Otherwise Than Being: Levinassian Ethics in Victor Hugo's 'La Force des Choses'

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In the Préface de Cromwell (1827), Victor Hugo argued that opposites feed into one another in art as in life, dispersing and destabilizing the boundaries between categories without disintegrating them. Ugliness could be beautiful, and vice-versa, since nothing is absolute in a universe of endless creation. This dissolution of fixed identity positions into a more transient and boundless notion of being was vital to Hugo’s notion of infinite creativity as the hallmark of an ultimately free human condition. These Romantic dialectics of being anticipate the ethical turn in twentieth-century philosophy that we now identify with Emmanuel Levinas. Levinas refigured totality as infinity so as to think ‘autrement qu’être’, thereby moving western thinking away from ontological notions of categorical being towards the idea of alterity and Otherness. This move is necessarily incomplete (for the Other can never be reduced to the Same), but it must be initiated if self-interest is to be opened up to altruism. Such an embrace of changeability as an inexorable but inestimable reality of existence is animated through Hugo’s endless decentring and realignment of subject positions in an œuvre that he likens to an ocean of shifting surfaces and immeasurable depths. In this chapter, I investigate these mostly ignored parallels by exploring one of Hugo’s most philosophically charged poems, ‘La Force des choses’ (1853). Such a reading serves a dual imperative: firstly, to chart the interplay that Hugo insists upon as a poète-philosophe between poetic imagination and philosophical reason in all human endeavours, and which Levinas’s own ethics imply; and secondly, by extension, to challenge Levinas’s Platonic hostility to poetry as an exceedingly lyrical and subject-centred medium, so as to emphasize poetry’s ability to think in terms 'otherwise than being', resisting ontological category.
Translated title of the contributionThinking 'Otherwise Than Being': Levinassian Ethics in Victor Hugo's 'La Force des Choses'
Original languageEnglish
Title of host publicationThinking Poetry: Philosophical Approaches to Nineteenth-Century French Poetry
EditorsJoseph Acquisto
Place of PublicationBasingstoke
PublisherPalgrave Macmillan
Number of pages16
ISBN (Print)978-1-137-30363-9
Publication statusPublished - 2013

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