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Recognizing the Ache of the Other: Jonathan Franzen's Reasons for Bothering
University West, Department of Social and Behavioural Studies, Division for Educational Science and Languages.ORCID iD: 0000-0002-5076-0468
Number of Authors: 22014 (English)In: Ethics and Poetics: Ethical Recognitions and Social Reconfigurations in Modern Narratives / [ed] Champion, Margrét Gunnarsdóttir & Goloubeva, Irina Rasmussen (eds.), Newcastle upon Tyne: Cambridge Scholars Publishing, 2014, p. 107-134Chapter in book (Other academic)
Abstract [en]

Having undermined any notion of innocent language, postmodern fiction has been criticized for its loss of connection to the social sphere, rendering null and void its potential for bringing about political reconfigurations. All that postmodernist authors can manage is self-reflexive irony—a parody of representation. Yet, as a result of essays like “Why Bother?” (1969), Jonathan Franzen has been placed in a new category of writers who are worried that the inertia of postmodernism has robbed them of serious readers. “Where to find the energy to engage with a culture in crisis when the crisis consists in the impossibility of engaging with the culture?” he asks.

  Franzen’s most recent novel Freedom is his attempt to answer this question. Focusing on his characters’ deep anxiety and sense of remorse at having made mistakes in their lives, he portrays their relentless agonizing over bad decisions as illustrations of the flip-side of their liberty, or rather, what it is grounded in: ethics. Freedom is a heavy burden, especially for the novel’s female protagonist, who, as a teen, has rejected her politically active, New York-liberal family to study and play basketball in the more conservative Midwest. The hyper-competitive Patty Berglund’s efforts—first to be a team-player, then to be as “good” as her self-righteous, environmentalist husband Walter, and finally to trump his moral superiority by over-mothering their son Joey—all backfire on her, leaving her to self-medicate a mid-life depression with alcohol.

 As Emmanuel Levinas posits, prior to our sense of freedom is the recognition of “the other in me,” which comes with an infinite responsibility. For Levinas, justice is what recognizes rather than institutes this responsibility. In his essay “Difficult Freedom,” he asserts that ethics is the primordial religious emotion, and that justice should be the raison d’être of the state, not the other way round. This essay will demonstrate that it is not any codified moral law that brings about justice. Rather, it is the recognition that freedom is always already preceded by a primordial responsibility to the face of the Other, which is in turn checked by the presence of a third party. It is this ethical challenge that drives the plot of Franzen’s novel about people who, in the words of the Berglund family’s neighbors, have to “figure out how to live.” 

 

 

Place, publisher, year, edition, pages
Newcastle upon Tyne: Cambridge Scholars Publishing, 2014. p. 107-134
Keywords [en]
ethics, freedom, Jonathan Franzen, Emmanuel Levinas
National Category
Humanities Philosophy
Research subject
HUMANITIES, English
Identifiers
URN: urn:nbn:se:hv:diva-6188ISBN: 9781443856416 (print)ISBN: 1-4438-5641-X (print)OAI: oai:DiVA.org:hv-6188DiVA, id: diva2:714767
Available from: 2014-04-29 Created: 2014-04-29 Last updated: 2015-06-24Bibliographically approved

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Walker Bergström, Catharine

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