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A brief discussion on why moral and aesthetic values should not be considered as either at tension or independent of one another, but are instead additive qualities.  Support for this argument is given using examples from Hermann Hesse's Steppenwolf.

          Steppenwolf is a book that, to put it mildly, invites interpretation.  The story that begins as a simple examination of its overly-aware main character later veers off into a more open-ended study of what could be either his salvation or ultimate ruin, depending on how the reader decides to see it.  Whichever direction the Steppenwolf's life takes, however, the process by which it changes has both moral and aesthetic impact for the reader who chooses to look for it, and in the final analysis the two are inseparable.

            In many ways, the simplest reading of Steppenwolf is one that refuses to become entangled in its questions of morality.  For the reader who focuses on the aesthetic, the book is one of redemption.  Herman Haller's and society's mutual rejection of each other come to something of an end, and he finds love, wisdom, and a path to happiness.  Of course, this view should not spend too long looking at the love, wisdom, or happiness he finds, much less attempt to compare it to what is usually seen as love or wisdom or happiness outside of the story; but this aesthetic view is willing to accept Haller's conclusions on their worth as their own.  The aesthetic reader sees value in Steppenwolf's ability to portray an engaging, empathetic character, regardless of the morality it portrays.

            When one considers that morality, however, interpretation of the book becomes much more complicated.  Steppenwolf declares outright that much of human existence is irredeemable, and then goes on to claim that the only redemption there can be is death.  This claim is itself challenged by the improvements in Haller's life throughout the book, leaving a great deal of question in the reader's mind about what morals really are in play and how they are supposed to judge them.  As with any book that creates so many questions, there is the potential that Steppenwolf could have either a positive or negative impact on its readers' moral outlook, with the determining factor being nothing more than the judgment of each individual reader.  The potential for gain, however, is the quality that grants the book moral value.

             I am not willing to greatly privilege one of these methods of determining a work's value over the other.  While I agree that the most fundamental quality of a work is its aesthetic value, I am not willing to say that moral value should be ignored (or even condemned, as Posner would have us do.)  I would instead argue that the two are inextricably linked.  Great aesthetic value in a narrative leads to the reader empathizing with its characters and becoming more involved in the story, which makes a reader more likely to internalize and evaluate its moral content.  Great moral value adds another level of intellectual stimulation to a story, enhancing the reader's experience and thus the story's aesthetic worth.

            This last comment demands further explanation, given that many reviewers would place intellectual stimulation on the opposite end of an axis with aesthetic value, or at best, would consider them independent variables.  Aesthetics is often seen as the opposite of an intellectual experience; it is a gut, emotional reaction to sensation.  Storytelling, however, is based on language, and thus is an inherently intellectual endeavor.  There have been many attempts to add purely aesthetic value to storytelling by focusing on the form of the work, ranging from short-form image-laden poetry to the application of meter in plays and epic verse.  To different degrees, and to different readers, these attempts have been successful.  However, these efforts that enhance the aesthetic value of the text itself do not address the far more critical area of the narrative within the text.

            What does it mean for a narrative to have aesthetic value, independent of the text that carries it?  As with many aesthetic experiences, it is hard to define precisely because a definition is intellectual in nature.  Perhaps the best description is a feeling of rightness in the story.  This does not necessarily mean a happy ending, but a direction and conclusion that are appropriate to the plot and characters.  This is the aesthetic that both creates and depends upon a reader's empathy.  The emotional response, however, is one that is not stimulated by direct sensation but by the intellectual process of the reader adopting a narrative and accepting its reality within the context of the story. 

            Having thus merged the intellectual and the aesthetic in narrative it becomes difficult to separate aesthetic value and moral value.  Moral value is based on another intellectual process, the internalization and introspection of moral questions raised in a story.  These questions create intrigue, an intellectual entity that is often seen as raising the aesthetic value of a narrative.  They stimulate the curiosity of the reader, enticing engagement in much the same way as more emotional aesthetic qualities would.  Morality, particularly ambiguous morality that forces a reader to process and introspect, functions just as any other aesthetic quality would in the context of a narrative.

            The connection between morality and aesthetic value does not just go one way, though.  A story that packs a strong aesthetic punch can enhance the value of its moral qualities.  This is a somewhat easier connection to explain because it is based in the same emotional response that we as humans have for each other.  Greater aesthetic value leads to greater empathy on the part of the reader because it directly engages their emotions.  When a reader has a strong emotional connection to a story, they are far more likely to try to internalize its action and examine its morality.  This is the same process that causes a person to be more sympathetic to a close friend than to a complete stranger; strong emotional connections prompt people to be more willing to step outside their own experience and examine events from another's perspective, whether that person is their best friend or the protagonist of a book.

            Steppenwolf demonstrates both aspects of the connection between aesthetics and morality.  Its story is bookended by two examples of the interdependence of these values, one that shows how aesthetic value can enhance weak moral value and one that uses strong moral value to prop up weak aesthetic content.  These two sections are the Treatise on the Steppenwolf near the beginning of the book and the final act of the story that takes place in Pablo's theater.

            The Treatise on the Steppenwolf has little aesthetic quality of its own, by design.  (Hesse, in fact, seems to feel a bit guilty about this and attempts to make up for it by repeating the basic ideas of the 26 page Treatise in a 24 line poem immediately following it.)  There are a few stylistic attempts to grab the reader, and the central idea of the steppenwolf is somewhat engaging, but really it is little more than a lengthy exposition couched in a vastly, vastly overextended metaphor.  However, the exposition itself makes this section intellectually interesting and thus aesthetically pleasing.  It is, perhaps, the same beauty that is found in a good trigonometric proof; a satisfaction built on analyzing a problem, reducing it to its component parts, and rebuilding it in a new form.  The problem is not conclusively solved, but the definition of the problem is a solution in and of itself.  Emotion is triggered by the stimulation of the intellectual sense rather than any of the other five, and aesthetic quality is created by moral interpretation.

            The Treatise is mirrored at the end of the book by Haller's trip to Pablo's theater.  This section is dreamlike in quality, a constant stream of imagery and feeling.  Within the theater Haller commits what should be an unequivocally immoral act when he murders Hermine.  There are few acts that are more universally considered morally wrong, and thus the act itself has little moral quality because the reader has already long since passed judgment on it.  An act of murder provides (hopefully) little opportunity for a reader to internalize and introspect the morality of a narrative.  However, because the text has entered a dreamlike state where reality seems to be more flexible—or in some cases, completely optional—a reader is allowed to more closely examine the murder.  When surrounded by metaphoric language and fantastic imagery the murder itself loses a bit of its reality, allowing the reader the freedom to see it as something other than just a morally reprehensible act.  The reader has already been encouraged to look at death as something other than the dreaded final end of life by earlier passages in the book, but without the aesthetic qualities of this final passage it would be much more difficult to look beyond our conception of murder as moral failure and apply Hesse's assertion that murder can be a favor rather than a crime.  Morality is made ambiguous by aesthetics, thus enhancing its ability to be examined for the benefit of the reader.

            The overall value of a work does not lie only in its aesthetic value or only in its moral value, but in a mixture of the two.  In Steppenwolf, they are in fact complementary traits.  Good moral quality creates good aesthetic quality, and good aesthetic quality creates good moral quality.  Trying to privilege one above the other only leads to an artificial disconnect that does not grant a literary work the respect of treating it as a complete artistic piece.  Instead it finds only a jumble of disconnected aspects, none of which has as great a value as the whole.