The Moral Reader and the Moral Life

Exploring Timothy Aubry's essay, 'Should studying literature be fun?'

Earlier this month, English professor Timothy Aubry published an essay in the Chronicle of Higher Education Review with the rather querulous title “Should Studying Literature Be Fun?” The essay was a kind of précis (as far as I can tell) of his new book Guilty Aesthetic Pleasures. I have not been able to read the book yet — though I hope to! — but I found Aubry’s essay quite engaging and much deeper than its title would indicate.

“Fun” is not really the right word for the problem Aubry sets himself as an observer of his field of literary studies. It’s not the wrong word either, though — part of this problem is that (at least according to Aubry) most academic critics feel they need to lobotomize the pleasure-seeking centers of their brain while reading: how else can they validate their self-image as unrelenting critics of an unrelentingly “problematic” corpus of texts? For Aubry, literary studies has been dedicated for the last few decades to a project of aesthetic denialism — a refusal to believe that there is any point thinking about formal beauty or pleasure as important and worthwhile dimensions of experience. Are not beauty and pleasure mere masks of power, and if so, why not simply study power?

To flesh out this dichotomy of politicization versus pleasure, Aubry’s essay gives a thumbnail intellectual history of the recent past of the field of literary studies. He begins his essay by surveying the familiar landscape of an intensely politicized, frequently moralistic literary studies, a field that, as he says, “has been insisting for decades that everything is political,” often giving vent to an “urge to dethrone literary heroes on the basis of their bad politics.” Yesterday, it was Joseph Conrad under the blade of the guillotine; today, Junot Díaz. This kind of politicization, Aubry argues, pushed explicit aesthetic criticism out of the academy: if you wanted to write about why certain formal qualities gave readers pleasure, you had to do so away from the captious eyes of one’s advisors or colleagues, in little magazines or private journals. Literature was not for prissy parsing; it was for ideological deconstruction, the serious work of political critique.

But this austere moralizing life was not the one Aubry — and, it turns out, many other young literary critics — wanted to lead. Complying for the duration of graduate school with the dictates of ideological critique, scholars like Aubry yearned for a return to unfashionable questions of beauty and pleasure — why a couplet’s unexpected enjambment caused delight or the description of a character’s physiognomy nudged us into sympathetic amusement — and they watched eagerly as a movement describing itself as New Formalism “steadily gained ground” over the past two decades. Now, perhaps, aesthetic questions can be posed without diffidence.

Aubry’s history of the discipline is not without its critics, who argue that he has exaggerated the degree to which aesthetic pleasure ever became so verboten in the seminars of literary studies. But to be honest, I am actually not very interested in whether his account of the discipline’s past is correct, because what for me was far more fascinating was his description of literary culture’s present.

Aubry argues that the politicization of literature has leached out into the broader culture of cultural criticism, and that especially of late, artists of the past are increasingly being held accountable for their bad politics not just in classrooms but in the think-pieces and listicles of ordinary cultural journalism.

However, Aubry also argues that more and more often, these denunciations of misogynistic or homophobic or racist novels and poems are being articulated not merely in political terms but in aesthetic terms as well. “Dick lit” is condemned not just for the hostility to women in which it indulges, but also for its ineptitude in trying to create believable women characters. It’s not just bad for its politics; it’s bad for its art (lessness).

Aubry notes that, in these critiques, the aesthetic is called into action to demonstrate the way bad politics deforms or warps an author’s art, requiring ugly formal adjustments to accommodate an ugly worldview. For Aubry, the subordinate position of the aesthetic in this paradigm is a problem:

to acknowledge the importance of aesthetic satisfaction is also to admit the validity of standards that are distinct from political values. Contemporary literary scholars often tacitly treat the two as either synonymous or mutually reinforcing, so that good politics necessarily entails good aesthetics and vice versa. We can see this in the many efforts to equate favored avant-garde aesthetic practices with radical political resistance… To be sure, politics and aesthetics often overlap, but their fit is not perfect. While misogyny… is likely to produce bad writing, a more enlightened or feminist stance is obviously not a guarantee of good writing.

In other words, Aubry is skeptical, I think it is fair to say, that this new outbreak of woke aesthetics promises very much in the way of sophisticated literary analysis. The problem, as Aubry sees it, is that these critiques don’t want to grant the aesthetic any kind of autonomy; they don’t want to admit that “[t]he experiences [literature] produces are significant and worthy of either praise or condemnation in their own right — not just insofar as they function as means to some external political end.” Because they don’t scrutinize these experiences “in their own right,” these ginger attempts at aesthetic criticism fail to add anything to a strictly political/ideological analysis.

Or so (I think) Aubry contends. But I am not convinced. I have never entirely understood what “in their own right” means when it comes to aesthetics other than a kind of holding the world at arm’s length. One cannot scrutinize the formal properties of a text independently of the ideology expressed by or embedded within that text; one can merely prioritize the aesthetic moment by delaying the inevitable (if always deferrable) confrontation with the political. In other words, “in their own right” seems to me to mean “I’m going to attend to my pleasure first; later I will acknowledge the political content — if I feel like it.”

However, Aubry raises important questions about whether this new (and I think distinctly feminist) application of revisionary aesthetics does accomplish anything original, whether it gives us new insights and not just new reasons to slag off John Updike or Norman Mailer. Here, I think Aubry in fact gives us a bit of a lead — if perhaps inadvertently and quite definitely incompletely.

Aubry draws from an essay by Erin Spampinato in Electric Literature arguing that the innumerable, yearningly frustrated white male protagonists who populate an abundance of novels held up as classics have taught us to indulge white men’s tantrums when they don’t get what they want, seeing their disappointed rage as something ennobling rather than invalidating. This pattern of toleration — which resembles what the philosopher Kate Manne has called “himpathy” — has, Spampinato argued, created the conditions for the incel movement.

But Aubry doesn’t buy her argument. “The problem with this argument is that while it seems to take literature quite seriously, it actually does the opposite — presupposing that it can be made important only if it is connected to the major headline-grabbing issues of the day.” The answer, of course, is less politics and more aesthetics: “Instead of speculating about the structures of power a book either supports or subverts, an aesthetic assessment might simply hold that the experience of sustained exposure to racist or sexist thinking, however elegantly articulated, is bad in itself.”

Aubry seems to be confident that close scrutiny of texts will provide an answer to the unspoken “but why?” dangling from the end of that last sentence — but why should “sustained exposure to racist or sexist thinking” be “bad in itself?” I cannot really see any reason for such confidence. How can the answers to why misogyny is “bad” (or evil) be found in the formal properties of literary texts? Do all misogynistic texts have the same features that are “bad in themselves?” If not, is there some kind of aesthetic bestiary we could compile such that we could recognize all the different varieties?

I’m being facetious, but I do want to hold onto the basic idea bruited by Aubry there — that “sustained exposure to racist or sexist thinking” can be “bad in itself.” I just don’t think formal analysis will explain why this must be so. Instead, we might look to William James, to the essay I riffed on in this post’s title: “The Moral Philosopher and the Moral Life,” published in 1891 and then republished in The Will to Believe. In that essay, James tries to account for why certain ideas are repellent to us even if we don’t have particular associations of pleasure or pain attached to them. “Take the love of drunkenness,” he says. “[T]ake bashfulness… take the emotion of the comical, the passion for poetry, for mathematics, or for metaphysics — no one of these things can be wholly explained by either association or utility.” He continues:

a vast number of our moral perceptions also are certainly of this secondary and brain-born kind. They deal with directly felt fitnesses between things, and often fly in the teeth of all the prepossessions of habit and presumptions of utility. The moment you get beyond the coarser and more commonplace moral maxims, the Decalogues and Poor Richard’s Almanacs, you fall into schemes and positions which to the eye of common-sense are fantastic and overstrained. The sense for abstract justice which some persons have is as eccentric a variation, from the natural-history point of view, as is the passion for music or for the higher philosophical consistencies which consumes the soul of others. The feeling of the inward dignity of certain spiritual attitudes, as peace, serenity, simplicity, veracity; and of the essential vulgarity of others, as querulousness, anxiety, egoistic fussiness, etc.–are quite inexplicable except by an innate preference of the more ideal attitude for its own pure sake. The nobler thing tastes better, and that is all that we can say. “Experience” of consequences may truly teach us what things are wicked, but what have consequences to do with what is mean and vulgar?

Misogyny is both wicked and vulgar, and quite obviously women experience it not as something distant from “association or utility” but as something entirely direct and concrete and very wicked. But the reason this passage came to my mind while reading Aubry’s comment about “sustained exposure” to misogyny or racism is that a purely pragmatic rejection of racism and misogyny — i.e., one focused on its effects — does miss the way we do indeed respond aesthetically to those things when we encounter them, either in the first person or in the third, on the page or in living color. Antiracism and feminism can indeed take up an aesthetic critique of racism and misogyny, insisting on its intrinsic repugnance, on the fact that it “tastes” disgusting.

Andrew Seal teaches economic history at the University of New Hampshire. This essay was originally published by the Society for U.S. Intellectual History

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