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Literature, Moral Reflection and Ambiguity

  • Craig Taylor (a1)

While a number of philosophers have argued recently that it is through our emotional response to certain literary works that we might achieve particular moral understanding, what has not been discussed in detail in this connection are works which generate conflicting responses in the reader; which is to say literary works in which there is significant element of ambiguity. Consider Joseph Conrad's novel Lord Jim. I argue that in making sense of our potentially conflicting responses to this novel, and specifically to its central character Jim, we may gain a richer sense of the ways in which literature may contribute to moral understanding – in this case by contributing to an understanding of our own character, its blind spots and its limitations.

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1 From a letter to Clark Barrett H., 4th May 1918, in Ingram A. (ed.), Joseph Conrad: Selected Literary Criticism and The Shadow-Line (London: Methuen, 1986), 89.

2 Most influentially perhaps, Murdoch Iris, The Sovereignty of Good (London: Routledge, 1985); Nussbaum Martha, Love's Knowledge (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1990); and Diamond Cora, The Realistic Spirit (Cambridge MA: MIT Press, 1991). I will refer specifically to Diamond in this paper.

3 O'Neill Onora, ‘Review: The Moral Status of Animals, by Stephen Clark’, The Journal of Philosophy 77 (1980), 445.

4 Cora Diamond, ‘Anything but Argument?’, in Diamond (1991), 303. All references to Diamond are from this work.

5 See here, for example, Empson W., Seven Types of Ambiguity (London: Chatto and Windus, 1930) – a classic work of literary theory on this topic.

6 Carroll Noël, ‘Art, Narrative and Moral Understanding’, in Levinson J. (ed.) Aesthetics and Ethics: Essays at the Intersection (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998).

7 Conrad Joseph, Lord Jim. All references are to the Penguin edition: Simmons A. (ed.), (London: Penguin, 2007).

8 Brudney Daniel, ‘Lord Jim and Moral Judgment: Literature and Moral Philosophy’, The Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism 56 (1998), 265–81, 268–9. I find this explanation for Jim jumping quite implausible. At the time, the other four white crewmembers had in fact given up on Jim, even called him a coward, for refusing to help them release the lifeboat. So, when the three men in the lifeboat call back to the ship, it is for George – the third engineer (who unbeknownst to them has died of a heart attack on deck) – to jump, not Jim. If Jim had been motivated by a concern for how he would appear to these men he may have helped them, but he certainly would not have jumped on that account into their lifeboat. While Jim has contempt for the other white crewmembers they likewise have contempt for him, as becomes apparent when they discover in the darkness that it is Jim that has jumped not George. The most obvious explanation for Jim jumping here, and it says nothing very special about him, is fear for his own life.

9 Eldridge Richard, ‘The Achievement of Autonomy: Marlow's Talk in Lord Jim’, in his On Moral Personhood: Philosophy, Literature and Self-Understanding (Chicago IL: University of Chicago Press, 1989), 90.

10 In a similar vein, Joanne Wood suggests that ‘[i]n accepting the consequences without acknowledging any guilt, Jim remains a Kantian hero to the end’ (Wood J., ‘Lord Jim and the Consequences of Kantian Autonomy’, Philosophy and Literature 11 (1987), 5774, 69).

11 The tendency to try and resolve the ambiguities over Jim's final act is not restricted of course to philosophical commentaries. A host of influential literary readings over the years have also attempted to explain Jim's actions here in terms of defining character traits. So Albert Guerard suggests that ‘Marlow realizes that [Jim] has not escaped the egoism and pride which menace him from the start’ (Guerard A., Conrad the Novelist (Cambridge MA: Harvard University Press, 1958), 144); similarly Tony Tanner suggests that Jim is ‘egoistic to the end’ (Tanner T., Conrad: Lord Jim (London, Edward and Arnold, 1963), 55); while Ian Watt suggests more positively that Jim passes the test he failed on the Patna in not running away from his fate in Patusan and that he ‘dies for honour’ (Watt I., Conrad in the Nineteenth Century (London: Chatto and Windus, 1980), 356). Somewhat more in line with my own reading, Jacques Berthoud suggests that ‘[i]t seems to me a measure of Conrad's humanity that he does not close his novel on a note of unqualified heroic absolutism… Whatever his death may mean for Jim, for Marlow it does not resolve, but crowns, the ambiguity of a tormented career’ (Berthoud J., Joseph Conrad: The major phase (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1987), 92–3).

12 A detailed discussion of the relevant literature here is beyond the scope of this paper, but for further discussion of Lord Jim in relation to the fragility of character see Goldie P., On Personality (London: Routledge, 2004), chapter three and four, and Doris J., Lack of Character (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2002), chapter eight. Of particular bearing for my discussion of Lord Jim is Goldie's suggestion that ‘we should be circumspect about our own motives and character traits’ (Goldie (2004), 98).

13 This particular experiment involved a group of seminarians at Princeton some of whom were asked to prepare a talk on the parable of the Good Samaritan others of whom were asked to prepare a talk on the job prospects for seminarians. The set up of the experiment involved telling some of each group that they had plenty of time to get to the venue for the talk, others that they had just enough and others that would need to rush. On the way to the venue it was further arranged that the seminarians should pass an apparently distressed colleague. As reported in Goldie ‘Of those with plenty of time 63 per cent helped, of those with enough time 45 per cent helped, and of those in a hurry only 10 per cent helped.’ (Goldie (2004), 62–3) For a more extended discussion of the empirical research in this area see Doris (2002).

14 It is worth noting that the specific contribution that a novel like Lord Jim might make to our understanding here is a clearer sense of what it is we need to entertain about ourselves, and that is not something that we might achieve simply by reading the empirical studies I referred to earlier.

15 See here Taylor Craig, ‘Art and Moralism’, Philosophy 84 (2009), 341353.

16 Lamarque P., The Philosophy of Literature (Oxford: Blackwell, 2009), 253–4.

17 Raval S., ‘Narrative and Authority in Lord Jim: Conrad's Art of Failure’, EHL: English Literary History 48 (1981), 387410, 389.

18 Discussions of Lord Jim, both philosophical and sometimes literary, have tended to ignore the significance of the French lieutenant's perspective on Jim, which is not to say my positive appraisal of the lieutenant is completely idiosyncratic. So, Raval suggests, in a similar vein, that the lieutenant's remarks that I have just quoted illustrates that he ‘represents the authority of practical reason and experience, an authority that derives its power not from an unqualified assertion of self, but from a recognition of the self's liabilities.’ (Raval (1981), 392)

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