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General introduction (DOI 10.1515/arcadia-2015-0001)

  The editors of arcadia are pleased and honored to print in this issue a set of papers associated with Professor Nie Zhenzhao’s theory of ethical literary criti- cism. Both because of the topic and because of the unique effort to bring together Chinese and Western scholars, we regard the occasion so special that we shall depart from our usual reluctance to write an introduction to a special issue, and preface this collection with a few introductory reflections of our own. We want to underline the value of the theory and to indicate how, in our view, it could be broadened to bolster its persuasiveness.

  Professor Zhenzhao has developed his theory on the basis of an astonishingly wide range of literature, which runs, on the Western side, from Sophocles to D.H. Lawrence and beyond. Ethical approaches to literature have a venerable tradition in Europe and the US, but Professor Zhenzhao tackles the issue from a new angle. He finds “a deficit of ethical engagement” in the Western formalist, cultural, and political approaches to literary criticism, and proposes a new approach, which regards moral enlightenment as literature’s primary function. A literary critic should not make subjective moral judgments of literary works but, rather, unfold objectively their ethical content, and read literature as an expres- sion of ethics. One of the first requisites in a search for the ethical value in a given work, is, according to Professor Zhenzhao, the examination of the works particu- lar historical context. The critic’s personal ethical values should not enter into the picture. However, the requested careful reconstruction of the given historical context as the prerequisite of a properly ethical as against the rejected moral criticism recalls, in the European tradition, the historicist approach, which has been in the meantime exposed to serious critiques, by New Historicism among the others.

  Disregarding this critique, Professor Zhenzhao remains on a transsubjective level in sketching a general history, within which literature emerged as a reflec- tion of the first human communal ties, which he characterizes as ethical. Most critics and readers in the East as well as in the West will surely agree with this view, but many of them, on both sides, will probably ask, why he associates ethical concern only with written texts (literature), excluding thereby a vast body of oral fiction, poetry, and drama, which includes such fundamental creations as Gilgamesh epos and the oral versions of the Homeric epics. These creative works of orality were eventually written up but only after centuries of oral transmission. Why does Professor Zhenzhao find no ethical value in orally transmitted lyrical songs and narrated epics? He writes, “the stories told orally only find their existence in the memory of human beings” and he claims that “language must be converted into letters and text before it is used as a material form to convey meanings.” Do we really need clay, stone, and paper to reflect on ethical issues? Some readers may think that Professor Zhenzhao insists on the “material form” because only this can grant ethical statements a certain consistency and endur- ance, but he believes that literature is always changing, and hence, one would think, it is not that different from orality.

  It seems more likely that Professor Zhenzhao dismisses orality because he associates it with early humanity. In his view, reason “distinguishes man from other animals” and provides the foundation for an ethical consciousness. How- ever, contemporary research, in East as well as West, does recognize elementary forms of reason among animals, and it has conclusively shown that taboos, which constitute the earliest form of literature according to Professor Zhenzhao, are also rooted in the body. Few scientists would underwrite today the statement that “the initial aim of literature is to textualize taboos” or that taboos were formed as a result of human rationality, and their ethical selection.

  Taking his rationalist perspective a step further, Professor Zhenzhao associ- ates emotions with “man’s (sic) primitive desires and instincts.” He sees extramar- ital relations in Madame Bovary, Anna Karenina, and Lady Chatterley’s Lover, (all women!) as manifestations of such primitive animal instincts, and believes that theirauthorsintendedtoshowthatfollowingpassionsleadstotragedies: “Human beings need to obey a certain type of ethical order, otherwise they will receive due punishment.” But, some readers will ask, who and with what authority had established that ethical order. Did Flaubert really want to punish Madame Bovary? And if so, what ethical authority urged him to do so? The Catholic church? French common law? These questions become even more intensive with respect to Lady Chatterley’s Lover. In Professor Zhenzhao’s perspective, “Connie’s betrayal does not mean the liberation of human nature but, on the contrary, symbolizes the loss of it. If human beings were driven by their primitive desires and did not obey the ethical orders built upon reason, they would be like the rest of animals, or they would lose the indistinctive feature as ethical beings.” It seems that reason does not raise ethical issues in literature but rather impose on it a strict didactic function: “Homer’s poetry conveys to the reader the rules of living” and Greek tragedy “teaches the reader to abide by the ethical order and moral codes.” Generally, ethics in literature refers to moral conceptions based upon ethical order, or to the relevant norms used to maintain the ethical order. Some readers will regards this as aquasi-dictatorial imposition of ethical rules, whose origins are unclear. Professor Zhenzhao regards it a misconception that in much of contemporary Western literature human beings are not governed just by reason but also by “primitive desire”: “many contemporary works mistake human instinct for hu- man nature, and, accordingly, human instinct is unduly praised.” In other words, in these cases literature fails to teach ethical norms. Yet, the ethical norms are constantly changing. What authority brings about and with what justification changes in ethics?

  Consistent with his sharp distinction between reason and emotion, Professor Zhenzhao radically separates humanity from animals and criticizes both Darwin and Engels for failing to make “a fundamental distinction between man and animals.” To make such a distinction, which runs counter to social and scientific trends today, Professor Zhenzhao curiously equates “free will” with “natural will,” and assigns them both to the animal factor: “Free will mainly derives from human being’s animal nature, and it mainly takes on the various forms of desires, such as the lust for sex and food.” Only the rational will is truly human. One cannot but wonder, here and in the affiliate argument of Professor Biwu, whether rational behavior automatically and necessarily means ethical behavior. Profes- sor Biwu’s thesis that “if a person’s human factor takes a firm control over his animal factor, he will be endowed with ethical consciousness” contradicts the argument of many important Western philosophers, such as Theodor W. Adorno, Jacques Derrida or Giorgio Agamben. Does the suppression of “animal” lust for sex and food really amount to ethics? Does this “animal” desire not underlie ethical cultivation and refinement? Furthermore, how can the human procession of ethical decisions manage to remain exclusively rational? Does not this proces- sion, for its part, underlie animalization as well?

  Some readers will conclude that in this view ethics means submission to some transindividual ethical power (such as the one of family in Professor Biwu’s argument). Accordingly, Professor Zhenzhao consistently sees in literature con- flicts between free (individual) will and rational (collective) will, whereby virtue is praised and vice is punished: “most literary works set up moral examples and explore the ways of restraining free will through rational will, thus helping audiences pursue goodness.” Not everybody will agree with this view of litera- ture’s mission advocated by Professors Zhenzhao and Biwu, but the challenging thesis will undoubtedly stimulate the readers to reflect further on this fundamental issue.

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