The Ethical Implications Of Storytelling

Giving Ear to the Literature of the Oppressed

By Daniel Taylor

Copyright © 1995 Mars Hill Review 3 Fall 1995 · Issue No. 3: pgs 58-70.

The old deeds are done, old evil and old good have been made into stories, as plows turn up the river bottom . . .                         -- Eudora Welty

Stories teach us how to live. We are born and raised in stories, and stories answer all the big questions in life: who am I? why am I here? what should I do? Stories are especially suited for answering the "ought" questions, perhaps the most perplexing questions of all. For a hundred years and longer intellectuals and culture shapers have been nervous about the categories of right and wrong. We have tried to live as though these are merely words for opinion or personal preference. One unintended consequence has been widespread moral paralysis and passivity. We have, as individuals and as a culture, a greatly diminished ability to say, "This is wrong, and this is right." We still say these things, of course, because they are rooted in our nature; but we have a hard time either defending or acting on what we say. Stories can help.

Stories call us into relationships-with characters and with the teller of the story. And at the heart of all stories is choice, the necessity of choosing coupled with the uncertainty of consequences. These two qualities of storytelling-relationships with others, and the necessity of choosing-tie literature inescapably to ethics and morality. Stories abound with questions of "ought," and are therefore a powerful if imprecise embodiment of humankind's preoccupation with right and wrong.

This view has many enemies. Formalists, aestheticists, postmodernists and generic relativists are among those who usually oppose attempts to find any consistent, significant, or usable ethical content in literature. But their star is setting, not least because they espouse views which, while often sophisticated, ring false both in literature and in life. Literature is inescapably tied to ethics and is useful in personal ethical development, thought, and action. This is seen most clearly in the stories that arise from experiences of oppression. People who have experienced evil most bluntly often feel compelled to put their experience into story. And listening to that story with interest and compassion not only is our ethical duty, but has the power to change us.

Any argument for the usefulness of story in ethical understanding and behavior grows out of the general argument for the power of literature to engage and change us as human beings. Whatever makes literature of recurring interest also contributes to its ethical dimension.

Literature engages us because it is rooted. It tangles itself in the quotidian, concrete, individualized nitty-gritty of human experience. If it often seeks the transcendent and universal, it is always by way of the immanent and particular. If it desires to speak to all humanity, it does so by telling us the story of one or two particular human beings. It thereby starts where we ourselves live, with characters in a context faced with decisions. It does not really matter if the characters masquerade as animals or aliens, or if the context is distant in time or place. All stories are about us, or someone who is somehow like us.

Literature also engages the whole person. It elicits a response from all parts of the traditional division of human beings-mental, spiritual, and physical. (The rhythms and rhymes of language affect the body as well as the mind.) Jean-Paul Sartre argues that it is in fact the moral responsibility of the reader to "give himself generously" to a work, bringing to a reading "the gift of his whole person, with his passions, prepossessions, his sympathies, his sexual temperament, and his scale of values."{1} If we listen to a story with only one ear, we do not listen fairly.

Sartre's argument points to the empathy-creating power of the imagination, a power exercised both by the writer and the reader. Literature invites us into relationships-relationships between writers and readers, between characters and readers, between all of these and the world (both society and nature), between readers and other readers, and, sometimes, between the reader and God. Such relationships have the potential to change us and are fraught with ethical considerations.

Stories are flares sent into the night sky. William James claimed that the greatest gap which exists in all of nature is the gap between one human mind and another. John Steinbeck is only one of many writers who have observed the role that literature has played in humankind's ongoing and exhaustive attempts to bridge that gap:

A writer out of loneliness is trying to communicate like a distant star sending signals. . . . We are lonesome animals. We spend our life trying to be less lonesome. One of our ancient methods is to tell a story begging the listener to say-and to feel-"Yes, that's the way it is, or at least that's the way I feel it. You're not as alone as you thought."{2}

A reader's willingness to empathize with characters in a narrative or the speaker in a poem is itself a moral act (as is the writer's willingness to portray at least some characters sympathetically). It is parallel to attending to the story of a friend. Alexander Solzhenitsyn's narrator in One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich wonders whether it is possible for one human being to genuinely understand or care about the suffering of another, in this case in a Siberian labor camp: "How can you expect a man who's warm to understand a man who's cold?"{3} That Solzhenitsyn writes the novel suggests that he believes such understanding is possible-if he tells the story well enough.

Simone Weil has said that morality is not a matter of will, but of attention. We cannot act rightly until we have attended, given our attention, to that which requires us to act. Literature is a powerful focuser of attention. It puts before us situations that require of us a response, both in the context of the fictional world and, by implication, in the nonfictional world in which we live (and resists any absolute separation of the two).

This ability of literature to generate valuable moments of attention points to the tie between story and memory. Part of literature's ethical value is that it preserves human experience for contemplation and evaluation. It snares fleeting human reality in characters, actions, metaphors, and all the other elements of literature, giving us the opportunity to sift, judge, reflect, evaluate, laugh about, cry over, and all the other things we are prone to do with our experience.

Yet do not stories also distort and sometimes even falsify our experience? Inevitably. But that is not an argument for dismissing the ethical value of literature. It is rather an argument for telling and preserving as many different stories as possible, so that collectively they can witness to more of the whole truth of the human experience than can any one story or handful of stories. This is a need rightly manifested in the current concern for hearing from people whose stories historically have not been told. The cure for inadequate stories is more stories from different tellers.

Some theologians and ethicists have argued that understanding narrative and one's relation to it is not just helpful but in fact is the key to moral and ethical development. Paul Nelson summarizes this movement:

The fundamental idea underlying the variety of claims made on behalf of narrative is that narrative, or story, is ingredient to understanding the self, social groups, and their histories. According to some philosophers, a moral view is not so much chosen as inherited from one's family and one's religious and political communities; in short, from one's social world. The moralities into which we are socialized are not so much sets of rules or principles as they are collections of stories about human possibilities and paradigms for action. These stories are said to disclose who we are, where we have been, and where we are going, thereby allowing us to locate our position in the larger scheme of things.{4}

Alasdair MacIntyre, perhaps the most influential contemporary ethicist, says that without access to the community's stories, children literally do not know how to behave: "Deprive children of stories and you leave them unscripted, anxious stutterers in their actions as in their words." {5} These stories include, of course, much more than is narrowly regarded as literature, but the argument points to the life-shaping potential of all narrative, including literary narrative.

Stories tell us who we are, with the understanding that who we are is greatly shaped by the community of which we are a part. (The universal in us is a product of our common humanity as colored by our particular community). And who we are unavoidably raises the host of ethical questions about how we should live. Benton Lewis, an Apache Indian, puts it in a way that might disconcert a strict literary formalist or relativist, but delights any lover of straightforward words: "Stories go to work on you like arrows. Stories make you live right."{6}

A wonderful and fearful consequence of our human freedom is that we can be different from how we are. Because we have been created as characters with choices, we are capable of modifying our lives in light of our experience. Literature-engaging us holistically, rooted in concrete experience, and drawing us into empathetic relationship-has more potential to change us than most influences in our lives. Such potential for change has tremendous moral and ethical implications which we dare not ignore or explain away.

Nowhere is the ethical dimension of literature more readily apparent than in the literature of the oppressed. This literature arises out of and is a conscious response to dehumanization and the denial of individual value. It cuts across boundaries of nationality, politics, religion, gender, age, and class, and includes literature that arises as a response to the Holocaust, totalitarianism, racism, sexism and the like. This literature raises the whole range of ethical questions, but especially those which center on justice and respect for human beings.

The literature of the oppressed covers a great variety of writing and writers and historical contexts. There are, however, recurring emphases and strategies that link otherwise divergent works, each with profound ethical implications. One of these centers on the concept of telling one's story.

Perhaps the one thing most widely insisted on in the literature of the oppressed is the need and right to tell one's story, both one's own and the community's. This is implicit of course in all of literature, as we have seen. But it is even more urgent in the literature of the oppressed because that right has so often been denied.

In the foreword to Fontamara, a novel dealing with the exploitation of Italian peasants, Ignazio Silone argues for the right of everyone to be heard: "Let everyone, then, have the right to tell his story in his own way."{7} Both aspects are crucial-to tell one's story and to tell it in one's own way of speaking-and both have ethical implications. Suppressing people's stories, whether consciously (as when slaves were forbidden to learn to read and write) or unconsciously, is immoral. But so may be presuming to speak for someone (as well-meaning reformers often have done) or requiring them to speak only in the public language. The black poet Langston Hughes understood this:

. . . someday somebody'll Stand up and talk about me. And write about me- Black and beautiful- And sing about me, And put on plays about me! And I reckon it'll be Me myself! Yes, it'll be me.{8}

One of the problems with telling one's story in one's own way is that the oppressor often controls language. The Polish poet and Nobel Laureate, Czeslaw Milosz, could not tell his story in his own country when it was under Communist rule: "The exile of a poet is today a simple function of a relatively recent discovery: that whoever wields power is also able to control language and not only with the prohibitions of censorship but also by changing the meaning of words. . . . [W]hole zones of reality cease to exist simply because they have no name."{9} This is why merely telling one's story can be a revolutionary act-and it is not only Communists who suppress stories.

The opportunity to tell one's story is at the heart of our sense of justice. All legal systems call for the airing of stories, including that of the accused, as the necessary precondition for justice being done. The right to speak is given to the vilest criminal. (God even allowed Adam and Eve a chance to tell their side.) But there is also an ethical responsibility to listen to these stories, and to listen without prejudgment. We recognize that a court which goes through the motions of listening to the accused but which has already made its decision beforehand is not a just court. As there are ethical implications in allowing the marginalized to tell their stories in literature, there are also great implications in how we listen and respond.

The literature of the oppressed believes not only in the right of and need for storytelling, but also in its power. Storytelling can change things-within the storyteller, within the hearers, and, perhaps, even within the larger society. Most of all, storytelling has the power to heal. A battered woman in the opening line of a short story by Jane Augustine reveals the psychological necessity of bearing witness: "If I don't tell someone, I'm not sure what will happen. I'll crack perhaps." {10}

Similarly, Leslie Marmon Silko begins Ceremony, a novel about the search of a young Native American man for healing from the fragmentation of broken traditions, with a chant-like invocation:

I will tell you something about stories, They aren't just entertainment. Don't be fooled. They are all we have, you see, all we have to fight off illness and death. You don't have anything if you don't have the stories. Their evil is mighty but it can't stand up to our stories. So they try to destroy the stories let the stories be confused or forgotten. They would like that They would be happy Because we would be defenseless then. He rubbed his belly. I keep them here Here, put your hand on it See, it is moving. There is life here for the people.{11}

Much of the power of story in the literature of the oppressed is tied to memory. Remembering is a way of keeping alive a reality that would otherwise be lost-especially important when an oppressor wants that reality forgotten. Elie Wiesel, Holocaust survivor, sees his writing as act of remembering with particular moral significance:

But for me writing is a matzeva, an invisible tombstone, erected to the memory of the dead unburied. Each word corresponds to a face, a prayer, the one needing the other so as not to sink into oblivion. . . . Thus, the act of writing is for me often nothing more than the secret or conscious desire to carve words on a tombstone: to the memory of a town forever vanished, to the memory of a child in exile, to the memory of all those I loved and who, before I could tell them I loved them, went away. {12}

Although powerfully drawn to silence, Wiesel sees his writing as standing against the ultimate devaluation of human worth: "you do not exist."

Remembering well is not only a way of resisting evil, but is a form of protection. Both Milosz and Solzhenitsyn, in accepting their Nobel Prizes, explored the devastating effects of a people without memory, taken from them in Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union and willingly abandoned in the West. Each sees memory as a "force" which "protects us,"{13} and looks to literature as a primary embodiment of that memory.

If the centrality of telling one's story is one characteristic of the literature of the oppressed, the unembarrassed appeal to moral criteria is another. Simply put, this literature has not been cowed by fashionable contemporary relativism. It frequently invokes standards of right and wrong which would be an embarrassment (and even a cause for suppression) for many academics and shapers of contemporary culture, except for the irony that these claims are coming from people whom these same academics support on political and social grounds in their calls for justice. Having guarded against mixing morals and literature from social conservatives, fearing the kind of censorship that has often resulted in the past, the makers of contemporary culture have been uncertain as to how to react to the moral appeals of the literature of the oppressed.

This appeal is usually to a moral order by which the oppressors, despite their power, are seen to be aberrant moral outlaws, and the oppressed, despite their seeming powerlessness, are seen as representatives of moral order. In the West the moral order appealed to has often been the Judeo-Christian one, broadly conceived. Black spirituals, for instance, call out to that aspect of the tradition which emphasizes God's concern for the powerless and oppressed at the hands of the powerful, taking comfort in the Jehovah God who strikes down evil rulers and taskmasters and the Jesus who heals the sick, feeds the hungry, and chastises the powerful.

Alice Walker's The Color Purple, however, illustrates that other parts of the literature of the oppressed look not to religious traditions (though there is a nod to that in Walker's novel) but to the equally old secular humanist tradition, especially as it has manifested itself in recent years with the celebration of concepts such as self-esteem, self-fulfillment, individual rights, and the like.

This overt appeal to moral criteria, in fact, distinguishes the literature of the oppressed not only from most other contemporary literature but also from the prevailing tone of most popular culture in recent decades. The literature of the oppressed tends to follow Solzhenitsyn in his identification of the central point for which he stands:

Those people who have lived in the most terrible conditions, on the frontier between life and death, be it people from the West or from the East, they all understand that between good and evil there is an irreconcilable contradiction, that it is not one and the same thing-good or evil-that one cannot build one's life without regard to this distinction.{14}

Solzhenitsyn's view of good and evil is clearly influenced by his Christian worldview. Others who do not share his faith have shared similar experiences with evil and good, convincing them of the existential reality of moral categories and of the necessity of affirming them in everyday life and exploring them in literature.

A third characteristic of the literature of the oppressed with significant ethical overtones is its emphasis on community. Oppressed groups-from medieval Jews to nineteenth-century feminists to contemporary blacks and Polish workers-have recognized the importance of community and solidarity for survival. Even the seemingly powerless discover their power when they band together. That oppressors recognize this power is clear from the repeated attempts in history to deny the oppressed those things necessary for a sense of community (for example, their language, religion, and ceremonies).

Perhaps the fundamental ethical impulse in the literature of the oppressed is to reject those forces that would deny the oppressed their full humanity, and to insist on the dignity and worth of each person. Yet, unlike the individualistic emphasis of much of contemporary literature and culture, the worth of the individual in the literature of the oppressed is much more likely to be rooted in that person's identification with a larger community and tradition.

This sense of community often gives the writers a feeling of mission not often found among other contemporary writers. Alice Walker says, "I am preoccupied with the spiritual survival, the survival whole of my people."{15} Solzhenitsyn has dedicated his life to preserving through literature the modern history of Russia (and thereby the Russian soul) in an era when official Russian history has been a web of lies. Wiesel, as we have seen, writes in part to preserve the memory of a whole culture that has been destroyed.

At its best this sense of mission translates into rich explorations of lost history, into moral passion, into delight and discovery, into a mutually beneficial concern for one's readers-in short, into powerful literature that makes the world different for its having been written. At its worst, it reduces the writer to cliché-ridden propagandist and sermonizer.

Herein lies one objection to exploring the ethical dimension of literature. Allowing ethical criteria into literary judgment, it is argued, distorts the nature of art by emphasizing content over form. What one says becomes more important than how one says it, reducing art to ideology and argument. Naively applied, ethical criticism can lead to the equating of good writing with that which agrees with my values and bad writing with that which disagrees.{16} The "committed" writer may become more interested in supporting a side than in investigating the world.

In a related problem, how does one make ethical judgments anyway in a relativistic world? Value claims are commonly seen not as references to objective reality but as expressions of opinion. If we allow for the ethical dimension of literature, whose ethics are we going to invoke in our criticism?

And even if we can agree on the values which literature should reinforce, is there any evidence that literature and art change anything? Does even a great poem or novel or painting make the world any different, much less any better? Many critics have thought not. Oscar Wilde offered one of the most famous dismissals of the ethical criticism of literature at the end of the last century: "There is no such thing as a moral or an immoral book. Books are well written or badly written. That is all."

These objections are not without merit. Even the literature of the oppressed itself acknowledges profound questions about the efficacy of literature and art to do justice to extreme human experiences. One of those questions has to do with the efficacy of language to capture experiences beyond the normal categories. Wiesel says that it is not possible to write a novel about Treblinka. Either it will not be a novel, or it will not be about Treblinka.{17} George Steiner claims that "the world of Auschwitz lies outside speech as it lies outside reason." {18}

Further, experiences of genocide or other examples of great cruelty call into question the traditional relationship between the external world and the imagination. For the last two hundred years at least, we have thought of the imagination as running ahead of daily reality, giving form to that which as yet has not been conceived, to that which has yet to happen. With an event like the Holocaust, physical reality outstrips the imagination. We were not able to imagine genocide; we were not able to imagine the intentional mass gassing of women and men; we were not able to imagine doctors amputating the healthy limbs of children just to study the reaction. Having discovered the literal truth, how is the imagination, or literature, ever going to catch up? How will it ever regain its status as that which runs ahead?

Even to the extent that it succeeds, is not literature about great human suffering a kind of exploitation? While the formalist/aestheticist argues that art must transform experience into an aesthetic form if it is to be art, another view protests that such a goal is in some cases itself immoral. Aestheticizing suffering by giving it artistic form, and therefore giving its audience pleasure (aesthetically even if they are otherwise repulsed or saddened), is fundamentally immoral. The extreme of this view was expressed by T.W. Adorno in his famous declaration that writing poetry after Auschwitz is barbaric.{19}

Finally, there are some among the writers of the oppressed who seem to deny the very existence of a moral order to which anyone can appeal. Tadeusz Borowski's This Way for the Gas, Ladies and Gentlemen openly refuses to divide the world of the concentration camp into the just and the unjust. His first-person protagonist, modeled on Borowski himself, inhabits a world where such distinctions are sentimental holdovers from a long-dead world. A variety of Holocaust writers testify to the attraction of silence and even madness as the most appropriate and ethical response to inexpressible human evil and seeming divine indifference.

As powerful as these collected objections might be, they are more compelling in warning us to proceed carefully in looking to literature for moral sustenance than they are in showing that doing so is illegitimate or unprofitable. The long-dominant claims of aestheticism do not stand up to close inspection. In trying to remove literature from a potential quagmire of ethical controversy by asserting that only form is ultimately significant, aestheticism fails to recognize that such an assertion is itself an ethical one. Moreover, Christopher Clausen points out that Wilde's famous dictum-that books are not moral or immoral, only well or poorly written-fails to consider the "bearing that the moral shallowness or profundity of a book might have on whether, all things considered, it is well or badly written."{20}

Some postmodernist literary critics have gone beyond the formalists and declared that not only must content be subsumed under form, but that language, because of its radical instability, is not even capable of conveying shareable meaning. This claim is often made in the context of opposing oppressive power structures and their domination of discourse. What these critics fail to see, it seems, is that this view of language reinforces rather than undercuts oppression. If language cannot convey meaning, then the powerless are silenced and doomed to their fate. Even physical revolution depends on persuasion. Milosz understands this when he says that totalitarian states have nothing to fear from theories of literature that see it as a totally self-contained, self-referential world with no significant link to other areas of human experience-a view both the formalists and postmodernists support.{21}

The relativist claim that conflicting ethical values and evaluations render all ethical claims for literature useless is equally suspect. It confuses cultural pluralism (the existence of many views) with metaphysical relativism (the lack of any knowable truth). Dis-agreement about ethical judgment, in literature or elsewhere, no more makes such judgments meaningless than does disagreement about the shape of the earth render the earth without shape. There is no more diversity and disagreement in ethical matters than there is in purely aesthetic ones, or in any other area of human inquiry for that matter. Everything valuable is also controversial.

Further, radical relativists invariably cannot live out their professed views. Every critic who claims, openly or implicitly, that ethics have nothing to do with literary judgment then proceeds without exception to fill his or her criticism and theories with assertions that are fundamentally ethical in nature.

One practical response to the problem of diversity of values and judgments lies in the notions of community and conversation. Critics as diverse as Stanley Fish and Wayne Booth have explored the possibilities for limiting radical subjectivity in literary judgments by emphasizing the practical and verifiable benefits of sharing our judgments together in respectful and sympathetic discourse. The goal is not unanimity, but a consensus of shared judgment that approaches the condition of wisdom, not unlike the process of moral and character development that ethicists see happening on as an individual internalizes the stories of the community.

Wiesel gives a powerful answer to the objections raised about the ethical value of literature, including those he raises himself. He asks, quite simply, what is the alternative to writing about right and wrong? To be silent-or, I would add, cynical-is to be complicitous with evil. Wiesel and many others write with a painfully clear awareness of the limitations of language, and the moral pitfalls awaiting those who would bear witness, but also with a sense of obligation to the dead that makes all dangers worthwhile.

Does literature have the power to change anything? The testimony of countless men and women over thousands of years is too compelling to seriously doubt it. If our experience in the world shapes us at all, including how we act in this world, how can we possibly believe that literature, which engages our whole person in ways that very few human experiences do, has no significant effect on us? If one young person reads The Diary of Anne Frank, or any other story, and resolves to live differently in light of an expanded understanding of the possibilities of life, do we have any way of showing that resolve to be illusory and without effect in the real world?

Human beings are inescapably creatures of "ought." Indeed, that may be what is most unique about us. This sense of ought permeates everything we do, including our works of the imagination. Such works, powerful and compelling, are potential treasure-houses in which we can conduct some of our most important conversations about what we ought to be and do. And there is no essential difference between the stories of literature and the stories of our lives. We are each characters in our own story and in each other's stories. Healthy stories, as we have heard, can "make us live right."

{1} John-Paul Sarte, What is Literature? (New York: Harper 1948; trans. Bernard Frechtman, 1965), 36.

{2} John Steinbeck, Writers at Work: The Paris Review Interviews (New York: Viking, 1976), 183.

{3} Alexander Solzhenitsyn, One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich (Trans. Ralph Parker; New York: New American Library, 1963), 34 .

{4} Paul Nelson, Narrative and Morality: A Theological Inquiry (University Park, Pa.: Pennsylvania State University Press, 1987), 9.

{5} Alasdair MacIntyre, After Virtue (Notre Dame, Ind.: University of Notre Dame Press, 1981), 216.

{6} Wayne C. Booth, The Company We Keep: An Ethics of Fiction (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1988), 324.

{7} Ignazio Silone, Foreword, Fontamara, Trans. Eric Mosbacher (New York: New American Library, 1981), 20.

{8} Claudia Tate, ed., Black Women Writers at Work (New York: Continuum, 1984), xxvi.

{9} Czeslaw Milosz, Nobel Lecture (New York: Farrar Straus, 1980), 13.

{10} Mary Anne Ferguson, Images of Women in Literature (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 4th ed., 1986), 88.

{11} Leslie Marmon Silko, Ceremony ( New York: Viking Penguin, 1977), 2.

{12} Elie Wiesel, Legends of Our Time (New York: Avon, 1968), 25, 26.

{13} Milosz, 21.

{14} Alexander Solzhenitsyn, "The Vision of Solzhenitsyn," Firing Line (Columbia, S.C.: Southern Educational Communications, 1976), 4.

{15} Alice Walker, In Search of Our Mothers' Gardens: Womanist Prose (New York: Harcourt, 1983), 250.

{16} Booth, 388.

{17} Elie Wiesel, et al, Dimensions of the Holocaust: Lectures at Northwestern University (Evanston, Ill.: Northwestern University Press, 1977), 7.

{18} Lawrence L. Langer, The Holocaust and the Literary Imagination (New York: Yale University Press, 1975), 14.

{19} Langer, 1.

{20} Christopher Clausen, The Moral Imagination: Essays on Literature and Ethics (Iowa City: University of Iowa Press, 1986), ix.

{21} Milosz, 13.