Geertz, Trilling and Fussell on the Transformation of the Moral Imagination

In ‘Found in Translation: Social History of Moral Imagination’, (from Local Knowledge: Essays in Interpretive Anthropology, Basic Books, New York, 1983, pp 44-45), Clifford Geertz writes,

Whatever use the imagination productions of other peoples–predecessors, ancestors, or distant cousins–can have for our moral lives, then, it cannot be to simplify them. The image of the past (or the primitive, or the classic, or the exotic) as a source of material wisdom, a prosthetic corrective for a damaged spiritual life–an image that has governed a great deal of humanist thought and education–is mischievous because it leads us to expect our uncertainties will be reduced by access to thought worlds constructed along lines alternative to our own, when in fact they will be multiplied….the growth in range a powerful sensibility gains from an encounter with another one, as powerful or more, comes only at the expense of its inward ease.

Geertz wrote this in response to not just anthropological theorizing and speculation, both amateur and professional–about ‘other peoples’–but to the worries expressed by Lionel Trilling about ‘the basic assumption of humanistic literary pedagogy’  (in ”Why We Read Jane Austen’ Times Literary Supplement, 5 March 1976, pp 250-252) that no matter how great the distance in place, period and sensibility between us and those that inhabit the pages of literature, the author could  bring us closer, illuminate our lives, and make us aware of who we ‘already were.’ Trilling’s discomfort with this assumption arose from his feeling–as Geertz notes–that

[T]he significant works of the human imagination…speak with equal power to the consoling piety that we are all alike to one another and to the worrying suspicion that we are not.

So the ‘social history of the moral imagination’ is a task of considerable hermeneutic difficulty, one that must confront the difficulties it poses in the ‘instabilities’ it creates, all in an effort to make them relevant to the ‘social frame’ we inhabit.

The working example of such an engagement that Geertz provides is the recently departed Paul Fussell‘s The Great War and Modern Memory, which took on the archaic literary frameworks that were first utilized in perceiving and recollecting the First World War, and then later, were extensively reconfigured to amend–and give shape to–the modern imagination. Fussell’s ambitious conclusion was that the predominance of the ‘ironic’ in the modern was a painful reaction to the Great War, that what we call the ‘modern understanding’  is a sensibility that had found pre-existing literary, poetic and imaginative resources inadequate to do justice to the physical and emotional realities of the Great War’s torn and foul landscapes, soaked by the blood of millions of young men, sent to their deaths by incompetent war pigs.  This imagination was ‘shattered into thousand pieces of sour irony’ by this encounter; the modern imagination was the result of putting these pieces back together, over an extended period of time, painfully and slowly, by those who were present, and those who were not.

Geertz uses this history to suggest that,

[T]his is how anything imaginational grows in our minds, is transformed, socially transformed, from something we merely know to exist or have existed, somewhere or the other, to something which is properly ours, a working force in our common consciousness.

In remembering Paul Fussell, we should thank him for having documented such a transformation as vividly and powerfully as he did.

Note: I intend to write a few more notes here in response to Geertz’s collection.

2 comments on “Geertz, Trilling and Fussell on the Transformation of the Moral Imagination

  1. […] promised in an earlier post on Clifford Geertz, I will be posting a few reactions here to his essays in Local […]

  2. […] Further Essays in Interpretive Anthropology, Basic Books, New York, 1983; earlier notes appear here and […]

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