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The ethical value of literature

Literature and art can help us out of anger and frustration and towards a greater understanding, says Martha Nussbaum. 


Martha Nussbaum:
The Ethics of Literature
Pax Publishers, 2016

Martha Nussbaum:
Anger and Forgiveness: Resentment, Generosity, and Justice
Oxford University Press, 2016


The most important art can do for us, says Martha Nussbaum, is to give us access to the reality of others. When we live in the experiences of others, we are also transported to a place where we are more easily enabled to understand people we would not otherwise understand. It is also this framing and anchoring of the empowerment that connects to the empathic and potentially solidarity thread in literature and the arts.

This simple, yet basic, insight into the social value of art is valuable. Not least today, where there are just so many others we do not immediately understand.

walnutBrotherly leap. Reading Nussbaum is a useful medicine against formalist-oriented view of art, which in the wake of Kant has argued that interest and practical benefit destroy the real art experience. There is no doubt that there are formal aspects of aesthetic experience – nor that they affect and shape the functional aspect – but that it is usefulness which is the most important, such as empathy-forming and empowering medium, is obvious. "Inequalities in religion, gender, skin color, class and nationality make it more difficult to understand others, since these differences not only determine the practical choices people make, but also shape their inner, their desires, thoughts and views of the world," writes Nussbaum. The bottom line is that we cannot see others and never fully understand them, since "people's interiors are not as visible as the interiors of the stars." That is why stories are so important. They place us in an imagined landscape, a course, which is morally coded.

If a child learns to marvel at the mystery of stars, while learning to speculate on people as just as remarkable as the celestial bodies, the value of reaching out to something other than themselves may also be discovered, Nussbaum suggests in The Ethics of Literature. Especially important is the narrative ability when the child realizes that his own inner self is as inaccessible to others as other's inner self is to himself. Through stories, communities can be shared: "Mutual visibility can be achieved in one simple and genuine brotherly leap."

Especially important is the narrative ability when the child realizes that his own inner self is as inaccessible to others as other's inner self is to himself.

Room Stories. This is particularly interesting in relation to Nussbaum's understanding of stories about purity, because whether it is about nations or human groups, de about ways of telling stories – but unlike the expansion of narrative imagination, in the imagined community of purity narrative, we are provided with a narrative way that pushes what we dislike, anger, or dislike out of what we can tell and imagine. Here it is not to go against what we do not understand that shapes the narrative, but the desire to block out what we are scared of or fear. The fear of the stranger or what we do not understand is fixed through the distinctions between "us" and "them".

This, when the story of us and them is acute, can be rooted in frustration and anger, she says. After all, some of the worst that can happen is the loss of manpower and planning ability. Then it helps with anger, says Nussbaum – but only apparently.

Walnut-1Seems like fallacy. In his latest book Anger and Forgiveness she analyzes this problem complex in detail. Expressions of righteous indignation are linked to the idea of ​​revenge, though payback. If you react with the revenge idea as a motive, the counterparty will be able to respond with another revenge reaction and so on, and so on. You may be subject to the cruelest rape, attempted murder or mental terror – but if we embrace a notion that the perpetrator "gets as deserved" if we realize the revenge, we are moving away from a working concept of justice, Nussbaum believes. This will eventually end with a culture of fear, where we lose hope and clear thoughts about the future, says the philosopher.

Nussbaum's thoughts are timely in an American context, with both police and African Americans thinking in revenge thinking. But – more than anything – where the Republican presidential candidate makes anger at the creed itself in his election campaign. Revenge, exclusion, discrimination, violence and hatred are the gospel of Trump. Such a way of thinking is the sure path to doom, because we lose touch with actual justice and because a future that can include everyone becomes unthinkable.

Forgiveness and hope for the future. Nussbaum does not reject the mind, but thinks we should practice not to realize it in the form of revenge. The mind should be a transitional feeling, she believes, which should be channeled into other forms of emotional work. The stoic tradition – which she has written well in the past, among others The Therapy of Desire (1994) – gives us good guidelines on how to put character building and forgiveness ahead of anger and violence. "Although people do not work hard, or even care about such self-cultivation, there is no excuse to tolerate or encourage a political or legal framework that embraces and appreciates the idiotic mindset of retaliation," she writes.

Inspired by figures like Mahatma Gandhi, Nelson Mandela and Martin Luther King jr. she shows how strength of character is not about turning back to the one who hurts you, but about holding on to its principles and what you believe in without to use violence. When literature and art are back on track Anger and Forgiveness if it has received a news that is more acute than before, because you cannot imagine another's world of thought, it can be – something that becomes extra obvious in the frame of anger – difficult to control his frustration. Yet, by expanding the horizon and seeing the perspective of their worst enemy, a future is possible both parties.

Some would probably think Nussbaum is naive, but putting empathy and generosity as high as she does – and locating art and literature as tools to maintain these virtues – is, in my opinion, an ambition we can all learn from.

Kjetil Røed
Kjetil Røed
Freelance writer.

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