Navigation – Plan du site

AccueilNuméros42Le rienThe Ghost of Ethics in the Englis...

Le rien

The Ghost of Ethics in the English Modernist Short Story

Le spectre de l’éthique dans la nouvelle moderniste anglaise
Stephen Ross
p. 7-20


Cet article propose en préambule une distinction entre le rien et le néant, en relation avec d’autres termes comme « la chose », « quelque chose » et « le tout ». Il démontre par la suite le fonctionnement du rien dans certaines des nouvelles les moins connues d’E.M. Forster comme un élément qui ne serait pas privé de substance et garantirait l’ouverture des récits. Pareille ouverture devient l’espace d’une possibilité utopique, qui fait écho à leur absence de clôture thématique et formelle. Grâce à cette ouverture, elles ne cessent d’en revenir au registre de la spectralité, invoquant le langage des fantômes et de la hantise, en même temps que leur dialogue avec le rien pour indiquer que, même si elles ne peuvent clairement évoquer la nouvelle réalité éthique du vingtième siècle, elles peuvent en imaginer la possibilité et en souligner la présence — bien que ressentie comme absence. Les nouvelles étudiées sont « The Purple Envelope » et « Dr. Woolacott ». Dans les deux récits, un rien empêche la clôture narrative et indique la possibilité d’une version différente du récit traditionnel, qui privilégie clôture et totalisation. Ce mouvement est symptomatique de la nouvelle moderniste anglaise et fournit une clé essentielle pour lire l’éthique qu’elle met en mouvement, même si une vision éthique complète n’y est pas présentée.

Haut de page

Texte intégral

1Perhaps the most surprising thing about modernist short stories is how different they are from modernist novels. Much of the seriousness with which modernist novels are associated fades in the short stories—often by the very same authors—to be replaced by elements of the strange, weird, and occult that are relatively scarce in the longer prose works. Edith Wharton, for example, author of such novels of manners as The Age of Innocence, The House of Mirth, and The Buccaneers, also published several collections of ghost stories, including Tales of Men and Ghosts, Here and Beyond, and Ghosts. Where Wharton’s novels concern themselves with social niceties, with very little of the weird or uncanny in evidence, many of the short stories let loose to indulge her interest in spiritualist phenomena. The same holds for Henry James, Joseph Conrad, May Sinclair, and the author upon whom I focus here: E. M. Forster. Each of these, and many others besides, writes what we might think of as serious novels, but reverts to the uncanny materials of the weird tale and ghost story in his or her short fiction. Nor is this variance a slide from the sublime to the ridiculous, mere slumming, or simply an effort to pay the bills with popular works, though there is no doubt some of all three present in each case. Rather, I argue, weird short stories by modernist authors provide a venue in which these writers could preliminarily work out some complicated philosophical issues and—more importantly—achieve some key effects that were much more difficult of approach in the longer novel form. Chief among these issues is the problem of ethics, and chief among the effects they achieve is a sense of the world as fraught and enchanted. Perhaps the privileged means by which they combine the two as writers approached the problem of ethics in the short story was the nothing, le rien.

2In this context, le rien must be differentiated from le néant, quelque chose, le tout, and la Chose. To be very brief about it, I view le rien as the sort of nothing that has the potential for substance and consistency. It can materialise as nothing—as a present absent, or as the presence of absence. The best example I can think of here is a ghost, which is fitting, since that is also the focus of my reading of Forster below. Quite simply, ghosts are not: they are returned manifestations of something that was never here in the first place, revenants. They materialise an absence as a positive consistency that is not nothing at the same time as it is not something either. Le néant, by contrast, is pure absence that lacks consistency and is not susceptible to materialisation. It is something, perhaps, like the ‘clearing’ that Heidegger posits as anterior to the presence/absence dichotomy, or like the ‘non-intentional consciousness’ that serves as the unthinkable ground of thought for Levinas. Quelque chose, for variation, is simply some thing, anything that is, or more accurately, that is at some point in the process of emerging into or passing out of being. It is the most mundane of perceptual phenomena. Le tout presents a more difficult distinction, since if it really is all, then it must also include nothing, at least in its modality of le . It must also include le néant as its limit concept, as an unstatable assumption upon which its consistency depends completely. In Heidegger’s terms again, le tout corresponds to the matrix of presence/absence that emerges as all that is in the primordial clearing I have suggested corresponds to le néant. Finally, coming almost full circle, we have la Chose, Lacan’s version of das Ding, the obscene object that appears to contain the menacing/promising real of desire. In Freudian terms, la Chose is the Unheimlich, the familiar object that suddenly comes to seem frightening and strange, to contain something that exceeds it, that is in it more than it and that threatens to erupt into the world, shattering all apparent consistency, extinguishing consciousness, subjectivity, the world itself. In this respect, le rien bears an affinity to la Chose as one of its elements, perhaps akin to the role that antimatter plays in relation to matter. Indeed, the appearance of la Chose may well signal the advent of le rien as the threat behind the promise of attaining the objet a, the ‘horror’ identified by Kurtz when he finally stares into the heart of darkness in Conrad’s extraordinary tale of le rien’s capacity to disrupt imperialism’s ambition to become le tout.

3Just as the Latin rem gradually morphs into the French rien, in Freud’s observation the heimlich produces the unheimlich. In both cases the force of dialectics drives one term to produce its opposite, but always so that each term contains its contrary and can even—as in the case of the un/heimlich—mean the same thing. As Freud put it, the un is the token of repression, which in its turn is a function of repression (1961a, 236; 1961b, 245). I suggest that the un thus functions in parallel with the ne that transforms the rem into the rien, at once repressing its thingness and ensuring that it does not vanish from perception. Such a speculative etymology makes even plainer in the French context what is unavoidable in the English: nothing is no-thing, but that does not necessarily mean it does not exist. The ne plus ultra of this paradoxical formulation is the spectre. With its tendency to be both present and not present, both material and immaterial, both terrifying and ineffectual, the spectral affords an ideal figure—both rhetorical and perceptual—for the kinds of tension articulated in so simple a term as le rien.

4At the same time, its very paradoxicality and undecidability makes the spectral an ideal figure for the new ethical dilemma with which the modernists found themselves confronted. As the modernists approached the stark problem of ethical orientation in a world they were conscious of trying to separate from the immediate past and make anew, such dynamics intervened time and time again. As they tried repeatedly to lay the ghost of the previous century, many modernists discovered that it kept popping up in the least looked-for places. The more they attempted to render it fully absent, to transform its prior status as le tout into le néant, the more they found it returning as le rien, all too frequently as la Chose, an indissoluble shard of the real.

5This situation seems to have had especial relevance for the modernist attempt to reimagine ethics in the absence of what has been called the Victorian consensus. Finding, for example, that Kantian ethics depends upon forms of certainty that are no longer attainable—about oneself, about circumstances, about consequences—writers like Conrad, Forster, Sinclair, Wharton, James, Joyce, Butts, et al. became painfully aware that previous ethical models were no longer sufficient to the modern world. Shy of proclaiming definitive moral rules (at least in the early years), the modernists turned with remarkable frequency to the rhetoric of spectrality as they charted new ethical ground. Ready to hand thanks to the massive popularity of spiritualism in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, tropes of the ghostly proved nearly irresistible to many modernist writers who seem, at times compulsively, to turn to them when the approach to ethics grows difficult of approach.

6Part of what I want to suggest in treating Forster’s stories here is that the spectral affords perhaps the privileged trope of ethics in modernism. That is, I argue that the case of Forster illuminates a broader modernist phenomenon in which ethical engagement is most often taken up in terms of haunting. For the modernists, the ghost stands as the paradigmatic trope of indeterminacy at the same time as the dynamics of haunting encode the fraught effort to break with the past by which so many modernists came to understand the stakes of their work. For a variety of complex reasons involving race, sex, sexuality, class, empire, and species, Forster turned time and time again to the spectral in his quest for a middle ground between totalitarianism and nihilism, or, if you prefer, between being and nothingness. In so mobilising the figure of the ghost as an index to ethics itself, Forster charts a difficult course in which le rien serves as a marker of utopian possibility. That is, le rien in its ghostly manifestation becomes the very condition of possibility of ethics for Forster, inasmuch as it rejects totality in both its positive modality as le tout (totalitarian/Hegelian) and its negative modality as le néant (nihilistic).

7Let me now try to substantiate some of the above by turning to the late collection of Forster’s short stories, The Life to Come and Other Stories, first published in 1972, right after Maurice first saw the light of day, and corresponding to volume 8 of the Abinger Collected Works edition of Forster. This collection consists mostly of stories that remained uncollected in The Celestial Omnibus and the Eternal Moment (1911), and includes work that spans his entire career. The stories upon which I will focus are ‘The Purple Envelope’ (1904) and ‘Dr. Woolacott’ (1927).

8‘The Purple Envelope’ is among Forster’s earliest short stories. It follows a typical ghost story plot inasmuch as it turns upon a stolen inheritance and subsequent haunting. The basic plot runs like this: Howard’s grandmother’s will settled the family house and grounds on Howard, to be held in stewardship by his uncle. Howard’s uncle, fearing that Howard will hunt the animals on the estate and ruin the landscape, usurps him by forging the will. On Howard’s 21st birthday, a mysterious message begins to appear on his shaving mirror. There are missing words and letters, but the characters decipher the message thus: ‘The inexorable. . . [du]ring my own life, humanitarian principles. The purple envelope.’ Various theories are advanced and discounted, the most compelling of which are that either a ghost is writing on the mirror or Howard is sleepwalking and writing them himself. Also on the morning of his birthday, a mysterious woman leaves Howard a unique gun with an oval barrel and only one cartridge to fit. On the morning when the message is completed, Howard’s uncle enters the breakfast room to be told that the last words are ‘the purple envelope’, whereupon he collapses. Later that day he calls Howard to visit him, apparently to reveal a dark secret. The uncle rifles through a drawer of papers, looking for something that he cannot find. Howard offers to look, but his uncle forbids it and tells him that it is ‘nothing worth your notice’ (Forster 1972b, 48). The story reaches its climax that night, as Howard awakes to find his uncle—or his uncle’s spirit—in his bedroom. He nearly succumbs to the spirit’s murderous beckoning, but then raises the new gun and fires. There is no report because the gun misfires, but upon pulling the trigger Howard awakes to find himself alone in his room. He flees into the countryside where he catches and kills a rabbit with his bare hands in the morning before returning to breakfast. At breakfast he finds everyone in tears because his uncle has died in the night, though no sign of violence is in evidence. The tale ends with Howard in full possession of his rightful inheritance, a thoroughly unlikeable person apparently, but one of whom the narrator states ‘I stop with him whenever I get the chance’ (Forster 1972b, 54).

9Though critics have not yet pointed this out, it seems clear enough that the woman who leaves the gun is the ghost of Howard’s grandmother or mother, and that she has also taken possession of his uncle, who either in person or in spiritual form has been entering Howard’s room to write on the shaving mirror. We have here, then, a story of possession as well as a story of haunting that turns around multiple forms of nothing, variously materialised, dematerialised, hidden, stolen, or manifest. The absent envelope itself becomes an instance of the ‘nothing worthy of your notice’ as Howard’s uncle calls it—a ‘nothing’ that both has vanished from the phenomenal world (it never does turn up) and that generates the entire plot of the story, as well as a cascade of legal and proprietary effects for its characters. Likewise, the gun is actually good for nothing: not only does it have an oval barrel, making it impossible to obtain more ammunition for it, the single cartridge it comes with is filled only with bits of trash. In a sense, though, nothing is precisely what the gun is used for, if we credit the version of events in which Howard’s dream firing of the gun is in fact what kills his uncle. That is, the gun, good for nothing, in fact actualises the nothing for which it is good by bringing about the uncle’s death. It is also a good for nothing in two senses: first, it is a commodity that opens a gap in lineage so that Howard can reassume his rightful place; second, it is a good in the moral sense, righting a wrong (inextricably bound to property: more goods) through its lethality.

10At stake in both these materialisations of le rien is an alternative history, or rather the possibility of alternative histories that underlies ethical engagement. The gun emerges from the past and both plays a key role in an alternative history and enables another history’s advent. In the first capacity, it appears to be an artifact from another place where guns are made to different specifications than they are in Howard’s world, and it appears to be the means by which Howard kills his uncle, though the gun apparently misfires and when Howard awakes he is alone in the room. In the second capacity, of course, in its role as the means of Howard’s uncle’s death, the gun forestalls Howard’s uncle’s plan to transfer the title to the estate to his cousin and thus forecloses one history and enables the one in which Howard receives his rightful inheritance. This creates the interesting paradox at the root of practically all ghost stories: the alternative history is actually the legal history, the one that ought to have taken place. The purple envelope ratifies this reading inasmuch as it contains the valid legal will which would have settled the country estate upon Howard in the first place. In this sense, the purple envelope is the token of the un-heimlich, marking out the means by which Howard was literally un-homed. It estranges the familiar—that which is familial, the house not only as abode, but also as lineage and ancestry—by estranging it from its rightful heir. That the history it represses depends upon matrilineality, and that it is restored by a ghostly woman’s gift of an enchanted gun further complicates. This non-patriarchal lineage seems to align femininity and spirituality with Howard not by appealing to his masculinity, but by appealing to his animality. The uncivilised/unnatural is thus coded also as natural/supernatural as well as the legal, contractual, and genealogical. The avuncular is annulled as Howard feels hardly anything at all upon hearing news of his uncle’s death, and reverts to the wildness/savagery that is both what his uncle fears most and the most natural way of being for him: ‘and in his face there was neither affection nor anger nor remorse, nor any spiritual quality but the hunger of the beasts who are said to perish’ (Forster 1972b, 53). In this respect, the story is very much like so many others of Forster’s, in which the constraints of civilisation, science, reason, and culture are viewed askance, as unnatural and stultifying checks upon the free and easy—and ultimately positive—movement of desire, a movement that is characterised almost unremittingly by Forster as the substantive materialisation of a certain rien, a nothing that would be something if only the totality of what is did not exclude it.

11In ‘The Purple Envelope’, then, we encounter Forster very early on writing about le rien not as le néant nor as quelque chose, but as an actualised absence, denial, negation—a negation with substance—and doing so by writing a ghostly tale of haunting and possession. In ‘Dr. Woolacott’, by contrast, le rien is more akin to personne, and the determinate negation that gives it substance manifests more overtly in the form of a ghost and/or death itself embodied. The protagonist of ‘Dr. Woolacott’ is a young man named Clesant, who is an invalid. His ailment is non-specific, and he twice says enigmatically that it is simply ‘being [him]self’ that is the problem. This claim alone merits more discussion than I can provide here: how does it relate to Kierkegaard’s notion of the ‘sickness unto death’ that is human existence, to Heidegger’s thought about being-towards-death as the only authentic possibility of Dasein, and to Sartre’s sense of nausea as the right affect to go along with the loneliness and responsibility of being in an indifferent universe? On a more literary line, Clesant’s self-diagnosis resonates with Stein’s prescription for Jim in Conrad’s Lord Jim:

There is only one remedy! One thing alone can us from being ourselves cure! . . . A man that is born falls into a dream like a man who falls into the sea. If he tries to climb out into the air as inexperienced people endeavour to do, he drowns—nicht wahr? . . . No! I tell you! The way is to the destructive element submit yourself, and with the exertions of your hands and feet in the water make the deep, deep sea keep you up. (207–208)

12That is, Stein’s advice to Marlow is to submit to negation, to le rien as an element with substance and consistency that can be put to use to cure us from the sickness that is being ourselves.

13Something similar happens in ‘Dr. Woolacott’, as Clesant first encounters one of the hirelings on the property in the morning. In their conversation, the name of Clesant’s doctor, Woolacott, comes up, provoking a meaningful but enigmatic reply from the worker. That afternoon, the young man returns, washed and dressed more formally, supposedly to take Clesant up on his casual invitation. (That Clesant makes no such invitation, only telling the young man to go round to the kitchen for a drink is either an error on Forster’s part or a significant means by which Forster reveals Clesant’s powerful fusion of eros/thanatos beyond his consciousness.) This time Clesant is even more taken with the man, finding him attractive and even nurturing a growing passion for him. As they embrace, the worker says, ‘And to hell with Woolacott!’ (Forster 1972a, 89) The word sunders them, as it reminds Clesant of his fragile health and the doctor’s prohibition of any excitement whatever. The worker gradually reveals to Clesant that he knew Woolacott in France in the Great War, where he witnessed firsthand how every soldier Woolacott treated either failed to improve or died. When pressed, Clesant cannot himself recall any of Woolacott’s successes—indeed, he seems to be something between the angel of death and the worst doctor ever. At the sound of people approaching, the worker panics and asks Clesant to hide him. Clesant stations him in a cupboard. The servants burst in talking about the mysterious sound of the violin that has been heard in the house for the last half hour. Clesant collapses, but not before crying out ‘Don’t go to the cupboard, no one’s there’ (Forster 1972a, 93). Naturally, they go and check, and find no one there!

14In the ensuing delirium, Clesant converses with his disease and things get very weird. The disease tells Clesant that he had imagined the worker out of vanity, to feel desired. The disease insists that where the worker was imaginary, it is real, present, and can bring release through death. Clesant begins to panic, but the nightmare recedes and he begins instead to converse with the spirit of the worker, which promises him intimacy and passion. An argument ensues, with Clesant unsure himself whether he is trying to ‘reach or elude the hovering presence’ (Forster 1972a, 95). In the process, first all the members of the household and then everyone on earth appears to perish, to leave Clesant ‘alone with his ghost’ (Forster 1972a, 95). At that moment, the lights of Dr. Woolacott’s car are seen crossing the park and the spell is broken: ‘the dead revived, and went downstairs to receive life’s universal lord’ (Forster 1972a, 95). Clesant is left in the room now with the worker once more in the form of a living human ‘who had somehow trespassed and been caught, and blundered over the furniture in the dark, bruising his defenceless body, and whispering, ‘‘Hide me’’’ (Forster 1972a, 95). Clesant hides him again, this time under the bedclothes. As Woolacott approaches, the two intertwine their limbs, and talk:

‘Clesant, shall I take you away from all this?’
‘Have you still the power?’
‘Yes, until Woolacott sees me.’
‘Oh, what is your name?’
‘I have none.’
‘Where is your home?’
‘Woolacott calls it the grave.’
‘Shall I be with you in it?’ . . .
‘I can promise you that.’
‘Take me.’

15They entwined more closely, their lips touched never to part, and then something gashed him where life had concentrated, and Dr. Woolacott, arriving too late, found him dead on the floor. (Forster 1972a, 96)

16Le mort, la petite morte, desire, eros/thanatos, all meet in this melodramatic triumph of le rien over le tout of medical science, social protocol, class difference, and reason. Woolacott, ‘arriving too late, found [Clesant] dead on the floor’ (Forster 1972a, 96).

17As is common with modernist ghost stories, ‘Dr. Woolacott’ then concludes with a final paragraph that leaves open the possibility that the events really were supernatural and not just the fevered experience of Clesant in his illness and repression:

The doctor examined the room carefully. It presented its usual appearance, yet it reminded him of another place. Dimly, from France, came the vision of a hospital ward, dimly the sound of his own voice saying to a mutilated recruit, ‘Do let me patch you up, oh but you must just let me patch you up . . .’ (Forster 1972a, 96)

18Le rien is thus given consistency—it is not simply the nothing of a fevered brain, a hallucination that amounts to nothing of consequence. Instead, it takes on the positive consistency of real events. The ethereal sound of the violin that draws the servants to Clesant’s room gains materiality as the marker of a presence that can only be detected by those to whom it has chosen to manifest itself. Moreover, the consistency thus afforded le rien in ‘Dr. Woolacott’ bears directly upon history and upon a critique of the prosecution of the Great War. Woolacott comes to stand in as a figure for the disconnected old men who pushed the continuation of the slaughter even as a generation of young men died in futility. That he remains alive, hale and hearty, and still treating people while a million men like the worker (or his spirit) who visits Clesant is a reproach to the civilisation they supposedly died defending. In this regard, Clesant’s neurasthenia is as much a social as an individual illness, marking out a repressed knowledge that is the dark side of history. This is not simply another instance of the widespread fear of degeneration, though. Instead, it seems to anticipate Derrida’s reading of the pharmakon, the medicine that is also a poison.

19Le rien in this case operates as a shape-shifter whose ultimate essence seems to be death, though it can assume the forms of sexual desire, passion, excitement, and disease. The resonances are diverse: the worker was a soldier in the Great War, the disease is existential rather than physiological, and the diagnosis both calls into question how the line between disease and health is drawn even as Dr. Woolacott’s record calls into question the standing of medicine, science, and reason versus narrative, folklore, and affect. Representing death as le rien rather than le néant, Forster here again takes the side of le rien as susceptible of concretisation. For him here, le rien again manifests as an alternative, a life in the grave that promises all that the deadened life above ground withholds. Of course, for Forster, chief among these is the pleasure of homosexual sex, and the clumsy handling of the final union of the two lovers in their petite morte—which is also the triumph of death itself—betrays a fascinatingly Freudian conflation of death with pleasure: jouissance as the fusion of eros and thanatos in the victory of le rien over both le néant and quelque chose.

20I will close by taking up a term I have not yet discussed in relation to the various inflections of le rien in Forster’s—and modernism’s—short stories: La Chose. For Lacan writing in the 1950s, La Chose functions in a Kantian register which will increasingly be supplanted, seeing La Chose replaced with the notion instead of jouissance. In Seminar VII, Lacan writes extensively about La Chose/Das Ding as the unbearable object-cause of desire, the objective that promises exquisite pleasure, but also unbearable pain if it is attained. It is at once the ultimate thing and the extinction of subjectivity, the supplement that makes the déhiscence that structures subjectivity into an unbearable excess that takes us outside subjectivity finally. In this respect, it is a thing that brings about nothing, une chose that by-passes le rien en route to le néant. It is annihilating by virtue of its delivery of the missing thing whose absence makes being possible. In this sense, it materialises the Heideggerean clearing mentioned above and promises to return us to that clearing, that primordial state outside the presence/absence dialectic that structures being. In this regard, La Chose does not quite fit with the other terms I have addressed so far: le rien, le néant, le tout, le quelque-chose. In part this is because La Chose encompasses and exceeds all of them together: it is something and no-thing, everything and nothing. As such, it is in a sense the ideal means of expressing the role played by the ghostly in Forster’s stories, and in modernist short stories more generally.

21La Chose thus offers a means of resolving some of the tensions remaining in ‘The Purple Envelope’ and ‘Dr. Woolacott’. In a sense, when I have written above of the materialised rien, I could just as well have referred to La Chose. That is, the purple envelope itself, the object of desire for Howard’s uncle and the key to unlocking the rightful distribution of objects of desire to Howard, remains invisible or absent. The jouissance it promises is too intense, its suppression the source of Howard’s uncle’s suffering, and its gradual emission the cause of his death. If it existed, it would be unbearably frightening to Howard’s uncle as the proof of his iniquity and means for reversing his theft of Howard’s birthright. For Howard, it would be jouissance materialised, a letter that reaches its destination in the fullest possible sense, by restoring to him ownership of his family’s seat and the right to destroy it or preserve it as he sees fit. It would, in short, make him into the Hegelian master whose every desire is instantly gratified. That it cannot be found is thus not just a mysterious element in the tale, but a necessity for it. As La Chose, the purple envelope cannot be allowed to exist as a thing since it is the thing (das Ding).

22In ‘Dr. Woolacott’, La Chose functions more purely like jouissance, with its direct implication in the erotic link between Clesant and the farmhand. It directly links the manque à être that plagues Clesant (he suffers only from being himself) to the promise of homosexual love and equates them both with death. Dr. Woolacott’s promise of death by ineptitude and long suffering is the mundane earthly equivalent of the fiery orgasmic death enjoyed in one final moment of extinguished subjectivity by Clesant as the story concludes. In this respect, the erotic thrill he experiences is neither just his own psychic illness nor a purely supernatural visitation. Instead, as La Chose, the farmhand and his promise of erotic gratification create discursive distortions through the story, clues for the attentive reader that point to some element outside the text of the tale that motivates its existence and guarantees its consistency. The violin music that perplexes the servants has no structural or narrative importance in the story other than to gesture beyond it. Likewise, within the story we find inconsistencies such as the farmhand’s reference to an invitation to return that was in fact never extended. Where, then, did it come from? Why does Clesant accept this reason for his return, when he must know that he did not make the offer in the first place? Forster thus gives the lie to Derrida’s famous claim that ‘il n’y a pas de hors-texte’ (158–159) by suggesting that its frequent mis-translation into English is more accurate: ‘there is nothing outside the text.’ Indeed. Or perhaps there is only La Chose outside this text, the materialisation of Forster’s own prohibited desire and the jouissance it produced in articulation for him, in decoding for his readers, and in the freedom it offered modernism to explore its own limitations.

23There is, ultimately, an ethical force to Forster’s toying with various modalities and valences of le rien in his short stories. Placing le rien between le néant and quelque chose, and introducing the relative significance of terms like le tout and La Chose, Forster stakes out territory for an other-wise between nihilism and totalitarianism. Only le tout is proscribed, for its totalitarian tendencies. Given his own phantasmal experience as a gay man, an experience that placed him on the occulted and marginalised side of science, medicine, society, the speakable, the thinkable, and the doable, Forster had, I conjecture, a particular affinity for a rien that could be materialised, realised. His erotic, weird short stories are themselves instances of La Chose that haunts and distorts so much of modernism, promising the jouissance they could not name. As a practitioner of the love that could not be spoken, and the unrequited lover of an Indian man as well, Forster was well familiar with taboos. As a member of the post-Oscar Wilde generation, he was likewise aware of the price to be paid for playing too carelessly with those taboos. Confronted with the impossibility of accepting total absence as the condition to which he was consigned, or accepting the totalising contours of the normative, Forster turned in his short stories precisely to the indeterminate space of le rien as the ground for possible ethical innovation. Precisely because it is neither some-thing (quelque chose) nor pure nothingness (le néant), le rien holds open the door to a more just possibility, one that rejects both being and nothingness by making nothing be—which is precisely, after all, how one of the most piercing recent thinkers of ethics, Jacques Derrida, defines justice itself. In the name of an avenir à venir, Forster re-tools le rien in a variety of ways to forestall the kinds of intolerance and exclusion that forced him to suppress so many of his short stories until so late in his life. In doing so despite the need for this suppression, though, Forster likewise made the future in which they could be published possible.

Haut de page


Conrad, Joseph, Lord Jim (1900), ed. Cedric Watts, Peterborough, ON: Broadview, 2001.

Derrida, Jacques, Of Grammatology (1967), tr. Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak, Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins UP, 1976.

Forster, E. M., ‘Dr. Woolacott’ (1927), The Life to Come and Other Stories. London: W. W. Norton, 1972a, 83–96.

Forster, E. M., ‘The Purple Envelope’ (1904), The Life to Come and Other Stories. London: W. W. Norton, 1972b, 36–54.

Freud, Sigmund, ‘Negation’, The Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud, Volume XI; The Ego and the Id, and Other Works, ed. and trans. James Strachey, London: Hogarth, 1961a, 235–39.

Freud, Sigmund, ‘The Uncanny’, The Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud, Volume XVII; An Infantile Neurosis and Other Works, ed. and trans. James Strachey, London: Hogarth, 1961b, 217–56.

Haut de page

Pour citer cet article

Référence papier

Stephen Ross, « The Ghost of Ethics in the English Modernist Short Story »Études britanniques contemporaines, 42 | 2012, 7-20.

Référence électronique

Stephen Ross, « The Ghost of Ethics in the English Modernist Short Story »Études britanniques contemporaines [En ligne], 42 | 2012, mis en ligne le 16 juillet 2014, consulté le 24 janvier 2021. URL : ; DOI :

Haut de page


Stephen Ross

University of Victoria.
Stephen Ross is an associate professor of English and Cultural, Social, and Political Thought at the University of Victoria. He has published Conrad and Empire (Missouri, 2004) and Modernism and Theory (Routledge, 2009) as well as a dozen articles on modernist literature in English. He is presently General Editor of the Routledge Encyclopedia of Modernism and founding co-director of the Modernist Versions Project

Articles du même auteur

Haut de page

Droits d’auteur

Licence Creative Commons
Études britanniques contemporaines est mise à disposition selon les termes de la Licence Creative Commons Attribution - Pas d'Utilisation Commerciale - Pas de Modification 4.0 International.

Haut de page
  • Logo Presses universitaires de la Méditerranée
  • Logo ERIH +
  • Logo DOAJ - Directory of Open Access Journals
  • OpenEdition Journals
Rechercher dans OpenEdition Search

Vous allez être redirigé vers OpenEdition Search