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  • Kazuo Ishiguro's The Remains of the Day:The Discourse of Self-Deception
  • Amit Marcus

The issue of self-deception has attracted the attention of Anglo-American analytic philosophers, who have attempted to define it1 or discuss it in relation to the structure of the subject2 and the definition of rationality3; some have enlisted literary materials.4 In this essay, I intend to examine the possible contribution of literature to the analysis and comprehension of self-deception, particularly as a means to shape and reevaluate pre-suppositions about this phenomenon. This attempt leans on Martha Nussbaum, who, following Aristotle, has argued that "a presentation of the mystery, conflict, and riskiness of the lived deliberative situation," as portrayed in fictional works, is indispensable for practical reasoning (1983: 44). Nussbaum's point is reinforced by Tzachi Zamir's claims that "many of the truths relevant for philosophical reasoning are, for the most part, contingent" (1999: 105) and that literature permits a "unique experience of conceptual information" (9).

Herbert Fingarette, a philosopher whose discussion of self-deception combines the insights of analytic philosophy with those of existential philosophy (especially Sartre) and psychoanalysis, offers a view of self-deception that is suitable for a literary analysis of this phenomenon. According to Fingarette (1969), self-deception occurs when the subject has a fundamental reason to avoid spelling out —both to him/herself and to others —some of his or her engagements in the world and forms [End Page 129] of behavior. Fingarette argues that an important ramification of such behavior is the gaps in the story of the self-deceiver; these gaps widen as they come near the hidden area which the self-deceiver wishes to avoid. The self-deceiver does not explicitly express the memories, perceptions, desires, and actions connected with that area. It is plausible to assume that he or she will try to fill the gaps in the most convincing way by telling a consistent and coherent story that strives for maximum compatibility with the given facts (49-50).5

The following considerations may be added to Fingarette's account of self-deception. Self-deception is an unstable mental phenomenon.6 This instability stems from the intensified conflict with which the matter is fraught, seeking at the same time to conceal itself and (as Fingarette argues) to be revealed. One of the manifestations of this instability is the contradictory ways in which it makes its way from the realms of the unconscious into language and conduct.

The great interest of analytic philosophers in self-deception, especially in the past three to four decades, arose at about the same period in which literary scholars became particularly intrigued by the question of narrative unreliability. It seems that the research of both issues is stimulated by the belief in the significance of irrationality in human thought and behavior; but at the same time the shared interest implies the possibility of rational, consistent, and coherent conduct and narration from which irrationality is to be differentiated.7 [End Page 130]

Kazuo Ishiguro's The Remains of the Day is characterized by a self-deceiving autodiegetic narrator: his first-person narration gives the reader a better opportunity to track the discursive aspects of self-deception than if the story had been told by an external (extradiegetic and heterodiegetic) narrator.8 Autodiegesis enables an exploration of the terms in which the self-deceiving character effects his or her evasions. Moreover, an external narrator tends to portray self-deception in a way that emphasizes his or her superiority to the self-deceiving characters: the latters' cognitive and emotional deficiencies are criticized as if the fictional reality were clearly recognizable and they were being misled by their own blindness.9 By contrast, stories that are told by the self-deceiving character in the first person usually preempt the reader's automatic blaming of the narrating character for his or her mistakes. A distinctive feature of Ishiguro's novel is that, unlike other novels narrated by self-deceiving protagonists, such as Vladimir Nabokov's Lolita and Albert Camus' The Fall, it does not explicitly present the narrating character, Stevens, as intending to deceive and rhetorically manipulate a fictional narratee...


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pp. 129-150
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