Haunted by the ghost of PJ present

Recently I wrote a bit on Gooseberries by Chekhov. It was flabby. Good friend and trusted commentator, PJ Welsh, a philosophy graduate student with interests in German Idealism and Critical Theory, challenged me—as he should—and raised a number of interesting questions. It seemed a shame that our exchange should languish in my comments sections. So I’ve promoted it.

His first reply to my initial post

Is the problem really that Ivan has an extra-textual moral agenda, or is it that he lacks the skill to craft it into a compelling narrative? A good message does not a good story make; but neither, I’m sure you’ll agree, does a driving ideological conviction necessarily contaminate any stories it inspires one to tell.

All narrative includes a dimension of ethical evaluation. Chekov’s attitude, which I too admire, is broadly affirmative of the dignity of ordinary human life. “Gooseberries” invites us to smile at the genuine happiness attained by the brother who Ivan presents as such a sad figure (and, importantly, to see it as genuine happiness, and not as the false consciousness Ivan depicts it to be). To side with Ivan would be to condemn a poor man who, like the rest of us, is only doing the best he can to make his way through a cold and indifferent world. And indeed, to Chekov’s considerable credit, we sympathize with Ivan as well–in spite of his narrative failings, or perhaps even because of them. His act is appreciated, even if not in the way that he intended it to be.

Consider Steinbeck as a counter-example to your thesis. Here’s a writer with a social message: the end of The Grapes of Wrath is a kick in the gut, brought tears to my eyes. And it seems wrong to say that this is because Steinbeck subordinates message to story. Rather, it is because he’s master enough of the narrative craft to effectively deliver his message. Dickens is another such author.

Other Russians provide interesting cases. Tolstoy is a story-teller who, in my (not uncommon) opinion, succeeds in spite of his ideological agenda. Dostoevsky, as Bakhtin persuasively argues, works in a different way, setting competing ethical assessments against one another without ever siding with any one of them–a collision of perspectives taken to the next level.

My reply

Hi PJ, it’s great to see you here. I only wish that my post were worthy of such a considered response. You know, typically, when I write something, I eagerly await replies, comments, or challenges. Three or four days after Gooseberries went up, I was quite relieved that no one said a word. I’m dissatisfied with it in the extreme. It’s trying too hard to connect dots that need not be connected and to make a compelling point without actually going to the trouble of establishing it. Truth is, I don’t know what makes for a successful story, beyond a few generalizations. It seems to me that stories can succeed (or fail) in any number of ways, and that it’s difficult to classify them in a manner that applies to all literature. The Grapes of Wrath, for instance, succeeds differently than The Iliad. In any event, I do think that style and treatment of subject matter is more important than this or that moral conviction, and that formal inventiveness is worthy of aesthetic appreciation. Hope things are going well at your end.

His reply

Yes, the ambitions of the post rather exceeded the space constraints of a blog post. It grabbed my attention nevertheless because you raise several inter-related issues that interest me very much.

1. How does a narrative affect and perhaps even transform us?
2. How much active participation is required on the part of the audience? (Also: participation of what kind, and when are we warranted in acceding to this narrative solicitation?)
3. What are the criteria for narrative success? In particular, to what extent are they ethical and to what extent formally aesthetic, and how are these categories related?

Your notion of imaginative empathy strikes me as a promising way to link these questions together. A story asks us to temporarily bracket our ego, so to speak, and step into another subjectivity (or rather, other subjectivities: that of the implied author and those of the characters). This requires a measure of assent. The reintegration of this narrative experience into one’s own subjectivity can then be transformative. A good narrative deepens or expands our perspective on the world and our sense of human possibility.

Consider that storytelling takes as its theme the sphere of human action and is as well a form of action itself, and it may be possible to address the third question as well. The action of the narrative is separable from the act of narration only in thought: sometimes it is the sequencing of events that captures our imagination and other times it is the mode of treatment. They are always present together and are ontologically of the same kind, capable of affecting and transforming us in the same way. Whether we are moved primarily by a character’s stance on the world or by the author’s may be of little import. In both cases what we are doing is taking up and exploring new ways of inhabiting the world. What do you think?

I replied

Hi PJ, let’s see…

“How does a narrative affect and perhaps even transform us?”

In my case, good literature affects me at the most basic level, that of mood, of thoughts and feelings. Some times the change is easy to register, especially if a book really delights me or challenges me or is particularly memorable in some key respect. Other times the change isn’t so easy to register. I hate Ulysses, as you know, but still snot-green sea and the inner organs of beasts recur to me, pleasantly, even now. Joyce’s voice has affected me, even though the reading experience was quite dreadful.

“How much active participation is required on the part of the audience? (Also: participation of what kind, and when are we warranted in acceding to this narrative solicitation?)”

Whatever kind of participation good reading requires. Inquisitiveness. Subtlety. Empathy. Sleuthing. Humility. Imaginative conception. Reason, especially as this pertains to the logic of a plot. The whole gamut of cognitive engagement, it seems to me. Sorry, this is less than helpful, I’m sure. But it’s all I got. Oh, one last thing: a willingness to have one’s order of rank of values transvalued, in good Nietzschean fashion. That seems to me an important requirement, and it sounds sufficiently learned that I’d like to include it!

“What are the criteria for narrative success? In particular, to what extent are they ethical and to what extent formally aesthetic, and how are these categories related?”

I’ll pass over this one in silence for now.

Although when you write, “A good narrative deepens or expands our perspective on the world and our sense of human possibility,” I fully agree. This reminds me of Shattuck, and the importance he places on abbreviation, intensification, and finally recognition.

However, when you continue, “Another point, ‘ethical,’ as I’m deploying it, is an ambiguous term. On the one hand, it is a positive ethical contribution of literature to enrich our presence in the world, deepening and expanding subjectivity,” I stop short of agreeing with you. Yes, literature enhances subjectivity, but whether this is a “good” thing or a “bad” thing very much depends on how the agent goes about living his or her life when the book is closed. A good reader of fine literature can be a Tea Partying racist or a reactionary statist, or create whatever label of waywardness you want. Anyhow. Because the conditions under which a narrative can make us better people or more moral agents is very poorly understood, I balk at the use of “ethical,” even though you’re likely using the term in a very broad sense.

How do you feel if I lift this conversation out of the comments section, where others might contribute to your line of thought? Let me know. Cheers.

PJ’s final reply

You write, “In my case, good literature affects me at the most basic level, that of mood, of thoughts and feelings.” I think this is completely right. Right now I’m exploring Paul Ricoeur’s efforts to develop this claim by arguing that the most basic level of selfhood has, itself, a narrative structure. He advances an unfortunately technical theory of “threefold mimesis” to explain the transformative effects of narrative reception. I’ll see whether I can manage a concise summary to share sometime soon.

To your second answer, again, yes–particularly to the last point, which you associate with Nietzsche. I’d rather follow Wayne Booth and discuss it in terms the ability to form what Charles Taylor calls “second-order desires,” that is, desires not for particular objects, but rather the desire to be a certain kind of desirer, a certain kind of person.

This brings us to the ethical import of narrative. Your suspicion that I am using “ethical” in a perhaps unusually broad sense is well-founded. I’d refer back to Aristotle and emphasize the original link with ethos, distinguishing this carefully from the more narrow domain of moral law. Ethics is about living a good life, where the criteria for goodness are unavoidably subjective (though not, I would argue, completely arbitrary). They are founded not upon any universal abstractions, but upon the structure of subjectivity. The object of ethics is to live a successful life that you can affirm as the product of your own free will. (Notice that the qualifier “successful” does a lot of work here: the failure to take into account and reconcile oneself to the various constraints on human action, institutional and otherwise, can result only in frustration or a false, delusional satisfaction.)

If you’re still so inclined, please do move this up into the body of the blog. I’d love to hear from others.

Concluding thoughts on a wickedly long post

I am so inclined, and I invite you to engage these topics, if you like.

Happy Halloween!

6 Responses to Haunted by the ghost of PJ present

  1. Hmmm…I’m not sure if I’ve taken all this in but, if I am understanding it correctly, I think I agree with you Kevin in that while I’d love to think reading/narrative were transformative, my suspicion is that it’s not. I suspect we take from our reading exactly what we want to take from it, that we choose what agrees with our existing individual ethical frameworks. That’s not to say that reading can’t be beneficial – that it is “simply” aesthetic and nothing more (and there’s nothing wrong with aesthetics) – but that it plays more around the edges of our frameworks, maybe deepening and expanding them but not, I suspect, transforming them. This is of course based on nothing other than years of reading and living. Take it for what it is – the words of a cynic or a pragmatist but always of a reader. Did any of that make sense in terms of the discussion above?!

    (As you know I’ve been away and am still catching up slowly on things I missed)

  2. Hi Sue, a nice meaty comment. A lot hinges on what is meant by “transformative,” yeah? I think what you say and what PJ says is largely consistent. Our perspectives/frameworks can be deepened or expanded, polished or scruffed up by literature. Interestingly, the book that had the greatest foundational impact on me was The Washington Connection and Third World Fascism by Chomsky. It fundamentally altered the way I think about the world. Of course, there are many other books I love a lot more — I’m easily bored by investigative journalism and institutional analyses, despite their importance — books like Leaves of Grass, David Copperfield, Walden, Gilead, Blindness, C. McC.’s oevere save two, Quixote, and now Flannery O’Connor. Damn, she can write.

  3. It certainly does … and I was seeing it in my comment in a more “absolute” sense than a more “gradual”, in a sense of creating a “shift” in one’s thinking rather than “expansion” or “polishing”.

    I’ll have to think about what might have had the greatest foundational impact on me? I think Camus might be there – though again I’m not sure how “foundational” he was for me.

    I must read Flannery O’Connor!

  4. PJ says:

    Hi Sue, thanks for chiming in. Kevin is right that I intend “transformative” in a rather modest sense. Obviously I still have a lot to work out about what kind of transformations literary experience actually produces or facilitates. On the one hand, no book is going to refashion its reader’s entire character. On the other, surely we do not walk away from a sustained literary engagement entirely unchanged. But what more does reading provide than jouissance, the fleeting pleasure of the text? How does it affect the quality of my future engagement with the world?

    After all, there is a strong common-sense objection to claims on behalf of the value of fiction. Why read about imaginary happenings when there is so much of interest in the actual world? Why sit alone with a book when you could be interacting with other living people? Why experience the world vicariously through words when you could visit new places in the flesh? Isn’t reading just a form of escapism, an avoidance of actual risks and responsibilities? Or how is it something more?

    Cheers, PJ

  5. I’m interested to see what Sue says. Speaking for myself, the answer comes quite easily: Reading is continuous with life. In my own experience, it improves my enjoyment of the world. It also gives me the solitude I need in order to deal well with others, being naturally introspective, and at times positively reclusive. Without cultivated solitude, I don’t know if I could tolerate even my wife or son. I’m sure you know what I mean. The world becomes more interesting, not less, through reading. I see no sharp divsion between reading and the “actual” world. That’s why the common sense objection strikes me as fairly weak. It *appears* strong only to the hard-nosed pragmatist who doesn’t value reading to begin with, or who merely sees it as a distraction (not an inducement) or a bit of escapism (rather than one of intense involvement).


  6. Sorry, but I’ve been away from home twice in the last week so am only now catching up.

    I’ve not really researched the “theory” of reading and its impact but my belief is that it’s more than escapism -at least the sort of reading I like to do. (Pure escapist reading is boring to me – by that I mean books for which plot is the main thing and whose writing is rather pedestrian because its goal is purely to move the story along as quickly and dramatically as it can. There is value in this sort of reading too I think but it’s of a different ilk and not for me. When I invest time in reading, I want more out of the investment).

    I think that experiencing the world “vicariously” is the (well, a, anyhow) exact point. Through reading you can see various modes of being/acting/believing played out, tested even, before your eyes. You can see a range of “what ifs”, you are exposed to various motivations. We can never see fully into the heart of another “real” person, but we can, pretty well, do so in the heart of a fictional character. Take Lily Bart, for example. She makes decision after decision in the novel and we see them and their ramifications. The power of her as a character is that see what is going on in her mind and why she makes each decision she makes. This must enrich us as humans, I believe. It must help us understand the people around us, help us “think” behind their actions to “why” they might do otherwise incomprehensible things. Reading is not the only path to such understanding (empathy) but it is an effective and enjoyable one (for me).

    There are other values from reading as Kevin ennumerates. This is just one.

    Does this make sense?

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