Date of this Version
The George Eliot Review 48 (2017)
I will argue that the ethical pluralism characteristic of Eliot's late writings anticipates Levinas's rejection of legislative, deontological ethics in the early 1960s, especially from Totality and Infinity (1961) onward. Both Eliot and Levinas problematize an intellectualist or theoretical ethics that fails to attend to our moral experience as an embodied and affective process. They are both sceptics of their inheritances of moral theory, and in their work attempt self-consciously to re-orient or reconstruct that inheritance. For Eliot, Feuerbach is a major encouragement to rethinking the grounds for moral agency; for Levinas, it is the philosophy of Husserl and Heidegger that forms the basis of his ethical programme. Levinas's radical (even hyperbolic) stance against Western philosophy as it had hitherto existed, his attack on the Enlightenment narrative as a structure that subsumes the individual into a higher totality, is not the spontaneous articulation of a new philosophical position. His stance is responsive, incorporating recent Continental philosophical influences alongside a profound influence from the Talmudic writings. Notably in Daniel Deronda and Theophrastus Such, Eliot shares with Levinas this debt to the Talmud, and shares also his welcoming disposition towards an increasingly multi-ethnic society.
What aligns these writers more than anything else, however, is a self-reflexive scepticism - a scepticism turned inward upon the self and upon the claims to authority of the writer's own philosophy. 'Philosophy is not separable from scepticism', Levinas writes, 'which follows it like a shadow it drives off by refuting it only to find it at once again on its footsteps' (OBBE 168). In Otherwise Than Being, Or Beyond Essence (1974), Levinas revises and responds to Totality and Infinity (and to Derrida's de construction of the text in 'Violence and Metaphysics', 1969) with a renewed awareness ofthe limits of his philosophical method; his philosophy, alert to its own aporia, has to be reworked. Totality and Infinity and Otherwise Than Being chart (both separately and in their relation to each other) a similar intellectual trajectory to Eliot's increasing ambivalence about the ethical claims of realism. Her realism shows a similarly self-reflexive, increasingly self-questioning relationship to itself. For Eliot, it becomes gradually evident that realism is not separable from scepticism, and finally that realism is not the only valid vehicle for philosophical reflection on ethics.
This essay will implement a Levinasian reading of Eliot's late fiction, Daniel Deronda and Theophrastus Such, with some attention also to her earlier novella 'The Lifted Veil' - the three texts least associated with the 'moral realist' mode Eliot was and remains best known for. By putting in dialogue the ethical phenomenology of Emmanuel Levinas and Eliot's later fictions, the essay will unpick the ethical re-orientation of Eliot's works from a normative ethics grounded in sympathy and compassion for others to the late narratives' experimentation with different ethical modes of being. Like Levinas's 'Ethics of Ethics', Eliot's late moral philosophy engages the ethical complexity of the self-other relation - interweaving dialectically an ethics of responsibility, which privileges being for the other over the individual's self-concern, and an ethics of sensibility, which relies on (and cannot dispense with) egoistic self-concern in the making of moral judgements.