THE ETHICS AND POLITICS OF READING
Professor of Comparative Literature & Spanish and Portuguese, University of Toronto
I have two things to say about ethics and literature, and when I think about them, I sometimes don’t know how to square the circle of my strongly held assertions. I’ll try to do it here. So, the first one:
We live in a culture of efficiency and speed . . . . Sound bites, opinion pieces, and online essays that announce at the top how many minutes it will take you to read it. We seek quick fixes to our complicated selves in the form of solution-based strategies such as behavioural therapy, self-fulfillment workshops, and management meetings. And, in terms of narrative, we consume indiscriminately, swallowing so many stories in the form of bestsellers and action movies. With each of those stories, we get a jolt of satisfaction as all the loose ends are tied up, closure is achieved, narrative predictability is fulfilled.
But there is something to be gained from something that takes a long time, something like reading Proust’s In Search of Lost Time or Thomas Mann’s The Magic Mountain. Those novels resist revelation, as they build a world of emotions, descriptions, interactions, and experiences. The reader resides in this world as she spends the weeks or maybe months that it takes to read one of these novels. And as she does, she lives in the space of not knowing that the novel creates. It doesn’t give easy answers, either to the reader or to the narrator or to the characters, who fumble their way through things, not understanding their own motivations or reactions. The novel forces the reader to reside in the space of ignorance and confusion that it creates as it takes long detours, follows lines of thought, and retells an event from different perspectives.
I particularly love the moment that no one ever remembers from Proust, attracted as we all are to the beauty of the madeleine moment, which opens up a whole train of associations and memories. But what about that time when the narrator is a passenger in a carriage that drives by three trees on a hill. He sees them and feels that he is about to have a revelation, that they hold great significance and meaning. And then the carriage passes on, and he doesn’t ever discover what it was that he thought he was going to understand.
This matters so much to me because I believe that this is how we do the necessary work of inhabiting ourselves. Yes, of course we should try to know ourselves, and many self-help books give us tips on how to do that better. What we have trouble with is acknowledging how much we don’t know. What happens to us when we reside in the uncomfortable space of not knowing, of realizing that many of the stories that we tell ourselves about our motivations or actions or beliefs are just that, stories? Those stories are, we have to admit, just one interpretation, an attempt to pin meaning down. And that can serve us, except when it doesn’t. When we find ourselves behaving unethically towards others in ways that belie our intentions or our belief in ourselves.
A student once told me that he felt that Infinite Jest had been profoundly reassuring to him when he was most depressed. I was surprised, given that the novel has so many dark episodes and is written by a man who killed himself. But the student said that, in reading the strange thoughts and observations that the characters make, he recognized his own ways of thinking and felt less alienated. In those fictional people, he found resonances with bits of himself and stopped seeing himself as disturbingly separate from the world around him.
Okay, so now I have you thinking that I believe in the powerful potential of the novel to give us glimpses into our own psyches and our interiorities. I do. I really do. And yet . . . . Why are novels about individuals and their moral adventures? This is the definition of the modern realist novel, one in which an individual, usually a bourgeois one, undergoes many realizations and experiences. Novels are narratives of identity. Why are novels not written about crowds, about collectives, about communities? If literature is important, if we are going to stake a claim for it as ethical, then we need to interrogate what ethics we are talking about. Because I wonder if ethics and politics have become conflated, and if it has become common parlance to think of identity as political.
I take my cue here from Amitav Ghosh’s powerful essays in The Great Derangement: Climate Change and the Unthinkable. Specifically, he talks about how difficult it is to write a realist novel that is not about an individual, and that takes into account large-scale events like climate change. For him, climate change needs to be a political issue, but, as he puts it, “political energy has increasingly come to be focussed on issues that relate, in one way or another, to questions of identity: religion, caste, ethnicity, language, gender rights, and so on . . . . The political is no longer about the commonweal or the “body politic” and the making of collective decisions.”
Instead of talking about ethics and literature, which I think leads us down the path of individualizing imaginaries, narratives of identity and the self, what if we think about the problem of politics and literature, and ask whether literature has the capacity to narrate the crowd, the collective, the non-human, the event. It seems that sci-fi, or maybe even television can do this in a way that could potentially awaken its readers/viewers to the need for a comprehension, a compassion, and an action that goes beyond the self and towards the interconnected interdependent world that we live in.
I have a problem with the novel. And that is that I fear that it replicates the neoliberal injunction towards individualism. On Facebook, in the board room, and as entrepreneurs of ourself, we each emphasize our unique perspectives and personal experiences. But if we make individual difference the basis of our politics, how do we strive towards collectivity?
How can our cultural forms, literature in particular, shape stories that allow for us to come together, to think beyond the individual and to imagine new forms, new ways of being with each other?