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Much modern criticism follows a long tradition by attending to the presumed effect of literature on our personal and political lives. Feminists, cultural materialists, new historicists, and postcolonialists frequently remind us that texts are "not innocent," and such analysts seek to make explicit the values and judgments that literary texts encourage in their readers. Whether in the vein of unmasking or of celebrating, we critics often attribute great ethical and political significance to the works we study, but we are inclined to be vague about the mechanisms by which these effects occur. Given that I share this presumption that the texts we love to study matter to our lives, I would like to look more closely at how the process occurs, taking Milton's Paradise Regained as a test case.

Does our reading of literary texts affect us ethically, and should it?1 An ancient and powerful critical tradition has taken for granted that the answer to both questions is yes. At the very least, good literature read properly is seen as one among the shaping forces of our education. But, beginning in the late eighteenth century, the theoretical movement to separate esthetics from ethics rendered this assumption problematic. Perhaps the beautiful is a value quite separate from the good. Later the literary school of estheticism brashly proclaimed the triumph of beauty over goodness under the banner of art for art's sake, [End Page 208] and Auden more modestly noted in "In Memory of W. B. Yeats" that "poetry makes nothing happen,"2 presumably including in the denial the moral betterment of its readers. The idea that literature is good for us has been almost embarrassing for the past century or so. On the other hand, many feminists and cultural critics have recently argued in effect that literature is often bad for us, that it is implicated in the ethical and political life of the time when it is produced and also in the time when it is received or consumed, so that it may tend to reinforce the ideology of one period or the other. In their assumption that literature is ethically significant they agree with most ordinary people and with the cultural right, especially in concern about its influence.

What does this recent set of contentions entail? The term "implicated" that is characteristically used in such analysis claims at a minimum that the literary text in question has been shaped in production, consumption, or both by larger cultural forces, shaped in such a way as to incorporate certain values. Most such analyses go further to assert or suggest that the text under study helps to reinforce those values in the original audience or in later consumers (sometimes by attacking opposed values).3 The characteristic rhetorical stance in such readings is an implied warning to the reader against the insidious effect of the text lest it instill some fallacious, unethical, or politically harmful attitude or idea. Often the reader is rhetorically invited to share a position of intellectual superiority along with the critic, both of them above the corruption that afflicts an unspecified gullible audience. Thus many modern critics identify a romanticizing of war and the military hero in Shakespeare's Henry V, though they differ among themselves in that some locate both poison and cure in the text itself (suggesting, for example, that Shakespeare subverts the official ideology that he portrays), while some offer a "reading against the text," a cure administered by the critic against the wholly poisonous work.

Such critics frequently manifest a reasonable caution about their own ethical and political stance. In an age of widespread pluralism and cultural relativism, we have learned to suspect self-confident proclamations of the ethical and political truth by critics as well as by literary authors, and in particular we are suspicious of official codes of conduct, including our own. Also we are (often at least) less confident than our forebears in purporting to state the meaning of a text. We have learned to heed the ambiguities and self-undermining elements in texts that complicate the capacity of any simple critical statement to reflect adequately what the text means. We no...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1086-329X
Print ISSN
0190-0013
Pages
pp. 208-222
Launched on MUSE
2006-06-19
Open Access
No
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