The Point Podcast

Selected Essays | Garth Greenwell on Martha Nussbaum

October 31, 2023 The Point Magazine Season 1 Episode 14
Selected Essays | Garth Greenwell on Martha Nussbaum
The Point Podcast
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The Point Podcast
Selected Essays | Garth Greenwell on Martha Nussbaum
Oct 31, 2023 Season 1 Episode 14
The Point Magazine

On this episode of “Selected Essays,” Jess and Zach talk with Garth Greenwell about his essay “A Moral Education: In Praise of Filth,” which was published in The Yale Review in 2023 and Martha Nussbaum’s "Flawed Crystals: James's The Golden Bowl and Literature as Moral Philosophy," which originally appeared in the journal New Literary History in 1983 and was later collected in her book Love's Knowledge.

Show Notes Transcript

On this episode of “Selected Essays,” Jess and Zach talk with Garth Greenwell about his essay “A Moral Education: In Praise of Filth,” which was published in The Yale Review in 2023 and Martha Nussbaum’s "Flawed Crystals: James's The Golden Bowl and Literature as Moral Philosophy," which originally appeared in the journal New Literary History in 1983 and was later collected in her book Love's Knowledge.

Jessica Swoboda  00:05

Hey everyone, welcome to Selected Essays, a podcast series from The Point magazine about essays you should read the probably haven't. Each episode we'll be talking with writers about an essay that's influenced one of their own. My name is Jess Swoboda and I'm here with my co host Zach Fine. 


Zach Fine  00:23

Hey, thanks for joining us. This week we have Garth Greenwell on the show. Garth is a celebrated American novelist, poet, literary critic and educator. His stories and criticism have appeared in the Paris Review, A Public Space, The New Yorker, the Atlantic and elsewhere. His novels include What Belongs to You and Cleanness. We spoke with Garth about Martha Nussbaum's essay, "Flawed Crystals: James's The Golden Bowl and Literature as Moral Philosophy," which originally appeared in the journal New Literary History in 1983, was later collected in her book Love's Knowledge. We also talked with Garth about his essay "A Moral Education: In praise of filth," which was published earlier this year in the Yale Review. 


Jessica Swoboda  01:02

We hope you'll enjoy this episode and subscribe wherever you get your podcasts. If you have questions, comments, or anything else, send an email to selected We'd love to hear from you.


Zach Fine  01:28

Hi, Garth, thanks so much for joining us on this episode of Selected Essays. 


Garth Greenwell  01:34

Oh, thanks so much for having me. Happy to be here.


Zach Fine  01:37

Can you tell us a little bit about Martha Nussbaum before we get into her essay?


Garth Greenwell  01:42

Sure, um, I'm kind of not smart enough to really talk about her career, which has been just incredibly prodigious and productive. And she writes about so many things that I don't know anything about. But she is a philosopher, and started her career writing about Greek and Roman ethics and published two really landmark books that everyone I know really respects really highly. She's been sort of other parts of her career have been really controversial. But these two books, The Fragility of Goodness, and The Therapy of Desire, everyone seems to agree are really, really solid. And then she's also worked on the relationship between sort of moral philosophy and the other arts. And then she's moved into over the course of her career, she's written about more sort of public topics, like she was an advocate for marriage equality very early on in those debates. Her most recent work has been about how we treat animals, I think. And then I saw that I took a look at her University of Chicago faculty page, and she's like teaching the wildest classes, like there's a class on like Indian law. And then there's a class on Greek ethics. And then there's a class on opera that she's teaching. She's just like a force of nature. And I think her next book, maybe, from what I saw, just Googling her in her next book is a book about Benjamin Britten's war, Requiem, which is one of my very favorite things. So she's just this kind of astonishing mind. And has been sort of all over the map for a long time. And yet, you know, that can sort of seem sort of dilettante ish, but it's really not. She's sort of extraordinarily rigorous in her thinking, across all of these fields. Again, I've only read a tiny fraction of what she's written. But it just always seems to me sort of impressive and responsible in a way I hugely admire.


Zach Fine  03:40

When we were emailing a little bit before the episode and thinking about possible essays to discuss, you landed on Nussbaum's ""Flawed Crystals: James's The Golden Bowl and Literature as Moral Philosophy." Can you tell us why you chose this essay in particular?


Garth Greenwell  03:55

Well, I think part of it was that I wanted an excuse to reread the Golden Bowl, which is one of my favorite novels in the world. And I think like one of the great accomplishments of human culture. Um, and then, you know, I first encountered this essay pretty early on, like, I think, when I was in my very early 20s, and was sort of wrestling around like, what is the relationship between art making, and also just like, centering one's life on art, like as someone who makes art but also as someone who teaches and as someone who thinks about and sort of, I used to talk about my job when I was a PhD student, I say, my job is reading slowly. So like, if that's what your life is centered on, then like, what is the relationship between that and something that we might think of as sort of the moral life or sort of moral questions? And on one hand, like I have an allergy to moralistic approaches to art, or to what seemed to me like too simplistic attempts to make our are answerable to sort of moral precepts that precede art. At the other at the same time, I also sort of wasn't happy with what then in sort of the what, like, late 90s was a sort of prevailing ethos or sort of arts for art for art's sake, which I sort of felt like, well, no, that doesn't seem quite right. Either, like art seems like it's part and parcel of these other things that we care about. And you know, when one wants to feel when one is making art, or engaging with art, that one is doing that with one's whole person, which means with the parts of oneself that care about moral and ethical relationships with other people and moral responsibilities in the world. And so I was just reading a bunch of stuff like that. And, you know, Nussbaum I think approaches those questions in a way that just felt deeply sort of humane to me, and like really alive both to the claims of art, and to a kind of rigorous sense of what asking moral questions should look like.


Jessica Swoboda  06:08

So now seems like a good time to turn to the first passage of the essay. Garth, can you read it aloud for us, please?


Garth Greenwell  06:15

Yeah, sure. So this is just the first paragraph, I'm going to skip, it opens with two epigraphs. So I'm going to skip those. And so it goes like this, she wants this woman to have a flawless life. She says to her good friend family asking him, I want a happiness without a hole in it big enough for you to poke in your finger, the golden bowl as it was to have been the bowl with all our happiness in it the bowl without the crack, signaling in this way to us who know the properties of this remarkable flawed object, that she wishes her life to be unlikable, a pure and perfect crystal completely without crack or seem both precious and safely.


Jessica Swoboda  07:00

So right from the beginning, she's invoking the collective us and the collective we. What are the effects of doing this in an essay, but especially in one that has to do with the moral imagination? 


Garth Greenwell  07:14

Well, that's an interesting question. You know, and I don't even know that if that's a question that I asked myself, you know, I think we're, we're very suspicious of that now. But it was so much just the sort of style of academic discourse back in the day. And so when I encountered it, that was just how one spoke. I guess I think, you know, on one hand, like, it's not something that I'm, I think in like my own writing, I don't think I do that very often, in part because I'm outside of the academy and outside of particular disciplines. And so I don't feel that I'm sort of speaking with the authority of sort of institutions behind me institutional backing. On the other hand, I do think, you know, it makes an important claim from the outset, and it sort of claims a certain authority, and says that, you know, however controversial the claims that she's going to make, and I think she is going to make some quite controversial claims, that they're not reducible to just a kind of singular personal predilection or sort of quirky idea, but that instead, she is going to make a claim that the argument she will make is an argument that is justifiable from within this tradition. So I guess that's how I would read that first person.


Zach Fine  08:36

Can you talk a little bit about the form of the essay, I think often when we, at least in what I've read of Nussbaum or about Nussbaum, we often don't think about Nussbaum as a stylist, necessarily. But as someone who's very attentive to style, I'd be curious, even just starting with the opening paragraph, the first sentence even "she wants, this woman, to have a flawless life" What strikes you about Nussbaum as a as a stylist? Well,


Garth Greenwell  09:02

I mean, so that's a very unacademic way to write that sentence, you know, not even academic. It's a sort of very unslick way, like if, you know, any copy editor at the New Yorker would strike that. And then just would just say, "this woman wants to have a flawless life." It's a Jamesian opening to sort of have that unanchored pronoun, and then only supply the antecedent after. So I think it's already saying, I care about style. You know, late in the essay, she has some very beautiful things to say about the moral life as an adventurer, and James is late style with all of its difficulty as being adequate to that adventure. Well, already in this first sentence, it seems clear that she's interested in sentence making as mapping out some kind of adventure. Um, you know, and one of the things I like about this essay, I mean, this is like a really hardcore academic nerdy essay and like I, I really liked that about this essay. But I do think Martha Nussbaum is a stylist. And I think I mean, she is an academic. And you know, there's no getting away from the fact that she writes in a kind of academic way, with a kind of armature around the prose, that like, in my own prose, you know, one of the reasons I fled the academy was that I didn't want to write like that. But I think in that sort of tradition, or style, um, I think she does show a lot of stylistic flair. And really, I think she has a quite James Ian writer, I mean, she likes and almost kind of Baroque syntax, and she also likes extravagant, rhetorical constructions. So her sentences are often like, quite beautifully, but I can imagine some readers thinking quite fussily waited and sort of there's a lot of parallel constructions, etc. I don't know, I really dig all that.


Jessica Swoboda  10:56

In terms of the structure of the essay, it's also interesting in that she begins with her reading of the novel, and then turns to the more theoretical discourse, whereas in a lot of academic criticism, it's the reverse where you give your theory and then the text, as the evidence for that theory. Is this her way of showing how literature opens up and contributes to the philosophical? What's the purpose of this inversion of what we typically see in literary criticism?


Garth Greenwell  11:26

Yeah, I mean, I think she, she's even quite explicit about that. And I think like you so in the the essay, as it's collected in this very wonderful book loves knowledge, which is a collection of her essays on philosophy and literature. I think in the end note, she says that this was the first essay of this project that was written, and that I think she said something like, it's no accident, that it emerged from a particular novel, that I really love. So she acknowledges that the novel is really the starting point. And that's one of the things that I think is, you know, remarkable about this essay. So I love this essay, because it combines like very granular, nerdy close reading, and kind of obsessed close reading, which is the kind of close reading that James demands with the sort of big ideas. But, you know, often when that happens, and when when literary criticism does that, one feels that sort of, well, in a way that resonates with Martha Nussbaum is our argument in this essay that like, the particularities of the literary texts are kind of rounded off to suit the larger argument that sort of, you know, these big ideas are sort of stamped on to the text and the text is made to accommodate them. I never feel that here, I actually feel that Nussbaum is always really responsive to the text and like, kind of wonderfully explicit about the ways in which the texts, resists, heard larger arguments and is willing to sort of turn those arguments in response to the text. And then the other thing that I love about this, like often sort of big ideas, literary criticism, and especially I guess, philosophical literary critic, like when philosophers read novels, it often feels to me like extractive like there is like some sort of idea or argument that they want to pull out of the text and sort of put in a philosophical context. Martha Nussbaum like, in a way that I'm not sure I can think of many other essays that do this. Like, she doesn't extract anything she sort of she wants to make the claim, the big argument of the essay is that Henry James's novel is a major work of moral philosophy. And then that there are certain kinds of moral philosophy that can only be done within the novel or within the literary. And she, so as she makes this case, that this book is moral philosophy. It never stops being a novel. You know, she shows how the thinking that it's doing the philosophizing that it's doing, it does that philosophy, with the resources of the literary in patterns of imagery in patterns of syntax, in questions of point of view. And so that's, I mean, it really is. I mean, so far as I know, Martha Nussbaum is not a fiction writer, but it really is, you know, someone who is engaging with the text as someone very much alive to the writing of fiction to the things out of which fiction is written.


Jessica Swoboda  14:45

So do you buy her reading of the novel?


Garth Greenwell  14:48

I'm mostly do so I mean, I think this book is really to use one of James's favorite words, I think this book is abysmal, like in the sense of it sort of contains abysses. Um, every time I read it, it feels like a different book to me, and really always a much deeper and more beautiful book like reading it now, when I am 10 years into a pretty marriage like relationship, it seems so wise to me about how mysterious couples are. And like how much knowledge and lack of knowledge there is in a couple like that. Reading it just in the past, like month or so that just kind of blew my mind that sort of James, who also was a bachelor, his was so wise about that. So, you know, in some sense, I don't think any, even and in this book, I think she devotes at least three essays to the Golden Bowl. And these are big essays. I mean, even that is not going to get anywhere near sort of an adequate account of the book. But I think I basically do by her account, or as as one of the things that are happening is she's She focuses on one of the characters. I mean, basically, her argument is that well, should I say just a little bit about what the golden bulls about


Zach Fine  16:17

that would that actually be very great. Yeah, we really great. Yeah. So


Garth Greenwell  16:20

so this is a novel that has reputation. So it's, it's one of James I think it's James's last, the last novel he completed. So it's part of his sort of late style, which everyone's really scared of, and like, this book has this reputation of being this sort of colossally difficult book. And, I mean, I don't mean to say that it's not that, but it's also like the frothiest soap opera, ever. So like, it focuses on Adam river who's this like American millionaire industrialist who's now devoted himself to collecting art to make a museum for his hometown back in America, which I think is Isn't it called like American city or something, this town that's sort of languishing in the American wilderness without a museum and he's gonna give it a museum but he's been in Europe for a long time. And his traveling companion is his daughter, Maggie forever. And they have this like, incredibly intense father daughter bond, like, it's probably a little questionable and creepy, but also very beautiful, like how much they love each other. Maggie marries a penulis hypers, sort of civilized Italian prince named Emery ago. And when she marries him, becomes worried that basically that like she's failing her obligations to her father, and that her father is sort of lonely that she's injured her father by breaking this father daughter bond. And so she sets him up her father up with her friend from her school days, there's a woman named Charlotte, who's American, but who has a kind of European sophistication. The division between America and Europe is very important. Americans are innocent and naive. And Europeans are sort of depth lessly guileful. And Charlotte is on the sort a guile side of that. Maggie sets this up, she sort of sets up her father and her childhood friend, without knowing and this is the soap opera II part. This is so good and so like implausible in the way of telenovelas that Charlotte and Amerigo, unbeknownst to Maggie had had a previous romance that couldn't go anywhere, because they were both core is dirt. So we have this like powder keg, where these two people who are in love are brought into this sort of now for some. And the thing is, even after her marriage, Maggie and her father keep they're sort of pre marital close. So like they want to spend all their time together just like they've always done. And so they tell Emery go and Charlotte to sort of go off and do their public obligations. So they're going off to balls, they're going off to parties and dinners, while Adam and Maggie stay at home. So basically, they're just throwing them together. Slowly Maggie, who is very innocent and naive and thinks no one could ever tell a lie becomes aware of the fact that Enrico and Charlotte are having an affair. And then the second half of the novel, Maggie sort of lies and cheats, and in a very ruthless way, extracts her husband from Charlotte's grip, while never letting anyone know how much she knows. And like not letting her father know what's going on. Not letting Charlotte know she knows what's going on. So it's like this incredible drama where all of this melodrama is happening, but nobody can talk about it. So it's just it's, it's just it's an amazing, it's incredible. It's so much fun. It's such a soap opera.


Zach Fine  19:50

So I was wondering if we could talk about to kind of dive into some of the language in the essay. So at the there's a halfway point where it's thinks on page 134, where she breaks to the second half of the novel and talks about Maggie's initiation into knowledge for fallen world. And there's a phrase she uses in the in the second paragraph there if you use the phrase moral emotions, she says that Nussbaum Nussbaum says that Maggie comes to see the value of persons precisely for the pain and opposition they pose. And that this is what offers her access to certain moral emotions. I was wondering if you could help me kind of gloss that about what she means by moral motions, and whether the novel has a particular kind of access to those that maybe philosophy doesn't, or how you understand that that phrase?


Garth Greenwell  20:39

Well, that's so interesting. And it's that's such an interesting paragraph because that whole paragraph she's telling us what she's not going to talk about. So like, she sort of says it would be really worthwhile to talk about this, this this and one of those things is how sort of leaving she she talks about this father daughter, sort of perfect, harmonious world that Maggie and Adam river have, she talks about as the Garden of Eden. And so she says, The One of the things that would be worthwhile to talk about that she's not going to talk about is the way in which the departure from Eton brings with it the possibility of certain moral emotions which were unknown in that garden. Among them shame, jealousy, tenderness and respect. I agree that that's super suggestive. I mean, one of the things that points to is that one question one might have reading this novel, and this is also true. I mean, this is true of nice bounce reading of it. But I do think it's fair to say that this is in James. So Nussbaum sort of takes for granted, a kind of, I guess, finally, probably basically, Freudian idea of sort of maturation, that like there is a way that she takes for granted the idea that of course, Maggie should mature from being the sort of dutiful unsex daughter to being like a full, sexy, mature woman, or princess as she actually becomes. And I mean, I think that it's fair to say that that is in James, it's, it's certainly fair to say that Nussbaum does not actually make an argument for that. And so like, one thing might or I guess if she does she does it here in this kind of things I'm not going to talk about because one question one might have is like, actually, Maggie and Adam were great. Like, they were really happy. You know, they like everything was perfect. So like, Why leave the garden of eat? Like, I mean, if that's an option to just sort of hang out? Why would you leave that? Or like, why couldn't one imagine, you know, a kind of, for some of them, you know, like, you can imagine this sort of 2020s, queer version of this novel, where like, they're just like, hey, we're in like, what? Throuple? I don't know what the number what the word for like, for person, 


Zach Fine  22:49

a polycule. a polycule. Cool.


Garth Greenwell  22:52

We're in a polycule. And like, actually, we can't like there is a way in which you can imagine, is this just a cultural failure of imagination, to actually think that oh, one cannot be the perfectly dutiful devoted daughter and the perfectly sort of devoted sexy wife at the same time? I think it's fair for Nussbaum not to argue that because I think James takes that for granted. But he or she does sort of say, well, actually, no, there's important stuff that you only get when you sort of let go of innocence. And accept that we live in what Nussbaum will call a fallen world where values come into conflict. And we're actually, if you insist, and this is a I mean, it's kind of a beautiful argument, like if you insist, on a sense of your own moral status as sort of perfectly harmonizing your various commitments. What that actually means is that you're not seeing any of your individual commitments fully. So in fact, like, Maggie has achieved what seems like this harmony by demoting her marriage by basically sort of, you know, just not giving her relationship with her husband. All of the commitment that that demands. And that's what I'm here suggests, and she is losing certain kinds of experiences by not doing that, like there is a kind of knowledge that is only available if she leaves the garden. I don't have anything smarter to say about moral emotions, except that that much of nice bounce work has been about the sort of moral status of emotions and insistence that emotions do have a place in moral reasoning. I have complicated feelings about that. So I mean, I don't know. i That's great. That's great.


Jessica Swoboda  24:49

Can you take us to the passage you selected? PAGE 141?


Garth Greenwell  24:53

Yeah, so this is late in the essay. So this is d into sort of the the essays in two big parts. And the first part is you said is the sort of nerdy reading of the Golden bolt and the second part presents some of these bigger ideas. So this paragraph goes like this. It is a further fact about the views of this text, that there are views very seldom put forward and seriously examined in works of moral philosophy. And this, I claim is no accident, any view of deliberation that holds that it is first and foremost a matter of intuitive perception and improvisatory response, where a fixed antecedent ordering or ranking among values is to be taken as a sign of immaturity, rather than of excellence. Any view that holds that it is the job of the adult agent to approach a complex situation responsibly, with a keen vision and alert feelings prepared if need be to alter his or her prime affaccia conception of the good in the light of the new experience is likely to clash with certain classical aims and assertions of moral philosophy, which has usually claimed to make progress on our behalf precisely by extricating us from this bewilderment in the face of the present moment. And by setting us up in a watertight system of rules, or a watertight procedure of calculation, which will be able to settle troublesome cases in effect before the fan. philosophers who have defended the primacy of intuitive perception are few. And when they have appeared, they have naturally also concluded, as does, for example, Aristotle, that moral theory cannot be a form of scientific knowledge that orders the matter of the practical into an elegant antecedent system. And they have also naturally turned to works of literature, as Aristotle turns to tragic drama, for illumination concerning practical excellence. In fact, Aristotle makes it very clear that his own writing provides at most a sketch or outline of the good life, whose content must be given by experience, and whose central claims can be clarified only by appeal to life into works.


Jessica Swoboda  27:16

There's a lot to unpack here, but why don't we start with why did you bring our attention to this passage.


Garth Greenwell  27:24

So I really love this idea of what moral reasoning is. And this is one of the big claims of the essay. And again, it's a claim that she makes from the novel and using the material of the novel show. So she remarks on how James as the novel progresses, and as Maggie's education progresses, she changes from being someone who has a sense that like, being a good moral agent is following rules. And especially like being obedient to one's father dutiful, towards one father, James starts to use this sort of image repertoire from theater, and to refer to Maggie as an actress and refer to her as being like an actress who has to be improvise in response to what the other actors in the drama are doing. So this new sense that what it means to be a moral agent, is not to have a set of rules about how one should act in any given situation. But instead to be there's a phrase that James uses in an essay on Earth star in his preface to princess castle masama, which is finely aware and richly responsible, that one has to perceive a situation and then act in a kind of responsive improvisatory way. And that as a view of what moral engagement means is just hugely attractive to me. It feels deeply humane. It's sort of I mean, one of the things that I hate about, especially maybe the way that I think a lot of people talk about the relationship between morality and literature now is that it is sort of deeply moralistic, and that there is this sense that there are certain sorts of moral principles we all agree on. And the moral rectitude of a text or of a person can be determined by like how well they follow those precepts. And that is just to me, I mean, I actually think that that's kind of the opposite of what genuine moral relation is because it suggests that what moral relation largely consists of is judging each other and sort of passing verdicts on each other. And instead, this sense that like we are all in this incredibly difficult situation and we have to be collaborative with one another in the way that improvising actors or musicians show us the image of jazz, like improvising actors or musicians collaborate with one another, in order to help each other out. And that's also, I'm sorry, getting excited about James. I love one of the things I love about this novel, is that, you know, this is a book about adultery. Like Maggie realizes that these people, her best friend, her husband, the central people in her life, who she has trusted to care for her, are betraying both her and her beloved father, like, as James himself will say, 99 people out of 100 would erupt in rage, expel them, divorce them disgrace them. Maggie doesn't do that. mean, she responds with this sort of extraordinary sympathy with these are two people she loves. And she also realizes the ways in which she herself has failed of her obligations to them. And so her determination becomes not punitive. Not even, you know, making sure that everybody knows how wrong she is, and how in the right shields. But instead, it's how do we get out of this with everybody's dignity and intact? And how do we get out of this with sociality intact? Like, I don't want either of these marriages to be destroyed. And so that, like, collaborative, or we might say, Today's sort of relative approach to having been wronged. I think he's just extraordinarily beautifully and compellingly and convincingly dramatized in the novel. And in this paragraph, I think Nussbaum points to sort of some of the ways that that's done.


Jessica Swoboda  31:50

You're providing this interesting perspective on to Nussbaum's writing, to the extent that she's often criticized by literary scholars for reducing literature to philosophy, or because of her analytical subjects, either classical texts or only 19th, or sometimes 20th century novels to pursue these questions. But it seems like you're suggesting that No, her account of morality and her reading of this novel should can help us to counter the trend and criticism and writing at the moment to kind of impose this very strict moral structure onto the text. And so I'm wondering, then, should literary scholars take Nussbaum more seriously? Or is the criticism against her warranted in any way?


Garth Greenwell  32:38

Yeah, I mean, you know, again, so like, I'm not engaging with Martha Nussbaum's sort of work as a whole. And so I can't really address it. I think those criticisms addressed to this essay, I feel pretty strongly that those are not being responsive to the essay itself. And this essay does seem to me kind of an ideal of how one can read literature as doing philosophy in a way that allows literature to remain literature. So yeah, I do I do think this is I mean, like, I don't want to live in a world where everyone writes criticism the same way. But like, this is a sort of a model of philosophical engagement with literature that I find hugely attractive and fruitful and sort of exciting, it seems to me full of promise.


Jessica Swoboda  33:34

Right? And it's yeah, you mentioned this at the start, but she really does put the literary object at the center, when I often think that in conversations, like the ones she is raising, the literary object can be pushed to the margin in favor of the theoretical conversation at stake. And so in some ways, she's showing literary critics how to engage in a good philosophical argument about a work of literature. And I find that really valuable.


Garth Greenwell  34:01

Yeah, I really feel that too. Another thing, you know, this is so much I mean, so the book is called loves knowledge. I mean, this essay is so much written out of just a kind of extraordinary love for James's work. And there's something I find really attractive about that too, you know, there is a certain species and this was really in the ascendant when I was a PhD student back in the day, and I think it's still kind of in the ascendant, where, you know, there's this attitude of sort of knowingness to the work of art, an attitude of superiority to the work of art, that one has a sense that like, one wants to sort of discipline the work of art or, you know, and then instead, I think, Nussbaum me, one she has chosen, I think, one of the greatest novels ever written. And, you know, I think her discussion of the novel has a kind of reverence that does not hinder kind of philosophical engagement, but instead enriches it and the way in which she has worked. So one of For I mean, what another thing that I find very beautiful about this essay is that at the end of the essay, she makes an argument that in the same way that the novel has shown us a kind of moral education of Maggie, that it has also drawn us into a kind of moral education of ourselves that it has sort of that the process of reading the novel because of its particular literary qualities and formal qualities, engages us in a kind of moral education. And part of that moral education is recognizing that the benefits of bewilderment and recognizing that actually bewilderment is a state to be valued and treasured, and like a life shorn of bewilderment is alive shorn of richness. And she talks about valuing the sort of bewilderment, that at certain points, even if one has read this novel, 10 times one feels with James's late style, that are that itself as being sort of morally useful, because in fact, bewilderment is an appropriate response to the world much of the time, and like her willingness to set aside I mean, and you know, she is just this hugely smart and erudite person, with a mastery of this tradition of moral philosophy that I cannot even imagine having anything. And you know, and she sort of is willing to kind of set that aside and just be like, this book is bigger than I am. And I find that a really productive place for literary criticism.


Zach Fine  36:43

Can we turn now to your essay, "A moral education: in praise of filth," which was published earlier this year, in the Yale Review, and I'd love for you to tell us a little bit about how what you've done in this essay, how it relates to Nussbaum in terms of the way she thinks about art morality, versus how you approach that in your, in your work?


Garth Greenwell  37:03

Yeah, you know, I was thinking about, so I was quite literally thinking of this essay as a kind of model for what I wanted to do in moral education. You know, as I was rereading Nussbaum kind of more intensely, I also realized just how different it is like, I mean, we have very different sort of working definitions of what morality is even. So I mean, you know, Nussbaum is working definition of morality, for her essay is sort of a process of evaluating different candidates for what the good life is. And my working definition of what morality is or the kind of morality that pertains to the thinking I want to do in my essay is like, how do we live with each other in a way where we don't kill each other, like bait? Like it's a much lower bar. I mean, it's basically like, just how can we live with people we can't tolerate? Like, how can we bear that and how Roth's essay, I think provides a kind of education in finally coming to cherish people, you can't stand like cherishing the existence of people you can't stand, which seems to me kind of the only morally bearable, attitude to have towards many of the people who seem to surround me. So like, I wanted to think I mean, in one way the the essay is pushing against this what seems to be a kind of moralistic approach to literature, it's certainly pushing against the idea. That kind of morally engaged literature has something to do with showing us morally exemplary people. Like I wanted to write about Sabbath's Theater because again, it Sabbath's Theater, I think is one of the greatest novels I know. It's also a very James Ian novel in a very weird way. And Roth is a very Jamesian and writer in a way that I don't think people talk about very much, but it's true. But it's this book that centers on this utterly repugnant man who just does the worst possible thing. And yet my experience of the book after 450 pages, sort of seeing him be awful, is that I love him, I love him in a way that like, I never, I would never want to actually be with him. Like I couldn't bear him for more than half an hour. So I mean, that's a complicated and very limited kind of love. But actually a really important kind of love is especially important in kind of the civic space. Like I find him repulsive. And yet, I also find is like the book has made me see his existence as a source of kind of bottomless value. And so I wanted to write an essay to try to account for that and to try to account for a, you know, a much more ample sense of kind of what the relationship between literature and morality might be and how literature might be morally engaged without being moralistic or without, basically without asking us to engage in a kind of moral scorekeeping or sort of moral verdict to give it.


Jessica Swoboda  40:15

So in the first section of your essay you write a moral education depends not on condemning, or averting our gaze from filth, Roth's Sabbath's Theater suggests, but on dieting wholeheartedly into it. Can you say a bit more why it's so valuable to dive wholeheartedly into filth?


Garth Greenwell  40:35

Well, I guess, I mean, there's a lot to say about this. I mean, this is something that I think about a lot. Also in my fiction, like, you know, my second book is called cleanness because it's largely concerned with filth. Like, I guess, you know, on one hand, I think, and this is, I mean, this is sort of resonant with Nussbaum argument. I think the desire for purity, that often accompanies a kind of moralistic sense of what moral engagement with others means, is a really, really dangerous desire. And, you know, my basic sense of human life is that we are all neck deep in the shit that like, in a sense is not available to anybody. And that, you know, if our starting point is we're all neck deep in the shit, then, you know, the sort of endeavor of moral relations with others becomes not scorekeeping are sort of where do we rank in relation to each other, but sort of how given this situation? How can we live together in a way that allows us if not to flourish, at least to do minimal harm. And that means, acknowledging that filthiest part of what we are, and like in another sense, maybe a sort of bigger sense, then, although I do think this is at the heart of Ross novel, I mean, I think that human beings, like just my sense of the human is that human beings are sort of this set of interlocked contradictions, or paradoxes or oxymorons. And that like, you know, we are I have a kind of Augustinian sense of the human as being this sort of being split at the root. And like, there is a part of us that longs for cleanness, there is also a part of us that longs for filth. And it seems to me that sort of the whole disastrous history of much of human morality sort of is predicated on the idea that we need to see one of those desires is good, and one of them is bad. And you know, that bad desire either has to be repressed or denied, or it has to be sort of in some therapeutic way treated away. And instead, I think, what Roff suggests in his novel and with also, I tried to suggest that my work as a fiction writer, is that actually, we need a sense of the human ample enough, that that it can accommodate sort of all that we are, and not sort of depend that our idea of morality cannot depend on the kind of disastrous repression of half of what we are half of what we desire. And so like any workable sense of moral flourishing, has to take into account the fact that a big chunk of what we are wants to believe and feels like that has to be part of the moral of the moral picture.


Zach Fine  43:38

You say, at one point in the essay, that what I want really is an escape from argument altogether. And so you, you've criticism of argument, and also of judgment, at one point, and I was wondering if you could talk a little bit about that, because I feel like there's a cleavage in with critics, you know, in terms of those who kind of go to bat for argument and insist on its importance, and others who think that we should think of more erotic ways of being attuned to work that isn't, you know, built on kind of rhetoric or something along those lines. So I'm curious, what is your argument about argument?


Jessica Swoboda  44:10

I just have to say, I wish we could communicate to our listeners, your facial expressions as Zach was relaying this question.


Garth Greenwell  44:19

Because, you know, of course, I mean, you're automatically in that sort of absurd paradox of like making an argument against argument. And I mean, and obviously, like, I'm invested in arguments, I like Martha Nussbaum arguments, I guess, you know, I am interested in a kind of intellectual modesty, by which I don't mean scaling down one's ambitions. But I mean, speaking with a constant awareness of the fact that first and foremost art is always bigger than anything we can say about it. And like nobody gets to make sort of, you know, absolute statements about what art is or what Aren't can do or what are can't do. And so just a sort of James em one of the things I love about James and I say this in that essay that's sort of there is an amplitude of thinking and James that comes from his almost apathetically intense qualification. The fact that, you know, every statement is sort of corrected and nuanced and turned and qualified. That doesn't actually make his thinking small, it actually allows it to be bigger, because it's aware of all of the ways in which it is limited and fallible, which is also something that that Martha Nussbaum sees, as central to the way that the Golden Bowl can be morally educative text, again, this kind of awareness of bewilderment at being at the heart of thinking, I get tired of people yelling at each other. Like, that's basically what I mean by that statement that like, you know, dreaming of a sort of space beyond argument, like a space where our sense of what engaging with a literary text is, and also, what engaging with each other as people who love art is, is a kind of being in the presence of one another kind of dwelling with one another, and a sort of deep attempt to understand each other. As opposed to whoever yells loudest, whoever gets the most likes on Twitter has sort of won this sort of gladiator concept, like I mean, so Bart usually talked about sort of erotic senses of what reading and thinking about literature can be. I mean, Bart's book, that neutral is just one of my favorite things in the whole world. And it's that sense of sort of what if we see a kind of collaborative thinking about art, not as a kind of gladiator battle between sort of pitched forces, but instead, yes, it's something more collaborative, something more improvisation. Torian responsive, something more erotic. That's very appealing to me.


Zach Fine  47:04

Could you also say a little bit more about you mentioned the apophatic. And there's a moment in your essay where you kind of call for an apathetic theory of art and morality, or of that relation? Sorry, could you say a little bit more about what that allows us what that would give us?


Garth Greenwell  47:21

Yeah, so I mean, so apothesis is just being, you know, this sort of theological idea that, like, we're obligated to try to know and praise God, our medium for knowledge and praise of God is language. Language is finite, God is infinite. There's no way we can put God into language in a way that does not offend against God. And so how can we try to twist language? And you how can we think about something that's too big for us to think about? And I'm an atheist, like, so that tradition, you know, I don't approach that tradition as a believer. But I do find that tradition, hugely helpful for thinking about art, again, because I think art is bigger than anything we can say about it. And so this idea that like the moral relationship between literature, or the relationship between literature and morality, that like in some way that is crucial, and guiding, and a sort of orientation point are an orienting force, in my sense of what I'm trying to do as a rider. And yet, I would never want to try to say what that relationship is exactly, or trying to define it. And what I find really inspiring and moving about the apophatic tradition, is that it is an attempt to think about something in a kind of an absolute bewilderment. So in an attempt to sort of keep thinking and moat in motion to not allow thinking to calcify into what would be idolatrous propositions, but instead, to sort of keep turning one's ideas about God over to say, you know, God is good, God is not good. God is not not good. God is not not not good. You know, that sort of constant, trying to keep thinking mobile. That's appealing to me, as opposed to sort of saying as though we could ever pin art down, like art should be moral in this sense. Instead, to sort of acknowledge, yeah, this, this is really important. And this is central to what I'm trying to do with my life. And also, it's beyond definition. So you know, how can we think in a way that doesn't depend on clearly defined stable propositions?


Jessica Swoboda  49:39

So what kind of moral education do you see your novels engaged in


Garth Greenwell  49:44

to my own novel, like the ones that I've written


Jessica Swoboda  49:47

your own novels? Yes.


Garth Greenwell  49:50

Yeah, I don't know. You know, in this is like, I don't know and I kind of don't want to know, which is another thing about the Golden Bowl, you know, at the end of the Golden Boy Oh, Maggie has this conversation with her confidant. And her confidant is like but you know, but But what is Charlotte really thinking? And you and Maggie says, and what does your father know? Which is always the big we never know whether Adam Verver knows what's happening or not like, we never know that no one gets to know that. And so she's saying, What does Charlotte know? What's happened to Charlotte? What's happening to Adam, what's going on your father? And Maggie says, I don't know, I don't want to know, I don't want to know anything. That's kind of my relationship to my own work. So by means of like, what, like writers education is, is that like, you do these super nerdy, analytical, you know, sort of whatever studies of of works that you admire, and you try to make yourself conscious of the tiniest choice, you know, I'm a big believer, like, close reading is my religion, like you try to make yourself conscious of the tiniest choice. And you tried to tell a story about why certain choices are better than others. But when it comes to your own work, you're just blind, like you're working in the dark, dark, and you hope that you've developed some kind of like, intellectual muscle memory so that like somehow having spent 100 hours reading the Golden Bowl is sort of affecting the way you're writing this paragraph. But you could never say how, you know, in part because we're always blind in response to our own work. Like there's no way to like anything I said about how my work was morally educative, which I'm not at all sure it would be would just be a fairy tale that I sort of taught myself, either to make myself feel better or to like, punish myself and torment myself. So like, better just to say, I have no idea.


Jessica Swoboda  51:49

Well, thank you so much, Garth, for joining us, it's been a real thrill to talk to you and to read this essay with you and think alongside of you. So thank you so much. 


Garth Greenwell  51:58

Oh, it's been such a pleasure. Thank you.


Jessica Swoboda  52:07

Thanks, everyone, for joining us for this episode of Selected Essays. We'd like to thank Joe Coleman for editing the podcast and Meg Duffy of Hands Habits for contributing the original music. This was the last episode of season one. But don't worry, we'll be back with more episodes for you in early 2024. Until then, please subscribe wherever you get your podcasts and if you have questions, comments or anything else, send an email to selected essays at We'd love to hear from you. Until next time, listeners.