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Reading Unruly

Interpretation and Its Ethical Demands

Zahi Zalloua

Publication Year: 2014

Drawing on literary theory and canonical French literature, Reading Unruly examines unruliness as both an aesthetic category and a mode of reading conceived as ethical response. Zahi Zalloua argues that when faced with an unruly work of art, readers confront an ethical double bind, hesitating then between the two conflicting injunctions of either thematizing (making sense) of the literary work, or attending to its aesthetic alterity or unreadability.

Creatively hesitating between incommensurable demands (to interpret but not to translate back into familiar terms), ethical readers are invited to cultivate an appreciation for the unruly, to curb the desire for hermeneutic mastery without simultaneously renouncing meaning or the interpretive endeavor as such. Examining French texts from Montaigne’s sixteenth-century Essays to Diderot’s fictional dialogue Rameau’s Nephew and Baudelaire’s prose poems The Spleen of Paris, to the more recent works of Jean-Paul Sartre’s Nausea, Alain Robbe-Grillet’s Jealousy, and Marguerite Duras’s The Ravishing of Lol Stein, Reading Unruly demonstrates that in such an approach to literature and theory, reading itself becomes a desire for more, an ethical and aesthetic desire to prolong rather than to arrest the act of interpretation.


Published by: University of Nebraska Press


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Title Page, Copyright, Dedication

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pp. ix-xii

Reading Unruly is the product of many voices. I am deeply indebted to my colleagues as well as to my students at Whitman College. Teaching supplemented my theorizing about the unruly in ways that I could have never anticipated. And for this, I am truly grateful. At Whitman, I have especially benefited from...

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pp. 1-20

The late twentieth century witnessed unprecedented attention to ethics in literary studies. This burgeoning academic interest proved strong enough to earn the label “Ethical Turn,” a term that points to an undeniable shift in the concerns of interpretive communities but risks homogenizing the unruly...

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1. Montaigne

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pp. 21-42

After reflecting on the limits of man’s cognitive powers in a key passage from the “Apology for Raymond Sebond,” Michel de Montaigne turns his attention to himself, taking stock of his own practice and its potential effects on future generations...

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2. Diderot’s Rameau’s Nephew

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pp. 43-64

The dialogue invites friendship. Its protean form makes it most hospitable to difference, yet an unruly difference always risks pushing to the limit an interlocutor’s or reader’s good will. Rameau’s Nephew, Denis Diderot’s fictional dialogue between “himself” (Moi, the narrator, the Enlightenment philosopher)...

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3. Translating Modernité

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pp. 65-86

Involving questions of fidelity and distance, and the inevitable reduction of the foreign to the familiar, translation enacts an ethical relation, a relation to an otherness — be it an idea, a text, or a person. Perhaps because of its potential to provoke ethical questioning, translation — as both a practice of...

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4. Living with Nausea

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pp. 87-110

The “undated pages” [“feuillet sans date”] that open Antoine Roquentin’s diary in Sartre’s Nausea reveal the circumstances that led their author to writing.1 Plagued by an overwhelming sense of estrangement, Roquentin decides to keep a diary in the hope that it will help him “to see clearly” (1) [“voir clair”...

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5. Intoxicating Meaning

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pp. 111-128

Published in 1957, as the nouveau roman was rising on the Parisian literary scene, Alain Robbe- Grillet’s novel Jealousy produced in many of its first readers a reaction of puzzlement and consternation. One critic from the newspaper Le Monde believed “that he had surely received a copy whose pages had been...

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6. Fidelity to Sexual Difference

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pp. 129-148

Emmanuel Levinas’s reception among feminists has been tumultuous from the outset. Jacques Derrida’s musings on the hypervirility of the author of Totality and Infinity point to one major objection leveled against Levinasian thought within feminist circles. Only a man, Derrida notes, could advocate an...

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Conclusion: Unruly Theory

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pp. 149-154

Unruly works are things of this world; yet, at the same time, they resist the meaning the world ascribes to them. They impose their own demands on the world of readers, interrupting the flow of knowledge and commentary. Attempts at comprehending the unruly — the elusive otherness of an artwork — often...


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pp. 155-184

Works Cited

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pp. 185-200


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pp. 201-216

Other Works in the Series

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p. 217

E-ISBN-13: 9780803254657
E-ISBN-10: 0803254652
Print-ISBN-13: 9780803246270

Page Count: 232
Publication Year: 2014

OCLC Number: 874967487
MUSE Marc Record: Download for Reading Unruly

Research Areas


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Subject Headings

  • French literature -- History and criticism -- Theory, etc.
  • Literature and morals.
  • Disorderly conduct in literature.
  • Aesthetics in literature.
  • Ethics in literature.
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