Academic journal article D.H. Lawrence Review

The "Something Else": Ethical Ecriture in D. H. Lawrence's St Mawr

Academic journal article D.H. Lawrence Review

The "Something Else": Ethical Ecriture in D. H. Lawrence's St Mawr

Article excerpt

During the last two decades or so, the ethical turn within literary studies is generally marked by reactions against an older moral criticism, rooted in assumptions about the stability and universality of values. This classical position tends to apprehend texts as embodiments of moral ideas, pre-given and categorical, whereas contemporary ethics is, in varying degrees, inflected by post-structural scepticism and rigorous questionings of all logocentric belief. Because of the mid twentieth-century dominance of moral thematics within D. H. Lawrence studies, or what Robert Eaglestone calls the paradigm of "epi-reading" (3-6), it is perhaps not surprising that several relatively recent monographs concerned with Lawrence's aesthetic and philosophical interests resist engaging with the ethical dimensions of these interests. Some of the noteworthy works that consider Lawrence as a poet-philosopher, often from a Heideggerian viewpoint, include Michael Bell's D.H. Lawrence: Language and Being (1991), Anne Fernihough's D.H. Lawrence: Aesthetics and Ideology (1993) and Fiona Becket's D.H. Lawrence: The Thinker as Poet (1997). Interestingly, Fernihough develops an account of Lawrence's materialistic, "anti-imperialistic" aesthetic, but links this to the politics of eco-feminists rather than to radical ethical sensibility. (1)

Supplementing in a minor way this scholarship, my essay suggests that a productive connection can be established between the perspectives of the philosopher Emmanuel Levinas on language and alterity and the ethical project subtending the narrative of D.H. Lawrence's St Mawr, a short novel or novella written in New Mexico in 1924 and published the next year. Arguably, Lawrence's organicist poetics coincide more seamlessly with Heidegger's existential philosophy with its central tenet of existents' authentic relation to a totality, than with Levinas' acutely humanized ontology. (3) Deeply influenced by early twentieth-century phenomenology and existentialism, Levinas in his later writings departs from Heidegger's view of authenticity (Eigentlichkeit) as the first principle of Being, as the justification of Dasein in confronting the threat of nothingness and death, claiming instead the priority of ethics as a primordial relation with alterity; in Levinas' understanding, as explained by Alphonso Lingis, authenticity "is not formed simply in the relationship with the clearing of the world; this state of being capable of answering for what it is and does [...] arises in a relationship not with nothingness which attracts and threatens, but with alterity which appeals and contests" (Emmanuel Levinas xv). Eclipsing intentionality, the appropriation of the field of potentialities for the human self--Levinas' "difficult freedom"--the sense of absolute responsibility for the other contracted in the face-to-face relation seems initially remote from Lawrence's persistent exploration of post-human regeneration and the cultivation in his art of integral co-being, "the relation between man and his circumambient universe, at the living moment" (STH 171). (3)

Despite such seemingly fundamental reservations, my essay aims to show how the discursive awareness of alterity in St Mawr is enhanced within a context of Levinasian ethics. The view of language as "the incorporeal exposition" of Being (Nancy 85), as the humanizing signifier through which all creation passes, is shared by philosopher and artist, although it is only the former who theorizes his insight, especially in his late seminal work Otherwise than Being or Beyond Essence (1991; 1998). As we will see, Lawrence's novella is infused with an understanding of language as an amphibiology, as a state of tension between articulated closure, the mimetic doxa, and an intimated other utterance that breaks up identity. As in Levinas' conception of the said and the saying, "the struggle to get out [.] to give utterance" (WL 186) in St Mawr is ethically charged, a matter of authentic response to the other, of responsibility as a foundational human gesture. …

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