Two decades have passed since Joseph Brodsky used his Nobel address to advance the idea that “aesthetics is the mother of ethics.” Yet despite the increasing prominence of ethics in literary studies during this time, very little has been written to elucidate his claim. One thing the “turn to ethics” in literary studies has produced is a rise in popularity of Emmanuel Levinas among critics. The invocation of Levinasian responsibility, with its refusal to entertain a practical or normative ethics, demonstrates, among other things, how far some streams of ethical criticism have traveled from the politically inflected theory of earlier decades. In this article I place Levinas's writings alongside the critical prose of Brodsky, whose radical commitment to poetry—what Seamus Heaney called his “peremptory trust in words”—is set at a similar theoretical distance from the idea that the didactic, the deontological, or the political may be constitutive of ethics. To admit from the outset that Brodsky's maxim is inimical to Levinas's project—which is to establish ethics as the mother of philosophy, as it were—is to acknowledge that the rapprochement intended here cannot be in any sense final. Instead, in collocating Levinasian reflection on encounter, the originary, and the face-à-face with Brodsky's writings on poetry, I want to give philosophical substance to Brodsky's musings on the ethics of aesthetic encounter while simultaneously demonstrating one way Levinas can inform literary criticism.

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