Discussing the value of a work of art can lead to many debates. Despite the difficulties with Kant’s discussion of
artistic value I agree with him that this is partly determined by the pleasure we drive from it. This pleasure cannot be
moral, he argues, neither can it be sensual. Kant distinguishes between three kinds of pleasures: the pleasure we get
through doing the right thing, i.e. “moral pleasure,” the pleasure of eating and having sex, i.e. “sensual pleasure,”
and what he calls “aesthetic pleasure.” Aesthetic pleasure, Kant argues, unlike the other two kinds, is totally
disinterested. By this he means, we do not enjoy a work of art because it satisfies an end for us (be it moral or
sensual) but we enjoy it as an end in itself. For a piece of writing to be valuable, it needs to please us not because
it is a moral piece of work, neither because it sexually excites us (for example), but because we can take disinterested
pleasure in it.
The question which arises here is what exactly is this ‘disinterested pleasure’? Kant argues that a poem, for example,
is valuable because it has an aesthetic idea which is expressed in a way that quickens our senses. By reading a good
work of art our mental faculties (by which he means the imagination and the understanding) are in harmony and perfection
with each other. Hence a valuable work of art has the capacity to make us feel more complete. This does not mean that a
work of art cannot disturb or puzzle us, but that in doing so it brings our mental faculties into a sort of togetherness
which may explain why we derive pleasure from tragedy. There are many objections to Kant’s aesthetic theory but I will
not go on to discuss these issues. I have merely introduced Kant’s theory because it is a good introduction to what I
want to talk about next. I will try to bring in some of the points that were raised by the writers during the symposium.
Two days ago, Mourid Barghouti talked about how, more than ever, the notion of shared space is threatened, about the
ambiguities of the meaning of place. He argued that for 69 Palestinian women giving birth at checkpoints and the
children who are born to grow up in a restricted space, their path to school forever divided by checkpoints, the notion
of place, bed, and road are far from ordinary. In reaction to his remarks, A B Yehoshua argued that Mourid’s story does
not deal with the complexity of the situation, and therefore is not fair - it talks about women giving birth at
checkpoints but does not mention why the checkpoints exist.
Yesterday, David Constantine spoke of the importance of translation and of the clarity of language. He argued that a man
who does not think clearly is oppressed. He provided some examples of slippery language, language which intentionally
uses certain words so that the meaning of the situation becomes ambiguous. He provided examples from the Abu Ghraib
prison, how ‘torture’ was renamed ‘intense interrogation’, and the relationship between the torturer and the victim was
called ‘prisoner-guard’ relationship, alongside others (e.g. Michael Howard’s discourse on refugee and asylum seekers).
David Solway argued that David Constantine should have provided examples from both sides of the conflict, for example
the language used by Islamic terrorists is as slippery and ambiguous as that used by the Americans.
In his talk yesterday, Austin Clarke noted that The Merchant of Venice was banned in his university in Canada because of
its racial dimensions. Just before Austin’s talk, AB Yehoshua pointed to the importance of morality in judging a work of
art; how we cannot ignore the moral aspect in works of literature. In the discussion that followed A B Yehoshua’s talk
and Gillian Beer’s response, it became apparent that for many writers the issue of the morality of a work of art does
enter into consideration.
Personally, I have divided feelings about this. On the one hand I think that whether or not a work of literature is
moral, it can be good or bad. If we decided to cleanse the literary scene of all literature that has some racist,
sexist, colonialist, and Orientalist aspects, we may need to demolish many great works of literature. On the other hand,
I am well aware of the power of literature to reemphasize negative stereotypes and to justify the imbalanced power
relationships in the world. Maybe the best thing is to be aware of the moral dimension of the work, without having to
abandon the work altogether. Gillian Beer pointed to the reader’s resistance to morally corrupt issues, which I think is
a key concept in this debate. But this in itself requires a mature, aware, and intelligent reader. For example, I read
‘Gone with the Wind’ when I was fourteen, living in Iran, and I only saw a love story in it. It was only when I was 19,
living in the UK, that I become aware of its racial dimensions.
Eva Hoffman pointed out that we should maybe use the word ‘seriousness’ instead of morality. By this she meant how a
work of literature should expand our perceptions of humanness - its value will lie in how seriously it attempts to do
this. This resonates with George Szirtes’s comment that good literature aims at the truth, and we find profound pleasure
in becoming aware that these human truths exist.
Similarly, David Constantine pointed out that he writes to fight back the current powers that mystify language, and
therefore manage to fill our world with untruths. In this sense, thinking clearly and writing clearly are essential to
reclaiming language and abiding by the truth.
The ambiguity still remains as to whose truth, but I hope that the reader’s intelligence and resistance, Gillian’s
concept, will help him/her to judge the work. Even though truth is not always a black and white matter and there are
times when listening to two sides of an argument, we can understand and sympathise with both. This may be a truth in
itself, to be forever open, to be curious and prepared for a work of art to ‘unsettle us’ (Constantine’s concept).
From my own perspective, I believe that as readers and writers we are forever concerned with truth and justice. I write
to defy the blind spots of truth and justice that exist within all of us. I write to challenge current norms, challenge
the people who decide whose cause is justified and whose is not, whose voice will be heard and who will be silent, whose
suffering is more important than the other. I write to tell my truth, the one that has been side-lined and silenced.
Only when we know the truth can we try to do the right thing.