John Krapp
An Aesthetics of Morality: Pedagogic Voice and Moral Dialogue in Mann, Camus, Conrad and Dostoevsky
Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 2002. Pp. 234. $34.95

Reviewed by Daniel Ahern

With this book, John Krapp enters the field of ethical literary criticism; an arena which, if not regarded with smug irony, is often a loud squabble between competing "absolutist" versus "multi-perspective" agendas. Krapp is quite aware of this, and indeed of how the status of literary ethical critique has fallen into disrepute over the last century. His own investigation demonstrates and exemplifies a balanced, thoughtful, and scholarly approach to the "crucial juncture" (2) where contemporary literary ethical criticism finds itself. He wants to show how the concern with ethics in literature can be approached through the aesthetic dynamics that generate various ethical positions-without our having to be ensnared in arguing over the endorsement of the ethical positions themselves.

Krapp understands the historical contingencies that inform all discourse — including that of ethical literary critique. In proposing the "possibility of nonmonologic, nonreductive ethical readings" (31), he wants an alternative approach to textual commentary that, in avoiding the concern with whether or not positions "in the text" should be endorsed, concentrates instead on how "a text conveys its ideological positions" (169). In shifting the focus away from "ethical positions" per se toward the strategies that express them, Krapp seeks to reestablish the theoretical activity of ethical literary critique via an approach that is sensitive to how literature generates a multiplicity of competing ethical voices within the ever-shifting contingencies of history.

The opening chapter describes two basic modes of ethical pedagogy. Krapp refers to the first as the constitutive pedagogic voice and the second as that of the referential. The former is more self-conscious and will "not approach moral reflection as a reductive either/or operation" (29). The referential pedagogic voice adopts the standpoint of immutable truth and thereby stands in the realm of dogmatic moral authority. "Constitutive pedagogic voices," Krapp says, "appear in literature more frequently" (30) and, in chapters dedicated to the work of Mann, Camus, and Conrad, he locates strong examples of such voices. In the fifth and final chapter of the book, Krapp utilizes Dostoevsky's The Idiot as a solid expression of the effective use of the referential pedagogic voice. Through the disclosure of these two modes of moral pedagogy, Krapp articulates an approach that, while keeping literary ethical criticism from being bogged down in "what to think is right and/or wrong," allows for instruction on "how to foreground the historical and methodological contingencies that contribute to knowledge, including that which pertains to morality" (34).

Krapp discloses the various features of the constitutive pedagogic voice by initially looking at Thomas Mann's The Magic Mountain, wherein, despite the protagonist's exposure to competing moral visions, Hans Castorp nevertheless realizes ethical commitment for reasons Mann neither describes nor prescribes. In Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness, we hear the constitutive voice through its protagonist Marlow, who, while witnessing European values used to justify a brutal capitalist imperialism, maintains a painful relationship to those same values through his refusal to submit to cynical interpretations of empire. Krapp casts light on another feature of the constitutive pedagogical voice in his look at Albert Camus's The Plague. Here, through the protagonist Rieux, we see how the constitutive voice is conscious of the power of language as the arena within which ethical discourse can itself be exploited as a weapon in the maintenance of the dominating discourse of the status quo.

Krapp explores the referential pedagogic voice through the protagonist in Fyodor Dostoevsky's The Idiot. Prince Myshkin is a consistent example of this voice via his embrace of an absolute standard of morality that, unlike the constitutive voice, rests on a transcendent, atemporal foundation. Krapp concludes that the referential voice is less pedagogically effective than the constitutive because it is not sensitive to existential, temporal pressures. Dostoevsky's Myshkin nevertheless exemplifies the pedagogical power of this voice to the extent that the prince fails to convince and thereby recruit others into adopting his own ahistorical values. It is precisely this failure that teaches us "how not to investigate, develop, or pronounce upon moral concepts" (31).

This informative and articulate book is in some ways unsatisfying. The texts and authors of which it speaks are dissolved in a theoretical agenda that overlooks aesthetics, which, as a discipline, seems basically presupposed in a composite of strategic discourses on ethical voices. In short, the aesthetics of morality is not actually made clear. Given the power, terror, ambiguity, and tragedy we find in the novels Krapp considers, the significance of the risk, danger, and solitude that surrounds the ethical-whether constitutive or referential in voice-is untouched in an, at times, arid theorizing. Nevertheless, Krapp's book is well written and certainly strives to open up the possibility for a solid, theoretical approach to ethical literary criticism, and in this his is a genuine and judicious contribution to literary studies.