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Reading the individual: the ethics of narration in the works of W. G. Sebald as an example for comparative literature

Edinburgh University Press
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  • Education


The discussion is situated largely in the field of Comparative Literature and World Literature, in Damrosch’s sense of literature read beyond its own borders, with specific reference to the German exilic writer W. G. Sebald; but the issues raised concern the wider and more urgent sense of a crisis in the Humanities, not only in the UK but around the globe. The questions addressed here concern the possibility of reading or understanding an ‘other’, whether by that one means an individual or, by extrapolation, a whole culture or society for whom the named individual is taken as a representative; the argument is pursued first in the context of modern languages and literatures departments under the threat of extinction in the English-speaking world, and then in the more particular context of teaching women’s writing (or by extension any other ‘marginal’ writing) in such departments. However, the problems inherent in the attempt to ‘read the other’ are much more general—indeed universal. A non-Western, if not precisely post-colonial, context incites an acknowledgement of the seductiveness of self/other binary concepts, especially for those cultures which may be said not to have the same tradition of individualism and selfhood. Sebald provides the turning point: the Western European writer who depicts the failure of selfhood so dramatically that he may paradoxically inspire a model of moving beyond concepts of mutual alienation that seem to preclude empathy.

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