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  • Mutual Exclusion, Oscillation, and Ethical Projection in The Crying of Lot 49 and The Turn of the Screw
  • C. Namwali Serpell (bio)

Uncertainty, Affordance, Modes

For a while now, beginning perhaps with Iris Murdoch's "Against Dryness,"1 scholars interested in ethics and literature have tended to divide the field into camps or axes. Arizti and Falquina-Martínez have recently described these axes in this way: "one pointing back to liberal humanism and the moral criticism of Arnold and Leavis, and the other informed by postmodernism and deconstruction [Derrida and Levinas]" (xi, n. 13). Robert Eaglestone essentially concurs: "There seem to be, very roughly, two broad wings of 'ethical criticism.' One concentrates on the importance of narrative and the ways in which it shapes and informs our lives and might be characterized (broadly) as neo-Aristotelian. The other, in contrast, focuses on how narratives, and texts in general, are interpreted or misinterpreted and might be (again broadly) characterized as 'deconstructive'" ("One" 602). Given this recognizable though rough binary, I argue in this essay for a third angle, one that recognizes both the experience of reading and the uncertainty inherent to the ethical dimension of that experience. I stake this claim about reading and ethics through an analysis of two extreme cases of literary uncertainty: Henry James's The Turn of the Screw and Thomas Pynchon's The Crying of Lot 49. Before I turn to this interpretive work, let me situate this third axis more clearly in relation to the other two. [End Page 223]

What neither axis can ignore is that "it is now virtually impossible to return to an ethics of universals and solid foundations" (Arizti xii). The result of literary criticism's turn through structuralism and its aftermath is that recent work in the field now takes ethical and linguistic uncertainty for granted. The task of the critic has become to advocate for the uncertainty of literature as the source of its ethical value, either by burrowing into the fecund density of an ethical morass or by sketching the bleak, desolate impasses of an existential ethical reality. What undergirds both of these approaches is a long-established idea that there is a significant connection between the epistemological and the ethical, between what we know and what we do, and a newer idea that both the epistemological and the ethical are fundamentally uncertain. The difference between the two visions is that one sees literature as the intense, specific, full unfolding of a complex ethical reality we struggle to know, while the other suggests that literature's point is in fact that we cannot know it. Both in fact, stultify uncertainty, rendering it the end of an epistemological hunt rather than, as I seek to do, registering its possibilities as the beginning of an ethics.

Let me make these points more concrete. If one takes up the critical flag of a Wayne Booth or a Martha Nussbaum, one commits to a description of literary uncertainty that is sure to codify, and thereby, neutralize or tame it. Booth, for example, is clearly attuned to the eruptive strangeness of reading, the futility of speculating about a real author, the multiplicity of perspective that belies any one "true" reading, and so on. The new terms he introduced to literary criticism suggest a life-long struggle to acknowledge and understand the vicissitudes of reading. But one cannot deny the conservatism lurking behind the nuance: if you squint, implied author becomes author, implied reader becomes Wayne Booth. And a quick glance at an exemplary claim—"Any reader who fails to judge Gilbert Osmond as a monstrously immoral villain would shock me and perhaps infuriate James" ("Why" 26)—suggests that despite his comprehensive and detailed explanations of literary ambiguity, Booth is a reader who much prefers certainty to uncertainty.2

Booth certainly spends plenty of time describing the conflicting multiplicity of form, readers, authors, and other literary considerations. The novels he claims as the most amenable or interesting to ethical criticism are like those written by Henry James, in which we are especially hooked into plots-of-conflict and therefore grapple "with conflicting choices that irresistibly demand the reader's judgment" ("Why" 26). But...


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