by Patrick Fessenbecker
In recent posts, both Robert Waxler and Maureen Hall have laid out some of the explanatory work behind what I take to be one of the central claims of the CLTL project: namely, that reading books – especially good books – helps one to be a better person.
“Deep” reading, according to Waxler, allows us to “break free from our single lives…from the linear and local perspective of ordinary existence.” For Hall, it is essential that this reading take place within a community: “Deep reading and discussion of a common text allows for opportunities where people can get to know themselves better and get better acquainted with the world in which they live. In turn, this participation holds the opportunity for increasing emotional intelligence which helps us to better live in this world.”
Hall and Waxler are in some good company here. Both in thinking of art as enabling individuals to break some of the limiting bounds of their egoism, and in thinking of the community of artistic reception as contributing to ethical life and personal happiness, they reiterate positions recognizable in the history of literary and aesthetic theory. George Eliot, for instance, in The Natural History of German Life, offers a view of reading that bears a close resemblance to Waxler’s view: as she puts it, “Art is the nearest thing to life; it is a mode of amplifying experience and extending our contact with out fellow men beyond the bounds of our personal lot.”
And – just in case we were missing the ethical implications – she tells us “a picture of human life such as a great artist can give, surprises even the trivial and the selfish into that attention to what is apart from themselves, which may be called the raw material of moral sentiment.” In other words, by enabling to see past ourselves, to see outside of our “linear and local perspectives,” literature enables to live a different and better kind of life: one that is in closer contact or “sympathy” with others, to use Eliot’s terms, than the life which our natural egoism would lead us to live otherwise.
Despite its distinguished history, however, I am skeptical of this view. After all, surely we aren’t prepared to defend reading literature as a necessary means to an ethical and fulfilling life: perhaps someone will want to fight with me here, but it seems presumptuous to assume that an individual simply cannot live well unless she reads well.
Nor, I want to argue, is it ultimately plausible to think of deep reading as a sufficient means to a moral life. To claim that while deep reading isn’t the only way to a good life, it is certainly a reliable way, seems unfair to the skeptic. On this view, if someone engages in a deep reading of a text that we have experienced in a rich and meaningful way – in case my predilections weren’t already obvious, let’s say the text is Middlemarch – and yet they don’t have a particularly rewarding experience, it looks like the only thing we can say in response is, “Well, you simply haven’t read deeply enough.” And this seems insufficient to me, insofar as it ties correctness of interpretation to the effects of reading in the agent’s moral psychology. I want to acknowledge the possibility that someone might read very accurately about Dorothea Brooke’s struggles and be a perfectly competent interpreter of the text without experiencing anything like the sort of rupture of egoism Eliot and Waxler appear to have in mind.
Thus, I’d like to suggest, we’ve ended in a situation where reading is neither a necessary nor a sufficient cause of a moral life. As is perhaps clear, this is some rather shaky philosophical ground: it’s unclear on what basis one would justify the continued use of literature and art more generally in moral education.
It begins to seem that one might have to give up the notion of theorizing a logical link between good reading and good people, and instead rely on empirical information, noting correlations between reading habits and behavior, and justifying the study of literature on those grounds. Just from a scholarly perspective, this is part of why the CLTL project is so interesting – it provides an opportunity for those of us who think about the relationship between ethics and literature to finally see a practical test of some of the hypotheses inherent in our (occasionally) somewhat airy and detached claims.
Patrick Fessenbecker is a graduate student in the English Ph.D. program at The Johns Hopkins University. He works on topics in nineteenth-century British and American literature, as well as philosophical questions in ethics and aesthetics. His essay, “Jane Austen on Love and Pedagogical Power,” is forthcoming in SEL, and he has presented research at a variety of conferences. He deeply enjoys eating cheese.