Of Beauty and Its Other: Janet Frame's Ethical Aesthetics
In this thesis, I argue that Janet Frame's experimental aesthetics are the manifestation of an ethical impulse that runs throughout her oeuvre. In making such an argument, I contribute to the recent scholarship that places her work in relation to the thought of Emmanuel Levinas. Read within this theoretical context, Frame's aversion to traditional modes of representation reveals an ethical engagement with the elusiveness of the human subject. However, after examining Levinas's writings on art, I suggest that the invocation of his philosophy vis-à-vis literature is not without problems of its own. For Levinas, all art is an instance of the beautiful, with the beautiful fostering a ludic form of social disengagement. It is therefore necessary to move both with and beyond Levinas's thought for an account of how Frame's fiction might operate ethically. To this end, I turn to Theodor W. Adorno's aesthetic theory. Adorno questions the ethical capacity of traditionally beautiful and realist art because he considers it to preclude the singularity of its subject matter; conventionally ugly aesthetics, by contrast, offer an ethical alternative to the extent that they stem from an engagement with alterity. I propose that Frame intimates this ethical alternative in A State of Siege (1966). Although Frame's realism in this novel seems to belie an aesthetics of ugliness, her performative critique of the beautiful—the way that the text calls its own aesthetics into question—points to the limits of the beautiful and thereby allows an ethical impulse to appear through the fabric of a realist aesthetics. Extending my reading of this earlier novel to the last of Frame's novels to be published in her lifetime, I claim that Frame's commitment to the ethical capacity of the ugly finds its most mature expression in The Carpathians (1988). Through the employment of formal fragmentation, this novel is able to evoke the uniqueness of its characters. By consistently manifesting an ethical concern, albeit in markedly different aesthetic registers, Frame models a sociality that embraces alterity, gesturing toward a more peaceful mode of being with others.
Advisor: Drichel, Simone
Degree Name: Master of Arts
Degree Discipline: English and Linguistics
Publisher: University of Otago
Keywords: Janet Frame; Emmanuel Levinas; Theodor W. Adorno; Ethics; Aesthetics
Research Type: Thesis