Interrupted Discourse and Ethical Judgement in Jonathan Littell's The Kindly Ones

Abstract

No text exists within a moral vacuum, and the considerable success of Jonathan Littell’s The Kindly Ones comes with serious criticism of its perceived ethical messages. This is unsurprising, given the subject matter: Littell’s first literary work is the story of Maximilien Aue, a fictional Nazi SS officer who escapes prosecution for participating in the mass murder of Jews, as well as for raping his sister and murdering his lover, his best friend and – as the novel implies – his mother and stepfather. Having taken a false French identity after the war and become a successful industrialist, Max narrates his memoirs as an older man, seemingly unrepentant for his participation in the Holocaust, which he puts into writing with over 900 pages of precise, disturbing detail. Written in French, American-born Littell’s detailed descriptions of extreme violence and sex have been labelled by some critics as ‘death porn’, and have invited comparisons to Sade and Georges Bataille. Andrew Hussey has called these French authors ‘controversial influences – it is possible to read both Bataille and Sade simply as advocates of extreme cruelty’ (Hussey 2007). In this paper, it is my intention to analyse the ethical considerations in The Kindly Ones to show what I believe is an intentional resistance to the reduction of specific characters and stories, the latter resulting in generalising ethical messages. I will take Hannah Arendt’s analysis of Adolf Eichmann as an example in order to investigate how The Kindly Ones simultaneously entertains and resists Arendt’s concept of the banality of evil as a paradigm for perpetrators in general, which creates a type of ethical confusion, similar to Robert Eaglestone’s interpretation of Emmanuel Lévinas’s term “interrupted discourse”. I believe this constitutes Littell’s critique ofhuman moral systems and will argue that the interrupted discourse of The Kindly Ones, far from being an unethical text, allows for the emergence of a universal ethical perspective beyond flawed human judgement.

Keywords

Holocaust

How to Cite

McFadden, R., (2010) “Interrupted Discourse and Ethical Judgement in Jonathan Littell's The Kindly Ones”, Opticon1826 8.

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Ronan McFadden (UCL)

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