The Art of Distances. Ethical Thinking in Twentieth-Century Literature (Evanston, Ill.: Northwestern University Press, 2018)
In 1976-1977, Roland Barthes inaugurated his course at the Collège de France,Comment vivre ensemble, with a diagnosis already familiar to readers of Adorno’s Minima moralia: namely, that moral discourse had lost its prestige. Uncomfortable with his position of institutional authority, Barthes pointed out that it had become impossible to teach people “how to live with others,” that this could only be the object of a shared quest. Developing a vocabulary of distances, delicacy, tact, and attunement to others, Barthes proceeded by sampling and associating, rather freely and nonchalantly, obsessive images, personal memories, and passages from his favorite books: Greek monks living together in coenobitic communities, their bodies “enveloped in distance;” the imprisoned Marquis de Sade praising his wife’s tactful appreciation of the exquisite delicacy of his laundry; a Japanese emperor careful not to wake up his lover; Barthes as a young boy offering gifts of leaves and pebbles to his mother; Schopenhauer’s parable of the porcupines struggling to find the right distance that would keep them warm, but not too crowded… Charming in their unsystematic character, these “scintillations,” as Barthes called his fragments, crystallize in an imaginary of distances.
The lectures were only published in 2002, and translated into English in 2012; they are still relatively unknown, and in the context of Barthes’s oeuvre, perhaps something of “an imaginary trophy,” like Mallarmé’s water-lily –– unless they are used in the way the late professor intended them, as a starting point for future research. My book takes seriously his suggestion that we need “a science, or perhaps an art of distances,” and gives it weight through a systematic close reading of the Western philosophical literature on friendship and community, in which the notion of interpersonal distance has a venerable history (Aristotle dwells on it in books VIII and IX of the Nicomachean Ethics, Montaigne in “Of Friendship,” Emerson in “On Friendship;” Nietzsche commends love of the farthest in “To the friend” in Thus Spoke Zarathustra; in related manner yet in a different spirit, Freud’s Civilization and Its Discontents takes note of a “narcissism of minor differences” …); as is the case, I have found, in contemporary reflections on being with others (Derrida’s “distance-ability,” Heidegger’s passages on distantiality in Being and Time, Wittgenstein’s no-distance approach to language as the fundamental shared human experience, Levinas’s ethics grounded in the postulation of an infinite distance from the radically different Other). Iris Murdoch’s critique of the two major philosophical traditions, continental and analytic, steeped, according to her, in solipsism (Sartrian existentialism is the typical example) and convention (the “view at Oxford” in the 1950s) is instrumental in shaping the view that at the heart of much of Western philosophy lies the enduring question of the one and the many, of self and others, engaged in a tireless search for the ideal distance. These texts and views reveal the guiding question of Barthes’s Comment vivre ensemble to be a profound and enduring one: “At what distance should I keep myself from others, in order to build with them a sociability without alienation and a solitude without exile?”
The Art of Distances is premised on the assumption that, if there is a philosophical “science of distances,” there is, indeed, an “art of distances” as well: I have uncovered it in a strand of twentieth-century European and Anglophone literature – in the work and life of George Orwell, Paul Morand, Elias Canetti, Iris Murdoch, Walter Benjamin, Annie Ernaux, Günter Grass, Damon Galgut, and others – a strand which investigates the question how to live with others at historical moments when there were no consensual social norms for ethical or moral behavior. These writers and thinkers show that Adorno captured something defining of the spirit of the age when he observed somewhat cryptically that “it [had] become part of morality not to be at home in one’s home:” uneasy with their “home” (social class and available political options, enshrined moral norms, culturally intelligible modes of relating to others, and, importantly, existing modes of writing), they challenged received wisdom, delved into the particulars and conflicts of lived experience and engaged in intriguing social and literary experiments: bodily immersion in the grimness of poverty, daily observation of the lives of other people, passionate dissection of crowd-experiences or of personal relationships, examination of self-legislating communities that might “restore dignity to life” and connect the secular to the spiritual. The outcome is a strand of texts of hybrid form or genre, such as fictionalized/journalistic reportage, literary travelogue, fictionalized autobiography, philosophical novel, anthropological-sociological-literary study, autobiography-chronicle, which raise – at least implicitly, but always inevitably, urgently – the question of the role of intellectuals and writers (Morand, Canetti, Grass are in this respect highly controversial) and the place of literature in society.
In short, in the problematic of distance – in the varied approaches these writers have taken to establishing the grammars, idioms, imaginaries and ethics of proximity, immersion, identification, hesitation with which we might engage one another, particularly in moments of social disruption and crisis – I have found an original reflection on the question of the ethical life, which grants literature the position of a uniquely eloquent participant in a conversation about how people lived in twentieth-century Europe. The aim of my study is to explain how the question of the right distance between oneself and others became a fundamental one for these writers and thinkers, what forms and genres they proposed in order to convey the complexity of this quest, how and why they were often misunderstood – not only by their contemporaries, but also by later readers and critics.
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