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  • Exactly and Responsibly: A Defense of Ethical Criticism
  • Martha C. Nussbaum*

. . . to “put” things is very exactly and responsibly and interminably to do them. Our expression of them, and the terms on which we understand that, belong as nearly to our conduct and our life as every other feature of our freedom . . . All of this means for [the artist] conduct with a vengeance, since it is conduct minutely and publicly attested. . . . Art is nothing if not exemplary, care nothing if not active.

Henry James, Preface to The Golden Bowl


In the Preface to The Golden Bowl, as in many other writings, Henry James expresses the view that the novelist qua novelist is an ethical and political being whose conduct, as he “puts” things in prose in a certain way, is a form of exemplary moral conduct, expressing, out of the “soil” of his sensibility, a “projected morality.” 1 It is also a form of political conduct, an example of the “high and the helpful public and, as it were, civic use of the imagination” (pp. 223–24). We need novelists in society, James argues, because the novelist is well equipped to lead the attack against a culture characterized by the “rule of the cheap and easy” (p. 223). He calls our imaginations to more exacting demarcations, our emotions to a more honest confrontation with our own selves and the real impact our conduct has on the lives of others. Because human beings do great damage to themselves and others through [End Page 343] obtuseness and refusal of vision, “the effort really to see and really to represent is no idle business in face of the constant force that makes for muddlement” (p. 149). The artist can assist us by cutting through the blur of habit and the self-deceptions habit abets; his conduct is ethical conduct because it strives to come to terms with reality in a world that shrinks from reality. When we follow him as attentive readers, we ourselves engage in ethical conduct, and our readings themselves are assessible ethical acts.

James thus describes the artist’s social function in terms that recall Socrates’ characterization of his function in the sluggish Athenian democracy. Like a “gadfly” on the back of a “noble but sluggish horse,” Socrates said, he was attempting to wake democracy up so that it could conduct its deliberations in a more responsible and less habit-ridden manner. James agrees with Socrates that we need to be aroused from our ethical torpor; unlike Socrates, however, he insists that responsible ethical thought demands the prose of the artist and the acts of responsible readers. The terms of the novelist can help us to discover ourselves precisely because they are not the shopworn terms of ordinary discourse, all too often relied on by abstract philosophizing—terms that James calls “the standing terms” in order to indicate both their habitual character and their inertness. Instead, the novelist uses “the immense array of terms, perceptional and expressional, that . . . simply looked over the heads of the standing terms—or perhaps rather, like alert winged creatures, perched on those diminished summits and aspired to a clearer air” (p. 339). For James, then, the aesthetic is ethical and political. It is precisely in virtue of the mastery of craft that enables the novelist to deploy “perceptional and expressional” terms with skill that he can make a contribution to a public victory over obtuseness and emotional deadness.

In his article “Against Ethical Criticism,” 2 Richard Posner appears to attack James’s idea. With Oscar Wilde (or at least invoking the name of Wilde), he holds that literary works of art are not “moral or immoral,” they are only “well or badly written.” Any critic who brings ethical categories to the reading of works of art is thus bound to neglect the real aesthetic values the work contains and to impose on the text an alien set of concerns. In this essay I shall argue, against Posner, that James is correct in thinking that literary art can be ethical, and that responsible criticism of literary artworks can legitimately invoke ethical categories. I shall also argue that Posner’s assault on ethical criticism is, at...

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pp. 343-365
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