- The Ethics of Storytelling: Narrative Hermeneutics, History, and the Possible by Hanna Meretoja
One of the recent additions to the well-established and prestigious Oxford University Press series “Explorations in Narrative Psychology,” led by Mark Freeman, is Hanna Meretoja’s book The Ethics of Storytelling: Narrative Hermeneutics, History, and the Possible. Ambitiously and lucidly interdisciplinary, the book draws on the fields of hermeneutics, cultural memory studies, psychology, narrative ethics, literary narrative studies and ethical criticism, and philosophy of narrative. Ethics, however, is at the crux of Meretoja’s approach, as the title suggests. Her book reminds us why the ethical turn in the humanities broadly conceived, and specifically in narrative studies, has been so important: by raising critical questions of how we distinguish and respond to rightness and wrongness, or justice and injustice in historical context, it also brought scholarly attention toward issues of difference, of understanding and entertaining alternative representations. In other words, the ethical turn brought a strong orientation [End Page 117] toward alterity. A significant contribution of this book is that the author engages with what makes it even possible to reach out to alterity: imagination, which she understands in Kantian terms as the faculty that lets us see from another’s perspective, and thus lets us discern possibilities as well as impossibilities. She carves out a new conceptual space for the possible not only by presenting it as an ontological domain that stretches existing representations, but also by tracing the kinds of self-reflection and edification enhanced by narrative possibilities. The possible, for Meretoja, has a distinct narrative fashion insofar as it deals in perspectives. Her framework for reconstructing how narrative possibilities take shape includes a careful analysis of the ideological and affective aspects of a story, the cultural constraints that shape the views and behaviors of the characters as well as our expectations as readers, and ultimately our embodied position in the world as individuals, whether that means as a parent, a child, a soldier, or a prisoner.
Meretoja follows in an impressive tradition of thinkers with similar concerns. Inspired by the work of philosophers like Emmanuel Levinas and Jacques Derrida, or Martha Craven Nussbaum and Richard Rorty, and developed through analyses of texts by canonical authors like Henry James or Joseph Conrad, the ethical turn had ethical as much as political stakes. The alterity it sought to reach, explain, and legitimate was often on the margins of the political and cultural arena. The orientation toward other worlds and other lives urged by the ethical turn was at the forefront of feminist and postcolonialist approaches, as well as other types of scholarship concerned with questions of difference writ large— cultural, sexual, ideological. At the same time, much of the scholarship associated with the ethical turn has tended to assume an inherent value of alterity and has posited that literary representation can provide not just the aesthetic of cognitive access to difference, but also nothing short of moral redemption and political enlightenment. Such claims are exciting but also overstated and easy to challenge. That literature, no matter how powerful aesthetically, does not lead necessarily to moral reform or to political change is obvious enough to not require much elaboration beyond readily available examples.
That said, Meretoja’s book is a nuanced analysis of the complicated ethical valences of narrative. She makes a lucid case for why and how [End Page 118] powerful narratives— and all the examples she discusses are powerful in different ways— are ethically effective even though they do not offer some straightforward moral training. The literary texts on which the book rests its theoretical model are Julia Frack’s Die Mitagsfrau, Gunter Grass’s Peeling the Onion, Jonathan Littell’s Les Bienveillantes, and David Grossman’s To The End of the Land and Falling Out of Time. Representing different cultural and aesthetic traditions, these texts all engage with questions of war, violence, trauma, culpability, and survival. Meretoja explains her selection by acknowledging that her moral topography, as a European, is deeply influenced by the Holocaust and its complicated moral, political, and historical legacy, while...