Kenneth Asher, Literature, Ethics, and the Emotions

Kenneth Asher, Literature, Ethics, and the Emotions (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press 2017) 194 pp. $80 PDF, £75 Hb. ISBN: 9781107185951

In Literature, Ethics, and the Emotions, Kenneth Asher takes further what he describes as the ‘ethical turn’ in literary studies (175). At a time when literary theory was dominated by deconstruction, postmodernism and a scepticism of the possibility of any normative ethics, this turn marked the recuperation of the ethical importance of reading literature. Asher’s starting point is Martha Nussbaum’s views on the cognitive value of emotions in our ethical lives and the ways in which novels, through their emotional complexity, help refine our ethical understanding. To that end, he examines the works of four Modernist writers, T S Eliot, D H Lawrence, Virginia Woolf and George Bernard Shaw, across three genres of literature (novels, but also expanding Nussbaum’s analysis to poetry and drama) and he argues that ‘literature’s irreplaceable contribution to ethical knowledge rests crucially on the cognitive role of emotions’ (11).

In his first chapter, Asher situates his discussion of emotions within a wider debate in Western moral philosophy about the role played by emotions in gaining ethical knowledge. For Plato, emotions are subsidiary to reason in the appraisal of moral problems as they are unstable and transitory and can impede rational judgment unless they are obedient to the workings of reason. Kant similarly holds that emotions are an unreliable source of moral behaviour because, unlike reason, feelings are not universal, and moreover indiciduals may not act on them consistently.

In contrast to the Platonic and Kantian views, Asher posits Aristotle’s theory of katharsis in tragedy as an example of the way in which literary works – particularly through the purging of fear and pity – allow for an adjustment of emotions that would transform desires and passions into ethical actions (29-30). Nussbaum draws from this Aristotelian view and considers emotions to have an ethical value in the way they allow for forms of ethical cognition that are not otherwise accommodated within purely rational ethical evaluation. What is most productive about Asher’s account of these positions is that it demonstrates how these varied notions of the role of emotions in ethics relate to these respective philosophers' aesthetic ideas. As a result, Asher’s study does not merely render a literary work as an example of a particular ethical principle, but it paves the way for an appreciation of how literary works expand our ethical knowledge in ways unique to literature and different from philosophical inquiry.

There are, however, important caveats that Asher emphasises. While he focusses on Modernist writers, he avoids arguing for an ethics of Modernism more generally. Rather, he addresses what specific writers considered to be the role of emotions in ethical life against the backdrop of the epistemological concerns of Modernism. Furthermore, he does not argue that all literary works provoke a critical refinement of our emotions, but that different works have varying capacities to do so.

In his next chapter, Asher traces the influence of F H Bradley on T S Eliot and argues that Eliot had a sophisticated view about the role played by emotion (contrary to the widespread notion that he dismissed emotion and required poetry to be entirely impersonal). For Eliot, through the ‘objective correlative’, poetry can articulate deeply personal emotions with a precision and consistency that makes it seem impersonal. What guarantees this common and consistent emotional lexicon is religion, particularly a Christian theocracy. When seen in light of Eliot’s conversion to Anglo-Catholicism, emotion and feeling are guides to a Christian ethic.

In the subsequent chapter, Asher examines how Lawrence’s views of psychoanalysis and the unconscious challenge the traditional notion of character and the Aristotelian view of the self. Asher argues that unlike Freud, who held that the workings of the unconscious can be plumbed through reason, Lawrence considers the inner workings of the self to be inscrutable to reason. For Lawrence, it is our emotions that are pure reflections of the unconscious, or what he calls our ‘primal consciousness’. While for Aristotle it is the conscious refinement of emotions that lead to ethical action, for Lawrence morality is ‘an instinctive response of the (healthy) primal self’ (108), and for that reason emotions are truer guides to ethical action than reason.

In his penultimate chapter on Woolf, Asher examines how the epistemic problem of how we can know other minds is central to her works. He compares Mrs Dalloway and To the Lighthouse in particular, and examines the different degrees to which both novels make us feel that the characters share a common life. Asher argues that Clarissa’s attempt at working through Septimus’ suicide imaginatively in Mrs Dalloway provides a very limited solution to the problem of knowing other minds and understanding the nature of ethical intercourse. On the other hand, To the Lighthouse presents a more sophisticated engagement with this problem: the omniscient narrator makes clear that each character’s inner workings are invisible to each other, although there are moments when the narrator grants characters momentary insight into each other’s minds through their attentiveness to feeling.

In his last chapter on Shaw, Asher expands his discussion of feeling and ethical knowledge to engage with the genre of comedy. What he finds most difficult for Shaw is that he is uninterested in the notion of character in an Aristotelian sense, yet still seems to be concerned with morality in his plays. This poses a difficult challenge for the Nussbaumian framework that Asher uses. Asher’s conclusion, however, is that it is the moments in Shaw’s plays that are most amenable to Nussbaum’s views, the scenes where he explores the emotional depths of the characters, that make his plays most memorable and engaged with ethical life.

Asher’s emphasis on emotions as a way of gaining ethical knowledge, and his dialogue with Aristotle and Nussbaum, makes this book a particularly interesting contribution to what he identifies as this ‘ethical turn’ in literary criticism. It is a different perspective from, for example, Derek Attridge’s phenomenological approach in The Singularity of Literature and the idea that the literary imagination enables empathy with another being. Asher’s objective is to move the discussion beyond empathy, and to consider how other forms of emotional engagement can influence ethical life. While his case studies are predominantly Modernist writers, Asher’s work will be of interest to a wider field of scholars concerned with the question of how reading and an attentiveness to emotions allows us to know the ethical life.

Vivek Santayana, The University of Edinburgh