Sunday, March 15, 2009

good friends (a rant)

No, I don't know when I'll be done and I don't know what I'll do with it when I'm done, but one of the pleasures of having a dissertation hanging over my head is that it every now and again I get to read something that I wouldn't have known about otherwise, but knowing it now, I wouldn't want to miss. Right now, I'm reading The Company We Keep: An Ethics of Fiction by the very wonderful Wayne C. Booth (1921-2005). It's a big work, and I can't possibly do it justice in a line or two, but in brief he suggests that we think of our encounter with with books, stories, etc. as encounters with the "implied author." Not the flesh-and-blood person, but the sense of the author we get from the work.

Seen this way, reading is a "social act", a kind of friendship, and Booth suggests that we can evaluate books in the way we evaluate friends*, or potential friends/acquaintacnes. Some "friendships" provide us with certain specific goods: contacts, status, concert tickets, sex, the loan of a car. When the goods end, so does the friendship. Some friends are simply fun to be with; their company is a pleasure, and we make time for them for the sake of that pleasure, even though we might not particulary respect them. And there are some friends - if you're lucky - who are simply championship human beings, and in their friendship you experience the possibility of your own enoblement. Books can be like that, too, he suggests: some you read for profit, some you read for pleasure, and some for the privalege of being in the company of that "implied author."

Of course this sounds simplistic - I've given you a one-paragraph summation of an almost 600 page work. But when elaborated with nuance and skill it's a very powerful tool for helping us talk about what we mean by a good book, and that's one reason I like it so much.

The other reason is that I find Booth himself, the Booth whose presence I experience in the reading, is himself one of those great souled types. Wise, kind, good-humored' but wearing those characteristics lightly, like Trollope. Spending time with him makes me feel that I, too, might become a little more wise, a little more kind, a little better-humored.

Maybe you'll pick up the book, maybe not. But here's the thing: for all the talk we might do about becoming better at something - more skilled, more attractive, more successful, more energized, more calm, healthier, wealthier, whatever - we don't talk about becoming just better. Maybe in part that's because the whole discussion of character development has been seized by / ceded to the cultural conservatives. And maybe because of the whole Enlightenment shift to locating value in the individual's own self-actualization. And maybe because the logic of late capitalism demands that we spend our energy on getting goodies of some kind. Whatever. My observation - maybe I'm wrong, let me know - is that to the sense we speak at all about the issue, it's in terms of what is lacking in some "them" or other, and what "they" need to do to be better people.

There are few kinds of people as tedious as those who insist they know what I need to be a better person. And yet, there is a kind of soul-healing to be found in being with someone, whether on the page or in person, whose own - yes, I'll say it: virtue (in the classical sense) - makes me believe in the possibility of my own virtue. Damn it, it feels good. Better than good: it feels compelling.

So here's the question: When you look for people whose friendship (in person or on the page) might help you be more, I dunno, noble or good or menschlikh, or when you look for people to talk about what that even might mean, to talk about what kind of character you want to develop, where do you go and whom do you seek? And if those people and those pages and that conversation isn't somewhere near the center of the Jewish enterprise, then what the hell are we doing wrong?

*With a nod to the best blog name (and a damn good blog) on the Web, Please judge me.


Chris Kerr said...

bravo; well said; thank yu

Noah said...

I liked this, and I think I'd like the book. If I could make what I think is a small amendment to the summary of his argument: for many of the greatest works of art, one's companionship is less with the implied author than with characters who seem more real than real people do, and who tend to eclipse the author - I'm thinking of characters like Hamlet or Don Quixote or Leopold Bloom.

As for the rant part of the rant: I'm a liberal Aristotelian, so I'm all in favor of liberals learning how to talk virtue-talk instead of ruling such talk out of bounds. The liberal virtues - generosity, inquisitiveness, flexibility - are substantive. The thin defense that can be made of them in terms John Locke would accept will not do the job in the end, I rather suspect.

As for self-actualization: on the one hand, as Bill Cosby said about people who justify doing cocaine because "it magnifies your personality" - "yeah, but what if you're an asshole?"; on the other hand, the whole point of God's answer to Job from the whirlwind would seem to be that there *is* a realm of "beyond good and evil" that is about "greatness" of self, and that God prizes this, too - and more than He prizes obedience.

Worth talking about some time in shul!

elizabeth said...

i am, without question, better for knowing you.