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Poetic Justice: The Literary Imagination and Public Life (review)

From: Philosophy and Literature
Volume 21, Number 1, April 1997
pp. 196-198 | 10.1353/phl.1997.0020

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Philosophy and Literature 21.1 (1997) 196-198

Book Review

Poetic Justice: The Literary Imagination and Public Life

Poetic Justice: The Literary Imagination and Public Life, by Martha C. Nussbaum; xii & 143 pp. Boston: Beacon Press, 1995, $20.00.

This volume, a revision of lectures given in 1991, is a philosophical study comparing aspects of law and literature. The law in question is contemporary American case law (hence the reference to "Public Life" in the book's subtitle). The literature to which it is juxtaposed consists primarily of "realist social novels" (p. 87), represented chiefly by Dickens's Hard Times, though with some attention also given to E. M. Forster's Maurice, Richard Wright's Native Son, and to passages from Whitman's poetry (quoted, characteristically, at some length). Nussbaum's thesis is that both this kind of legal discourse and this kind -- or kinds -- of literary discourse constitute, involve, or otherwise rely upon an imaginative vision of human life and its possibilities. Thus lawyers have a great deal to learn from literature, insofar as contact with the capacious imaginations of a Dickens or a Whitman can only enlarge the sensibilities of those who read them in a sufficiently open-minded, reflective way.

It may be both too kind and overly reductive to ascribe to Poetic Justice such a thing as a thesis. On the contrary, this compact book, like all of Nussbaum's writings, teems with theories and theses. This is the main reason, I suppose, for the dichotomy of responses to Nussbaum: some find this pullulating quality of her work exhilarating, while others just find it annoying. One advantage that I think both parties will recognize in the compactness of Poetic Justice (due to the constraints of the lecture format) is that it inhibits the author's native prolixity, which makes her previous books--The Fragility of Goodness (1986), Love's Knowledge (1990), and The Therapy of Desire (1994)--something of an effort even for Nussbaum's biggest fans to stay with through every last qualification, tertiary argument, and cross-reference.

The opening pages of these lectures seem, if anything, all too simple. Nussbaum's initial target is the economistic, deterministic school of social analysis associated with the University of Chicago generally and with Richard Posner in particular, which has lately exercised a disproportionate influence in American jurisprudence and -- especially during the Reagan-Bush era -- in public policymaking. Against this kind of thinking, which attempts to treat human beings and their actions and decisions as much as possible in terms of quantifiable, statistical measures, Nussbaum emphasizes the autonomy, the irreducible singularity of each human being and the qualitative aspects of each person's experience, which is the kind of cautionary lesson that she sees literary works as driving home -- hence their value as a counterweight, or even a vaccine, against reductive economism. Thus readers will tend to assume from the first lecture ("The Literary Imagination") that what they are in for, pretty much, is something like Bob Cratchit's comeback to Ebenezer Scrooge. The Dickensian comparison is not fortuitous, of course, because although the text of reference is Hard Times and not A Christmas Carol, the moral antithesis is familiar enough: a coldly, blindly all-embracing utilitarianism versus a warm, empathetic humanism.

Yet, as Nussbaum develops her account, things are not so simple. What emerges is that her aim is not simply to mount an attack on the economic-determinist approach to analyzing (and thus judging) human behavior, but in the first place to understand it, to get inside this worldview. This empathetic response to Chicago-style social analysis, in turn, weaves itself into the texture of Nussbaum's book in two ways. For one thing, it supports her call to treat literature as making a potentially significant contribution to public life, since what better path can there be to understanding neo-utilitarians like Posner than via imaginative portrayals of such paleo-utilitarians as Mr. Gradgrind? For another thing, moreover, the very gesture of trying to empathize with economic determinism rather than trying to bury it serves the purpose of showing up the latter's limitations, because this kind of other-directed response is just what the utilitarian...

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