- Sylvia Plath, Emmanuel Levinas, and the Aesthetics of Pathos
In the following essay, I will read certain poems by Sylvia Plath to demonstrate a way of reading that derives from the ethics of Emmanuel Levinas. According to Levinas, ethics requires one to face others in such a way that the incommensurable weight of the other’s lived existence is primary: the affective dimension of the other is primary to discernible contours or articulable characteristics of the other. This basic move—to apprehension prior to comprehension of the other—provides a new basis for philosophy, Levinas says, as ethics becomes first philosophy, prior even to ontology. To put Levinas’s move in the language of literary criticism and rhetoric, pathos (apprehension of feeling) comes prior to ethos (judgment of character) in a reader’s or audience’s apprehension of alterity. With this connection, I imply an aesthetic aspect to Levinas’s ethics, while at the same time I suggest that the way of reading I will demonstrate has an ethical dimension. But I do not claim that my reading involves an approach to the good. Indeed, insofar as it involves ethics, my essay deals with the difficulty of being ethical.
Considering Levinas’s focus on the affect of the other as an aesthetic move provides a way of handling a key problem that various critics have found in his work: a genuine move to the affective ruptures any determination of the move as ethical. To say this involves recognizing ethics as philosophical discourse, metaphysically centered on the objective of what is defined to be good. Levinas is correct in showing that the affect of the other must be the primary emphasis of ethics, for without it ethics remains an abstract totality; it follows that his emphasis on affect deconstructs ethics. But in retaining the word “ethics,” Levinas obscures the deconstruction. Focusing on a desire to approach the other’s affect, he focuses on desire that in philosophical terms would have been called ethical, but a desire that by its own application—by exceeding the metaphysics of the good—invalidates the name of ethics.1
My emphasis on affect can work within aesthetics in a way that Levinas’s emphasis cannot work in ethics, because aesthetics may be decentered as ethics cannot be. By reading in such a way that the affective dimensions of texts disrupt the intellectual activity of judgment in aesthetics, I develop an untotalized, denatured aesthetics. One may argue that like ethics, aesthetics must be centered and develop a sense of the good; the argument would be long, and I will simply indicate that I follow Georges Bataille and others who claim an untotalized aesthetics. As my readings emphasize a desire to face the affect of the other, they emphasize that desire which Levinas shows to be mandatory for ethics but which disrupts ethics as such. The desire I emphasize lacks naturalization and totalization, falling outside anthropology as well as philosophy, driving an aesthetics of the feeling of the other which—following literary and rhetorical traditions, albeit loosely—I call the aesthetics of pathos.2 Levinas writes of the “restlessness” of consciousness that is open to the other, thus capturing the insecurity of moving outside philosophy; this restlessness should extend into the instability of determining a name for the act of encountering the other (Otherwise than Being 153–62).
The emphasis on an untotalizing approach to the other’s affect, for Levinas, includes focusing on the singularity of the encounter with the other. Reading provides an appropriate occasion for exploring such an encounter, and what follows in this essay—although it will iterate theoretical concerns of the introduction—is not a philosophical treatise, but a performative work of criticism. The first-person voice of the essay (even in its plural manifestations) is a phenomenon of subjectivity, not a voice of definitive truth. Similarly, the reading does not definitively impute characteristics to Sylvia Plath or to an oeuvre, style, or technique that is attributable to her (although my references to other critics are suggestive in this respect, beginning to knit a fabric of literary-critical conversation).3 Although the following readings say more about aesthetics than ethics...