, Volume 47, Issue 1, pp 21–37 | Cite as

Between Plenitude and Responsibility: Notes on Ethics and Contemporary Literature

  • Eugenio BolongaroEmail author


This article moves from the observation that one of the key characteristics of contemporary Italian fiction is a preoccupation with ethics and more specifically with the issues raised by the “ethical turn” in contemporary philosophy and theory. Current literary criticism, it is argued, has been slow to respond to the ethical dimension of these narratives whose innovative and important cultural contribution has yet to be fully appreciated. It is therefore necessary to develop a keener sensitivity to the ethical discourses developed in these literary texts, but this can only be achieved by first confronting some fundamental questions about the relationship between ethics and literature today. The answers to these questions make it possible to elaborate an initial conceptual framework that can re-orient reading and enable the critic to respond adequately to the ethical issues raised in and by the narrative. Accordingly, in this article the author proposes to explore from a theoretical perspective the relationship between ethics and literature in the context of the historical and philosophical predicaments of contemporary society. The discussion is divided into two parts: the first is devoted to an exploration of contemporary ethical thinking, and the second on the contribution that literature can make to that thinking. In the first part, the author proposes an approach to ethics based on the virtue tradition which, since Aristotle, has defined ethics as the search for "the good life." This tradition, however, is transformed through an engagement with the work of Gilles Deleuze and Immanuel Levinas. From Deleuze the author draws the idea that the good life is one devoted to pursuing human plenitude through the multiplication of connections and intensities. From Levinas, on the other hand, emerges a powerfully haunting description of an ethical life marked by absolute responsibility for and obligation to the other. These two seemingly opposed views are not construed as irreconcilable and contradictory but rather as vectors which keep opposing tensions in check and ultimately define a necessary negotiation between the desire for human plenitude and the acknowledgement of responsibility for other human and non human life. Ultimately my argument is that such tensions establish the ethical terrain in which contemporary narratives seek to intervene. In the second part of the article, the nature and possibilities of such an intervention are explored through six theses which provocatively articulate the relationship between literature and ethics. The cornerstone thesis is that literature is an encounter. Each subsequent thesis endeavours to develop this initial assertion and explore its consequences. The theses are accompanied by a gloss which unfolds its meaning and significance: the answers that the given thesis provides but also the questions that it raises. Together, the theses provide a heuristic framework for a literary criticism sensitive to ethical issues and therefore capable of grappling with the important cultural work carried out in fictions that have struggled to receive the recognition they deserve.


Ethics Literary theory Contemporary fiction Italian literature Comparative literature 


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© Springer Science+Business Media B.V., part of Springer Nature 2018

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Department of Languages, Literatures, and CulturesMcGill UniversityMontrealCanada

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