- Ethics, Theory and the Novel
“The word ‘ethics’ seems to have replaced ‘textuality’ as the most charged term in the vocabulary of contemporary literary and cultural theory”— so writes Steven Connor in the TLS. The claim will strike some as surprising—not least the so-called “humanist” critics who for almost three decades have been defending ethical discourse against attacks from proponents of “literary and cultural theory.” There have been various intellectual sources for these attacks: neo-Marxists have claimed that ethical discourse is intrinsically class-specific and therefore ideological; psychoanalytic critics and theorists have often eschewed ethical inquiry in the belief that human conduct is predominantly determined by amoral unconscious forces; many feminists have argued that traditional ethical discourses are rendered untenable by their “gendered” histories; poststructuralists, while in some cases wanting to keep ethics on the agenda, have found it disconcertingly hard—even impossible—to conjure worthwhile ethical discourse out of a position which denies the existence of “centered” moral agents, and which sees language as inherently slippery and self-contradictory; postcolonialists tend to see Western ethical discourses as culpably ethnocentric. And so on.
Yet, whatever the rhetoric of these and other strands of literary and cultural theory, it is too simple to say that they have renounced ethics altogether. Clearly, feminism, postcolonialism, Marxism, and other movements are ethical projects, and one of David Parker’s central points in Ethics, Theory, and the Novel is that the rhetoric of ethical refusal on the part of some proponents of these movements reflects an act of costly and unwarranted cultural repression: “the expansive moment of poststructuralism in the 1970s and early 1980s has suppressed some discursive possibilities which, constituted as we are partly by [End Page 519] various religious and humanistic traditions, we stand in abiding need of, and are poorer without” (pp. 3–4). Another casualty of the process, he argues, has been literature itself: it has been downgraded by the proponents of cultural studies, relegated to secondary, evidential status. Parker wants to retrieve cultural centrality and prestige for literature, and to insist that literary theory needs a rich conception of canonical literature, which “ought to be regarded as Theory’s resistant Other” (p. 6). Together with humanist criticism itself, such texts should function as the “subversive Other to the suppressive will of hegemonic Theory” (p. 146).
The sense of regret at suppressed human richness and possibility is everywhere apparent in this subtle, deeply considered book. Parker’s characterization of our ethical and broader cultural predicament owes much to Charles Taylor’s monumental Sources of the Self; in particular, to Taylor’s claim that we need to “acknowledge the full range of goods we live by” (p. 20), and his three-fold account of our ethical traditions: Kantian/Judeo-Christian, Enlightenment, Romantic. Out of the cultural pluralism inherent in Taylor’s project Parker fashions a critical pluralism which reads, and also evaluates, novels in the light of their treatment of the “various goods”—the ethical strands—they explore, dramatize, and embody. His principle texts are Middlemarch, Anna Karenina, The White Peacock, and Women in Love. It is central to his case that with variousness comes tension and conflict, and that the greatest literature is that which gives ethical complexity and diversity the least reductive, “the fullest, most engaged and most intelligent examination” (p. 197). Such writing constitutes a canon—an institution for which Parker offers a courageous and compelling defense. He argues that some texts just are better than others at reflecting “the full range of good we live by,” and that, far from being merely an expression of supremacist cultural bias, the ethnocentrism of the Western canon actually schools us in “a long ethical tradition of self-reflection precisely on the tendency to self-righteous superiority” (p. 50).
Literature’s contribution to “self-reflection” is crucial precisely because we are so prone to repress, to forget: the cultural selectivity against which Taylor warns is mirrored and enacted in the individual psyche. Parker is particularly concerned with two kinds of forgetting: a righteousness which blinds us...