Philosophy and Literature Again

Further to an earlier post on David Masson’s British Novelists, here’s another bit I came across today in my proofreading that I can add to my file of Victorian observations on the relationship between philosophy and literature. This one is from an 1848 review of Jane Eyre that appeared in the Christian Remembrancer (hence its ultimately tendentious conclusion):

With [novelists] it rests to determine, each for himself and according to the measure of his gifts, whether so powerful an instrument of moving men, as fiction is, shall be used to move them for good or evil. Are the poetic and artistic faculties given to man purely for his amusement? Are they alone of all his powers not subject in their exercise to the legislative or judicial conscience? Curiously enough, we believe no moral philosopher has yet given a complete scientific answer to this question. A philosophical account of that part of man’s essence which is neither moral nor intellectual, but lies midway between the two, both in itself and in its relation to the moral and intellectual parts, would we believe still be an addition to the Moral Science. . . . [T]he position that the poetic and artistic faculties are subject to conscience, is a truism in theory which seems to be metamorphosed into a paradox in practice. We suppose, for instance, that Mrs Marcet considered herself to be uttering an acknowledged truth in saying that Goldsmith’s ‘Deserted Village,’ being poetry, is none the worse for being bad political economy. Yet if this is so, neither is Don Juan, being also poetry, the worse for being bad religion. Goldsmith intended, or at least he foresaw that the effect of his poem would be, to raise certain sentiments and impressions relative to certain social questions; and if those sentiments were morbid and those impressions wrong, his poem is as plainly vicious as the most rigorous scientific treatise, embodying the same fallacies, would have been. This may seem an exaggerated instance. It is an experimentum crucis, certainly–but where is the line of demarcation to be drawn? . . . We do not mean to say that the writer of fiction is called upon to play the part of the preacher or the theologian. Far from it. What he is called upon to do is to hold up a clear and faithful mirror to human nature–a mirror in which it shall see its good as good, its evil as evil. His pages must give back the true reflection of a world of which morality is the law, and into which Christianity has entered.

Some good questions, along with a number of assumptions few critics today would entertain about literary merit or morality–though I enjoy the idea that morbidity is somehow an objectively measurable (and obviously undesirable) quality.

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