Monday, August 26, 2013

Can the Content (Especially the Moral Vision) of a Literary Work be Aesthetic?

Peter Kivy in his recent book Once-Told Tales (Wiley-Blackwell, 2012) argues that the content of literary works cannot be aesthetic.  Only the form of such works can be aesthetic.  So, on his view, the moral vision of a literary work cannot be aesthetic.  I tend to hold a different view, that literary works are organic wholes in which each of the parts are connected internally to each other part, and that moral vision cannot help but participate in whatever aesthetic properties are to be found in the form of the work and vice versa.  Kivy speaks of narrative content, philosophical content, religious content and political content as well as moral vision.  None of these, he thinks, are aesthetic, although he does hold that they can contribute to the artistic value of the work.  I have no problem with Kivy's overall description of how we experience content in literary works, i.e. that literary works do not generally present arguments for such content but rather stimulate the reader to think about it in between bouts of reading or during the period immediately following the reading.  Is the moral content of an artwork part of its aesthetic character?  Kivy defines aesthetic character in terms of sensuous experience and, on first sight, one might incline to say that this excludes such things as moral beauty or ugliness. Kivy, has a problem with the idea that morally good characters can be judged as beautiful or ugly (these being aesthetic terms).   However, as I read an Alice Munro short story I experience a character, in Train, as morally ugly not simply because of the fact that he does something morally wrong (abandons his friend of many years as she is dying in a hospital he can easily visit) but that I see this action as part of his overall character which is movingly tragic and morally ugly only in this way.  Perhaps part of the reason for my disagreement with Kivy is that he thinks that the thoughts we might have between and after bouts of reading are not part of the aesthetic experience of the novel.  My take on his is based on my experience of reading novels in a book group for almost thirty years.  As I see it, the discussions we have (and the discussions I also have outside the group with my wife, who is also a member of the group) are part of my overall experience of the novel.  Kivy seems to think of moral contemplation as simply a matter of doing something like analytic ethics after one has read the novel.  Thus, on his view, Harriet Beacher Stowe wishes the reader to think that slavery is a horrible moral evil after reading her novel.  This may be true, but my experience of contemplating a moral vision after reading a novel is not of this you-can-drop-the-book-now-and-move-on-to-moral-theory sort, but rather of something still very much connected to and seen through the experience of the novel.  Kivy thinks "our literary appreciation of - our enjoyment of - a novel's ethical content likes in our intellectual satisfaction." (52)  The passage, although seemingly true at first, needs explication and discussion.  Returning to Alice Munro...she tells a story of an adulterous relationship in which a man pretends that he and his lover is being blackmailed by a maid whereas in fact he is pocketing the money himself.  If the thing to be contemplated is just the fact that this is immoral then there is something boring going on here.  What is more interesting is that we are intended to accept the complicity of the woman in the story even after she has found out her lover's deceit. The moral vision that comes out here has a certain color, one might say.  "Moral vision" is not just another word for "moral truth" in the sense some proposition that can be proved by a standard moral theory.  Is the satisfaction I get from themoral vision of the story an intellectual satisfaction, an aesthetic satisfaction, or both?  I would say both.  Kivy would not.  It is a philosopher's prejudice to say, as Kivy does, "We take pleasure in our thinking through the ethical issue raised to a satisfactory conclusion, if indeed that is the result, or, if not, the thinking itself." (52)  Kivy thinks that aesthetic satisfaction should be a kind of "savoring" and that one cannot savor, for example, the moral vision presented by Munro in one of her stories.  But one can!   And I do not think that there is, in the end, any point in reading her stories unless one does.  (Part of the value of my discussion of the book with others is that I end up contemplating their vision or reconstruction of Munro's moral vision.  But my pleasure in her work is my savoring of my reconstruction, or rather of her work through my reconstruction, not of theirs.  Of course I construct my idea of her moral vision in response to their construction of theirs.)  I agree with Kivy that this is not the same as contemplation in the sense of mulling over a proposition or argument in a philosophical treatise, although, unlike Kivy, I think that there can be something aesthetic about that as well. 

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