Aesthetic Detachment and the Ethics of Testimony in 20th Century Literature

Activity: Talks or PresentationsOther Invited Talks or Presentations


We usually associate aesthetic detachment with indifference to moral considerations. In the famous formulation of Oscar Wilde/There is no such thing as a moral or an immoral book. Books are well written or badly written. That is all." Unsurprisingly, such commitment to ethical indifference comes under pressure when literature turns to the representation of great historical traumas. Can we afford to say that a book is simply "well written or badly written" if it deals with such topics as the Holocaust or the transatlantic slave trade? My newly funded RGC project focuses on those contemporary authors who seek to reconcile the ideal of aesthetic autonomy with the ethical imperative of testifying about historical trauma. Authors like Christopher Okigbo, Oanilo Kiš, Caryl Phillips, Milan Kundera, Boualem Sansal, have all declared and elaborated an almost Wildean detachment from both moral considerations and communal responsibilities while at the same time dedicating their writings almost entirely to such topics as the struggle against political oppression (Okigbo, Kundera, Kiš, Sansal), the traumatic experiences of Jewish Genocide (Kiš, Phillips, Sansal) and slavery (Phillips). My project explores the ways in which these authors balance aesthetic and ethical considerations, the kinds of theoretical arguments they produce in the process, and the formal choices they make in the name of this dual commitment.
Period5 Oct 2021