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  • Encrypted Sympathy:Wordsworth's Infant Ideology
  • Ortwin de Graef

The province of ethics and literature is arguably one of the more prominent places where the study of literature has been acting out its constitutive legitimization crisis over the past decade or so. As Steven Connors remarked in a 1996 review of, among others, David Parker's Ethics, Theory and the Novel, "the word 'ethics' seems to have replaced 'textuality' as the most charged term in the vocabulary of contemporary cultural and literary theory" (Connors 1996: 24; see also Hadfield, Rainsford, and Woods 1999: 1); and in his introduction to the 1999 PMLA issue on "Ethics and Literary Study," Lawrence Buell makes much the same point, although slightly less confidently, when he states that "[e]thics has gained new resonance in literary studies during the past dozen years, even if it has not —at least yet —become the paradigm-defining concept that textuality was for the 1970s and historicism for the 1980s" (1999: 7). As Buell's reservation suggests, it is still doubtful whether the ethical tremble running through literary scholarship is likely to gather to a thunder. In fact, there are indications that it is already dying down, or was indeed always already drowned out by alternative thrills such as globalization, which, we are told by the organisers of an international summer seminar in literary studies that took place in 2000, is the real "literary-critical catch-all" for the 1990s.1 The fact that the previous edition of this seminar was called Reading Text, Constructing Theory, Thinking Ethics(London 13-20 June 1999) quietly confirms that ethics was on the agenda in the 1990s, though not, it would now appear, as a genuinely core-building concept.

At any rate, it is clear that contemporary literary scholarship has witnessed a marked increase in the deployment of ethical rhetoric and [End Page 21] that this turn to ethics is received as a turn away from, typically, text and history. A plausible, if roughly-drawn, account of the paradigm parade of literary studies over the past few decades could run more or less as follows: in the 1970s and early 1980s, deconstruction, with its textual fixations, figures as a dominant point of reference in the then current critical discourse; in the course of the 1980s, the alleged textualist idealism of deconstruction increasingly comes under attack and is gradually ousted by approaches such as New Historicism and Post-Colonial Studies, which profile themselves as more properly responsive to "real" issues of history and politics and as less starry-eyed about the supposed privilege of (Canonical) upper-case Literature, thereby relocating the study of literature within the larger project of Cultural Studies; the ethical turn of the 1990s, then, appears to herald —at least on the face of it —a dismissal not only of the sterile impersonality of textualist idealism but also of the ideology-critical overkill of resolutely politicised reading and of the paradoxical levelling abstractions of historical particularism. Reading literature under the aegis of ethics promises a recovery of a more human and humane appreciation of literature as humanism in personal practice, an intimate exercise in increasing awareness, and fostering understanding.

In the words of Martha Nussbaum, who has established herself as a prime representative of the principle, if not therefore the practice, of ethical criticism, the "literary imagination" released in this reading is "an essential ingredient of an ethical stance that asks us to concern ourselves with the good of other people whose lives are distant from our own" (1995: xvi) and thereby in turn releases us "from a stifling confinement into a space of human possibility" (1998: 362). The literary imagination so conceived, Nussbaum contends, "is an essential part of both the theory and the practice of citizenship" (1995: 52). As this last claim indicates, the ethical turn that is at stake here is emphatically not a matter of private imaginings alone; on the contrary, the release of sympathy effected by the literary imagination is seen as a powerful catalyst in the formation of a political community. The question this raises, though, is how the literary text actually performs such a saving release; or perhaps more accurately: how it saves...


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