It’s been a long, crazy journey through A Serious Game, but with this entry the series draws to a close. Just think back on what we’ve learned about the way fiction and reality mingle and and what this means for us. After that I did my best to make Harlan Ellison into the biggest bogeyman of 20th century speculative fiction. I allowed myself a digression into ethical action and postmodern disillusionment, and then more or less took back almost everything I said before about Harlan Ellison. Today the essay draws to a close, and I offer a few reflections and some tentative suggestions about how we can be better — more ethical — readers in the future, and affirm what I think is my purpose in the study of literature.
MacIntyre points out that the good we receive from ethical practice “can only be achieved by subordinating ourselves within the practice in our relationship to other practitioners” (191). This is why I study literature: to become more aware of myself as one person in the context of many others, and more conscientious in my ethical evaluations. This comes about through my reading of diverse texts, but also through my relationships with other practitioners: reading a wide selection of criticism on those texts, and my individual interactions with professors and fellow students. I have played a game throughout this essay, at varying levels, with texts that I enjoy for myriad reasons, and in writing about it I have invited you to play the game with me.
Wayne Booth offers the metaphor of a book-as-friend, with some books being more worthy of our company than others, but with all of them, generally, deserving of at least minimal attention to determine that. I think this is workable, but for my part I would like to combine it with a notion implied by my Borges epigraph, the idea of the author-as-chessmaster. In ethical reading we are playing a friendly game of chess — but we must remain alert whenever we are in danger of being drawn into check, or sometimes cheated. In a game of chess between friends, or potential friends, victory is not important. Getting to know one another is: spotting your opponents’ gambits and strategies, their strengths and weaknesses, and learning how they think. Above all, we must recognize that any bad turn is not indicative of some inherent, all-consuming malevolence on our opponents’ part, but rather due to the fact that texts are the products — us in our act of reading, and the author in his or her act of writing, and the cultures that gives rise to our expectations in either case — and therefore capable of every prejudice and imperfection we are heir to. Just as chessmasters are not angels, they are by no means demons.
Interacting with stories is a game insofar as doing so is quite selfish: I read the texts because I enjoy them, though my reasons are slightly different in each case. My approach to stories is not that reading them is at the forefront practical, in the same way washing the car or buying groceries is practical. But I am also aware of the serious ethical dimension of this game; texts may invite me to think some things that I know to be wrong, or in subtler instances, not think about something that I would recognize as wrong. I can anticipate and block these moves because my life, both everyday and scholastic, has trained me otherwise. MacIntyre claims that inherent to the future of virtue is “the construction of local forms of community within which civility and the intellectual and moral life can be sustained” (263).
The reliance on a community is what makes ethics problematic; differences between communities will engender different ethical approaches. But while the hope of an ideal ethical communal space is probably just as much of a pipedream as true ethical universality, some grasp at that community is why I believe the study of literature is important. Academic study initiates the student into a practice of thinking and acting where both aesthetic and practical considerations of texts matter, a community where concerns about a text’s stance on class, gender, race, or economic policy can be discussed alongside a text’s language, form or genre. These modes of reading are not exclusive, and this is where the possibility of ethical reading flourishes. A morally bankrupt work, like The Jew of Malta, may be immensely entertaining, while a formally clumsy and sometimes boring work such as Edward P. Jones’s The Known World may have a vibrant ethical core. An ethical reader, active in a civil, intellectual and moral community, should have the power to appraise both of these works, enjoy them for the reasons they are enjoyable, and allow that enjoyment to be tempered by the ways in which they falter.
Ethical reading is a serious game, and it is through a wide-ranging and conscientious study of literature and criticism that we learn how to play it. I did not always read ethically; it was a gradual process, lasting many years and only becoming a conscious issue as my college courses exposed me to the many natures and schools of criticism and interpretation available. I had to learn understand that literature did something. I had to learn, first, how stories could shape my world and the life I lived in it. If literature is a force that contributes to making us who we are, it follows that our assent to stories can make us better or worse people. In the case of my childhood encounters with Old Hickory, it seemed incredibly easy to assent to a story entirely, to just believe. As this dawned on me, I began to wonder: how likely was it that I unthinkingly accepted or applied patently untrue or unhealthy narratives? How many of them, instead of teaching me to tread very softly on hardwood floors, were teaching me to demonize, discount, or oppress? How many of them were convincing me to harm myself or others? And how would I deal with stories that did this, but were still beautiful or elegant or clever in some other way? Booth makes a poignant analogy of this dilemma: “…[Stories] offer every opportunity to miseducate ourselves, and therein lies the task of ethical criticism: to help us avoid that miseducation. The trick is always to find ways of doing that without tearing the butterfly apart in our hands” (477).
I think this is the key: the butterfly is in our hands. We are not powerless, but in fact are given a very important task as readers. Barthes’s idea of a mediator applies just as well to readers as authors, for as Eco suggests, the reader is a “fundamental ingredient not only of the process of storytelling but also of the tale itself. …[A text] cannot say everything about the world. It hints at and then asks the reader to fill in a whole series of gaps” (Walks 1, 3). The text has the power to shape us, yes, but it is not an autocrat; we can resist and to some degree shape the text. To believe, though, that people and literature should be good — or should be made good — for all times and places is fallacious. In understanding how narratives do make us who we are, we must also be aware of the ways in which narratives could shape us but do not or should not, because they probably have shaped others in those ways, and we could just as easily have been shaped.
We must play our games cautiously and wisely, we must maintain intellectual and moral civility, for the things at our disposal — our literature, our narratives, the building blocks of ourselves and those around us, the butterflies and the chess-pieces — are fragile.
Barthes, Roland. “The Death of the Author.” Image — Music — Text. Trans. Stephen Heath. NY: Hill and Wang, 1977. 142-148.
Booth, Wayne C. The Company We Keep: An Ethics of Fiction. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1988.
Borges, Jorge Luis. “Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius.” Labyrinths. 1962. Trans. James E. Irby. New York: Modern Library, 1983.
Dickens, Charles. Great Expectations. 1860-61. Ed. Charlotte Mitchell. London: Penguin, 2003.
Eco, Umberto. Five Moral Pieces. 1997. Trans. Alastair McEwen. New York: Harcourt, 2001.
—. Six Walks in the Fictional Woods. 1994. Boston: Harvard University Press, 2004.
Ellison, Harlan. “‘Repent, Harlequin!’ said the Ticktockman.” The Essential Ellison. Ed. Terry Dowling, et al. 1987. New York: Morpheus International, 2001. 877-886.
Gardner, John. On Moral Fiction. 1978. New York: Basic Books, 2000.
Gregory, Marshall. Shaped by Stories: The Ethical Power of Narratives. Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 2009.
Johnson, Samuel. “Rambler No. 4”. 1750.
MacIntyre, Alasdair. After Virtue: A Study in Moral Theory. 1981. Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 2007.
Shelley, Percy Bysshe. “A Defense of Poetry.” 1821
Wilde, Oscar. “The Decay of Lying.” 1891.
Wallace, David Foster. “Joseph Frank’s Dostoevsky.” Consider the Lobster. 2005. New York: Black Bay Books, 2007.