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Ethics and Literature

09.11.2011

Hanna Mäkelä – Ethics and Literature: A Short History of Evil in American Culture

In The Death of Satan: How Americans Have Lost the Sense of Evil (1995), Andrew Delbanco traces the erosion of categorical morality in US history, from Puritanism to Postmodernism. Over the course of time, the ‘Pilgrim’ religiosity of the first settlers was succeeded by eighteenth-century Enlightenment ideas, the traumatic disillusionment of the American Civil War, and capitalism’s ethical pragmatism. What persevered under these ideological shifts, albeit under constant attack, is “the Augustinian tradition” of American literature, as evident in the work of such luminaries as Hawthorne, Melville, and James, as well as in that of their more contemporary heirs. It is the incorruptible core of this literary canon that serves as a reminder of what is being lost in the current “culture of irony”, namely some tangible concept of goodness—and evil.

This lecture will sketch American literary and cultural history in very broad strokes, with an emphasis on thematic concerns. The students are encouraged to think about whether the moral and cultural motifs touched upon are specifically ‘American’, or if they are merely continuous with ‘Old World’ European issues, and what the possible contrasts or syntheses are between the two ‘worlds’. Also, what is the relationship between ethics and literature on a more general level?

Hanna Mäkelä (b. 1981) is a doctoral candidate of comparative literature at the University of Helsinki in Finland, from which she received her MA degree in 2006, and a member of two doctoral programmes, one of which is based at Justus Liebig University Giessen (The European PhD Network “Literary and Cultural Studies”, cycle 2008-2010). At the moment, she is pursuing a PhD within The Finnish Doctoral Programme for Literary Studies. Her dissertation-in-progress, “Narrated Selves and Others: A Study of Mimetic Desire in Contemporary British and American Fiction”, employs Girard’s mimetic theory in the analysis of the relationships between characters in five Anglophone novels published in the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries.