Academic journal article Connotations : a Journal for Critical Debate

Against an Ethics of Absolute Otherness, for Cross-Cultural Critique: A Response to Tammy Amiel-Houser*

Academic journal article Connotations : a Journal for Critical Debate

Against an Ethics of Absolute Otherness, for Cross-Cultural Critique: A Response to Tammy Amiel-Houser*

Article excerpt

In "The Ethics of Otherness in Ian McEwan's Saturday/' Tammy Amiel-Houser proposes a Levinasian reading of McEwan's 2005 novel which argues that most approaches to Saturday have so far misread its core ethical thrust. While reviewers and critics (including myself) have either enthusiastically or very critically observed McEwan's selfprofessed liberal humanist leanings in a post-9/11 world which celebrates literature's "potential to enrich the readers' knowledge of themselves and others" (128), Amiel-Houser insists that this is taking us down the wrong track. Mapping Lévinas' s thought in Totality and Infinity onto the novel, she instead claims that at the novel's ethical core is the "infinite responsibility toward the ever-strange and incomprehensible Other" (128).

For Amiel-Houser, the Levinasian drama is mainly played out in the novel's confrontation between the focalizing character, bourgeois neurosurgeon Henry Perowne, and the socially underprivileged criminal Baxter. In this drama, she attributes to Baxter the role of a "singular, enigmatic Other" (129), "most strange, incomprehensible, illogical, and absolutely different to me, in whose place I can never imagine myself, whose perspective I cannot share and whose motives I cannot understand" (150). Perowne, in turn, is ultimately shaken in his "indifferent subjectivity" (129) by the encounter with Baxter-asOther, towards whom he eventually acknowledges his fundamental responsibility. The dramatic scene in which Perowne's crucial reform takes place, of course, is the "break-in" scene, where Baxter forces Perowne's pregnant daughter Daisy first to undress, and then to read from her newly published volume of poetry. On cue from her poetgrandfather John Grammaticus, Daisy rather recites, from memory, Matthew Arnold's "Dover Beach" and thus curiously works Baxter into a state of childlike elation. The core twist of Amiel-Houser' s argument, here, is that it is not Baxter's transformation which marks the ethical core of the text, but Perowne's. This is her central thesis: "My contention is that the break-in, combined with Daisy's reading and Baxter's unexpected exhilaration, work together to shake up Perowne's subjectivity, opening him to experience the wonders of the Other's enigmatic singularity and so, finally, to acknowledge his involuntary debt to Baxter" (139).

In order to convincingly argue against Uberai humanist readings of this scene, Amiel-Houser goes at some length to dissociate the rendition of Arnold's poem from Arnold himself (and the masculine Victorian baggage of his Uberai humanist convictions). She holds that the poem needs to be evaluated primarily through the agitated subjective lens of Perowne, who, like Baxter (and, claims AmielHouser, at least initiaUy the reader), is incapable of placing the poem correctly, but is exposed to it through Daisy's "speech (and body) act" (144). Drawing on sections of Lévinas' s later work on language ("saying") and femininity ("maternity"), she locates Perowne's "ethical transformation" in his witnessing "Daisy's Uterary feminine address to Baxter" which ultimately also forces Perowne to acknowledge "Baxter's human face," as it "asserts his singularity as a human being who deserves to Uve and to enjoy (in Arnold's terms) the world of joy, love and Ught" (148).

Without being able to do justice to the nuances of Amiel-Houser' s argument, let me in the foUowing draw out some of my misgivings about the central scope of her essay which I find, I am afraid, highly problematic. I will Umit myself to three points, the first of which is brief and mundane. It concerns a very basic yet curious omission in Amiel-Houser' s otherwise very detailed and perceptive reading of the novelistic plot. While much is made of Perowne's reformed state after the " ethical magic of Daisy's feminine spectacle, which succeeds in reminding Perowne of Baxter's vulnerability and 'how much he [Baxter] wanted to live'" (150), Amiel-Houser completely fails to mention that the next thing Perowne does is lure Baxter into his upstairs office on false pretence, only to knock him down the stairs with the help of his son Theo. …

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