Dickens and “The Limitations of Anguished Humanism”

(Expanded version.)

Here’s some context for the post I quoted on Friday from The Sharp Side. The discussion begins with a piece in The Guardian by Ronan Bennett criticizing “Islamophobic” statements by Martin Amis and broadening into a more general indictment of hostile expressions and actions towards Muslims, particularly by “writers claiming to be the champions of true liberalism.” Towards the end of the piece, Bennett asks how novelists have behaved in this context, and he recalls the essays Ian McEwan wrote for The Guardian immediately after 9/11:

Four days after the Pentagon and the twin towers were attacked, the novelist Ian McEwan wrote on these pages: “Imagining what it is like to be someone other than yourself is at the core of our humanity. It is the essence of compassion, and it is the beginning of morality.” As an expression of outraged, anguished humanism, McEwan’s formulation was truthful, moving and humbling, and can hardly be bettered. But it seems to me the compassion is flowing in one direction, the anger in another. I can’t help feeling that Amis’s remarks, his defence of them, and the reaction to them were a test. They were a test of our commitment to a society in which imaginative sympathy applies not just to those like us but to those whose lives and beliefs run along different lines.

And I can’t help feeling we failed that test. Amis got away with it. He got away with as odious an outburst of racist sentiment as any public figure has made in this country for a very long time. Shame on him for saying it, and shame on us for tolerating it.

(McEwan’s essays can be found here and here.) The Sharp Side posted a response that pointed to “the limitations of anguished humanism” the author sees in responses such as McEwan’s:

McEwan’s brand of compassion is oddly reminiscent of George Eliot’s. Her solution to working-class unrest was a change in the human heart. Instead of nonsense like trade unions and an 8 hour day, she advocated that everyone should just be nicer to each other. Compassionate understanding – not social equality.

“Imagining what it is like to be someone other than yourself is at the core of our humanity.” According to McEwan, this is the novelist’s gift. And who was better at imagining a whole cast of characters than Charles Dickens? And what happened when the Indian mutiny broke out? Did Dickens use his prodigious imaginative gifts to understand why there was resistance to the British occupation of India? He certainly dreamed of being Commander in Chief of the British army of occupation. In this role, he assured his dear friend Baroness Angela Georgina Burdett-Coutts, he would “do my utmost to exterminate the [Indian] Race” and “with all convenient dispatch and merciful swiftness of execution…blot it out of mankind and raze it off the face of the Earth.”

This is the post remarked by This Space, who concludes “Again, Kafka is proved right to recognise “a heartlessness behind [Dickens’] sentimentally overflowing style”. Then came the longer “indictment” of Dickens at The Sharp Side, which has since followed up with further contextual information; follow-up discussion can also be found here.

I wanted to at least begin sorting out my thoughts on this exchange. There are a number of issues mingling in these discussions, probably the least interesting of which (from a literary standpoint) is the biographical question of Dickens’s racist / imperialist views. One question is how far admiration of writers’ work commits someone to admiration of the writers personally–or, coming at it from the other direction, whether distaste for a writer’s character (personality, values, politics, etc.) ought to affect our estimation of his or her work. (Do we also wonder whether whole-hearted endorsement of writers’ values or politics ought to motivate us to value their literary productions especially highly? I think we allow, in such cases, for plenty of “yes, but…” responses.)

A further question is whether writers’ work inevitably (if not explicitly) reflects or reproduces their stated values, so that if we learn something distasteful about a writer, we should re-examine our understanding of their work expecting to find traces of that quality. If Dickens was racist, is it inevitable that his works are, in some way, also racist? Do we–must we–read them differently once this biographical aspect is known? Does an indictment of Dickens’s ideology lead us towards an indictment of his fiction? The initial Sharp Side post suggests that the answer is yes: that the stance of “anguished humanism” attributed to his novels is inevitably a flawed or inadequate attitude, as we should expect from someone who could express “genocidal” sentiments. So the biographical criticism is meant to affect our literary criticism (at least insofar as that criticism is political).

Not wholly ‘by the way,’ I think the above account of George Eliot’s “compassion” is not just reductive but inaccurate. “A change in the human heart” is not a bad summary of Dickens’s proposed solution to class conflict, but GE (while admittedly a skeptic about rapid social transformation by way of mechanical devices such as suffrage–see Felix Holt, for instance) has much more complicated and demanding views on sympathy. She is certainly one of those who believe fiction can (and should) help us “imagin[e] what it is like to be someone other than [ourselves],” though. From “The Natural History of German life”:

The greatest benefit we owe to the artist, whether painter, poet, or novelist, is the extension of our sympathies. Appeals founded on generalizations and statistics require a sympathy ready-made, a moral sentiment already in activity; but a picture of human life such as a great artist can give, surprises even the trivial and the selfish into that attention to what is apart from themselves, which may be called the raw material of moral sentiment.

Perhaps it is helpful to consider that this sympathetic imagination of others is a necessary, but not a sufficient, condition for morality (“raw material,” as GE says). This essay also contains her well-known criticism of Dickens for the “transcendent unreality” of some of his representations, which limit, she argues, his contribution to the “awakening of social sympathies.” The two of them can’t be quite so simply lumped together.

Addendum: I think bloggers need a code that indicates something like ‘had I but world enough and time’–it would be at least as useful as LOL, at least for academic types. But HIBWEAT is unwieldy… suggestions welcome. In any event, I do want to add some bits and pieces to what I’ve been able to post so far. The questions Sharp’s post provokes are not new ones, of course, but they continue to be difficult ones, and (HIBWEAT) I think it would be worth working through them more patiently with reference to some of the thoughtful contributions made by those working at the intersection of literature and ethics or moral philosophy. (The discussion would also bring in the question recently raised at A Comfortable Place about why, if we can no longer be sure that the humanities “improve us,” we should continue to study them.) In Philosophy and Literature a few years back, for instance, there was a piece by Richard Posner called “Against Ethical Criticism” (21:1, 1997); it was followed by responses from Wayne Booth and Martha Nussbaum, and then Posner’s reply (22:2, 1998). Among the topics they debated were the relevance of an “author’s moral qualities or opinions” to our “valuations of their works” (they basically agree that no, it should not–which, for what it’s worth, seemed to be the consensus in my afternoon class today when I asked whether it changed their view of Dickens’s novels to learn of his “genocidal” views). Here’s Booth, right on topic:

Should the moral qualities of the flesh-and-blood author affect our evaluation of any work? For example, should a brilliant story celebrating the triumph of compassion be dismissed when we discover that the author actually beats his wife? Should my judgment of the literary worth of the novels by the Marquis de Sade be determined by learning that he committed atrociously sadistic acts, or, in the opposite direction, that Sade could behave generously, however rarely?

I hope we would all answer “no.” Moralistic criticism that answers “yes” is dangerous. Authors whose daily behavior is scandalous can compose stories of wondrous moral richness, sometimes actually realizing, as Samuel Johnson liked to insist, their own genuine ethical aspirations better than they ever do in “real life.” As he says, “a man writes much better than he lives.” I love living with the Tolstoy I meet in his novels. But I would certainly not want to live with the man that his mistreated wife had to live with. Does this view of the man change my judgments of War and Peace? Absolutely not. On the other hand, a perfect angel might write a tale exhibiting every conceivable fault, including a lot of ethical balderdash. (“Why Banning Ethical Criticism is a Serious Mistake”)

Readers who can’t reconcile their readerly experience of Dickens via his novels with revelations about his personal prejudices can be helped out with Booth’s idea of the “implied author”: “the full engagement is with the chooser, the molder, the shaper” of the story–“it is that chooser who constitutes the full ethos of any work” and Booth argues (persuasively, I think) that it is “that chooser” with whose ethics we must engage. Of course, the question of whether Dickens’s novels are morally admirable or objectionable begins, not ends, here. Both Booth and Nussbaum provide extensive examples of how we might pursue such an ethical inquiry through attentive reading of literary form, while Posner defends a version of aestheticism according to which “the moral content and consequences of a work of literature are irrelevant to its value as literature” (“Against Ethical Criticism”). (Interested readers will find Booth’s The Company We Keep: An Ethics of Fiction a particularly rich and engaging source of ideas and questions.) This cluster of essays also includes discussion of what Nussbaum calls “the empathetic torturer” and the “bad-litterati” arguments, including the example raised at A Comfortable Place of the art-and-music-loving-Nazis. I think among the most salient points to be made in this context is that there are ways and ways of reading (and listening). Here’s a sound-bite from Nussbaum to indicate how such an argument might get going: “reading can only have the good effects we claim for it if one reads with immersion, not just as a painful duty.” Both she and Booth are great advocates of the reader’s responsibility to give the story “a fair chance”: “only after such an effort to understand should we engage in overstanding” (Booth). “I am not aware,” Nussbaum also notes–a bit deadpan?–“that Nazis were great readers of Dickens”–thus returning us more or less to where we began, and certainly running me out of time for tonight.

Further Addendum: Finally, HIBWEAT, I think the next step, and the one that perhaps goes to the heart of Sharp’s criticism (I don’t know the character of the blog well enough to be sure, but the Dickens posts certainly point in this direction), is to consider some arguments against the idea that humanism itself is an inadequate literary or moral stance. After all, the post points to the “limitations of anguished humanism” and then uses Dickens as an example of that theory apparently running up against its inherent limitations. Included in this discussion would be critiques of literary criticism that, like Booth’s and Nussbaum’s, is itself essentially humanistic (though terms would need to be defined, historicized, etc.). As this post is already too long for almost any blog reader to make it to the end (see previous discussions about the limitations of the blogosphere…), I’ll just say that it does not go without saying that humanism has lost all credibility. Interesting sources on what a modern, theoretically-aware critical humanism would involve include Richard Freadman and Seamus Miller’s Re-Thinking Theory: A Critique of Contemporary Literary Theory and an Alternative Account, Daniel R. Schwarz, The Humanistic Heritage: Critical Theories of the English Novel from James to Hillis Miller, and Charles Altieri, Canons and Consequences: Reflections on the Ethical Force of Imaginative Ideals. It’s not that the arguments of these (and other related) books are conclusive; it’s just that it often seems too readily assumed that once you’ve named Arnold and Leavis as the elder statesmen of literary humanism, you’ve killed it off as a viable option.

I hope it’s obvious that the point here is not to defend Dickens the man but to complicate the moves that people might make from feeling “shocked and utterly appalled” at learning he said such things to feeling that this negative judgment automatically extends to his novels. Maybe most readers would (like my students) shrug off that suggestion. I hope so. The thing is, most people who would say something like “I love Dickens” really mean they love what they experience as readers of his novels. Unless that experience is itself somehow caught up in his “genocidal” views, those people have nothing to worry about, and the test of that possibility is in re-reading the novels. For the record, then, I love Dickens…though I don’t agree that Great Expectations is his greatest novel. This year anyway, my vote is for Bleak House. And if anyone is still reading, I think we’ve proved that we can use a blog for something fairly sustained after all.

One thought on “Dickens and “The Limitations of Anguished Humanism”

  1. Reena May 24, 2016 / 4:27 am

    I learned a new piece of information about Dickens. Thank you for sharing it online.


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