In two earlier posts, I worried a little about Dan Green's understanding of what a "moral" criticism might be. The first post responded to something Green wrote about the "sanctimonious moralizing" that he thinks passes for criticism in the pages of The New Republic. Green's objections were aimed principally at Leon Wieseltier. But I wondered whether he thought they also applied to James Wood, given that there's an undeniable edge of "moral fervour" to Wood's criticism. My suspicion, which I didn't develop, was that Wood wasn't vulnerable to the charges Green was laying against Wieseltier (and I'd be tempted to say that one could defend Wieseltier against them too, though I won't try to do that here).
The second post dealt with something that Green wrote about Richard Rorty. There, Green's worry was that the only way Rorty can see of elevating literature to a status as "respectable" as that traditionally enjoyed by philosophy is by giving it a "socially utilitarian role". In other words, Rorty's case for literature is, ultimately, an ethical rather than an aesthetic one. Green went on to offer an alternative vindication of the aesthetic, one which struck me as itself fundamentally "ethical". "Not", I wrote, "an ethical or moral vision of the kind Green attributes to Rorty.... Literature and the aesthetic, I take Green to be saying, are valuable precisely because they offer us a picture of the human. I think this is different from the argument Green attributes to Rorty because implied here is the idea that literature alone offers us a vision of these human possibilities - or, at the very least, that literature offers us a distinctive vision of them."
Now, I was reminded of those posts when reading a more recent entry on Green's blog. It was a brief response to James Wood's New Yorker piece on Cormac McCarthy that generated a much longer comments thread, to which Wood himself made a number of very interesting contributions. Green's rather peremptory dismissal of Wood's piece effectively answers the question I asked in my first post. He writes:
James Wood indulges in his usual hectoring sermon masquerading as a book review. This time it's Cormac McCarthy who just doesn't understand that James Wood's approach to fiction is the only one possible.... [I]t's Wood's criticism that represents a "literary hostility to Mind," since it almost never engages in honest analysis of a given text in terms of what it seeks to accomplish, but instead just endlessly repeats the same old formula: psychological realism is all, psychological realism is all.
And one of Wood's comments on these remarks of Green's seems to bear out my second point about the difficulty of articulating a purely aesthetic vision that isn't in some sense a moral or ethical vision too:
[W]hy should we accept Dan Green's strange binarism anyway, itself the reflection of a puritanism far deepper than any he can ascribe to me? Why should we have aesthetics OR the moral? (The moral, of course, meant in its largest sense, to meam something like 'meaningful human conduct and the discourse about that'.) Why not both? The aesthetic is a human product, and so it will always have a moral dimension. Isn't the discussion about the new McCarthy novel precisely a discussion that begins in aesthetics -- the choice to write a certain kind of genre book, and the limited formal codes of this genre -- which inescapably becomes a moral discussion (the way these aesthetic decisions limit the kind of meaning McCarthy has at his disposal)? Chekhov is a great writer because he is a great stylist, and because of certain qualities of his style he is also a great humanist. Flaubert gives rise to moral doubts, as times, on the part of readers, because his style seems to incarnate a kind of hatred of his subjects; he longed, famously, to write a book about 'nothing, with no external attachment', and there are times when his aestheticism seems to want to do away with matter altogether, to pulverize the human subject. To call something, in a derogatory way, 'mere aestheticism' is to make a moral judgment about certain kinds of aesthetic decisions. (This isn't being only a moral critic; it is being a moral and an aesthetic critic: what other kind could there be?) Chekhov, for me, is so miraculous because an absolute perfection of form -- he instructed the journal editor of 'The Bishop' not to change a single word -- co-exists with the opposite of Flaubert's misanthropy. Style, for Chekhov, seems not to have been in any necessary conflict with the humane. He is the great stylist and the great humanist. Henry James, whom Dan Green praises, exactly showed, in his critical comments on Flaubert and others, that a great interest in the moral and a great interest in the formal can and should co-exist. Truth and beauty together, not separated. I thought all this was pretty obvious.