Too Much Happiness, Too Much Suffering … Never Enough Reality through Narrative
This paper uses the controversial new book by David Shields, Reality Hunger, which advocates a new literary form, the “lyric essay,” to argue for the importance of retaining what Shields hopes to discard: a respect for and attention to the individual context and specificity of writers’ ideas and reflections on what constitutes truth. Referring to phenomenologists Iris Murdoch and Emmanuel Levinas, it emphasizes the moral nature of giving full attention to the Other as applied to the art of narrative. To illustrate the role of narrative in enhancing readers’ attention and moral consciousness, we discuss Alice Munro’s title story of her collection Too Much Happiness. In it the real-life mathematical genius, Sophia Kovalevsky, is presented as a woman whose one great love was poisoned by the man’s resentment of her acclaim as the first woman to receive the prestigious Bordin Prize. Munro’s narrative exemplifies the otherness of genius as well as the humanity of this woman’s loss of love and life. W.G. Sebald’s mixture of memoir, illustrated travelogue, and historical reflection on the unfathomable suffering of the Holocaust, as exemplified by the first story of his collection The Emigrants, exemplifies Levinas’s moral precept that we are responsible to be present to the Other in life as well as in the isolation of death. We explore these authors’ use of narrative to position readers as attentive outsiders to the suffering and isolation of Others, even as they face their own death.