The Moral Imagination, Crises of Conscience, and the End(s) of Literature

As the humanities and, more narrowly, literary studies suffer through something of a present-day identity crisis—as the number of majors dwindle, and as literary scholars migrate into media studies, the environmental humanities, and other fields—literary traditionalists seem increasingly given to creative defenses of the value of their work. This has been brought to mind recently in my reading of a book of essays, Moral Imagination, by the Yale critic and scholar David Bromwich. He adopts the book’s title phrase from Edmund Burke, who levied it against the specter of French mobs gleefully laying waste to their own cultural traditions, to say nothing of their monarchs. Writes Burke of the ethos in Paris in the early 1790s: “All the decent drapery of life is to be rudely torn off. All the superadded ideas, furnished from the wardrobe of a moral imagination, which the heart owns, and the understanding ratifies, as necessary to cover the defects of our naked shivering nature, and to raise it to a dignity in our own estimation, are to be exploded as a ridiculous, absurd, and antiquated fashion.”

Burke is implying here that human life consists in more than animal subsistence—more, even, than the sum of its most rational ideals. As Bromwich elaborates, “[t]he essence of things seen without prejudice or illusion, by the cold light of reason or of pretended enlightenment, is shown to be unendurable: it leaves us naked, shivering, helpless, and stripped of dignity. Things are made humanly bearable and assimilable only as they are modified by habit and custom.” We feed spiritually off traditions—polities, yes, but perhaps more vitally, stories, songs, images. Where there is no culture, the people perish.

One can easily insert a platitude here that has launched the careers of a thousand administrators: “And this is why we need the humanities!” But that is not how Bromwich justifies humanistic disciplines, not really. Not that directly. Instead, he addresses a new kind of literary affect that began to make itself felt around Burke’s time. That is when literature became something other than a transmitter of great ideas or cultural norms. Indeed, by Matthew Arnold’s time in the mid-nineteenth century, and contrary to Arnold’s declaration, literature had already ceased to serve as a repository of the best that is thought and said. Instead, literature’s new function was to cultivate empathy, or something like it, for what was strange. In Wordsworth’s poetry, for example, “The orthodox question—What kind of feeling ought [a literary character] to elicit?—has been replaced by the question, What can I feel about him? . . . The axis of imagining has shifted as we moved from a third-person to a first-person question.” The reader no longer identifies primarily with other readers gazing on a similar spectacle; she no longer animates within herself a set of cultural values, or norms, regarding what we see and how we are to see it. Instead, she feels for unfamiliar objects brought before her attention.

As, Bromwich acknowledges, this new sensibility isn’t exactly empathy in the conventional sense, for it feels for rather than with. And necessarily so, really, for literature presents readers with imaginary situations and subjects who are either overtly or uncannily unknown, asking these readers to accommodate what is foreign. Hence, to a degree, the reader is asked to cultivate feelings she has never had and, to an extent, could never have had, given the particular associations to which they are attached. Hence, literature for Bromwich is about empathy, but not about empathy only. It also involves a moral imperative: thou shalt fashion a likeness of mind! The moral imagination at the turn of the nineteenth century, born from literary confrontations with the unfamiliar, “takes an interest in people it cannot call ‘neighbors’ without enlarging the meaning of a neighbor,” Bromwich observes. But “interest” here does not mean mere gazing, mere aesthetic ennui, as much as a hypothetical course of action, a prospect of justice rendered to this new, expansive idea of the neighbor. Accordingly, “justice to a stranger comes to seem a more profound work of conscience than justice to a friend . . . or member of my own community.”

Bromwich wrote this essay in 2008, but his argument seems custom-made for the recent refugee crisis emanating from Syria, or for the immigration issues that stoke debate in the US. One thinks here of the now-famous photograph that spawned (or perhaps shamed into existence) a more open policy toward the admission of foreigners by Western nations fearful of terrorism and leery of welfare. Leaders of these nations, Bromwich would say, are not fully able to empathize with the lifeless body on the shoreline, but it is that inability, precisely, that awakens their moral imagination. It stimulates new feelings and, with them, a new sense of justice, of responsibility. Viewers, readers—the leaders of nations—come to identify, in part, with what they cannot understand.

This moral imagination is, genealogically speaking, a literary phenomenon. The implication of Bromwich’s argument is that the photograph of the young Syrian refugee represents a modern-day, transmedial experience of what it would have felt like to read, say, Wordsworth in 1798. Angela Merkel, Barack Obama, and other influential leader-readers moved by that image are thus inheritors not only of conscience, but of literary consciousness. And what does that mean, exactly? “Long live literature?” “Long live the humanities?” Perhaps. Or maybe not. To paraphrase William Butler Yeats’s powerful poem “Easter 1916,” all is changed, changed utterly: the old and new media—the photography and Internet—that activated conscience in the refugee crisis implicitly reveal how literary effects have diffused themselves into new technologies, new cultural practices of consumption, and new ways of imagining (and, some would say, of managing) our morality.

Of course, all these concerns beg the question of the origins of the moral imagination and, by extension, of the fate of literary studies. Why did this moral sense emerge in the late eighteenth century? Why did literature serve as its host, and when did that change? For literary scholars, Bromwich included, this leads to a self-reflexive question that seems especially perplexing, and that might explain a variety of extravagant claims regarding the value of literature. The question, simply, is this: Might the probing of the origins and literary mode of the moral imagination prompt us to empathize with literature itself? For, whether we heed the clarion calls of “crisis in the humanities” or simply reflect on the new mediators of our morality, it is literature that seems to grow ever stranger, ever more distant from our immediate experience. Ever more in need of a port of refuge.

Written by Matthew Wickman, Director of the Humanities Center

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