The Journey to Self-Awareness in Levinas' Philosophy and the Irish National Tale

Essay, 2010

14 Pages, Grade: 1,0


Table of Contents

1 Introduction

2 Prejudice behind the Representation of the Other

3 Overcoming Prejudices

4 The Journey of Becoming
4.1 The Alterity of the Other
4.2 Self-Awareness Through The Encounter with the Other

5 Is There Place for Nationalism?

6 Conclusion

7 Bibliography

1 Introduction

Already in ancient times the image of the Other was negatively connoted with it being imagined as a monster creature, dog-headed or monocular, which has manifested itself in the opposition of the ‘civilised’ and the ‘primitive world’. With this construct it is easier to integrate the foreign reality into the own cultural horizon of knowledge. This builds the starting point for the thesis of this essay that suggests that only through the unprejudiced encounter with the Other can the Self truly be. The idea derives from Kant’s theory that claims that in order to be ourselves we need to combine with other people (Wohlgemut 2009).

Therefore, what is attempted in this essay is to analyse the process of self-awareness in Maria Edgeworth’s Ennui (1809), Lady Morgan’s The Wild Irish Girl (1806) and in Levinas’s The Trace of the Other (1986). In his philosophy of encounter, Levinas promotes the devotion to the Other. For him, the key to ethical commitment lies in the encounter with the Other. As will be shown in the course of this essay, the two discussed Irish national tales develop their narrative around this philosophy of encountering the Foreign that brings about self-awareness. To set a ground for the analysis, chapter two is dedicated to explore the phenomenon of mythologising the Other. Subsequently, chapter three shall analyse in what way Edgeworth, Lady Morgan and Levinas promote the shedding of the myths that develop around representing the Foreign. The process of overcoming cultural borders shall be looked at in more detail in chapter four. Furthermore, chapter five shall elucidate the national characters displayed in the Irish tales and contrast them to Levinas’ philosophy. Lastly, chapter six will conclude the essay in a retrospective analysis.

2 Prejudice Behind the Representation of the Other

The image of the Foreign is often based on myths that inevitably leads to stereotyping. This may result in prejudice through which people attempt to comprehend the Other and to classify it into their own horizon of knowledge (Beller & Leerssen 2007: 11, 17). Prejudices often involve a devaluation of other individuals and groups, from which the judging subject attempts to positively demark itself. The employment of stereotypes has far-reaching consequences on the perception and construction of the cultural reality of the Foreign. Characterising foreign ethnicities as ‘exotic’ or ‘barbarian’ rather dissimulates than sheds light on the view on their real character. By trying to translate the Foreign into categories of the own culture, it is deprived of its own character (Beller & Leerssen 2007: 425-432). The ability to recognise and respect the Other in its alterity, namely the understanding that the own capability of knowledge is limited, is the only way to prevent individuals of trying to perceive the foreign culture by means of stereotypes and prejudice. Thereby, the real character of the Other can be revealed and allows the self to combine with the Foreign, which is an essential process in the Irish national tale. Similarly, Levinas points out that in the course of prejudiced perception, the Other cannot possibly be recognised and understood and thus remains an enduring mystery. Relationships can become reality only by encountering the Other as a subject. Every fixing of an individual to a certain character goes beyond the framework of immediate encounter and thus, marks the Other as an object. This means that we need to distance ourselves from what we have always known about others and replace the equal signs by question marks, which enables a true encounter (Levinas 1986). In this sense, the following chapter is dedicated to explore the process of shedding own prejudices to truly encounter the Other that in Ennui and The Wild Irish Girl brings about true self- awareness, which Levinas observes as the basis for ethics.

3 Overcoming Prejudices

Lord Glenthorn and Horatio come to Ireland with the perception that in foreign territories everything is different than at home. Their expectation leads to their astonishment about how similar Ireland (especially Dublin) is to England (especially London) and on the other hand to their amazement about the peculiarities of Ireland.

This wonderment about the Foreign is a basic condition for understanding foreign cultures beyond rigid projective misjudgements. What the astounded person explores thereby is not just the alterity, but rather the incomparableness of the foreign culture (Dietsche 1984: 7). This implies what Levinas calls a conscious differentiating, but at the same time dignifying confrontation with the Other (Levinas 1986). Thereby, natural distances are maintained and the individual is perceived in its uniqueness. Only the real encounter that goes beyond what we have always thought to know about the Other can widen our horizon. It is the alterity of the Other and not prejudice that qualifies a real encounter. The perceived Other is only a trace and should not freeze to supposed knowledge (Newman 2000: 109). The latter claim can be observed in The Wild Irish Girl with Horatio not becoming fully Irish, but being at the border between English and Irish. This is different in Ennui , with Lord Glenthorn acquiring an alternative Irish identity.

At the outset of their travel writing, Lord Glenthorn and Horatio are biased by the cultural perception of their English education. Their prejudice gives reference of epoch- specific, national and class-specific evaluation norms of the English. This manifests that conventions and strategies of representing the Other are determined culturally, historically, sociologically and literary (Leerssen 2007: 17-33). In this manner the strong connection to the protagonist’s own norms and value systems results in an impaired and distorted representation of the Irish. The two protagonist’s initial attitude can be regarded as ethnocentrist that has the tendency to view the life forms, norms, value-orientations of the own culture as the only genuine ones. According to this concept, the fundamental superiority of the own culture in contrast to other cultures is out of question. This perception frequently results in the condemnation of the Other or at least in the belief in the own superiority (Andersen & Taylor 2006: 67). The attitudes of Lord Glenthorn and Horatio at the outset of the novel are influenced by this approach and make it impossible for them to understand the specific functional mechanisms of the Irish culture. This, however, progressively takes its turn with Lord Glenthorn and Horatio overcoming their cultural prejudices and bonding with the Irish character. Such as Edgeworth and Lady Morgan oppose ethnocentricity, Levinas basically questions the theoretical groundings of Western philosophy that is focusing on the subject. He does not approve of the philosophical theories that make the Self as a subject authoritatively judge moral categories and truths (Levinas 1986: 346). With his ethics of dialogue and encounter, Levinas supersedes exclusion and discrimination of heterogenic varieties by approaching the Other. A real encounter is made possible by opening up to the Other and by allowing it to be unique. Accordingly, Edgeworth counteracts the initial ethnocentric attitude of Lord Glenthorn, and so does Lady Morgan with Horatio, by promoting interculturality and the possibility of change. Lord Glenthorn, on the one hand, unites with the Other by becoming Irish himself. Horatio, changes too and achieves self-awareness, but rather in the sense of Levinas’s philosophy, which claims that the true Self can be met in a gradual self-identification by looking up at an alterity. This leads to the ethical and assymetrical relationship of face-to-face encounter. The Other is not recognised as the alter ego, but remains different, a difference that is inconceivable (Bernasconi 2000, 62). This journey of self-awareness through the encounter with the Other shall be looked at in more detail in the subsequent chapter.


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The Journey to Self-Awareness in Levinas' Philosophy and the Irish National Tale
University of St Andrews
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Journey, Self-Awareness, Levinas, Philosophy, Irish, National, Tale
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Robert Stolt (Author), 2010, The Journey to Self-Awareness in Levinas' Philosophy and the Irish National Tale, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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