Rowman and Littlefield International

Literary Thickness and Moral Thickness


Published on Tuesday 06 Feb 2018 by Rafe McGregor
"My interest is in the question of whether there is a relationship between... the irreducibility of fact and value in some ethical concepts and the inseparability of form and content in some linguistic representations."

The Value of Literature is concerned with constructing an argument for literary thickness, a conception that locates literary value in the relationship between literary form and literary content in a work of literary art. I define literary thickness as an interest in a literary work that focuses on the integration of the formal and substantive axes, i.e. on the inseparability of form and content in the experience of that work. My claim is that literary thickness is characteristic of literary appreciation in attending to the combination of form and content in terms of function and characteristic of literature such that if a work is a work of literature, it will reward the demand for literary thickness. Literary thickness is related to, but distinct from, thick concepts. Thick concepts were introduced as a subject of debate in moral philosophy by Bernard Williams in Ethics and the Limits of Reason. He distinguished thin concepts such as “good”, “right”, and “ought” from thick concepts such as “brutality”, “courage”, and “treachery”, defining the latter as concepts ‘which seem to express a union of fact and value.’[1] The union is explained in terms of irreducibility, which Simon Blackburn characterises in chemical terms, as a compound (rather than mixture) that is lost if dissolved back into its constitutive elements.[2] My interest is in the question of whether there is a relationship between Williams’ moral thickness and my literary thickness, i.e. between the irreducibility of fact and value in some ethical concepts and the inseparability of form and content in some linguistic representations.

 

The most common proposal for a relationship between moral and literary thickness is that the former is part and parcel of the latter, i.e. that the ethical value of a literary work is part and parcel of its literary value such that the more virtuous the perspective embodied by a particular work of literature, the greater its literary value ceteris paribus. My argument for literary thickness explicitly rejects this relationship, however, and Richard Lourie’s The Autobiography of Joseph Stalin: A Novel provides a paradigmatic example for my position. As the subtitle suggests, the work is a novel rather than an autobiography, but it follows historical events closely and presents an apparently factual rather than fictional perspective on Stalin. The premise of the faux autobiography is that it is a response to Trotsky’s genuine biography of Stalin, which he was working on when assassinated. The novel has a complex narrative structure and its thematic content concerns the unravelling of two mysteries, one a crime so horrible that even Stalin dare not admit it and the other the moral motivation behind his unlikely rise to absolute power. The moral mystery is set up with three potential “suspects”: Stalin as motivated by Marxist ideology, by a Darwinian struggle for dominance, or as driven by unconscious desires and conflicts. It becomes clear that Stalin is no Marxist and Lourie subtly sets up a Freudian explanation as a traditional genre red herring. In a dramatic double dénouement, he then reveals the crime as Stalin’s murder of Lenin and the moral motivation as undiluted social Darwinism. Stalin fears that his enemy will reveal both secrets in the biography, asking: ‘Has Trotsky finally broken the code of my life?’ [3] That code is written in Stalin’s DNA, an insatiable lust for power for power’s sake.

 

 

"I shall assume that Laurie’s qualms are warranted and that his narrative does invite at least some sympathy for Stalin. Does this make the novel less successful as a work of literature or detract from the literary thickness with which I have associated literary value?"

 

 

Although Stalin is ultimately revealed to be a moral monster, there is a sense in which Laurie’s perspective is at least partly sympathetic. Lourie reveals his own qualms in the front matter of the work, which begins with a disclaimer of sorts followed by an epigraph from Saint Augustine’s The City of God to the effect that the turn away from goodness is itself evil. In the context of the final page of the novel, Laurie seems to be bookending any invitation to sympathise with Stalin during the course of the narrative with clear moral judgements to the contrary. For my purposes, I shall assume that Laurie’s qualms are warranted and that his narrative does invite at least some sympathy for Stalin. Does this make the novel less successful as a work of literature or detract from the literary thickness with which I have associated literary value? The ethical aspect of a work of literature is part of that work’s content and is measured by the substantive axis, the interest in the relations between work and world in which accuracy of representation is of primary significance. Although moral irrealists and non-cognitivists eschew truth as a criterion of ethical evaluation, their interest in the ethical value of a literary work is nonetheless an interest in the relation between work and world. If The Autobiography of Joseph Stalin offers morally problematic answers to the questions it raises, then even if one considers those answers neither false nor true they are judged against a moral standard they fail to meet. Significantly, that standard is set in the world rather than in the novel and the fiction is judged entirely in terms of the reality. The difference between a moral realist/cognitivist and an irrealist/non-cognitivist judging the ethical value of Laurie’s novel is that the former pair regard the moral content as truth evaluable and the latter pair as non-truth evaluable. Notwithstanding, both pairs rely upon veracity, accuracy, or correspondence with the world.

 

The appreciation of The Autobiography of Joseph Stalin as a work of literature focuses on the function of the competing explanations of Stalin’s nihilism in the work and the way in which the moral content and its mode of presentation contribute to the work as a whole. If Laurie’s novel invites one to view Stalin with sympathy, then the immorality is not necessarily a literary defect: moral mismatches are substantive inaccuracies and substantive inaccuracies are not pro tanto literary defects. The portrayal of Stalin as completely sympathetic would detract from the value of the work, but it would do so because the thematic and dramatic content is sustained by the moral and criminal mysteries, which in turn structure the narrative and create a series of expectations that are realised (rather than frustrated) in the conclusion. The substantive axis matters, but it is tempered by the formal axis, the interest in the relations within the work in which coherence and unity are of primary significance. As such, the demand for literary thickness is incompatible with ethical value being part and parcel of literary value and moral thickness neither enhances nor detracts from literary thickness.

 

[1] Bernard Williams, Ethics and the Limits of Philosophy (London: Routledge, 1985), 143-144.

[2] Simon Blackburn, “Through Thick and Thin,” Proceedings of the Aristotelian Society, Supplementary Volumes 66 (1992), 285-99: 299.

[3] Richard Laurie, The Autobiography of Joseph Stalin: A Novel (Berkeley: Counterpoint, 1999), 222.