Rat Poison

David Bromwich

  • Poetic Justice: The Literary Imagination and Public Life by Martha Nussbaum
    Beacon, 143 pp, $20.00, February 1996, ISBN 0 8070 4108 4

Martha Nussbaum is a classical scholar and moral philosopher who in several books and a great many essays has advanced a thesis about the cognitive power of emotions. Feeling, she says, is part of thought. Only accidents of usage and the rationalist prepossessions of modern philosophy could have made us think otherwise. Her evidence covers a wide range, from Plato and Aristotle to Proust and Henry James, and though she takes a critical interest in thinkers, mostly of the Stoic tradition, who have promoted the rival virtues of self-sufficiency, she writes to call attention to those who preach and practise sympathy. These philosophers and novelists expand the limits of association a society takes for granted, and by doing so extend the possibilities of reform, and their commentator frankly declares herself their inheritor. Such is Nussbaum’s project, ‘the project’ as she has called it, for she recognises certain sharers of her aims: among literary critics, Wayne Booth; among philosophers, Bernard Williams and Stanley Cavell; among social scientists, Amartya Sen. Nussbaum explains her discovery of virtues eloquently, volubly, in the manner of a belated Victorian moralist. The reverse of a dry writer, she is fairly often deeply moved, and you come to know not only what she felt but how and when the feeling dawned on her.

Poetic Justice argues that social sympathy is a necessary condition for equitable treatment in courts of law. Judges, Nussbaum has observed, are short of imaginative data about the persons they must judge, and novels are one place they can look for guidance. Her demonstration has a particular motive in the culture of American law schools today. The vanguard of legal theory in recent years has included the ‘law and economics movement’, whose members look on the egocentric bargainer of the capitalist market as the pattern of all social relations. The movement’s leading ideas are an ultra-rationalised form of utilitarianism, possessing an explanatory power self-evident to adepts, and self-fulfilling where it has gained ascendancy among policy makers. On the theory of ‘rational choice’, rat choice for short, persons are valued as productive units for the benefit of society in the long run; the distinctively rational sort of choice, in any context from the plea bargaining of a prisoner to the costing out of a corporate merger, is supposed to favour the low-risk selfish act over the high-risk altruistic one. Each person counts like every other: the theory is democratic and anti-hierarchical. But the human falsification is plain to anyone not paid to grind out confirmations of the theory.

The shape of Nussbaum’s reply feels puzzling, given her polemical intent. Her longest chapter is about Hard Times, and it is metacriticism, or pedagogy at one remove. It consists, not of things she has to say about Dickens, but of reflections on the kind of things she said when teaching the book to law students. They liked the Victorian alternative to rat choice, and she quotes some of their reactions. The rest is reflections on the reflections: a summary of an argument on reason and the emotions, defended more fully in Love’s Knowledge; some pages on Wright’s Native Son and a paragraph on Forster’s Maurice, as successors to Hard Times; and an informal canvass of the opinions of American judges, whom Nussbaum (still in classroom mode) grades on the literary and moral quality of their published opinions. The class was given at the law school of the University of Chicago, and Nussbaum’s approach recalls the view of fiction, as a supplement to social science, propounded early in the century by the Chicago pragmatist George Herbert Mead. ‘From the inside,’ wrote Mead, ‘we find the person stating others to himself in terms of a single positive abstract relation. This is overcome through increase of content in the relation.’ Doubtless ‘increase of content in the relation’ is itself an abstract phrase, yet it is telling enough when you consider how one person, out of a mass of others, may become suddenly vivid through an accident of acquaintance or perception. Nussbaum does not cite Mead on this useful point. She tries to recruit help further afield, from Adam Smith’s Theory of Moral Sentiments.

The name of Smith is cunningly brought in, and will tease the amour-propre of the rat scholars, but there is more wit than sense in the choice. Smith’s idea of the judicious spectator or ‘man in the breast’ has long appealed to legal theorists. The notion that I decide what is right by imagining the response of a third person on the scene of moral action, and that, by following what he would think, I am able to act justly towards a second person, gives a metaphorical support to the sensation of impartiality any judge or juror is asked to cultivate. Yet justice as Smith defines it is merely a writing-large of propriety, of proper acts in proper places. The third person is always going to be a projection of the first person’s idea of socialised good sense. The whole artifice of spectatorship depends on an assurance – widely shared among the educated class of Scotland in 1759 – that the common sense of society is just.

‘Sympathy’ was Smith’s word for the process by which correct action is triangulated. But I do not see how he can have meant by sympathy the compassionate exercise Nussbaum would like him to be describing. His sympathy is unspontaneous and almost impersonal, so securely is it founded on conventions already in place. It is guided by the ‘invisible hand’ of social morality, which operated, he believed, with the same regularity as the invisible hand of the market. ‘Money,’ we learn in The Wealth of Nations, ‘necessarily runs after goods, but goods do not always or necessarily run after money.’ In his moral scheme, generosity necessarily runs after approval, but approval does not necessarily run after generosity. By contrast, Nussbaum is searching for a version of sympathy that need not obey convention; and to be sure of the emphasis, she changes her usage for most of the book to the therapeutic word ‘empathy’. There are other philosophers who would have served her purpose better – Hume and Sartre and William James, analysts of reason and the passions of a psychological subtlety beyond Smith’s pretensions. Those names will not make the rats perk up in quite the way Adam Smith does.

She addresses obliquely a single contemporary opponent in matters of law and morality, Judge Richard Posner, a leader of the law and economics movement and a professor of law at Chicago. Intellectually as omnivorous as Nussbaum, as prolific and as well read, Posner came to her lectures and wrote out engaging comments, and she in turn, praising his ‘joie de vivre’ and his merit as ‘a most literary judge’, now dedicates the book to the man she had begun by calling a Gradgrind. It is a delicate manoeuvre, leaving an ineffable undertaste, the cake of friendship eaten as the cake of principle stays on the plate. Hard Times was ‘inscribed to Thomas Carlyle’, a writer with whom Dickens had more in common. Its anti-utilitarian satire takes the side of humane social discipline, a love of honour and play: goods consonant with the paternalist ethic Carlyle was evolving in works like Past and Present. The social ideal of Dickens is not embodied in the union organiser Slackbridge any more than it is in the economist M’Choakumchild. You can find it pictured, if any where, in Daniel Doyce, guild craftsman of a guild of one, in Little Dorrit. By the time he wrote that greater novel, he had moved away from the politics of Carlyle and the sentimental conversions of his middle period.

Nussbaum is a truster of tears. The early utilitarians said if you want to know what feelings are good for, ask not what they look like but what cause they serve. Chartism, the work of Carlyle’s closest to Dickens’s subject in Hard Times, lays it down that ‘work is the mission of man in this earth.’ He saw some good in tumults like the Swing riots, provided they were ‘the proper preliminary of some general charge to be taken of the lowest classes by the higher’; but he attacked not capitalism but the laissez-faire morality, a way of feeling whose errors sprang from the modern neglect of ‘the mights of man’. His pamphlet concludes with a plea for universal education, and the rhetorical emphasis does not markedly differ from that of Dickens, who exhorted readers of Hard Times:

The poor you will always have with you. Cultivate in them, while there is yet time, the utmost graces of the fancies and affections to adorn their lives so much in need of ornament; or, in the day of your triumph, when romance is utterly driven out of their souls, and they and a bare existence stand face to face, Reality will take a wolfish turn, and make an end of you!

It is the most controlling of all his novels, the one that stands most firmly above its characters.

What could a modern economist or a lawyer or judge hope to learn from this novel? Like all novels, says Nussbaum, it ‘takes as its theme ... the interaction between general human aspirations and particular forms of social life that either enable or impede those aspirations’. The theme is shared, it could be said, by European drama after Molière, or by Hollywood comedies of remarriage. So again, why novels? ‘Economic science should be built on human data of the sort novels such as Dickens’s reveal to the imagination.’ It should be built like that because a writer like Dickens is a ‘bridge’, and the bridge will carry us over ‘both to a vision of justice and the social enactment of that vision’. It seems a lot to ask, the sort of promise that might give a jolt if somebody once thought it broken. If we can believe the testimony of the effect of Ward Six on Lenin, or of Les Misérables on the young Whittaker Chambers, the bridge is also a dynamite-stick; whether a book gets used one way or the other depends to a shocking degree on the reader. Nussbaum’s vision is big-souled and communitarian; she would bring no harm to any living thing. Yet the idea of readers and novelists as fellow-builders of the bridge implies no patience for shirkers. The legitimate novel is a sort of pleasant prod. Nussbaum compares its result to the pleasure of Sleary’s circus in Hard Times, except that it is ‘more complexly critical, more richly moral, than the pleasure of a circus’ and so can deliver to the economists and judges a clear benefit, a rounded sense of ‘the person’, thus perhaps refining the accuracy of their pre dictions. This looks like saying that the novel is good for utility after all, but Nussbaum is quick to add that ‘this book is fun to read. Like the circus, it contains humour and adventure, grotesqueness and surprise, music ... rhythm, and motion. Its language is lyrical and full of poetic figures.’ Such pleasure confirms ‘part of the idea of flourishing’ which consists of ‘a deep respect for qualitative difference’. This is held to be true of Hard Times in particular, but also of novels in general, which are ‘democratic, compassionate, committed to complexity, choice and qualitative difference’.

It is a warmer line to take than the current orthodoxy in literary theory, which says, ‘Novels are instruments of social discipline, prisons that maim and kill,’ or else: ‘Complexity and difference as we understand them are simulated goods, pure products of the totalising discourse of the bourgeois state.’ I would rather say what Nussbaum says. But why should novels have so special a tendency to bring out and strengthen both the highest civic virtues and the dearest personal goods? She does not, I think, so much support the view as find ways of restating it. A good novel ‘is helping its readers to acknowledge their own world and to choose more reflectively in it’. The novel ‘as a genre, in its basic structure and aspiration, is ... a defender of the enlightenment ideal of the equality and dignity of all human life’. Apart from out-and-out satire, novels care for the dignity of their characters, in the sense that dignity implies worthiness for sustained consideration. But equality? In the eye of God, persons may have equal standing, and novelists can be as impartial about this as anyone. Nussbaum, however, has in mind democratic equality – the equality of rights and entitlements and also of feelings, as practised in American programmes of empathy-training. It would be hard to make a case that the novelists had signed up for any of these support systems. The distinction between Elizabeth Bennet and her father is a wide one, in the light of the moral intelligence Jane Austen cares about. This is a truth felt by both characters, by others in the book and by its readers; felt not as a violation of the democratic contract, but as a fact of the novel’s life. The distance between Elizabeth and her mother is even wider. The greatest pleasure of the novelist (and it is not a rare case) seems to have been to reward her heroine by making the fancied disparity real through marriage. If this proves that Pride and Prejudice is a weaker novel than Hard Times, it proves more than we know.

Nussbaum thinks that good novels are about moral seriousness and she thinks that morality is a reflection on the ‘inner lives’ of persons. It follows that a novel she admires had better be about the inner lives of its characters. She has to stretch the preference to make it cover Hard Times. Psychological depth and complexity belong to some of Dickens’s characters – what generally gives the impression of depth is the drama of the change of heart – but this novel is not rich in those qualities. Nor is it true to say that ‘Bounderby and Gradgrind are completely human figures.’ Even their names take away part of their completeness. Here Nussbaum seems to me guided by philosophical stimuli of a parochial Anglo-American sort. Dickens must be shown to justify ‘the ability of individuals to choose the shape of [their own] life as separate centres of agency’. But the only reason this must be shown is that ‘agency’ is a master-trait summarising the total good of individuality, in the idiom of Nussbaum’s colleagues. The reverse of rational agency – a sense of lives hopelessly placed – was the thing about Hard Times that recommended it to her and that makes her want to pass it on to the judges. Creations like Dorothea Brooke and Isabel Archer, who do have psychological depth, are satisfactory centres of agency but for that reason much less reliable prompters of the ameliorative intervention of readers. They exist so fully by themselves we hardly feel the need to walk over the bridge to their misery. This marks a point at which the pleasure of aesthetic reflection may not coincide with the duty of moral action.

It is the genuine desire of Martha Nussbaum that all good things should be seen to converge. ‘The genre itself,’ she says, in a climactic assertion about novels, ‘on account of some general features of its structure, generally constructs empathy and compassion in ways highly relevant to citizenship.’ Genre, general, generally: the insistence could not be keener. But what could it mean to ‘construct empathy’? The very idea of empathy will not bear much looking at. To feel as someone else is so raw and uncommon an experience that no one who has had it would care to generalise. Empathy is what the killer is feeling in Hitchcock’s Strangers on a Train when he asks the débutante he is about to strangle: ‘Have you ever smelled a flower on Mars?’ Sadists are certainly the most inspired of the race of empaths. They have to get inside their victims, to know the pain for sure. In the end, empathy is a case morality can do nothing with, whereas sympathy is translatable feeling: we work with it all the time and depend on it in ordinary affairs. It is not clear how far even sympathy, of the sort we get from novels, can be supposed to advance the cause of good citizenship.

Last year I read Céline’s Death on the Instalment Plan. Did it help me to become a truer bearer of the social affections and virtues? Its leading symptoms of agency are farting and vomiting, its characters are almost all quacks in some way, its only moment of ‘poetry’ or ‘music’ is an aimless walk in the rain; yet the book is full of surprising affections, it is a major sprawl of words with uncanny energy and plenty to say about ‘difference’, and about equality of a kind: the sort of book in short that people usually call a novel, because there is nothing else to call it. Admittedly, it is not a novel that could have prompted the soliloquy Nussbaum reports having triggered in one of her students, on the meaning of ‘empathetic identification’ and ‘the generous construction of the seen’ as reflected by Dickens’s interest in nursery rhymes:

I called on a dark-haired student in the second row who had said little in the class so far, though what he had said was especially thoughtful. Mr Riley, I said, did you ever sing ‘Twinkle, twinkle little star’? Yes, Mr Riley had. What did you think about when you sang that song? Do you remember how it made you feel? ... Slowly and quietly, in a flat Kansas voice, Mr Riley began to describe – with a Dickensian poetry I cannot recapture – the image he used to see of a sky beautifully blazing with stars and bands of bright colour. This wonderful sight somehow, he said, led him to look in a new way at his cocker spaniel.

The vision of the spaniel led to ‘new ways of thinking about his parents and other children’. It could have led to almost anything.

Native Son ought to be an even harder test than Cé1ine. The hero is not a young woman who wants to marry for love. He is a man who murders once in a blank panic and once again with purpose and design. The villain is not the fanatical and heartless disciple of a deluded system-maker. The villain is the hero. Nussbaum does her best to acquit Bigger Thomas as a victim of social evil, in this concurring with the prevalent liberal sentiment in both Wright’s time and our own; and she asks us to turn over in our minds a central passage of the novel: ‘He could never tell why he had killed. It was not that he did not really want to tell, but the telling of it would have involved an explanation of his entire life.’ Plainly she believes we can know what kind of explanation it would have been: society itself conditioned him to a life of rage and crime. The answer Wright implies is far more disturbing; for the mention of ‘his entire life’ is linked with a passage early in the book about the hero’s alternate moods of violence and indifference,

like water ebbing and flowing from the tug of a far-away, invisible force. Being this way was a need of his as deep as eating. He was like a strange plant blooming in the day and wilting at night; but the sun that made it bloom and the cold darkness that made it wilt were never seen. It was his own sun and darkness.

After each of the killings the novelist addresses us, from a place nearer the hero’s thoughts than his own, and says that for Bigger Thomas murder was inseparable from self-creation. ‘He had murdered and had created a new life for himself’; ‘He was living, truly and deeply, no matter what others might think, looking at him with their blind eyes’; ‘He had committed murder twice and had created a new world for himself.’ Wright threw in for his protest-ending the communist lawyer. Max, with his appeal to understand Bigger as a victim. But the novel keeps up a distance between this hero’s consciousness of himself and the terms of exculpation arranged for him by the professionals of social sympathy. It was Max and his real-life followers who provoked James Baldwin in ‘Everybody’s Protest Novel’ and Ralph Ellison in ‘The World and the Jug’ to fight hard against Native Son as a model for black writers. These essays are pertinent to the sort of reading Martha Nussbaum wants to perform. They are a warning against it.

Nussbaum comes close to saying that novels are speech-acts. The analogy is not hers, but she lets Dickens make it for her, when she quotes the end of Hard Times: ‘It rests with you and me, whether, in our two fields of action, similar things shall be or not.’ She adds: ‘The novel is right; it does rest with us,’ The novel is felt to ask a question: ‘Do you take these troubles as honestly yours?’ The reader who has caught the meaning is supposed to answer, ‘I honestly do,’ and the critic rings down the curtain: ‘I now pronounce you moral citizen and moral text.’ A speech-act of the more usual sort occurs in the reading of a verdict by a jury like the one in Native Son. ‘We find the defendant ...’ the jury must say, and the judge completes the meaning: ‘I hereby sentence you ...’ Native Son offers in this regard a more obvious test of judicious spectatorship than the closing words of Hard Times: ‘The reader,’ Nussbaum observes, ‘is likely to be ... inclined to mercy in the imposition of punishment, seeing how much of [Bigger Thomas’s] character was the product of circumstances created by others.’ But Wright did not consistently think so; Bigger had his own sun and darkness. And mercy may hardly seem what the novel itself appeals for. The second of Bigger’s killings, smashing his lover’s head with a brick, is the more brutal of his two crimes and the more thought-through, and its victim is black. Jurors both black and white with an average load of prejudices against killing might be supposed to condemn him; but that does not exhaust his case, because Wright was aiming at readers, not jurors.

Sympathy with a hero like this is beyond what many readers can manage, and empathy for him, which Wright does often provoke without passing through sympathy, seems to touch a limit of human imagining. Nussbaum once beckons ominously to a state of engagement ‘beyond empathy’. In the ordinary sense, the only thing beyond empathy is body-snatching. But she turns out to mean nothing more than an admirably reflective kind of detachment. She called it, in Love’s Knowledge, ‘perceptive equilibrium’ – an aesthetically interested revision of the ‘reflective equilibrium’ of John Rawls, which puts to work the pleasures and pains that come from imaginative sympathy and not just those that come from social information. The equilibrium is finally achieved when, the sympathetic reading finished, the spectator can assess ‘from her own spectatorial viewpoint the meaning of those sufferings [of characters] and their implications for the lives [of people like the characters].’ The two-step incorporation of a theory about other lives, and the predicaments those lives are held by, covers the field of liberal justice with a promise of enhancement from new sources. The dominant concern for Nussbaum remains distributive fairness, as it was for Rawls. It looks as if hers is a therapy for legislators, too, or for judges who strongly resemble legislators.

Equilibrium may be a term we do not need. Still, Nussbaum is right to say a word for the pause of thought, the indefinite and hardly conscious rest that is most at home, of all the arts, in the reading of novels. She sees it as ‘combining one’s own absorbed imagining with periods of more detached (and interactive) critical scrutiny’. The tenor of this is highmindedly pedagogic; but the low-profile word ‘interactive’ has a suspicious odour. One can feel the sense of absorption in the most unprepared-for settings: Diggory Venn gambling by lantern-light on the heath in The Return of the Native, or the last unspoken dialogue of the husband and wife in The House in Paris. How you get from imaginative absorption to reflective rationality has never been clear to any reader, and there is a predigested authority in the swelling conclusion Nussbaum makes: ‘We are seeking, overall, the best fit between our considered moral and political judgments and the insights offered by our reading. Reading can lead us to alter some of our standing judgments, but it is also the case that these judgments can cause us to reject some experiences of reading as deforming or pernicious.’ So there are some books we shall have to cross off our lists. But how can we be sure what makes a poor fit for us will not make a better fit for somebody? There was surely a personal as well as programmatic motive for Nussbaum’s choice of texts – Hard Times, Native Son and Maurice, one each for class, race and gender – and her worry about fitness seems a wrong mood in which to seek edification. To be always caring about the public view of things when you sit down to read is to be less capable by a large degree of feeling surprise from a book. Then you are in for moral vitamins.

The notion of an ‘interactive fit’ between a novel’s politics and our own is tactically necessary for the argument, since without it a critic like Nussbaum could not turn back the unpleasant inferences from the books she has chosen to sponsor. The festive paternalism of Dickens, the enchantment of the acte gratuit for Wright, would have to be answered for. With the interactive clause in force, there is a place for saying that Dickens ‘can misrepresent the importance of various types of suffering or harm, leading us to think them graver or lighter than they really are’. Of course, readers make such judgments easily and often, it is part of adjusting for anachronism, but Nussbaum must mean something more: that is the practical weight of her finger-wagging ‘really’. At what time then, and in whose eyes, are the harms graver or lighter? Louisa Gradgrind will suffer a kind of subordination we think a harm even in her marriage for love. She will because she lives in the 19th century. If we stand above her view of her fortunes, and, speaking as fact to fiction and present to past, elect to redescribe her harms as grave and significant, from what vantage-point do we make that judgment? We do it from the advanced morality of our day, certain that morality does advance, and that as it does it is informed by a knowledge that supersedes the knowledge of fiction from earlier times. They are the vitamins, we are the body, and sometimes old vitamins go stale. It is a fault of Dickens, Nussbaum thinks, that he ‘suggests that workers will flourish if only they are given some leisure time; he does not rate high enough the harm involved in class hierarchy itself.’ The tone of calm rebuke has always been a reflex of the justice-makers. But these strictures on behalf of human flourishing hang on an undefended premise and imply an awkward consequence. We are asked to believe that there are real injuries to a character like Louisa or Sissy Jupe, hidden injuries of class or gender that belong properly to the truth of her life, though unacknowledged by herself, by Dickens, or by any vivid testimony in the vicinity of her story. It must follow that many living writers need to have their characters redescribed. At this point the good of the judicial therapy seems to have broken off definitively from the good of imaginative reading.

Poetic Justice concludes as perhaps no other book ever will, with the author handing out marks to judges on their moral imagination. Judge Posner comes off well for the language of his finding in Carr v. General Motors, a case of sexual harassment. His style derives less from Bentham than from Swift, and sometimes, in his economic writings, from Swift’s ventriloquised projectors. The oscillation, from a masterly irony to the clinical smoothness of what may or may not be science, seems to come naturally to students of the 18th century. In Carr v. General Motors Posner’s opinion has a curt accuracy: ‘We do not find the picture of mighty GM helpless in the face of foul-mouthed tinsmiths remotely plausible.’ This way of talking has to be pushed pretty hard before it will yield a call for empathy, though Nussbaum thinks she can detect it in code, in Posner’s bare citation of a book that speaks warmly of the good of emotions in the courtroom. Yet the judgment whether Mary Carr’s was a case of genuine harassment could be made, and was in fact made here, on the basis of ordinary decency. Judges can do that without ‘other narratives from people in relevantly similar positions’. It does seem possible to overrate empathy. Nussbaum’s last pages quote Whitman saying in Song of Myself:

Unscrew the locks from the doors!
Unscrew the doors themselves from their jambs!
Whoever degrades another degrades me,
And whatever is done or said returns at last to me.

Meaning, as she reads it, that all citizens are involved in a common enterprise with poets, that deep citizenship must mean we all aspire to be spectators, seers-in and in-feelers of each other’s lives, and that finally the aspiration may be attainable. But Whitman also wrote in Song of Myself: ‘Somehow I have been stunned. Stand back! ... I find myself on the verge of a usual mistake,’ and admitted he could not ‘look with a separate look on my own crucifixion and bloody crowning’. Meaning that we cannot enter into other lives fully at last, that the wish to do so is at once self-engrossing and self-punishing, but that we are bound to survive this disappointment, since one of the lives we cannot enter fully is our own. If love can go on after such knowledge, justice can probably go on too.