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Institute of Medieval and Early Modern Studies (IMEMS)


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Publication details for Dr Kathryn Banks

Banks, Kathryn. (2003). The Ethics of 'Writing' Enigma: A Reading of Chrétien de Troyes’ Conte du Graal and of Lévinas's Totalité et infini. Comparative Literature 55(2): 95-111.

Author(s) from Durham


This unusual exercise in comparative studies reads the twelfth-century Conte du Graal by Chrétien de Troyes together with the twentieth-century text Totalité et infini by Emmanuel Lévinas. These texts share a concern with enigma and interpretation: they imply that enigma should be interpreted, yet also that interpretation threatens enigma because of a priori assumptions about the object of interpretation. This shared anxiety plays itself out on the level of the interpretations invited by Totalité et infini and the Conte du Graal themselves as texts: both forestall modes of reading which undermine their enigma. By exploring and comparing the ways in which this occurs, the essay aims to enrich the reader’s understanding of both texts. In particular, both return repeatedly to their key terms, and this can have differing implications for enigma.

The Conte du Graal and Totalité et infini both represent a trajectory between a home associated with the feminine or the maternal, and a guilty encounter with mystery. Enigma surrounds these images and is apparently situated in the subject’s relations with others, or the Other. Thus, the essay discusses notions of intersubjectivity. In Totalité et infini the object, or the Other, is posited as the source of mystery, whereas in the Conte du Graal mystery seems to be located in the intersubjective relation itself. However, the essay argues that Totalité et infini is, ultimately, ambivalent concerning the location of enigma: it may be situated not in the Other but rather in a strange relation of simultaneous difference and sameness between subject and object, as in the Conte du Graal.

The essay also examines other texts, both medieval and modern. It suggests that the Conte du Graal manifests concern about a model of interpretation which, in Béroul’s Tristan and Chrétien’s Chevalier de la Charrette, is inadequate to interrogate masculine identity. The connection between identity and the relationship with the mother in the Roman de Thèbes is compared to that in the Conte du Graal. Finally, the essay engages with the psychoanalytical concept of intersubjectivity in Lacan’s Quatre concepts fondamentaux de la psychanalyse: the abstract spatial metaphors of the Quatre concepts facilitate a deeper exploration of the convergences and divergences between Lévinas’s representation of subjectivity and enigma and the representation of subjectivity in both the Conte du Graal and the Quatre concepts.