Dramas of decision: Ethics and secrecy in Henry James, Jacques Derrida and Gillian Rose

Research output: ThesisDoctoral Thesis

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Ethics is more than difficult; it is an anxious opening onto the realm of judgement and perception. It has to confront desires appearing as principles, be exposed to the unintended consequences of action, and come to terms with the stark and often irreversible brevity of decision-making. No wonder, then, that ethics can dissimulate itself into morality; that it needs the security of ideals and confident codes for behaviour. Ethics, however, cannot be conflated with morality; it hesitates to lay down laws and frustrates expedient answers. It questions more than it affirms. It is a drama of discrimination. True ethics is a disenchanted ethics.

This dissertation argues that such a disenchanted ethics—one that embraces rather than rejects hesitancy, difficulty and indecision—can be found, partially exposed, partially buried, in the late novels of Henry James. Though there is no ethics per se in these novels—in the sense of a conscious project of formulating a system—an ethics developed through obliquity and eqivocation is nonetheless inextricable from the reticence of James's late style, the complexity of his social scenes, and above all, from title themes of friendship, love, secrecy, mourning and decision-making that recur again and again in his broken and disillusioned worlds.

An anxious ethics is not new and is not confined to literature (though this may be its genuine home). Thus the thesis also explores other authors who negotiate—sometimes successfully, sometimes not—similar anxieties: Jacques Derrida, Gillian Rose and, to a lesser extent, Jean-Luc Nancy, Maurice Blanchot and Søren Kierkegaard.

Secrecy is a constant motif in the dissertation and is used to couple James's oblique approach to the above themes, especially decision-making, to the thought of Derrida and Rose. In the first chapter, secrecy is related to friendship, in the second, mourning. In the penultimate, it is considered essential to decision-making and, in the last, it is associated with love. In James's late novels, the anxious suspensions between intention and effect, speech and silence, innocence and experience, not only preserves the secrecy of the secret—it also inspires other ways of thinking and being. Every chapter deals with the difficulty of decisions as they inflect and inform the themes of love, friendship, mourning and secrecy.
Original languageEnglish
QualificationDoctor of Philosophy
Awarding Institution
  • University of Queensland
  • Thwaites, Anthony, Principal Supervisor, External person
Award date21 Dec 2002
Place of PublicationSt Lucia, Brisbane
Publication statusPublished - 27 Nov 2002


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