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The Ethics of Modernism: Moral Ideas in Yeats, Eliot, Joyce, Woolf, and Beckett (review)

From: James Joyce Quarterly
Volume 46, Number 1, Fall 2008
pp. 163-166 | 10.1353/jjq.0.0118

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Reviewed by
The Ethics of Modernism: Moral Ideas in Yeats, Eliot, Joyce, Woolf, and Beckett, by Lee Oser. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press 2007. 185 pp. $88.00.

Lee Oser's The Ethics of Modernism: Moral Ideas in Yeats, Eliot, Joyce, Woolf, and Beckett may have been mistitled at some point in its production process because the author's real concern seems to rest on the idea of human nature and whether humans can be taught to be moral by art or literature. Virginia Woolf famously claimed that "in or about December, 1910, human character changed."1 Many of her readers have focused on the idea that modernism entailed change at the beginning of the twentieth century, but Oser's interest is in this idea of "human character." He poses a series of questions to this concept: is human nature a viable category? How did modernism as a literary movement treat this category? Could human nature be said to have changed during the modernist period? His most pressing question, given the international conflicts and tragedies of the modernist period: "what good is there in human nature?" (1). Oser takes an ambitious approach to this already ambitious question by addressing the "moral ideas" among modernism's most canonical and influential writers to argue that morality makes its claims on individual consciences separate from cultural or historical context. He also categorically dismisses the work of his contemporaries in the field and particularly condemns scholarship influenced by Levinasian ethics.2 His argument with Emmanuel Levinas is simply stated: "that he denies the existence of human nature" (126). The Ethics of Modernism makes a case for an enduring, universal, and improvable human nature, a position so traditional as to appear almost eccentric. [End Page 163]

Oser argues that belief in human nature did not die with Matthew Arnold and that "the modernists did not forget human nature as their critics are wont to do" (16). He further observes that one of the legacies of Cartesian philosophy (and he traces René Descartes's influence through Immanuel Kant, William James, Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel, Karl Marx, Friedrich Nietzsche, Martin Heidegger, Edmund Husserl, Levinas, Jacques Derrida, and Michel Foucault—all in one paragraph and in that order) is the denial of a human nature as such. Two major counterarguments for the existence of human nature, however, are exemplified in schools he designates as the "new Darwinism" and "the revival of Aristotelian virtue ethics" (1, 5). New Darwinism emerges in the figure of Steven Pinker who makes a case for the existence of human nature, though of a reductive kind, influenced by a particular version of evolutionary theory.3 In the last twenty years, Oser sees the revival of an Aristotelian adherence to the "concrete actuality of moral life" (5).

Oser defines the "modernist moral project" (120) as the work of changing human nature by the influence of art. While he notes modernism's interest in science and technology and in the immense innovation of its own historical epoch, he argues that the real demand of this literary movement was on its readers' morality; modernist writers were united in the aim of improving human nature. This argument sets Oser at odds with much of the literary scholarship of the last twenty or thirty years, and he is both conscious of and comfortable with the combative position he takes. He dismisses modernism's interpreters for advancing "theory before literature" and for exploiting the modernist project for "dangerous" purposes: "they legislate and enforce the perverse dogmas of pseudo-ethical anti-naturalism" (120).

The chapter on Joyce, "Love Among the Skeptics," will be of most interest to readers of the JJQ. Oser characterizes Joyce's moral vision as "romantic irony," which is constituted by a "healthy skepticism toward moral authority" (66). He argues that "Joyce's skepticism is a form of freedom. It resists the passionate dictates that lead men to violence and war. It lends itself to good government, and enriches . . . the 'diversity' of European culture" (66). Many passionate readers of Joyce's works would admit to such optimistic hopes for these books, and many contemporary critics have made more muted claims about Joyce's pacifism, egalitarianism, and...