A Serious Game Part 4: Ethics, chiptunes, and DFW

Now we pass the midway point in A Serious Game, my senior essay on the study of literature.  If you’re just tuning in, then you should know that we’ve already discussed how stories influence our lives and seen the reality of fiction in action, then I said a lot of really melodramatic things about Harlan Ellison. Today, I’m going to talk out of my ass about ethics!  To make up for it listen to the following song for a while.

Let me take this opportunity to extend the tiniest olive branch to Gardner; I think he is wrong, but I also think he means well.  The greatest schism in his argument is one I don’t think we can heal, but we can work with it.  Ethical reading should take into account the question of imitation versus understanding, especially the fact that people can and will do both, and above all, that these are actions that lie with the reader.  Gardner’s folly is that he places too much emphasis on the individual writer of fiction — for him, it is the writer’s responsibility to pick the correct morals, the correct sympathies, and the appropriate understandings.  To a degree that’s hopefully true; we’d like to believe that every writer is at heart David Foster Wallace’s Dostoevsky, who

wrote fiction about stuff that’s really important.  He wrote fiction about identity, moral value, death, will, sexual vs. spiritual love, greed, freedom, reason, faith, suicide.  And he did it without ever reducing his characters to mouthpieces or his books to tracts.  His concern was always what it is to be a human being — that is, how to be an actual person, someone whose life is informed by values and principles, instead of just an especially shrewd kind of self-preserving animal. (265)

Unfortunately not every writer is Dostoevsky, who may have indeed been a great and rare intellect,[1] but what we have here is Wallace’s reading of Dostoevsky.  It is in the reader, I suggest, that the true responsibility for an ethical literature may reside; this does not immediately solve my problems, though.  For every reader who responds as enthusiastically as Wallace, there is probably another reader who finds Dostoevsky absolutely depraved, or worse, so boring as to not even merit reading.  I can give Dostoevsky a benefit of a doubt, though: surely he wrestled with ethics and the meaning of being a person when writing, and I can commend him for it.  But what do I say about Dostoevsky’s readers, who could have such disparate views?

This confusion mirrors the trouble we may have with moral criticism in and of itself.  As Alasdair MacIntyre says, in our current culture, the problem with ethical debates is that our “rival premises are such that we possess no rational way of weighting the claims of one as against another” (8).  We believe all moral outlooks are matters of individual choice or persuasion, essentially incomparable, and simultaneously we assert that the only ‘valid’ sort of moral outlook would be one that is demonstrably universal.  The confusion holds true for ethical appraisal of literature; if John Gardner looks at “Harlequin” he wants to see an indication that Harlan Ellison is in some way an individual moral human being, and at the same time confirmation that these personal morals are in fact aspects of a universally applicable ethos.  MacIntyre’s assertion is that our ethical maps have been scrambled because we think of morals in terms of individual judgment; the individualist stance assumes that “the self is detachable from its social and historical roles and stauses” (MacIntyre 221).

Morality, MacIntyre argues, is only intelligible in a context.  Human beings are only moral agents when they are embedded in social and historical networks and traditions, which can and do vary, and so any grasp at a flawless moral universality is a snipe hunt.  MacIntyre ties this notion of tradition with that of narrative:

…man is in his actions and practice, as well as in his fictions, essentially a story-telling animal.  He is not essentially, but becomes through his history, a teller of stories that aspire to truth.  But the key question for men is not about their own authorship; I can only answer the question ‘What am I to do?’ if I can answer the prior question ‘Of what story or stories do I find myself a part?’  We enter human society, that is, with one or more imputed characters — roles into which we have been drafted — and we have to learn what they are in order to be able to understand how others respond to us and how our responses to them are apt to be construed.  (216)

In focusing on moral actions as matters of only individual agency, we are denying ourselves the scripts that tell us how we should act within context as one human being among many, and at the same time we deny ourselves the very mechanism by which — like Pip, finding himself drafted into many roles by others — we even come to understand ourselves as individuals.  Ethics in this sense is always relational or situational, and cannot be extracted from its contexts.  It takes a different kind of courage to stand up to an unjust friend than it does to stand up to an unjust family member, teacher, or political leader.

To phrase it succinctly: ethical action is cooperative, so how I treat you is dependent on how you treat me, and vice-versa.  If I am grouchy and irritable with you, I have no good reason to expect you to be kind and open with me, but if you are, then I may be inclined to not be so grouchy anymore.  (If I remain grouchy, however, I shouldn’t be surprised when you stop talking to me.)  Eco, who we have also seen speak of the narrative networks we use to constitute identity, takes a similar approach to ethics:  “The ethical dimension begins when the other appears on the scene.  Every law, moral or juridical as it may be, regulates interpersonal relationships, including those with an other who imposes the law” (MP 22).  The other is necessary for any thought of ethics, but also for any thought of ourselves: “[I]t is the other, it is his look, that defines and forms us.  Just as we cannot live without eating or sleeping, we cannot understand who we are without the look and the response of the other” (MP 22).

The author — or if you like, the text, or the implied author, what Eco calls the “[narrative] voice that speaks to us affectionately … that wants us beside it” (Walks 15) — serves the function of the other in any act of reading.  In reading, we are not only asked to listen to the fiction, but to listen openly and politely, to give ourselves over; recall Booth’s comments about all narrative being rhetoric.  Readers are invited to change in some way how they think and by that token, to some extent who they are.  This change occurs in relation to the implied author, who “foresees as a collaborator” (Walks 9) a certain type of reader willing to notice the text’s cues and clues, pick up the story’s hints, and follow along with the narrative until the end.  It is human instinct, perhaps, to assent to this narrative voice, as Gregory Marshall supposes:

Our impulse for stories is, in fact, the desire to give up mastery and to let the story direct and shape our attention, feelings, judgments, and ideas, at least for the time that we and the story are interacting.  For the most part we go to story because we desire to assent. (68-69, italics in original)

So it might seem that to some degree we are all like me at age five, and every implied author is my grandfather.  We want to believe what stories tell us is true; we are quite willing to give assent, and when we do, we may end up seeing a leering face in every whorl and knot of a hardwood floor.

In a few ways my governing metaphor is, of course, imperfect; I don’t mean to accuse my grandfather of being an immoral storyteller, and I don’t mean to accuse all readers of being equivalent to five-year-old children.  The sort of ethical reading practice I will describe is something generally beyond the capabilities of children.  To return to the schism I noted in Gardner’s argument, ethical reading consists of both imitation and understanding — but while a child’s reading habit tends toward the former, a mature ethical reading practice must tend toward the latter.  This does not happen naturally, though; we grow older and more aware, we are only more inclined not to believe everything we are told (most of us, anyway), but it is very rare that we come to understand what we are told but reject.

The communitarian view I’ve so far described, particularly in relation to MacIntyre, does indeed have its dangers.  Our reliance on preexisting discourses and narratives to come into our senses of both self and ethical practice have not necessarily been laid out in our interest.  This is when imitation does us harm; if I am a member of a particular ethnicity and the narratives of my culture lead me to believe that it is true and good for me to enslave, murder, or even simply cheat members of another ethnicity, this is not for the best.  In this scenario the “self” offered me is that of a member of a particular group, defined in opposition to another group.  I am allowed to find my sense of identity only in my group; the second group is understood insofar as they are not and cannot be me — with the implication that they are not people like me, for they are not drawn from the same traditions and narratives and webs of meaning that constitute me and those around me.  In this case, it is best not to assent to the narrative handed me — for while I must always come to understand myself through the existence of the other, that process has here gone awry.  In assenting to one narrative of self, I have unequivocally turned down another, and not only that, refused to comprehend that the other is even truly a self at all.

It almost goes without saying that a culture’s literature can serve the racist purpose I’ve just described — I will hearken back to The Jew of Malta, which portrays Jews as outlandish and inhuman.  But if ethical reading and criticism were as simple as seeing this, then it probably wouldn’t be worth writing a paper on it.  And if, for instance, we simply decide we should never read Marlowe’s play again, because it is racist (or sexist, or anti-Catholic), then we’ve again made a mistake.  We do not assent to the text’s invitation to take its worldview as our own, but we’ve also rejected anyone who is constituted in part by that worldview.  We’ve again cast aside the other.[2] Knowing who we can be does not by necessity directly effect who we are.  Though I don’t like to think of myself as an anti-Semite, the play invites me into that position, and even if I do not like it, it reminds me that I, as a human being, am to some degree capable.

When I read the play I do not personally think to myself, “Barabas is selfish and evil because he is a Jew,” but I know that is, in fact, the play’s internal logic, and would have been the logic of most of the play’s audience at the time of its writing.  I know that it would be very easy for me to read the play and deduce from it the moral that all Jews are selfish and evil; what has prevented this is my existence within a historical, cultural, and personal context where anti-Semitism is clearly ethically wrong.  Do I run some sort of risk in exposing myself to texts where this is not a self-evident conclusion?  Perhaps, but as Gregory points out, we risk things all the time just by living, and “if we try to protect ourselves from life’s dangers by withdrawing from life, we give up more than we gain” (70) — we have denied ourselves the recognition of others that ultimately figures into our self-recognition.  The moment of contact between me and the other — the text, the implied author, that strange and mysterious and possibly dangerous voice asking me to think and feel something — is the core of ethical reading.  Ethical reading allows us to see “our real selves in relation to other selves,” not in the sense that we are defined simply by who we are not and should not be, but with the understanding that each other we encounter is one of many “alternate selves” (Gregory 69).  As in interactions with real people, I am not required to follow every suggestion a textual other gives me, but before I know whether or not to follow that suggestion I first must listen to it, do my best to understand it, and if necessary, decline it.

Understanding and declining has the added benefit of allowing us to recognize what parts of a narrative are, though marred by their context or content, still worth thinking about.  In reading Malta we can understand, though we do not assent to, the way its contemporary readers saw the world, notice the unhealthy myths it perpetuated, and perhaps caution ourselves when those thoughts processes recur.  If we are secure in our moral standing in relation to the text, we can also afford to study Marlowe’s work within the genre of revenge tragedy, the qualities of the blank verse, or its narrative structure.  In Great Expectations, we can recognize that Pip’s narrative construction of himself may simplify or oppress the others who have helped make him who he is, but in recognizing that, we can consider how we might do the same thing in the narratives of our own lives.


[1] And as the biographers have it, a hopeless gambling addict and constant source of frustration to his wife.  It may do well to paraphrase Samuel Johnson and keep in mind that most people write better than they live.

[2] And depending who we are, an unsavory part of our cultural past we’d best not forget, I think.

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