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Department of English, NTNU


Michael Ondaatje’s The English Patient (1992) has been celebrated for itsdramatic scenario tying together themes of espionage, nationalism andtraumatic love during the Second World War. Seeking to extend the novel’smost commonly explored topics regarding the problem of Western humanismand the characters’ troubled identities, this article offers an ethical examinationof it. It brings Ondaatje’s novel into a dialogue with Levinas’s response to thedead end of humanistic enterprise in the West, by critically drawing on the threewriters’ discussion of face, patience, and eros as conduits through which aremoval of ontological aggrandizement of the self is envisioned. Derrida’scriticism of Carl Schmitt, on the other hand, helps direct Levinas’s thread ofthought toward a more contextualized interrogation of the friend/enemydualism in wartime, during which the other is separated only to be assimilated.For Ondaatje, registering his characters’ affective mobility of identity in transitinvites readers to contemplate the long-held self-sustaining system in the West.Delving into the approaching death faced by Almásy and Katharine, Ondaatjeconsiders the act of mourning as a gesture marking a specific manner of bearingresponsibility—a form of responsibility for others that goes beyondexistentialist accounts of intersubjectivity. This consideration of the act ofmourning is shared by Levinas and Derrida, relating as it does to the ways inwhich they regard mourning as a reflection of time in patience and as an ethicalreaction to the aggressive practices of homogenization that results from theself’s one-way communication with the other.