Skip to main content

Seokyeong Choi

Impossible narration: The Unknowable Other and the Ethical Imagination in Modernism

Can literature acquaint readers with perspectives completely foreign to their own? Or when one reads, does one merely emphasize with those who are similar? This dissertation takes up the question of narration as an ethical act to pose questions about the minds of others. My dissertation attempts to answer the following questions: “Is it possible to know an other? Can representation of an other be ethical without appropriating it to self?
My dissertation explores the ethics of response to an unknowable other through the concept of impossible narration in a thread of modernist novels. I coined this term in response to Emanuel Levinas’ ethics as first philosophy and his claim on ethical responsibility toward the other. Levinas decenters the relation of knowledge and being in Western philosophy and claims that knowledge is an act of appropriating the known. Drawing on the Levinasian ethics to consider literary representation, I argue that the other is beyond comprehension, thus, unknowable, and that representing the other should be partial, unsettled, and must eventually fail.

To explore “the impossibility of narration,” I focus on the modernist writers who struggle and experiment with the problem of representing an other. This matter is closely related to building a modern subjectivity in relation to others, given the differences of class, gender, and race. I am using the term modernism as suggested in recent modernist studies, which emphasizes its transnational turn and expansion in space to go beyond Europe and also in time to span the twentieth century. I also align with the body of scholarship that connects modernism and postcolonialism; how postcolonial writers are influenced by modernist form, and postcolonialism in turn broadens the modernist cosmopolitan approach and redirects it to a transnational optic. In my dissertation, I define modernism in particular as the encounter with imperialism in its necessary decline. I examine how modernist writers from various backgrounds bear witness to the construction of imperial subjectivity at the collapse of empire, and how their struggle to imagine the unknowable other is ultimately connected to the ethics of impossible narration.

My project focuses on modernist texts since they precisely address the problem of ethical relations in modern subjectivity since the modernist period coincides both with the height of British imperial expansion and with a big shift in gender rights. My dissertation features the ethical failure of imagination/narration addressed in Woolf, as the author who has given the most sustained attention in the matter of ethical representation; in Conrad and Forster, as the creator of various characters most associated with this question; and finally, in Coetzee, as the inheritor of the problem that Woolf was exploring. Since Coetzee is still in a colonial situation of Apartheid, his context keeps him in a modernist mode. The failure of narration by the characters within the novels creates by inversion a model for the ethical imagination of an unknowable other. In addition, by narrating the failure of imagining an other, these texts diagnose the reason for the failure of the political project of modernity.

Aligning with Jessica Berman, who defends “modernist commitment” by claiming that modernist aesthetic dimensions challenge systems of representation and imagine justice, I argue that modernist writers explore the matter of ethical imagination, present its failure as a political failure, and create a narrative model for imagining the other ethically. I expect that my project can contribute to bringing in a new approach to ethics within modernist studies since the field has so far emphasized the political in both imperial or gender issues, but consequently elided the ethical investigation that properly precedes political engagement in modernist texts. In particular, my reading Woolf’s texts as an exploration of ethical subject and representation will bring a new perspective in the field of studies that connect ethics and modernist literature, since scholars have focused on canonical, euro-centric male writers and tend to discuss their work separately.

Chapter One “Failed Exploration of the Colonial New World Novels” sets up the political questions of gender, race, and imperialism presented in three colonial texts, Conrad’s Heart of Darkness (1899), Forster’s A Passage to India (1924), and Woolf’s The Voyage Out (1915). Heart of Darkness is essentially a novel at the turn of the century that confesses a failure of narrative as much as Kurtz’s and Marlow’s failure of exploration. The more Marlow reaches the heart of the African continent and tries to have knowledge of it, the more he cannot get the meaning of stories that remain outside his kernel knowledge. Knowing and penetrating the other, as what Kurtz does as an imperial subject, only fails to reveal the illusion of Western civilization. The novel frames itself as a confrontation with the unknowable other and poses the possibility of what I call “impossible narration” beneath the lie of “saving illusion.” The Voyage Out and A Passage to India addresses similar themes in the crisis British subjects undergo given their failure to know the other. In addition to the two novels’ sharing a similar storyline that, an inexperienced, young, British woman voyages out to explore the new world, they mutually echo back the failed exploration and impossible narration in Heart of Darkness that the imperial subjects confront with disillusionment and their engagement broken.

Chapter Two “Words Without Meaning”: Woolf’s Levinasian Saying in Between the Acts” examines Woolf’s antifascist aesthetics and ethics in her last novel through Levinasian notion of the saying. The saying is regarded as a continuous, ethical gesture toward the other manifested in language; for Levinas, it is an attempt to escape the ontological ascription of language, the said, that thematizes the other. In Between the Acts, words have suggestive power; they “menace” and “noose” the villagers individually, but at the same time collectively during the annual pageant. By framing a revised English pageantry in her novel, Woolf betrays the genre’s nationalist rhetoric, and ultimately demystifies the ideal of Englishness that has justified British imperial history. The climax scene, “The Present,” culminates this process of deconstructing English civilization by declaiming phrase fragments from previous scenes and forcing the audience to face their fragmented state of being reflected in cracked mirrors. The deconstructing impulse in Woolf’s text has an ethical implication by acknowledging both impossibility and capacity of language to understand the other and represent the reality. I argue that the novel inscribes Woolf’s attempt to achieve the saying through the multi-layered narrative, by letting us witness the audience’s continuous participation in the pageant’s meaning-making, which unsettles the said of English history.

Chapter Three “Inverted Perspectives of the Colonial Imagination in Coetzee” looks at the ways in which Coetzee’s Waiting for the Barbarians (1980) and Foe (1986) write back modernist novels in terms of postcolonial politics of gender and race. Focalized through the Magistrate, Waiting for the Barbarians tells about an allegorical encounter between colonizers and colonized. Though limited in his vision, the magistrate moves from seeing himself as a superior self-sovereign to acknowledging an unknowable other, whose suffering summons him to respond as an ethical subject. In addition, I examine how this realization leads him to confess his inability to narrate the Empire’s history, thereby achieving a possible ethical imagination by recognizing the falsity of imperial discourse. Part Two explores Foe as a novel that parodies Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe as much as to deconstruct the meaning of subject and storytelling itself in the system of colonization. A female narrator, Susan Barton, who explicitly hints its intertextuality with Defoe’s another novel Roxana complicates the master-slave relations among Cruso, Friday, Foe, and herself with her unstable status as both a marginalized woman and a white colonizer. Susan’s narration as a confession leads her to an endless chain of self-doubting which blurs the boundary of being/substance and storytelling. The last coda with an anonymous narrator functions not merely to reveal its postmodern impasse of textuality but to envision an ethical realm not of words, but where the unknowable other’s “bodies are their own signs.”