In Part One of “What Good are the Arts?” John Carey resolutely challenges modern Western claims about the arts that are grounded in absolute values. He then also compares the subjective state of aesthetics to the subjective state of ethics. While claiming that ethical decisions are indeed relative, he admits that as humans living together, we are forced to make certain ethical choices. Therefore, in Part Two, Carey argues that of all the arts, literature has the unique ability to enrich us in ways which help us make necessary ethical decisions. Although Carey cautions that all his statements on literature are subjective and arise from his individual experience, he nonetheless makes these two arguments:
1. Only literature has the ability to critique.
Carey claims that literature is the only art able to criticize and even reject itself. For instance, he cites Sartre who, in writing, derides the impotence of the literature of the past, as time renders ineffective the hope in its words. Importantly, Carey grounds literature’s faculty for criticism in its unique ability to enter the rational world. Unlike painting and music, which Carey states rely on emotion and leave meaning open, literature is capable of making its criticism through reasoned argument.
2. Only literature has the ability to moralize.
Carey devotes the rest of the chapter to exploring two ways in which literature engages in the task of “moralizing” by engaging eight different authors. Carey clearly states that literature in itself does not make one moral but instead allows for persistent engagement with moral issues. Regardless of whether one agrees with his conclusions, his excitement for and familiarity with a wide swath of English literature is both admirable and engaging.
Firstly, Carey makes the case that literature uniquely portrays moral dilemmas through its ability to question, an ability Carey directly credits to modernity’s skepticism. In this regard, he looks at four essayists who appraise the world with a cool rationality: Francis Bacon, who questions traditional Christian ethics; Thomas Browne, who resists absolute claims and embraces doubt; and Samuel Johnson and Jonathan Swift, who deal with human progress. Typical here is the praise that Carey offers Swift: “His rationality also allowed him to see through human cultural developments and identity them as absurd”.
Secondly, Carey argues that literature moralizes through its diversity. For Carey, literature’s power arises from its comparisons and contrasts, as the entire body of English literature forms a network of differing but interlinking texts which bring into relief the moral questions that confront us. Carey then painstakingly compares four writers (Wordsworth, Austen, Eliot, and Conrad) and how their novels portray different viewpoints on ethical dilemmas, such as the limits of sympathy for other humans.
Taken as whole, the chapter suggests that literature should be prized for its rationality, ability to question, and divergence of opinion. For Carey, these characteristics are antidotes to an emotion-based ideology which lends itself to indoctrination and oppression, the kind all too often supported by both the arts and aesthetes (as made clear by numerous references to Hitler and the Nazis).
As a lifelong lover of literature and former English teacher, I have some sympathy with Carey’s praise of literature. I think that literature’s ability to portray and evaluate the complexity of human life through novels, essays, poetry, etc. is matched by no other art (sorry – I can’t help it!). Even if one would not go that far, however, I do think Christians should engage with the question of whether the text has resources that other arts do not. Especially as we live in an increasingly image-saturated society and reading literature of all kinds is decreasing, Christians should think about the particular benefits of literature as an art.
For instance, I do believe that Carey is partially right when he lauds literature’s rational aspect. Media commentators such as Neil Postman and Jacques Ellul hail the written text for its linguistic cohesiveness and internal logic. In reading literature, one must engage in the sustained “argument” of the text, following it from beginning to conclusion and making sense of it as a whole. As Ellul notes that “there is no possible instantaneous approach to the written page.” This may help resist the emotional reaction to other types of media that Carey seems to fear, and may also have the benefit of training us to grasp the story and argument of a text like the Bible.
But I disagree with Carey’s approach to literature which credits the power of rationality to determine ethics, for human reason alone can never guide us in making right ethical decisions. I would perhaps look to other aspects of literature such as narrative (which John Carey completely discounts) for its usefulness for ethics. For it is only within a narrative that characters’ actions become significant or can be evaluated as good or bad. And if literature imitates life, only within a metanarrative can human actions be judged as moral. Unlike Carey, Christians do have a metanarrative, grounded in the death, resurrection, and return of Jesus Christ, which provides an absolute context for our ethical choices.
Somer Salomon is a PhD student at St. Andrews University, researching the relationship between beauty and eschatology. She loves being near the sea in Scotland, but as she’s from Virginia, sometimes misses the warm sunshine.