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Ethical Issues in Twentieth-Century French Fiction:
Killing the Other
Britain, Ireland, and Continental Europe
Colin Davis. Ethical Issues in Twentieth-Century French Fiction: Killing the Other. London: Macmillan, 2000. vii + 228 pp.
Colin Davis's Ethical Issues In Twentieth-Century French Fiction: Killing the Other is a clearly written, far-ranging study of the relationship between what he calls "ethical criticism" and French fiction since the Second World War. Davis is careful to account for the theoretical framework he chooses to address the fiction of such writers as Camus, Beauvoir, Duras, and Genet. These writers have led him to "the simple observation that murder, or violence more generally, plays a pivotal role in a surprisingly large number of interesting and important twentieth-century French texts." And it is the postwar thought of Emmanuel Levinas and Jean-Paul Sartre, whose insistent investigation of "the question of the Other" provides Davis with a vocabulary and conceptual background against which to examine those representations of violence.
Davis's account of Levinas's ideas is lucid and succinct, and some readers may find the introductory essays on this topic the most useful in Killing the Other. Davis is careful to acknowledge Levinas's ambiguous relationship with art as a source of ethical thought and reflection. And, once one arrives at Davis's provocative chapter on Genet, his reading of [End Page 1056] Levinas reveals itself to be an unexpected critique of the possible blind spots in Levinas's ethics. (Davis arrives at this endpoint only after acknowledging that "Levinassian ethics [. . .] have acquired a central position in recent Continental thinking and [. . .] in large part lie behind the analyses of this book.")
Just as he will ultimately read Levinas against the grain, Davis interprets postwar French fiction in unexpected ways. Books such as Camus's L'Etranger, Beauvoir's Le Sang des autres, and Marguerite Yourcenar's Mémoires d'Hadrien are characterized as betraying "an unease, even violence, towards the Other; and their attempts to establish secure ethical positions are endangered by the anxieties and exclusions which they seek to occlude, but which continue to inform their constructions of alterity."
Davis investigates such "anxieties" largely without making direct use of Levinas's philosophy and motifs, though notions of the face, of an encounter as ethical, and more fundamentally, of otherness as a challenge and provocation to the self, appear in Davis's argument. His method of interpretation owes more to Derrida and Freud than to Levinas, with its care for close reading and its search for "anxieties and exclusions" in representations of contact with the Other.
In contrast with the work of Sartre, Beauvoir, and Camus, whose critical reputation rests in part on their ethical concerns, Davis examines the work of Duras and Genet for their portrait of a world in which "[a]ltericidal impulses [. . .] are depicted as ordinary, banal." Without valorizing these portraits, Davis suggests that they make their own ethical demand on us, by creating a relationship with the reader in which "the values of the text [are] in conflict with [one's] own." The strangeness and contrariness of Duras and Genet's fictional worlds, Davis argues, force us to recognize otherness, and to resist the urge to willfully (and mistakenly) find in these texts a reflection of our own values.
In this way, Davis convincingly portrays reading as an ethical act. Among his chosen writers, however, Levinas is the only one on whom Davis places the burden of not only offering an ethics, but of providing a modus operandi for actualizing that ethics in daily life. "Reading Genet in conjunction with Levinas," Davis argues, "can serve to focus attention on the pervasive but often occluded knowledge in Levinas's texts that ethical obligation does not regulate moral choice; I am just as likely to [End Page 1057] respond to the Other with violence as with respect, to banish him from my house as to invite her to enter." Further, Davis suggests that Levinas "tells us a great deal...