Academic journal article Christianity and Literature

Laurence Sterne and the Ethics of Sexual Difference: Chiasmic Narration and Double Desire

Academic journal article Christianity and Literature

Laurence Sterne and the Ethics of Sexual Difference: Chiasmic Narration and Double Desire

Article excerpt

"Ethics has gained new resonance in literary studies during the past dozen years," announces Laurence Buell in his introductory essay to the January 1999 special issue of PMLA on "Ethics and Literary Study." As he goes on in the following pages to map the "distinctive contours" of this still imprecisely defined "movement," Buell is increasingly convincing that the "groundswell" of "ethically valenced" critical inquiry may be building to the "paradigm-defining concept that textuality was for the 1970s and historicism for the 1980s" (7). There is a problem, though, and Buell acknowledges as much. That problem is politics:

   Perhaps the touchiest single issue for both exemplars and critics of the 
   ethical turn is the issue of whether it boils down, whatever the nominal 
   agenda, to a privatization of human relations that makes the social and the 
   political secondary. (14) 

The vexed relationship between the political (social imperatives) and the ethical (privatized relations) is one that also characterizes the sentimental literature of the eighteenth century. Since the 1980s in particular, with the growth of politicized criticism informed by Marxist and feminist theory, sentimental literature has been read as a site of conflict that both exposes social problems resulting from economic and cultural iniquities and avoids articulating demand for large-scale reform through what could be called the rhetorical fallacy of the (individual) feeling heart. (1)

Laurence Sterne poses a special problem in terms of the political/ethical divide. While it is true that Sterne's scenes of sentiment feature power relations that place his male protagonists (Tristram, Yorick, Toby, and Trim) in sympathetic alliance with bird, ass, dwarf, slave, injured soldier, and fly, most such scenes involve a moment of sympathetic exchange between the male character and a young woman (usually a stranger). And, while sensual contact stimulates all moments of sentimental connection in Sterne's work, they do so to more ethically problematic effect when the Beguine "foments" Trim's knee or when Yorick counts the beats of the grisset's pulse than they do when Toby releases a fly or when Yorick responds to the cry of a caged starling. Acute sensitivity between men and women in Sterne's fiction seems driven, by Sterne's own design, as much by prurience as by innocence. Sterne's sentimental signature is ambiguity; however, political readings of these scenes of psychosexual attraction, readings that emphasize the presence of male sexual aggression, tend to find the ambiguity less real than imagined, less persuasive than convenient. In this essay I wish to reintroduce, as it were, an awareness of the earnest longing that imbues such scenes, not to deny their prurience but to recognize that their power derives as much from ethical sincerity as from political skepticism.

Levinas and the Female Other

There is "mounting evidence," Buell suggests, that Emmanuel Levinas is "the most central theorist for the postpoststructuralist dispensation of turn-of-the-century literary-ethical inquiry" (9). Levinas's insistence that obligation to the other takes precedence over being itself radically alters the politicized reading of relation. According to Levinas, the other has first claim on the self through difference that is never absorbed or dominated or totalized (to use the Levinasian vocabulary) by that self. If the political self needs the other for definition, the ethical self, according to Levinas, needs the other for transcendence.

A recent issue of The Eighteenth Century has demonstrated how the work of Levinas opens up the ethical dimensions of texts ranging from Aphra Behn's Oroonoko to Choderlos de Laclos's Les Liaisons Dangereueses to Johann Wolfgang von Goethe's Wilhelm Meister; the same issue includes articles comparing the philosophies of Levinas, Baruch Spinoza, and Immanuel Kant. …

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