Wide Angle

The Ethical Versus Aesthetic Life

Elif Batuman’s novel Either/Or asks if you really have to suffer to be an artist.

Cover of Elif Batuman's Novel, Either/Or
Published by Penguin Press

Gabfest Reads is a monthly series from the hosts of Slate’s Political Gabfest podcast. Recently, John Dickerson spoke with author Elif Batuman about what it means to truly live an artistic life, why Batuman set her books in the 1990s, and her writing process. Batuman writes about the hilarious misadventures of a Harvard sophomore in her new book Either/Or, a sequel to her 2017 Pulitzer Prize finalist, The Idiot.

This partial transcript has been edited and condensed for clarity.

John Dickerson: Tell me about the difference between the ethical and the aesthetic life, which is an important distinction in this book.

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Elif Batuman: Oh, yeah. It’s kind of a central distinction in the book is that there’s two characters, two friends, and one thinks that she’s going to live a life that’s supposedly aesthetic, which is going through the main character, because she wants to be a writer, so it’s going to be a life that’s a work of art. And the other character decides that she’s going to live an ethical life, which is a idea that is there in 19th century philosophy and they get it from Kierkegaard. And it’s completely bogus. And this is an idea that I think was really exploded kind of in a new way by during Me Too, with the myth of the great artist. “Oh, he’s a great artist, but unfortunately he has to really hurt people or he has to be a terrible person.”

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And we’re just starting to question it now, but I mean, you don’t actually have to be a horrible person to make great art. And where would you even get that idea? It’s an idea that only a certain kind of very broken man would actually have. Simone de Beauvoir writes about in The Ethics of Ambiguity, which I would send people to read if they want to know if they should live an ethical or an aesthetic life. And she’s like, “No, the point of life is to free yourself and to free other people because you can’t actually be free.” You can’t walk around having free, exciting, artistic experiences if, all around you, people are starving. You just can’t do it and it won’t be ethical and it won’t be aesthetic.

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It won’t be anything. It’s both at the same time and it’s the only way to do anything. But I didn’t understand that when I was younger and I really did believe in the ethical versus the aesthetic and Selin, in the book, when she reads about the aesthetic life, which she decides is what she wants to do because the ethical life seems like it’s just getting married and having children and she doesn’t want to do that, so obviously it’s just to live the aesthetic life, everything she reads about the aesthetic life is about seducing and destroying young girls until they go crazy, they end up in mental institutions, they kill themselves and she’s like, “Huh. So what am I going to make of that?”

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So the book is kind of about her sort of wrestling with that, but a question that I’ve been thinking about a lot is, and something I want to sort of tease apart is, to what extent is the greatest subject of art a suffering woman? We are women suffering. We see that in murder mysteries. It’s always a woman. What… Can we tease those… Why is that? Why is that the most interesting thing? Aren’t there things that are more interesting. Let’s do. Let’s talk about those.

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Right. And who determined that those are the most interesting things?

Yeah, exactly. Not women.

Right. This structure you attack the world with, which at that age you think, “I’ve got it”. Right? “This is the way to see the world.” And everything seems to fit in those categories. And what you don’t realize is your structure is totally screwed, but you have an engaged mind and you’re putting things in categories, so you feel like you, and we’re talking about Harvard here, so you feel like you are really engaged in what you’re supposed to be there for. So, for them, we’re supposed to read it as an earnest search because this is a question that is totally up for grabs, right?

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Yeah. It’s supposed to be earnest. It’s supposed to be good faith. And you’re supposed to, ideally my ideal reader, I want everyone to see whatever they see, but ideally, the reader would see what makes it appealing and then also see why it’s screwed. The reader would see more than she sees, but would also see why it’s appealing and why it’s so fun.

And she sees, without giving it away, she’s testing this aesthetic life theory through the book, and she is a different person at the end of it. Her learning process reaches a conclusion closer to the one that you articulated earlier about the kind of falseness of this dichotomy.

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Oh, I think a little bit. Yeah. Maybe not completely. I think, at the end of the book, she still thinks, “If I suffered, I’m going to redeem that suffering by writing a great book because how else do we get great books?” And I guess a question that I want to ask is, “Do we need the suffering for the great books? Let’s think about that, too.”

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I wrote this book, actually wanting people to not suffer as much as Selin did. And it was kind of an experiment for me. I don’t know to what extent it was successful, but I think that the history of the novel… Novels have often been about people who, like Don Quixote or Anna Karenina, it’s about someone who, or Crime and Punishment, someone makes a huge mistake and they really suffer. And, ostensibly, the moral of the book is, “Wow, this person made a big mistake.”

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But when you read it, what you think is… Because they’re trying, they’re doing something that they think that’s really cool. And that cool thing turns out to be deadly. And there’s people there all along being like, “Why don’t you not try to be so cool?” But, as a reader, you don’t want them to not try to be cool. You want them to try to kill people or be Napoleon or have affairs or whatever.

And at no point does the book actually ask the question of, “What if those things aren’t cool?” It’s kind of like those things, they’re cool, but you pay a price or they’re exciting. Those are the only things that are really exciting, but then you really suffer, but then that’s what art is about. I just kind of want to try to get out of that and think, “What if those things aren’t actually cool” they don’t feel good for you. They don’t feel good for other people. They cause harm to you in the world. And there’s a whole other set of things that are cool that you could be doing instead.” I wanted to try to write a novel that would save people suffering.

To listen to John Dickerson’s full interview with author Elif Batuman, subscribe to the Slate Political Gabfest on Apple Podcasts, or listen below.

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