Reference : Precarious Selves in Contemporary British War Novels
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Precarious Selves in Contemporary British War Novels
Steveker, Lena mailto [University of Luxembourg > Faculty of Humanities, Education and Social Sciences (FHSE) > Department of Humanities (DHUM) >]
Narrating 'Precariousness': Modes, Media, Ethics
Korte, Barbara
Régard, Frédéric
[en] Judith Butler ; war novels ; trauma
[en] This essay takes its cue from Butler's notion of precariousness, delineated in her study Precarious Life: The Powers of Mourning and Violence (2004). But while Butler is concerned with the events of 9/11 as the US-American seminal catastrophe of the early twenty-first century, this essay focuses on fictional representations of WWI and WWII, the two wars which turned out to determine European and, indeed, World politics throughout the twentieth century. The novels discussed in this essay are examples of how fictional texts of both the twentieth and the twenty-first centuries are involved in critically (re)evaluating the British perspective on these two wars which can be described, each for its own particular cultural, political and ideological reasons, as having exposed the precariousness of human existence.
Pat Barker's Regeneration trilogy (1991-1995) is engaged in demythologizing WWI as a 'great' war. A.L. Kennedy’s Day (2007) is concerned with undermining the notion of WWII as a 'just' war the British fought in defence of civilization and humanity. Each novel problematizes the damaging effects which the inhumane conditions of industrial warfare have on human psychic stability. Both Barker's trilogy and Kennedy's novel feature protagonists whose traumatic war experiences have caused them to develop split personalities; and it is with the help of these characters' mental instabilities that the texts negotiate the precarious consequences entailed in a self's complete loss of control and power over one's own well-being. Next to discussing each author's particular representational strategy of narrating her protagonist's split into self and internal other, the essay also analyses the different ideological agendas underlying Barker's and Kennedy's texts. As the essay shows, both writers' protagonists strive to reconcile self and internal other in order to reaffirm their identities. But while Kennedy's Day is indebted to liberal humanism in its celebration of 'high' art and its supposed unifying effects on human Selfhood, Barker's novels suggest a reconciliation of traumatized self and internal other which is best analysed through the lens of Levinasian ethics. The Regeneration trilogy, the essay argues, privileges a concept of dual, if not multiple selfhood by representing healing as the ethical acceptance of difference, not its repression or expulsion. Thus, Barker's novels defy the violence which, according to Levinas, comes from subjecting the other to the self's understanding.
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