Amsterdam International Electronic Journal for Cultural Narratology (AJCN)

Amsterdam International Electronic Journal for Cultural Narratology (AJCN)

Naïve, Repetitive, or Cultural: Options of an Ethical Narratology

Commentary on Jakob Lothe's Paper

Astrid Erll

Bergische Universität Wuppertal

It seems that those who would like to engage with ethics from a narratological viewpoint have the rather unfortunate choice between two equally unattractive alternatives: to be either naïve or repetitive.

There is a long and influential tradition of philosophical thinking about the inherently ethical dimension of narrative: from Aristotle's notion of ethos as a key component of rhetoric and the moral functions of mimesis all the way to modern philosophers, such as Alasdair MacIntyre, Richard Rorty and Martha Nussbaum, who understand narrative as an indispensable laboratory for the exemplification of ethical questions. And of course, literature has always taught its readers ethical reasoning and moral values, has even enlisted them for specific moral causes. This is especially true with regard to, for example, Victorian novels, war novels, postcolonial, and feminist literature.

'Naïve ethical narratology' is usually the result of an attempt to move from such general, philosophical insights to the specific methodological inventory that structuralist narratology provides. While we can safely assume that narrative generally has an ethical dimension, it appears impossible to give definite answers as to which ethical functions specific literary texts fulfil. In fact, already the question about the values and norms of a literary text means a breach with the modern notion of the autonomy of art, which is by definition non-pragmatic and polyvalent. And whose values and norms would we find in a literary text anyway? Most probably our own. Reception histories of works like, say, Ulysses show that each generation of readers attaches its own ethics to literary texts.

For the narratologist, the situation is even more vexed: Ethical reasoning and moral values belong to the field of a culture's semantics. And by engaging with cultural meanings we leave the traditional arena of narratology, the field of formal analysis. Even if we are wary of the assertion that narrative forms are neutral 'containers', how can the narratologist draw a connection between forms and ethics? Certainly not by assigning specific ethical properties to these containers. The ideology of narrative forms is notoriously elusive: Authorial narrators can be foolish or deceptive; first-person narrators can teach us not a single thing about their life experience; internal focalization can represent the amoral reasonings of madmen and killers.

It may seem that the best way out of the various theoretical and methodological dilemmas connected with the 'naïve option' would be following the path of deconstructivist thinking about literature and ethics as it was practiced by Emmanuel Levinas, J. Hillis Miller and others. From a poststructuralist viewpoint, it is the ambiguity of literary narrative which generates an inherently ethical experience: Faced with the polyvalency of literary forms, readers have to acknowledge that reality is a construction, a matter of reading signs, and that different, equally valid perspectives on the same thing are possible. They learn respect for alterity. Poststructuralist theories thus locate the ethics of literature on a meta-level: The fundamental ambiguity of language and narrative forms carries a moral value, or: the ethics is in the aesthetics. However, such instances of ethics-as-aesthetics can be found in almost every literary text. Therefore, the poststructuralist approach tends to be repetitive. It says the same thing about potentially very different texts and passes over the individuality of each literary work. Moreover, poststructuralism has its naïve tendencies, too, when it posits an inherent connection between (post)modern Western values and the characteristics of (post)modern literary texts.

Is there a third way? A mode of engaging with ethics from a narratological viewpoint that is neither naïve nor repetitive? I think there is, if we proceed from the assumption that there is indeed what Frederic Jameson has called an 'ideology of form' (or: an 'ethics of form'), but that this relation between form and ideology is never fixed and therefore has to be uncovered by a close and context-sensitive scrutiny of individual literary texts. To argue this point, I will take my examples from Jakob Lothe's thought-provoking essay (necessarily, this kind of engagement will be highly selective).

Jakob Lothe draws attention to the interesting fact that in Conrad's Heart of Darkness as well as in W. G. Sebald's Austerlitz we encounter a similar form of narrative mediation which seems to fulfil similar functions: first-person frame narrators, whose telling of a vicarious story can be conceived of as an ethical act.

Those frame narrators are engaged in the cultural production of ethics: They listen to stories of most extraordinary life experience; and they retell these stories, thus giving a voice to a particular other and generating a narrative laboratory of (a)moral action. What is highly intriguing about Lothe's essay is his close look at the ethical positioning of those narrators (and by extension, of their narratees and readers): The frame narrators are not --as we might expect according to what we know about narrative hierarchy--the most authoritative voices. Instead, they are obviously inferior to, less intelligent and less rhetorically versed than the main narrators, Marlow and Austerlitz. In fact, the mediocre frame narrators are for the greatest part of the novels the eloquent main narrators' narratees. And by extension, we as readers are "manipulated into a position approximating" that of the frame narrators-as-narratees. Lothe claims that a significant ethical element resides precisely in this "attitudinal reorientation" of the reader. Just like the frame narrators, we "listen patiently" to these extraordinary tales and might even consider the "possibility of acquiring new insights". As readers, we are thus no longer passive consumers of fiction, but have been drawn into the cycle of the cultural production of ethics: into the narrating and re-narrating of life experiences connected with two of the most terrible crimes against humanity: European colonialism and the Holocaust.

This is an arresting example of how the ethical dimension of literature can be uncovered by using a close, careful and narratologically informed reading. But is this an example of an 'ethical narratology'? It seems the answer has to be 'no' (and Jakob Lothe confirmed this in the discussion). The reason is that Lothe does not claim a general validity of his findings beyond the individual texts under scrutiny, as representatives of classical structuralist narratology would do. And of course, it would be absurd to assume that all first-person frame narratives carry such ethical implications (this is the direction a 'naïve ethical narratologist' would take). But how, then, can an ethical narratology proceed methodologically? What are the kind of questions it can raise?

I would like to consider this question by drawing on another example of Jakob Lothe's: In Marlow's account of the dying of many innocent Africans in the Congo, we can discern an intertextual echo of Dante's Inferno. Lothe convincingly points to the ethical dimension of this reference. While in Dante's Inferno the characters are suffering for crimes "that would be condemned in any rational society", in Heart of Darkness "there is no corresponding rationale behind the relationship of crime and punishment". In the Congo, we encounter not only hell on earth, but moreover utterly meaningless torment.

This ethically charged gap between Dante's pre-text and Conrad's text is, however, something which the reader has to reconstruct for himself. And there are many cultural pre-conditions for such a reconstruction to succeed. The reader must have a certain pre-knowledge: He must be acquainted with the canon of Western literature (this is a cultural as well as a class issue); he must know and adhere to certain interpretive traditions (e.g., that those who dwell in the Inferno are justly condemned for their sins); and he must have acquired the literary competence to recognize intertextuality and actively draw comparisons.

Both examples show: A formally identifiable feature (be it a frame narrative or intertextuality) unfolds its ethical dimension only within very specific cultural and historical constellations, which imply authors and readers, canons and cultural memory, reading practices and traditions of literary writing, culture-specific beliefs and value systems. In short, if we are weary of naïve or repetitive interventions in the field of 'ethics and narrative', then we have to move on to the methodologies of cultural and historical studies: We would have to look at the historical archive of literary and non-literary writing; find out whether certain, ethically fraught issues are repeatedly connected with (or coded in) specific forms of representation; and ask in which cultural constellations narrative forms become imbued with ethical meaning.

Thus conceived, ethical narratology is a cultural narratology, which connects textual structures with contextual factors. It cannot dispense trans-historical and supra-cultural truths about the ethical contents of form. But what it can do--after a wide reading of the archive--is reconstruct the genealogies of certain literary forms (could Conrad's frame narrative have its origins in colonial travel writing of the 19th century, which represented vicarious, often strange experience? which ethical discussions were connected with this genre?) and reading practices, and generate hypotheses about the 'ethical potential' of narrative forms in specific cultural and historical contexts.

Such an 'interface narratology', however, which relates narrative forms to their various contexts, displays the Achilles heel of all cultural narratologies, namely the labelling of research into the cultural semantics of literary narrative with a term that is reminiscent of the utter methodological rigor and universal claims of classical structuralist narratology.

Nevertheless, perhaps we should stick to this somewhat presumptuous label, because it may remind us of the greatest promise and most difficult task of all cultural narratologies: to prove that the categories even of classical narratology are not universal, are not decontextualizable and trans-historical givens. Wolf Schmid argues in issue 4 (2007) of Amsterdam Journal for Cultural Narratology that some of our most basic narratological categories (such as 'eventfulness') are in fact constructs made by readers. Such constructs do not only change over time; they also emerge within and differ according to specific contexts and cultural formations--religious, gendered, generational etc.--and not least according to the ethical issues that these formations are faced with.