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Ethics of Alterity, Confrontation and Responsibility in 19th- to 21st-Century British Literature


Edited by Christine Reynier & Jean-Michel Ganteau


Collection « Horizons anglophones » / Série Present Perfect

Montpellier: Presses Universitaires de la Méditerranée , 2013

Paperback. 257 p. ISBN 978-2367810201. 22€


Reviewed by Vanessa Guignery

École normale supérieure de Lyon / Institut universitaire de France


Christine Reynier and Jean-Michel Ganteau have been editors of the series Present Perfect in the collection “Horizons Anglophones” of the Presses Universitaires de la Méditerranée in Montpellier since 2005. Together they edited four excellent volumes in the series: Impersonality and Emotion in Twentieth-Century British Literature (2005) and Impersonality and Emotion in Twentieth-Century British Arts (2006) – both focusing more specifically on individual relations – and Autonomy and Commitment in Twentieth-Century British Literature (2010) and Autonomy and Commitment in Twentieth-Century British Arts (2012), offering a more political perspective. This new collection of seventeen essays comes as a complement to the previous volumes, analysing Victorian, Modernist and contemporary British literature through the prism of the ethics of alterity, which is shown to be intimately linked to aesthetics and politics, as Jacques Rancière pointed out in Aux bords du politique (1990). In the 1980s, literary studies were marked by an “ethical turn”, which formed part of a generalised reaction against the cultural radicalism and relativism associated with extreme postmodernist practices. In their detailed introduction to The Ethical Component in Experimental British Fiction since the 1960’s (2007), Susana Onega and Jean-Michel Ganteau distinguished the two main critical approaches to ethics in literature: on the one hand, “a [neo]-humanist ethics of a rather normative, deontic type, implying an overall moral dimension, generally associated with ‘the stable ego of the character’ as present in classic realist texts based on linguistic transparency”, represented by critics such as Wayne Booth, Martha Nussbaum, Richard Rorty and David Parker; on the other hand, a new “non-deontic, non-foundational, non-cognitive, and above all non-ontological type” [2], inspired by the work of Levinas, called a “discursive ethics” by Andrew Gibson and a “postmodern ethics” by Zygmunt Bauman, and expounded by such theoreticians as Robert Eaglestone, Drucilla Cornell, Derek Attridge, Jacques Derrida, J. Hillis Miller and Adam Zachary Newton. In her article on Jeanette Winterson’s Weight in the present volume, Eileen Williams-Wanquet sums up these various trends and argues that neo-humanist ethics focuses on social rules while postmodern ethics shifts responsibility to the relation between self and other: “Crucial here is Levinas’ idea of being for the Other before one can be with the other [207]. To quote Derek Attridge, ethics is “an encounter with alterity” [The Singularity of Literature : 27-28].

The present volume is therefore more particularly concerned with the ethics of alterity, based on an ethical relation to the other, a responsiveness to and responsibility for the other, to use Levinas’s terminology. The editors refer to “a form of confrontation which can take the shape of a simple encounter, a dialogue or on the contrary, some sort of conflict” and which “implies some form of responsibility” [11]. To quote Laurent Mellet later on in the volume, “whether it be through encounters, dialogues, or conflicts, to confront two things or people is to explain but never erase their differences, and therefore it is to respect and put to the fore their otherness and alterity” [179]. The introduction to the collection defines these various concepts very clearly and brings them together. Referring to Henry Sidgwick and G.E. Moore who initiated the “ethical turn”, the editors point to the progressive shift from morals to ethics in Victorian, Edwardian and Modernist literature. In his analysis of British satire from E.M. Forster and Angus Wilson to Martin Amis and Jonathan Coe, Laurent Mellet surmises for his part a “return to humanism in satire” [179], while Elsa Cavaillé sees in Zadie Smith’s On Beauty a return to Forster’s Howards End and a “defence of pre-modernist humanism” [206]. One of the great assets of this volume is indeed the way in which some articles weave links between modernist and contemporary productions in terms of their engagement with the other.

Related to the ethics of alterity are also the notions of debt and gift, the latter being based on the lack of “any expectation of reciprocity” [16] in the ethical gesture, or the “non-identificatory, non-possessive, non-totalising empathy” [16]. Such a responsibility towards the other even if it is not reciprocated is, according to Elsa Cavaillé, embodied by Levi Belsey in Zadie Smith’s On Beauty when he attempts to help the Haitian immigrants but also by his mother Kiki who acknowledges her ethical duty towards the sick Carlene Kipps [201]. In his analysis of Wordsworth’s and J.H. Prynne’s poetry, Michael Kindellan shows how “natural observation is akin to owing a debt” [239]: nature is the giver, the poet is the receiver [233], and the latter’s responsibility lies in an acute perception of the world. To quote Prynne in the poem aptly entitled “Responsibilities”, “one must look on with care” [244]. The editors and contributors also link ethics to such essential concepts as vulnerability – “the sine qua non of responsibility to the other” [17] – pity – “as identification with the suffering of a living being” according to Alain Badiou [Ethics : 9] – and guilt, into which responsibility is transformed since “one is never responsible enough” according to Jacques Derrida in The Gift of Death [52]. Contributors also focus on the issue of solicitude: defined by Ricoeur as a form of “benevolent spontaneity” [Oneself as Another : 218], solicitude “provides to the self another who is a face … Equality provides to the self another who is an each” [Oneself as Another : 202], as Vincent Dussol reminds the reader in his analysis of James Kelman’s You Have to Be Careful in the Land of the Free [183].

The seventeen essays of the volume, all written in English, by scholars from France, Germany, the United States, Great Britain, Canada and Spain, cover several literary genres [novels, essays, poems, memoirs, letters] from the end of the nineteenth century to the early twenty-first century, and draw from a variety of theoreticians of ethics (Derek Attridge, Emmanuel Levinas, Paul Ricoeur and Alain Badiou are probably the most frequently quoted). The volume starts with a thorough analysis by Frédéric Regard of Josephine Butler’s narratives of her first encounters with the prostitutes of Brownlow Hill in a biographical memoir dedicated to her husband and a 1866 letter to a friend. In her speeches, pamphlets, essays and manifests in defence of a vulnerable group of citizens, Butler makes use of melodramatic rhetoric “in order to communicate as successfully as possible with the vast audiences she aimed to convert” to her political crusade [32], and to emphasise “a shared humanity” between the ladies and the prostitutes rather than put forward their radical alterity [21]: the lost girls are presented as “humanity in the flesh”, “the truly incarnated, disfigured figures of a common humanity, engaging therefore the onlooker’s responsibility to the plight of the suffering other” [24]. In Joyce’s Ulysses, as shown by Christine Froula, the prostitute in the black straw hat, whom Bloom dismisses as “a wretched creature [], reeking with disease” [Ulysses : 633], is “an embodiment and a real-world test of Ulysses’s utopian ethos” [Froula : 79]. According to Froula, while Bloom symbolises “an ‘old’ conscience or ethos” [79], that converts the woman into an object to be “described, judged, measured, compared with others, … trained or corrected, classified, normalized, excluded” in Foucault’s terms [Discipline and Punish : 191], Joyce for his part depicts her as a “Baudelairean semblable” [Froula : 76] and brings her “into the realm of the human, the category of the social and economic, the domain of the ethical” [80].

In keeping with the spirit of the whole volume, Stephen Ross’s paper is a fascinating defence of modernism as “a fundamentally ethical set of projects” [49]. Ross demonstrates that the New Critics’ claim that “modernism had no ethics per se” and that “the issue of ethics simply had no role to play in modernism” [49] is incorrect. On the contrary, Ross sees modernism’s “restless drive to novelty, to produce ever new alternatives to the current state of things” (caused by their discontent with the conditions of the world) as “fundamentally ethical” [53]. Their new approach to ethics “takes indeterminacy as a positive value and resists closure”, as exemplified by the suspension of any decision in E.M. Forster’s A Passage to India [62], but also in Ford Madox Ford’s Parade’s End, as shown by Isabelle Brasme [97]. Ross concludes that for Forster and the modernists, the “claim to know, to have access to the truth”, to decide finally, is “the quintessence of the unethical” [63]. María J. López, for her part, opposes the “traditional – and partly misleading – Lukácsian view of modernism as focused on the isolated individual” [118]. She demonstrates the capacity of Virginia Woolf’s Mrs Ramsay to create a “community of feeling with other people” [To the Lighthouse : 131] and analyses The Waves as “a profound study of friendship” [López : 118]. For Iris Murdoch in Metaphysics as a Guide to Morals, falling in love “shifts the centre of the world from ourself to another place” and a love relationship “can prompt a process of unselfing wherein the lover learns to see and respect, what is not himself” [Murdoch : 16-17], a process which, according to María J. López, Woolf believed the writer had to go through herself [116]. In his article on Iris Murdoch and Simone Weil, Julian Jiménez Hefferman also refers to the process of unselfing as “the destruction of the false picture of the self” [163]. To quote Weil: “Everything without exception which is of value in me comes from somewhere other than myself, not as a gift but as a loan which must be ceaselessly renewed” [Gravity and Grace : 31].

Several contributors analyse the specificities of a phenomenological ethics that includes the ethics of reading and the text’s encounter with its reader. In his analysis of John Keats’s fragment “This Living Hand”, David Nowell Smith thus examines the ethical implications of address in lyrical poetry, but he also shows that alterity is not only to be understood as “the relation between addresser and addressee, or ‘text and interpretation,’ but as self­-relation” [43], that is the relation of the poem to itself and its forms, to “the conventions of dramatic monologue, and the constraints of metre and diction”. To quote Nowell Smith, “this alterity is constituted by the poem as it continually addresses, and strives to exceed, itself” [47]. Noëlle Cuny, for her part, shows how D.H. Lawrence’s unfinished novel Mr Noon pays constant attention to the reader, building its own audience and producing a “caricature of a reader” so as to “debunk the all-pervasive dominant discourse of taste, goodwill and social reform which she embodies” [87]. What Lawrence achieves is what Paul Ricoeur called “appropriation through distance” since the text deliberately preserves a hermeneutic gap and keeps the reader at a distance, thus “maintaining the chasm between ‘the same’ and ‘the other’ ”, on which Levinas based his ethics [95].

In Ford Madox Ford’s tetralogy on World War One, Parade’s End, as well as in John Cowper Powys’s Wolf Solent, Isabelle Brasme and Florence Marie-Laverrou note an evolution from a rejection of alterity and otherness to an awareness of the singularity of the other. In the first volume of Parade’s End, identity as permanence “is extolled by the characters as an ultimate ideal that dismisses any form of alterity” [Brasme : 98], as exemplified by the motif of the mirror and the fascination with one’s reflection. In the first chapter of Wolf Solvent, Wolf believes in some unchanging core of his personality that defines his identity as sameness, what Ricoeur calls idem [Marie-Laverrou : 122]. By the end of the narrative, he has learnt to accept the temporality of his individual self as a non-static being who is responsible for the other. In Parade’s End, the mirror opens the way to a self-alienation and the awareness of a chasm between the subject and himself: “as the subject focuses on his own reflection, his own integrity collapses and gives way to a feeling of alterity – an alienation – within his own self” [101]. During the First World War, this realisation of one’s own alienation coexisted with “a new awareness of the essential alterity” and singularity of the other [102]: Ford thus opposes the disindividualisation of soldiers with an imperative to preserve their individuality.

In her analysis of Major Scobie’s spiritual dilemma and ethical impasse in Graham Greene’s The Heart of the Matter, Paula Martín Salván claims for her part that “Scobie’s sense of responsibility is inevitably aroused by the others’ position as victims” [148]. This prevalence of pity raises an ethical problem as, to paraphrase Alain Badiou, “an ethics grounded on the consideration of man as a victim implies a reduction of his humanity” and “the establishment of inequality as the basis of interpersonal relationships” [149]. Moving to contemporary productions by Jonathan Coe, Zadie Smith and Jeanette Winterson in the last articles of the volume, contributors point to Levinas’s and Zygmunt Bauman’s conception of postmodern ethics as “rehabilitating the self through the presence of the other” [Williams-Wanquet : 207]. However, both Howard in Zadie Smith’s On Beauty and Louie in Jeanette Winterson’s Oranges are not the Only Fruit aim to avoid the burden of “human intersubjectivity” [Cavaillé : 199]. As demonstrated by Susana Onega, “Louie’s incapacity to love her daughter is clear proof of her unethicality, since, according to Lévinas, mother-love is the most ethical form of love”, one that “gives priority to the responsibility for the other over any form of self-questioning” [223]. 

One of the great merits of this volume is the way in which papers communicate between themselves in a continuous dialogue. Concepts and definitions from various theoreticians echo or oppose each other from one article to the other, so that the reader’s perception of ethics becomes more precisely delineated, but also more complex. One may suggest with Derek Attridge that the editors and contributors of this volume have treated literature ethically by suspending “habitual modes of thinking and feeling” in order to “do justice to the singularity of the other” [The Singularity of Literature : 83]. As Attridge remarked, “to respond responsibly to the otherness of a literary work is to do justice to it; treating literature as literature means being hospitable and generous” [The Singularity of Literature : 126]. Christine Reynier and Jean-Michel Ganteau’s volume has undoubtedly achieved this goal.


Works Cited

Attridge, Derek. The Singularity of Literature. London & New York: Routledge, 2004.

Badiou, Alain. Ethics : An Essay on the Understanding of Evil (1993). London & New York: Verso Books, 2002.

Derrida, Jacques. The Gift of Death (1992). Chicago: University Press, 1995.

Foucault, Michel. Discipline and Punish : The Birth of the Prison (1975). London: Penguin, 1977.

Joyce, James. Ulysses (1922). New York: Modern Library, 1992.

Murdoch, Iris. Metaphysics as a Guide to Morals (1992). London: Vintage, 2003.

Onega, Susana & Jean-Michel Ganteau, eds. The Ethical Component in Experimental British Fiction since the 1960’s. Newcastle-upon-Tyne: Cambridge Scholars Publishing, 2007.

Ricoeur, Paul. Oneself as Another (1990). Chicago: University Press, 1994.

Weil, Simone. Gravity and Grace (1952). London: Routledge, 2002.

Woolf, Virginia. To the Lighthouse (1927). Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1964.


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