Eugene Goodheart

  • The company we keep: An Ethics of Fiction by Wayne Booth
    California, 485 pp, $29.55, November 1988, ISBN 0 520 06203 5

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.

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