, who declares himself at once a complete role-player and a non-entity. ‘All I can tell you with certainty is that I, for one, have no self ... What I have instead is a variety of impersonations I can do, and not only of myself – a troupe of players that I have internalised, a company of actors ... I am a theatre and nothing more than a theatre.’ Booth responds by saying: ‘To me it doesn’t quite feel that way.’ He apparently experiences the quiddity of his own being, for which he may not, however, be able to give a satisfactory theoretical account.

It is strange that Booth represents writing as the projection of ‘an implied character that can never encompass more than a fraction of the actual roles played by the flesh and blood author’. The opposite would seem to be the case. Milan Kundera’s testimony to his imaginative experience represents, I believe, the condition of writing itself. ‘I have known all these situations’ – in The Unbearable Lightness of Being – ‘I have experienced them myself, yet none of them has given rise to the person my curriculum vitae and I represent. The characters in my novels are my own unrealised possibilities.’ In The company we keep the reader practises a multiplicity of roles that he could not practise in life.

Academic reputations these days seem to require a hermetic rhetoric of power. The lucidity of Booth’s plain speech reveals his desire to persuade rather than to intimidate. Where ideological critics or self-described critics of ideologies make enemies, Booth is devoted to making friends. One may feel on occasion that a critic needs enemies as well as friends to define himself. But at the present moment it is a salutary act of self-definition for a critic to present himself in such a role. Booth’s generosity of spirit distinguishes him from the very critics whose challenges he has taken so seriously.

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