Sunday, November 16, 2008

the kindness of readers

So I'm reading Martha Nussbaum's Love's Knowledge for this dissertation I'm supposed to be working on. Her argument, briefly, is that (certain kinds of) novels have a unique role to play in moral education, in that their portrayal of finely-drawn characters in nuanced situations helps the reader develop that kind of vision necessary to a high moral imagination. Now, I'm drawn to that idea, not just because it would be helpful for my work, but because her location of the moral imagination in the ability to perceive and respond to the particular, the radically surprising nature of the individual, is one I'm very sympathetic to. But then you'd expect that novelists and critics and scholars - the closest, most careful readers - would be the kindest, or wisest, or possessed of the most generous hearts. But I've never heard that claim made. Have you? Has anyone ever said, "I was just at the MLA conference - what a bunch of sweeties" in the entire history of the Academy?
Of course I'm oversimplifying just about everything here, but still. It seems to me that calling a faculty "moral" means that it plays out in the world of human interaction. If you're still a shmuck, then whatever it is you've developed it ain't a moral imagination.

1 comment:

Abby said...

I have not read Professor Nussbaum's book, but I think that, even if her position (as you relate it) were correct, each reader still brings his or her own experience, perspective and individual responses, both moral and otherwise to each literary encounter.
Trying to predict a particular moral influence/outcome of reading a piece of literature strikes me a bit (l'havdil) like suggesting that listening to Marilyn Manson's music will incite people to violence. It's been said, but there's no evidence that it's true.