Reclaiming a valuable space for ethical criticism while avoiding the reductive voice of moral authority
In An Aesthetics of Morality, John Krapp reappraises the value of ethical criticism in our time. Allying himself with those who, like Wayne Booth and Martha Nussbaum, believe that there is room for attention to moral considerations in literary criticism, Krapp argues for the possibility of speaking about the ethical dimensions of reading without reducing the discussion to dogmatic declaratives. Focusing on instances of moral pedagogy in novels by Thomas Mann, Albert Camus, Joseph Conrad and Fyodor Dostoevsky, he suggests that literature uses an aesthetic portrayal of personal relations to introduce scenes of moral tension that illustrate the way ethical claims are made and validated.
Krapp describes current theoretical attitudes about ethical criticism, distinguishes ethical criticism from the more prevalent political criticism, and locates his own less widely ascribed views within the landscape of literary studies. Diverting attention from moral themes and toward aesthetic structures, he provides refreshing discussions of The Magic Mountain, The Plague, Heart of Darkness, Lord Jim, and The Idiot that include his assessment of recent rhetorical and critical positions on these texts. Citing specific examples of how literature can be morally momentous without promoting a particular moral outlook, Krapp pays special heed to each of the four writers' second-order remarks on the linkages between art and morality. He supplements those comments with an appreciation of the dialogue among "ethically invested voices" presented by their characters and narratorial positions. As he considers why some ethical voices are more pedagogically effective than others, Krapp argues that moral dialogue in literature may be studied as a paradigm for ethical literary criticism.
John Krapp is a teaching fellow of interdisciplinary studies at Hofstra University in Hempstead, New York. He leads courses that examine the intersection of intellectual history, literature, and philosophy, and has published articles in these fields.
"An Aesthetics of Morality has original and valuable things to say about a subject that goes back to Plato. John Krapp makes an erudite, sophisticated theoretical argument, then applies it to four major writers. His book successfully rehabilitates the often-attacked but never-demolished tradition that sees moral and literary concerns as inhabiting the same universe."—Christopher Clausen, Pennsylvania State University