Encounter with alterity: Emmanuel Levinas's ethics and the novels of Oscar Wilde, Virginia Woolf and Djuna Barnes
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This dissertation proposes to conceive a new relation between literary modernism and ethics by addressing three novels from the perspective of Emmanuel Levinas: Oscar Wilde's The Picture of Dorian Gray (1891), Virginia Woolf's To the Lighthouse (1927), and Djuna Barnes's Nightwood (1936). Critiquing Western culture as "an insurmountable allergy" to alterity, Emmanuel Levinas defines ethics as the decentering of the subject that takes place in the encounter with the other. This definition allows us to distinguish between morality as a social code and ethics as a constant putting into question of the self. Thus, in contrast to the conventional correlation between the demand of literary modernism for innovation and the refusal of moral concerns, this dissertation addresses on the one hand how Levinas's ethical encounter with alterity can be employed to account for literary innovation—despite the philosopher's own reservation about literature and art in general—and, on the other hand, how the novels in question each perform the work of Levinasian ethics as they seek to renovate the genre. The Picture of Dorian Gray resonates with the Levinasian self critique by performing an aesthetic experience in its central yellow book chapter, which paralyzes the narrative as an individual's temporal existence with the impersonal existence that Levinas names the there is. By staging the artistic process in the context of mourning, To the Lighthouse theorizes an ethical aesthetics that anticipates Levinas's formulation of the signifying subject as response rather than initiative. Finally, with its strange narrative structure and imagery, Nightwood can be read as a Levinasian critique of Levinas himself, exposing the philosopher's writing as a gendered narrative of a male protagonist that obliterates the alterity of the woman and the animal. While the novelists addressed either ostensibly repudiate the moral function of literature or deliberately maintain a distance from morality as social mores, re-reading these novels suggests that ethics, understood in the Levinasian sense, is in fact profoundly intertwined with literary innovation.