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The Birth of the Novel and the Search for Happiness

Comp Lit Scholar Pursues Ethical Inquiry Into Enlightenment Culture and Philosophy

Jan. 31, 2013

book cover

Brian Michael Norton, assistant professor of English and comparative literature, dissects happiness in his first book, “Fiction and the Philosophy of Happiness: Ethical Inquiries in the Age of Enlightenment” (Bucknell University Press, 2012).

Writing the book, he said, “allowed me to bring together a number of my interests, interests I hadn’t originally seen as having much to do with each other: the history of the novel, Enlightenment thought, ancient ethics, narrative theory, theories of modernity.”

“Fiction and the Philosophy of Happiness” took shape as Norton noticed the connections.

“The Enlightenment, for example, is typically understood as validating the earthly pursuit of happiness,” he said. “At the same historical moment, the novel emerged as a new genre, one less interested in heroic exploits than in the humble search for personal fulfillment. As my research progressed, I became increasingly convinced that the period’s conception of ‘happiness’ had roots in the moral philosophy of ancient Greece. At that point, my questions became fairly straightforward: To what extent did eighteenth-century happiness retain its classical character? What was new or specifically ‘modern’ about it? And, above all, how did the form of the novel provide new ways of thinking about this ancient ethical problem?”

His book is “an excellent comparatist study of changing ideas of happiness in both philosophy and the novel,” according to Adam Potkay, William R. Kenan professor of humanities at the College of William and Mary in Virginia. “Norton reveals a productive tension in the eighteenth century between happiness understood as the categorical ‘good life’ — the virtuous life that is right for all rational agents — and happiness conceived as ‘being pleased with one’s life’ in subjective and infinitely various ways.”

In the last two decades, Norton noted, “happiness has become a hot topic in psychology and economics.”

But humanists, especially literary scholars, remain suspicious of happiness, he added. “I think they associate it with greeting cards, or Madison Avenue, or self-help books. They take it to be unserious. And yet happiness remains for us, as it was for Aristotle, the goal by which we orient all of our other goals. Ask a group of people what they want out of life, and most of them will tell you they want to be happy. To me, there is nothing trivial about this.”

Norton, who joined Cal State Fullerton’s faculty in 2006, earned his Ph.D. in comparative literature from New York University, and an M.A. in liberal studies and B.A. in writing literature and the arts from New School for Social Research. He teaches courses on English literature and writing. His research interests include eighteenth-century English and comparative literature, the Enlightenment, ethics, Laurence Sterne and the novel. He will be presenting “The Aesthetics of Everyday Life” at the American Society for Eighteenth Century Studies annual meeting in Cleveland, in April and “Sterne, Description and the Value of Trivial Things” at Tercentenary Laurence Sterne Conference in July in London.

Norton said his research informs his teaching. “I try to get students to join me in grappling with the broad, open-ended questions that continue to drive my research,” he said. “What is the ethical work of literature? What can literary texts reveal to us about our values and ideals? How can they help us think about the challenges of living a good life in the modern world?  Ultimately, I want my students to take responsibility for their own readings of these texts and their own ways of understanding the ethical problems they engage.”

An Excerpt from “Fiction and the Philosophy of Happiness”:

The eighteenth century witnessed an explosion of interest in happiness, as both a subject of inquiry and a personal life goal. Lester Crocker once observed a “universal, omnipresent preoccupation” with the subject, which more than one historian has described in terms of an obsession.” Not since antiquity had so much attention been devoted to the question. Inquiries into the nature and means of attaining happiness were conducted throughout print culture, crossing disciplinary and genetic lines, and published in a wide variety of forms. With titles such as An Enquiry after Happiness, An Essay on Happiness and Système du vrai bonheur, these works could run to three and four volumes and go through as many as fourteen reprints. The appetite for this literature was tremendous. Robert Mauzi estimates that in France alone some fifty treatises on happiness were published during the eighteenth century, and if we include letters, epistles, sermons, poems, and the myriad other writings on happiness produced on both sides of the Channel, the figure is much larger. So abundant was this literature that by the latter half of the century one of these authors worried that his reader might be “impatient to know … what can be added to the many treatises, ancient and modern, that have been wrote upon it.” But no one doubted the universal appeal of the subject. As Shaftesbury put it: “If Philosophy be, as we take, the study of happiness, must not everyone … philosophize?”

It is in this context that what we now call the “novel” emerged as a new genre and began to consolidate a poetic of its own, however loosely and provisionally we may understand that latter. And novels, to be sure, showed a deep interest in the question of happiness. Robinson Crusoe’s adventures begin when he disregards his father’s advice to stay put in the “upper Station of Low Life,” which experience had taught him is “the most suited to human Happiness.” Pamela shows a similar difficulty in heeding his father’s warnings about Mr B., even though her “everlasting Happiness in this World and the next” is at stake. Emma Courtney, too, to cite an example that will be explored more fully in a later chapter, is admonished by her aunt to check her “ardent and impetuous sensations,” because they “fill me with apprehension for the virtue, for the happiness of my child.” Such examples could be enumerated at great length. Indeed, in some sense every novel unfolds against the backdrop of a possible happiness, with its characters eagerly seeking their own well-being. One of the byproducts of the novel’s rejection of traditional plots and historical actors, which scholars from Watt to Hunter and Richetti have seen as central to the new form, is that its narratives focus instead on the more prosaic struggles of everyday life. It is tempting to even think of this as definitional of the genre: whereas epic and romance trade in the heroic exploits of great figures, novels dramatize the search of ordinary individuals for personal fulfillment.

By studying fiction’s participation in eighteenth-century inquiries after happiness, this book views the novel as vital, if often overlooked, contribution to Enlightenment ethics. To see the novel in this way is to rethink our assumptions about the kind of ethical work the novel performed. The question is not whether the novel championed traditional moral values, but rather: In what ways did novels augment the culture’s ability to imagine, conceptualize, and explore ethical problems? Novels, in this view, are not simple mouthpieces for established moral norms, but complex instruments for ethical reflection. Second, rather than restriction this investigation to narrow questions of duty and obligation, this study examines the more open-ended project of living well or flourishing, what James Harris and his friend Henry Fielding called the “art of life.” By shifting these terms of inquiry, this book highlights the centrality of ethics in the development of the eighteenth-century novel, and it makes an implicit argument that ethics is at least as significant as epistemology to its study.

At the same time, this book presents a challenge to the widely accepted view that the Enlightenment bequeathed to modernity an “impoverished” view of moral selfhood, a ghostly conception of ethical agency that seems to deny both the fact that individuals have unique bodies, histories, and emotions and that they live and act in communities among other human beings. The present study has been tremendously influenced by communitarian, feminist, and related critiques of this “unencumbered self,” especially in the work of Alasdair MacIntyre, Charles Taylor, Seyla Benhabib, and Marilyn Friedman. But, as my reading of philosophical fiction demonstrates, eighteenth century thinkers could be as critical of “disembodied” and “disembedded” forms of theorizing as any communitarian of our own day. And when philosophers like Rorty and Nussbaum look to novels for a richer and more comprehensive examination of the good life, they are not turning away from the Enlightenment but towards one of its most enduring ethical inventions.

Reprinted with permission from  “Fiction and the Philosophy of Happiness,” by Brian Michael Norton, published by Bucknell University Press. Copyright © 2012 by Brian Michael Norton. All rights reserved.

By: Mimi Ko Cruz, 657-278-7586

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