The Morals of a Song. Ethics of Literature in W.F. Hermans’s ‘An Emancipation’ - De moraal van een lied: literaire ethiek in W.F. Hermans’ ‘Een ontvoogding’

Marc De Kesel


The analysis of Willem Frederik Hermans’s first short story, ‘An Emancipation’ (1941), faces the question in what sense this story (as well as literature in general) is able to present us something morally bad, while upholding an ethical dimension. The essay shows that, in the moment we lose ourselves in the ethically reprehensible character, we remain floating on the beauty of the story. This experience of beauty is not unethical per se. It acknowledges us in our irreducibility to the standards and ideals we nonetheless cannot miss. It recognizes our (formally) tragic position with respect to our ethical values and standards – a position, with which we wrestle, without ever being able to escape those values and standards or to leave them behind. That vain fight typifies an essential aspect of our humanity. The ‘ethical’ autonomy of literature allows us to acknowledge this.


Ethics; Humanity; Literature; Evil; Beauty / ethiek; humaniteit; literatuur; het kwaad ; schoonheid

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