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Rethinking Literature and Evil: Comparative French and Francophone Perspectives

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Organizer: Andrew Billing

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This seminar’s purpose is to explore literary works on “evil” from a comparative perspective. It invites papers on evil in French and Francophone literature from all regions and periods, as well as comparative papers that include a francophone component. Theoretical papers welcome.

In the seminar, we will explore evil and its conditions of representation in literature, primarily in fiction, theater or poetry written in French. Our starting point is the proposition that today, the predominant criterion of literary value does not seem to be aesthetic. Instead, it has become fashionable again—at least in popular and journalistic discourse—to insist on the moral and normative value of literature, which is held to be an art form whose purpose is to provide edification and exemplars of moral and political virtue. Literary works that seemingly condone or offer ambivalent or neutral explorations of evil are considered to be dangerous and socially harmful, their reading to be discouraged or “banned” by appeals to various powers or authorities.

While this contemporary moralization of literature is sometimes reductive, it is unrealistic and probably impossible to avoid evaluating literature in terms of moral categories. This is due not just to questions of the ethics and politics of representation, of who can say what, how, and when. The themes and meanings of literary works–short fiction, the novel, theater, poetry—also suggest an intrinsic relationship between literature, ethics, and perhaps also politics, as affirmed by the proponents of littérature engagée. Literature characteristically explores questions that include the nature of the moral or political good, but also what counts as evil in a particular historical or cultural moment or encounter.

This seminar, then, invites contributions on literary works that explore the nature of “evil,” broadly understood. In these works, “evil” could signify questions of interpersonal ethics; or political evil; or a problem of anthropology or human nature. It might arise in reference to histories of conquest, imperialism, domination, and resistance, or categories of race, gender, or class oppression. It might also arise in a metaphysical or religious sense, in the form of an evil that challenges or transcends the limits of language, representation, knowledge, and understanding.

The seminar will be particularly interested in placing in dialog works willing to confront evil in its relationship to violence or trauma; or that attempt to historicize evil; or conversely to explore how its excess resists its conversion and incorporation within convenient ethical and political categories or representational schemes.

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