I quite enjoyed reading Zoë Heller‘s review of Janet Malcolm‘s Forty-One False Starts: Essays on Artists and Writers but I’m not inclined to join her in all the hosannas she sends Malcolm’s way. Consider for instance, the assessment she makes of a judgement offered by Malcolm:
In the absence of moral certainty, Malcolm suggests, our sympathies are assigned on what are essentially aesthetic grounds—on the basis of who has the more attractive language, or the more engaging style. This is a rather shocking proposition and it is meant to be.
I am perplexed by why Heller finds this such a ‘shocking proposition.’ Even if no one has ever expressed the sentiments underlying this claim using precisely the same sequence and composition of words that Malcolm has, it is underwritten by a host of observations about our sensibilities and judgments that almost tend to the commonplace.
For instance, the distinction between the formal structure of an argument and its rhetorical content, which goes back to Aristotle, has long made it clear humans are persuaded by much more than logic – no matter what the subject matter. This is why the trivium of old consisted of the study of grammar, logic and rhetoric. If not, the study of the first two might have been all that was required.
Or consider that in science, when empirically equivalent theories are candidates for adoption, the choice between them might be made on the basis of an assessment of their simplicity. (‘In the absence of empirical certainty, our theoretical sympathies are assigned on essentially aesthetic grounds, on the basis of which theory is phrased in the more readily comprehensible language, presented in the more engaging style or makes fewer claims upon our pre-theoretic credulity.’)
For yet another example, note that we prefer the company of, and extend our moral sympathies more readily to, those creatures that remind us the most strongly of ourselves. (‘Lacking certainty over which creatures have inner mental and emotional lives like ours, we are more likely to extend kindness to those that more closely externally resemble us than others.’)
For a mind conditioned by these sorts of reminders that the formal, the empirical, and the moral by themselves do not give us conclusive reasons to pick one option over another, Malcolm’s claim that aesthetic sentiments color our moral judgments will not come as much of a surprise. Indeed, the history of literature, and the complexity of the moral judgments recounted therein should also have primed us to not be taken unawares by such a notion.
Most fundamentally, Heller assumes that moral certainty is more common than it is. But more often than not, we are confronted with moral perplexity; we seek guidance in religion, in popular nostrums and bromides, in teachers, ‘role models’ and punchy slogans. In short, we attempt to solve the problems of moral judgment with a grab-bag of shortcuts, tricks, and satisficing solutions. The aesthetic dimension of a particular choice cannot but have a prominent role in our final selection.
Malcolm’s keen eye has merely pointed out the existence of such a desideratum in a very particular situation.