At first sight, it is difficult to deny that this scant interest in the connection between ethics and literature is well founded, especially if one considers how the ethical-literary issue has traditionally been dealt with. The standard approach is in effect of a straight educational type, and consists in searching through a work for explicit moral values, immediate messages, positive behavioural models (or, if they are negative, clearly identifiable, so that they will dissuade a reader from imitating them). This traditional approach basically has three limits: a) it tends, to a greater or lesser extent, to exploit the literary text, which ceases to be an end in itself, but is rather used for external purposes; b) it shows an implicit lack of faith in literature, which is under open or hidden surveillance, rather than allowed to freely fulfil its own ends; c) it often turns into an act of violence towards the text, especially when one tries at all costs to find ethical messages in it which are just not there, or when the text is scornfully rejected because it does not contain the desired indications.
It is not at all easy to get away from this traditional ethical-literary formulation. In effect, this approach, which is basically content-oriented, corresponds to a very ancient tradition that dates back to Plato and Aristotle and which left its mark on European culture up until the 19th century, when an opposite and typically modern conception, that is to say the idea of the autonomy of literature, began to become dominant. This occurred in philosophical circles between the Critique of Judgement by Kant and Hegel’s Aesthetics, whereas in the field of literature, writers began to declare their right to be free of the dominant social morality. Autonomy of literature thus asserted itself basically as autonomy from ethics. If one were to identify a crucial date for this change, it would be 1857, the year of the great trials against Madam Bovary and The Flowers of Evil. Another reason why it is difficult to abandon the traditional ethical-literary way of thinking is the fact that this is the way literature is presented in schools. From the very first years, children are asked to read texts in order to draw explicit and direct lessons from them; later, when one goes on to study the history of literature, one starts at the beginning, that is to say with the traditional ethical content-oriented considerations and it is only much later that the modern autonomy of literature is considered.
Thus it should not be surprising that this traditional conception constitutes, although indirectly, the historical background of many of today’s debates on the relationships between ethics and literature, and that it is still an underlying focus of many “ingenuous” readings of literary texts. In the United States in particular, a context that is not immediately comparable to the European one, this traditional perspective constitutes the basic structure of the field known as “ethical criticism”, a field that is quite well established but which, nevertheless, may aggravate the problems inherent in the conventional approach. This may often turn into a content-oriented, controversial examination of passages from literary works which come from periods that are far from our own, and bear little resemblance to today’s shared ethics. For example, Jane Austen’s novels are criticized for the subordinate social role given to women; Conrad’s Heart of Darkness is read as a testimony of European orientalism and of its prejudices concerning Africa; Proust’s Recherche has been rejected as a testimony of egocentrism and affective solipsism. This content-directed moralism, with its approach which sees works of the past through today’s eyes, runs the risk of losing sight of what is truly significant in a literary work, without obtaining much in exchange.
Thus one has the impression that today a truly practicable theory of the ethics of literature should be developed with full respect for the principle of autonomy. In other words, it should look at how the text works and not at its direct content; or, using a distinction already present in Plato’s thought, an ethics of literature should consider “how” a literary work is developed and expresses ideas, and not “what” it says. In this sense, it is possible to suggest three central nuclei in a potential ethics of literature. The first is knowledge, which refers to the fact that literature is a form of knowledge involving an emotionally influenced interpretation of the world, that is to say characterized by the reader’s identification with and specific participation in what is being described. The second central nucleus refers to the concept of pietas, that is to say the compassionate care with which the literary work preserves in the reader’s memory elements which would otherwise be lost. The third central nucleus is orientation, which can operate in two directions. First of all, the work orients the reader, thanks to the manifold knowledge it transmits, in a kind of cartography which identifies striking and punctiform meanings, which can never be included in a systematic pattern of thought. Then the work orients the reader in late modernity by presenting itself as a model, as a form of knowledge endowed with pietas, and thus characterized by attention, respect, care and preservation.
An ethics of literature thus outlined, precisely because it postulates and respects the autonomy of the literary work, seems to be able to distance itself quite well from the limits of the traditional conception. Above all, however, it is a way to confirm once again the meaning and value of the literary experience, even in a period like ours, which does not seem to need it at all. It is in effect difficult to deny the fact that in late modernity societies are dominated by what Heidegger calls calculating thought or what Habermas refers to as instrumental rationality (the relationship with the world that Schiller criticized calling it «tabular understanding»): in a word, the increasing tendency to apply economic reasoning to all aspects of life. If this is true, literature, considered as a form of knowledge endowed with participation, pietas and preservation, and as a way of orienting the reader towards these very values, appears concretely, albeit unobtrusively, as a model of experience that is an alternative to the current ones. It thus may help us to hold back the pervasiveness of the technical-economic logic.