The Company We Keep

You might know him from this guide, or from his defense of liberal education at the University of Chicago (my alma mater), or from his classic work on literary criticism. A couple days ago I re-discovered Wayne C. Booth’s The Company We Keep: An Ethics of Fiction on a bottom bookshelf. The book is an English professor and literary critic’s investigation of the problem of ethical criticism. Should there even be such a thing?

For decades literature, and art in general, were “criticized,” i.e. analyzed, evaluated, recommended or not, in western academic literary circles based primarily on pure aesthetics or form, rather than on any ethical or political impact of their content per se. This was a unique movement, given that “moralism” had been the primary norm applied for thousands of years prior, all the way back to Plato’s worries about the poets.

But an incident amongst the English department faculty at Chicago convinced Professor Booth that there were larger issues at stake, and the question deserved a re-think. A brilliant, young — and completely trained, sophisticated, and nuanced — black professor at Chicago declared one semester that he could not teach Huckleberry Finn. The rest of the faculty charitably allowed him to skip the work in his section of English 101 — but they had no real understanding or sympathy, and all continued to appreciate Twain’s classic, teach it, and remain completely convinced that, sufficiently understood, it was not a racist book.

The problem of ethical criticism, and here we have to include all types, at all points along the spectrum: traditional, religious, Marxist, feminist, etc., continued to bother Booth. Just like the friends we choose to hang out with, “the company we keep,” our choice of literature certainly influences us and helps make us who we are. I would extend the perspective beyond fiction, beyond literature and books, to all artistic endeavor, including performances and spectacles, monuments and liturgies. We must choose wisely the company that we keep.

From yesterday…

Monuments like the Egyptian pyramids… inscriptions or objects… palaces, mausoleums, lavish stelae… thereby forming the core of the world’s major heritage sites and museum collections today. Such is their power that even now we risk falling under their spell.

Graeber & Wengrow, Dawn of Everything, p. 430

It’s clear, I hope, that responsible adults should not choose, or have chosen for them (!), mere echo-chamber pablum. All artworks, because they are mixed creations of mixed human beings, with both good and evil interwoven — plus an aesthetic form, craft, techne that organizes them overlaid on top — require of their partaker some “devil’s tax” to be paid, whether small or great. One approach to the problem of evil, the free speech approach (also the classical Christian approach), is that the best defense is to expose evil, to shine the light on it, to show it for what it is. Put it out there, let it be seen, and criticize it. The answer to mixed art is not censorship, but more free speech.

That assumes we’re talking about responsible adults. Booth comes to a similar conclusion. Not all students, even at the University of Chicago, are yet responsible adults. How could they be? It takes a lifetime (if then). The impact of exposure to literature and artworks with a high “devil’s tax” — however brilliant, however aesthetically perfect — can indeed be corrupting.

Not only do immature readers and partakers of art need to be taught how to deal with the good-evil interweave of mixed creations; not only must they learn to discern between attractive aesthetic form and potentially dubious content; not only should they develop a sense of author and reader, and the full spectrum of potential ethical criticism; all these, yes… and also decisions about the works themselves to be used in the training ground must be taken with care. They become paradigmatic models for growth in discernment, nuance, and formation, not to mention testing one’s mettle, all along the way.

Our society as a whole doesn’t need Platonic levels of censorship, book banning, or the exile or persecution of poets; nor does it need the paternalism of a church’s Index. It does need a lot more light shining brightly! And yet, given the apparent degree of vulnerability out there, the merely incipient capacity for responsibility evident among so many young people (and others) today, judgment needs to be exercised on the part of parents, educators, politicians, and pastors, and whoever else is sufficiently mature, if anyone. Ultimately, as each of us grows towards responsible adulthood (we hope), the choice of what company to keep increasingly lies within our own hearts.