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Don't demand from the artist that she is a good person

Charles Altieri turns the ethical responsibility of the author to the reader.


Charles Altieri:
Reckoning with the Imagination. Wittgenstein and the Aesthetics of Literary Experience
Cornell University Press, 2015

When Ludwig Wittgenstein (1889 – 1951) finished writing Tractatus in the period 1918 – 1919, he considered the problems of philosophy to be solved, and looked for other things to do. He advised his students to find practical work, instead of wasting away in metaphysical speculation. The philosophy is to solve specific problems, not to create "cramps in the language", as he put it. And when the problems are solved, there is no more to ponder.

Art, on the other hand, he considered to have a different role in the world. The great art is enigmatic, that is, enigmatic, and one can only shake one's head.

The artist is thus primarily committed to the work. How others will respond to it is not the author's concern. For Wittgenstein, ethics and aesthetics were the same. The meaning of the work lies outside the work; the meaning of life lies outside of life. You have to get involved i life, not in what lies outside. There is nothing wrong with discussing the author's ethical responsibilities, but one cannot expect him or her to take such issues into account, let alone participate in such discussions.

Ludwig Wittgenstein
Ludwig Wittgenstein

Reader responsibility. This book addresses the ethical responsibility of the author to the reader, and especially the critic. What is this responsibility? One of the chapters – "What literary theory can learn from Wittgenstein's silence about ethics" – concludes: Not very much. About what you can't keep silent, or talk about! The ethical questions related to the artwork must be done on the work own terms. So how can we practice such an assessment of art, instead of making rules for how it should be designed – with standards that are set outside artwork? Does the reader have an ethical responsibility here? And if so: In what way? If the reader were only to consume a text, the literature would have gone away. The critic must show that he or she is on par with the work – if the criticism has no justification for existence. A book is not finished when it is in the bookstore. The reader contributes to creating it through their own participation. Decreases the quality of reading, so does the quality of literature.

Some critics have come to terms with the novel Heredity and environment by Vigdis Hjorth. They have accused both the work and the author. First they have made an aesthetic judgment, then an ethical one. They disregard that the author's responsibility is first and foremost in the commitment to the literature she has created. The artist's duty is to take chances, move boundaries, create something that can challenge adopted truths about what is good art and what is allowed to write about, rather than following guidelines for what is "right" or "wrong." To demand that the author be a good person is pointless. "There is no necessary correlation between being a good reader, or a good artist and being a good person," Altieri writes.

Decreases the quality of reading, so does the quality of literature.

So what responsibility should one expect from the reader? Yes: That they put aside their moral prejudices and stand completely open to the work. The reader should, with Wittgenstein's philosophy as a starting point, sit into the work, yes, quite literally install themselves in it. A spiritual work is not a piece of dead matter, but a living world. Much then depends on how the reader meets the written: on their own terms, or on the work?

Libra vulnerability. What can art teach us? "It can teach us about moral life, by involving us directly in the exercise of moral sensibility, without demanding that we make abstract moral judgments," Altieri writes. In art, the subject is the primary, and rather than judging it on the basis of rational principles, we should involve ourselves in the ethical issues of the work self creates. Vigdis Hjorth's novel of the year poses many such: How to relate to someone who thinks they have been sexually abused? Is the family an important institution? What is justice?

Instead, have the discussions around Heredity and environment drowned in questions that lie outside novel. How did we become so judgmental?

Many have probably begun to be saturated with family problems in the literature, but requiring the artist to create something other than what he / she actually does implies a lack of respect for artistic autonomy. The risk the author has exposed himself to should the reader open himself by daring to be as vulnerable to the work as the author is while writing. To read, to use Heidegger's term, is a form of ram-in-world.

Charles Altieri calls for good reading methodologies: "We also need a model honoring two ideals of reading – that we experience a sense of personal engagement bordering on creativity," he writes. It is only in theory that it is possible to separate oneself from reality: in daily, in non-theoretical, we participate with all of us in a very different form of life practice. We should also do the same when we consider, or better yet, participate in a work of art: To place oneself on the side of the work of art and judge it by finished moral principles, is to deliberately adopt a non-participatory attitude to the world. We demand the morals of the author, but nothing of ourselves. We demand groundbreaking works, but judge them when they emerge.

The reader should get acquainted with the work, Yes, quite literally install themselves in it.

Engagement. Knausgård has through his novel work My fight stood in a long "tradition of confession" in European literature. The work is deeply ethical in the way that it shows the problems of being human in the modern world rather than theorizing about them. Some critics seem to be more concerned with moral and legal issues than with aesthetics. This is due to the fact that today's readers are more marked by resentment – "resentment and unwillingness" – than of engagement?

Altieri believes that readers must be cultivated away from the morality of resentment. We must remember that Vigdis Hjorth and Karl Ove Knausgård's projects have been to get involved in the world through their books. Rather than moralizing, we should be grateful for the commitment they show us through their in-depth being-in-the-world projects.

Henning Næs
Henning Næss
Literary critic in MODERN TIMES.

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