Penny Fielding (University of Edinburgh)

Posted on Friday, March 5th, 2010

‘Stevenson and the Politics of Friendship’

The literary friendships of the 1880s have not generally been thought of as a significant moment in English Literature.  Usually viewed as coteries of second-rate ‘bookmen’ or ‘men of letters’, these groups are either taken as sociologically interesting or forgotten as minor figures swept away by modernism. This talk challenges such an assumption by focusing on the key figure of Robert Louis Stevenson. Stevenson documents the strangeness and difficulty of the dyad of friendship in ways most closely approached by Jacques Derrida’s Politics of Friendship. Friendship, Derrida argues, is an aporetic relationship in which the promise of universal equality comes up against claims of partiality. If friendship is a form of fraternity to be extended to any given person, what happens when one has certain friends rather than others? And if friendship is also a relation of partiality how can friends be equal with each other?

This was a situation Stevenson faced, not merely in a straightforward sense in his social life, but as a challenge to the idea of human relationships in general expressed in the friendship he conducted in writing. The paper will focus on his relationship with Walter Ferrier, who was ‘supposed’ to die after the ever-sickly Stevenson. Ferrier’s death causes him to reflect on the way he has controlled and managed this relationship as an expression of himself. In a series of mourning letters to others of his friends, Stevenson negotiates this problem: that in elevating Ferrier, he also manipulates their relationship, and that although friendship should be an infinite and universal value, Ferrier, as an expression of the highest friendship, is finite and determinate. Along the way, Stevenson’s speculations on death, proximity, time and a ‘haunting bodily sense of absence’ complicate any idea of a comfortable and predictable belle-lettrism in Stevenson’s literary friendships.

Categorized as Abstracts

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