Levinas, Storytelling and Anti-Storytelling 9781472548047, 9781441124159

The telling of tales is always a troubling business, and the way in which we tell stories about ourselves and about othe

217 73 1MB

English Pages [172] Year 2013

Report DMCA / Copyright

DOWNLOAD PDF FILE

Recommend Papers

Levinas, Storytelling and Anti-Storytelling
 9781472548047, 9781441124159

  • 0 0 0
  • Like this paper and download? You can publish your own PDF file online for free in a few minutes! Sign Up
File loading please wait...
Citation preview

Acknowledgements I am grateful to a number of readers of earlier drafts of this text, including Helen Chapman, David Webb, Jonathan Rée and Barry Taylor, as well as the anonymous reviewers for Bloomsbury Academic, whose incisive comments have been extremely helpful in shaping the text. Extracts from Umberto Eco’s Baudolino are used by arrangement with Random House UK and published in arrangement with © RCS Libri S.p.A. – Milano, Bompiani (2000). I am grateful also to Duquesne University Press for permission to quote extracts from Levinas’s Totality and Infinity, and to Syracuse University Press, for permission to quote from Franz Rosenzweig’s ‘The New Thinking’, translated and edited by Alan Udoff and Barbara Ellen Galli (1998). Finally, I am grateful for permission to use extracts from Le Città Invisibili/ Invisible Cities by Italo Calvino, copyright © 1972 by Giulio Einaudi editor s.p.a., English translation by William Weaver copyright © 1974 by Harcourt, Inc., copyright © 2002 The Estate of Italo Calvino, published by Secker and Warburg, and reprinted by permission of The Random House Group Ltd. and Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company. All rights reserved.

x

Introduction I cannot remember precisely when I first heard the name of the naturalized French, Lithuanian-born philosopher Emmanuel Levinas; but I can remember one afternoon, well over ten years ago now, sitting hunched over a copy of his book Totality and Infinity in a small Welsh farmhouse, as outside the rain beat again and again on the window, making my way painstakingly through the strange and tangled text in front of me (a ‘thicket of difficulties’ the introduction warned, without any guarantee of finding game), alternately frustrated by its opacity and startled by moments of seeming insight, and then looking up with the realization that I had never read anything like this before. From the very start, there was something difficult about Levinas. There was both an attraction and a repulsion as I read the book, as if the text was simultaneously drawing me in and pushing me away. Levinas’s work was exhausting. It was compelling. It was frustrating. And it was to continue to obsess me for many of the years that followed. This is a book about Levinas, about philosophy and about stories. As a philosopher, my instincts have always been those of a storyteller. Philosophy is many things, but the practice of storytelling, it seems to me, is not only frequently a part of the philosopher’s repertoire, but also an often unstated one. Even when denying that this is what they are doing, philosophers often work by pulling stories out of their bags of tricks, so that they can better illustrate their points, or persuade us, or fool us, or seek our assent, or make us sit up and take notice, or affect us in various other ways. Certainly, this is the case with Emmanuel Levinas, a philosopher whose books seethe with stories. In Levinas’s work, Dostoyevsky rubs shoulders with Abraham and Isaac, Shakespeare with Russian folktales, Macbeth with Mephistopheles; and yet, if Levinas is a storyteller, he is also a storyteller who wrestles with and against the storyteller’s art, a storyteller who oscillates between the weaving of tales and an unease with their enchantments. He is a philosopher who tells stories that seek to overturn each other, that jostle against each other uncomfortably. He is a thinker who, like Plato, is at one moment spinning a yarn

2

Levinas, Storytelling and Anti-Storytelling

and the very next is warning solemnly of the dangers of telling tales. And even when Levinas attempts to leave behind stories entirely, as he does in some of his later work, driving almost every last trace of narrative out of his philosophy, he nonetheless maintains an insatiable hunger for the dramatic, twisting his prose into something highly strung and excitable, maintaining a feverish emotional pitch that quivers with intensity and that seems to cry out for the telling of multiple tales. This book aims to explore the place of stories and storytelling in the work of Emmanuel Levinas. On the one hand, it is a book that deals with a particular – and perhaps rather arcane – question in the history of twentieth-century thought: the question of not only how Levinas tells stories, but also of how he tries to undo the telling of stories. Levinas’s thought has often been applied fruitfully to many literary works, from the novels of J. M. Coetzee (Marais 1998, 2009) and Milan Kundera (Varghese 2007) to the work of comic-book artist Joe Sacco (Bartley 2008). In addition, many literary theorists have used Levinas as a way of asking fresh questions about the nature and ethics of literature (Newton 1995; Robbins 1999; Eaglestone 1997; Shankman 2010); and yet the question of Levinas’s own relationship with narrative, and the place of storytelling within his own philosophical output, is one that remains still relatively under-explored. So my first aim in this book is to explore this question in more depth, so that it might be possible to draw out some of the tensions, paradoxes and implications of Levinas’s complex approach to storytelling. However, I am interested in a bigger set of questions, questions that are not just of relevance to scholars of Levinas, but that have far broader implications. Among these are questions about the relationship between philosophy, litera­ ture and ethics; questions about what it might mean to write philosophically; questions about the rôle that stories may have in our lives and questions about how we might come not only to think about ethics, but also to navigate through the world, through all of the unclarity and half-light of our everyday experience, and in doing so manage to maintain what Levinas calls the ‘little humanity that adorns the world’ (Levinas 1981, p. 185). But, why Levinas? Why does Levinas matter? To answer this question, it is necessary here – as it will be throughout this book – to engage in a little storytelling of my own. For me, it started not with Levinas but with Heidegger. Years ago now, I was idling away a large part of the afternoon in a rickety secondhand bookshop on the coast of North-East England, and with more curiosity than purpose, I pulled a copy of Macquarrie and Robinson’s translation of Being

Introduction

3

and Time off the shelf, impressed by its weight and its air of seriousness. I found myself a corner of the shop, wedged in between piles of dusty volumes, and started to read. By the end of the afternoon, I had fallen under the spell of the book (not for nothing was Heidegger once called the ‘wizard of Messkirch’); and so I bought the book, took it home, and in the days that followed, a blunt pencil in my hand, worked through from start to finish, making notes in the margin, underlining, commenting. Until that afternoon, I had not considered that I might spend my time engaged in philosophy. My training was first as an artist and later as an anthropologist; and until reading Heidegger, I had maintained a mistrust of philosophy, which always seemed curiously distanced from the stuff of life, an exercise in empty and hollow abstraction. It was in Heidegger that I felt for the first time as if philosophy spoke to me not in the abstract but in the concrete. And in those first few days and weeks and months of reading Heidegger, it was as if a path was being opened up for me to new possibilities for thinking. Nevertheless, as time went on, Heidegger became an increasingly troubling figure. It was not just the awkward and tangled matter of his relationship with Nazism, and his later and much-discussed ‘silence’; it was also a sense that there was something that Heidegger was missing, a sense that Heidegger was a thinker who said only so much, that there were questions that Heidegger overlooked. And so, by pathways that I can no longer trace, I came at last to Levinas, and there I found something that I did not find in Heidegger: a sense of being put into question, a sense that we are answerable to the demands that are upon us. I found in Levinas something that no other moral philosophers seemed to be pointing towards: if this was a philosophy that was concerned with ethics, it was concerned with ethics in a fashion that went far beyond imperatives, or variations upon the hedonic calculus or contorted thought-experiments. Looking back, perhaps I have been influenced by Levinas more than by almost any other philosopher. Yet this is not just a matter of the way that I construct my arguments, not simply about the ideas that I have, the kinds of things I do as a philosopher, the books that I read. It is also a matter of the way that Levinas’s work, with its strange dramas and its curious stories, has affected me and repeatedly put me into question, not just as somebody who likes to think about ethics from time to time, but as a human being who has a life, who wakes up every morning and finds myself having to do something about the various circumstances in which I am immersed. And if I am putting my cards on the table here at the outset, it is because I think that Levinas’s work demands it of

4

Levinas, Storytelling and Anti-Storytelling

me. Too many philosophers (and perhaps Levinas himself might be included in their number) write as if they are something other than living, breathing human beings, beings with their own biographies and their own histories. I cannot begin to write about Levinas’s many stories and about his unease with storytelling, without some acknowledgement of the part that these stories and this unease have played in my own life, without some reference to the sheer mattering of Levinas within my life. Levinas writes that the ethical demand upon me, my responsibility towards the other person, is a demand that I might testify, that I might say the words ‘Here I am!’ (Levinas 1985, p. 109); and so it seems to me that, if I am to talk about Levinas’s own work, the work itself calls forth a kind of storytelling on my own part, an ability to say ‘Here I am!’, a testimony of sorts. However in what follows, by reading Levinas as a storyteller of ethics, I will be departing in several ways from the climate of his thinking. For one thing, I will be attempting to leave behind the theistic register in which Levinas writes. In reading Levinas and his commentators, it is hard to get away from the language of God, and assertions that this is a decidedly post-theological kind of God, a God who is ‘beyond Being’ or ‘otherwise than Being’, do little to reassure. They are denials that are denials in precisely the same way that Anselm’s proofs of God’s existence are proofs: they are convincing only to those who are already convinced. Levinas’s own sources are, on all sides, deeply entangled in theistic notions. It is unsurprising, of course, that for a thinker preoccupied by the idea of Judaism – the exegetical study of which he engaged in during his later years – the language and the idea of God might loom large; but the phenomenological tradition, particularly in the work of Levinas’s mentor Husserl, is also a tradition that is in many ways curiously religious. It was Derrida who warned, without the ‘theological context’ of Levinas’s thought, the whole edifice might collapse (Derrida and Bass 1978, p. 103). Derrida may well be right; but it is my hope that, if in what follows I push Levinas’s thinking to the brink of collapse, then any collapse of the edifice of his thinking will at least be an interesting collapse. And perhaps such a collapse is necessary if we are to see the broader applicability of some of Levinas’s often penetrating insights, beyond the register in which they are usually expressed.1 As a decidedly non-godly reader of Levinas, I will not be attempting to avoid the question of God in Levinas’s work – something that would leave nothing of the work other than an unfleshed skeleton – but will instead be attempting to take what could be called a broadly phenomenological route of bracketing out the language and the idea of God from the questions that Levinas explores;

Introduction

5

and because, as I hope to suggest in what follows, stories are at least one kind of phenomenology, this bracketing will take place by considering God as an element in the stories that Levinas is telling (and perhaps, at times, as a story or a bundle of stories). To be sure, this is an important element in these stories if we wish to appreciate his thought more or less on its own terms; but one of the things about stories, and perhaps about phenomenologies, is that divergent stories and phenomenologies do not necessarily cancel each other out. Indeed, in the best cases, they can lead to what anthropologist Clifford Geertz (drawing on a term coined by Gilbert Ryle) called ‘thick description’ (Geertz 1973). So my intention here is not so much the refutation of Levinas’s godly language as it is an attempt to see how, in bracketing out this language to a degree, we might be able to tell other possible stories about ethics, to move in directions of which Levinas himself was incapable. It is my strong belief that, in reading the philosophers, we are not compelled to sign up to their doctrines as we would agree to a creed. Nor are we required to systematically refute them, point by point, so that their thought might be replaced by a wholly new system. Levinas’s readings of his own philosophical mentors – Husserl, Rosenzweig and Heidegger, for example – were themselves idiosyncratic; and perhaps out of respect to Levinas himself, his commentators should be no less idiosyncratic, so that we avoid the trap that Simon Critchley identifies of Levinas scholarship being so very faithful to its subject matter that it ends up facing the risk of becoming ‘finally dull’, producing ‘only discipleship and scholasticism’ (Critchley 2004, pp. 172–3). There will be something of a fine balance in what follows: I hope that my argument will not be entirely unfaithful to Levinas, but at the same time, I fervently hope that I cannot be branded with the dubious adjective ‘Levinasian’. Navigating between philosophers of the calibre of Levinas, Heidegger and Husserl can be like taking a journey through deep space, with each philosopher a black hole. If you steer too close to any one, then there is a danger that you fall into a gravity well from which you might never emerge; but if you navigate with sufficient skill, then you can use the gravity of these different points in philosophical space to throw you out onto new trajectories. In such a situation, while Levinas may save you from falling into the fearsome gravity wells of Heidegger or Husserl (becoming a Husserlian or a Heideggerian is perhaps no more appealing than becoming a Levinasian), so may Husserl and Heidegger, for example – or for that matter Wittgenstein or Dan Dennett or an evening off philosophy, watching soap operas – rescue you from falling into the gravity well of Levinas.

6

Levinas, Storytelling and Anti-Storytelling

It may seem that this attempt to read Levinas in a sense non-theistically – at least insofar as I am taking ‘God’ to be not that which is purportedly ‘beyond being’, but instead as a bundle of stories or elements of storytelling for which Levinas and many of his commentators have a particular taste – is one that risks missing the point of Levinas’s work altogether. I can only point for justification to Levinas’s essay ‘Toward the Other’ published in the collection Nine Talmudic Readings, where Levinas writes, ‘My effort always consists in extricating from . . . theological language meanings addressing themselves to reason . . . it consists in being preoccupied, in the face of each of these apparent news items about the beyond, with what this information can mean in and for man’s life’ (Levinas 1994a, p. 14). My proposal that we might usefully read Levinas in terms of stories – that is, to read Levinas in a way of which Levinas himself might disapprove – may, in fact, allow us to chart a passage between the sometimes overtly theological tenor of much Levinas scholarship and the temptation that non-believers may have to dismiss his thought entirely on account of language of its expression. Levinas is a compelling thinker in part because, as an acute phenomenologist, he points to aspects of our experience that, even if we might overlook them, may nevertheless turn out to be crucial for the ways that we go about thinking about ethics. Part of what I intend to do here is to translate these acute insights into a different register, to think Levinas differently. However, if Levinas can be seen as a spinner of tales, he is perhaps an uneasy one. Levinas spends as much time dismantling stories as he does building them, and this unease with the charms and dangers of narrative is not entirely misplaced. There is, as Strawson (2004) has noted, a certain kind of fashion for talking about storytelling and narrative, and this fashion is one that often lacks a critical awareness of the limits of storytelling. But one of the reasons that Levinas is a compelling and persuasive thinker when it comes to thinking through our propensity for storytelling is that he recognizes the very real dangers that there are in the spinning of tales. Stories, over the centuries, have wrought a great deal of trouble. Levinas’s own apparent distaste for storytelling is closely related to his own history in which he and his family suffered from the appallingly destructive enchantments of the tales spun as a part of the ideology of Nazism. And yet, for better or worse, it seems to me that we are to some extent storytelling creatures who make sense of the world in part through the weaving and reweaving of stories. By thinking about Levinas in terms of the desire to tell stories and the desire to resist the telling of stories, perhaps we can hold this storytelling tendency itself up to ethical scrutiny, so that we can ask what is at

Introduction

7

stake ethically in the way that we weave and reweave tales, or what is ethically at stake in the ways in which our tales weave and reweave our selves and our relationships. This book is divided into four parts of somewhat unequal length. As the book unfolds, it will become apparent that there is a story of my own that I am telling, a framing narrative of sorts that will serve to give some kind of a structure to my argument. This framing narrative begins with the philosophical storytelling found in the work of Edmund Husserl who dreamed of the final unity of philosophy. It then moves through the various equivocations and fault lines that run through Levinas’s earlier work, in particular, his book Totality and Infinity, where we can witness the break-up of the kind of philosophical solid ground of which Husserl dreamed, with multiple fissures opening up in the orderly structures of Husserl’s thought. Following these fault lines still further, we will come to the turbulent world of Levinas’s final major work, Otherwise than Being. Here, the territory of Levinas’s thinking becomes so broken and fragmented that it is no longer clear that we can talk about this being a ‘territory’ at all. I will take as my image of this territory that turbulent and profoundly unsettling river of stones reported in countless travellers’ tales: the Sambatyon, which lies at the limits of the known world. The river Sambatyon, in many of the ancient accounts, is said to be unfordable, for it rests only on the Sabbath, hence its name, but on this day the faithful and the godly are not permitted to travel. But in this somewhat ungodly reading of Levinas, it may be possible to chart a passage beyond the Sambatyon, to other territories that are not accessible to the faithful, to cross over to those far lands and to discover new possibilities. The first part of this journey from solid ground to the shores of this curious river and beyond is called ‘Philosophers and Storytellers’. Here, I will attempt to set the scene by examining the background to Levinas’s philosophy in the work of two very different thinkers, Franz Rosenzweig and Edmund Husserl. Rosenzweig was himself an advocate of storytelling as a method for practising a form of ethical philosophy, while Husserl was a philosopher who began his career aspiring to return to first principles in the search for absolute scientific rigour and who ended his days with the rueful admission that he too was a spinner of yarns. Levinas’s debt to both these thinkers is announced at the very beginning of his major work Totality and Infinity, where he writes that his whole philosophical project is underpinned by a reading of Rosenzweig, but where he then goes on to say that he attempts to explore the questions raised by Rosenzweig using the method proposed by Husserl (Levinas 1969, p. 28).

8

Levinas, Storytelling and Anti-Storytelling

So in this first section, I will explore the various tensions and paradoxes that arise from Levinas’s attempt to weave a passage between these two black holes, between the advocate of storytelling Rosenzweig and the reluctant teller of tales Husserl, between Husserl who dreamed of solid ground and Rosenzweig who attempted to begin to dismantle such philosophical dreams. In doing so, I set out some of the themes and perplexities that are to come, and already it will be possible to feel the solid ground for which so many philosophers have hoped beginning to tremble beneath our feet. Part 2, ‘Stories’, looks more closely at Totality and Infinity to see how these tensions play out in Levinas’s work. Totality and Infinity is perhaps the book, out of all of those in Levinas’s strictly philosophical output, that seems to engage most in the telling of stories. However, to make sense of the stories in Totality and Infinity, it will also be necessary to explore some of the stories on which they depend, those in Levinas’s earlier works Existence and Existents and Time and the Other. As this part of my argument proceeds, it will become clear that Totality and Infinity does not provide us with anything like a single philosophical tale. Instead, the book is more like a loosely stitched anthology, or a cycle of tales that encompasses horror story, quest narrative, genealogical history, pastoral and erotic idyll. The tensions within and between these different kinds of stories impart a great deal of the dynamism to Levinas’s arguments, allowing Levinas to quite deliberately open up cracks and fault lines in his philosophy, to begin to break apart the smooth surfaces of thought. In Part 3, ‘Anti-Stories’, I will turn to Levinas’s later book, Otherwise than Being. If Totality and Infinity can be seen as a book that engages in a storytelling of sorts, Otherwise than Being could be seen as a kind of anti-storytelling, a book that attempts to resist the temptation to tell any tale whatsoever, that does its best to kick over the traces of the storytelling in Totality and Infinity until they are entirely effaced. But what makes Otherwise than Being such a compelling book is that even while Levinas may be deliberately refusing to tell stories, he has not left behind drama. Indeed, the drama of Levinas’s thought at this point is, if anything, intensified to an almost feverish pitch. Drama, in other words, without stories: a strange situation, and one in which it will appear as if we have been led on a journey to the very limits of what is sayable in philosophy. This part of my argument will open with a more detailed consideration of Levinas’s anxieties around storytelling, anxieties that are rooted both in the Greek and Judaic traditions, before seeing what kind of extraordinary territory Levinas has led us to in his attempt to resist the lure of storytelling. This section of the

Introduction

9

book ends with an attempt to chart the turbulent territory of the strange river of stones that is Otherwise than Being and with some troubling questions about where Levinas’s anti-storytelling has left us in terms of the possibility of ethics. In the final part of the book, ‘Otherwise’, I will take my leave of Levinas by attempting to go beyond the limits set by Levinas’s philosophy. In this final section, I will attempt to ford the Sambatyon and to thereby set out some directions for new travels, new itineraries and perhaps new phenomenologies of ethics in the company of the great storyteller and crosser of borders, Marco Polo. For it may be that somewhere beyond the river of stones we might be able to tell new stories and to raise new questions about the stories that Levinas himself tells. And this may help us to think afresh about the relationship between ethics and the stories that we tell.

10

1

Of Stars and Scientists

The boundary between philosophy and storytelling is always necessarily blurred. From Plato telling tales of caves and flickering fires to Descartes’s fireside meditative yarn-spinning to Hegel’s stories of the wayfaring of Spirit (Rée 1987, p. 80), philosophers have always made use of the storyteller’s art; and if Totality and Infinity is Levinas’s best-known and most widely discussed book, this is in part because it is here, perhaps, that Levinas tells the best, or at least the most compelling, stories. First published in 1961, Levinas’s book tells tales of love and of death, of adventure and of injustice, of multiple needs and desires, of erotic delights and metaphysical quests. But these stories are themselves embedded in a wider set of tales. Storytellers and philosophers never invent ex nihilo. They borrow, they steal, they refashion the tales and thoughts of others. So in Totality and Infinity, Levinas not only retells and to some extent refashions the stories that he has told in earlier works, but also draws on countless other stories told by others: tales found in the Biblical texts, the plays of Aristophanes and Shakespeare, Plato’s philosophical yarns about rings of invisibility and so on. To understand Levinas’s own philosophical storytelling in Totality and Infinity, it will be necessary to spend some time setting out the context of Levinas’s argument and its relation to his own philosophical forebears. Levinas is often scrupulous in admitting his debt to other thinkers; and at the beginning of Totality and Infinity, he pays homage to the two philosophers who have perhaps influenced him more than any others (if we are to leave on one side Heidegger, for that is a tangled and complex tale that is perhaps for another time): Franz Rosenzweig and Edmund Husserl. Levinas writes that, ‘We were impressed by the opposition to the idea of totality in Franz Rosenzweig’s Stern der Erlösung, a work too often present in this book to be cited. But the presentation and the development of the notions employed owe everything to the phenomenological method’ (Levinas 1969, p. 28). This is a somewhat strange homage. What might it mean for a work to be ‘too often present . . . to be cited’?

14

Levinas, Storytelling and Anti-Storytelling

Rosenzweig’s Stern der Erlösung, or Star of Redemption, was first published in 1921. A large part of the book was drafted while Rosenzweig was posted to the Balkan front in World War I. Suffering from malaria, influenza and pneumonia, Rosenzweig spent much of the latter part of the war in and out of military hospital, from where he wrote drafts of the book on military postcards that he sent home to his mother, collating and reworking these fragments into a final text after his return home. Although Levinas studied in Germany in the 1920s, it seems that it was not until 1935 that he came across the work of Rosenzweig (Malka 2006, p.  63). In  1959, Levinas gave an address on the subject of Rosenzweig to the second Jewish colloquium in Paris, run by Edmond Fleg and Léon Algazi, an address that was published in the same year.1 Two years later, Levinas published Totality and Infinity, with its cryptic homage to Rosenzweig. This brief sentence is the only mention of Rosenzweig’s name in the entire book. For the remaining three hundred pages there is no more mention of him. His appearance, as Richard Cohen notes, is both eminent and brief, ‘like a shooting star’ (Cohen 1988, p. 169), and although Cohen insists that ‘one can hardly imagine higher praise or the admission of greater debt’ (Cohen 1988, p. 165), this is a strange kind of praise and a strange kind of debt. If this is indebtedness, then this seems to be an odd kind of indebtedness, an indebted­ ness in which the surface traces of Rosenzweig’s influence are almost completely erased. The disappearance – the paradox of being ‘too often present . . . to be cited’ – of Rosenzweig in Levinas’s Totality and Infinity raises two questions. First, how is Rosenzweig’s influence present in Levinas’ text, as Levinas insists that it is? Second, why should it be that Rosenzweig, who is proclaimed at the outset as being of the greatest influence upon the text, disappears behind the text and is only mentioned in passing in a preface to be never mentioned again? To not cite every instance of influence is perfectly reasonable, for to do so would court tedium, but to assert the paramount importance of a particular thinker and thenceforth to never breathe this thinker’s name again is, on the face of it, a little odd. As Salomon Malka says in his biography of Levinas, this is the kind of tribute that one might make when ‘the subject is delicate’ (Malka 2006, p. 62). But why such delicacy? The answers to these questions will lead us straight to the heart of Levinas’s tangled relationship with storytelling and with philosophy. Levinas’s reticence when it comes to Rosenzweig is by no means restricted to this one book. While the passage cited from the beginning of Totality and Infinity is not the only reference that Levinas makes to Rosenzweig in his published works, explicit references are surprisingly rare. Levinas freely talks about Husserl,

Of Stars and Scientists

15

about Heidegger and about any number of others among his philosophical ancestors, but Rosenzweig surfaces only rarely. In all, Levinas published three pieces dedicated exclusively to Rosenzweig’s work. And it is to Levinas’s writings and interviews elsewhere than Totality and Infinity that we need to look to understand the part that Rosenzweig plays in Levinas’s thinking. In a passage from an address on Rosenzweig given in 1965 and published in the collection Outside the Subject, Levinas writes of how ‘Rosenzweig’s thought presents itself as a revolt against Hegel’ (Levinas 1994b, p. 40). The language of revolt is telling, for this is a matter of far greater consequence than mere philosophical disagreement. As Levinas goes on to make clear, Rosenzweig’s revolt was not merely against Hegel, but also against the entire philosophical tradition that culminated in the Hegelian system.2 Levinas writes as follows: How to counter the sovereign categories of a philosophy that held sway ‘from the Ionian isles to Jena,’ with a new school of thought capable of preserving the thinker? What was the secret of the former, from Thales to Hegel? It was to turn away from experience, reducing its variety to all it comes down to: to say with Thales ‘everything is water,’ to seek with Hegel the totality in which states, civilisations, men and the philosopher himself offer up nothing but their true meanings. What Rosenzweig rejects is precisely that recourse to totality, which gives no meaning to the death each one dies—irreducibly—on his or her own. (Levinas 1994b, p. 42)

In other words, Rosenzweig aimed at the revision and rethinking – or perhaps a complete overturning – of the entire tradition of Western philosophy, from its very beginnings. Rosenzweig’s anti-Hegelianism is not just the resistance to a particular moment in the history of philosophy represented by Hegel himself, but instead is the resistance to a whole tradition of which Hegel is the selfproclaimed culmination. The problem, as far as Rosenzweig is concerned, is Western philosophy’s infatuation with the question of essence. Ever since Thales said that all was made of water, Western philosophy has proclaimed a rift between reality and appearance. For Rosenzweig, Levinas writes, this assertion that all is water is the ‘prototype of philosophical truth’, one that ‘denies the truth of experience, reducing dissimilarities, saying what all reality encountered is fundamentally, and incorporating all phenomenal truth into this Whole’ (Levinas 1990, p. 188). The issue with the distinction between appearance and reality, experience and essence, is double. First, experience knows nothing of essences. Essence is

16

Levinas, Storytelling and Anti-Storytelling

something to which I might attain by moving beyond, away from, or beneath the surfaces of experience. I do not encounter essences in the world: they are things that can be attained only by significant effort, in the way that Plato’s cavedwellers might drag themselves up towards the sunlight and away from the flickering shadows. As a result, the concern with essences can risk denying the truth of experience, can blind us to the nuance and the plurality of experience. Second, in talking of ‘everything’, in subsuming everything to a single principle or rule, there is a stripping away of the particular as everything comes to be contained within a single order. As Levinas writes, ‘the person of the philosopher is reduced to the system of truth of which the person is but a moment’ (Levinas 1990, p. 188). Rosenzweig, then, does not only present himself as a diagnostician of the problems of philosophy, but also as one who might be able to offer some kind of cure when it comes to the philosophical obsession with essences. And the cure that he proposes is perhaps unexpected, particularly for close readers of Levinas. Philosophy, Rosenzweig suggests, needs to take up a kind of narrative form. As philosophers we should become storytellers. It is by spinning yarns that we might be able to move beyond the concern with essence and to attend more closely to the particular. What, then, of Husserl? Born in  1859 in Moravia, Husserl was a Jewish convert to Lutheranism who trained in mathematics and later, under the influence of Franz Brentano, turned to philosophy. Husserl aimed to establish a new method for philosophy that might succeed where others had failed in establishing knowledge on secure foundations. The entire sweep of Husserl’s philosophy seems, in fact – at least at first glance – to aim at precisely the kind of totalities that Rosenzweig seeks to resist. Husserl, in all but his late work, can be seen as standing firmly within the tradition of philosophers who have sought out the essences of things. If he recommended that we should, as a methodological principle, put questions of essence to one side, as indeed he did, then the purpose of doing so was explicitly to find a way that we might be able to sneak up on these questions of essence and take them by surprise. Phenomenology, for Husserl, was a way of remaining downwind of essence, as a cunning hunter might attempt to stay downwind of a particularly crafty prey; and Husserl’s phenomenology is not a departure from a concern with essence so much as it is a proposal for how we might finally resolve this philosophical problem of essence once and for all. As Husserl writes in his Cartesian Meditations, his phenomenology aims at the establishment of a ‘genuine universal ontology’ that might be the ‘first universe

Of Stars and Scientists

17

of science grounded on an absolute foundation’, which in turn could give rise to an ‘all-embracing science of the factually existent, grounded on an absolute foundation’ (Husserl 1960, p. 155). Even from this somewhat brief overview, the problem of reading Rosenzweig alongside Husserl begins to become apparent. While Husserl is a philosopher of essences, Rosenzweig is a philosopher who turns away from the search for essences; while Husserl proclaims a scientific philosophy, Rosenzweig is a storyteller of sorts; while Husserl seeks a foundational philosophical truth, set upon firm foundations, Rosenzweig seems to renounce this quest, denouncing, as Levinas writes, ‘totality, and this way of seeking to achieve totality through a process of reduction’ (Levinas 1990, p. 188). On the surface, then, it seems an unpromising proposal that we might do well to explore Rosenzweig’s critique of totality by means of Husserl’s phenomenological method. Something, it seems, will have to give way; and as we shall see, what ends up giving way, ultimately, is Husserl’s concern with setting knowledge on a rigorous footing, so that Levinas reads Husserl’s phenomenology in such a way as to enable him to leave behind his concern with all-embracing science and absolute foundations. However, the decision to use Husserl as a method for responding to Rosenzweig’s critiques of totality also raises the question of why Levinas passes over in silence the methodological recommendation made by Rosenzweig: that totality might be overcome by a form of narrative or storytelling philosophy. While Levinas accepts many of Rosenzweig’s criticisms of the philosophical tradition, he quietly, and without any great fanfare, sidesteps Rosenzweig’s methodological proposals. Why is this? The reasons for Levinas’s unease with storytelling will only become fully apparent later in this book when we turn to consider the strange texture of Otherwise than Being; but it is precisely this tension between Rosenzweig and Husserl – between the author of the Star and the philosopher of first principles, between the storyteller-philosopher and the philosopher-scientist, between the thinker who sought to move beyond concerns with essence and the thinker who dreamed of establishing essence once and for all – that lends such a dynamism and such a distinctive character to Totality and Infinity. In the chapter that follows, then, we will look more closely at Rosenzweig’s critique of the philosophical tradition, before turning to the work of Husserl in the third chapter to draw out some of the complexities that arise from his attempts to provide a rigorous foundation for philosophy. For if Levinas uses Husserl’s method as a means of exploring the question of totality raised

18

Levinas, Storytelling and Anti-Storytelling

by Rosenzweig, he also uses Rosenzweig as a means of picking apart the aspirations towards certainty that appear in Husserl. Moving between the two, setting one against the other, Levinas leads us into the strange and troubled territories of Totality and Infinity, where the foundations of Husserl’s thought are cracked and broken, and where the earth that once seemed so stable begins to shudder.

2

From Storytelling into Life

Of all the strange philosophy books that are there in the world, the Star of Redemption perhaps has to be counted among the strangest. The book is built around a complex structure of two interlocking triads that, taken together, give it a dynamic, star-shaped structure. The first of these triads is that of God, man and world, while the second is that of creation, revelation and redemption. These two triads, conceived of as triangles, overlap to represent a six-pointed Star of David referred to in the title. Despite the title of the book, and the image of the Star of David around which the whole book is constructed, Rosenzweig insists in a later essay called ‘The New Thinking’, perhaps somewhat disingenuously, that he is offering his readers neither a Jewish book nor a philosophy of religion, but instead ‘merely a system of philosophy’ (Rosenzweig 1999, p. 69). Indeed, he notes that those who thought that they were purchasing ‘a nice Jewish book’ would be profoundly disillusioned. As a system of philosophy, Rosenzweig claims that the Star attempts to enact a philosophy that is narrative in nature, a philosophy that aims at ‘thinking’s complete renewal’. While it is clear that religion – at least insofar as this refers to the three major monotheistic religions – is one of the major concerns of the Star, in what follows, I will leave religious concerns to one side to see if in this way it might be possible to see Rosenzweig’s work in a rather different light from many of his commentators. Rosenzweig’s own disavowals of the religiousness of the Star provide, if not an outright justification for this approach, then at least some kind of rationale. If the Star is, Rosenzweig claims, an attempt to conduct philosophy in a narrative key, then it does not present itself as a philosophy of narrative. It does not, in other words, provide anything like a theory of how stories work. It does not talk directly about the place of narrative in human life. Instead, it is

20

Levinas, Storytelling and Anti-Storytelling

a philosophy that deliberately sets about doing its work by means of narrative. It does this, in particular, in the second part of the book where Rosenzweig explores the processes of creation, revelation and redemption, processes that map on to past, present and future. Rosenzweig called his approach to philosophy ‘and philosophy’ as opposed to ‘is philosophy’ (Galli 1995, p. 469), in that it is concerned with coming-to-know within time and within the unfolding of successive events, in the way that the storyteller might say, ‘and then . . . and then . . . and then . . .’ What is important to Rosenzweig about storytelling is that stories take the world naively. Philosophers are often a suspicious bunch. They look at the things the rest of us take for granted, and they say, ‘Yes, but what is it really’? They take Heraclitus’s assertion that nature ‘loves to hide’ as their starting point and then they set about attempting to track down this elusive, hard-to-grasp thing called ‘nature’. Philosophy pretends to get beneath the surface to something more essential. This is precisely what makes Rosenzweig suspicious of philosophy and also why he chooses a narrative approach. ‘What does it mean to tell a story’? Rosenzweig asks. ‘He who narrates does not want to say how it “actually” was, but how it really took place’ (Rosenzweig 1999, p. 81). In other words, when the storyteller says, ‘This is what happened . . . ’ , the philosopher curls a lip and says, ‘Yes, but was it really like this? What was really going on’? And if the storyteller happens to find a fellow storyteller, and the other storyteller says, ‘Ah, but it seems to me that this is what happened . . . ’ , then the two of them might be able to accept both these stories, to recognize that these are maps laid against the world, that these are models of a kind, and that given that the map is not the territory and that models are constructed for different purposes, these maps and models do not need to compete for absolute supremacy, even if they may have the power to modify each other, to bring different things to light, to raise different questions about each other and about the world out of which they have arisen. Philosophers are not like this. The moment one philosopher says, ‘This is what was really going on’, and a rival philosopher says, ‘No, this is what was really going on’, there is bound to be trouble. The difference is this: the philosopher, at least as far as Rosenzweig is concerned, seeks an essence that is fixed and absolute and eternal, a truth that is independent of time and circumstance. Storytellers, on the other hand, know that they are always immersed in time and circumstance, that they cannot step outside these historical limits, that everything always happens once upon a time and that nothing takes place timelessly.

From Storytelling into Life

21

Given that stories and narratives are bound to time and to history, it is perhaps unsurprising that Rosenzweig’s storytelling philosophy begins with an astonishing evocation of death. Rosenzweig maintains that it is when it comes to death that philosophers’ pretensions to think timelessly, to place themselves somehow outside of time and history, are most evident; and it is in relation to death that the philosophers’ tendency to ignore the naive questions and to seek to put us right on what is ‘actually’ the case is most marked. Rosenzweig writes that, All cognition of the All originates in death, in the fear of death. Philosophy takes it upon itself to throw off the fear of things earthly, to rob death of its poisonous sting, and Hades of its pestilential breath. All that is mortal lives in this fear of death; every new birth augments the fear by one new reason, for it augments what is mortal. Without ceasing, the womb of the indefatigable earth gives birth to what is new, each bound to die, each awaiting the day of its journey into darkness with fear and trembling. But philosophy denies these fears of the earth. It bears us over the grave which yawns at our feet with every step. It lets the body be a prey to the abyss, but the free soul flutters away over it. Why should philosophy be concerned if the fear of death knows nothing of such a dichotomy between body and soul, if it roars Me! Me! Me!, if it wants nothing to do with relegating fear into a mere “body”? (Rosenzweig 1971, p. 3)

Rosenzweig’s argument is this: that philosophy – which has, after all, not avoided chattering on ceaselessly about death since the very beginning – has nevertheless shrunk back from confronting the fact of death by the most devious means possible: by seeking to argue that death, seen through the eyes of wisdom, does not amount to anything of importance. Here, the distinction between ‘how it is’ and ‘what it actually’ is becomes clear. How do we die? Our organs begin to give out; the breath comes in fits and starts; there is fear or resignation at what awaits us, at the thought of nothingness or the hereafter or at the unthinkability of our non-being; we are perhaps in considerable pain; our consciousness flutters to and fro, alighting on this or that, disappearing for a while, reappearing; the doctors and nurses hurry around, manipulating tubes and feeding us pills, sometimes hushed, sometimes urgent; we find ourselves wearing strange gowns that we wouldn’t have chosen for ourselves, eating food that is alien to us; the clock on the hospital wall ticks away the seconds; somewhere a television is burbling on, spinning everyday dramas . . . This is how death is, or this is how it may be. But then the philosopher – who prefers to stay away from hospital wards – says, ‘Ah, you may think that this is how death is, but actually death is . . .’

22

Levinas, Storytelling and Anti-Storytelling

So it is with Socrates, as he counsels his disciples in his final hours, asking of death whether it is anything else than the separation of the soul from the body, and hence merely the falling away of all that is inessential and transient, the sloughing off of the old and ill-fitting skin of this world, allowing the soul to flutter away. Such bravery, we might say! Or such foolishness! Either way, they say, at least he is consistent. He has always said that death is not to be feared but is a freedom of the soul. Philosophy – the earthly search for that which is essential and eternal – is not only a fitting preparation for death, but also a kind of premature freeing of the soul while in the midst of life, a freeing that death can only consummate. So he drinks the hemlock and feels the numbness creep upwards from his feet. And so it is with Epicurus, in his letter to Menoeceus, when he writes that he should, get used to believing that death is nothing to us. For all good and bad consists in sense experience, and death is the privation of sense-experience . . . [D]eath, the most frightening of bad things, is nothing to us; since when we exist, death is not yet present, and when death is present, then we do not exist. (Inwood and Gerson 1994, p. 29).

The argument in Epicurus is different from that of Socrates, but – from Rosenzweig’s viewpoint – it is similarly unconvincing. What Epicurus shares with the Socrates of the Phaedo, but not with Rosenzweig, is the idea that death is something that the true philosopher simply refuses to get worked up about, although Epicurus makes this claim for precisely the opposite reason to that of Socrates: for Socrates, death is the liberation of a trapped soul, an unprecedented freedom, true life; while for Epicurus, death is nothing because it is beyond all possible experience.1 But when we wake at three in the morning, the cold sweat upon us and the blood thundering in our ears, wondering if the very next heartbeat, the next pulse, might be our last, no amount of noontide reasoning will ease our trembling. Yes, we might say to Epicurus, this is all very well, but I love life, I have attachments to the world, I can think of nothing worse than the absence of all possible experience. What Rosenzweig recognizes is that life matters to us because it is life, because we are immersed in the things of the world, because these things, as Levinas writes, are nourishments, and because of the many enjoyments of this immersion in the world. The retort might be that we are simply not good enough philosophers and that our attachments to life and our fears of what might be beyond both rest upon philosophical failures. But not only good philosophers

From Storytelling into Life

23

die, bad philosophers die too, as do non-philosophers. And for those of us who are not able to fully accept such arguments, the philosophers often seem to do little other than add insult to injury. The opening pages of the Star attempt to undo what Rosenzweig suspects is a supreme act of philosophical dishonesty. It is not that we are afraid of the abstraction ‘death’. Instead, we are afraid that we ourselves will die. This is a very different matter. And for Rosenzweig, the drive to turn death into an abstraction, an essence, is born out of precisely this fear of the death that is, as Heidegger once said, our ‘ownmost possibility’. The question, for Rosenzweig, is this: how does one live in the face of death and in the face of death’s finality while also recognizing that I will die? How can we face death without turning death into an abstraction, without simply rebranding death to make it palatable? Rosenzweig continues as follows: [A]nd truthfully death is not what it seems, not Nought, but a something from which there is no appeal, which is not to be done away with. Its hard summons sounds unbroken even out of the mist with which philosophy envelops it. Philosophy might well have swallowed it up into the night of the Nought, but it could not tear loose its poisonous sting. And man’s terror as he trembles before this sting ever condemns the compassionate lie of philosophy as cruel lying. (Rosenzweig 1971, p. 4)

As Levinas writes, the Star is Rosenzweig’s revolt against Hegel and against the whole philosophical tradition of which Hegel proclaims himself the culmination. The problem with Hegel, as far as Rosenzweig is concerned, is that he represents perhaps the most determined attempt in the history of philosophy, simply by means of thinking about the world, to somehow overcome the temporal world in which we all live and in which we all die. The reason why Rosenzweig singles out Hegel is that Hegel’s philosophy manages to place history itself within an essentially atemporal framework. In other words, although the Hegel of The Phenomenology of Spirit could on the one hand be seen as the most historical of thinkers as he traces the dialectical journey of Geist, mind or spirit, as it perpetually overcomes itself to eventually reach the point of absolute knowing, on the other hand, this is a journey that eventually culminates in annulment of time. The temporality of Hegel’s system is a means to a further end: the overcoming of time. Time is the Notion itself that is there and which presents itself to consciousness as empty intuition; for this reason, Spirit (Geist) necessarily appears in Time, and

24

Levinas, Storytelling and Anti-Storytelling it appears in Time just so long as it has not grasped its pure Notion, i.e. has not annulled Time. It is the outer, intuited pure Self which is not grasped by the Self, the merely intuited Notion; when this latter grasps itself it sets aside its Timeform, comprehends this intuiting, and is a comprehended and comprehending intuiting. Time, therefore, appears as the destiny and necessity of Spirit that is not yet complete within itself. (Hegel et al. 1977, p. 487)

Jonathan Rée points out that Hegel’s Phenomenology of Spirit is itself a kind of philosophical storytelling, a Bildungsroman in which the hero of the piece ‘is growing up to become the narrator telling the story’ (Rée 1987, p. 93), and although the itinerary of Hegel’s hero is both arduous and gruelling – in fact, perhaps precisely because of the difficulty of the itinerary – the story is one that has a happy ending. However, the temporal form of Hegel’s storytelling is just a means to an end. If the journey to absolute knowledge is necessarily temporal, then when one has attained this knowledge, one has attained something that has succeeded in standing outside, or else setting aside, the temporality that itself characterized the journey. Time may be a necessity for those of us who have not come to the end of the Hegelian system and the culmination of philosophy; but once we have eventually got there, then we find that we have annulled time. If we experience the world as temporal, then this is merely a symptom of the fact that we have not yet reached the end of the road.2 Rosenzweig, who claims to be proposing an ‘experiential philosophy’ (erfahrende Philosophie), wants to protest against this attempt to deny the importance of time within human experience; and it is in death, traditionally at least, that it is said that we find the most compelling manifestation of our temporal nature. So at the beginning of the Star, Rosenzweig weaves together philosophy’s attempts to deny the reality of time, the question of the death that we must each of us face, and philosophy’s long-running obsession with seeking out fixed and eternal essences. For Rosenzweig, the trouble begins with the Ionian philosopher Thales, for it was Thales who was first concerned with what Rosenzweig calls the ‘Cognition of the All’, the attempt to peer behind the perpetual flux of phenomena to find a single, enduring essence. In Thales’s famous dictum that everything is made of water, Rosenzweig sees the beginning of philosophy’s attempts to overcome time, for if it is true that all is indeed water, then this is true at all times and in all places: truth itself is capable of being independent of time. For Rosenzweig, the ‘cognition of the All’ has always been a move in the game of attempting to deny or overcome death. The reason why we might want to

From Storytelling into Life

25

think in terms of totalities at all, Rosenzweig maintains, is that in doing so we can find a place within these totalizing stories for death; and if death can take its place within a philosophical system over which we have mastery, then we can imagine that we have somehow mastered death. It is in this way that ‘philosophy plugs up its ears before the cry of terrorised humanity’ (Rosenzweig 1971, p. 4). Hegel, in other words, may be able to claim that in his philosophical system time is annulled, but Hegel, who believed himself to have annulled time, was in his turn annulled by time.3 One could say that this ‘cognition of the All’ presents us with two interlinked problems. First, there is what could be called an epistemological problem, a problem relating to our knowledge of the world. Philosophy has been so concerned with seeking eternal essences behind phenomena that it has tended to overlook the things themselves, betraying a lack of attentiveness to that which is most self-evident. In seeking single essences, the rich multiplicity of the world is reduced to a set of bald principles. In this light it is possible to read Rosenzweig as a philosopher who is calling for a new attentiveness to fleeting phenomena themselves, a call that brings his thinking at times close to that of the phenomenological tradition. The second problem is a problem of ethics. In ignoring the singular, this cognition of the All ignores the simple fact that we are mortal, it cuts us off from seeing our own mortality and the mortality of others. In other words, it privileges knowledge over love, it asserts the value of an abstract system of thought over the ethical demand to care for our fellow creatures. It is in his philosophy of love that Rosenzweig finds a response that is neither Socratic nor Epicurean to the problem of death. Rosenzweig asks the following question: should the philosopher be concerned with enlightenment or with love? Or, to paraphrase Levinas, should the philosopher be primarily a lover of wisdom, or one who is wise in the ways of love? If we make the goal of our philosophizing knowledge or Enlightenment – in Kant’s terms, ‘man’s emergence from his self-incurred immaturity’, the emergence from the ‘inability to use one’s own understanding without the guidance of another’ (Kant and Reiss 1991, p. 54) – then it could be argued that this philosophical enlightenment is explicitly our own affair. ‘Enlightenment, after all’, Rosenzweig complains, ‘appears to accrue only to the suppliant; his are the eyes that are enlightened. Of what concern is that to the world’? (Rosenzweig 1971, p. 268) It is true, of course, that in his essay on Enlightenment, Kant goes on to set out a civic and political vision in which the inclination towards free thinking, rooted in the individual, slowly

26

Levinas, Storytelling and Anti-Storytelling

comes to influence the principles of government. This being the case, one could say that this return to a reliance upon one’s own resources is perhaps strategic, a retreat undertaken precisely from the highest and most public-spirited of motives, precisely so that one can return to more effective engagement in the world. Nevertheless, Rosenzweig’s point still stands: this enlightenment still accrues to some individual or other. Because it is first and foremost my own affair, enlightenment has no direct effect. For all I know, that is to say, when I go out and drink a cup of coffee, the person who is sitting at the table next to mine is enlightened in a Kantian, or in some other, sense; but why should I care? What impact does this have on me as I sit and drink my coffee? What is effective is not enlightenment, but love, because love is already a relationship with the world rather than a withdrawal from the world. ‘Enlightenment need be of no concern to the world’, Rosenzweig writes (Rosenzweig 1971, p. 268). But is this true? Surely, knowledge and understanding are important and useful. If I go to visit a doctor, then I would hope that he or she might be compassionate by nature, but at the same time, I would expect that the doctor would have a good knowledge and understanding of diseases, their causes and their possible cures. And if I am put under the knife by a surgeon, then I am more concerned by questions of knowledge and competence than I am by the question of whether the surgeon in question is kind to animals, children or colleagues. And, anyway, can it really be maintained that enlightenment, ‘appears to accrue only to the suppliant’ (Rosenzweig 1971, p. 268)? Doesn’t it spill out over the sides, so to speak? One response to this might be that Rosenzweig is referring here to a particular idea of philosophical enlightenment, an idea of the philosopher as an individual who has attained by their own resources to a kind of wisdom. There may be the echo here of Nietzsche’s complaint against the saint whom Zarathustra meets as he descends his mountain, the saint who is a bear among bears and a bird among birds, who gibbers and mutters and sings and praises God. This may be all very well for the saint, as Zarathustra himself recognizes, but here is a kind of enlightenment that has no obvious effects in the world. In contrast to the saint, Nietzsche’s Zarathustra is brimming over with love for humankind, and yet he descends the mountain without any notion of being able to bring about any specific effects.4 While enlightenment may know, may have its eyes wide open and thus may be purposively directed, love is not purposive. Love is, as countless bad (and a few good) poets have reiterated down the ages, blind. It enters the world unpremeditated. Love does not think of its effects, even though its effects

From Storytelling into Life

27

are many: Rosenzweig goes as far to suggest that perhaps one can see all the effects of love as side effects (Rosenzweig 1971, p. 269). In other words, when I act out of love, I do not do so with a clear end in sight, I do not do so to bring about a particular goal, but it is precisely because I am acting out of love that my act is effective. More importantly, love cannot take place in the abstract. It can only be particular. This, for Rosenzweig, is the importance of the New Testament commandment to love one’s neighbour. Love can only be love in relation to the most-near, to the neighbour. Love, when it ‘leaps over’ the most near, attempting to attain perfection and universality, risks ‘losing itself in the void’. This is the unfortunate aspect of love for the next-but-one: although it effects an authentic act of love, it nevertheless comes to nought in the attained goal just like the purposive act. The violence of its claim wreaks revenge on it itself. The fanatic, the sectarian, in short all the tyrants of the kingdom of heaven, far from hastening the advent of the kingdom, only delay it. They leave their nighest unloved, and long for the next-but-one and thereby exclude themselves from the host of those who advance along a broad front, covering the face of the earth bit by bit, each of them conquering, occupying, inspiring his nighest . . . (Rosenzweig 1971, p. 207)

The best lack all conviction, Yeats once wrote, while the worst are full of passionate intensity. Often it is not the absence of love that is the problem, but the dream of a love that might be universal, the vision of utopia. Fuelled by visions of universal love, vaulting over the most-near, leaping from the particular to the general, throughout history armies of zealots have laid waste to the world.5 Love, when it becomes the idea of love, betrays love. It is in the name of such a love – or in the name of perpetual peace, or in the name of the greatest happiness for the greatest number – that countless atrocities are committed. Here, Rosenzweig sees a connection between this abstract love and the ‘cognition of the All’, for this attempt to reach a universal and self-subsistent understanding uproots us from the particular and hence from our relationship with particular others, others who suffer and who die. This, then, lies at the heart of Rosenzweig’s ethical complaint against the ‘cognition of the All’. If this thinking of totality is an epistemological problem, in that it is simply inattentive to the phenomena of this world, it is also an ethical problem in that this same inattentiveness and this concern with a universal knowledge can lead us to trample upon the obligations presented by our neighbours, the obligations that arise out of our relationships with those who are actually present to us. This is a theme that will recur again and again in the work of Levinas.

28

Levinas, Storytelling and Anti-Storytelling

What Levinas does not take up, however, is the method of storytelling that Rosenzweig proposes as a response to these problems. As Rosenzweig wrote later in The New Thinking, if the first volume of the Star attempts to diagnose the problems with totalizing thought, the second volume takes up a new method for considering ‘experienced reality’, the method of storytelling (Rosenzweig 1999, p. 81). And if this method is, to some extent, obscured in the Star, then this is in part because, as Rosenzweig himself notes, ‘Questions of manner, of “method,” should after all really never be discussed before the work has been done, only afterward’ (Rosenzweig 1971, p. 109). In the later essay, Rosenzweig writes as follows: For if the first volume answered the old question of philosophy: what is? . . . now experienced reality itself can be presented in the second volume. Not by means of the old philosophy, which after all does not reach beyond the question about “that-which-is” (which is most often answered wrongly, but at best correctly) —and that which is real “is” not. Thus, the method of the second volume will have to be a different one . . .: a method of narration. Schelling predicted narrative philosophy in the foreword of his brilliant fragment “the Ages of the World.” The second volume attempts to supply it. (Rosenzweig 1999, p. 81)

For Rosenzweig, story-thinking is a kind of thinking that is subject to time, a kind of thinking that ‘cannot know independently of time’ (Rosenzweig 1999, p. 83). Rosenzweig asserts that this is a methodological break with previous philosophy. The passage in which he sets out the difference between the new method that he is proposing (and he admits that it is hardly a new method, being the method that common sense has always known, but that has become forgotten within philosophy) and the old method by which philosophy has hitherto proceeded is lengthy, but it is worth quoting almost in its entirety. The method of speech takes the place of the method of thinking, as developed in all earlier philosophies. Thinking is timeless and wants to be timeless. With one stroke it wants to make a thousand connections; the last, the goal, is for it the first. Speech is bound to time, nourished by time, [and] it neither can nor wants to abandon this ground of nourishment; it does not know beforehand where it will emerge; it lets itself be given its cues from others; it actually lives by another’s life, whether that other is the one who listens to a story, or is the respondent in a dialogue, or the participant in a chorus; thinking, by contrast, is always solitary, even if it should happen in common, among several “symphilosophers”: even then, the other is only raising the objections I should actually have made myself,—which accounts for the tediousness of most philosophical dialogues, even the overwhelming majority of Plato’s. In actual conversation something

From Storytelling into Life

29

really happens. I do not know beforehand what the other will say to me, because I do not even know beforehand what I will say; perhaps not even whether I will say anything at all; it could well be that the other beings, that being most often the case in the genuine conversation; a fact of which one will easily be convinced by taking a comparative look at the Gospels and the Socratic dialogues. Socrates most often just sets the conversation in motion, on the course of a philosophical discussion. The thinker plainly knows his thoughts in advance; that he “expresses” them is only a concession to the defectiveness, as he calls it, of our means of communication; this does not consist in the fact that we need speech, but rather in the fact that we need time. To need time means: not to be able to presuppose anything, to have to wait for everything, to be dependent on the other for what is ours. All this is entirely unthinkable to the thinking thinker, while it alone suits the speech-thinker. Speech-thinker—for of course the new, speaking-thinking is also thinking, just as the old, the thinking thinking did not come about without inner speaking; the difference between the old and new, logical and grammatical thinking, does not lie in sound and silence, but in the need of an other and, what is the same thing, in the taking of time seriously. Here, “thinking” is taken to mean thinking for no one and speaking to no one (for which, you can substitute “everyone,” the so-called “general public,” if you think it sounds better). But speaking means to speak to someone and to think for someone; and this Someone is always a very definite Someone, and doesn’t merely have ears like the general public, but also a mouth. (Rosenzweig 1999, pp. 87–8)

The distinction between the two kinds of thinking has two aspects. The first is that of temporality. Thought thinking, or thinking thinking, is a kind of thinking that attempts to say everything at once, it has – as Hegel claims that his System has – a structure that could be taken in all at once, if we only had the means to see it atemporally. This kind of thinking only appears to be temporal, simply because it takes us time to appreciate it in its entirety. Thought thinking, at least in its culmination, has no need of time. But Rosenzweig goes further to claim that this lack of a need for time is also a lack of a need for others: thought thinking is essentially a solitary kind of thinking, a return to one’s own resources. It is not at first obvious that the atemporal nature of thought thinking naturally leads to a kind of self-dependence or solitude. Rosenzweig ties these two themes together by means of a recourse to the idea of tragedy. For Rosenzweig, tragedy is ultimately tangled up with a kind of silence. The tragic hero, Rosenzweig notes, is speechless and isolated. The tragic self ‘has only one language which completely corresponds to him: precisely keeping silent’ (Rosenzweig 1971, p. 77). The heroic self is the speechless self: there is no rarer thing than a chatty hero. So,

30

Levinas, Storytelling and Anti-Storytelling

as Rosenzweig points out, the heroes of the dramas of Aeschylus often remain largely silent for the entire duration of an act. ‘By keeping silent’, Rosenzweig writes, ‘the hero breaks down the bridges which connect him with God and the world, and elevates himself out of the fields of personality, delimiting itself and individualising itself from others in speech, into the icy solitude of self ’ (Rosenzweig 1971, p. 77). The refusal to speak is not only a refusal to engage with others, but also a refusal to engage with the world because, for Rosenzweig, the world is a world that is mutually shared. The self, closed up upon itself, is silent, but as soon as I speak to another, I cease to be purely myself, I cease to be alone (Rosenzweig 1971, p. 78). This icy silence is, ultimately a refusal of experience itself, which is temporal in nature, because for Rosenzweig, experience is not something that accrues to the solitary self, like Descartes meditating in his study, but is instead something in which this tidy philosophical division into subjects and objects breaks down. Indeed, as Rosenzweig writes in ‘The New Thinking’, it is not only that experience knows nothing of essences, but it also knows nothing of objects (Rosenzweig 1999, p. 80). This seems like an extraordinary claim. But Rosenzweig’s argument, very roughly, seems to be this. An object is necessarily an object for a subject. However, it is ‘nothing but a prejudice of the last three centuries’ to assume that in the experiencing of the world there is always an ‘I’ who is doing the experiencing. If I am asked, for example, what I am seeing, then the ‘I’ may be present, but it is present precisely because I am being called to account for my experience. However, for much of my experience, this ‘I’ who is called to account is not present. Rosenzweig writes that ‘the standard philosophical claim that the I is omnipresent in all knowledge distorts the content of this knowledge’ (Rosenzweig 1999, p. 80). Thus, for Rosenzweig, experience is a much more subtle thing than we might first think. It is temporal through and through, it lacks the clear philosophical structure of subjects and objects upon which philosophy has so often insisted, and it is also bound up with our relationships with others. Indeed, for Rosenzweig, the fact of relation comes first. The tidy division into subjects and objects is an abstraction that is only possible on the basis of a prior, living relatedness. In considering Rosenzweig’s concern with speech thinking, it would be to do him a severe injustice if we fell into seeing him simply as a philosopher of garrulousness. Although it is true that Rosenzweig often associates ‘life with eloquence and death with silence’ (Braiterman 1998, p. 205), at the same time there is a more positive role for silence within Rosenzweig’s speech thinking. Silence does not have to be the icy refusal of any relationship whatsoever; silence

From Storytelling into Life

31

can also be a medium through which it is possible to share in our relationships with one another and with the world. Set against the icy silence of solitude, in other words, there is the eloquent silence of community. For Rosenzweig, speech may be necessary to solicit us to join in community – the word of invitation with which relations are initiated or reinitiated; but once that we are acquainted or reacquainted, we may find that we have no more need for speech. Speech is a kind of solicitation, a way of breaking with the tendency towards self-enclosure. It opens the way to a shared world. ‘Only he who is invited can come to the meal’, Rosenzweig writes, and then he goes on, and that means he who has heard the word. Before he comes to the meal, he does not know the other guests. He himself did indeed hear the invitation, but then each one heard only himself being invited. Not before the meal does he become acquainted with the others. The common silence of those who heard the word is still a silence of the individual. Only at table do the guests become acquainted, in the talk which springs from sitting at table together. And so, when the guests leave, they are no longer strangers to one another. They greet one another when they meet again. Such greeting is the loftiest symbol of silence. They are silent because they know one another. (Rosenzweig 1971, p. 323)

Here, Rosenzweig moves from a silence without speech, to speech and back to a silence that can itself speak to us more strongly than words, a silence of communion. Speaking thinking is a kind of thinking that moves from the coldness and solidity of our icy solitude to the fluidity and warmth of the shared meal. It returns us not only to our relations with one another, but also to our common sharing of the world. And this relationship with others and with the world is a relationship that we have as temporal beings, who live and who die. We are made up of countless fluctuating relationships. There is no solitary monad lurking inside us that simply knows, by virtue of its own inherent power. We are, in this sense, made of and in time; we are historical beings through and through. Speech thinking, Rosenzweig suggests, is a kind of thinking that takes this temporality seriously. In the Star, Rosenzweig identifies three forms of speech thinking: conversation, storytelling and ‘communal singing’. For Rosenzweig, these are practices: the practice of face-to-face communication, the practice of telling a story and the practice of singing, or perhaps more generally, the performance of any kind of collective ritual practice, alongside others. When Rosenzweig writes about conversation, he is not concerned with dialectic as set out in a page of Platonic dialogue; when he writes about storytelling, he is not

32

Levinas, Storytelling and Anti-Storytelling

thinking about narrative as an object for theoretical reflection after the fashion of Aristotle; and his concern with communal singing has nothing to do with theories of musical harmony, whether Pythagorean or otherwise. Instead, he is concerned with living, temporal interactions that take place within the shared world: conversation over the table where the meal is set out; storytelling around the blazing fire or on a long bus journey through the night; communal singing in the temple or in the pub near closing time. The question he asks is this: what kind of thinking is going on in these kinds of interactions? Somewhat reluctantly, I am going to leave to one side questions of communal singing and conversation and focus instead on the question of narrative because it is this in particular that Rosenzweig highlights in the Star and it is this that he develops most extensively in The New Thinking. Rosenzweig’s call for a narrative philosophy is a call for a particular kind of philosophical practice, a philosophical practice that pays heed to time and is attendant upon others, a practice that is localized and that takes place within the shared world.6 As a kind of philosophical practice, speech thinking is a way of thinking that recognizes itself as subject to time, that recognizes that the various positions it takes cannot ultimately be extracted from the fleeting circumstances of their formulation and that addresses itself to particular individuals. Having said all this, actual stories are strangely absent in the Star; indeed, there is a kind of paradox when it comes to looking at storytelling in Rosenzweig and Levinas. Rosenzweig, who proclaims a new philosophy that takes storytelling as a method, seems to himself skirt around storytelling in his text, to refer to stories – there is plenty of discussion, for example, of literature, of the epic form, of tragedy and so forth – without actually telling any of his own. Thus, while there is a kind of narrativity at play in the second section of Rosenzweig’s Star, with its consideration of the processes of creation, revelation and redemption, this nevertheless looks very unlike the kind of narrative that would pass for ‘speech thinking’ in the rigorous sense set out in ‘The New Thinking’. It is not, in fact, entirely clear that Rosenzweig’s Star succeeds in its stated aim of providing us with a narrative method for philosophy. This problem of how it might be possible to put forward a form of ‘open’ thought that leaves room for the voice of another, while at the same time conducting what is essentially a philosophical monologue, is one of the paradoxes that also lies behind the trajectory that Levinas was to later take. After all, in the light of Rosenzweig’s critiques of the philosophical tradition, it begins to look as if the traditional philosophical treatise is far from being the best vehicle for such speech thinking. Perhaps, however, the idea that

From Storytelling into Life

33

a text might be capable of providing the kind of speech-thinking philosophy of which Rosenzweig later writes is itself mistaken; and perhaps Rosenzweig was, as Putnam suggests, ‘attempting the impossible: attempting to do in writing what can really only be achieved by face-to-face conversation’ (Putnam 2008, p. 41): or by storytelling, or by communal singing. Philosophy books necessarily address themselves to an imagined ‘everyone’ rather than to particular individuals, and Rosenzweig’s is no exception. Even when works of philosophy are addressed to particular individuals, as in Epicurus’s letters, it is hard not to think that their authors are dreaming of a wider and more general audience, that there is more than a trace of literary artfulness here. Is Epicurus really only writing to Menoeceus? Thus, it would be a bit too hasty to see Rosenzweig’s Star as an exemplar of speech thinking; but it might be helpful to see it as a kind of invitation for us to engage in speech thinking outside of the book, an invitation to embark upon speech thinking with those who are ‘most near’ to us.7 In ‘The New Thinking’, Rosenzweig makes it clear that philosophy as it appears in the pages of a book cannot be an end in itself, but instead ‘must proceed further’. ‘The book’, he writes, ‘is not a goal that has been reached, not even a preliminary one. It itself must be answered for, instead of it carrying itself or being carried by others of its kind. This responsibility happens in everyday life’ (Rosenzweig 1999, p. 100). And here the real challenge for philosophy begins. The Star ends with the words ‘INTO LIFE’; and perhaps it is here, in the return from the world of the book to everyday life that we need to begin to respond to the invitation to engage in speech thinking and to weave tales in our communications with particular others: friends, strangers, colleagues, acquaintances,8 etc. This still leaves the question open of what this life into which Rosenzweig wishes to reinitiate us actually consists in. How has the long and often rather curious itinerary that Rosenzweig has taken in the Star succeeded in bringing us to a point where we might find a new response to the problem of philosophy’s refusal to take death seriously? We have moved from the idea of death as an abstraction that might be done away with by the cunning philosopher to an idea of a new kind of philosophy that is rooted in our relatedness to one another and to our shared world, a kind of philosophy that is subject to time. But what are we to do with the fact that we will nevertheless die? Here, Rosenzweig finds a path that is neither that of Socratic liberation nor that of Epicurean denial. Instead, as Braiterman (1998) suggests, Rosenzweig’s vision is one in which one lives a life directed towards death, coming to terms with the fact of my coming death

34

Levinas, Storytelling and Anti-Storytelling

and with the fear that risks paralyzing us or leading to our flight into dreams of escaping time. Here, Rosenzweig’s closeness to Heidegger, who famously wrote of a ‘passionate, anxious freedom-towards-Death’ (Heidegger 1962, p. 173), is striking, a closeness that is also noted by Levinas in his essay on Rosenzweig in Outside the Subject (Levinas 1994b, p. 44); but perhaps for Rosenzweig, one of the most significant differences is the place that community plays in the establishment of this kind of life directed towards death. While for Heidegger, it is death, the ‘possibility of impossibility’ that itself turns us back towards the meaning of being, for Rosenzweig, it is community that ultimately gives meaning to life in the face of death. For now, however, we must turn to a rather different problem. And that is the problem of how, in responding to Rosenzweig’s complaints against philosophy, Levinas accepts the diagnoses but at the same time proposes a radically different cure. In the place of Rosenzweig’s call for a narrative philosophy, Levinas proposes the method set out by Husserl. Nevertheless, it is far from immediately clear that Husserlian phenomenology is a better alternative to the methodology proposed by Rosenzweig in seeking to move beyond Rosenzweig’s ‘cognition of the All’.

3

Scientist or Storyteller?

Husserl is an unlikely kind of storyteller. The founder of the phenomenological tradition, Husserl is still often taken to be a largely technical philosopher. And certainly in his earlier work, Husserl presents himself very much as the sober philosopher-scientist, a philosopher who is concerned more than anything else with placing all of human knowledge on secure foundations. However, in discussing the philosophers, it is sometimes possible to forget to ask the question of why they are bothering to philosophize at all, or to what end all the technical disciplines of any particular philosophy are deployed. Often in those passages that are skimmed over by those hungry for technical knowledge, or that are dismissed as rhetoric or literary style, the philosophers can be heard to speak most plainly and most candidly about what they are up to and why. This is certainly the case with Husserl. Husserl’s Cartesian Meditations started life as two lectures given at the Sorbonne in February 1929, titled Einleitung in die transzendentale Phänomenologie, or ‘Introduction to Transcendental Phenomenology’. At the very opening of these lectures, Husserl set out a problem with the history of philosophy. His starting point, in some ways, was very close to that of Rosenzweig. Both, that is to say, were troubled by the ethical implications of what Rosenzweig calls the ‘cognition of the All’, although for very different reasons. For Rosenzweig, the problem was that philosophy’s totalizing aspirations had tended to overlook the specificity of individual human beings, a specificity that renders a genuinely ethical community possible. For Husserl, however, the problem was that these totalizing aspirations had hitherto failed – for want of an appropriate method – to reach their culmination in a truly foundational science or system of knowledge. The following passage from the introduction to the Cartesian Meditations makes this clear: The splintering of present-day philosophy, with its perplexed activity, sets us thinking. When we attempt to view western philosophy as a unitary science, its decline since the middle of the nineteenth century is unmistakable. The comparative unity that it had in previous ages, in its aims, its problems and

36

Levinas, Storytelling and Anti-Storytelling methods, has been lost. When, with the beginning of modern times, religious belief was becoming more and more externalised as a lifeless convention, men of intellect were lifted by a new belief, their great belief in an autonomous philosophy and science. The whole of human culture was to be guided and illuminated by scientific insights and thus reformed, as new and autonomous. But meanwhile this belief too has begun to languish. Not without reason. Instead of a unitary living philosophy, we have a philosophical literature growing beyond all bounds and almost without coherence. Instead of a serious discussion among conflicting theories that, in their very conflict, demonstrate the intimacy with which they belong together, the commonness of their underlying convictions, and an unswerving belief in a true philosophy, we have a pseudo-reporting and a pseudo-criticizing, a mere semblance of philosophising seriously with and for one another. This hardly attests to a mutual study carried on with a consciousness of responsibility, in the spirit that characterizes serious collaboration and an intention to produce Objectively valid results. (Husserl 1960, pp. 4–5)

It is clear, in other words, that Husserl is not a philosopher who is merely preoccupied with technical concerns, as he is sometimes taken to be. The reference to the fading dream of a human culture ‘guided and illuminated by scientific insights and thus reformed’ points to a kind of utopian vision, and it is this vision that Husserl seeks to revive by means of his new and painstaking philosophical method. As he wrote in  1923 in the Japanese journal Kaizo-La rekonstuyo, six years before the Cartesian Meditations, the development of the ‘exact’ natural sciences and the ‘technological sphere of human activity’ have not led to this reformation of the human community or to a corresponding progress in the fields of ethics and politics. Nevertheless, Husserl claimed that what the exact sciences did provide was a paradigm that can provide a model for practical action, a paradigm that Husserl wished to extend into the fields of ethics, politics and ultimately religion – indeed, into all human knowledge. What Husserl sought, in other words, was a science that might ‘establish a rationality in social and political activity and a rational, political technique’ (Husserl 1981, pp. 327–8). As Caitlin Smith writes, the first question for Husserl was this: ‘For all its successes in the material sphere, how is it that science has so little to say of human-spiritual existence?’ (Smith 2006, p. 29); and the second question was how this success in the material sphere could point towards a way in which we might establish a broader and more fundamental science that would encompass all of human existence.

Scientist or Storyteller?

37

The problem, then, is not that the natural sciences need a more secure foundation for their own present purposes: Husserl was aware that they got by just fine without such foundational grounding. I can continue studying bits and pieces of the world in a systematic fashion without needing an absolute foundation for my knowledge. Indeed, the notion of a science that is built upon absolute foundations is counter to the broadly inductive fashion in which the empirical sciences work. But for Husserl, the problem arises when we attempt to integrate this knowledge that comes from the natural sciences with that bundle of hunches, habits of thought, traditions, half-formed ideas and good intentions by means of which we attempt to move towards the establishment of a rational, ethical political community. For all of our technical knowledge, in other words, progress in ethics and politics seems to be as far away as ever. Thus, Husserl’s aim was not to establish philosophy as a science among sciences, but instead as the science par excellence, as a means of establishing a firm foundation for the human sciences, the various fields of proliferating knowledge, and for political and social action. This, as Ströker points out, was ‘not just a modest project’, but instead an aspiration towards an ‘all-encompassing, rationally defensible, knowledge of reality’ (Ströker 1997, p. 29). Husserl offers us, in other words, a utopian dream of a community to come; and not only this, he offers us what he claims to be a practical method for attaining this community, the method of phenomenology. The ethical framework in which Husserl placed his own work and the extraordinary ambitions that he had for phenomenology as a means to a kind of utopian future are often overlooked. Husserl may not, at first glance, seem to be a philosopher of ethics, if only because he does not provide us with an ethics as distinct from the rest of his philosophy. However, this is in part because, for Husserl, ethics is not a branch of philosophy, but instead the entire context in which philosophy must be set. Or, to put it another way, it is the context of the aspiration towards the foundation of a moral community from which Husserl’s phenomenology derives a great deal of its motive force. Not a philosopher of ethics, then, but certainly an ethical philosopher. In a sense, Husserl has returned us to the problem set out in the Plato’s Euthyphro, where Socrates points out that we may be good at calculating and evaluating and weighing up when it comes to the natural world, but when it comes to the moral order, we find ourselves at a loss. Without a rational science of the human community and of humankind, then, the sciences are at best of ambivalent value.

38

Levinas, Storytelling and Anti-Storytelling

What Husserl promises – at least in the earlier part of his career – is the hope that in the phenomenological method there is a pathway by which this community might at last be attained. Sometimes it is said that Levinas ethicizes the work of Husserl, but is not so much that Levinas gives phenomenology an ethical turn; rather, he draws out certain ethical implications of the phenomenological project that are already apparent in the work of Husserl. For Levinas himself, Husserl’s main achievement was that he ‘brought a method to philosophy’; and yet for all his faithful discipleship, Levinas diverged from his teacher in his understanding and practice of this ‘method’, as well as in his assessment of what the task of phenomenology fundamentally was. Levinas’s own association with Husserl began after he read the Logical Investigations while he was a student at Strasbourg, a book in which he claimed to find not merely another set of speculations about the nature of things, but instead a ‘new possibility of thinking . . . a new possibility of moving from one idea to another, different from deduction, induction, and dialectic’ (Levinas 2001, p. 31). Levinas had been introduced to Husserl by one of his teachers in Strasbourg, Jean Hering, who was a professor of theology and whose book on phenomenology and religious philosophy, published in French, insisted upon the religious and ethical dimensions of Husserl’s thinking (Malka 2002, p. 36). At Hering’s recommendation, Levinas travelled to Freiburg to study under Husserl between 1928 and 1929. While in Freiburg, Levinas came to know Husserl personally, not only attending his courses and seminars, but also visiting him often in his home to discuss philosophy and tutoring Husserl’s wife – who turned out, according to  Salomon Malka’s biography of Levinas, to be a somewhat troublesome student – in the French language prior to the Husserls’ visit to the Sorbonne. Writing much later about his encounter with Husserl, Levinas described his teacher as being, Of a rather serious but affable demeanour, faultless in his personal appearance though oblivious to externalities, distant but not haughty, a little uncertain in his uncertainties, the man reinforced the physiognomy of the work: full of rigour yet open, audacious and ceaselessly recommencing like a permanent revolution; embracing forms one would have liked, in those days, to be less classical and didactic, and a language one would have preferred to be even less monotonous. A work whose truly new accents will never reverberate to any but the sensitive or the practiced ear, but—obligatorily—alert. (Levinas 1998, p. 111)

While in Freiburg, Levinas also attended lectures by Heidegger, whose work he was already acquainted with, having read Being and Time when he was still living

Scientist or Storyteller?

39

in Strasbourg. At the time, Husserl was reaching the end of his philosophical teaching career, while Heidegger was riding high on the wave of popularity provoked by the publication of his magnum opus. Heidegger’s lectures in Freiburg were electrifying, almost prophetic affairs, and became popular not only among enthusiasts of philosophy, but also as public attractions (Safranski 1998, p. 189). As Levinas himself claimed of his time at Freiburg, ‘I came for Husserl and found Heidegger’ (Levinas 2001, p. 156). The relation to these two thinkers is essential to Levinas’s thinking. If Husserl gave a foundation and brought a method to Levinas’s thought, Heidegger remained a thinker who Levinas found it impossible to ignore, but towards whom he nurtured a lifelong ambivalence. Husserl, for Levinas, ‘founded the entire procedure—the high art—of phenomenology’; and if Husserl founded the high art of phenomenology, Heidegger ‘just took it up and made it sparkle’ (Ibid.). In his first work of original philosophy, Existence and Existents, Levinas wrote of how he wished to depart from the spirit of Heidegger’s thinking – a departure that was motivated as much by political concerns as by philosophical ones – but not for a philosophy that would be pre-Heideggerian (Levinas 1978, p. 4); and Levinas was always careful to note that their relationship was never one of a personal rapport outside of classes and seminars (Levinas 2001, p. 34). After his return to France, Levinas wrote an article on Husserl’s Ideas for the  journal La Revue Philosophique de la France et de L’Étranger and then immediately set about translating the Cartesian Meditations into French. His translation was published in  1930. It would be another 20 years before Husserl’s short but difficult treatise would appear in German. Levinas’s personal connection with Husserl at the time of the drafting of the Cartesian Meditations in German, and his efforts to translate the work into French, make this in many ways the foundational work for understanding Levinas’s own approach to phenomenology. And, to some extent, one can see Levinas’s entire life-work as the development and expansion of concerns derived from this particular book. What impressed Levinas the most about Husserl was that he brought a method to philosophy. Indeed, so closely is Levinas’s concern with philosophy entangled with his concern for the methods of phenomenology that in his work the terms ‘phenomenology’ and ‘philosophy’ are often used interchangeably: for Levinas, phenomenology was philosophical thought par excellence. In phenomenology—I still think so today—there is a method for philosophy. There is a reflection upon oneself which wants to be radical. It does not only take into consideration that which is intended by consciousness, but also searches

40

Levinas, Storytelling and Anti-Storytelling for that which has been dissimulated in the intending of the object . . . It is a manner of thinking concretely. There is in this manner a rigour, but also an appeal to listen acutely for what is implicit. Even when one doesn’t apply the phenomenological method according to all the recommendations given by Husserl, one can call oneself a student of this master by special attention to what is allusive in thinking. (Levinas 2001, p. 93)

To understand not only Levinas’s debt to Husserl, but also the way in which he departs from his former mentor’s philosophy, it is necessary to look a little more closely at precisely what this method proposed by Husserl actually is. However, one of the difficulties with grasping the nature of Husserl’s method is that one could see Husserl’s entire career as, in part, the repeated attempt, and inevitable failure, to fully delineate the method for which he is an advocate. The reasons for this failure to set out this method with sufficient clarity will only become apparent when we turn to the work of Levinas himself. In the Cartesian Meditations, Husserl writes: First, anyone who seriously intends to become a philosopher must ‘once in his life’ withdraw into himself and attempt, within himself, to overthrow and build anew all the sciences that, up to then, he has been accepting. Philosophy— wisdom (sagesse)—is the philosophiser’s quite personal affair. It must arise as his wisdom, as his self-acquired knowledge tending toward universality, a knowledge for which he can answer from the beginning, and at each step, by virtue of his own absolute insights. If I have decided to live with this as my aim—the decision that alone can start me on the course of a philosophical development—I have thereby chosen to begin in absolute poverty, with an absolute lack of knowledge. (Husserl 1960, p. 2)

The philosopher begins – and here we already can see the tensions that exist between Husserl and Rosenzweig – by returning to solitude, to a reliance upon their own resources. Without the need of another, whether a teacher, a friend, a companion, the philosopher begins again from scratch in an attempt to overthrow all previous, unsecured knowledge, as Descartes started from scratch in his first meditation with the practice of calling all certainties into doubt. As is well known, when Descartes set about to systematically doubt everything, he came to the Archimedean point at which one cannot doubt that there is something doubting. While taking Descartes as an inspiration, Husserl departs from him in one crucial respect. Descartes claimed that whatever else may be doubted, the fact that I am doubting is itself indubitable: because I am thinking, then I must be a thinking thing. In this way, Descrates moved from the cogito

Scientist or Storyteller?

41

– the fact of thinking, to the notion of a res cogitans – a thinking thing. For Husserl, this was an unwarranted move, for in invoking the ‘thingness’ of the res cogitans, Descartes is smuggling the notion of an external world of things into his philosophy, and this is precisely what he has claimed to be doubting in the first place. As Husserl puts it rather disdainfully, Descartes has thereby rescued, ‘a little tag-end of the world, as the sole unquestionable part of it for the philosophising Ego’ (Husserl 1960, p. 24). Husserl seeks to avoid this mistake by drawing upon the insight of his mentor Brentano that all consciousness is intentional, that is there is nothing in consciousness that is not consciousness of something. Given the intentionality of consciousness, it is possible to leave upon one side or ‘bracket out’ any assumptions about the objective existence of the world and simply return to the ‘study of the intrinsic structures of consciousness, or contents of experiences’ (Smith and McIntyre 1982, p. 93), without thereby placing anything outside of the sphere of the philosophical analysis. In experiencing an apple, for example, I can bracket out the question of whether or not there is or is not an external world of apples and apple trees and instead simply turn my attention to the contents of this experiencing. The method is not one of Cartesian doubt, but rather what Husserl calls the phenomenological epoché. Originally, in philosophical terms at least, the epoché was the withholding of assent or dissent, the suspension of judgement that was practised by the ancient Sceptics. The term epoché derives from epéchein, meaning to stop, or to take up a fixed position. This philosophical epoché was originally conceived as a kind of asceticism, and Diogenes Laertius wrote that the outcome of this ascetic practice was ataraxia, a freedom from disturbance that ‘follows like a shadow’. The Husserlian epoché is a little different from that of the Sceptics. It is not the withholding of assent and dissent with regard to all positions whatsoever, but rather with regard to positions concerning the existential status of the world. To perform the epoché is not to doubt the existence of the world but rather it is a ‘putting out of play’ or an ‘inhibiting’ of all positions taken towards the world. ‘The world is for me’, Husserl writes, absolutely nothing else but the world existing for and accepted by me in such a conscious cogito. It gets its whole sense, universal and specific, and its acceptance as existing, exclusively from such cogitations. In these my whole world-life goes on, including my scientifically inquiring and grounding life. By my living, by my experiencing, thinking, valuing, and acting, I can enter no world other than the one that gets its sense and acceptance or status in and from me, myself. If I

42

Levinas, Storytelling and Anti-Storytelling put myself above all this life and refrain from doing any believing that takes ‘the’ world straightforwardly as existing—if I direct my regard exclusively to this life itself, as consciousness of ‘the’ world—I thereby acquire myself as the pure ego, with the pure stream of my cogitationes. (Husserl 1960, p. 21)

This bracketing does not send the world into oblivion because consciousness is never empty. It is always, by its nature, intentional. In putting out of play questions concerning the existence or non-existence of the world, we find that nevertheless, ‘I, with my life, remain untouched in my existential status, regardless of whether or not the world exists’ (Husserl 1960, p. 25). What is now opened up is a field of investigation, that of the ego that is logically transcendent to the world, from which no phenomena are excluded. As a route to the foundation of a moral community, this seems like the most unpromising of beginnings. Surely, one might think, there is all the more danger of a fragmentation of philosophy in this return to the transcendental ego. Either we risk solipsism or a return to a purely personal philosophy of each-for-himself leading to a community of monads; and, as Leibniz reminds us, monads ‘have no windows through which something can enter into or depart from them’ (Rescher 1991, p. 17). The expression ‘a community of monads’ derives from Husserl himself (Husserl 1960, p. 120), who was well aware of these objections. Husserl’s monads are not the windowless monads of Leibniz on account of two things. The first is that there are necessary structures to consciousness and thus, providing the correct method is followed, you and I should come to precisely the same phenomenological conclusions from our practice of transcendental phenomenology. The second, and more profound, reason provides us with path back towards the possibility of this community itself. This is the path that Husserl takes in the fifth of the Cartesian Meditations, where he deals with intersubjectivity, with my experience of somebody else. Here, through a somewhat painstaking (and, it might be said, somewhat rickety) analysis of the experience I may have of somebody else, Husserl finds the possibility of a shared objective world. For Husserl, I experience another not just as an object in the world but also as another like me, with their own inner world, with their own subjectivity. The subjectivity of others and our lack of access to this subjectivity are both, as far as Husserl is concerned, phenomenological facts. And so Husserl treads an arduous path from first-person experience to the experience of the other person and from there to the idea of an objective world that is constituted intersubjectively (Zahavi 2001, p. 159), as a way of restoring the notion of an objective, shared, world, without making the same mistake as Descartes.

Scientist or Storyteller?

43

By the time that Levinas’s translation of Cartesian Mediations was becoming well known in France, Husserl was already beginning to doubt that his phenomenological project would ever attain the certainty of which he dreamed. It is some time in the early 1930s that Husserl, the philosopher of first principles, thinker of the most rigorous return to an inner truth, turns storyteller. It is an extraordinary and significant transformation. Husserl’s final work, The Crisis of the European Sciences and Transcendental Phenomenology, is one in which the authority of the solitary, meditating sage recedes, to be replaced by a different authority: the authority of history. Husserl was aware of the significance of this move towards storytelling, on occasion ironically referring to his historical reflections in the Crisis as meine Romane – ‘my novels’ (Edie 1987, p. 120). What is it that made Husserl turn to the weaving of tales? And what were the tales that he spun? Ströker points out that there were ‘two crises that Husserl—a European citizen during a period of ongoing historically radical changes in the twenties—was confronted with personally as well as a philosopher’ (Ströker 1997, p. 274). The first was historical: the decline of the German empire in 1918, the aftermath of the carnage of World War I and the rise of German National Socialism after 1933, which affected Husserl – a Jewish convert to Lutheranism – personally in his suspension from the University of Freiburg in that same year. But the other crisis, the deeper crisis, was a spiritual one, a crisis that could be seen in the failures of post-Enlightenment philosophy and the failure of science to do anything other than provide the machineries for what Husserl was already in the 1920s describing as the ‘inner untruth and senselessness’ of all he had witnessed of European culture (Ströker 1997, p. 276). Although the move towards history, and thus to storytelling, is made explicit in his final writings, Husserl’s thinking was never ahistorical. He was too much influenced by his mentor Brentano’s views on the development of philosophy, too much influenced by his own sense of historical mission and his belief in the coming community of justice and reason, to be removed from historical concerns entirely. It is only that there, towards the end of his life, these historical concerns – which were previously in the background of his thinking – came to the fore. Husserl’s Vienna Lecture, ‘Philosophy in the Crisis of European Mankind’, forms an early draft of the detailed reflections that later appear in The Crisis of the European Sciences. This lecture, delivered on the 7th and 10th of May 1935, six years after the Cartesian Mediations, aimed to put his phenomenology in the perspective of European thought (Husserl 1970, pp. 269–99). Husserl’s ‘novels’ are rooted in a myth of Europe not as a mere geographical entity, but instead as

44

Levinas, Storytelling and Anti-Storytelling

a spiritual force in world history. Europe, for Husserl, is the spiritual unity out of which the utopian community of which he had written in Philosophy as a Rigorous Science might arise. Husserl writes: We refer to Europe not as it is understood geographically, as on a map, as if thereby the group of people who live together in the territory would define European humanity. In the spiritual sense the English Dominions, the United States, etc., clearly belong to Europe, whereas the Eskimos or Indians presented as curiosities at fairs, or the Gypsies, who constantly wander about Europe, do not. Here the title ‘Europe’ clearly refers to the unity of a spiritual life, activity, creation, with all its ends, interests, cares, and endeavours, with its products of purposeful activity, institutions, organisations. Here individual men act in many societies of different levels: in families, in tribes, in nations, all being internally, spiritually bound together, and, as I said, in the unity of a spiritual shape. (Husserl 1970, p. 273)

For Husserl, the historical roots of this ‘spiritual unity’ can be found in Greek philosophy, described by Husserl as a ‘science of the universe, of the allencompassing unity of all that is’ (Husserl 1970, p. 276). It is this attempt at establishing a science of the universe, a science of all-encompassing unity, that singles out Greek thought from among other systems.1 This is not to say that Husserl entirely dismisses non-Western systems of philosophy, for all of his disdain for ‘Eskimos’, ‘Indians’ and those itinerant wanderers, the ‘Gypsies’; but he claims that Indian, Chinese and other ‘philosophies’ (the scare-quotes are there in the original) lack the collective commitment to, ‘theōria and nothing but theōria,’ (Husserl 1970, p. 276) characterizing the tradition stemming from ancient Greece. Here, the full extent of Husserl’s hope – and the full extent of his final disillusionment – become clear. Husserl sought, in his philosophy, once and for all, to redeem the entire world (Eskimos, Indians and Gypsies included) by bringing about the fulfilment of Europe’s ‘historical teleology of the infinite goals of reason’ (Husserl 1970, p. 299). However, it is hard not to be struck by the fact that Husserl writes most passionately of this responsibility and this destiny at the very point when it seems as if the responsibility is to be defaulted upon and the destiny is to be somehow evaded. By the mid-1930s, Europe is in disarray, Husserl has been removed from his teaching post, Europe’s deep-rooted antiSemitism is on the rise once more and World War II is only a few short years away. In his Vienna Lecture, Husserl proposes that there are only two ways out:

Scientist or Storyteller?

45

There are only two escapes from the crisis of European existence: the downfall of Europe in its estrangement from its own rational sense of life, its fall into hostility towards the spirit and into barbarity; or the rebirth of Europe from the spirit of philosophy through a heroism of reason that overcomes naturalism once and for all. Europe’s greatest danger is weariness. If we struggle against this greatest of all dangers as ‘good Europeans’ with the sort of courage that does not fear even an infinite struggle, then out of the destructive blaze of lack of faith, the smouldering fire of despair over the West’s mission for humanity, the ashes of great weariness, will rise up the phoenix of a new life-inwardness and spiritualization as the pledge of a great and distant future for man: for the spirit alone is immortal. (Husserl 1970, p. 299)

Precisely as Husserl is declaring with the greatest vigour that his phenomenology is the solution to a world-historical crisis, he is also signalling something of a loss of nerve as he turns towards history and historical justifications for his phenomenology. Where once he had sought to ground phenomenology upon the transcendental-phenomenological reduction of experience, Husserl now begins to seek justification for it in the Western historical tradition instead, claiming that philosophy – that is, the philosophical tradition of the West – demands a kind of certainty and self-responsibility that is fulfilled by phenomenology. As Crowell writes, Only now does Husserl turn, albeit hesitantly, to something like a nonepistemological sense of justification as the horizon for an ethical approach to ultimate grounding. In reflections on the history of philosophy he comes to think that what makes the phenomenological reduction imperative is not that the evidence it uncovers is epistemically privileged, but that as a radicalization of the first-person perspective it alone fulfils the traditional demand for ultimate philosophical self-responsibility. (Crowell 1999, p. 46)

The Crisis of the European Sciences, then, is Husserl’s attempt to trace the history of Western thought as a struggle for this autonomy and philosophical selfresponsibility. Instead of demanding a withdrawal into the mysteries of the cogito, it is to the history of philosophy that we must turn to be able to understand the struggle to realize this autonomy. But ultimately, it seems, even this historical approach seems inadequate to the task of realizing philosophical self-responsibility. In his essay, ‘Denial of Scientific Philosophy’, dated to the summer of 1935, Husserl wrote, ‘Philosophy as a science, as serious, rigorous, indeed apodictically rigorous science—the

46

Levinas, Storytelling and Anti-Storytelling

dream is over’ (Husserl 1970, p. 389). The ‘Denial of Scientific Philosophy’ is, for a thinker who has distinguished himself throughout most of his career by his clarity and boldness, a curiously equivocal and hesitant text. Husserl writes of how there are those who have believed that philosophy ‘all too long’ (Husserl 1970, p. 389) has maintained that ‘scientific paths could lead to the transcendent, the absolute, the metaphysical’. Such people, he tells us, are now proclaiming that the time for this unification is now over and philosophy is turning its back upon scientific discipline (this reference being almost certainly to Heidegger, who published his Being and Time in 1927). Husserl goes on to write of a new fragmentation of philosophy in which each philosophical world view is an individual accomplishment, a ‘personal faith’ (Husserl 1970, p. 390) that makes no claim to be binding for all. For Husserl, such a perspective does away with any possibility of community and with the idea of unified knowledge that has driven almost all prior philosophy. It is a bitter pill for Husserl to swallow: that some among his most famous disciples should be responsible for taking his own method for the unification of philosophy and employing it in ways that risk ending forever the dream of a unified science. This is not, however, merely an attack on Heidegger and his followers, behind which Husserl can still dream of a unified philosophy and a single moral community. Now when he writes of this dream of philosophy as a rigorous science, he equivocates, saying that the goal is ‘beautiful but only vaguely possible . . . not definitely impossible but still, in the end, imaginary’ (Husserl 1970, p. 391). And amid such strange equivocation, it is by no means clear whether still Husserl believes that this dream is possible or not. Husserl continues, writing of an apparent failure of philosophy, a failure ‘on the whole’; then he hedges his bets and suggests that perhaps this failure is evidence of a partial success, a ‘success in failure’. Or is it? Husserl adds that this evidence of success is weak and ‘without vitality’ and suggests a return to history as a means of revitalizing this evidence. It is almost impossible to say, among all of this equivocation and hesitancy, what Husserl’s position actually is. What is extraordinary about this whole essay is the proliferation of that most un-Husserlian of punctuation marks: the question mark. Husserl is not by nature a philosopher given to thinking in question marks. The Cartesian Meditations of only a few years before are written with such care and conviction that they give the impression of dating from a time when Husserl still could imagine himself as Moses bringing European existence out of the desert and into the promised land, as if the text was carved

Scientist or Storyteller?

47

onto stone tablets. There is no hint of equivocation and what questions there are in the text are rhetorical in nature, no sooner asked than swiftly addressed. But here is Husserl, in one of his final works, piling question upon question, questions with only the most equivocal of responses, responses that invite still more questions, still further equivocations. It is not just that the prophet has been ignored, that the people have turned away from his warnings and his indications of the road to truth; it is also that the prophet has himself become uncertain of his own prophecies. Philosophy is no longer something clear and precise, but it has become an ‘enigma’ (Husserl 1970, p. 394). Levinas, however, instead of lamenting this enigma and sighing in despair at the way that the dream of a total science has been overtaken by seemingly endless equivocation, takes this precisely as his starting point in his own phenomenological project. As a reader of Rosenzweig, he is suspicious of Husserl’s dream of philosophy as a rigorous science, recognizing that the central hope of Husserlian phenomenology is not only unrealized, but also perhaps unrealizable (Levinas 1998, p. 91). Levinas takes Husserl’s own insights to assert something that Husserl himself was ill-disposed to consider: that phenomenology, however much it may be concerned with certain knowledge – or, in the jargon favoured by Husserl, with apodicticity – nevertheless finds itself pointing to the equivocal in thought and in language. A return to the things themselves means, for Levinas, not limiting oneself to words which ‘intend only an absent reality’, (Levinas 1998, p. 95) because beneath the hardness of words lies the slipperiness, the liquidity, of phenomena. A return to the things themselves is a turn away from the search for essences of things that might be exactly delineated in philosophical language; instead, it leads to an awareness of the imperfection, or at least the perpetual provisionality, of language, when it comes to attesting to the phenomenal. While Husserl himself acknowledged that all phenomenological accounts were provisional and that they awaited further adumbrations, Levinas is concerned that Husserl did not sufficiently think through the implications of this, that in attending to the things themselves we inevitably end up with something equivocal. What Levinas rejects is the asymptotic nature of Husserl’s thought, in which phenomenological analysis approximates more and more to a finally, rationally established truth; instead, for Levinas, the more one pursues the equivocations in thought, the more one discovers that, if anything, they do not diminish but instead they multiply. If this is indeed the case, then Husserl’s dream of a rigorous framework for all knowledge is doomed to failure. As Levinas writes, ‘Equivocation, an apparently minor fault, which could be dispelled, or so

48

Levinas, Storytelling and Anti-Storytelling

it would appear, with a bit of clarity of thought, is now posited as inevitable, or as essential to a thought that limits itself to words’ (Levinas 1998, p. 95). This said, Levinas does not dismiss the dream of Husserlian phenomenology entirely, but he is concerned with making it clear that it is just this: a dream. ‘That return to a consciousness that is extrahuman and extramundane, but that each one of us must find again within ourselves—is it possible?’, he asks rhetorically. He goes on, Do human beings not find themselves involved in the historical world even in the course of their operation of disengagement? The recovery of the self from history and the world in which the ego is engaged is perhaps but a task to be recommenced indefinitely, forevermore fixing the philosopher at the level of beginning philosopher, and defining philosophy as a perpetual recommencement. (Levinas 1998, p. 134)

Here, Husserl’s failure to fully stipulate a method for his phenomenology, his perpetual recommencement, even his failure, all become, in Levinas’s hands, the very things that make it possible to see phenomenology as an ethical enterprise. The fact that in phenomenology one is always recommencing, one never has the last word, means that phenomenology never presents us with a totality. It is always underway, or just setting out once again. Not only this, but for Levinas this apparent failure also turns out to be the very thing that is capable of consecrating phenomenology as what Levinas calls the ‘completion of science and the authentic life of the mind’ (Levinas 1998, p. 80). That is, for Levinas, what Husserl’s phenomenology succeeds in doing is placing the knowledge and practices of the various empirical sciences back within the ‘horizons of subjective life in which they were constituted’ (Levinas 1998, p. 80). It may be, in other words, there was one assumption that Husserl failed to bracket out: the assumption that knowledge, which is always knowledge for us, is capable of being placed upon firm foundations. If we put this assumption to one side, then the failure to establish such firm foundations is no longer a failure for phenomenology, but instead an aspiration that phenomenology has outgrown as it has probed ever deeper into the enigma of human experience. It is this, ultimately, that allows Levinas to see himself both as a faithful follower of Husserl’s method and as a thinker who remains faithful to Rosenzweig’s critique of totality. It is precisely because of the apparent failure of Husserl’s phenomenology that Levinas can use it to address Rosenzweig’s concerns as set out in the Star.

Scientist or Storyteller?

49

As we have already seen, one reason, perhaps that Rosenzweig’s name disappears in the Star may be that it is only by not mentioning his debt to Rosenzweig, only by not citing any particular passages in Rosenzweig’s work, that Levinas can avoid Rosenzweig’s own proposals for a philosophical method of his own, the method of storytelling. Nevertheless, the Levinas of Totality and Infinity remains a storyteller of sorts. Certainly, in Totality and Infinity, the orderliness of philosophical storytelling found in Husserl has, like HumptyDumpty, tumbled from its elevated wall and found itself broken into parts; and once it has been broken up in this way, the task of putting the pieces back together again is no longer possible, however many of the king’s horses and however many of the king’s men are involved; but at the same time, it is also true that Levinas cannot help weaving tales of his own. These tales, and the tensions and contradictions between them, are the subject of the next section of this book.

50

4

The Story of the Book

Totality and Infinity is a book of many stories, but a book that nevertheless refuses to tell one single tale. Structurally, Levinas’s book parallels in some ways the strategies used by Rosenzweig in the Star. Rosenzweig, in an attempt to avoid reducing his philosophy to a single principle or to prevent his book from collapsing into yet another totality, sets out his six-way logic of creation, revelation and redemption, and of man, God and world. Here, God, man and world are incapable of being reduced to each other, and the processes of creation, revelation and redemption are likewise parallel processes that cannot be contained under a single principle. In a similar fashion, Levinas tells many stories – and alludes to many more – in Totality and Infinity, but these stories do not add up to a single, coherent tale.1 The extent to which Levinas has genuinely succeeded in avoiding the totalizing thought of which he is so suspicious is the same extent to which any attempt to extract a single story from the book will founder. So if we are to consider Totality and Infinity in terms of its stories, it makes more sense to see it not as a single myth but as a cycle of myths that cannot themselves be fully co-ordinated together – as, for example, the myths of the Old Testament do not amount to a coherent history and do not map directly onto historical time. In ‘The New Thinking’, Rosenzweig writes of the problems that confront us when we read philosophical texts. We expect them, Rosenzweig says, to be especially logical, with each idea following on from the last; but nowhere is this less the case than in philosophy. Philosophical works, one could say, express a complete idea, something that perhaps can be held in the mind in three dimensions, something that has no beginning, middle or end, and has no single main strut or support to hold it up. But when it comes to actually writing philosophy, we have to begin somewhere. As Rosenzweig notes, ‘thinking and writing are not the same. In thinking, one stroke really strikes a thousand connections. In writing, these thousand must be artfully and cleanly arranged on the strings of thousands of lines’ (Rosenzweig 1999, p. 72).

54

Levinas, Storytelling and Anti-Storytelling

What I will be attempting here, then, is more a hypertextual reading to Levinas than it is a textual reading, one that moves between the various stories of the text but that does not attempt to ground these stories in beginnings, middles and ends. If Levinas is indeed a philosopher of equivocation, if he might be considered the phenomenologist who has done the most to reveal the necessary equivocation of thought, then it is not surprising that the stories he tells should themselves shudder with this kind of equivocation, that they should refuse to be contained in a neat Aristotelian structure. If we are to take seriously Levinas’s assertions about where phenomenology eventually leads us, then it should not surprise us that the interweaving of tales with which he provides us is neither entirely consistent nor entirely coherent, allowing room for contradictions and endless variants; for perhaps it is this very inability to reach some kind of final condition of coherence that makes it possible, as far as Levinas is concerned, to call this a book that can testify to ethics. But before launching into the examination of the stories in this book, it is necessary to step out of the frame for a moment, to consider the question of what it might be to read a work of philosophy like this, what kind of a thing a philosophy ‘book’ – or at least this particular kind of philosophy book – actually is. If Rosenzweig ends his Star with the words ‘INTO LIFE’, and if he is preoccupied with what he calls the ‘no longer book’ – with the world that takes place outside of the book itself – so Levinas himself is concerned not simply with setting out a view of ethics, but also with the ways in which ethics happens here in the world. Books are more than texts; and the many ways in which we live with, through, by and alongside books often disappear beneath the cool, unruffled surfaces of academic prose.2 If Levinas’s Totality and Infinity is a book about ethics – and if ethics is, as Levinas repeatedly insists that it is, a matter of my being put into question – then to treat this book as if it was only a theoretical treatise is to already miss the point. In the preface to Totality and Infinity, Levinas writes about the ‘risk of appearing to confuse theory and practice’, but he then goes on to say that this ‘apparent confusion is deliberate’ (Levinas 1969, p. 29). To take this deliberate confusion as another object for theoretical reflection and thus to collapse practice back into theory again would be to fail to pay attention to the ethical force of the text. For if, as we have seen, there is a necessary equivocation to thought, action itself can never equivocal. I act in this or that way. I respond to another’s need or I do not. We are always caught between the necessary equivocation of thought and the impossibility of equivocal action: and perhaps a large part of ethical reflection arises out of the

The Story of the Book

55

tension between these two things. We act out of a desire for justice, for example, but we know that we cannot fully justify our actions. Of course, it would do Levinas a profound disservice to read Totality and Infinity as a schooling in what is right. This is not an ethical book in that sense. Instead, it might be better to see the book as an attempt to prise apart the complacencies of cool armchair philosophies of ethics and to allow a genuinely ethical responsiveness and attentiveness to arise. To philosophize about ethics is relatively without risk; but when it comes to the struggle we might have to act well here in the world, the stakes are rather higher. And so, not without a note of apology, I will slip again into a more confessional mode for a moment to ask myself: what is this book that I know by the name of Totality and Infinity? What is this thing about which I claim to be writing? In asking this question, I am not aiming at a final word on Levinas’s book, at the kind of certain knowledge for which Husserl might have hoped. Instead, perhaps, I am attempting to, as Levinas puts it, ‘break through the screen stretched between the author and the reader’ (Levinas 1969, p. 30), at least for a short while, to say something about the particularity of my own relationship with this book, to tell my own stories about how this book of stories has affected me. For several years now, I have been writing and thinking and talking about this book. Sometimes I have written and argued against the book, sometimes on the book’s behalf. Sometimes I have used the book shamelessly for my own purposes, while at other times I have tried as best I can to understand it – whatever this might mean – on its own terms. And yet, as times goes on, my own sense of the book becomes more and more sedimented with experience, more and more difficult to delineate. A book is not just an argument; it is, as Pierre Bayard points out, ‘a supple fabric of relations between texts and beings’ (Bayard 2008, p. 150). And when I reflect on what this book is to me, I find it is impossible to trace every thread of this supple fabric. To be sure, my own relationship with this book has its own history, its own itinerary. It has given rise to its own stories, a multiplicity of stories, and the longer this relationship with the book endures, the more complex this multiplicity becomes. Puzzling over this question – what is this book about which I am writing? – I take my copy down from the shelf and turn it over in my hands. It has a green cover, now battered and peeled at the edges, with the kind of design that could only be admissible in a serious academic tome. I can still remember receiving the book in the post back when I lived in Wales. It had that fresh book smell that bibliophiles talk about. I read it carefully, punctuating my reading with walks

56

Levinas, Storytelling and Anti-Storytelling

in the country so that I associate my early reading of the book with sheep and hillsides and rain and gorse bushes. But that was already a long time ago, and the book has travelled a long way with me since then. Now, after repeated readings and re-readings, sometimes rapt and fascinated, sometimes bored and longing to be anywhere but within those pages, the spine is cracked and torn. The pages are beginning to yellow and they are marked with a splash of coffee where I sent a mug of cold brown liquid across my desk one day in spring, several years back. Now, as I flip again through the pages, I notice how the marks of my passing thoughts are scrawled in the margin. There are comments that I wrote six or eight years ago and that now mystify me, exclamation marks, underlinings, scribbled questions that I no longer understand or that now seem misguided. On the inside back cover is a telephone number of somebody I can no longer remember, jotted down in haste because I had nothing else to hand, and a couple of ideas for short stories that I never got round to writing, and Dewey reference numbers for books in libraries of which I am no longer a member. I have lived with this book and it has formed me. It has acted as more than a bundle of arguments about the world. It has shaped my sense of myself, my comportment, the way that I relate to the world, and it has done so in ways that I find hard to fully articulate. Not only this, but the book has had other uses too. A book is a useful thing. It has propped up rickety tables, has provided a convenient stand for endless cups of coffee, has sat on my desk and helped give me an aura of moral seriousness when I’ve felt in need of such. Sometimes I wonder how much longer the book can take such abuse. Surely one day soon it will fall apart. Already some of the pages are coming unstuck from the spine and have needed the application of adhesive tape . . . Looking through Totality and Infinity, I can recall conversations with friends and colleagues: driving late at night down the expressway and furiously debating Husserl; a weekend in a cottage with fellow philosophers where we walked, wrote, drank too much wine and discussed philosophy for hours on end; conversations in coffee shops and tea houses and pubs and bars in various parts of the world; the earnest, bearded clergymen who accosted me at a party – here I knew at last what it meant to be hostage to the Other – and who spent a half hour giving me his own idiosyncratic reading of the book. And I remember other things too: an encounter with a beggar in the marketplace in Darjeeling3; a phone call at two in the morning from a friend who had overdosed on pills and the frantic taxi-ride that followed; all those other moments when I knew what

The Story of the Book

57

it meant to be subject to a responsibility that increases in the measure to which it is assumed. These conversations, these friendships, these experiences: all of them were shaped, moulded, made possible in some way by this book. And here endeth my confession. Such confession may seem gratuitous or unseemly; but this history is, I think, important. It is important because books exist amidst lives, and not in some transcendent realm untouched by lives. The story of my relationship with the book, the story about which it is not deemed decent to speak in academic texts, the story that is suppressed and excised from all scholarly accounts as if it is something shameful, is this: that here is a book I have loved and hated, a book that has drawn me towards some and perhaps severed me from others, a book that has lived in me, a book with which my relationship cannot be anything other than intimate, a book that has refashioned how I am in the world, how I see the world, that has affected me more strongly than I am capable of saying. Scholars are uncomfortable with intimacy. It makes them squirm. But how could I write about this book without confessing all this, all this without which I would not be writing at all? In this history there is coherence and there is incoherence; there is order and there is disorder; there is clarity and there is obscurity; there is pleasure and there is frustration. This is the story of the book; and others will no doubt have other stories; but whether spoken of or not, whether admitted or confessed or consigned to silence, these stories are there, rumbling beneath the cool lines of academic debate, the multiple thresholds marked, ‘INTO LIFE’. So, if I have come here to explore Levinas’s work in terms of stories, this is in part because of this history that I have sketched. Like Rosenzweig, I am suspicious of the idea of essence. I have learnt to be suspicious, and so I have learnt to no longer ask the question, what is the essence of Totality and Infinity? I am not interested in seeking out the timeless heart of this book. I am not looking to refute rival schools and interpretations, to set up one particular idea of the book to govern all others, to hold sway over everyone’s thinking. The particularity of my own relationship with the book is bound up in my own history, and it cannot be otherwise. Levinas writes about the possibility of plurality. What I wish for is a pluralistic approach to this book, to all books, an approach that allows equivocation, an approach in which when we speak for, about or on behalf of books, we are – always equivocal – trying to speak afresh. Not final words, but first words, and again first words, and once again. Perpetual recommencement.

58

Levinas, Storytelling and Anti-Storytelling

Having said all this, I can now ask: what of the stories that appear in the book? For this does seem to be a book of many stories. There are tales of strangers and fathers and sons, there are stories of adventures and journeys, there are erotic idylls and inexpressible horrors. And hovering around the work, like actors in the wings waiting to perform, are hundreds of other, better-known tales: of Macbeth and Hamlet, of the Karamazovs and the indolent Oblomov, of the horrors of World War II. It is to these various stories that we will now turn, to explore more closely the world of Totality and Infinity, this fractured tale of tales.

5

Horror Stories

In the chapters that follow, I will be focusing on the stories told in Totality and Infinity. However, it will also be necessary to look back to Levinas’s earlier work and to consider the stories he tells elsewhere, stories that rumble away in the background of Totality and Infinity and that are sometimes assumed more than they are told. Many of the tales woven in Totality and Infinity refer back, or rely upon, those told in Levinas’s earlier books, Time and the Other, and Existence and Existents, even if in the later book they appear often in somewhat modified form. It is not only the question of coherence between all these stories that interests me here, but also the question of those moments of incoherence and disjunction, what Derrida might call the aporias between the various tales that Levinas is spinning. I have already suggested that there is no clear beginning, middle and end to the tales that make up Totality and Infinity. Nevertheless, as Rosenzweig knew, it is necessary to begin somewhere; and among the many stories at play in Levinas’s work as a whole, perhaps the most fundamental is the story that he tells in his earlier Existence and Existents, a story that is not explicitly addressed to any great degree in Totality and Infinity, even while it forms the backdrop of that book. This story is a tale of claustrophobia and nocturnal terror. It could justly be described as a horror story. In a later interview with Philippe Nemo, Levinas sets out his horror story in the following fashion: My reflection on this subject starts with childhood memories. One sleeps alone, the adults continue life; the child feels the silence of his bedroom as ‘rumbling.’ It is something resembling what one hears when one puts an empty shell close to the ear, as if the emptiness were full, as if the silence were a noise . . . . Existence and Existents tries to describe this horrible thing, and moreover describes it as horror and panic (Levinas 1985, p. 48).

60

Levinas, Storytelling and Anti-Storytelling

Levinas calls this ‘horrible thing’ the il y a, the ‘there is’; and for Levinas, this ‘there is’ is synonymous with being itself. This is crucial to understanding how Levinas’s storytelling plays out across all of his work. It is not that this experience of the il y a is a particular kind of experience of being that one might have under certain circumstances, it is that this is in some sense the fundamental experience of being. The equation of being itself with this horrible thing is what makes Levinas’s horror story so compelling. In many horror stories, the object of horror appears as a being among beings, as something within being that we might be able to outrun or to escape. Even death, as an event in being, is something that we can forestall or put off, if we are lucky. But for Levinas, there is a horror worse than death, the horror that is not just the horror of an event within being, but is instead the horror of being itself. How does Levinas arrive at this notion of the horror of being? While Schopenhauer might attempt to argue that existence is horrific by considering the extent of empirical suffering, or by a long philosophical argument that seeks to establish that we are simply not built very well for happiness, in Existence and Existents, Levinas instead engages in a rather more subtle reflection, in an attempt to reawaken in us those childhood, nocturnal fears. He asks his readers to imagine ‘all beings, things and persons, reverting to nothingness’ (Levinas 1978, p. 51), a situation in which all particular beings lose their definition and their particularity.1 In this reversion to no-thingness, Levinas writes, ‘Something would happen, if only night and the silence of nothingness’ (Levinas 1978, p. 52). In this nocturnal horror, all sense of individuated beings is lost, but Being itself continues to rumble onwards. It is immediately apparent that this is a strange kind of phenomenology, for it is not even certain whether we can talk about the il y a as a phenomenon at all. In this story that Levinas is telling about all things and persons reverting to nothingness, there can be no phenomenon here to grasp hold of, neither is there any subject capable of grasping. As Levinas himself points out, this is something that ‘eludes descriptive phenomenology’ (Levinas 1978, p. 63), something that we cannot even talk about as experience. Are we, then, talking about anything at all, if this eludes our attempts at descriptive phenomenology? Will Large makes the suggestion that we might do well to Levinas’s idea of the il y a existentially rather than categorically, as a kind of ‘mood’ that is capable of overtaking us2 (Large 2002, p. 131), a kind of insomnia of our being in which we are not conscious so much as awake. As we toss and turn, we have no power over either ourselves or the world; it is as

Horror Stories

61

if the night has seeped into us, as if we have lost our boundaries. We are no longer capable of falling asleep, nor are we capable of rousing ourselves from this turbulent, fragmented existence and coming to full consciousness. There is no way of orientating ourselves any more, everything has become ‘a swarming of points’ (Levinas 1978, p. 53) and we are delivered over to the ‘menace of pure and simple presence’, an ‘obscure invasion’, an ‘exposure’ from which we cannot retreat – for we too have been swallowed up in what Bergo calls the ‘moiling darkness’ (Bergo 2005, p. 156) of being.3 Levinas draws his reflections on the il y a, in part, from the work of the philosopher and fiction writer, Maurice Blanchot, who was already writing of the il y a back in the 1930s. As with many of the notions held in common by Blanchot and Levinas, it can be hard to delineate where the thought of one of these philosophers begins and where the thought of the other ends. In Blanchot’s work, this idea is expressed most clearly in his story ‘Thomas the Obscure’ in which this reversion to nothingness is given striking dramatic form with the invocation of a darkness that ‘immersed everything’ that ‘seemed . . . as if it had in fact issued from a wound of thought which had ceased to think . . . night itself ’ (Blanchot 1999, p. 60). What is agonizing about this experience of the il y a, for Levinas, is that it impresses itself upon us without ever annihilating us, threatening to swamp us without ever actually doing so: the horror is all the worse because it always threatens to destroy us, but continually pulls back from the brink of doing so. Caught up in this suffocating claustrophobia, Levinas’s storytelling is painted on a dark canvas, and this dark background that appears in Existence and Existents is carried over into the opening pages of Totality and Infinity. Levinas opens Totality and Infinity by writing of the ‘black light’ of war that consigns everything to an objective order from which there is no escape (Levinas 1969, p. 21). Levinas is not writing merely about the ever-present possibility of war as a historical or political phenomenon, but is referring back to this deeper ontological vision in which existence is itself war and struggle. If this is so, then the arising of subjectivity in the world is a kind of triumph or heroism: it is something that is snatched from out of the turmoil of anonymous existence. Subjectivity does not just arise; instead, it is something that we attain in the face of anonymous being. Out of impersonal existence, the being of the subject arises, surfacing out of anonymity, gasping for air like a diver breaking the surface of the swelling water. ‘What is essential in an instant’, Levinas tells us, ‘is its stance’ (Levinas 1978, p. 77). Here, as Ogle (2010, p. 301) points out, Levinas is playing

62

Levinas, Storytelling and Anti-Storytelling

on the etymological connection between ‘instant’ and ‘stance’; and it is here, in his concern with the notion of the instant, and with the act of ‘taking a stand’, that one of the recurrent preoccupations of Levinas’s thinking – the question of how one might provide a phenomenological account of time – comes to the fore. For Levinas, the rumbling of the il y a is not made of instants. For Husserl, time consciousness is something that flows onward in an orderly and straightforward fashion. But the time of the il y a is discontinuous, broken and turbulent. How long have I been lying awake insomnious? It feels as if it is an age. Time itself seems contorted, difficult. If the il y a is the background to Levinas’s storytelling, then if we are to look for a moment of beginning for the tales he weaves against this background, it may be that such a moment of beginning can be found in this mysterious instant in which the subject takes a stand amid brute, bare being. ‘Modern philosophy’, Levinas writes, ‘professes a scorn for the instant, in which it sees only the illusion of scientific time, divested of all dynamism, of all becoming. For it an instant seems to exist only as the limit between two times, a pure abstraction’ (Levinas 1978, p. 72). If we attend to only the orderly and measurable flow of phenomena, then the instant dwindles to nothing whatsoever and can be dismissed as meaningless, an abstraction. Philosophy, Levinas complains, has always started with time and then homed in on the instant, and thus has considered the instant as only the smallest duration of the continuous time of history. But what, Levinas asks, if the instant is not just a ‘simple and inert element of time’ but rather is discontinuous with the time of history, existing on its own, insubordinate to the historian’s time (Levinas 1978, p. 74)? The instant then would be the moment of beginning. And so Levinas sees the achievement of subjectivity as a kind of separation in which I attain to my own time, separate from the time of the world. Bearing in mind Rosenzweig’s claim that storytelling or speech thinking is a kind of thinking that is nourished by time, that is dependent upon time, if we are to understand some of the force of Levinas’s storytelling it may be useful to step back a little and to put Levinas’s reflections of time in the broader context of Husserl’s phenomenology. Husserl’s explorations of time are rooted not within the ‘objective’ sphere – after all, in his attempt to put aside all presupposition, Husserl has ‘bracketed out’ the idea of the objective sphere – but instead in a concern with time as it appears to the subject. It could perhaps be said that Husserl attempts to give a more systematic form to Kant’s contention that time, space and causality, being phenomenal, do not belong to the things

Horror Stories

63

themselves, but instead are forms of our intuition. For Husserl, temporality is the fundamental form of the synthesis of consciousness. It is an ‘all-ruling, passively flowing synthesis, in the form of the continuous consciousness of internal time’, that provides experience with a form and a structure (Husserl 1978, p. 41). For Husserl, time is a fundamental aspect of the structure of experience and is not dependent upon the temporality of history or of the supposedly ‘objective’ world that Husserl has called into question. If I spend a morning in the library reading Husserl, and a non-philosopher friend spends a morning in the library reading Husserl, then time as experienced will be fundamentally different for both of us. Perhaps the morning speeds by for me as I turn the pages with quivering excitement; meanwhile for my friend, who has no taste for Husserl, time drags appallingly. The fact may be that according to the library clock only four hours have passed as we’ve both started on our Husserlian meditations; but in our analysis of time, as good phenomenologists, we should make our primary focus the question of how time is constituted within our experience, and it is only from there, if we can, that we should move outwards to explore the possibility of objective time. Husserl here is close not only to Kant but also to the Augustine of the Confessions, who attempted to think of time as immanent to the subject, as memory and as anticipation. This internally constituted subjective time consciousness is, for Husserl – and for reasons that we have explored above, reasons arising out of Husserl’s attempts to push the Cartesian project beyond the limits imagined by Descartes – prior to the objective time of the world, because the world has been bracketed out in the phenomenological reduction. So while I concretely inhabit the world of objective time, in Husserl’s scheme, the concrete ego that inhabits this objective time (the ego who has a biography, a history) and this objective world itself are themselves both constituted by the transcendental ego. This leads Husserl to pull off the trick that Socrates doesn’t quite manage, the kind of philosophical trick of which Rosenzweig is so very suspicious: for by means of a somewhat torturous argument, Husserl claims to eventually establish the immortality of the soul. Thus in the appendix to his Analyses Concerning Passive and Active Synthesis, Husserl writes, in a section titled ‘The Immortality of the Transcendental Ego—The Impossibility of the Transcendental Ego Being Born’, that ‘the process of living on, and the ego that lives on, are immortal—notabene, the pure transcendental ego, and not the empirical world-ego that can very well die’ (Husserl 2001, p. 467). This attempt to establish the immortality of the transcendental ego, while reaffirming the finitude of the concrete ego, was not just a passing whim, but was rather an idea

64

Levinas, Storytelling and Anti-Storytelling

that Husserl attempted to develop systematically throughout the 1920s. ‘Strictly speaking’, Husserl writes, the soul of the body is not immortal, i.e. it is not necessarily conceivable as immortal, and it actually perishes since it is a part of everyday experience. But in a certain respect every human-ego harbors its transcendental ego, and this does not die and does not arise; it is an eternal being in the process of becoming. (Husserl 2001, p. 471)

This is clearly a somewhat complex metaphysical position; and it seems as if, for all its complexity, it is a position that in no way manages to fully escape the criticisms that Rosenzweig makes of the Western philosophical tradition.4 Like all machines, the Husserlian engine does not work as smoothly as its originator might have hoped. The various parts do not fit together entirely seamlessly, there is an element of entropy in the system; and Husserl, who spent his entire life attempting to formulate and reformulate his phenomenological project with the utmost clarity, in the end recognized – as Levinas makes it clear – that equivocation cannot be done away with. Thus, Levinas, in Totality and Infinity, departs from Husserl’s speculations on immortality to make the unabashed claim that ‘one would be wrong to situate the interior time within objective time, as Husserl does, and so to prove the eternity of the soul’ (Levinas 1969, p. 57). Rosenzweig linked the notion of the ‘cognition of the All’ – the idea of the perfectly oiled, frictionless philosophical machine – with the philosopher’s claims to having overcome death. Levinas, holding Husserl to account in the light of Rosenzweig, asks what it might be to reimagine Husserl’s phenomenology as a practice that seeks to draw out, rather than to overcome, equivocation; and as such as a practice that confirms us in our finitude, rather than one that leads to the possibility of some kind of obscure immortality. While Husserl’s transcendental ego is not subject to birth or death, the subject in Levinas is constantly fluctuating, always on the brink of disappearance, and then continually recovered, reattained, in the face of anonymous being. And while this achievement is precisely that of a time of one’s own, one that occupies another axis from that of the time of the historian, nevertheless this does not free me from the fact of death. Death, or at least my own death, as Levinas writes in Time and the Other, appears as that which is ‘never a present’ (Levinas 1987a, p.  71). However, this condition of being perpetually ahead of us does not mean that we can too easily brush death aside as does Epicurus in his letter to Menoeceus, for this claim that death is nothing to us is a misunderstanding of ‘the entire paradox of death’ (Levinas 1987a, p. 71). Death is that which we

Horror Stories

65

cannot grasp, that which we cannot master. It is the limit of our attempts at mastery. It is never-present and ungraspable, but it will still happen to me. Here, there are echoes of several things: first, of Rosenzweig’s insistence that death is not something to be considered as an abstraction that philosophy can easily efface; second, of Husserl’s insistence that my time is my own time and finally, of Heidegger’s insistence that death is that which is my ‘ownmost’. Death, in other words, is not only the ultimate horizon of my own existence, the ungraspable and never-present event, but also that which both happens to me and also does away with the me to which things happen. As Rudolf Bernet writes in his essay on Levinas and Husserl, ‘However near my death may be, it is beyond my power to cross the temporal distance separating me from it. The time of my own life, then, is indeed a temporality “in suspense”, engendered by death’s deferral’ (Bernet 2002, p. 95). It may be useful to briefly consider Levinas’s 1975 series of lectures published as God, Death and Time, for it is here that it is possible to trace a more concrete argument against Husserl’s claims to the immortality of the transcendental ego. As Levinas notes in the lecture on ‘Death of the Other and my Own’, for Husserl, consciousness is intentional, is always about something; but if this is indeed the case, then death presents Husserl’s philosophy with a problem that Husserl does not sufficiently address. Intentionality, Levinas writes, ‘weaves the lacework of time’ (Levinas 2000, p. 21) in Husserl’s philosophy; but the strange situation of my own death – my death, in Rosenzweig’s sense, rather than death in the abstract sense – is that it is an event that can never be present to my consciousness, it is a situation which breaks with this intentional scheme. This being the case, if my own death is something that is beyond intentionality, something that can never be present to consciousness, then it is also something that is beyond the grasp, the mastery, of Husserl’s transcendental ego. Intentionality, Levinas writes, ‘is not the ultimate secret of the psyche’ (Levinas 2000, p. 21), neither is the transcendental ego something that can itself master or supersede death. It is here, in these lectures, that Levinas sets out most clearly the reasons that he believes that neither Husserl’s phenomenology, with its focus on intentionality and its hidden yearnings for immortality, nor Heidegger’s own meditations on finitude, with their tendency to see death purely as a possibility for my own being, succeed in addressing what Levinas calls the ‘enigma’ of death. Although he does not explicitly state this, it may be that Levinas’s own exploration of death takes as a starting point a hint in Heidegger’s Being and Time, one that Heidegger himself does not follow-up. ‘In the dying of the Other’, Heidegger writes, ‘we can experience that remarkable phenomenon of Being

66

Levinas, Storytelling and Anti-Storytelling

which may be defined as the change-over of an entity from Dasein’s kind of Being (or life) to no-longer-Dasein’ (Heidegger 1962, p. 281); or, as Marcel Duchamp wrote, somewhat more concisely, for his own epitaph, ‘Besides, it’s always other people who die’.5 For Levinas, it is indeed the case that it’s always other people who die. But while I still am, there is still time left to me, dwindling to nothing as a curve tends towards a line that it never meets. Death is not something to which I ever myself attain, for at the moment of my death, I am no longer there, and thus my own death is not a possibility of my own being. Levinas draws an analogy with Zeno’s arrow that never reaches its target.6 In Totality and Infinity, he puts it like this: The death agony is precisely in this impossibility of ceasing, in the ambiguity of a time that has run out and of a mysterious time that yet remains; death is consequently not reducible to the end of a being. What “still remains” is different from the future that one welcomes, that one projects forth and in a certain measure draws from oneself. For a being to whom everything happens in conformity with projects, death is an absolute event, absolutely a posteriori, open to no power, not even to negation. Dying is agony because in dying a being does not come to an end while coming to an end; he has no more time, that is, can no longer wend his way anywhere, but thus he goes where one cannot go, suffocates—how much longer . . . (Levinas 1969, p. 56)

But at the same time I will die, there will be those who will outlive me, as I myself outlive others. Alongside the experience of the impossibility of my own death, there is the experience, the real, historical, everyday experience of the deaths of others. And it is in this curious divide between my own time that – from my own side, so to speak – cannot come to an end, and the time of another who may either predecease me or may, instead, live through and beyond my own ending, that Levinas seeks to prise apart. In this impossibility of dying, this impossibility of coming to an end, Levinas sees that there is an existence ‘resistant to a fate that would consist in becoming “nothing but past” . . . a refusal to be transformed into a pure loss figuring in an alien accounting system’ (Levinas 1969, p. 56). This is far from being a tale of Husserlian immortality. It is the impossibility of being released from my being, the simple fact that I cannot not be, that I have an irrevocable contract with my being, shackled to it and unable to rid myself of it. What for the Epicureans was a comfort was for Levinas a horrible burden, the agony of a time in-between, a ‘dead time’ when I can neither live nor die, an interval that is ‘a third notion between being and nothingness’ (Levinas 1969,

Horror Stories

67

p. 58). We are not sentenced to die, we are sentenced to live in the ‘meanwhile’, a meanwhile in which we have to continually take up the burden of our existence. We are locked into what John Llewelyn calls ‘ontological claustrophobia’ (Llewelyn 1995, p. 11). In Totality and Infinity, Levinas writes about this overcoming of anonymous being as a kind of ‘separation’ in which the ‘totalization of history is not to be the ultimate schema of being’ (Levinas 1969, p. 55). Separation designates the possibility of an existent being set up and having its own destiny to itself, that is, being born and dying without the place of this birth and this death in the time of universal history being the measure of its reality. Interiority is the very possibility of a birth and a death that do not derive their meaning from history. Interiority institutes an order different from historical time in which totality is constituted, an order where everything is pending, where what is no longer possible historically remains always possible. (Levinas 1969, p. 55)

The term that Levinas uses in his earlier work for this taking a stand within the anonymity of existence, this opening up of a dimension of interiority, a dimension of time that is one’s own, is ‘hypostasis’. Levinas makes use of this term in both Existence and Existents and Time and the Other, where it indicates the substantiation by means of which I become a subject (Levinas 1987a, p. 54). The argument is this: that because my own time is not something that belongs to me by right, but is something that is achieved, then this achievement itself is not once and for all, but is always something that can slip away from me. As a subject, I am always menaced by the possibility of a return to the anonymity of the il y a, I remain oppressed by, ‘the weight of existence on the existent’ (Levinas 1978, p. 76). While Husserl dreamed of a transcendental ego that might go beyond death to attain a kind of immortality, Levinas’s horror story is rather more sober. Whatever we manage to snatch from the darkness, whatever scarce time and light we manage to secure for ourselves, nevertheless we remain under threat. Yet, at the same time, there is a kind of heroic light that appears to glimmer throughout Levinas’s work (the theme of heroism is one to which Levinas returns again and again), and in winning for myself this time and this light, in a fashion I manage to triumph over death even though I will surely die. The non-reference to the common time of history means that mortal existence unfolds in a dimension that does not run parallel to the time of history and is not situated with respect to this time as to an absolute. This is why the life

68

Levinas, Storytelling and Anti-Storytelling between birth and death is neither folly nor absurdity nor flight nor cowardice. It flows on in a dimension of its own where it has meaning, and where a triumph over death can have meaning. (Levinas 1969, p. 56)

But it is with the suggestion that this time of the separated subject might be able to have meaning that things become more puzzling. After all, so far Levinas has provided a story only about instants, about perpetual beginning and rebeginnings. This is a story that contains the possibilities of beginnings and ends; but it is a story without a middle, a story about how I can have a time of my own, but one that as yet has no prolongation, no magnitude. So the question is that of how Levinas can move from this story about instants to a story in which there is room for some kind of narrative time, in which there can be some sense of personhood other than the simple affirmation ‘I am!’ Or, to steal a phrase, we need to ask how the lacework of time, how the lacework of my time, can be woven. Levinas may claim to have established, once and for all, an absolute break of the subjective life from the objective time of history; but this subjective life thus far seems to be a life that trembles on the brink of impossibility, a life that can have no plot or movement, a life that, consisting of perpetual recommencements and beginnings, cannot get off the ground. So, it is necessary to see how Levinas takes up the problem of how it might be possible to move from the idea of a subject who perpetually begins again to the possibility of a subject who can act in the world, so that I can have my own time that is sufficiently orderly for my own plot, my own tale, to be played out.

6

Idylls and Heroes

Every story, it has been said, needs a hero; and one of the striking things about the work of Levinas is how he repeatedly has recourse to the language of heroism. This is a tendency that is particularly marked in Time and the Other (although it occurs both earlier and later than this book) which stands between Existence and Existents and Totality and Infinity. It is here that Levinas writes about ‘My mastery, my virility, my heroism as a subject’ (Levinas 1987a, p. 72); and while Levinas himself could be seen as a philosopher struggling to free himself from the old Hegelian story, the self-actualizing heroic quest, at the same time he does not quite manage to do so. Although the storytelling in Levinas’s Totality and Infinity is made up of a complex set of interlocking times that do not resolve into a whole, at the same time there emerges throughout all Levinas’s work a sense that what we are being called upon is a kind of heroic journey even if here, as in Rosenzweig, there is no final, Hegelian end-point to the journey at which we can sit and look back at how far we have come. In his book Discovering Existence with Husserl (Levinas 1998), Levinas makes a distinction between the heroic myth of Odysseus, who simply wants to arrive back home, and the myth of Abraham, who departs from his home without hope of ever returning.1 The journey to which Levinas calls us is not an Odyssean return home, but is instead an Abrahamic departure for further horizons. None of this is to suggest that the idea of heroism is the last word for Levinas. There is, after all, no obvious first or last word. But it is to say that this trope of the journey of a hero is one that recurs throughout Levinas’s work. And there is a linear story of sorts to be found buried within the pages of Totality and Infinity, even though Levinas does his best to complicate it. It begins with the hero of the story who, having risen up in the world, fashions a home. This leads to a kind of idyll, a vision of the hero who dwells at home with himself. Then it moves through tales of erotic delight to a strange kind of heroic quest. We will look at Levinas’s tales of erotic delights and heroic quests in the chapters that follow; but, for the time

70

Levinas, Storytelling and Anti-Storytelling

being, we need to ask how any kind of idyll might be possible at all against the background of horror that we have just explored. The question, phrased differently, might be this: what might it mean to live? Not just to take a stand, momentarily, within the compass of an instant, but to be at home in the world? If the time of the subject begins in a moment of absolute separation from the formless background of the il y a, how does this time play out, how does it unfold? These questions are taken up in the opening sections of the second part of Totality and Infinity, which takes the title ‘Separation as Life’. In this part of his book, Levinas explores the question of precisely how, in the face of brute being, the subject can establish a time of separation in which it is possible to live. Here, Levinas’s distance from Husserl, and to some extent his closeness to Heidegger, is very much in evidence: that is to say, Levinas is less concerned with Husserl’s preoccupations with founding the sciences than he is with thinking through, and rethinking, the Being-in-the-world (In-derWelt-sein) that Heidegger calls ‘a fundamental structure in Dasein’ (Heidegger 1962, p. 65). But if Levinas takes his lead from Heidegger, he does so in a fashion that departs significantly from Heidegger’s own philosophy. Levinas is aware that, phenomenologically speaking, our experience of our Being-in-the-world is often far from being a morass of claustrophobia and horror. How can it be, then, that our relationship with anonymous existence is not merely a series of beginnings, a rising up out of anonymous horror? How can there be continuity? How can there be, indeed, the possibility of some kind of story when it comes to my existence? After all, when I wake in the morning and I come to my senses, it is not as a stranger in a strange world. Rather, I come to my senses as someone who is at home in the world. There is more here than the tedium of incessant beginning, the burden of endless novelty. As Levinas writes in Time and the Other, ‘Positing hypostasis as a present is still not to introduce time into being. Although giving us the present, we are given neither a stretch of time set within a linear series of duration, nor a point in this series’ (Levinas 1987a, p. 52). The way that Levinas deals with this problem of how it is possible for me to have time is by introducing the notion of what he calls ‘living from . . .’ (vivre de . . .). Here, he makes a departure both from Husserl and from Heidegger. He distinguishes himself from Husserl in his determination to root Husserlian phenomenology in our corporeity: Husserl brackets the ‘objective’ materiality of the body in his phenomenological reduction, but Levinas maintains a curiously stubborn kind of commitment to seeing us in the light of our material

Idylls and Heroes

71

being. Indeed, Levinas’s thinking often comes extraordinarily close to a kind of materialism2; and it is in relation to the world that which we live from, as nourishments, that this materialistic strain is most in evidence, to the extent that, in his essay Judaism and Revolution, during a charmingly sweet-toothed meditation on the Talmudic texts, he writes, ‘Sublime materialism, concerned with dessert. Food is not the fuel necessary to the human machine; food is a meal’ (Levinas 1990, p. 97). Here, then, Levinas departs from Heidegger’s insistence that we relate to the world – whether we are talking about hammers or about desserts – as ‘equipment’ or as ‘tools’ (Werkzeug). Where Heidegger writes that we encounter a room ‘not as something “between four walls” in a geometrical spatial sense, but as equipment for residing’ (Heidegger 1962, p. 98), Levinas might counter that nobody (except perhaps Le Courbusier) would be strange enough to see a house as a machine for living in. Instead, it is precisely as a home that we encounter these four walls, this armchair, that bookcase, this table. Even as philosophers, our relationship with the world is neither merely in terms of representations we make of it, as Husserl might claim, nor as equipment that is ready-to-hand in our various projects, as Heidegger might claim. We eat, we sleep, we work. We are involved with the things of this world, we live from them. We live from “good soup,” air, light, spectacles, work, ideas, sleep, etc. These are not objects of representations. We live from them. Nor is what we live from a “means of life,” as the pen is a means with respect to the letter it permits us to write—nor a goal of life, as communication is the goal of the letter. The things we live from are not tools, nor even implements, in the Heideggerian sense of the term. Their existence is not exhausted by the utilitarian schematism that delineates them as having the existence of hammers, needles, or machines. They are always in a certain measure—and even the hammers, needles and machines are—objects of enjoyment, presenting themselves to “taste,” already adorned, embellished. (Levinas 1969, p. 110)

When we eat, our relationship with the food we are eating is not primarily as a representation, nor is it as a means to sustaining ourselves, but it is as food. Levinas insists upon this point from the very beginning in Existence and Existents. We are nourished by the world, immersed in the world, we partake of it, our hands reach out to grasp the fruit from the bough. ‘The bare fact of life’, Levinas writes in Totality and Infinity, ‘is never bare’ (Levinas 1969, p. 112). Life is not simply a mass of projects, but it is instead love of life: ‘thinking, eating, sleeping, reading, working, warming oneself in the sun’ (Levinas 1969,

72

Levinas, Storytelling and Anti-Storytelling

p. 112). This may seem to be a banal observation – although perhaps something of a relief after the moiling darkness of the il y a – but it matters to Levinas precisely because it is a kind of relation between the subject and the world, a kind of intentionality, that Levinas believes is missed by both Heidegger and Husserl, ‘a form of intentionality in the Husserlian sense, taken very broadly, as the universal fact of human existence’ (Levinas 1969, p. 122). For Levinas, once again holding Husserl up to scrutiny in the light of Rosenzweig, the problem with Husserl’s notion of intentionality is that in Husserl’s synoptic gaze, the mastery of the subject is total; and it is precisely this mastery, this cool all-embracing vision, that Levinas wishes to call into question. In Husserl’s approach to phenomenology, there remains little that can ever retain the power to surprise or to shock: there is simply not enough at stake. To be sure representation is the seat of truth: the movement proper to truth consists in the thinker being determined by the object presented to him. But it determines him without touching him, without weighing on him—such that the thinker who submits to what is thought does so “gracefully”, as though the object, even in the surprises it has in store for cognition, had been anticipated by the subject. (Levinas 1969, p. 124)

In other words, in Husserl’s view of intentionality, it is always I who constitute the world, and not vice versa. But for Levinas, this notion of ‘living from . . .’ is something that can maintain the otherness of the world, something that suggests that not only is our separation something achieved, but also that in achieving this separation, we do not thereby master the world. Subjectivity emerges out of the world, but in its emergence, we remain subject to the world. Enjoyment, then, is, as far as Levinas is concerned, not a contingent fact, for example, the enjoyment of this piece of music or of that slice of cake; rather, we live through an enjoyment that rests upon a fundamental exploitation of the otherness of the world for our own happiness. Yet in this exploitation, we are not independent of the world in which we are immersed. ‘If enjoyment is the very eddy of the same, it is not ignorance but exploitation of the other’, writes Levinas. ‘The enjoyment of the other the world is is surmounted by need, which enjoyment remembers and is enkindled by; need is the primary movement of the same’ (Levinas 1969, p. 115). All of this is more than French (or Lithuanian) sensuality asserting itself in the face of Germanic practicality: here, Levinas believes that he is bringing to light a fundamental feature of our relationship with the world that has been overlooked by Heidegger. Levinas complains that ‘Dasein in Heidegger is never

Idylls and Heroes

73

hungry’ (Levinas 1969, p. 134). Needs, pleasures, satisfactions, hungers: these, for Levinas, are at the core of what it means to live from the things of the world. This form of intentionality is not, for Levinas, a surrender to irrationalism; rather it is the very fact of hunger, a reassertion of embodiment, of bodily need, of the materiality of our being and of the being of the world. This raises the question of the nature of this subject who needs, hungers or enjoys. Like Husserl and Heidegger before him, Levinas rejects any attempts to reduce this notion of subjectivity to the sociological or the biological. Instead, it is, Levinas writes, the subject is constituted in terms of its interiority. This enjoyment of the world is the enjoyment of a separated being, a being ‘at home with itself ’ (Levinas 1969, p. 118). It is, Levinas writes, ‘solitude par excellence’. However, Levinas’s claim that there is a kind of self-sufficiency here in enjoyment, that this ability to take the world as nourishments for oneself is a kind of solitude, is one that can itself be held up to a degree of sceptical scrutiny. Is it really true that this kind of intentionality that Levinas calls by the name ‘enjoyment’ is marked by a kind of ‘movement towards oneself ’ (Levinas 1969, p. 118)? It may be true that there is a kind of contraction that can take place, a kind of movement towards oneself, in this ‘living from’, but there may also be a kind of movement away from oneself. Other stories are possible here. For example, one might argue that this form of intentionality that Levinas calls enjoyment is not so much an attempt to suck the juices of the world and to make them mine as it is a kind of losing of oneself in the world. Thus, it might be possible to construct an argument or a story about a kind of hedonism that is precisely the loss of oneself in the nourishments of the world; and if we admit that such a hedonism is possible – or at least conceivable – then the supposedly terrible il y a begins to look a lot less terrible than Levinas insists it must be.3 If, however, Levinas cannot countenance an enjoyment without separation and interiority, then the question remains how the horrific rumbling of the il y a can be transmuted into the world of enjoyment. And here it is worth noting the curious fleetingness with which Levinas deals with the term ‘il y a’ in Totality and Infinity. Instead of referring directly to the il y a, Levinas prefers to talk about the ‘elemental’ or the ‘element’. This notion of the ‘element’ is introduced while Levinas is asking what it is that distinguishes enjoyment from representation. In Husserl’s notion of representation – and the subtle and complex path that Levinas is treading here between Husserl and Heidegger is clear, with Rosenzweig’s muted voice in the background to help guide him – things are ‘absorbed in the technical finality that organises them into a system’ (Levinas 1969, p. 130).

74

Levinas, Storytelling and Anti-Storytelling

But what, we might ask, are the ‘things’, the objects, of enjoyment? They cannot be a system of references in a theoretical system. Instead, Levinas says that every ‘relation or possession is situated within the non-possessable which envelops or contains without being able to be contained or enveloped’ (Levinas 1969, p. 131). In one sense, what Levinas is doing here is a reworking of Heidegger’s distinction between the present-at-hand (vorhanden) and the ready-to-hand (zuhanden); but he is also refashioning the il y a so that it might better suit the purposes of the story that he is telling in this particular book, because Levinas never quite succeeds in moving from the il y a to the arising of subjectivity, to the achievement of a time that one might call one’s own. In a footnote to his essay, ‘Back to the Other Levinas’, Michael Fagenblat writes: Levinas avoids explicitly identifying the element with the il y a, though he does everything to assure their indistinguishability. ‘The element extends into the there is [il y a] (p. 142)’ suggests a difference, but this falls away when we learn that the element, just like the il y a, is ‘existence without existent, the impersonal par excellence’ (p. 142), that it ‘comes to us from nowhere’ and ‘remains entirely anonymous’ (p. 132). The only difference is that the element is enjoyed through the body’s sensibility while the il y a is endured through consciousness. (Fagenblat 2005, p. 300)

When we start to pay attention not just to Levinas’s careful argument, but also to the stories that he is telling about the il y a and the elemental – the stories that he is perhaps telling despite himself – it seems that the difference between the two is rather more substantial than Fagenblat, or, in fact, Levinas himself, might be prepared to admit. Take, for example, the following piece of philosophical storytelling in which the rumbling horror of night that we have encountered in Existence and Existents is somehow transmogrified into a curious kind of bucolic sublimity. The navigator who makes use of the sea and the wind dominates these elements but does not thereby transform them into things. They retain the indetermination of elements despite the precision of the laws that govern them, which can be known and taught. The element has no forms containing it; it is content without form. Or rather it has but a side: the surface of the sea and of the field, the edge of the wind; the medium upon which this side takes form is not composed of things. It unfolds in its own dimension: depth, which is inconvertible into the breadth and length in which the side of the element extends . . . The depth of the element prolongs it till it is lost in the earth and in the heavens. “Nothing ends, nothing begins”. (Levinas 1969, p. 131)

Idylls and Heroes

75

This is no horror story. In fact, the elemental as it appears in Totality and Infinity begins to look like a strange descendent of Kant’s sublime with its ‘threatening rocks, thunderclouds piling up in the sky and moving about accompanied by lightning and thunderclaps, volcanoes with all their destructive power, hurricanes with all the devastation they leave behind, the boundless ocean heaved up, the waterfall of a mighty river . . . ’ (Kant and Pluhar 1987, p. 120). There is also, in the notion of the element, a kind of definition that is lacking in the il y a: it is the surface of the sea, the edge of the wind: this is very far from the swarming of points that is the ‘there is’. Not only this, but while Existence and Existents has the subject heroically taking a stand in anonymous existence, in Totality and Infinity I am, instead, ‘steeped’ in the element (Levinas 1969, p. 131). This is strange, because here the separation that has been so important to Levinas in his earlier work seems to become less distinct. The subject, that is to say, seems to be a little more porous than it has appeared before. If there is little mention of the il y a in Totality and Infinity, then it should also come as no surprise that there is also no mention of the hypostasis. To the extent that there is a kind of separation that takes place in Totality and Infinity, it is very different from that in Levinas’s earlier work. ‘Man has overcome the elements’, Levinas explains, only by surmounting this interiority without issue by the domicile, which confers upon him an extraterritoriality. He gets a foothold in the elemental by a side already appropriated: a field cultivated by me, the sea in which I fish and moor my boats, the forest in which I cut wood; and all these acts, all this labor, refer to the domicile. Man plunges into the elemental from the domicile . . . (Levinas 1969, p. 131)

It is through the sweat of my brow that I manage to transform a world that is not mine, a world that is simply elemental, into a world that permits a kind of interiority. The home, the domicile, is ‘set back from the anonymity of the earth, the air, the light, the forest, the road, the sea, the river’ (Levinas 1969, p. 156), but it is labour that has led to the establishment of the home and to the separation of a being from the elemental anonymity of the world. At this point, Levinas’s argument presents us with at least two puzzles. The first is why it is that he chooses to use this strange language of seas and tides and fields and homes. It is not entirely clear whether Levinas is using this language in a metaphorical fashion or not. Is the domicile a reference to some kind of phenomenon or bundle of phenomena, and if so, what are these phenomena? Is there here some kind of reference to an actual domicile?4 The second problem

76

Levinas, Storytelling and Anti-Storytelling

relates to the question of how it is that this separation actually takes place. For if the domicile or the home is that which confers a kind of separation, a kind of extraterritoriality on us, at the same time – in an argument that begins to look rather circular – it is this separation that seems to make possible a kind of dwelling. The other way of putting this second question is this: where, in Totality and Infinity is the moment of hypostasis? Where is the moment at which the subject appears, as a subject, amid the anonymity of existence? To see the problem more clearly, it may help to return to Existence and Existents. In Totality and Infinity, Levinas has established a subject who can have a kind of duration, who exists in a form that is something other than a succession of punctual instants, but he seems to have problems with the question of how this subject might actually arise. Conversely, in Existence and Existents, Levinas can give an account of the arising of the subject within the instant, but he is still left asking, ‘How indeed could time arise in a solitary subject?’ (Levinas 1978, p. 96), that is, how is it possible for the solitary subject’s time to have any kind of duration or magnitude? This is a question that Levinas seems to have difficulty answering with any clarity in Existence and Existents, and what indications and hints he gives are hard to decode. ‘The present instant’, Levinas writes in his conclusion to that book, ‘constitutes a subject which is posited both as the master of time and as involved in time’ (Levinas 1978, p. 102), but if the subject is involved in  – perhaps subject to – time, it is not clear what this time is. There is the curious reference to ‘economic time’ in which effort and leisure alternate, time that is monotonous in that ‘its instants are equivalent’ (Levinas 1978, p. 92); there is the suggestion of a kind of messianic redemption that comes not after the end of this economic time, but in which it might be possible for the present to be ‘not only indemnified, but resurrected’ (Levinas 1978, p. 94), a messianic time that may or may not be related to the phenomenon of our experience of another; there is the claim that somehow the subject is exterior to the succession of instants and somehow ‘circulates across them to link them up’ (Levinas 1978, p. 95); and finally, there is the suggestion that there may be a possibility that the notion of fecundity – ‘to anticipate what we shall examine later’, Levinas writes, and then leaves the topic without returning to it – might provide a way of thinking about time and about the future. None of this, however, adds up to an answer to the question of how time might arise in the solitary subject. It is hard, when reading Totality and Infinity and Existence and Existents alongside each other, not to find oneself wondering whether it is a case of either

Idylls and Heroes

77

providing an account of the hypostasis or providing an account of how a subject can have their own time of interiority, but not both. For it seems that if Levinas attempts to answer the question of how there can be time – time with duration, time that is my time – in Totality and Infinity, he can only do so by means of leaving behind his talk of the il y a and the instant of hypostasis. If this is the case, then it looks as if the move from the il y a to the elemental is one that is necessitated by the problems that are posed, but insufficiently addressed, in Existence and Existents. This problem on one side, the story that Levinas is telling in Totality and Infinity is a clear one: it is through the sweat of my brow, through labour, that I shape the element so that it can become the site of an inner life. Here Levinas finds a place for Heidegger’s implements and tools; but Levinas makes clear that the handiness we may have when it comes to carving out a space for ourselves in the world does not lead to a kind of transcendence, but instead to a movement towards oneself (Levinas 1969, p. 159). The home, the dwelling, functions a barricade against the impersonality of the element, it is the thing that ‘postpones the unforeseeable future of the element’ (Levinas 1969, p. 158). The dwelling is a construction that resists the anonymity of wind, earth, sea, sky and air, the outside. Within the home, the murmur of the element subsides, muffled by the four walls of interiority, even if it can never be entirely silenced. ‘The dwelling,’ Levinas writes, ‘overcoming the insecurity of life, is a perpetual postponement of the expiration in which life risks foundering’ (Levinas 1969, p. 165). Here, in the security of my home, the anonymous elements held at bay, there is a possibility of time, for the unfolding of a plot that is my own, to potential for an inner life. There is, however, one other unsettling question, and it is this. What if it is not only the rumbling of the elements outside that threatens this strange idyll? What if there is also something lurking within the heart of the dwelling itself, the home that is our protection against the world, harbouring the very thing we fear most? Intriguingly, Levinas suggests just such a possibility early on in Totality and Infinity, when he notes that something of the element may rumble on within the heart of interiority and secrecy, in solitary reflection, at the core of that which I consider to be mine. ‘The I that thinks hearkens to itself thinking,’ Levinas writes, ‘or takes fright before its depths and is to itself an other’ (Levinas 1969, p. 36). But, having identified this horrible possibility, Levinas assiduously navigates around it in Totality and Infinity, as if he has himself taken fright and drawn back. It is not until the later Otherwise than Being that he will return to this theme in the most disconcerting fashion.

78

Levinas, Storytelling and Anti-Storytelling

For all of the problems with Levinas’s account of dwelling, for all of the puzzles that make the move from Existence and Existents to Totality and Infinity less than straightforward, nevertheless in giving an account of the time of the subject as a kind of dwelling, a homeliness amid the unhomeliness of the elemental, Levinas manages to maintain something of Husserl’s conception of the inner life, something of this separation between my own time and the time of the world, without committing himself to anything like a Husserlian view of immortality. ‘Enjoyment seems to be in touch with an “other” inasmuch as a future is announced within the element and menaces it with insecurity’ (Levinas 1969, p. 137), Levinas writes. Eventually the house will crumble: there is a fundamental instability to the identity of things; but the crumbling of the dwelling is always – to borrow an expression from Heidegger – not yet (Heidegger 1962, p. 286). A thing exists in the midst of its wastes. When the kindling wood becomes smoke and ashes the identity of my table disappears. The wastes become indiscernible; the smoke drifts off anywhere. If my thought follows the transformation of things I lose the trace of their identity very quickly—as soon as they quit their container. Descartes’ reasoning about the piece of wax indicates the itinerary by which each thing loses its identity. In things the distinction between matter and form is essential, as also the dissolution of form in the matter. It imposes a quantitative physics in place of the world of perception. (Levinas 1969, p. 140)

We have here moved a little distance from the horror of Existence and Existents. Totality and Infinity, in fact feels closer to a kind of Heideggerian pastoral. But if this is a story that takes place in the light of the ‘not-yet’, there are significant differences between Levinas and Heidegger. For Levinas, the ‘not-yet’ it is not so much, as Heidegger insists, a ‘lack of totality’ as it is the establishing of a kind of interiority that does not enter into the accounting of the totality of things, the possibility of finding breathing space here in the midst of being. ‘To be free,’ Levinas writes, ‘is to build a world in which one could be free’ (Levinas 1969, p. 165). This, then, is indeed an idyll of sorts, an idyll carved out from among the wastes of the element, an idyll secured against the background of the rumbling of anonymous being; but if it is an idyll, it is thus far a solitary one. But here we need to move on to a different kind of story, a story in which the idyll is eroticized, in which the hero of Levinas’s tale encounters another with whom to share this paradise of sorts.

7

The Idyll Eroticized

Until this point, there has only been one character on the stage: our hero, taking a stand in the midst of anonymous being and, through labour, fashioning a world where he might be at home. I say ‘he’, because it is very clear that the central protagonist of the multiple stories that Levinas weaves from Existents to Existence through Time and the Other to Totality and Infinity is indeed male. As Derrida writes, in a footnote to his essay Violence and Metaphysics, ‘it seems to us impossible, essentially impossible, that it could have been written by a woman. Its philosophical subject is man (vir)’ (Derrida 1978, p. 321).1 However, when exploring the question of gender in Levinas’s work, it is necessary to bear in mind that there are subtle shifts in his position throughout his career. Here, as with his changing conceptions of the il y a and of the elemental, between Levinas’s earlier and later work there are some differences of emphasis; and the stories Levinas tells at different times, although related, are not quite the same. The notion of the feminine first appears in Existence and Existents, where Levinas writes that ‘the other par excellence is the feminine, through which a world behind the scenes prolongs the world’ (Levinas 1978, p. 86). Here the notion of the feminine seems to point towards a possible solution to the problem discussed in the last chapter: the question of the prolongation of time, as if the erotic relationship might be able to overcome the perpetual staccato movement of re-beginning that runs through Existence and Existents, and might be able to give us time. However, this idea of the erotic relationship as the relationship that can prolong the world is not addressed head-on until Time and the Other. Here Levinas provides us with a way of thinking through the possibility of prolonging time, through what he calls a ‘phenomenology of voluptuousness’ (Levinas 1989, p. 89). This phenomenology of voluptuousness is predicated upon a claim that the feminine is essentially unknowable, that it is a ‘mode of being that consists in slipping away from the light’ (Levinas 1987a, p. 87). ‘Hiding’ Levinas writes, ‘is

80

Levinas, Storytelling and Anti-Storytelling

the way of existing of the feminine, and this fact of hiding is precisely modesty’ (Levinas 1987a, p. 87). It is worth nothing here, even if only in passing, that Levinas has begun to set out a very different kind of phenomenology of night and of darkness to that discussed in Existence and Existents. In the former book, night is associated only with the horror of the il y a; but in Time and the Other, the night is emptied of horror and is instead eroticized, albeit in accord with the desires of a decidedly male protagonist. There, in the darkness of intimacy, always slipping away, lies what Levinas identifies as the mystery of the feminine; and it is in this that Levinas sees the hints of yet another kind of intentionality that is overlooked by both Heidegger and Husserl: the intentionality that is found in the caress. The caress, Levinas writes in Time and the Other, is ‘the sole intentionality of the future itself, and not an expectation of some future fact’ (Levinas 1989, p. 89). But, one might ask, what does it mean to say that the caress is ‘the sole intentionality of the future itself ’? Levinas writes that the caress is, ‘like a game with something slipping away, a game absolutely without project or plan, not with what can become ours or us, but with something other, always other, always inaccessible, and always still to come’ (Levinas 1989, p. 89). The caress, in other words, aims at nothing. I do not caress because I want to take hold of something for some particular end. The other in the erotic relationship is not a Heideggerian implement like a hammer or a spade that is somehow ready-tohand. But neither is this the kind of slipping-away that Levinas writes about in Existence and Existents, in which I grasp the spade in fatigue and as I grasp hold if it, it slips away from my hand. Caressing is not a project, in the Heideggerian sense. The caress seeks only to prolong itself, it does not seek a conclusion or an ending. This is an erotic dream without a climax; or, as Levinas puts it, the culmination of this erotic game is ‘always still to come’. The theme of the caress is picked up again in Totality and Infinity. Here there are divergences from the earlier picture set out in Time and the Other. In the earlier book, Levinas seems to want to maintain the absolute otherness of the feminine. ‘I think the absolutely contrary contrary,’ he writes, ‘whose contrariety is in no way effected by the relationship that can be established between it and its correlative, the contrariety that permits its terms to remain absolute other, is the feminine’ (Levinas 1987a, p. 85). This assertion of the absolute otherness of the feminine is muted in Totality and Infinity, where the feminine other is described not as absolutely other, but instead, as ‘the other whose presence is discreetly an absence’ (Levinas 1969, p. 155). In the later book, Levinas returns to the caress to write that it ‘consists in seizing upon nothing, in soliciting what

The Idyll Eroticized

81

ceaselessly escapes its form towards a future never future enough, in soliciting what slips away as though it were not yet’ (Levinas 1969, p. 258). The caress ‘searches’ and ‘forages’; it moves ‘unto the invisible’ (Ibid.). In these lightless, nocturnal – but apparently delightful – gropings, the relationship with another is reduced to ceaseless activity of a hand which caresses, while all the time beneath the touch of the hand the body remains the passive recipient. Vasseleu describes it like this: Levinas’s phenomenology of Eros perpetuates a vision of absence as it loses its grasp of the feminine. Instead of an ethical threshold, in the caress Levinas reduces the feminine to humanity’s own carnal being, or to an alter ego that is left suspended in the anonymity of night. (Vasseleu 1998, p. 108)

The object of the caress is not just suspended in anonymity, but is also reduced to discretion and silence. The encounter with the feminine other, Levinas writes, leads to ‘a language without teaching, a silent language, an understanding without words, an expression in secret’ (Levinas 1969, p. 155). The obvious question here is this: what on earth is Levinas talking about? As Katz notes, is that it is not at all clear what the specific reference of Levinas’s term ‘the feminine’ actually is. ‘Does the feminine refer to empirically existing women,’ she asks, ‘or does it describe metaphorically what might be interpreted as stereotyped feminine attributes such as gentleness?’ (Katz 2003, p. 56). The question of metaphor in Levinas’s work is a vexed one, and it is a question that we have already encountered in relation to the notion of the dwelling. Levinas himself often denied that his work had any metaphorical content: as Bevis points out, in her careful exploration of the place of metaphor in Levinas’s work, there are tendencies to both employ and disavow metaphor at play in Levinas’s work (Bevis 2007). In relation to the question of the feminine, Katz comes down firmly on the side of ‘mere’ metaphor, although perhaps this is a conclusion she reaches a little too hastily. Just as, for example, it is not possible to fully absolve Shakespeare of the charge of anti-Semitism by claiming that Shylock is a metaphorical creation, so it is not possible to entirely absolve Levinas of some of the charges that have been levelled against him. Stella Sandford notes that, if this metaphor is seen to float entirely free from any connection with empirical women, then it is as good as useless: a metaphor that was so free-floating could be substituted for any other without any loss of meaning (Sandford 2000, p. 47). And the evidence from elsewhere in Levinas’s work does not succeed in fully quashing any concerns one might have. For example, in the curious essay ‘And God Created Woman’ in his Nine Talmudic Readings, Levinas writes as follows.

82

Levinas, Storytelling and Anti-Storytelling I think of the last chapter of Proverbs, of the woman praised there; she makes possible the life of men; she is the home of men. But the husband has a life outside the home. He sits on the Council of the city; he has a public life; he is at the service of the universal; he does not limit himself to interiority, to intimacy, to the home, although without them he could do nothing. (Levinas 1990, p. 169)

We cannot, I think, sustain a reading of this as mere metaphor. In Totality and Infinity Levinas himself writes that the feminine ‘has been encountered as one of the cardinal points of the horizon in which the inner life takes place,’ and then goes on to say that, ‘the empirical absence of the human being of “feminine sex” in a dwelling nowise affects the dimension of femininity which remains open there’ (Levinas 1969, p. 158); but this only prompts the question of whose inner life we are talking about. Is the feminine equally a cardinal point in the inner life of my friend Floyd and in that of my friend Flora? Here, perhaps, we should ask again about the stories that Levinas is not telling. As social beings, we are complex creatures and our relationships differ in complex ways. Levinas’s reduction of the various modalities of the interpersonal relationship down to a few fixed types, or his reduction of these modalities of relationship down to a few ‘cardinal points’, fails to recognize these other possibilities of human relationship. Thus there are further possibilities of intimate relationship – both erotic and non-erotic, for Levinas often seems to conflate the erotic and the intimate – that are far from being the relationship of a virile protagonist with a silent feminine other. Luce Irigaray in her ‘Questions to Emmanuel Levinas’ complains that Levinas knows ‘nothing of communion in pleasure.’ Irigaray writes, Levinas does not ever seem to have experienced the transcendence of the other which become immediate ecstasy (extase instant) in me and with him—or her. For Levinas, the distance is always maintained with the other in the experience of love. The other is “close” to him in “duality.” This autistic, geological, solitary love does not correspond to the shared outpouring, to the loss of boundaries which takes place for both lovers when the cross the boundary of the skin into the mucous membranes of the body, leaving the circle which encloses my solitude to meet in a shared space, a shared breath. (Irigaray 1991, p. 111)

While one might perhaps wish to pass over in silence Irigaray’s implication that Levinas has only been led to this curious kind of erotic idyll because of his own impoverished sex-life, the point is well-made: as an erotic idyll, this is curiously lacking in substance. Here, where there is silence, where there is nothing of

The Idyll Eroticized

83

speech, where the hand that caresses the passive body does so perpetually without finding any resistance, it is hard not to ask: What of mutuality? What of the possibility of erotic speech? What of the possibility of an erotics of daylight and presence, rather than night and absence? And what of other forms of erotic relationship that go beyond the binary pairing of man and woman? For if this is a kind of erotic idyll that Levinas is spinning, it seems one fit for only the most self-absorbed of tragic heroes. One point at which this impoverishment seems particularly apparent is in Levinas’s reading of the dialogical thought of Martin Buber. Levinas’s relationship with Buber is complex and occasionally antagonistic. And yet, while in various works Levinas resists the parallels that are drawn between himself and Buber (Levinas 1996a, p. 105; 1996b, p. 20; Levinas 1991, p. 13), he also claims nothing but the greatest respect for the other philosopher. Nevertheless, when it comes to the relationship between Levinas and Buber – Levinas wrote several essays on Buber calling into question the coherence of Buber’s views, and Buber published responses to at least one of these essays – their points of divergence are often as instructive, if not more so, than their points of agreement. For Buber, the fundamental ethical relationship, indeed the fundamental relationship tout court, was that between the subject, the ‘I’ and the intimate partner in a dialogue, the ‘Thou’. One such point of divergence between the two philosophers is in the reading that Levinas gives of Buber’s notion of the ‘I-Thou’ (Ich-du) relationship as it appears in Buber’s 1923 book I and Thou, where Levinas conflates Buber’s notion of the I-Thou relationship with his own understanding of the ‘feminine’. ‘The I-Thou in which Buber sees the category of interhuman relationship,’ Levinas writes, ‘is the relation not with the interlocutor but with feminine alterity’ (Levinas 1969, p. 155). Looking at Buber’s work on its own terms, however, it seems that this is decidedly odd. Buber’s idea of the I-Thou relation is one that is rooted in a reading of Feuerbach’s Principles of the Philosophy of the Future, paragraph 59 of which insists that in isolation, the single man ‘possesses in himself the essence of man neither as a moral nor as a thinking being’. Instead, ‘The essence of man is contained only in the community, in the unity of man and man—a unity which rests upon the reality of the difference between “I” and “Thou”’ (Feuerbach 1966, p. 71). For Buber, this ‘discovery’ of the I-Thou relation by Feuerbach, a relation that is one of difference but also one of unity within difference, was a ‘Copernican revolution’ within modern philosophy (Buber 1959, p. 182). The relation I-Thou is, in Buber’s hands, the relationship with the other person par excellence, the primary relationship of our existence. Buber makes clear that

84

Levinas, Storytelling and Anti-Storytelling

‘I-Thou’ should not be considered as a conjunction of two terms, as if ‘I’ and ‘Thou’ existed prior to this relationship. Instead, the fact that I can say ‘I’ to your ‘Thou’ is made possible only because of this prior relationship. Not only this, but the possibility of relating to the ‘it’, to the world of objects, is also contingent upon this relationship. One could set out a kind of series here: first there is the I-Thou relationship; then there is the arising of the ‘I’ who is in relation; then there is the possibility of the relationship with the ‘It’. For Buber, the I-Thou relationship is a relationship that is characterized by dialogue, by mutuality and by speech. Buber claims that this relationship is one in which the intimate ‘you’, the ‘Thou’, is present to me; but we what we cannot do is dwell within this present or within this presence. Buber argues that it is impossible to take up residence in this relation I-Thou. Instead it is incumbent upon Buber’s subject to repeatedly ‘cross the threshold of the holy place wherein he was not able to remain’ (Buber 1956, p. 73). We cannot live in the I-Thou for we cannot live in the ‘bare present’. Life would be quite consumed if precautions were not taken to subdue the present speedily and thoroughly. But it is possible to live in the bare past, indeed only in it may a life be organised. We only need to fill each moment with experiencing and using, and it ceases to burn. (Buber 1956, p. 51).

Much more could be said about Buber’s conception of the I-Thou relationship; but my aim here is only to suggest that in Totality and Infinity, while Levinas claims to be speaking about Buber in the passages on eros, he is in fact telling a very different story. Four things, at least, have changed between Levinas’s account and the account given by Buber. First, the I-Thou relationship has been consigned to silence. It is no longer dialogue and speech, but is instead the absence of speech. Secondly, the relationship has become gendered. Thirdly, Levinas has placed relationship with the feminine other outside of the realm of the ethical proper. As we shall see, for Levinas the ethical relationship occurs in the disruption of the solitude of the subject, but the feminine other of whom Levinas writes does not so much disrupt as consecrate this solitude. As Sandford writes, ‘She is enough of an other to fulfil her function as welcomer and household settler, but not so other than she unsettles the ego; an other domesticated and rendered docile’ (Sandford 2000, p. 146). Levinas makes this clear towards the end of Totality and Infinity, writing that transcendence – and thus the ethical relation – ‘is not accomplished as love’ (Levinas 1969, p. 254); and conversely, eros is not yet a place where one can encounter the ethical. The feminine other,

The Idyll Eroticized

85

Sandford goes on, ‘is the condition for the ethical relation, but is not herself part of it’ (Sandford 2000, p. 147). But for Buber, the I-Thou relation is the ethical relation par excellence. The final point of divergence between Levinas and Buber is that Levinas has taken this relationship where, in Buber’s understanding, it is impossible for me  to  dwell,  and turned it into the very thing that makes a dwelling place possible. One of the reasons that Levinas is compelled to refashion Buber’s thought so extensively is not that he is concerned to maintain a particular notion of the feminine, but rather that he is bound to refashion Buber in this way because of his commitment to the horror stories of the il y a, and thus to the idea that being itself harbours something terrible. And nothing could be further from the climate of Buber’s thinking, where relationship – one’s nature as a being among beings – is all. Were Levinas to accept Buber’s account of the I-Thou relationship, then he would need also to accept that there might be, here within being, the possibility for a kind of goodness; and this would result in the crumbling of the whole edifice upon which his many stories are built. Hilary Putnam goes to the heart of the problem. Levinas’s relation to Buber is fundamentally a competitive one. Rather than seeing Buber as someone who identified a different ‘I –Thou’ relation from Levinas’s, someone who identified a different sine qua non of the ‘true life’, Levinas must see Buber as someone who (had insights to be sure, but) got it wrong. But the ethical life has more than one sine qua non. (Putnam 2002, p. 58)

The ethical life has more than one sine qua non, as does the erotic life; but the strange impoverishment of Levinas’s eroticized idyll – not to mention the ethically problematic relegation of the ‘feminine other’ to silence, mute recipient of a solipsistic hero’s caress – is necessary for Levinas to maintain his commitment to seeing something necessarily tragic within being. If we were to open out Levinas’s erotic idyll to other possibilities, if we were to permit other intimacies – whether erotic or not – into his world, if we were to allow the feminine other a voice and a face, if we were, mid-caress, to flick on the lights and dispel the darkness, who knows what we might see? But it seems that to allow this proliferation of intimacies and pleasures, this broad range of possible relations and configurations, would start to erode the bases of Levinas’s thinking. Bevis writes that, We might say that Levinas actually identifies Woman so closely with the spatial vehicle of his own metaphor—the home as a container or vessel for male

86

Levinas, Storytelling and Anti-Storytelling subjectivity—that he loses sight of the richer grounds open to a metaphorical sense of dwelling as an indwelling within the world, a fundamental bodily exposure to the transcendence of the ethical relationship (Bevis 2007).

But I would go further than Bevis here; for perhaps a richer sense of dwelling, one that opened up a broader metaphorical sense of dwelling as a kind of indwelling in the world, would not only rid us of much of the horror of being, but would also lead us to a wider notion of ethics itself. But it is this story of ethics to which we must now turn, as it appears in Totality and Infinity, as the hero of this cycle of tales finds himself disturbed from his erotic pleasures by a persistent knocking at the door . . .

8

Strangers and Quests

Levinas begins Totality and Infinity with the invocation of a different kind of story: a quest narrative, an adventure of sorts. The passage reads as follows. ‘The true life is absent.’ But we are in the world. Metaphysics arises and is maintained in this alibi. It is turned towards the ‘elsewhere’ and the ‘otherwise’ and the ‘other.’ For in the most general form it has assumed in the history of thought it appears as a movement going forth from a world that is familiar to us, whatever be the yet unknown lands that bound it or that it hides from view, from an ‘at home’ which we inhabit, toward an alien outside-of-oneself, toward a yonder. (Levinas 1969, p. 33)

We have already mentioned in passing that this is an Abrahamic rather than an Odyssean journey; that is to say, it is a journey that moves always outwards, towards new territories, rather than circling back to a place that might be called ‘home’. It is a journey that is underpinned by a desire that ‘does not long to return, for it is desire for a land not of our birth, for a land foreign to every nature, which has not been our fatherland and to which we shall never betake ourselves’ (Levinas 1969, p. 34). The fact that this perpetual movement outwards, this repeated exile, is, in Levinas’s version, a metaphysical quest is immediately apparent; for this is a journey that aims towards something that can never be fully fulfilled and that is therefore transcendent to the world. Levinas’s quest closely parallels other metaphysical quest stories, for example the tale of the search for the Holy Grail (Buckingham 2009, p. 52). But what, specifically, is a metaphysical quest? What is it that allows it to take on the high-minded and noble-sounding name of ‘metaphysics’? It seems to me that a metaphysical quest is a very particular kind of journey. A grail is never just a cup. If it were a cup, however elaborate or beautifully crafted, it would not be able to provoke the hungering quest in the first place: it would become just another thing among things, to place in a museum case and gawp at in wonder. The object that provokes the metaphysical

88

Levinas, Storytelling and Anti-Storytelling

quest is, of necessity, beyond the world and ungraspable. In her study of grail myths in Levinas’s thinking, Banks writes that, enigma is preserved in both the Conte du Graal and Totalité et infini through paradoxes of space and time that suggest there could be something other to the spatial and temporal realms in which the narrative of the subject plays itself out. (Banks 2003, p. 97).

Given that the object of the metaphysical quest is beyond the world, this is a quest that is necessarily without end. If the quest for a grail eventually turned up a cup manufactured in such-and-such a place, by one or another craftsperson, then in this moment of bathos the quest that proclaimed itself as metaphysical would become seen to be a worldly kind of thing. Metaphysics would collapse back into the mundane. That which seemed to lie beyond being would become just another being. All that trouble, one might murmur, for something as worldly as a bit of gold, fashioned into a cup? How absurd! And so Levinas, in setting out his own quest narrative, seeks to tell a story that is deliberately without end or resolution. The purpose of Totality and Infinity is not that of Hegel’s Phenomenology of Spirit. Hegel wants to take us to journey’s end so that we too can see the vistas that he sees.1 Levinas, like Rosenzweig, is not seeking to take us to the point of the journey’s ending. Instead, he wants us to leave home. And then to leave home again. And once again. And yet again. Just as Husserl continually started and restarted his phenomenological project, always setting out and never reaching the promised land of which he dreamed. This is why there is no Aristotelian structure of beginning, middle and end in Levinas’s Totality and Infinity. Certainly Existence and Existents is concerned about beginnings, but even the moment of hypostasis is not a single beginning point from which a tale might flow, but instead marks a recognition of the fact that beginnings are never once and for all, but are instead always re-beginnings that will necessitate still further rebeginnings to come. However, even this moment of beginning, this hypostasis, is already submerged, half-invisible, in Totality and Infinity, replaced by the notions of separation and of dwelling. Similarly, even though there is a quest announced at the beginning of Totality and Infinity, this quest is one that cannot end, it draws us repeatedly towards a future that can never be completely fulfilled in the present. We might be tempted to conclude that Levinas, being without beginning or end, is all middle; but this, too, would be unwarranted. At least if we understand it in the Aristotelian sense – a middle is that which follows from what has gone before and that from which some other thing follows – then there is, strictly

Strangers and Quests

89

speaking, no middle in Levinas. Instead there is an unfolding, stuttering, always recommencing plot, a plot made up of breaks and fractures and disruptions. Nevertheless, even if we cannot locate a single beginning for the stories that Levinas tells as a whole, insofar as this is a kind of philosophical storytelling, it is possible to extract threads from this mass of stories and to ask of each one how this or that thread might be seen to begin. The notion of an absolute beginning, a story that arises out of nothing simply by uttering the magical words ‘once upon a time’, is itself a myth. So while recognizing that one could and perhaps should equivocate here, it is nevertheless possible to trace a kind of beginning to Levinas’s metaphysical quest, one that is both clear and also, in storytelling terms, orthodox. Metaphysical quests cannot be chosen. I can decide to set out for a loaf of bread; but my departure from the home in pursuit of the grail is something that is provoked from the outside. I don’t just wake up one morning and think that it would be a fine thing to go searching for a grail. The very idea is ridiculous. Instead, the hero, in such tales, is singled out, consecrated, even – whether by a summons, a dream or a vision. In Chrétien de Troyes’s account, the earliest version of the grail myth, dated to the late twelfth century, Perceval’s first encounter with the grail takes place while staying in the castle of the wounded Fisher King, an encounter that is flooded with a mystical light that reminds us that this is no ordinary experience. In the Perceval myth, this mystical vision is set alongside the worldly vision of the savage wound suffered by the Fisher King and alongside the all-too-worldly fact that the thus-wounded king is incapable of ruling and securing justice. For although the object of the metaphysical quest is transcendent to the world, the quest itself effects a transformation within the world. Only through the right words from Perceval, after the vision of grail, might the king have been healed. Alas, however, the hero is not always up to the demand placed upon him: this is certainly true in Chrétien de Troyes’s account, as it will turn out to be in Levinas’s own version of the metaphysical quest. Perceval fails to speak the words he should have spoken and leaves the castle behind. The king remains wounded, and after Perceval’s departure: [t]he king will be unable to rule his land, and as a result the horrors of war will ensue: ‘Ladies will lose their husbands, lands will be laid waste, girls will be left in distress and orphaned, and many knights will die; all these evils will happen because of you.’ There is no hint of magic, merely the stark reality of a land left prey to marauders. (Barber 2004, p. 20)

Indeed, when placed alongside each other, the metaphysical quest of Chrétien de Troyes’s grail myth and that of Levinas’s Totality and Infinity feel at times almost

90

Levinas, Storytelling and Anti-Storytelling

as if they are retellings of the very same story,2 with the ‘face’ of the stranger who is absolutely other to me taking the place of the grail. Levinas’s notion of the face is perhaps the most famous – and also the most perplexing – dimension of his phenomenological ethics. It is a notion that arises out of Levinas’s reading of Husserl’s work on intersubjectivity. As we have seen, for Husserl, others are not merely objects constituted by me but are subjects for themselves. In other words, when I encounter another person, I encounter them precisely as another person, as somebody who is at one and the same time an object in the world and a subject. However, this subjectivity is something that resists any attempts at incorporation within my own consciousness: it is something to which I can have no access. What, then, occurs in being faced by another person, in this strange experience where in encountering another person, I am also encountering a kind of limit or resistance? If I can never stand where another stands and I can at best displace them, then there is, between myself and another, an essential and irreducible otherness which remains always beyond my grasp. But that which for Husserl is merely a topic for reflection becomes in Levinas’s work a challenge: if the stranger is irreducibly and absolutely other to me, then the security of my ‘at-homeness’ with myself is under threat. There is, for Levinas, something disturbing in this otherness. I may dwell within my house, safe within my four walls . . . but there is always the possibility of the knock upon the door. I do not know who it is that knocks so insistently, but there is a demand to respond. And so I open the door, and the moment I do, I risk everything . . . As early as Existence and Existents, Levinas wrote – against the grain of Buber and Rosenzweig – that the face-to-face relation is ‘not a communion’ (Levinas 1988, p. 98) nor is it a ‘reciprocal relationship of two interchangeable terms’. The relationship for Levinas is asymmetrical, non-reciprocal and binds me with obligations. In Totality and Infinity, Levinas writes as follows: The Other qua Other is situated in an dimension of height and of abasement— glorious abasement; he has the face of the poor, the stranger, the widow, and the orphan, and, at the same time, of the master called to invest and justify my freedom. (Levinas 1969, p. 251).

Levinas’s invocation of the ‘stranger, the widow, and the orphan’ has Biblical roots. Chapter twenty-two of the book of Exodus reads, ‘Thou shalt neither vex a stranger nor oppress him: for ye were strangers in the land of Egypt. Ye shall not afflict any widow, or fatherless child.’ This formulation, ‘the widow, the orphan, the stranger,’ is one that runs throughout Levinas’ work. For Levinas, the other

Strangers and Quests

91

person, every other person, is always simultaneously widow, orphan and stranger. But why, we might ask, the widow, the orphan and the stranger? What seems to be common to all these three is that they are without protection. The widow and orphan do not, in the patriarchal world of the Old Testament – and Irigaray, for one, points out the latent paternalism in this formulation (Irigaray 2008, p. 81)  – have their menfolk to protect them and are thus exposed. In the face of this exposure, the Lord, according to Proverbs 15:25, ‘will destroy the house of the proud; but he will establish the border of the widow.’ The establishment of the border is a potent image: this is a border to be established not by striking down every unwelcome visitor who comes to cross the widow’s threshold, but rather through the commandments to the chosen people, which is to say, through the establishment of the boundaries of social justice. The widow and the orphan are those who are exposed to danger and violation, but who belong to the world of the Israelites, members of the same society. They are destitute others within, so to speak. What are more extraordinary in the Biblical texts are the demands laid upon the Israelites that they should protect strangers, that they should extend hospitality and protection to those who come from elsewhere. The stranger, as the widow and the orphan, suffers a kind of exposure. He is one who does not stand upon his own ground, who does not have his own family, clan or tribe to support him, who must rely upon his own resources or else upon the kindness and the generosity of others who provide him with food and clothing (Deuteronomy 10:18–19). A stranger is also one who, should he be killed, has none of his kinsmen to avenge him. The Israelites, of all people, the text claims, should understand the particular horror of being a stranger, of being adrift in the world, ‘for ye were strangers in the land of Egypt’. In his invocation of the other as ‘widow, orphan and stranger’, Levinas diverges in a significant fashion from the Old Testament texts, while nevertheless making constant reference to them. This divergence is important for Levinas’ project. Levinas is eager to maintain the absolute otherness of the stranger – what he calls the stranger’s ‘dimension of height’ – but the Old Testament recognizes that such a situation simply cannot be maintained: And when a stranger shall sojourn with thee, and will keep the Passover to the LORD, let all his males be circumcised, and then let him come near and keep it; and he shall be as one that is born in the land’ (Exodus, 12, 58).

This demand that the stranger keep the Passover, and subject his males (and himself?) to circumcision, looks like precisely the kind of absorption of otherness into sameness that Levinas explicitly resists. The notion of the guest in

92

Levinas, Storytelling and Anti-Storytelling

the Biblical texts implies a kind of reciprocity, as the prescriptions of Leviticus make abundantly plain. The stranger is to be bound by the ritual practice of the people among whom he dwells: to be a stranger, to be a guest, in the Biblical texts, implies certain obligations; but the stranger in Levinas’s work is precisely the other who cannot be bound by any obligation I put upon him, who remains outside of any law I might formulate. The stranger places obligations upon me but I have no claim over the stranger, and it is here that the asymmetry of the interpersonal relationship lies. Levinas, however, is not exactly refuting the Biblical texts. Instead it can be argued that the various laws of hospitality and the binding of the stranger with obligations – that they should follow the code of the Israelites, that they should undergo tests for citizenship and learn the national anthem, that they should pledge allegiance to the flag and so on – all exist precisely as means of limiting the danger posed by the strangeness of the stranger. This being the case, what Levinas wants to bring out is that the existence of these very laws and obligations is itself a testament to an otherness that always lies beyond reach. Neither possession nor the unity of number nor the unity of concepts link me to the Stranger [l’Etranger], the Stranger who disturbs the being at home with oneself. But Stranger also means free one. Over him I have no power. He escapes my grasp by an essential dimension, even if I have him at my disposal. He is not wholly in my site. But I, who have no concept in common with the Stranger, am, like him, without genus. We are the same and the other. The conjunction and here designates neither addition nor power of one term over the other. (Levinas 1969, p. 39)

Even if I have the other person ‘at my disposal’, the other person remains other to me. And it is in the face that this otherness is encountered. The question of what is meant by the ‘face’ in Levinas is a vexed one. Perhaps the most direct attempt to address the question appears in the collection of lectures published as God, Death and Time. That which Descartes makes a substance, all the while protesting against the image of the pilot in his vessel, that from which Leibniz makes a monad, that which Plato posits as the soul contemplating the Ideas, that which Spinoza thinks as a mode of thought, is described phenomenologically as a face. Without this phenomenology, one is pushed toward a reification of the soul, whereas here a problem other than to be or not to be is posed, a problem prior to that question. (Levinas 2000, p. 12)

Strangers and Quests

93

However, it is clear that – if this is a phenomenology at all – this is not a phenomenology in a straightforward sense, because although one can give a phenomenological account of the drama of the encounter with the face, it is not possible to give a phenomenology of the face itself, while maintaining its character of transcendence, in the same way as it is impossible to describe the grail without reducing it to a mere cup. This is part of the problem that readers of Levinas have when they ask ‘but what is the face?’ This is, in effect, the wrong question: as Waldenfels reminds us, it is already a mistake to ask what sort of thing the face is, because it is not a part of the world of things (Waldenfels 2002, p. 66). Levinas himself makes this clear in one of his series of interviews with Philippe Nemo. I do not know if one can speak of a ‘phenomenology’ of the face, since phenomenology describes what appears. So, too, I wonder if one can speak of a look turned toward the face, for the look is knowledge, perception. I think rather that access to the face is straightaway ethical. You turn yourself to the Other as toward an object when you see a nose, eyes, a forehead, a chin, and you can describe them. The best way of encountering the Other is not even to notice the colour of his eyes! When one observes the colour of the eyes one is not in social relationship with the Other. (Levinas 1985, p. 85)

Given that the face is beyond phenomenology, it is not surprising that Levinas often resorts to telling us what the face is not. Waldenfels lists some of the negations from Totality and Infinity: the face is not something seen or touched; it has no ‘plastic’ form that might be transformed in images; it neither appears in the outer world, nor opens the way to the inner world, nor takes hold in a third world of ideas (Waldenfels 2002, p. 67). One way of seeing what is happening here is by recognizing that the face and the grail take their meaning from their dramatic function, rather from what they are ontologically. Thus the question we should ask is not that of what the face is, but that of the role the face has in the drama that Levinas is laying before us. In the face of another person, I encounter something that resists my own attempts at mastery; and in this resistance I find myself – as did Perceval in the castle of the Fisher King – called upon to respond. I find that, ‘I am responsible for him, without even having taken on responsibilities in his regard; his responsibility is incumbent on me’ (Levinas 1969, p. 96). In this way, Levinas moves from ontological questions – what is the face? – to dramatic questions – what is it that takes place when I am called upon to respond by the face of the other? And in

94

Levinas, Storytelling and Anti-Storytelling

answer to the latter question, he tell us that in this encounter, the stranger breaks with the security of my dwelling, and I am launched upon a movement that takes me away from the sphere of my own interiority to I know not where. This movement, this quest, can never be fulfilled, because the more that I respond, the greater the demand upon me. This is, I would suggest, hardly an exotic claim, but instead can be seen to correspond to a rather common and everyday experience: we respond once to another, and the next time we encounter them, the demand is not diminished but instead heightened. The drama of responsibility has no end-point. Our responsibility is infinite: The infinity of responsibility denotes not its actual immensity, but a responsibility increasing in the measure that it is assumed; duties become greater in the measure that they are accomplished. The better I accomplish my duties, the fewer rights I have; the more I am just the more guilty I am. (Levinas 1969, p. 244)

It is in the infinite scope of this drama that the messianic dimension of Levinas’s thinking becomes apparent; for here Levinas sees, at last, a kind of redemption from the meaninglessness and horror of being. I am not liberated from being by the face of the other – there is no liberation from being – but it is as if a space opens up for me within being, a possibility for newness. This redemption, however, is not the end point or the culmination of a historical narrative. Indeed, it is not something that can be neatly composed into any kind of narrative. MacDonald refers to the idea of infinity in Levinas as the ‘unnarratable other’ (MacDonald 2005, p. 191). One reason for this is the face itself cannot enter into any of my storytelling: although I can tell stories that may testify to the drama of my encounter with the other, the sheer otherness of the other cannot itself be narrated. Another reason that the other is unnarratable is that when I am called upon to respond, all my narratives and my claims to mastery are called into question: the encounter with the other person is a break, a rupture in the tales that I constantly spin and re-spin. The encounter with other sets me out on the path of a new kind of story, perhaps; and yet in doing so, it breaks with the stories I have hitherto told. So that which occasions the quest remains beyond the world (the face, or the grail), but the drama that is launched by this transcendent ‘object’ effects a transformation within the world, within history – as Perceval might have transformed the world, had he only said the word. The invisible must manifest itself if history is to lose its right to the last word, necessarily unjust for the subjectivity, inevitably cruel. But the manifestation of

Strangers and Quests

95

the invisible cannot mean the passage of the invisible to the status of the visible; it does not lead back to evidence. It is produced in the goodness reserved to subjectivity, which thus is subject not simply to the truth of judgement, but to the source of this truth. The truth of the invisible is ontologically produced by the subjectivity which states it. (Levinas 1969, p. 243)

Here, one might rightfully object that this drama of the demand that I encounter in the face of another manifestly does not free us from the possibility of violence. We all know well that, even if we are responsible in the face of another, we can nevertheless default in our responsibilities. If I indeed do encounter this demand in the face of another, it seems difficult to account for the cruelty of human history, and Levinas seems to have a problem on his hands. Against such objections, however, Levinas insists that it is precisely because of this drama that violence is rendered possible. ‘War,’ he writes, ‘presupposes the transcendence of the antagonist; it is waged against man’ (Levinas 1969, p. 222). In the face of another, we can either respond to the demands incumbent upon us, or we can turn away, or we can become an antagonist: but all these responses arise from the same source. The otherness of the other makes possible not only inhumanity and humanity, but also indifference. Torture is perhaps a clear case of this. I take the body of my opponent, whom I fear and hate because they are beyond my power. I cause them immense sufferings, so that they might confess that which I wish them to confess. They confess. I am anxious that the confession is insincere. I apply greater pressures, to force them to speak with the sincerity that I desire. But no amount of torture can allow me to rest secure in the thought that I have mastered the person that I am torturing. The metaphysical quest upon which we are launched by the approach of another does not necessarily lead to acts of kindness, of generosity or of hospitality. Perceval turned away from the wounded Fisher King. He did not speak when he should have spoken. We all can, and inevitably will – again and again – default in our responsibilities. Why, then, act ethically if both ethics and cruelty are born from out of the same structures? Levinas’s reply is that the grim cycle of inhumanity does not permit us to wrest anything of meaning beyond death. In turning away, Perceval is surrendering to a world without meaning. Only by the postponing of betrayal and of violence is it possible to uncover a ‘meaningful order subsists beyond death’ (Levinas 1969, p. 236). And this is where Levinas’s commitment to a messianic vision of a peace that calls history into question becomes important. As Ward writes,

96

Levinas, Storytelling and Anti-Storytelling Eschatological thinking is dynamic thinking; and the dynamic principle is always the same—the Spirit that inspires, the desire for the absolute which can never be satisfied, whose economy lies outside the economy of exchange, the market economy of need and satisfaction of need. (Ward 1996, p. 158)

Levinas’s eschatology, then, is concerned not with the completion of history, but with its disruption. ‘It is not the last judgement that is decisive,’ he writes, ‘but the judgement of all the instants in time, when the living are judged’ (Levinas 1969, p. 23). To be conscious is to have time—not to overflow the present by anticipating and hastening the future, but to have a distance with regard to the present: to relate oneself to being as to a being to come, to maintain a distance with regard to being even while already coming under its grip. To be free is to have time to forestall one’s own abdication under the threat of violence. (Levinas 1969, p. 237)

Here, perhaps, it is time to take a step back from the undeniable power of Levinas’s storytelling, to ask once again whether we are committed to precisely these stories. I have suggested throughout this book that the force of much of Levinas’s thinking is built upon a commitment to the notion that being harbours something essentially tragic. What Levinas seems to want us to take for granted, in other words, is that we are entangled in a world so very much in need of redemption. But if we do not see the mood that Levinas designates by the term il y a as fundamental, if we suspect that other moods might disclose other possibilities, if we are sceptical of Levinas’s commitment to horror, darkness and tragedy, a commitment that is never fully justified within his work, then this raises an important question: why do we require a metaphysical quest, why do we require the infinite, or that which is beyond being, to help us establish justice here within being? I will return to this question later; but for the time being, I want to remain more or less within Levinas’s argument, to address a different issue. As yet, Levinas has failed to address one of the central concerns that he has inherited from both Husserl and Rosenzweig: the possibility of establishing a community of justice. Indeed, with the feminine other consigned to muteness, and with the stranger always absolutely other to us, it is clear that there is still a great deal more work for Levinas’s storytelling to do before he can account for any possibility of community at all. Taken together, the silent relationship with the feminine other and the relationship of absolute otherness with the stranger do not constitute a society. The question that Levinas must now address is this: ‘Why am I bound to society at all?’ (Gibbs 1994, p. 28)

9

A Tale of Generations

The problem of community in Levinas can be put relatively simply: if there is to be the establishment of some form of moral community, such a community cannot be established merely on the political level, because for Levinas politics is merely the perpetuation of the warlike struggle of being against being. Politics, for Levinas, is a matter of ontology. Ethics, on the other hand, is about that which can open a space within being for me, that which gives me room to breathe. And yet, if the metaphysical quest concerns myself alone in the face of another, then we must ask how, on the basis of this face-to-face relationship, might community be established? This question is one that leads to the final mode of storytelling in Levinas’s book, where he tells tales of fecundity and paternity, and of the relationship to the child who ‘is a stranger, but a stranger who is not only mine, for he is me’ (Levinas 1969, p. 267), a relationship by means of which the unfolding of history and the succession of generations are possible. In the final part of Totality and Infinity, titled ‘Beyond the Face’, Levinas introduces the idea of fecundity as a ‘new ontological principle’. The reason that Levinas can claim that this is a new ontological principle is because for Levinas the child is both ‘my own and nonmine’ (Levinas 1969, p. 267), both me and a stranger to myself. Levinas calls this a ‘structure unforeseeable in formal logic’, a violation of the Aristotelian principle of the excluded middle. To see how Levinas’s storytelling is working here, it is necessary once again to go back to the Biblical texts on which Levinas is drawing. Here he is, in particular, making use of a passage from Isaiah 49, a reference text that is so important to Levinas that, perhaps uncharacteristically, he mentions it twice (Levinas 1969, pp. 269, 277). The passage as a whole reads like this. 17 Thy children shall make haste; thy destroyers and they that made thee waste shall go forth of thee.

98

Levinas, Storytelling and Anti-Storytelling 18 Lift up thine eyes round about, and behold: all these gather themselves together, and come to thee. As I live, saith the LORD, thou shalt surely clothe thee with them all, as with an ornament, and bind them on thee, as a bride doeth. 19 For thy waste and thy desolate places, and the land of thy destruction, shall even now be too narrow by reason of the inhabitants, and they that swallowed thee up shall be far away. 20 The children which thou shalt have, after thou hast lost the other, shall say again in thine ears, The place is too strait for me: give place to me that I may dwell. 21 Then shalt thou say in thine heart, Who hath begotten me these, seeing I have lost my children, and am desolate, a captive, and removing to and fro? and who hath brought up these? Behold, I was left alone; these, where had they been?

When placed in the context of these verses that, if nothing else, testify to the natural waywardness of children even at the dawn of written history, Levinas’s notions of fecundity and paternity take on a rather less comfortable air than is sometimes supposed. Think, for example, of the passage beginning, ‘The children which thou shalt have . . . shall say again in thine ears . . .’ There is a strong discontinuity here, one that moves from the fact of having offspring to an eventual sense of loss and desolation. And yet, it might be argued, however much one’s own children turn their back, however much desolation they cause, however much they may assert their own independence and seek other places to dwell, they remain one’s own children. This is the tension that Levinas claims brings us to a position outside of Aristotelian logic. Bernasconi puts it like this: ‘Fecundity through the discontinuity of generations makes possible an exit from being in its opening onto the future. And yet the future is in a sense still mine, insofar as the father is the child’ (Bernasconi 2005, p. 111). The idea of fecundity is one that already appears in Existence and Existents, where Levinas writes that ‘Asymmetrical intersubjectivity is the locus of transcendence in which the subject, while preserving its structure’s subject, has the possibility of not inevitably returning to itself, the possibility of being fecund and . . . having a son’ (Levinas 1978, p. 100). Levinas promises in Existence and Existents to develop this idea of fecundity further. Once again, as with many of the promises made in this book, the reader has to wait until Time and the Other for Levinas to make good on this promise. Here, Levinas writes of the ego becoming other to itself and claims that this is something that can happen ‘only in one way’: through paternity (Levinas 1987a, p. 91). Levinas puts it with uncommon clarity in the following passage:

A Tale of Generations

99

The son, in effect, is not simply my work, like a poem or an artefact, neither is he my property. Neither the categories of power nor those of having can indicate the relationship with the child. Neither notion of cause nor the notion of ownership permit one to grasp the fact of fecundity. I do not have my child; I am in some way my child. (Levinas 1987a, p. 91)

It is in this relationship that Levinas sees the possibility of a relationship with a future that is not mine, that is beyond my own grasp. It is not that I am incarnated in my child, but something of me lives on, independent of me, through the child. As Bernasconi notes, in positing this relationship with the future, Levinas succeeds, ‘in his aim of finding an exit from Being while at the same time retaining a foothold in Being’ (Bernasconi 2005, p. 108). It is this relationship with the future that Levinas seeks to draw out even further in Totality and Infinity, while also weaving it together with the story he is telling about ethics and the approach of the stranger. Here Levinas speaks of the relation with the child as a relationship ‘with the absolute future, or infinite time’ (Levinas 1969, p. 268); and it is this suggestion of the infinity of time, a kind of crack in being, an opening onto possibilities that are not inscribed within the present, that Levinas can see this generational succession as something that can open onto the possibility of ethics. ‘By virtue of fecundity, then,’ Rudolf Bernet writes, ‘my life is inscribed in the perspective of the infinite’ (Bernet  2002, p. 98). History, in other words, is not something that I own. I do not have any mastery over the generations that are to come, even though I remain implicated within this ongoing plot. ‘And yet’, Levinas writes, ‘it is my adventure still, and consequently my future in a very new sense, despite the discontinuity’ (Levinas 1969, p. 268). Paul Davies puts it like this. In relations to the child, the parent stands in relation to a future that will not be his or hers. To consider this relation is not only to consider a time from which the parent is necessarily absent, it is also to consider a time that the responsible parent, in some sense, affirms and desires. What makes the thought of surviving the death of the child an intolerable one also alters the way in which the parent considers his or her finitude. For the parent, there is now a positive aspect to the thought of what happens in the time after their death. Responsibility for the child is responsibility for that time. (Davies 2005, p. 119)

In some ways, this determination to stress the importance of fecundity – the relation with the child – is a protest against Heidegger for whom the future is seen almost exclusively in terms of the possibilities of my own being. Fecundity puts me into relationship with a future that has nothing to do with

100

Levinas, Storytelling and Anti-Storytelling

the possibilities of my own being, and so breaks out of the web of stories woven by Heidegger. Nevertheless, it is at this point that Levinas seems to lose his nerve a little, when, in the face of his claims a few pages earlier about having discovered a non-Aristotelian ontological principle, he admits that, ‘One might doubt that there is a new ontological principle here’ (Levinas 1969, p. 276); but then he stresses again that in this ‘relationship of an I with a self which yet is not me’ (Levinas 1969, p. 277), existence opens out onto a kind of multiplicity and transcendence. ‘The fecundity of the I’, he concludes, ‘is its very transcendence’. Here is an echo of the story about the hypostasis that occurs in Existence and Existents, when Levinas writes that in fecundity, ‘The past is recaptured at each moment from a new point, from a novelty that no continuity . . . could compromise’ (Levinas 1969, p. 278). If the hypostasis is the recapturing of the present, fecundity recaptures the past and opens up the possibility of new futures. Transcendence, in a sense, has been made real, here in the world. It no longer hovers just beyond the horizon, but we can see it enacted from generation to generation. It remains for Levinas to account for the possibility of a broader form of community. And here he relies upon the move from the idea of paternity, to that of shared filiality and hence of fraternity. There is, as Llewelyn notes, an ‘implied notion of shared fatherhood’ in Levinas’s discussion of fecundity (Llewelyn 1995, p. 137). What is it, Levinas asks, to be a son? The son is unique, Levinas writes, ‘because he is unique for his father’ (Levinas 1969, p. 279). We may know, of course, that each baby is unique, but when a friend shows us their baby photographs, we find ourselves thinking that all babies are, in fact, pretty much the same. The uniqueness of the child, which for us is a kind of vague theoretical knowledge – hence the tedium of other people’s baby photographs – is for the parents who are showing us their photographs an existential fact. Each of us is chosen. ‘I am a chosen one,’ Levinas writes, ‘but where can I be chosen, if not from among other chosen ones, among equals?’ (Levinas 1969, p. 279). And it is here that Levinas draws together the threads of the election of the son as a ‘unique son’ and the way in which I am chosen, singled out, in the face of the other. If I am, if each of us is, unique, then the demand in a face of another is not a demand that is put upon ‘people in general’, or ‘somebody or other’, but is precisely a demand that is placed upon me. It is, in other words, because of the fact of fraternity, the fact that I am chosen among chosen ones, that ‘the face can present itself to me as a face’ (Levinas 1969, p. 280).

A Tale of Generations

101

In the final few pages of Levinas’s book, under the title ‘The Infinity of Time’, Levinas attempts to answer the questions set out in the very beginning of the book, when he poses the problem of war. It is here that Levinas claims that it is precisely because of the many discontinuities that he has set out in Totality and Infinity, and because of this fact of multiplicity, that there might be room for us within being, for something otherwise than the clash and clatter of beings struggling against beings. Here he writes of a ‘recommencement of the instant’ that is not the repeated re-beginning of the hypostasis, but is instead a kind of ‘pardon’ that allows the possibility of beginning afresh, of a kind of deliverance from the past. Amid the wastes, there is always hope. Levinas writes as follows: Why is the beyond separated from the below? Why, to go unto the good, are evil, evolution, drama, separation necessary? Recommencement in discontinuous time brings youth, and thus the infinition of time. Time’s infinite existing ensures the situation of judgement, condition of truth, behind the failure of the goodness of today . . . (Levinas 1969, p. 284)

The hope is not that this whole mess might be sorted out once and for all. It is not the hope that eventually paradise will be realized. It is, instead, a more modest hope, a hope that despite everything there is the possibility in the discontinuity of the stories that Levinas is weaving that it might be possible to find something of ‘efficacious goodness’ (Levinas 1969, p. 284). However, when we look at this as a kind of storytelling, the questions begin to multiply. Does this notion of the child who is both me and not-me for the father really exhaust the possibilities of relationship here? Just as Levinas’s erotic idyll seems curiously impoverished, so Levinas’s notion of the child seems to be limited in that it refers back repeatedly to the bond with the father. In her ‘Questions to Emmanuel Levinas’ Irigaray objects that, ‘The child should be for himself, not for the parent . . . The son should not be the place where the father confers being or existence on himself ’ (Irigaray 1991, p. 111). Furthermore, in recourse to metaphors of brotherhood and fraternity, Levinas does not fully succeed in escaping a sense of tribalism; and insofar as he does offer us something like bridge between ethics and the possibility of a politics that might manifest at least a little ‘efficacious goodness’, he does so by providing a profoundly impoverished political vision. As Simon Critchley writes, ‘at the level of politics, the ethical relation is translated into what I would see as a classical conception of political friendship as fraternity, as a relation between brothers, between free equals who also happen to be male’ (Critchley 2004, p. 173). And this leads into the same

102

Levinas, Storytelling and Anti-Storytelling

problem we have already encountered in Levinas’s tales of the idyll and of the heroic quest: that insofar as there is a sense of community here, it seems to be a matter of fathers, sons and brothers, with mothers and daughters and sisters reduced to mute silence. Chanter mounts a defence of Levinas in this respect, remarking on how this concern with fecundity and fraternity points to the possibility of a social relationship – and thus perhaps to the possibility of a moral community – beyond politics, one that is ‘other-oriented, generous, and which prioritizes the ethical relation as one that is not chosen’, a community in which the ‘hold of the subject of mastery, knowledge, and control’ is broken (Chanter 2001, p. 53). Levinas himself asserts that biological paternity merely provides the model, and he cautions that ‘these relations free themselves from their biological limitation’ (Levinas 1969, p. 279). Katz, following this line of argument, puts it well when she writes that, Fecundity—in all its manifestations—is how love achieves a victory over death; it extends beyond death. But if one accepts the relationship loosely, then one realises that the outcome does not have to be the physical birth of a child. The responsibility to the future and the way one makes oneself immortal can occur through adoption, teaching, and caring for the next generation. (Katz 2004, p. 162)

Nevertheless, in resorting to essentially virile metaphors, Levinas’s view of this community is at best partial and is certainly problematic. The problem lies in Katz’s ‘if one accepts the relationship loosely’: because it is far from clear how loosely, or how rigorously, Levinas wants us to accept this relationship. As always with Levinas, we should be attuned to the fact that Levinas refuses to commit himself absolutely to whether this relationship is actual, metaphorical or both.1 As it is, Levinas’s conceptions of fecundity and of fraternity seem to take on a dramatic form close to that of the interminable genealogies of the Old Testament in which Adam begets Seth who begets Enos who begets Cainan, in a seemingly unending procession of male protagonists.

10

Many Tales, Many Tellers

It is with fecundity, paternity and fraternity that the story-cycle of Totality and Infinity ends. Now Levinas’s fractured drama is complete: rooted in ontological horror and the tragic heroism of the subject whose time diverges radically from the time of the world and of history; passing through bucolic tales of labour and dwelling to then take on an erotic form in the arrival of the silent, feminine other; moving on to the radical break with the comfort and security of the dwelling that takes place in the encounter with the absolutely other person, the stranger who messianically launches the metaphysical quest; and turning back to a stitching together of the possibility of a moral community and of a history in which meaning might be possible through the relationship between fathers, sons and brothers. These are the tales that make up Totality and Infinity; and for all of Levinas’s unease with narrative, there is no doubting the power of this storytelling, just as there is no doubting the power – and perhaps also the pathos – of the stories that Husserl told about the dream of a complete system of knowledge, built upon firm foundations. Certainly, if the desire to assemble everything within the compass of a single totalizing tale is the problem against which Levinas has set himself, then to some extent Totality and Infinity must be seen to be a success. What comes first? Does the face of the other come before the dwelling? Or does the dwelling come before the arising of the face? These questions cannot be answered, for Levinas’s stories are deliberately ill-behaved things, and they simply cannot be arranged into a beginning, middle and end. If this is a kind of storytelling, it is not the kind of storytelling envisaged by Aristotle. However, it is because of this strong strand of storytelling in Levinas’s book that MacDonald notes that Totality and Infinity seems to be closer than Levinas himself might wish to admit to Hegel, claiming that the ‘subtle interweaving of narrative and argument’ of the Phenomenology of Spirit (MacDonald 2005, p. 183) can also be seen here. However, the parallel should not be drawn too

104

Levinas, Storytelling and Anti-Storytelling

closely. John Llewelyn points out that the drama of Hegel’s Phenomenology of Spirit and that of Totality and Infinity, for all their superficial similarities, have very different dénouements (Llewelyn 1995, p. 3). Indeed, as I have already suggested, it could be argued that the whole purpose of Levinas’s drama is that there is no final dénouement. So, while Hegel claims that the end of his itinerary is the annulment of time and attempts to present the stages of his journey as ‘less historical moments of history than logical moments of an Absolute Idea that transcends the chronic time of historical narrative’ (MacDonald 2005, p. 182), Levinas attempts to confound an uncomplicated narrative reading of his book not by claiming to have annulled time, but instead by insisting on time’s discontinuity, by making a virtue of the fact that these various stories do not add up to a whole. Whether this is adequate as a means of overcoming the totalizing thinking called into question by Rosenzweig is very much open to doubt; and later, in Otherwise than Being, Levinas will attempt to eradicate narrativity from his philosophy altogether, while remaining committed to the drama that, it will become clear, is central to his ethical project. But there is also another question that we should also be asking, and it is this: why these particular stories? On the one hand, we have surrendered any claim to finding a single, all-embracing story; but on the other hand seeing Levinas in terms of the stories that he tells, in terms of the narrative forms that are implicit in the way that his philosophy unfolds, allows us to see that these are a curiously restrictive range of stories that he is telling. Not only this, but it seems that it is only by excluding or misrepresenting alternative stories that Levinas is able to maintain his metaphysical commitments: to the notion that there is a necessary connection between being and war, for example; or to the idea of (a non-ontological) God. The choices about which stories to tell, very often, appear to take place almost invisibly in Totality and Infinity; but when we step back to the question of phenomenology, we can ask what kinds of phenomena, what kinds of relations, Levinas might have missed. It is possible, then, to appreciate the force of Levinas’s descriptions of the faceto-face while remaining sceptical about the metaphysical conclusions that he draws. And one reason for this is the impoverishment of his phenomenological ‘data’. In terms of intersubjectivity, for example, Levinas privileges three different relations: the relation with the ‘feminine Other’, the relation with the stranger and the relation of paternity or filiation. But this is far from providing us with an exhaustive phenomenology of the various possibilities of intersubjective relationship. We might add to those that Levinas enumerates the following:

Many Tales, Many Tellers

105

Buber’s I-Thou relation; the mitsein or ‘being-with’ of Heidegger; the relationship with the other as a part of a chorus or as a teller or hearer of a tale in the work of Rosenzweig; various relationships of friendship, about which Levinas is largely silent1; the relationships with non-human others about which Levinas says so little (the relationship, for example, I have with my cat who is sitting by my side as I write this, with a quiet and companionable air).2 And we might consider also those possibilities within relationships that Levinas overlooks: the family that is not a ‘marvel’ (Levinas 1969, p. 279), but that is instead abusive, a site of horrors much worse than the rumbling anonymity of insomnia; the multifaceted varieties of erotic experience that are alien to Levinas’s phenomenology of eros; the feminine other who refuses the caress, sits up all of a sudden, and says, ‘Get your hands off me, philosopher, I’ve had enough of your pawing.’ All of these could be considered modalities of possible intersubjective relations, many of which may require their own phenomenological (at least in the broadest sense) description. Out of the plurality of possible relations, when one steps back it seems as if the list that appears in the work of Emmanuel Levinas is only the smallest and most partial subset. Perhaps we can appreciate the insight and the force of the analysis of the faceto-face relation as set out by Levinas without having to agree that this relation, above all others, should be the one that is exclusively privileged with the name ‘ethical’; and we can recognize Levinas’s contribution to our understanding of at least some of the dynamics of the intersubjective relationships we may have, without assuming that this story is one that trumps all others. Here it is worth reminding ourselves of Hilary Putnam’s astute comment that ‘the ethical life has more than one sine qua non’ (Putnam 2002, p. 57). Or as Putnam later says, in a world divided between philosophical hedgehogs who know one big thing and philosophical foxes who know many small things, it may be that the ethical demand on foxes is that they think bigger, and the demand on hedgehogs is that they might make room for a greater multiplicity of thoughts: because in the ethical life, ‘there are quite a few “big things” to be known’ (Putnam 2008, p. 99). We will return to these thoughts in the final part of this book. For the time being, however, we need to journey with Levinas a little further, to the very limit of his philosophy; and we need to see how these limitations that he puts upon the phenomenological data that he will allow, and the metaphysical commitments that he cannot give up, lead him into the most difficult of territories.

106

11

No More Stories

If Levinas spends a large part of Totality and Infinity weaving stories – from idyll to horror story to genealogical record – when it comes to his next major work, Otherwise than Being, first published in  1974, it seems that he has turned  his back on storytelling. The later book, which Ricouer claims is ‘Levinas at his most difficult’ (Ricoeur and Escobar 2004, p. 82) begins with Levinas rehearsing his thoughts on responsibility, the face and the transcendence of the infinite, themes familiar from Totality and Infinity; but these themes are explored in a very different fashion from that found in the earlier work. As Ricoeur notes, this is a book that lacks any kind of linear narrative or structure, one that attempts to move beyond Totality and Infinity’s still somewhat ‘narrative, epic way of speaking’ (Levinas 1981, p. 13). This is, Ricouer writes, a book that ‘neither offers nor allows for any introduction. One plunges immediately in medias res, as with Hegel denying the possibility of an introduction to philosophy that would not already itself be philosophy’. Not only this, but, ‘there is no noticeable progression in Levinas’s argument; the successive chapters are not added one to the other; everything is said in the section entitled “The Argument” and, in a way, repeated in the brief final pages’ (Ricoeur 2004, p. 82). As Gabriel Riera comments, in this later book Levinas moves from a ‘philosophical narrative or plot’ (or, I would say, a set of intersecting philosophical narratives or plots) to a kind of ‘clandestine intrigue’ (Riera 2004, p. 25). Very early on in Otherwise than Being, Levinas sets out his vision for what it might mean to philosophize in a non-narrative register. If, as Ricoeur notes, this is a book without any kind of beginning, so it is a book without any clear conclusion. ‘Should we not think with as much precaution of the possibility of a conclusion or a closure of the philosophical discourse,’ Levinas writes, ‘Is not its interruption its only possible end?’ (Levinas 1981, p. 20). In this respect, Otherwise than Being differs from such difficult works of literature as Faulkner’s, The Sound and the Fury – a book which it seems to resemble on first reading.

110

Levinas, Storytelling and Anti-Storytelling

The difference lies in the fact that in Faulkner we come to eventually understand (if we read with sufficient attention), that there is a kind of narrative structure behind the bewildering, atemporal opening section. But in Levinas’s book it seems that there is no such clear narrative structure lurking behind his text. It is not just a matter of the complexity of the telling, but also that there is no story to be told. While on the one hand eschewing any formal narrative structure, nevertheless Otherwise than Being is a book that exhibits an obsession with narrative. Levinas writes how narrated time becomes ‘reversible time’ (Levinas 1981, p. 36); he describes how phenomenality becomes fixed into a phenomenon as it is ‘assembled in a tale’ (Levinas 1981, p. 42); he claims that in narrative the difference between the same and the other is annulled (Levinas 1981, p. 83); he questions the ability of his own discussions of the break with totalizing thought to genuinely testify to this break, given that these discussions have the character of narrating (Levinas 1981, p. 155); and finally he asserts that the other is frankly ‘unnarratable’, that in narration the other ‘loses his face as a neighbour’ (Levinas 1981, p. 166). If we were looking for an introduction to Otherwise than Being, the words of Blanchot’s ‘The Madness of the Day’ could serve the purpose well: ‘A story? No. No stories, never again,’ (Blanchot 1999, p. 199) – if it were not for the fact that already, in invoking the ‘never again’, as Blanchot knew, we find ourselves falling into a kind of story-thinking, the temptation to tell tales about the world. In short, it seems as if the tendency to fall back into narrative thinking continually threatens Otherwise than Being. In a similar fashion to that in which, in Existence and Existents, being is said to rush in to fill every void, so the stories that surround this book continually threaten to come flooding back. Otherwise than Being, then, is a book that attempts to go beyond philosophical storytelling in its attempt to bring to light something of ethics. But before exploring the question of why this might be, I should perhaps – as I have with Totality and Infinity – pause to say a little about the story of my own relationship with this book. And here, immediately, something is different. There is something about my relationship with this book without narrative that is itself difficult to narrate. While I have no difficulty plotting the itinerary of my relationship with Totality and Infinity, right down to the scribbles in the margins, the coffee stains and the phone numbers jotted down in haste, when it comes to Levinas’s later book, I am confounded. If there was a beginning to this tale, it was when I bought my copy of Otherwise than Being some months after reading Totality

No More Stories

111

and Infinity. I had expected, in a way (and naively perhaps), a sequel, a book that drew on and deepened the themes of the earlier book. But from the very beginning, I found myself ill at ease, my relationship with the book a series of stops and starts, a perpetual tussle. Where Totality and Infinity provided a set of stories that, for all of their limitations, nevertheless seemed to throw light upon a multiplicity of concrete experiences – the experience of being at home, the experience of solitude, the experience of another, the experience of labour – Otherwise than Being seemed to offer no such thing. It was a book that seemed, from the very outset, to be strangely stubborn and unsettling; a book that, over the years, has continued to resist my attempts to get to grips with it. I wish I could tell better stories about this book: but something about it stubbornly resists my attempts to do so, so I am left with only one option – to tell stories about the impossibility of telling stories. Because of this experience, I am genuinely surprised by so many scholars who speak about Otherwise than Being with such authority, in such clear and resonant voices, as if they have somehow mastered the argument of the book, as if they could straightforwardly speak on its behalf; but I am reassured by Blanchot, a close reader of Levinas, who wrote of Otherwise than Being that this is a book that ‘brings neither certitude nor clarity. It assures us of nothing, nor does it shed any light upon itself. It is not solid, it does not furnish us with anything indestructible or indubitable upon which to brace ourselves’ (Blanchot 1989, p. 223). Blanchot is right, I think: the book does not even shed light upon itself. The experience of attempting to live with Otherwise than Being, as the weeks and months and years have gone on, has been one of having certitude and clarity continually confounded. Equivocation may be a necessary part of thought, but Otherwise than Being feels like a book in which equivocation had run riot, in which there is nowhere that isn’t swallowed up by a kind of ‘breathlessness of the spirit’ (Levinas 1981, p. 5). What can be done with such a text? This, I very much suspect, is once again the wrong question. A better question might be this: what does this text do with me? Because if this is a book that stubbornly refuses to give clarity or certitude, it is also a book that I have found hard to dismiss. I have read and re-read Levinas’s prose in Otherwise than Being over the years with the curiously nagging sense that as I am reading, something is taking place. The book is uncomfortable, goading, not the kind of book that could make itself useful, not the kind of book that you would have to hand when you need to jot down phone numbers, or use something as a handy mat for a cup of coffee.

112

Levinas, Storytelling and Anti-Storytelling

While Otherwise than Being is a book almost wholly without stories, it is a book that nevertheless has a curious relationship to the stories and storytelling, in two distinct senses. The first is that this is a book that relies for much of the force of its arguments on reference to stories beyond the text itself: it a book that is haunted by, or perhaps pervaded by, literature. As in Totality and Infinity, so also here in its pages we can find the ghosts of not only Blanchot, but also the Old Testament, and the writings of Dostoyevsky, Pushkin, the Greek tragedians, Shakespeare, Claudel, Tolstoy and Homer. The second sense in which storytelling is implicated is that that this is a book that is nevertheless pervaded instead by an intense sense of drama, a feverish intensity that never manages to resolve into a story, and that leaves the reader – not, recalling Rosenzweig, just a member of the public, but a reader who is an individual, with a biography, a history – strangely vigilant, keyed-up, unsettled, awake. On the part of the reader, this drama seems to both demand and at the same time to disrupt the telling of stories of one’s own. And here lies part of the strange power of Levinas’s book – compelling and forbidding in equal measure: in the fact that it is hard to imagine a book that tells fewer stories, while at the same time maintaining such a heightened dramatic pitch. But to understand why Levinas might attempt such an experiment, and to what end he has constructed this strange drama without narrative, we will need to first look beyond Otherwise than Being, to consider Levinas’s complex relationship with literature in more detail.

12

The Trouble with Literature

To understand why Levinas might have attempted to drive narrative out of Otherwise than Being altogether, and perhaps to understand why narrative seems so much at stake in the book – perhaps even more so than in Totality and Infinity – we need to look more closely at the underlying reasons for Levinas’s unease with literature. Jill Robbins notes that Levinas’s gestures towards ‘rejection and denigration of the literary . . . cannot altogether be separated from a certain celebration of it, in the form of allusions to Shakespeare, Dostoevsky, and others, and in the name of traditionally conceived enduring aesthetic values: genius, the masterpiece, and so on’ (Robbins 1999, p. 40); but there is also something distinctly uncelebratory in Levinas’s relationship with literature. For if Levinas has inherited his suspicion of totalizing thought from Rosenzweig, unlike Rosenzweig he cannot see narrative as an escape from this kind of totalizing thought. Quite the reverse is true, in fact: for Levinas the telling of stories is a form of totalizing thought par excellence. To explore why this is so will require some digression into Levinas’s sources. Levinas’s anxieties around narrative are related to a broader set of concerns about art in general, concerns that face in two directions. The first is towards Greek thought, in particular the thought of Plato; and the second is towards the Jewish tradition. Not only this, but there is a doubleness to these objections to art themselves, a doubleness that can be found in both traditions. I will deal with the Greeks first of all. As is well known, in The Republic the great philosopher-storyteller Plato tells stories about the dangers of telling stories. Then we must first of all, it seems, supervise the storytellers. We’ll select their stories whenever they are fine or beautiful and reject them when they aren’t. And we’ll persuade nurses and mothers to tell their children the ones we have selected, since they will shape their children’s souls with stories much more than they shape their bodies by handling them. Many of the stories they tell now, however, must be thrown out. (Republic 377b)

114

Levinas, Storytelling and Anti-Storytelling

For Plato there are several problems with storytelling. The first is the problem of content. One of the main stories against which Plato wishes to guard is the story that the gods might be anything but virtuous, anything other than ‘simple and true in word and deed’ (382e). The bad behaviour of the Greek pantheon, as it appears in myth and story, has no place in Plato’s world. It is not only a matter of unseemly and perhaps blasphemous tales about the gods. Plato also wishes to avoid those stories that instil in us a fear of death, for – as we have seen – the true philosopher sees death as nothing to be feared. And also, in the same way that Momus, god of laughter, was expelled from Olympus, so Plato banishes stories that lead to violent laughter. Wry smiles, we assume, may be permitted; but animalistic barking laughter is ruled out. And, finally, any story that may be contrary to the interests of justice is also to be abolished. It is not merely a matter of content. There is also the question of poetic form. Plato makes a distinction between those who imitate – who charm their audiences with many voices – and those who narrate in a plain fashion. Imitation, for Plato, is a matter of the poet hiding themselves. ‘If the poet never hid himself ’, the text reads, ‘the whole of his poem would be narrative without imitation’ (393d). There are forms of poetry – tragedy and comedy, for example – that employ only imitations; there are those that are simply narrated, for example dithyrambs; and there are those that are mixed, such as epic verse. For Plato, imitation is not wholly to be avoided, even though it is potentially dangerous. It is permissible to imitate the good and the virtuous; but when it comes to the unvirtuous, then it is necessary to merely narrate. Plato is aware that this leads to somewhat dull storytelling and that the ‘mixed style’ is ‘far the most pleasing to children, their tutors, and the vast majority of people’ (397e). However, the pleasing nature of such storytelling is to be set off against the dangers to the constitution of the city and – because of the parallelism that runs throughout the Republic between the constitution of the just city and the constitution of the just soul – also to that of the soul. Plato returns to the idea of art in Book X of the Republic, where he explores a deeper unease with the poeisis, an unease rooted in the theory of Forms. For Plato, the world of appearances is already an imitation of the world of Forms. Thus, while the honest craftsman toils to create an imitation of the form of a bed here within the world of appearances, the artist or poet creates an imitation of the imitation of the form of the bed (598b). If the poets were serious about those things that they imitate, Plato writes, then they would not just produce imitations of good and noble actions, but they would act well and nobly. Here

The Trouble with Literature

115

Plato imagines Socrates imagining putting the following question to Homer (thus, incidentally, providing us with what looks very much like an imitation of an imitation of a fictive imitation of an imitation): “Homer, if you’re not third from the truth about virtue, the sort of craftsman of images that we defined an imitator to be, but if you’re even second and capable of knowing what ways of life make people better in private or in public, then tell us which cities are better governed because of you, as Sparta is because of Lycurgus, and as many others—big and small—are because of many other men? What city gives you credit for being a good lawgiver who benefitted it, as Italy and Sicily do to Charondas, and as we do to Solon? Who gives such credit to you?” Will he be able to name one? (599e)

The poet may imitate, but the poet imitates without understanding that which is imitated; and in doing so the poet does not appeal to reason but to the irrational and baser part of the soul. Therefore, in its distance from the truth, in its ability to corrupt even the most upright of souls, poetry should be banished from the city. Plato is aware that this assault on poetry is a serious one; but given the gravity of charges laid at poetry’s door, he goes on to suggest that if poetry seeks to gain re-entry to the city, then a case must be made for it not in the form of poetry, which has already been rendered suspect, but as prose. Poetry may seduce and charm, but the language of justice and of justification is prose. It is only by means of this justification in prose that what Plato calls ‘the ancient quarrel between poetry and philosophy’ (607b) might be resolved. The Biblical texts are far less systematic when it comes to their critique of imagemaking; and – as Greenspahn notes in his essay on idolatry and syncretism in the Old Testament – the brushstrokes in the Biblical texts are rather broad, making it hard to ascertain quite what the practices actually were against which some of the Biblical authors were arguing in their critiques of idolatry (Greenspahn 2004, p. 485). Certainly, it is possible to find two very different approaches to the idea of the image in the Old Testament. The first, found exclusively in the book of Genesis, gives the image a positive and productive function. 26 And God said, Let us make man in our image, after our likeness: and let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the earth, and over every creeping thing that creepeth upon the earth. 27 So God created man in his own image, in the image of God created he him; male and female created he them.

116

Levinas, Storytelling and Anti-Storytelling

To be made in the image of God is to be better than anything else created. The fowl of the air are just birds, and the fish of the sea are just fish. But human beings are made in the image of god, and so are not simply things among things. This notion of the image continues throughout the remainder of the book of Genesis, where images are referred to only twice, in both cases the image that is referred to being us. So, Genesis 5:3 says that Adam had a son called Seth ‘in his own image’, and Genesis 9:6 tells us of when God renews his covenant with Noah and his sons after the flood has subsided, telling him that no human blood should be shed, because all men are made in the image of God. There is, in other words, no reference in the book of Genesis to the human making of images, and the idea of the image seems to have a kind of generative, genealogical function – God begets Adam in his image as Adam begets Seth in his image.1 In the succeeding books of the Bible – Exodus, Leviticus, Deuteronomy, Judges, Samuel, Kings and Chronicles – this positive conception of the image, what became known to later theologians as the imago Dei, disappears; and instead the only references to the term ‘image’ are in association with the prohibition on human image-making. With the institution of the Mosaic law, it other words, the idea of the copy, of the image, becomes problematic. The prohibitions in Exodus 20 are clear: Exodus 20:2: I am the LORD thy God, which have brought thee out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of bondage. Exodus 20:3: Thou shalt have no other gods before me. Exodus 20:4: Thou shalt not make unto thee any graven image, or any likeness of any thing that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth: Exodus 20:5: Thou shalt not bow down thyself to them, nor serve them: for I the LORD thy God am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the children unto the third and fourth generation of them that hate me; Exodus 20:6: And shewing mercy unto thousands of them that love me, and keep my commandments.

There is an interesting connection here between the prohibition of images and decreasing visibility of the God of the Old Testament. In the book of Genesis, where the image has a positive role, God appears directly. He walks in the garden, his voice is heard. Jacob, ‘the hollow of his thigh out of joint,’ wrestles with a man throughout the night until dawn, a man that will not give his name; and afterwards he says that ‘he has seen God face to face’. Only once in the remainder of the Old Testament, does God appear directly, when Moses talks with him ‘face to face, as a man speaks to his friend’ (Exodus 33:11). Otherwise God appears

The Trouble with Literature

117

as a burning bush, as a pillar or fire or of cloud, as a thick darkness. He is that which cannot be seen, proclaiming later in the same chapter of Exodus in which Moses talks with Him face to face, ‘Thou canst not see my face: for no man shall see me, and live.’ When Levinas turns to the question of image-making – in particular in his 1948 essay ‘Reality and Its Shadow’ – he draws upon both the Bible and the Greeks; but while he leans far more heavily for his argument on Plato, he uses the language of idolatry and magic from the Old Testament to underpin his arguments with a kind of moral force. Edith Wyschogrod writes that there are two distinct problems with representation identified by Levinas. First, he contends, in art, the image substitutes for the object and severs the relation of object to concept. Second, the unleashing of a flood of images may lead to expressions of frenzied affect that for Levinas are manifested as paganism, a term he associates with a range of meanings from the exaltation of nature as impersonal fecundity which he identifies with Heidegger’s ontology, to the participation in mystical reality he attributes to non-literate societies as depicted by Lévy-Bruhl. (Wyschogrod 2002, p. 198)

In terms of the first concern with the image, as Levinas writes in ‘Reality and Its Shadow’ that, ‘the most elementary procedure of art consists in substituting for the object its image’ (Levinas 1987b, p. 3). While, for Levinas, a concept allows us to maintain a living relationship with the object, an image neutralizes this relationship, rendering it void. We often treat images as if they are windows onto the world that is represented; but in representation there is something more disturbing that takes place. The image occupies the place of the object it represents ‘to mark its removal, as though the represented object died, were degraded, were disincarnated, in its own reflection’ (Levinas 1987b, p. 7). Representation is a kind of death or degradation, in part, because it takes that which is temporal and freezes it in time: ‘the smile of the Mona Lisa about to broaden will not broaden. An eternally suspended future floats around the congealed position of a statue like a future forever to come’ (Levinas 1987b, p. 9). As far as Levinas is concerned, even the temporal form of a story is a kind of congealing of time as, ‘the characters in a book are committed to the infinite repetition of the same acts and the same thoughts’, and in this way they are imprisoned, shut up within the confine of the stories that are told about them. Like the familiars of some kind of magician, or like slaves, they can be summoned every time we pick up a book, and dismissed when we tire of them, simply by placing the book down.

118

Levinas, Storytelling and Anti-Storytelling

Here, Levinas takes up the Platonic anxieties over representation as a two-fold removal from the world of Forms, and gives it a kind of ethical twist. In his essay Meaning and Sense, first published in 1972, Levinas considers Plato’s doctrine of Forms head-on, and writes that these Forms are not mythical entities to which one might ascribe a kind of realism, but instead they point to the fact that, ‘the world of meanings precedes language and culture, which express it; it is indifferent to the system of signs that one can invent to make this world present to thought. It thus dominates historical cultures’ (Levinas 1987b, p. 84). ‘Meaning’ here is the signifying that occurs in the face of the other: Levinas’s Platonism is a Platonism that is manifested in the face. And so, if the face cannot be a phenomenon, cannot be fashioned into an image, without betraying this signification, if we are entitled to read the spirit of the later essay (although not, perhaps, the finer details of the argument) back into the earlier, then we could say that the objection that Levinas raises in ‘Reality and Its Shadow’ is that the mimesis that takes place in representation removes us from the lived reality of another person that puts us into question, and it allows us to sidestep the responsibilities to which we are called in the face of another. In Totality and Infinity, Levinas writes that representation is a situation in which I determine that  which I represent, without thereby being determined (Levinas 1969, p. 170). In representation, in other words, I am free from any demand upon me, while I am also free to mould the world according to my own whim. ‘There is something wicked and egoist and cowardly in artistic enjoyment’, Levinas writes, ‘There are times when one can be ashamed of it, as of feasting during a plague’ (Levinas 1987b, p. 12). The other side of Levinas’s unease with the poetic is again drawn from Plato, and that is the concern that poetry has the power to charm the listener, and thus to sweep away all responsibility. ‘Rhythm,’ Levinas writes, ‘represents a unique situation where we cannot speak of consent, assumption, initiative or freedom, because the subject is caught up and carried away by it . . . This is the captivation or incantation of poetry and music’ (Levinas 1987b, p. 4). Poetry lulls and beguiles. In being caught up in the rhythm of poetic speech, it is not merely a case of our being affected by the rhythmic nature of this speech. Rhythm also has the effect of suspending the self who might be carried away. ‘In rhythm there is no longer a oneself, but rather a sort of passage from oneself to anonymity. This is the captivation or incantation of poetry and music’ (Levinas 1987b, p. 4). There is here, in this notion of a passage to anonymity, clearly a nod towards the notion of the il y a; however, we might also detect here an echo of the Biblical prohibitions that ally idolatry not only with the making of representations, but

The Trouble with Literature

119

specifically with magic. For Levinas, who does not shrink from using the language of ‘magic’ in attempting to evoke the disturbing power of art, these two taken aspects of enchantment together – the representation that freezes in time and removes us from a living relationship, and the rhythm that bears us away – give art a disturbing, bewitching power. In Totality and Infinity, Levinas contrasts the dangers of enchantment found in poetry with the ‘rupturing’ quality of prose: To poetic activity—where influences arise unbeknown to us out of this nonetheless conscious activity to envelop it and beguile it as a rhythm, and where action is borne along by the very work it has given rise to . . . is opposed the language that at each instant dispels the charm of rhythm and prevents the initiative from becoming a role. Discourse (questioning and answering) is rupture and commencement, breaking of rhythm which enraptures and transports the interlocutors – prose (Levinas 1969, p. 203).

Again, Levinas is to some extent refashioning Plato’s critique of representation for his own ends: where Plato approves narrative but not imitation, so Levinas approves prose but shrinks back from the rhythm of poetry. Here, of course, it is not a matter of how the words are laid out on the page. What defines poetry for Levinas is the rhythmic quality of language, and the way that language represents; and what defines prose is rupture, a breaking with this rhythm. Prose, it could be said, is writing that repeatedly brings us up short, writing that does not sweep us away, writing that calls us into question. As we shall see, this allows Levinas, just at the point where he seems as if he is committing himself to disavowing literature altogether, to argue for a certain kind of literary practice. In his essay on Husserl with the telling title ‘The Ruin of Representation’, Levinas gives these reflections on the dangers of representation a curious phenomenological twist. Levinas depicts Husserl, without making any specific references to the Biblical texts, as a kind of Moses figure who has come into the world to destroy the idolatry of the previous philosophy.2 Phenomenology, Levinas suggests, is a way of overcoming the hold that representation (i.e., idolatry) has over us. Phenomenology is the refusal of a naïve view of sensation and representation in which ‘permanent essences’ are abstracted from the world and ‘offered in a present in which they are self sufficient’ (Levinas 1998, p. 112); it calls into question the straightforwardness of the naïveté in which objects of perception are taken as self-sufficient, and are considered to be straightforwardly related to the subject in consciousness. What might be called ‘the classical conception of the subject-object relation’, Levinas writes, ‘is a presence of the object and a presence near to the object. The

120

Levinas, Storytelling and Anti-Storytelling

relationship is understood in such a way that, in it, the present exhausts the being of the subject and of the object’ (Levinas 1998, p. 115). The philosophical problem with this notion of representation is that it is, or claims to be, exhaustive. It does not open onto new horizons. In contrast to the simple representational view, the phenomenological analyses of Husserl aim to lead away from this naïveté and towards a concern with the structures of intentionality. Intentionality is fundamentally open, for it, ‘bears within itself the innumerable horizons of its implications and thinks of infinitely more “things” than of the object upon which it is fixed’ (Levinas 1998, p. 116). The flow of perceptions is shifting, temporal and perpetually opens up on to new horizons, while the model of representation freezes reality in a series of images. One might have thought that, having marshalled such extensive arguments against poetic speech, that there might be no room for anything other than the prosaic; but this is to raise the question of how we can account the many storytellers who surround Levinas’s texts – from Shakespeare to Dostoyevsky to Proust to Blanchot – can nevertheless play a part. As I have already suggested, for Levinas, despite all of these dangers of representation, there is in fact still a role for certain kinds of poiesis. But before discussing this, perhaps it is necessary to answer another more fundamental question: why not keep silent?

13

Silence, Language and Poetry

If all speech, as well as all writing, indeed if all discourse in whatever form, is held within the enchantment of the poetic image, and hence idolatrous; if the mimesis and rhythm that are inherent in speech constantly threaten to turn it into a kind of fascination that will tear us away from that which is real and will sweep us along, destroying all possibility of active engagement with the world; and if there can also be no speech without poetical or rhetorical coercion, then one might wonder whether it would be necessary for the practice of ethics to remain silent, to retreat up to some mountain hide-away and to commune wordlessly with the birds and the beasts. However, silence too is an impossibility. As Visker writes, for Levinas silence is not only literal silence but instead a refusal of relationship: ‘every attempt to evade the appeal of the Other, every excuse made, is a kind of silence – even if it is announced out loud’ (Visker 1996, p. 130). To remain silent, not to speak, is to remain enclosed within oneself, self-sufficient and self-sustaining. It is to refuse all responsibility, to be like Gyges in the story told by Plato, with his ring of invisibility, ‘who sees those who look at him without seeing him, and who knows that he is not seen’ (Levinas 1969, p. 90). Silence, for Levinas, is a kind of invisibility, a being alone in the world in which the world becomes a spectacle. To renounce speech, in the sense that Levinas uses the term, is to renounce action; it is to pull up the drawbridge and to retreat into the security of one’s own realm, barricaded against others. Silence, then, should not be understood as the simple absence of speech. For Levinas, what constitutes true silence is this self-enclosure, this refusal of the other person. Responsibility, or that which in his essay ‘God and Philosophy’ Levinas calls the ‘excess of passivity’ – my being affected by the other person, my inability not to respond – is that which opens me to the other person. ‘It is a saying without words, but not with empty hands,’ Levinas writes (Levinas 1998, p. 74). Silence here comes to ‘speak’ in that I am already, prior to my choosing, responsible for the other.1

122

Levinas, Storytelling and Anti-Storytelling

If in responsibility I am answerable to others, in refusing to speak, in refusing to answer, I am denying this responsibility. Speech, for Levinas, is more fundamental than silence, because I am always already responsible for the other person. For Levinas, the world is not a silent world into which speech is introduced; but instead, speech – in the sense of the responsibility I have in the face of the other, or the ethical relation – is foundational. As a result, ‘I cannot evade by silence the discourse which the epiphany that occurs as a face opens’ (Levinas 1969, p. 201). It is precisely because of the demand in the face of another that I am called to reason. Reason and justification arise out of the demand of ethics. The face, Levinas writes, ‘opens the primordial discourse whose first word is obligation, which no “interiority” permits avoiding’ (Levinas 1969, p. 201). But it seems that this leaves us between a rock and a hard place. If it is impossible to remain silent, and if to speak is already to betray – in representation, in mimesis, in the seductive rhythmic charms of poetry – then what are we to do? Here, Levinas recognizes that there is a kind of equivocation in the face-toface relationship. In Totality and Infinity he writes as follows: Conversation, from the very fact that it maintains the distance between me and the Other, the radical separation asserted in transcendence which prevents the reconstitution of totality, cannot renounce the egoism of its existence; but the very fact of being in a conversation consists in recognising in the Other a right over this egoism, and hence in justifying oneself. Apology, in which the I at the same time asserts itself and inclines before the transcendent, belongs to the essence of conversation (Levinas 1969, p. 40).

We cannot do away with the egoism of being; but in our response to the demand that is upon us in the face of the other person, we find that we are called to repeatedly justify ourselves, we are called repeatedly into question. Here is the repetition of a familiar kind of temporality in Levinas’s work: the start-stopstart movement of perpetual rebeginning, of always starting out. Speech always entails apology, in that in being called to speak, we are also already called to justify ourselves. In his Talmudic reading ‘As Old as the World’, Levinas reflects, I wonder whether there has ever been a discourse in the world that was not apologetic, whether the logos in itself is not apology, whether our first awareness of our existence is an awareness of rights, whether it is not from the beginning an awareness of responsibilities, whether, rather than comfortably entering into the world as if into our home, without excusing ourselves, we are not, from the beginning, accused (Levinas 1994a, p. 82).

Silence, Language and Poetry

123

This sense of being always accused takes on form, and violently so, in Otherwise than Being where Levinas writes that, ‘The self, the persecuted one, is accused beyond his fault before freedom,’ (Levinas 1981, p. 121). It is worth noting that this claim that the logos itself may be apology is a direct consequence of Levinas’ reversal of the order of priority between the ethical and the philosophical. Knowledge is not my own private affair, an intimacy between myself as knower and the known as object; knowledge, and the very possibility of knowledge, are founded upon the relation to another. This is, in part, an amplification of the point now familiar from Husserl, that it is intersubjectivity that founds the objective world. The ethical relation, a relation of responsibility, is prior to knowledge. Philosophy always arrives too late, like an honoured guest who comes stumbling into the wedding party after the bride and groom have got themselves hitched; but having arrived, philosophy nevertheless has to speak, to testify to that which has already passed, to speak not only of this but also of its own inadequacy, of its own shortfall or lapse. And it is precisely in this apology that it is possible to limit the necessary betrayal of speech. However, Levinas is making a stronger point than this. Not only is he claiming that there is an ethical demand for philosophy to confront its own limitations, but he is also saying that reason, the logos, philosophy is in fact apology. The demand to speak is a demand that comes from the outside, from another. Prior to speech, in the instant before speech, called by the presence of the other person, already there is an apology. The task of philosophy is that of constantly reawakening to the apology inherent in reason. As Robert Gibbs argues, ‘Ethics requires not the disappearance of myself, or even of my interests, but rather the conversion of these under the questioning and instruction by the other person’ (Gibbs 2000, p. 44). This points us to the way that Levinas begins to resolve the problems that he has with narrative, and it is through, once again, recognizing the equivocation that runs through much literary language. Blanchot points out that ‘ordinary language limits equivocation’: it treats language as if it could straightforwardly represent; but in literature it is possible for language to turn towards equivocation and ambiguity (Blanchot 1999, p. 396), to unpick our sense of language as straightforwardly representational. Literary language has the capacity to disquiet: it is capable of something other than enchantment. And this suggests that there is a way of proceeding in which, although we cannot fully escape the dangers of representation and of enchantment, we can nevertheless keep alive to the constant demand to justify ourselves, and can continually be called up short in a form of apology.

124

Levinas, Storytelling and Anti-Storytelling

Blanchot writes, in an argument that will be familiar to those who have read Levinas’s writings on art, that everyday language ‘calls a cat a cat, as if the living cat and its name were identical’ (Blanchot 1999, p. 381); but when I speak the word ‘cat’, I negate the very real cat who is currently sitting on my desk, eyeing me with suspicion. In saying ‘cat’, I substitute the actual, living cat for the idea of a cat. In the same way that, for Rosenzweig, speaking of death allows us to negate death – to make death an abstraction that we can dispose of at will – so when I have grasped the term ‘cat’ I assume that I have got hold of the thing itself. I may even assume that I have got hold of the cat in a more fundamental sense, that I have grasped the essence of the cat. Blanchot quotes Hegel, when he writes that Adam’s first act ‘which made him master of the animals, was to give them names, that is, he annihilated them in their existence (as existing creatures)’ (Blanchot 1999, p. 379). It was from this moment on, Blanchot writes that the cat ‘ceased to be a uniquely real cat and became an idea as well’ (Ibid.). Literary language is language that can undermine our faith in representation, and can thus counter this tendency that language might have to negate that of which it speaks. If I say, ‘Cat, cat, cat, cat, cat . . .’ over and over again, eventually the word becomes strange to me, material once again, a vibration on the air and in the mouth, a certain configuration of marks on the page, no longer something that is straightforwardly representative. If literature is a mountain with two slopes, there on the sunnier slopes, where we take language as kind of representation of the world, as if in the full light of day, we find that literature risks condemning the world to death, or turning the living world into something frozen and mute. Yet on the other side of literature, on the shadier and more obscure slopes, we find that there is something other than representation that takes place. The unwitting violence of representation can be held in abeyance if we become more attentive to language itself, not allowing language to disappear from view, resisting the fiction of a transparent language through which the world appears in its clarity. What is required is an attentiveness to the opacity of language, to the obscurity and shadowiness of words. Poetry has the power to engender in us an awareness of language’s own materiality. Levinas is already exploring this materiality in Existence and Existents: A word cannot be separated from meaning. But there is first the materiality of the sound that fills it, by which it can be reduced to sensation and musicality such as we have defined it: it is capable of having rhythm, rhyme, meter, alliteration etc. And a word detaches itself from its objective meaning and reverts to the element

Silence, Language and Poetry

125

of the sensible in still another way inasmuch as it is attached to a multiplicity of meanings, through the ambiguity that may affect it due to its proximity with other words. (Levinas 1978, pp. 47–8)

Here Levinas not only describes the necessary equivocation of thought and of language that he has recognized as the most important finding of Husserl’s phenomenology, but also the materiality of language that pulls against the pure representational content. There are two kinds of materiality here: first, the metrical, alliterative, rhyming, sonorous qualities of the word, and secondly, the way in which words exist as part of a seething web, their meanings shifting in their proximity to other words. In his essay Meaning and Sense, Levinas tells us that, Already words are seen to not have isolable meanings, such as figure in dictionaries, and which one might reduce to some sort of contents or givens. They could not be congealed into a literal meaning. In fact there would be no literal meaning. Words do not refer to contents which they would designate, but first, laterally, to other words. Despite the mistrust he shows for written language . . . Plato in the Cratylus teaches that even the names given to the gods—the proper names attached, conventionally, as signs, to individual beings—refer, through their etymology, to other words which are not proper names . . . Each word-meaning is at the confluence of innumerable semantic rivers. (Levinas 1987b, p. 77)

It is precisely because of the way it can make us attentive to the materiality of language, because of the way that it can lead us to wander away from the sunnier slopes of representation to the shadier slopes where everything becomes obscure, that poetry can still have a function for Levinas. Like Plato, Levinas does not entirely abolish the poets; indeed, he claims that they have an important role to play because the brute materiality of language is, he goes so far as to say, something that ‘can only appear in poetry’ (Levinas 1978, p. 51). Poetry has the function of bringing us up against materiality of language itself. One can also speak of different forms of night that occur right in the daytime. Illuminated objects can appear to us as though in twilight shapes. Like the unreal, inverted city we find after an exhausting trip, things and beings strike us as though they no longer composed a world, and were swimming in the chaos of their existence. Such is also the case with the “fantastic,” “hallucinatory” reality in poets like Rimbaud, even when they name the most familiar things and the most accustomed beings. The misunderstood art of certain realistic and naturalistic

126

Levinas, Storytelling and Anti-Storytelling

novelists, their prefaces and professions of faith notwithstanding, produces the same effect: beings and things collapse into their “materiality,” are terrifyingly present in their density, weight and shape. (Levinas 1978, p. 54)

This return to the materiality of language in poetry may, therefore, be the very thing that interrupts our assumptions about the straightforwardness of language, and thus breaks with the violence of enchantment. Here Levinas finds a way of exonerating those authors upon whom he depends for his arguments from the worst charges that he lays against representation, by claiming that it is precisely in the work of these authors that the notion of representation is put in question by a return to the materiality of language. ‘Modern literature,’ he writes in ‘Reality and Its Shadow’, ‘disparaged for its intellectualism (which, nonetheless goes back to Shakespeare, the Moilère of Don Juan, Goethe, Dostoyevsky) certainly manifests a more and more clear awareness of this fundamental insufficiency of artistic idolatry’ (Levinas 1987b, p. 13). In a sense, Levinas’s strategy is to set the materiality of language against language’s pretensions to represent the world. It is neither in the signal nor the noise that might we find the possibility of ethical speech, but it is in the tension between the two that a space might open up for ethics. The most lucid writer finds himself in the world bewitched by its images. He speaks in enigmas, by allusions, by suggestion, in equivocations, as though he moved in a world of shadows, as though he lacked the force to arouse realities, as though he could not go to them without wavering, as though, bloodless and awkward, he always committed himself further than he had decided to do, as though he spills half the water he is bringing us. (Levinas 1987b, p. 13)

Spilling half the water that is brought to us is only spilling half the water: half still remains, and when one is in need of a drink, a half glass may suffice. Caught between the demand to speak and the impossibility of speaking without betrayal, prose struggling against poetry without ever fully succeeding, the materiality of language struggling against language’s claims to representation: proceeding by fits and starts, it might be possible to deliver at least something to those who are thirsty. It is in this light that we need to understand the difficult prose style of Otherwise than Being, and the sense that runs through it that here is a writer who is struggling with, and against, language itself. Levinas’s later work is a fabric of suggestions made and retracted, and of endless equivocations; it is a book of shifting shadows in which realities are approached waveringly, a text that

Silence, Language and Poetry

127

seems to constantly retreat from its own assertions. For Levinas, this wavering is essential for the delivery of any water at all, as if without such hesitation and equivocation, we would find ourselves banging up against some shadowy object in this shadowy world and spilling every last drop. We are forced to choose between a long journey of equivocations and backtrackings and pauses and circumlocutions, in which we end up delivering at least a little of the waters of philosophy, and a direct journey that may arrive at its destination with admirable speed only to find that the precious liquid has all been lost.

14

Otherwise than Being

Now, at last, after these extended preliminaries and apologies, we can look more closely at Otherwise than Being. In his 1976 study of Levinas’s Totality and Infinity, ‘Violence and Metaphyiscs’, Jacques Derrida wrote that, ‘Discourse, therefore, if it is originally violent, can only do itself violence, can only negate itself in order to affirm itself . . . This secondary war, as the avowal of violence, is the least possible violence, the only way to repress the worst violence’ (Derrida 1978, p. 130). Otherwise than Being is a book that is clearly marked – although not explicitly – by Levinas’s engagement with Derrida’s critique. In this extended essay, Derrida draws out some of the implications of Levinas’s thought, turning it back on the text of Totality and Infinity itself, reading the text, in part, as a necessary act of violence. ‘A speech produced without the least violence’, Derrida writes, ‘would determine nothing, would say nothing, would offer nothing to the other’ (Derrida 1976, p. 147): a speech produced without the least violence, in other words, would not even deliver a half glass. And yet Derrida also asks whether Levinas has managed to write without succumbing to the very totality he is so eager to avoid. ‘But can one speak of an experience of the other or of difference?’ he asks. ‘Has not the concept of experience always been determined by the metaphysics of presence? Is not experience always an encountering of an irreducible presence, the perception of a phenomenality?’ (Derrida 1978, p. 152). That is to say, can one speak of the experience of the ethical – at least as conceived by Levinas – without falling back into that which is within the compass of phenomena, without merely giving another twist to the plot of being about which Levinas is so deeply uneasy? Levinas himself maintains a curious silence when it comes to Derrida’s essay – Bernasconi notes that ‘Levinas nowhere responds explicitly’ to Derrida (Bernasconi 1991, p. 153) – although Bernasconi also makes the claim that, on the grounds of internal evidence alone, in Otherwise than Being Derrida is Levinas’s main interlocutor (Bernasconi 1991, p. 154). Whether or not this is the case, it would do Levinas an injustice, and it would underestimate the audacity

Otherwise than Being

129

of his work in Otherwise than Being, to see the latter book merely as an attempt to rewrite Totality and Infinity in the light of Derrida’s criticisms, as if Otherwise than Being was only a fine-tuning of the arguments set down a little too rashly in the former. It is perhaps closer in spirit to Levinas’s own later approach to these two works to see them not as successive drafts of a single thesis, but as complementary, but substantially different, works. Richard Cohen writes that, Totality and Infinity is primarily concerned to establish the radical and ethically compelling transcendence of the other person. Otherwise than Being or Beyond Essence, on the other hand, is primarily concerned to show the repercussion of this transcendence in the ethical constitution of moral subjectivity. (Cohen 2001, p. 145)

The two works, that is to say, intersect each other, rather than one replacing or superseding the other. Cohen argues that, ‘the two volumes stand in a special harmony, a complementarity of mutual intensification: Totality and Infinity coming first like the other person, Otherwise than Being or Beyond Essence coming second like the moral self ’ (Cohen 2001, p. 147). That is, first Levinas seeks to establish the unencompassable otherness of the other person; then he asks how it can be that I, as a subject, can nevertheless be responsible for the other person who is absolutely other. Looked at in this light, it seems as if Otherwise than Being is more than an attempt to push the thesis of Totality and Infinity to its conclusion: instead it is a discussion of the very thing that animates the complex stories told in the earlier book but that cannot itself enter into the story. But what is this thing that is so important to the stories of the earlier book, but that cannot itself be told? What is the water that Levinas is delivering? In the note with which he begins the book, Levinas writes of his intentions as follows. To see in subjectivity an exception putting out of order the conjunction of essence, entities and the “difference”; to catch sight, in the substantiality of the subject, in the hard core of the “unique” in me, in my unparalleled identity, of a substitution for the other; to conceive of this abnegation prior to the will as a merciless exposure to the trauma of transcendence by way of a susception more, and differently, passive than receptivity, passion and finitude; to derive praxis and knowledge in the world from this nonassumable susceptibility—these are the propositions of this book which names the beyond essence. (Levinas 1981, pp. xlvii–xlviii)

This is a difficult passage and so perhaps a few comments are in order. The first is a suggestion as to how we might fruitfully read Otherwise than Being. If in

130

Levinas, Storytelling and Anti-Storytelling

Totality and Infinity Levinas gives us a series of stories, with the heroic subject at their centre, in Otherwise than Being, he could be seen as attempting to turn his attention back to the subject himself, to the hero of his story, so that he might ask some difficult questions that serve to significantly complicate the story that he has told in Totality and Infinity. The complicating factor comes from the idea of substitution, this ‘nonassumable susceptibility’ which starts to do strange things to the relatively clear and lucid structure of the earlier book. In Totality and Infinity there is a clear demarcation between the subject and the stranger, between myself and the other who knocks upon my door. In this sense, Totality and Infinity still moves in the same world as Husserl’s Cartesian Meditations. But in Otherwise than Being, Levinas, picking up on hints and suggestions he has made in his earlier work, starts to look at this heroic subject itself, to ask what it is about the subject that makes me capable of responsibility at all. And here he begins to read absolute otherness back into the heart of the subject. Recall that in Totality and Infinity, Levinas has already written about how the subject ‘takes fright before its depths and is to itself an other’ (Levinas 1969, p. 36). It is these depths, and this possibility of being other to oneself, that Levinas explores in Otherwise than Being, setting out a vision in which, in the heart of my own subjectivity, there might be something that is already subject to the other person, something that is already absolutely other. But there is something else at stake as well in Otherwise than Being, something above and beyond the theoretical content. While in Totality and Infinity Levinas confesses to a necessary confusion between theory and practice, as it deals with ‘both as modes of metaphysical transcendence’ (Levinas 1969, p. 29), in Otherwise than Being he goes further, saying that he attempts to derive both ‘theory and praxis’ from this notion of substitution. It is not so much that Levinas is seeking to derive a notion of praxis in Otherwise than Being; it is more that what Levinas is attempting to derive is praxis itself: that is, he is attempting to write in such a way that this ‘nonassumable susceptibility’ might itself be dramatized, to write in such a way that we realize that we are called into question by the text he is writing. In other words, Otherwise than Being in part is a book that deliberately seeks to disrupt our own tendencies towards philosophical storytelling. To appreciate how this might work, it would be useful to look more closely at Levinas’s notion of substitution. In his essay, ‘What is the question to which ‘substitution’ is the answer?’, Bernasconi (2002, p. 234) notes that the concept of substitution remains enigmatic, even if it is the core concept of the book. It remains enigmatic precisely because it cannot enter into the story. Bernasconi

Otherwise than Being

131

also goes on to note that, for all the apparent obscurity of this concept, what Levinas is attempting to do can, in a sense, be still considered to be a part of his phenomenological project: that is, he is attempting to explore a phenomenon (if, of course, it can be called a phenomenon) that could be summed up in the phrase ‘the one-for-the-other’. If Totality and Infinity explores the adventures and itineraries of the subject – dwelling, enjoying the erotic idyll, being called into question, journeying on a metaphysical quest, giving rise to offspring, generation after generation – Otherwise than Being plunges into the heart of the subject to ask how ethics is possible at all. And so an initial, and admittedly simplistic, way of looking at the distinction between these two books would be to say that Totality and Infinity attempts to answer this question from ‘outside the subject’ (to use the title of another of Levinas’ works), while Otherwise than Being turns back upon the subject and asks what it is about the subject that makes such a thing possible. One could say that Levinas is interested in finding the conditions of possibility for the stories that he has told in Totality and Infinity, although without turning these conditions of possibility into another story that could be mastered by the subject. The picture, however, rapidly becomes more complex as Levinas, in asking about the subject, finds that the distinction between the same and the other is one that itself needs to be reconsidered. Otherwise than Being seeks, in a theoretical sense, to demonstrate that ‘the other is in me and in the midst of my very identification’ (Levinas 1981, p. 125). From the other who is absolutely other, in Totality and Infinity, we move to an other who remains absolutely other, but who is nevertheless in me and who can be found in the very heart my selfidentification. While Totality and Infinity sets out the unbridgeable gulf between the same and the other, asserting the absolute, unencompassable otherness of the other person, Otherwise than Being looks within and sees the opening of the same gulf of absolute otherness, even where we are most at home with ourselves. We could phrase the question like this: what happens, in that moment when I am called to respond to the other? For while the ethical relation is crucial to Levinas’s Totality and Infinity, in the earlier book, Levinas presents it simply as a happening. And because this is a moment that breaks with my story or the narrative, in that it is something that does not – recalling Aristotle on story­ telling – follow from what has gone before, something completely outside my grasp, then it is something that cannot enter into the storytelling that takes place in Totality and Infinity, even while it renders the story possible. Infinity, graillike, remains forever off-stage. In Otherwise than Being, if Levinas wishes to explore this happening or event, if he wishes to articulate what or how it is that

132

Levinas, Storytelling and Anti-Storytelling

makes ethics possible at all, then he cannot do so by telling a story about it; he cannot even do so by telling multiple stories about it as he does in Totality and Infinity. He needs, in other words, to take a different path, one in which ethics is not so much described or theorized as dramatized. It is because it is a kind of dramatization that Levinas’s text itself can call us into question and thus can, as Bernasconi writes, reorientate our thinking such that it might have an impact upon our approach to concrete situations (Bernasconi 2002, p. 250), ‘such that we come to see them as ethical’. There is more at stake here than the setting out of a theoretical view of ethics. To consider Otherwise than Being as merely a theoretical treatise not only ignores the way in which Levinas confuses theory and practice, it also fails to pay heed to the very specific dramatic character of this book. As Levinas writes in the book’s opening pages: ‘Beings become patient, and renounce the allergic intolerance of their persistence in being: do they not then dramatize the otherwise than being?’ (Levinas 1981, p. 4). By the time that he is writing Otherwise than Being, Levinas is seeing philo­ sophy itself as something that has a dramatic character. The distinction between drama and narrative is important here: it is possible for there to be a narrative without drama; and it is possible, conversely, for there to be drama without narrative, a drama made up of events that occur punctually, instantaneously, events that do not follow from what has gone before, that do not take their place in causal chains. While both Totality and Infinity and Otherwise than Being are dramatic texts, only the former is a narrative text. Having said this, the dramatic character does not lie precisely in the text itself; rather it lies in the punctual, difficult, stop-and-start struggle to read the text. Levinas writes that philosophy, ‘arouses a drama between philosophers and an intersubjective movement which does not resemble the dialogue of teamworkers in science, nor even the Platonic dialogue which is the reminiscence of a drama rather than the drama itself ’ (Levinas 1981, p. 20). We need to pay attention to the precise claim that Levinas is making here. It is not that philosophy is a drama, nor that it reports upon a drama that has taken place. Instead it arouses a drama. In the struggle between what Levinas calls the ‘saying’ (le dire) and the ‘said’ (le dit), in the struggle between the signification for another and its necessary betrayal, it seems as if Levinas is attempting something almost staggeringly bold: in the absence of an interlocutor, to attempt to write a text, that might itself arouse this drama in the reader. To see how Levinas attempts to do this – if this is indeed what he is doing – we will need to look more closely at the texture of the language in Otherwise than Being, to ask precisely what kind of drama this is.

15

Tracking Trauma in the Text

For all of the rhetoric that Levinas mounts against poetry, there is nevertheless a curious kind of poetry to Otherwise than Being, even if it is a prosaic kind of poetry, a poetry that struggles against poetic charm, one that attempts to speak of the other without representation. Riera notes that, ‘It is as if the language of Otherwise than Being, a language that shows a different understanding of its own operations than that of Totality and Infinity, were making peace with a certain “possibility” of poetic language’ (Riera 2004, p. 34). This uneasy truce is necessary because, as Levinas noted as early as Existence and Existents, perhaps it is only in poetic language that we begin to pass beyond the idea of language as a form of straightforward representation of the world. Adriana Cavarero points out in her book on the philosophy of vocal expression (Cavarero 2005) that it is even possible that the sung voice, with all of its mimetic and rhythmic enchantments, might be able to act as a call to responsibility: a possibility that already takes her far beyond the realm of Levinas’s thinking. An exquisite example of this occurs in Calvino’s story ‘A King Listens’, in which the king is depicted at the outset  almost as the archetypal Levinasian subject at home with itself: ‘You are the king; everything you desire is already yours’ (Calvino 1988, p. 32). Yet this king is condemned to his self-enclosure or, as Cavarero points out in her astute reflection upon this story, he is the prisoner of his own system, constantly threatened by overthrow (Cavarero 2005, p. 1). It is only when he hears a sung voice – and the voice of a woman at that, a voice Levinas would have condemned to silence – a voice that ‘offers itself in song,’ that he finds a way of breaking out of the labyrinth of his self and called upon to respond, to physically give voice in reply to the voice which has broken his solitude. Discovering that he has a body, that he has one life to live, the listening king sings. But, then, obviously he is no longer king, but rather a human being rooted in his fundamental ontological condition. The simple truth of the vocal makes the crown fall without anyone ever hearing the crash. (Cavarero 2005, p. 7)

134

Levinas, Storytelling and Anti-Storytelling

Levinas himself attests to this uneasy truce with poetic language in Otherwise than Being when he writes that, ‘in poems vocables, material of the said, no longer yield before what they evoke, but sing with their evocative powers and their diverse ways to evoke, their etymologies’ (Levinas 1981, p. 40). So the question is this: how does this poetry that sets itself against poetic enchantment work? Because, confounding our expectations of beginnings, middles and ends, it is somewhat unclear how it is possible in such a milieu to philosophize at all. Steven Smith suggests that Otherwise than Being tackles the problem by ‘showing performatively what it is that language can do other than represent objects or paradoxical nonobjects like “the other”’; and he suggests that the Levinas has replaced the central problematic of the relationship between the terms ‘totality’ and ‘infinity’ with that of the relationship between le dit, or the ‘Said’ and le dire or the ‘Saying’ (Smith 1986, p. 61).1 That is to say, in the later book the distinction between totality and infinity, which is already expressed in language that is too ontological, is replaced by a concern with language itself. Levinas turns away from the relationship between being and that which is beyond being to consider how philosophical language can speak of that which is beyond being. Ontology then becomes the sphere of that which can be said, while that which is beyond ontology is expressed as a verb: the saying. And that which is beyond being is no longer expressed in the language of being, and no longer shows itself as an object of thought. Instead is described dramatically. The distinction of the saying and the said is central to Otherwise than Being. Levinas writes that the ‘saying’, le Dire, is ‘the proximity of one to the other, the commitment of an approach, the one for the other, the very signifyingness of signification’ (Levinas 1981, p. 5). This commitment is, we have seen, betrayed the moment it moves into a language: ‘In language qua said everything is conveyed before us, be it at the price of betrayal’ (Levinas 1981, p. 4). Narrative, although it may testify to that which for Levinas is the drama of all dramas – the drama of my encounter with the absolute otherness of the other person – is always a betrayal. How then to speak without the betrayal effacing every trace of this original sincerity designated by the term ‘saying’? This problem is dramatized in the unexceptional situation of another’s grief. As our friend grieves, we are faced with a demand to speak. Yet we know our words are inadequate and risk betraying this very demand that our words are continually in danger of turning into empty platitudes. However, for Levinas, the problem is not restricted merely to such moments; instead such moments bring to light the inherent inadequacy of our response in the face of the ethical demands upon us.

Tracking Trauma in the Text

135

Riera refers to this move away from the language of Totality and Infinity as Levinas’s ‘linguistic turn,’ a turn in which Levinas comes to see that ‘language contains the other’s call and thus harbours a form of exteriority within itself ’ (Riera 2004, p. 14). For this exteriority to show itself, however, Levinas, who mistrusts the ‘Said’, must commit himself to a painstaking approach to writing in which, attentive to the necessity of equivocation, he simultaneously both weaves together and unpicks the fabric of his philosophy. ‘Discourse therefore,’ Derrida wrote, ‘if it is originally violent, can only do itself violence, can only negate itself in order to affirm itself, make war upon the war which institutes it without ever being able to reappropriate this negativity, to the extent that it is discourse’ (Derrida 1978, p. 130).2 At the beginning of Otherwise than Being, Levinas follows Derrida’s suggestion with exactness, writing that ‘The otherwise than being is stated in a saying that must also be unsaid in order to thus extract the otherwise than being from the said in which it already comes to signify but a being otherwise’ (Levinas 1981, p. 7); or, in other words, the philosophical discourse, rooted in ontology, must turn against itself and unsay itself if it is to leave room for something other. The otherness that in Totality and Infinity had been placed altogether outside is now folded back into language itself, so that we begin to see how it might be possible to encounter Levinas’s most radical otherness not only in the face of another, but also in language itself, in the pages of a philosophy book. It is striking here how close Levinas’s approach to writing philosophy comes to Blanchot’s notion of literary language when Blanchot writes that, ‘There remains literary speech that goes beyond by redoubling, creates by repeating, and by saying over infinitely, says a first and unique time even this word too many where language falters’ (Blanchot 1993, p. 345). Reading Otherwise than Being, then, is a uniquely demanding experience. Levinas throws us into a tumult of terms that seem astonishingly unphilo­ sophical – ‘trauma’, ‘obsession’, ‘hostage’, ‘persecution’, ‘nudity’, ‘exposure’, ‘wounding’. The clear lines of argument of his mentor Husserl are nowhere to be seen. Otherwise than Being is not so much an argument as it is a turbulent swarm of dramatically laden terms; and any attempt to resolve this swarming language into something like a single line of argument would fail to do the book justice. It is for this reason that I am suspicious of attempts to resolve Levinas’s book into clear lines of argument. Were Levinas presenting a set of philosophical theses for our consideration, such paraphrase would perhaps be acceptable; but this is precisely what he is refusing to do. Instead we are

136

Levinas, Storytelling and Anti-Storytelling

­ recipitated into an unfamiliar environment where we are buffeted by a strange p and alien language with nothing to hold on to. This makes Otherwise than Being a difficult text to write about: it is futile to attempt to reduce the sound and fury of this swarming book, the book’s ‘deafening trauma’ (Levinas 1981, p. 111) to something more manageable. However, one way to proceed might be not to try to comprehend the entire swarm, but rather to work in a fashion analogous to that of a entomologist who might – wishing to understand the bewildering activity of a swarm of bees within a beehive – mark a single bee with a dot of paint, and focus for a while on this bee alone so that the apparently chaotic movement of the whole might be better understood. Instead of trying to grasp the work as a whole, that is, perhaps a more effective strategy is to trace the movements of a single term as it appears and reappears, now here, now there, throughout the text. This will be my strategy. When taking such an approach, the choice of the term to be investigated must be, to some extent, arbitrary. It makes sense to choose a term that has a certain dominance in the text, that tends to recur more frequently than many others; but at the same time, this is not to grant this term any a priori axial significance: perhaps many of the other terms that swarm in a similar fashion, contributing to the hubbub of the text, could have served equally well. To this end, I propose to follow the term ‘trauma’ which is exemplary in both its strangeness – this is not a term that occurs frequently in the philosophical lexicon; it cannot be commonly found in Husserl, or in Kant or in Descartes – and also in its dramatic force. The purpose here will not be to attempt to extract the term ‘trauma’ from the text and gloss it as a philosophical concept. The purpose is rather to understand, by considering this particular term’s recurrence, the way that Levinas’s language does its work. The idea of trauma first makes its appearance at the very beginning of the book when Levinas writes of responsibility as ‘a non-vocation, a trauma’ (Levinas 1981, p. 12). Already it should be noted that ‘trauma’ does not appear alone so that we might be able to see it in the clarity of its isolation; instead it occurs alongside another term, ‘non-vocation’, in a kind of redoubling, as if Levinas is purposefully dramatizing the way in which language, through redoubling and through its proximity to other terms, undergoes a kind of perpetual shifting. This redoubling, this piling up of terms side by side, is one of the most striking aspects of Levinas’s writing in Otherwise than Being; and it turns, a few pages later, into something akin to a linguistic landslide:

Tracking Trauma in the Text

137

Vulnerability, exposure to outrage, to wounding, passivity more passive than all patience, passivity of the accusative form, trauma of accusation suffered by a hostage to the point of persecution, implicating the identity of the hostage who substitutes himself for the others: all this is the self, a defecting or defeat of the ego’s identity. (Levinas 1981, p. 15)

Here we find ourselves slipping from one term to another – outrage, wounding, passivity, trauma, accusation, hostage, persecution – without any clear sense of where the text is leading us. We are swept along with the text before we have any chance to orientate ourselves, or before we have had the opportunity to ask what it is, precisely, that Levinas is talking about. It is true that Levinas in this passage tells us that he is writing about the self, but this is not a self that seems to have been arrived at by cool philosophical reasoning or by careful definition: we are far from the composure of the Husserlian transcendental ego; tumult and drama have replaced the concern with certain knowledge to the extent that the question naturally arises: is the text addressing itself to the philosophical problem of the self, or is it addressing itself to me? Is this self my self that is exposed to wounding and persecution, a hostage? And if so, by what is it exposed? Levinas continues. The self, he says, is ‘a self despite itself, in incarnation, where it is the very possibility of offering, suffering and trauma’ (Levinas 1981, p. 50); it is obsessed by the other with ‘the passivity of a trauma, but one that prevents its own representation, a deafening trauma, cutting the thread of consciousness which should have welcomed it in its present, the passivity of being persecuted’ (Levinas 1981, p. 111). Deafened to what? we might ask. And yet, there is scarcely time to draw breath before Levinas goes on to say, ‘The one affected by the other is an anarchic trauma, or an inspiration of the one by the other,’ adding that, ‘In this trauma the Good reabsorbs, or redeems, the violence of non-freedom’ (Levinas 1981, p. 123). Here, for a moment, it is as if the reader is offered something, a proposition of sorts. Perhaps we could write it like this: trauma is that by virtue of which the Good redeems the violence of non-freedom. Yet this, it will appear, is a peculiar redemption, for a few pages later my encounter with the face of another is likened to a burglary, and the other has broken and entered the house of my self without any prior agreement. If this trauma is both redemption and burglary, then we can only conclude that this is a strange kind of redemption – or, alternatively, a strange kind of burglary, or perhaps both. Levinas writes, ‘This exposure without anything held back at the very spot where the trauma is produced, a cheek offered already to the smiter, is sincerity as saying, witnessing to the glory of the Infinite’ (Levinas 1981, p. 145).

138

Levinas, Storytelling and Anti-Storytelling

At this point in the tumultuous landslide, the question becomes more insistent: violence or redemption? The former I might seek to avoid or avert, the latter I might hope for; but as the book continues, the distinction between the two, a distinction that is made in Totality and Infinity with the utmost clarity, seems to become vanishingly small. The ego, Levinas now says – my poor, battered, trembling ego – is ‘stripped’ of its imperialism and its scorn by the trauma of persecution, reduced to a witnessing, to the ‘here I am’ (Levinas 1981, p. 146). The most chilling part of all, however, is reserved for those readers sufficiently dedicated and attentive to read not only the text, but also to scour the footnotes in the hope of some kind of clarity or illumination: Persecution is a trauma, violence par excellence, without warning nor a priori, without possible apology, without logos . . . That is the sense of the unconscious, night in which the reverting of the ego into itself under the trauma of persecution occurs a passivity more passive still than every passivity on this side of identity, responsibility, substitution. (Levinas 1981, pp. 197–8)

Derrida’s ‘speech produced without the least violence’ turns into ‘violence par excellence.’ Here we have to face what Raffoul calls the ‘impure origin of ethics, the intertwining between ethics and violence’ (Raffoul 2010, p. 189), which threatens continually to call into question the integrity of ethics, such that we find ourselves asking: is this still ethics that we are talking about? But let us step back for a moment and ask – along with Simon Critchley – how it is that Levinas’s text works: ‘is it through demonstration or persuasion, argumentation or edification, philosophy or rhetoric?’ (Critchley 1996, p. 115). All this linguistic furore, this doubling and redoubling of terms, this tendency to offer propositions only to retract them, this taste for heightened dramatic terminology, these hesitations and continual reframings, this seeming paradox of a violence that redeems violence: at first glance, this indeed looks curiously like rhetoric. But is it rhetoric? Certainly, Levinas himself invokes the idea of rhetoric in Otherwise than Being. But this idea of rhetoric is not one that is familiar from Aristotle. Instead it is the idea of a kind of writing that it ‘is not only a linguistic mirage, but a surplus of meaning of which consciousness all by itself would be incapable’ (Levinas 1981, p. 152). If it is rhetoric, then, it is rhetoric of a strange kind, for rhetoric, surely, concerns the modes of persuasion, and it is unclear of what, in the absence of any clear argument, Levinas is attempting to persuade the reader.

Tracking Trauma in the Text

139

Critchley suggests that Levinas’s book engages in a kind of ‘writing against writing’ (Ibid.), a rhetoric that is anti-rhetorical. Similarly it could be seen as a kind of poetry against poetics. The rumbling of Levinas’s text is neither rhetoric nor poetics: its broken and chaotic shuddering never resolves into rhythm that might carry me along upon its current, never succeeds in lifting me up and transporting me elsewhere, never manages to persuade me of any argument. It is jagged, fractured, heavy-going, arrhythmic, stuttering. Nevertheless, as the reader of the text, it exerts a hold over me, refusing to let me go. Deliberately, systematically, Otherwise than Being is a text that is almost paradigmatically charmless; but the intensity of this drama, instead of charming me, seems to nevertheless put me in question. It seems to take hold, to drag me into its tumultuous environment, to exert a disturbing power of attraction even as it repels any attempts at understanding or any hope of literary or philosophical charm. It is here that it becomes apparent why the dramatic tenor of the language is so central to the book: for perhaps I am drawn into the text precisely because it seems that my interests are at stake, precisely because of the heightened drama of the language which cannot but affect me. The book presents me with a language to which it seems I have already responded before I have even had the opportunity to form a judgement upon the text, and certainly before I have even been able to ask myself whether I understand the text or not. Let us consider what it would be for the book to be written differently. Were Levinas to take the dramatic force from the text, remove the language of ‘wounding’ and ‘trauma’, I could read it idly without the sense that anything is at stake. The strange situation of drama without narrative is central to the book’s functioning. Had the book possessed a narrative form, I might be swept along with it and, for all of my tears and my laughter, never called into question. On the other hand, were the book simply a subtle philosophical tract without any drama, a tract written in the cool, disinterested prose, one that I might read with more or less attention, then again I myself would never be called into question, nothing would ever be at stake for me, as the reader of the book. Thus Otherwise than Being refuses both the easy consolation of mere theorizing and also the apparent consolation of simply telling a story. Instead it takes a third course, giving us nothing to brace ourselves against, but not permitting us to shrug off the text and claim that it has nothing to do with us. In this way, Otherwise than Being is a text that is not to be read and understood so much as undergone, a text to be endured. It is not that Levinas is writing about trauma, obsession and persecution; instead, he is writing so that the text itself might become the

140

Levinas, Storytelling and Anti-Storytelling

trauma, so that the text itself might become the obsession, so that it might be the text itself that persecutes me. This, then, is a strange territory. The firm foundations dreamed by Husserl have fragmented into the broken stories of Totality and Infinity, and now in Otherwise than Being all trace of storytelling has been driven out in favour of this tumultuous uproar of chaotic elements; and in this uproar in which there is indeed no longer any solid ground, in which there is continual tumult and upheaval, it is perhaps possible to hear the echoing of the Sambatyon, the river of stones dreamed of by Eldad ha-Dani: It was a majestic course of rocks and clods, flowing ceaselessly, and in that current of great shapeless masses could be discerned irregular slabs, sharp as blades, broad as tombstones, and between them, gravel, fossils, peaks, and crags. Moving at the same speed, as if driven by an impetuous wind, fragments of travertine rolled over and over, great faults sliding above, then, their impetus lessening, they bounced off streams of spall, while little chips now round, smoothed as if by water in their sliding between boulder and boulder, leaped up, falling back with sharp sounds, to be caught in those same eddies they themselves had created, crashing and grinding. Amid and above this overlapping of mineral, puffs of sand were formed, gusts of chalk, clouds of lapilli, foam of pumice, rills of mire. (Eco 2002, p. 357)

It is an image that seems to perfectly capture the strange territory, or nonterritory, that is Otherwise than Being. It is all turmoil, uproar, hubbub, with no firm foundations; it is the break up of every trace of solid ground. But at the same time, it is unliquid, there is nothing here that flows or trickles or that might slake the thirst, there is not even evidence of the kinds of temporary structures that might be formed by whirlpools, eddies and swirling currents. It is a river for hydrophobes, made of rock and stone; but this river of stones is a thing of greater terror than any of its watery counterparts. It is an environment where dry land loses its comforting familiarity, a channel that cannot be crossed by any swimmer, upon which no boat can sail; it is a place at the very limits of the world. Here, at the limits of Levinas’s thinking, standing by the tumultuous shores of the river Sambatyon, we have to ask an unsettling question. Caught between horror and persecution, between one violence and another, buffeted on all sides by the turbulence, what of peace? What of the peace that was invoked at the beginning of Totality and Infinity? For if Levinas has not entirely given up on the language of peace, he now writes of a peace that is more ambivalent than in the

Tracking Trauma in the Text

141

earlier book, a ‘rational peace’ (Levinas 1981, p. 4) that does not fully escape the order of being and being’s violence, and that is separated from war only by what Levinas terms the ‘breathlessness of the spirit’ (Levinas 1981, p. 5), a holdingback that is itself marked by what de Vries calls ‘good violence’ (1995, p. 216), a violence pitted against violence, a violence that, Levinas writes, ‘rends the soul’ (Levinas 1981, p. 182), ‘violence par excellence’. The lucid structure of Totality and Infinity where on the one hand violence was posited as the problem  – the unending war that takes place within being – and on the other hand the encounter with alterity or with the infinite was that which could redeem us from this violence, is nowhere apparent. Levinas presents us with the disconcerting thought that the very thing that might redeem us from violence is itself violence. How, then, might it be possible for there to be any escape, even temporary, from violence at all? On this long road towards the banks of this distant river of stones, in search of a phenomenological account of ethics, we have eventually arrived at a maelstrom; and looking back, it seems that the very thing which, in Totality and Infinity, had promised to forestall the spectre of war that hovers over Levinas’s work has now become war itself, the essence of war. Critchley writes: On a Levinasian account, what is there to choose experientially between the transcendence of evil and the transcendence of goodness? This is not such a strange question as it sounds, particularly if one recalls the way in which ethical subjectivity is described in Otherwise than Being . . . in terms of trauma, possession, madness and even psychosis, predicates that are not so distant from the horror of the il y a. How and in virtue of what—what criterion, as Wittgenstein would say, or what evidence, as Husserl would say—is one to decide between possession by the good and possession by evil in the way Levinas describes it? (Critchley 1996, pp. 114–15)

In the account that Levinas gives in Otherwise than Being, it is no longer certain that we are talking about the good beyond being. Why God, and not, as Descartes dreamed, some malignant demon? At the ultimate limit of Levinas’s thinking, the radical otherness that in Totality and Infinity looked like the means of our salvation from Levinas’s horror of being seems to all but collapse together with the horror of the il y a from which we were to be saved in the first place. It is not merely a matter of the alarming closeness between Levinas’s trauma in the face of the other and his horror in the face of being; it is also a question of the very texture of Otherwise than Being. The stories of Totality and Infinity have been distilled down and in the process have been intensified, so that we are left with a jostling mass of elements that appear now in this arrangement, now in

142

Levinas, Storytelling and Anti-Storytelling

that, chaotic and formless. The structure of the text, if such continual, restless structuring and unstructuring can bear the name ‘structure’, tends towards the ‘swarming of points’ (Levinas 1978, p. 53) that lays waste to me as a subject and that characterizes the il y a. Persecuted, at a point where the all distinctions seem to have collapsed together, the question necessarily arises: are we talking about ethics at all?

16

Beyond the Sambatyon?

I suggested at the beginning of this book that it might be possible to provide a map of sorts of this journey between stories and their undoing, from the aspirations to secure foundations in Husserl, through the fault lines of Totality and Infinity, to the turbulent territories of Otherwise than Being. But the question we must now ask is this: where has this got us? Because if this is a story that has attempted to seek, first in Husserl, the possibility of founding a moral community and then, in Levinas, a way of seeing whether we truly are or are not ‘duped by morality’, then we have ended up in a place where all is uproar, hubbub and violence, where we have all but lost sight of the grail, the object of our questing. Where, then, are we to go after Otherwise than Being? It seems that we can neither go forward nor back. In this final section, therefore, I want to make some tentative suggestions about the itineraries that might take us beyond Otherwise than Being, to propose a journey that may take us across the uncrossable limits of the Sambatyon, while also tracing a route back to the very origins of Levinas’s thought, so that we may be to allow ourselves to explore other possibilities and other stories. First, however, it might be useful to look a little more closely that the strange river that is said to represent the limits of the known world. An early account of the Sambatyon appears in book thirty-one of Pliny’s Natural History, where the naturalist and historian discusses the subject of water, and he notes in passing that there is a river in Judaea that is dry on the Sabbath (in Iudaea rivus sabbatis omnibus siccatur). It is from the Sabbath that river, which is unnamed in Pliny’s account, later takes its name. The historian Josephus, Pliny’s contemporary, names the river, but differs from Pliny in claiming that the river only flows on the Sabbath. When it flows, it is a copious stream with a current far from sluggish; then all at once its sources fail and for the space of six days it presents the spectacle of a dry bed; again, as though no change had occurred, it pours forth on the seventh

146

Levinas, Storytelling and Anti-Storytelling

day just as before. And it has always been observed to keep strictly to this order; whence they have called it the Sabbatical river, so naming it after the sacred seventh day of the Jews (BJ 7. 96–9). (Quoted in Weiss 2003, p. 83)

The Sambatyon was also pressed into service by Rabbi Akiva, in the late first or early second century, to argue for the correctness of the Jewish day of celebration of the Sabbath as being a Saturday and not a Sunday. But somehow, this otherwise river perfectly ordinary river that has the sole distinction of only being dry on the sabbath becomes, as time goes on, a river that is utterly dry, but nonetheless a river. Caught as it was between solidity and liquidity, perhaps it is not surprising that the river became, eventually, a river of stones. In the ninth century, Eldad ha-Dani wrote a more elaborate description of river: The river Sambatyon is two hundred yards broad, “About as far as a bowshot” (Gen. xxi. 16), full of sand and stones, but without water; the stones make a great noise like the waves of the sea and a stormy wind, so that in the night the noise is heard at a distance of half a day’s journey. There are sources of water which collect themselves in one pool, out of which they water the fields. There are fish in it, and all kinds of clean birds fly round it. And this river of stone and sand rolls during the six working days and rests on the Sabbath day. As soon as the Sabbath begins, fire surrounds the river, and the flames remain till the next evening, when the Sabbath ends. Thus no human being can reach the river for a distance of half a mile on either side; the fire consumes all that grows there. The four tribes, Dan, Naphtali, Gad, and Asher, stand on the borders of the river. When shearing their flocks here, for the land is flat and clean without any thorns, when the children of Moses see them gathered together on the border, they shout, saying, “Brethren, tribes of Jeshurun, show us your camels, dogs, and asses,” and they make their remarks about the length of the camel’s neck and the shortness of the tail. Then they greet one another and go their way. (Neubauer 1889, p. 102)

This is a somewhat confused account: on the one hand, Eldad proclaims the river dry, but on the other hand, he notes that it contains fish and that it has pools where ‘sources of water’ collect themselves. Nevertheless, despite its internal inconsistency, this account of the Sambatyon set the scene for later legends. For Eldad, the ten lost tribes of Israel lived on the far side the Sambatyon in a realm of perfect peace and justice. Not only this, but the lost tribes ruled justly over other people, who came to them with tribute. They were ‘courageous, wealthy, and morally impeccable’, spending their days in studying the Torah (Gross 1992, p. 132). As the Targum pseudo-Jonathan notes: ‘when they will be captives on

Beyond the Sambatyon?

147

the rivers of Babylon, I will remove them from there and place them within the boundary of the Sambatyon river, and these are the “marvels such as have not been done in all the earth.”’ (Lyman 1998, p. 12).1 The story of the Sambatyon was picked up in Europe, in particular after the circulation in the twelfth century of the supposed letter from the eastern Christian ruler – who turned out to be as elusive as he was virtuous – Prester John. The letter of Prester John clearly drew upon the story of Eldad, but noted, contrary to Eldad’s account, that it was the Christian Prester John who received tribute from the Ten Tribes, who were peaceable but subordinate. The legend of Prester John gave rise to an enormous enthusiasm in Europe for finding out what lay towards the east, towards the limits of the world; and perhaps it was, in part, responsible for some of the journeys made by travellers to the Far East in the following century: John of Plano Carpini, Benedict the Pole, William of Rubruck, Het’um I, the King of Armenia, and Marco Polo along with his father and uncle. Gradually, news reports began to accumulate about what lies beyond the Sambatyon – news conveyed in stories, travellers yarns, tales of marvels and wonders – and it became apparent to Christian Europe that the Sambatyon was not a threshold, nor was it the limit of the world. Strangely, in fact, this terrifying river of stones did not even appear in the accounts of many of these travellers. It began to look as if the threshold, the limit, was a mirage. So, perhaps, it is with Levinas: the threshold of his thinking may only be apparent. What would it be, then, to ford the turbulent river of Otherwise than Being and to leave it behind? What would it be to ignore all stern injunctions and, not without thanks, to take leave of Levinas. It is true that, if this is indeed a kind of Sambatyon, then the fording of the river might require us to break the Sabbath, to set out in contravention of the Law, to leave the religious climate of Levinas’s thinking behind; but the rewards of such departure might be considerable. In the final brief chapters of this book, this is what I want to try to do. I want to suggest how we might find our way to new territories, to explore how it might be possible to rethink Levinas, to see if we can call Levinas into question in new ways and to attempt to think about ethics in a fashion that is otherwise than Levinas. Given that Levinas, who has said so much about ethics, has eventually led us to a point where we are no longer certain that we are talking about ethics at all, it seems as if it there is a very real demand that we should find new paths, new ways around or across these thresholds in Levinas’s thinking, so that we might be able to continue to think about ethics afresh.

17

In the Court of the Great Khan

Let us, then, put the old fear of storytelling to one side for a moment; and let us venture beyond the Sambatyon, to tell some new tales. Here, we must leave Levinas, who famously drew back in horror before what he called, in an illjudged moment, the ‘Yellow Peril’ (see Critchley 2004, p. 176), trembling by the banks of the river; and we must make our own way to the place at the Eastern edge of the world where it was once believed that the rivers of the world flowed out of Eden. There we might find, not the barred gates of Paradise, but instead the court of the Great Kublai Kahn. However, in making this journey beyond the Sambatyon, we also must leave the environment of Levinas’s philosophy, and the good, pious companions whose company and hospitality we have shared on the hither side of the stony river. Finding ourselves instead in the company of disreputable storytellers and unreliable narrators – the kinds of people our against whom, long ago, our mothers warned us – surrounded by multiple uncertainties, we may have to put to one side those old fears of representation and idolatry, that excessively severe terror of rhythm, and open our ears (as a king sitting on his throne might open his ears) and listen. If the stories are to be believed (and there has been some debate about whether they are),1 Marco Polo travelled to with his father and uncle to the kingdom of the Great Khan some time around the year 1271. They were to remain there for 24 years, and Marco was later to tell his travels to his cellmate, Rustichello da Pisa, while in captivity in Genoa. The book that resulted became popular throughout Europe as an account of the wonders of the East. At the end of his life, it is said that Marco was asked how much of his account was true. He responded by saying that of all that he had experienced, of all the marvels he had encountered, he had only told a half: it is not just philosophers who only manage to deliver half of the water that they are carrying, it seems. Polo’s  is  an  evasive answer, however, one that neatly sidesteps the question, and at the same time hints at all kinds of riches – real or fictitious – that are as yet unknown. What he did not say, in other words, was how true were the

In the Court of the Great Khan

149

stories half of which he had spoken. Perhaps they in turn were made up of only half-truths, of lies and stories and myths. The scholars are still arguing. But we know from Levinas that we cannot hope for absolute lucidity, for the delivery of a full glass of water. We make do with what we have. There in the deserts of the East – Taklamakan, Gobi – a half glass can be the difference between life and death. So let us, along with storyteller Italo Calvino, imagine that Marco Polo did indeed travel to the court of the great Kahn. And let us imagine that he became a trusted advisor to the Khan himself. One might, of course, wonder why somebody like the Khan would employ somebody as disreputable as Polo; but there is a paradox at the heart of power: the greater the extent of that over which I exert my power, the less I can know of my dominions. And so the Khan employs advisers, travellers, storytellers and envoys of all kinds, to bring news of the various cities of his empire. In the story told by Calvino, the Khan is, it seems, a phenomenologist of the Husserlian persuasion. That is to say, he seeks the essence of his empire by demanding of Marco Polo, chief among his advisers, that he perform a series of successive reductions to get to the essence of his empire.2 At first, in the early days, Marco travels to the various cities and returns with bric-a-brac and souvenirs – charms picked up from temples, T-shirts reading ‘I ♥ Chang’an’, plastic busts of Chairman Mao – arranging them before the Khan on the majolica pavement of the garden as he tells stories about the different parts of the ruler’s kingdom, places that Kublai will never himself see. This reduction of the empire to its emblems is the first reduction demanded by the great Khan. It is a matter of pragmatism: Marco cannot bring the cities to the Khan and the Khan is too busy to go to each and every city; thus Marco brings stories, fragments, snapshots, postcards, trinkets purchased from the market traders. Out of this pile of ephemera, the detritus of empire, the Khan begins to piece together something of his kingdom. The city is reduced to signs, representations, products, stories; yet however much he reflects on all of this tantalizing information, the understanding that the Khan seeks continues to elude him. Time is short and knowledge is hard to accumulate in this fashion. So eventually the Khan, receiving the foreigner back from his latest journey, devises a new strategy, a second reduction. Returning from his last mission, Marco Polo found the Khan awaiting him, seated at a chessboard. With a gesture he invited the Venetian to sit opposite him and describe, with the help only of the chessmen, the cities he had visited. Marco did

150

Levinas, Storytelling and Anti-Storytelling

not lose heart. The Great Khan’s chessmen were huge pieces of polished ivory: arranging on the board looming rooks and sulky knights, assembling swarms of pawns, drawing straight or oblique avenues like a queen’s progress, Marco recreated the perspectives and the spaces of black and white cities on moonlit nights. (Calvino 1997, p. 122)

No longer using the nick-nacks brought back from his travels, no longer relying on the endless accumulation of specifics, Marco attempts a more rigorous description. Instead of the great heaping-up of tourist tat, of photographs and fragments and pieces salvaged from the roadside, the pieces of the chessboard can now play their part as representations. The Khan no longer wishes to win an understanding of this or that city by its tokens. Instead he wishes to understand the entirety of his empire. This second reduction is one that substitutes for these particular fragments a fixed set of terms and relations. Instead of an equestrian monument, henceforth Marco will employ a knight, which could equally well, and under other circumstances, stand for a real horseman, or a whole cavalry unit. In the place of a fountain, or a woman on her balcony, or a church, a queen will be deployed upon the board. Thus, depending upon the particular story being told by Marco to the Khan, each piece could be assigned to a certain object, and the bare structures can be seen, laid out in the simplicity of black and white. Contemplating these essential landscapes, Kublai reflected on the invisible order that sustains cities, on the rules that decreed how they rise, take shape and prosper, adapting themselves to the seasons, and then how they sadden and fall in ruins. At times he thought he was on the verge of discovering a coherent, harmonious system underlying the infinite deformities and discords, but no model could stand up to the comparison of the game of chess. (Calvino 1997, pp. 122–3)

After Marco has effected his second reduction, a semblance of order begins to emerge in this vision of the empire; and yet there are problems. Does the queen represent a woman on her balcony, or a queen, or a queen on her balcony, or a transvestite travelling by train to dance at a temple festival? Could a bishop or a pawn not stand for a church, instead of a queen? It seems as if Marco is neither capable of being rigorous enough in telling his stories in this fashion, nor is he systematic enough in his reduction to essence. The system still shivers with equivocation and uncertainty. It does not work as smoothly as it should. We find, as did Husserl, that there is a necessary entropy here. The model’s problems are twofold. It is neither general enough, nor is it specific enough.

In the Court of the Great Khan

151

In both directions  – in the direction of generality and in the direction of specificity – the world seems to slip away from the model. Sometimes, perhaps, the Khan tells Marco to being his stories again, and again, and again, to reformulate the model, to start once more from scratch, as Husserl again and again and again attempted to start from scratch in an attempt to set out a rigorous science of everything. And eventually the Khan realizes that the model must speak of all possible cities: if he is concerned with problems of politics and the issue of how he might maintain his empire, there is not the time to know the character of each city. He needs to grasp the essential city from which all others can, by means of variation, be derived. So Kublai presses upon Marco to perform a further reduction. Perhaps, instead of racking one’s brain to suggest with the ivory pieces’ scant help visions which were anyway destined to oblivion, it would suffice to play a game according to the rules, and to consider each successive state of the board as one of the countless forms that the system of forms assembles and destroys. (Calvino 1997, p. 122)

The empire is now reduced to a game of chess. ‘Only the singular can die and everything mortal is solitary’ (Rosenzweig 1971, p. 4), Rosenzweig writes: and so, in seeking the eternal order of the empire, what purpose is there in maintaining the link between the chess-pieces, which are signs of a transcendent order, and the ever-fading actualities that they represent, actualities that are ‘anyway destined to oblivion’? Therefore, pushing ever further towards the essence of things, with the kind of rigour only possible in the minds and hearts of great emperors, the Kublai Khan importunes Marco to go further by playing out his journeys only on the chessboard. Now Kublai Khan no longer had to send Marco Polo on distant expeditions: he kept him playing endless games of chess. Knowledge of the empire was hidden in the pattern drawn by the angular shifts of the knight, by the diagonal passages opened by the bishop’s incursions, by the lumbering, cautious tread of the king and the humble pawn, by the inexorable ups and downs of every game. The Great Kahn tried to concentrate on the game: but now it was the game’s purpose that eluded him. Each game ends in a gain or a loss: but of what? Where were the true stakes? At checkmate, beneath the foot of the king, knocked aside by the winner’s hand, a black or a white square remains. By disembodying his conquest to reduce them to the essential, Kublai had arrived at the extreme operation: the definitive conquest, of which the empire’s multiform treasures were only illusory envelopes. It was reduced to a square of planed wood, nothingness . . . (Calvino 1997, pp. 122–3)

152

Levinas, Storytelling and Anti-Storytelling

So, the games continue, one after another, but at the end of each game, it is no longer clear what has been gained and what has been lost. When the game is over, the Great Khan arrives at nothingness, at ‘the nought’, at the extreme operation, at the definitive conquest. Kublai has a total knowledge of his kingdom, something simple and ordered, a kingdom of black and white squares where individual pieces move in an infinity of possible ways, but according to the strictest of rules. Not only this, he has knowledge of all possible kingdoms. He stands above and outside all possible kingdoms, and can watch their rise and fall, can contemplate their sublime order, like Hegel gazing back on the journey that he has taken. And yet, at the same time, the Khan begins to wonder if this knowing of all possible kingdoms might equate to knowing none of them. He is left with a square of planed wood. The illusory envelopes of the particular have been stripped away, and he finds that there is nothing in the core but an empty space, flat and featureless. Let us return to Rosenzweig and ask a question: what if philosophy begins not in wonder, as Aristotle maintained, but in fear of death? What if the flight from death, the vain hope for something that is not transient, leaves us not with something fuller, richer, more meaningful, as the Platonists dream, but with empty hands, with nothing at all? What if, at the end of the philosopher’s extreme operation, when philosophy’s definitive conquest has been attained, one cannot even say whether one has won anything at all? What if the Kahn has neither mastered the kingdom nor even just the idea of the kingdom, and if he has found that he has won exactly nothing, not even half a glass of water that might quench his thirst on a hot day? Husserl, towards the end of his life, and Levinas after him, came to recognize that the extreme operation of philosophy could never be extreme enough, that the definitive conquest was never definitive. But the question we must face is where we are to go after this. Perhaps it takes one as used to looking, one as attentive, as Marco Polo – a merchant and storyteller, rather than an emperor or a king – to notice these things. Then Marco Polo spoke: “Your chessboard, sire, is interlaid with two woods: ebony and maple. The square on which your enlightened gaze is fixed was cut from the ring of a trunk that grew in a year of drought: you can see how its fibres are arranged? Here a barely hinted knot can be made out: a bud tried to burgeon on a premature spring day, but the night’s frost forced it to desist.”

In the Court of the Great Khan

153

Until then the Great Khan had not realized that the foreigner knew how to express himself fluently in his language, but it was not this fluency that amazed him. “Here is a thicker pore: perhaps it was a larvum’s nest; not a woodworm, because, once born, it would have begun to dig, but a caterpillar that gnawed the leaves and was the cause of the tree’s being chosen for chopping down . . . This edge was scored by the wood carver with his gouge so that it would adhere to the next square, more protruding . . .” The quantity of things that could be read in a little piece of smooth and empty wood overwhelmed Kublai; Polo was already talking about ebony forests, about rafts laden with logs that come down the rivers, of docks, or women at the windows . . . (Calvino 1997, pp. 131–2)

It starts with a ‘barely hinted knot’, a pore slightly thicker than the others, that grainy indeterminacy of things. It starts with the recognition that the unequivocal can never be unequivocal enough, the realization that if you look closely enough, you see the unevenness of things. But what happens next? It is easy perhaps, and not merely on account of the beard, to imagine Husserl as the Khan; but it is hard to put Levinas into the Marco Polo rôle. And the reason for this is simple: for all of his attention to the grains of indeterminacy in things, despite his lifelong suspicion of the totalizing schemes of politics, of the way that such schemes seek to efface the face of the other, unlike Marco, Levinas always trembled before the possibilities of storytelling. Levinas sits before Husserl’s chessboard, obsessing over the pores and the knots and the fissures and the uncertainties that quiver away even in the simplicity of a planed square of wood: but he does not dare make the move that Marco makes, to begin to speak, to weave enchantments, that might restore the world, of that might remake the world so that it is different from how it seemed before. Perhaps it might take someone like Marco – an unreliable narrator, a wholly disreputable figure, already half-pagan, a journeyer to the East who, on the way, did not even bother to visit the Holy Land, a teller of tall tales in his Genoese prison-cell – to lead the Khan in another direction, to allow the Khan eventually not to master the kingdom, but instead to read it.

18

Overcoming the Fear of Being

One of my main contentions throughout this book has been that it is often instructive to step back from the heat of philosophical argument and ask what kinds of stories the philosophers are telling to see philosophers as storytellers of sorts. This is particularly so in the case of Levinas, who has such a deep, complex, rich and sometimes vexed relationship with narrative and storytelling. To explore Levinas in terms of the stories he tells, as I have attempted to show, is also to raise a number of important questions about narrative and about the ethical risks involved in the spinning of yarns. But thinking of philosophers as peculiar kinds of storytellers also gives us the opportunity to look beyond the often tight-knit realm of any one philosopher’s work, to ask what other stories may be excluded or passed over in silence. Once again, this seems to me to be particularly true in the case of Levinas. Close to the end of this journey through Levinas’s thought, it is beginning to seem as if – for all the dramatic power of his philosophical storytelling, and his philosophical anti-storytelling, for all of the dramatic force of his writing – there are many phenomena, and many kinds of experience, that are all too easily brushed aside. These different phenomena often come to the surface as those awkward questions that so frequently cluster around Levinas’s work, questions like these: Why God? How about our responsibility to the non-human others with whom we share the world? What about friendship? What about the feminine other who speaks? What about being as joy, instead of claustrophobia? It is true that these are all questions that have been answered – again and again – by those eager to defend the orthodox framework that Levinas’s thinking has today become; and many will perhaps sigh that I raise them once more, or will refer me to various learned responses. And yet these learned responses, for many less than faithful readers of Levinas, nevertheless do not drive the revenant questions away. So I raise the questions here once again for a specific reason: not because they refute Levinas, but because their constant re-emergence suggests that these are questions which push at the limits of Levinas’s thought.

Overcoming the Fear of Being

155

A perpetual theme of this book has been that of Levinas’s commitment to tragedy: these are stories that begin, that arise out of, and that eventually collapse back into a kind of tragedy, a rumbling fear of being, a conviction that existence itself is, in some way or other, the antithesis of the good. This rumbling, churning fear as the overwhelming mood in the background all Levinas’s work, from the very earliest to the very latest. It is there in Levinas’s early essay, On Escape where he writes of the malaise and (anticipating Sartre) nausea that is an attempt to ‘get out’ of Being (Levinas 2003, p. 66); it is there in Existence and Existents when he tells horror stories about the il y a that rumbles on perpetually; it is there in Totality and Infinity’s tales of metaphysical quests and of the infinite; and it seems to pervade almost every corner of the torturous poetry-against-poetry and rhetoric-against-rhetoric of Otherwise than Being. But if this is a mood, as Will Large suggests it is, then this mood has, as Heidegger writes ‘already disclosed, in every case, Being-in-the-world as a whole,’ (Heidegger 1962, p. 176). And this raises the question of what other moods, and what other kinds of disclosure, are possible. If the il y a – this underlying tragedy in being – is understood as a kind of mood, we are able to ask whether the il y a is really the backdrop against which we live and die. Even if these descriptions of insomnia strike a chord of recognition in the reader, even if they seem to be saying at least something about what it is to be human, it is not at all clear that this is the full story, nor is it at all clear why we should take the il y a, this rumbling fear of being, as the constant point of philosophical reference that Levinas thinks that it is. If you find yourself waking at three o’clock in the morning, assailed by the horror of existence, insomnious and unsettled, you might indeed begin to suspect that there is a deep-rooted tragedy at the heart of being; but with the return of the bon sens that Nietzsche associates with breakfast, you might recognize that the insomnia of the night before was due to a combination of too much time in the melancholy company of philosophers and too many cups of coffee. The problem is not in being itself, in other words, but merely in too much involvement with the wrong kinds of beings at the wrong kinds of times. This will seem, to those who have long held a philosophical commitment to the tragedy of being, to be both flippant and irresponsible. And this is not, of course, to deny the very many real and genuine tragedies that there are in the world: not every tragedy, alas, can be averted simply by avoiding too much caffeine. However, what this is, is an argument about the ontologizing of tragedy, the reading of tragedy into being as a whole. ‘Imagine’ Levinas asks us, leading us by the hand, ‘the reversion of beings to nothingness . . .’ And so we are seduced

156

Levinas, Storytelling and Anti-Storytelling

to go along with Levinas, down into the darkness. But we need not. We can also slip our hand free from that of Levinas and take a different path that permits us different imaginings, or imaginings of the same kinds of things in radically different ways. One can see why Levinas remains committed to this notion of the tragedy of being, and not just because of his own experiences of imprisonment and immense personal suffering. There is also what might be called a theological need for tragedy running through Levinas’s work, for it is due to this ontologizing of tragedy that we might require the notion of a God as ‘being’s Other’, or as that which is ‘otherwise than Being’. But when distinction between the finitude of being and the infinity of being’s other collapses together into the turbulent river of stones that is Otherwise than Being, and we find ourselves in a place where it is no longer apparent that there is any escape or even remission from tragedy, when we are left with nothing but finitude and claustrophobia gnawing away at itself to the extent that we can no longer be sure that we are not, as Levinas has feared all along, simply locked within being, the prisoners of a violent ontological claustrophobia, actors in the worst possible horror story, because there is nowhere to go to free ourselves from that which is most horrific, then perhaps it is time to rethink and to reimagine. As a long-time reader of Levinas, I feel a little like the voice in Isaiah saying, ‘The place is too strait for me: give place to me that I may dwell’: there is filiation here, but there is also a necessary betrayal in my departure for the further shores of the Sambatyon. But this is not to say that I am ungrateful. To be sure, Levinas has demonstrated many things of importance in this long journey during which he has attempted to trace the riddle of ethics; but this trajectory has also led us to a place where it is no longer clear whether, his thought might lead to more kindness, to a greater patience, to the ability stay the hand that is raised to strike. It is for this reason that I propose another possible pathway, a pathway that is suggested by Polo’s response to the Khan. This is only one possible pathway perhaps, for once we have removed the singular object (or non-object) of the metaphysical quest, then it is likely that there is more than one direction worth travelling in, and the multiple pathways of the world are opened to us. Lacking the fear of being that kept Levinas trembling on the banks of the Sambatyon, not just unworried by, but positively delighting in the storyteller’s art, Marco moves beyond the equivocation that endlessly gnaws at itself. And thanks to this boldness, as Marco tells his stories, the Khan is returned – both amazed and overwhelmed –to the teeming minutiae of his realm: a single larvum, the

Overcoming the Fear of Being

157

motion of a carpenter’s gouge, a frost on a spring day, a drought, a raft laden with logs, a seaport, a woman who leans from her balcony . . . Everything singular and changeable seems to rush back in, although in truth, it has no need to rush anywhere, having always been present, had the Khan only been able to see it; it has merely been obscured by the emperor’s lack of attentiveness, or by his cultivation of the wrong kind of attentivenss at the wrong time, by his infatuation with the orderly pattern of squares on the board, and by his unwillingness to move in the reverse direction, away from the threshold of abstraction, and back to the world. While the great Khan exhibits a mania for reduction, Marco knows that one cannot understand or even act merely by reduction. The storyteller’s art is as necessary as that of the analyst. Neither the Khan nor Marco hold the ultimate truth of things. If we left it to Marco, we would just have stories, yarns, curiosities, a tangle of tale and fable and myth and half-truth with which we could do nothing. If we left it to the Khan, we would have nothing but principles. It is not solely in the Khan’s love of theory nor is it only in Marco’s delight in the telling of tales that there takes place the possibility of knowledge, of action and even of ethics. It is in the conversation between the two, the perpetual movement now in this direction and now in the other, the skill of knowing how and when it might behove us to pay more attention to the finest detail and to extrapolate possibilities, hypotheses and dreams, and in the skill of knowing when it might serve us better to move towards a greater degree of generality. When it comes to ethics, we need many maps and many kinds of attentiveness. If this is so, then Levinas’s question of how ethics might be possible, in the end, may turn out to be the wrong question. Wrong because, although Levinas talks frequently about pluralism, he takes a profoundly non-pluralistic approach to ethics. He assumes, in other words, that ethics is one thing: a matter of the face, the command of the human other, my non-assumable susceptibility. How much of what concerns us when we are concerned with questions of ethics seems to be left out of this account! In assuming that there is a single thing called ethics that is to be accounted for, ultimately Levinas’s thinking, although undoubtedly powerful, and although it certainly says something about ethics, nevertheless limits the field of our reflections. But Levinas’s question is wrong in a second, and more serious, sense. It is wrong in that it assumes at the very outset that ethics is something extraordinary and difficult to account for here within being, it assumes that ethics is a matter of exceptions. Built into the question, in other words, there is already a suspicion of existence. But this prior commitment to the idea of the tragedy of being, this

158

Levinas, Storytelling and Anti-Storytelling

strange desire for the impossible and unfulfillable escape from being, this (to use a term from Nietzsche) profound ressentiment towards existence, is something that Levinas never succeeds in fully justifying; and it is only because philosophers are often naturally gloomy and spend too long sitting in darkened rooms that it has gone so often unremarked. Yes, there is horror in the world, there is more than enough of horror; but at the very least, if we are interested in really thinking through ethics phenomenologically, we should bracket out this commitment to the idea that being is of necessity marked by something terrible. In conclusion, let me ask a different question. Not ‘how might ethics be possible?’ But instead, ‘how is it with ethics?’, or ‘how does ethics appear, phenomenologically speaking’? Levinas’s contributions to these questions are substantial. It is not that his phenomenological descriptions and stories are lacking. It is that they are partial. And it may be that there is a direction for more concrete phenomenological reflection that leads away from the abstract theorizing of the Khan, but that nevertheless does not lose itself in endless turbulent equivocation; and this is a direction where there is a continual dialogue between phenomenologist-storytellers and theorist-Khans, so that our thinking about ethics remains attentive, phenomenologically acute and reasoned; and so we might give that light and space there is within being, that kindness that graces the world, more space to breathe. To end, I will return to a personal, confessional note. I have already said I can think of no thinker who has marked the way that I act in the world more than Emmanuel Levinas. This is, in the end, a testament to his phenomenological acuity, to his ability to get at that strange, difficult-to-grasp question of ‘what it is like’ to be faced by another person. I am grateful, perhaps infinitely so – in the Levinasian sense of having a debt that increases in the measure to which I assume it. But it seems to me that if we do not open out Levinas’s thinking to a broader range of stories, then the water that he brings may in the end dry up entirely: we may find ourselves going to the riverbank, to find we are confronted only with a tumult of stones. This is my hope: that it may be possible to benefit not only from the stories that Levinas tells, but also from his scepticism about storytelling; that we might also be able to take our leave to tread roads far beyond the Sambatyon, having shaken off some of our nocturnal fears, so that we can come up with new ways of thinking and talking about ethics, ways of talking and thinking that are, for all their obvious debt, otherwise than Levinas; and that in so doing, we might continue to maintain that kindness which, Levinas writes, ‘adorns the world.’

Notes Introduction 1 As several commentators have noted – for example Caygill (2002) and Critchley (2004) – Levinas’s insistence upon monotheism might not just put a limitation on his ethical thinking, but may in fact have troubling implications for ethics. As Levinas himself writes in Totality and Infinity, monotheism signifies, ‘human kinship, this idea of a human race that refers back to the approach of the Other in the face, in a dimension of height, in responsibility for oneself and for the Other’ (Levinas 1969, p. 214); but one cannot help feeling that this is a narrow conception of human kinship.

Chapter 1 1 This address has been translated as ‘“Between Two Worlds” (The Way of Franz Rosenzweig)’, published in Difficult Freedom (Levinas 1990, pp. 181–201). Interestingly, in this lecture, Levinas explicitly states that Rosenzweig’s Star is a ‘Jewish book’; but this is precisely the appellation that Rosenzweig himself has resisted in his essay ‘The New Thinking’, an essay to which Levinas directly refers in the course of his address. 2 This is not to say that Rosenzweig’s thinking is necessarily anti-systematic. Pollock (2009) has argued forcefully that the tendency to see Rosenzweig as an anti-systematic philosopher is mistaken; but as we shall see, if this is a systematic thinking, then Rosenzweig’s system is a curious one, a system that exists less in the realm of thinking and more in the realm of experience.

Chapter 2 1 However, Epicurus makes this claim for precisely the opposite reason to that of Socrates: for Socrates, death is the liberation of a trapped soul, an

Notes

160

unprecedented freedom, true life; while for Epicurus death is nothing because it is beyond all possible experience. It is for this reason that Solomon (1998) argues that Epicureanism cannot be seen as a form of death denialism. It recognizes death ‘as death’, but in doing so it claims that death itself is not of any great import. See the essays by Soll (1998) and Solomon (1998). 2 Rée notes that we might perhaps do well to avoid taking the story that Hegel is telling entirely at face value. Is this a path that Hegel believes can be literally trod? Or is there something more artful, and more literary, going on here? Perhaps this, too, is an example of what Rée calls ‘an intricate art of irony, directed against itself ’ (Rée 1987, p. 127). But philosophers often write with more of a sense of irony than they read; and if this is indeed irony, it is an irony that is lost on Rosenzweig, as it is on a great number of Hegel’s critics and readers. 3 Unless, that is, there exists a timeless community of Hegelian philosophers who, having defied death, exist in a place to which those of us who have not trod the path to its end point have no access. 4 Rosenzweig’s own relationship to Nietzsche was complex. At the beginning of the Star he writes, ‘Here, however, was one man who knew his own life and his own soul like a poet, and obeyed their voice like a holy man, and who was for all that a philosopher’ (Rosenzweig 1985, p. 9). Nevertheless, later in the book Rosenzweig berates Nietzsche’s Zarathustra precisely for his failures when it comes to love, calling him ‘a tyrant who overpowers his neighbour as well as himself for the sake of the next-but-one’ (Rosenzweig 1985, p. 286). In his book Elevations: the Height of the Good in Rosenzweig and Levinas, Richard A. Cohen (1994) explores some of the broader implications of Rosenzweig’s complex views on Nietzsche. Nevertheless, it seems to me that the echo of Zarathustra’s footsteps in the passages in the Star on love and enlightenment is more than accidental. 5 See John Gray’s Black Mass for an exploration of the harms of utopian visions (Gray 2007). Perhaps some of the most impressive philosophical questioning of utopianism and its potential harms can be found in Isaiah Berlin’s essay, ‘Two Concepts of Liberty’ (Berlin 1997, pp. 191–242). 6 The idea of a narrative philosophy is one that Rosenzweig explicitly draws from Schelling. In The New Thinking, Rosenzweig writes that ‘Schelling predicted narrative philosophy in the foreword of his brilliant fragment “The Ages of the World.” The second volume [of the Star] attempts to supply it’ (Rosenzweig 1999, p. 81).

Notes

161

7 ‘Most near’ is not the same as ‘most dear’, of course. For Rosenzweig, the injunction to love one’s neighbour is important precisely because those who are most proximate to us may not be those whom we have chosen. 8 Here we can see a very different itinerary from that of Hegel. If in Hegel we reach the end of the journey and have somehow transcended time, for Rosenzweig it is more as if the book seeks to reinitiate us into the temporality that we had imagined, wrongly, that we might one day succeed in transcending. As noted above, it may be that if Rosenzweig is attempting to set out a system of philosophy, it is a system that is realized in the midst of life, rather than merely in the abstract.

Chapter 3 1 This regrettable tendency to single out the Greek tradition as somehow uniquely and essentially philosophical is one that recurs in Husserl and in his followers – from Heidegger through Levinas to Derrida. However, Jay Garfield, an analytic philosopher who has worked more recently with philosophical texts in Tibetan, writes that ‘to treat philosophy as denoting something the Greeks and their German descendants did, and therefore as comprising nothing Asian, commits one to two grave errors: either one presumes falsely that no Asian ever did what the Greeks and Germans did (think reflectively about the nature of things) or one presumes that there is something terribly special about such reflection when done in Athens or Freiburg.’ (Garfield 2002, pp. 231–2).

Chapter 4 1 I am taking Totality and Infinity as my main text here, although reading it in the light of Levinas’s earlier work Time and the Other and Existence and Existents. It could be argued – see, for example, Davies (1990) and Brogan (2005) – that these earlier books are much more linear in form than Totality and Infinity; and it seems to me that the later book can be read, in a way, as an attempt to escape from this kind of linearity. 2 For insight into the complex ways in which we live through, with and alongside books, there is no better introductory text than Pierre Bayard’s How to Talk about Books you Haven’t Read (Bayard 2008).

Notes

162

3 For the full story about the incident in Darjeeling, see the opening chapter of my Finding Our Sea-Legs: Ethics, Experience and the Ocean of Stories (Buckingham 2009).

Chapter 5 1 This curious ‘reversion to nothingness’ derives in part from Heidegger who, in his Freiburg lectures of 1919, is already stressing the importance of the difference between Being in general and beings, and who, by the time of the publication of Being and Time, is beginning to develop his own understanding of the ‘there is’ or es gibt. There is, however, a significant difference. Heidegger’s own analysis of the ‘there is’ tends towards an emphasis upon the idea of the light, openness and the generosity that is suggested in the root geben, ‘to give’. Levinas takes Heidegger’s ontological difference between Being and beings in a wholly other direction. 2 This reading, in its reference to the idea of ‘mood’ may seem close to Heidegger. However, as Large points out, if we do understand the il y a moodily, so to speak, there is something here that is very different from Heidegger’s conception of mood. ‘For Heidegger, a mood is something deeply personal, in that it reveals Dasein’s being to itself, and thereby allows it to escape the anonymity of the “they.” For Blanchot and Levinas, on the contrary, there is something deeply impersonal about moods, especially as they are revealed through the experience of the “there is.” It is this difference between the personal and impersonal disclosure of the meaning of being through moods that is the first step of Blanchot and Levinas’ common journey away from Heidegger’s ontology, even though they might eventually arrive at different endpoints.’ (Large 2002, p. 131). 3 However, as Cools (2005) points out, there are significant divergences between Levinas and Blanchot in the stories that they tell about the il y a. In Blanchot’s work in the 1930s, Cools writes, the il y a admits of an obscure kind of presence, whereas for Levinas the il y a is ‘the mere destruction of all things’, without this being a negation of being as a whole. However, for the purposes of the current study, these divergences are not of central importance. 4 An essay by Paul MacDonald (2007) explores the complex views Husserl had in relation to the possibility of immortality. 5 The original French is ‘D’ailleurs, c’est toujours les autres qui meurent’. Duchamp is buried in Rouen.

Notes

163

6 Levinas himself uses this analogy in his essay ‘Reality and Its Shadow’, published in the Collected Philosophical Papers (Levinas 1987b, p. 11).

Chapter 6 1 As Alford points out (2002, p. 98), this is a myth that should be understood in the light of the Biblical story in Genesis 12–25. Abraham is an exile, but he is an exile with the blessing of God. He departs his home, but wins instead a greater future, and perhaps a broader home. The distinction, Alford writes, ‘between homecoming and exile, and with it openness to infinity, is not always so clear’. This is an astute observation, one that Alford uses to open up some intriguing questions about the limits of Levinas’s storytelling and about the stories that he does not tell. 2 This is something of course that is also found in the work of Maurice Blanchot. None of this, of course, should be taken to suggest that Levinas is in fact a materialist philosopher, a position that he has rejected (as he has various forms of idealism) as early as his essay ‘On Escape’. 3 For Levinas, even if he were to admit such a possibility, this loss might still be considered terrible, not necessarily experientially but ethically. Howard Caygill, in Levinas and the Political, makes the claim that the il y a is not merely the experience of anonymous being, but it is also bound up with the notion of ‘haunting’, and with the ‘continual “presence” of the murdered awaiting justice’ (Caygill 2002, p. 52). In other words, this loss in the things of the world would strike orthodox Levinasian ears as something that might open onto a kind of Dionysian, pagan violence. The fear is perhaps understandable and legitimate; but I do not see that there is a necessary connection here. 4 To anticipate the argument that follows later, this problem appears in another guise when first says that the hospitableness of the home consists in its ‘essential interiority, and . . . the inhabitant that inhabits it before every inhabitant, the welcoming one par excellence, welcome in itself – the feminine being’ (Levinas 1969, p. 157), but the goes on to say ‘there is no question here of defying ridicule by maintaining the empirical truth or countertruth that every home in fact presupposes a woman? The feminine has been encountered in this analysis as one of the cardinal points of the horizon in which the inner life takes place’ (Levinas 1969, pp. 157–8). Perhaps the domicile too is a ‘cardinal point’; but the question we must ask is whose inner life are we talking about? Or, even more

Notes

164

fundamentally, what does it mean to say that this is ‘one of the cardinal points of the horizon in which the inner life takes place’ at all?

Chapter 7 1 Derrida goes on to speculate that all metaphysical language is gendered in this fashion. It is possible to remain in agreement with Derrida’s assessment of Totality and Infinity as a text that is gendered, while being sceptical of his claims about the essential virility of all metaphysical language.

Chapter 8 1 Jonathan Rée astutely puts Hegel’s Phenomenology of Spirit in the context of Dante, Bunyan, More and other allegorical tales of journeying to various kinds of promised lands. See Rée (1987). 2 However, in her close comparative study of Totality and Infinity and Chrétien de Troyes’s Conte du Graal, Kathryn Banks draws out some fascinating disjunctions between the two (Banks 2003). Here I am considering not Levinas’s storytelling as a whole, but instead simply one single strain; and my concern is less with Chrétien de Troyes’s original text than it is with the trope of metaphysical quest in general.

Chapter 9 1 Can one extend the notions of paternity and fecundity, for example, to questions of philosophical succession? Am I, writing about Levinas, ‘in some way’ also Levinas – perhaps not a good son, not a faithful son; but a son nonetheless, one who is not without gratitude? Although if we read Levinas this way, then we are forced to admit the possibility, when it comes to philosophical fecundity, of multiple forms of paternity, so that it is possible to be the offspring, at one and the same time, in some fashion or other, of both Levinas and Heidegger, and Zhuangzi and Nagarjuna, for that matter. The mind boggles at the complexity of paternity suits in such cases.

Notes

165

Chapter 10 1 Jack Marsh discusses friendship in relation to Levinas’s thinking, arguing that, ‘Friendship cannot be subsumed under completely ethical terms or under completely erotic or filial terms’ (Marsh 2005, p. 2). As Marsh writes, the friend is different from the stranger. There is an intimacy here, such that, ‘The friend, the best friend, is told where the pantry is located—told with a smile, “go get it yourself ”’ (Marsh 2005, p. 5). Thus friendship to some extent disrupts Levinas’s categories as ‘a space of non-violent familiarity and exteriority, a site of solidarity between identity and difference’ (Ibid.). Marsh attempts to maintain a Levinasian description of friendship; I would suggest that perhaps we could see friendship as a relation that may require us to think otherwise than Levinas. 2 The question of the place of the animal in Levinas has been discussed exhaustively elsewhere. See, for example, Buckingham (2009), Davy (2007), Llewellyn (1991), Calarco (2008) and Plant (2011).

Chapter 12 1 Genesis refers to ‘strange gods’ a number of times; and one could argue that the idea of idolatry, and thus of image-making, is there by implication. The terminology associated with images and idols in the original Hebrew is a subject too complex to go into here. There is a long theological tradition of reading Genesis as the starting point of an entire narrative that culminates in the figure of Christ, a tradition that might legitimize reading earlier texts in the light of later texts. As an example of this approach, one could take Marc Cortez’s claim that, ‘However we understand the image in Genesis 1.26–28, we must do so in such a way that it finds it ultimate fulfillment in Jesus Crist and its final manifestation in the eschatological union of Christ and his church’ (Cortez 2010, p. 24). I confess to finding the imperative ‘must’ here somewhat baffling; and being not of a theological cast of mind, I would resist this narrative in favour of an account that considers the books of the Bible, first and foremost, as historical documents. Seen in this light, it seems that there is indeed a marked difference in the way the image is treated between the book of Genesis and later parts of the Old Testament.

Notes

166

2 This was a characterization that Husserl himself was not above making. In the 1931 epilogue of his Ideas Husserl alluded directly to the Moses story when he wrote that, I can see spread out before me the endlessly open plains of true philosophy, the “promised land,” though its thorough cultivation will come after me. This optimism might be met with a smile, but the reader will be able to see for himself, in the fragments presented in the book as the beginning of phenomenology, whether there is not some justification for it. (Husserl 1990, p. 429)

Chapter 13 1 Here is a parallel with Rosenzweig’s double notion of silence. For Rosenzweig, there is a distinction between the silence that precedes communion, the silence that is self-enclosed, and the silence that succeeds and deepens this communion. Levinas, on the other hand, recognizes that there is more than one kind of silence: there is the silence that is for the other and there is the silence that is a refusal of this responsibility for the other. In addition to the silence that is a refusal of relationship, and the silence that is a form of Saying, in Levinas we could perhaps discern another kind of silence: the silence of Levinas’s erotic idyll, which takes place on another plane than that of the ethical. To this one might also wish to add the strange silence of the il y a which, as Katz notes (Katz 2003, p. 23), Levinas allies with the ‘silence before creation.’ A full study of the place of silence in Levinas’s thought remains to be written.

Chapter 15 1 Smith, however, seems to miss the mark when he glosses ‘Saying’ as ‘the primordially generous, nonthematic upsurge of communication’. The invocation of the idea of generosity or of the gift here recalls Heidegger far too strongly and obscures the very specific dramatic character of Otherwise than Being in which the relationship with the other is less one of generosity than one of a passivity that suffers the demand of the other. As Levinas writes, the ‘passivity of the subject in saying . . . is an offering oneself that is not even assumed by its own

Notes

167

generosity, an offering oneself that is a suffering, a goodness despite oneself ’ (Levinas 1981, p. 54). 2 It is worth being attentive here to Derrida’s cautious ‘if it is originally violent’. As should now be apparent, Levinas’s thinking may rest upon two related and problematic claims: the first that the original experience of being is necessarily that of horror and the second that narrative is necessarily violent. If we do not follow Levinas in these claims, then as will become clear, the idea of a text that does violence upon itself so as to undermine its own violence becomes one of only limited usefulness.

Chapter 16 1 The reference to marvels here comes from Exodus 34:10.

Chapter 17 1 It was Frances Wood (1996) who suggested that perhaps Marco Polo had not visited China after all; this view is generally no longer accepted by Sinologists, however. 2 In his book Other Others: Levinas, Literature and Transcultural Studies, Steven Shankman (2010) considers Invisible Cities in the light of Levinas’s thinking. While Shankman’s reading is a more orthodox Levinasian reading of Calvino, here I want to use Calvino to take us to places that Levinas himself would prefer not to go.

168

Bibliography Alford, C. (2002), ‘The opposite of totality: Levinas and the Frankfurt School’, Theory and Society, 31(2): 229–54. Banks, K. (2003), ‘The ethics of “writing” enigma: a reading of Chrétien de Troyes’s “Conte du Graal” and Lévinas’s “Totalité et infini”’, Comparative Literature, 55(2): 95–111. Barber, R. (2004), The Holy Grail: A Study in Imagination and Belief, Harvard University Press. Bartley, A. (2008), ‘The hateful self: substitution and the ethics of representing war’, Modern Fiction Studies, 54(1): 50–71. Bayard, P. (2008), How to Talk About Books You Haven’t Read, Granta. Bergo, B. (2005), ‘Ontology, transcendence, and immanence in Emmanuel Levinas’ Philosophy’, Research in Phenomenology, 35(1): 141–80. Berlin, I. (1997), The Proper Study of Mankind: An Anthology of Essays, Pimlico. Bernasconi, R. (1991), ‘Skepticism in the face of philosophy’, in S. Critchley and R. Bernasconi (eds), Re-Reading Levinas, Continuum, pp. 149–61. — (2002), ‘What is the question to which “substitution” is the answer?’, in S. Critchley and R. Bernasconi (eds), The Cambridge Companion to Lévinas, Cambridge University Press, pp. 234–51. — (2005), ‘No exit: Levinas’ aporetic account of transcendence’, Research in Phenomenology, 35(1): 101–17. Bernet, R. (2002), ‘Levinas’s critique of Husserl’, in R. Bernasconi and S. Critchley (eds), The Cambridge Companion to Lévinas, Cambridge University Press, pp. 82–99. Bevis, K. (2007), ‘“Better than metaphors”? Dwelling and the maternal body in Emmanuel Levinas’, Literature and Theology, 21(3): 317–29. Blanchot, M. (1989), The Space of Literature, University of Nebraska Press. — (1993), The Infinite Conversation, University of Minnesota Press. — (1999), in G. Quasha and P. Auster (eds), The Station Hill Blanchot Reader: Fiction & Literary Essays, Station Hill/Barrytown Limited. Braiterman, Z. (1998), ‘“Into life”?!! Franz Rosenzweig and the figure of death’, AJS Review, 23(2): 203–21. Brogan, M. J. (2005), ‘Judaism and alterity in Levinas and Blanchot’, JCRT, 6(1): 28–44. Buber, M. (1959), I and Thou, T&T Clark. Buckingham, W. (2009), Finding Our Sea-legs: Ethics, Experience, and the Ocean of Stories, Kingston University Press.

170

Bibliography

Calarco, M. (2008), Zoographies: The Question of the Animal from Heidegger to Derrida, Columbia University Press. Calvino, I. (1988), Under the Jaguar Sun, Harcourt Brace Jovanovich. — (1997), Invisible Cities, London: Vintage. Cavarero, A. (2005), For More than one Voice: Toward a Philosophy of Vocal Expression, Stanford University Press. Caygill, H. (2002), Levinas and the Political, Routledge. Chanter, T. (2001), Time, Death, and the Feminine: Levinas With Heidegger, Stanford University Press. Cohen, R. A. (1986), Face to Face with Lévinas, SUNY Press. — (1988), ‘Levinas, Rosenzweig, and the phenomenologies of Husserl and Heidegger’, Philosophy Today, 32(2): 165–78. — (1994), Elevations: The Height of the Good in Rosenzweig and Levinas, University of Chicago Press. — (2001), Ethics, Exegesis, and Philosophy: Interpretation After Levinas, Cambridge University Press. Cools, A. (2005), ‘Revisiting the Il ya: Maurice Blanchot and Emmanuel Levinas on the question of subjectivity’, Paragraph, 28(3): 54–71. Cortez, M. (2010), Theological Anthropology: A Guide for the Perplexed, T&T Clark International. Critchley, S. (2004), ‘Five problems in Levinas’s view of politics and the sketch of a solution to them’, Political Theory, 32(2): 172–85. Critchley, S. and Bernasconi, R. (2002), The Cambridge Companion to Lévinas, Cambridge University Press. Crowell, S. G. (1999), ‘The project of ultimate grounding and the appeal to intersubjectivity in recent transcendental philosophy’, International Journal of Philosophical Studies, 7(1): 31–54. Davies, P. (1990), ‘A linear narrative? Blanchot with Heidegger in the work of Levinas’, in D. Wood (ed.), Philosophers’ Poets, Routledge, pp. 37–69. — (2005), ‘Asymmetry and transcendence: on scepticism and first philosophy’, Research in Phenomenology, 35(1): 118–40. Davy, B. J. (2007), ‘An other face of ethics in Levinas’, Ethics and the Environment, 12(1): 39–65. Derrida, J. and Bass, A. (1978), Writing and Difference: Transl, with an Introduction and Additional Notes by Alan Bass, Routledge and Kegan Paul. Eaglestone, R. (1997), Ethical Criticism: Reading after Levinas, Edinburgh University Press. Edie, J. M. (1987), Edmund Husserl’s Phenomenology: A Critical Commentary, Indiana University Press. Epicurus, Inwood, B. and Gerson, L. P. (1994), The Epicurus Reader: Selected Writings and Testimonia, Hackett.

Bibliography

171

Fagenblat, M. (2005), ‘Back to the other Levinas: reflections prompted by Alain P. Toumayan’s “Encountering the other: the artwork and the problem of difference in Blanchot and Levinas”’, Colloquy: Text Theory Critique, 10: 298–313. Faulkner, W. (1990), The Sound and the Fury: The Corrected Text, Vintage Books. Feuerbach, L. (1966), Principles of the Philosophy of the Future, Hackett. Galli, B. E. (1995), ‘Time, form, and content: Franz Rosenzweig and the secret of Biblical narration’, Judaism, 44: 176, 467–76. Garfield, J. L. (2002), Empty Words: Buddhist Philosophy and Cross-Cultural Interpretation, Oxford University Press. Geertz, C. (1973), The Interpretation of Cultures: Selected Essays, Basic Books. Gibbs, R. (2000), Why Ethics?: Signs of Responsibilities, Princeton University Press. Gray, J. (2007), Black Mass: Apocalyptic Religion and the Death of Utopia, Farrar Straus and Giroux. Greenspahn, F. E. (2004), ‘Syncretism and Idolatry in the Bible’, Vetus Testamentum, 54: 480–94. Gross, A. (1992), ‘The expulsion and the search for the ten tribes’, Judaism, 41(2): 130–47. Hegel, G. W. F., Miller, A. V. and Findlay, J. N. (1977), Phenomenology of Spirit, Clarendon Press. Heidegger, M. (1962), Being and Time, Harper. Husserl, E. (1960), Cartesian Meditations: An Introduction to Phenomenology, M. Nijhoff. — (1970), Crisis of European Sciences and Transcendental Phenomenology, Northwestern University Press. — (1990), Ideas Pertaining to a Pure Phenomenology and to a Phenomenological Philosophy: Second Book: Studies in the Phenomenology of Constitution, Springer. — (2001), Analyses Concerning Passive and Active Synthesis: Lectures on Transcendental Logic, Springer. Irigaray, L. (1991), ‘Questions to Emmanuel Levinas: On the divinity of love’, Re-Reading Levinas, 109–18. — (2008), ‘What Other are we Talking About?’ Yale French Studies, 1–16. Kant, I. and Pluhar, W. S. (1987), Critique of Judgment, Hackett. Kant, I. and Reiss, H. S. (1991), Kant: Political Writings, Cambridge University Press. Katz, C. E. (2003), Levinas, Judaism, and the Feminine: The Silent Footsteps of Rebecca, Indiana University Press. — (2004), ‘From eros to maternity: love, death, and “the Feminine” in the philosophy of Emmanuel Levinas’, in H. Tirosh-Samuelson (ed.), Women and Gender in Jewish Philosophy, Indiana University Press. Large, W. (2002), ‘Impersonal existence: a conceptual genealogy of the “there is” from Heidegger to Blanchot and Levinas’, Angelaki, 7(3): 131–42.

172

Bibliography

Lévinas, E. (1969), Totality and Infinity: An Essay on Exteriority, Duquesne University Press. — (1978), Existence and Existents, Duquesne University Press. — (1981), Otherwise Than Being: Or, Beyond Essence, Duquesne University Press. — (1987a), Time and the Other and Additional Essays, Duquesne University Press. — (1987b), Collected Philosophical Papers, Springer. — (1990), Difficult Freedom: Essays on Judaism, Athlone Press. — (1994a), Nine Talmudic Readings, Indiana University Press. — (1994b), Outside the Subject, Stanford University Press. — (1996a), Emmanuel Lévinas: Basic Philosophical Writings, Indiana University Press. — (1996b), Proper Names, Stanford University Press. — (1998), Discovering Existence with Husserl, Northwestern University Press. — (2000), God, Death, and Time, Stanford University Press. — (2001), Is it Righteous to Be?: Interviews with Emmanuel Lévinas, Stanford University Press. — (2003), On escape/De l’évasion, Stanford University Press. Lévinas, E. and Nemo, P. (1985), Ethics and Infinity, Duquesne University Press. Llewelyn, J. (1991), ‘Am I obsessed by Bobby? (Humanism of the Other Animal)’ in R. Bernasconi and S. Critchley (eds), Re-Reading Levinas, Indiana University Press, pp. 234–45. — (1995), Emmanuel Levinas: The Genealogy of Ethics, Routledge. Lyman, S. (1998), ‘The lost tribes of Israel as a problem in history and sociology’, International Journal of Politics, Culture and Society, 12(1): 7–42. MacDonald, M. (2005), ‘Losing spirit: Hegel, Levinas, and the limits of narrative’, Narrative, 13(2): 182–94. MacDonald, P. (2007), ‘Husserl, the monad and immortality’, Indo-Pacific Journal of Phenomenology, 7(2): 1–18. Malka, S. (2006), Emmanuel Lévinas: His Life and Legacy, Duquesne University Press. Malpas, J. and Solomon, R. C. (1998), Death and Philosophy, Routledge. Marais, M. (1998), ‘Writing with eyes shut: ethics, politics, and the problem of the other in the fiction of JM Coetzee’, English in Africa, 25(1): 43–60. — (2009), Secretary of the Invisible: The Idea of Hospitality in the Fiction of JM Coetzee, Rodopi. Marsh, J. (2005), ‘Friendship otherwise—toward a Levinasian description of personal friendship’, Indo-Pacific Journal of Phenomenology, 5(2): 1–8. Neubauer, A. (1889), ‘Where Are the ten tribes? II. Eldad the Danite’, The Jewish Quarterly Review, 1(2): 95–114. Newton, A. Z. (1995), Narrative Ethics, Harvard University Press. Ogle, J. P. (2010), ‘Levinas’s early model of self and the gift of time’, The Philosophical Forum, 41(3): 299–314. Plant, B. (2011), ‘Welcoming dogs: Levinas and “the animal” question’, Philosophy & Social Criticism, 37(1): 49–71.

Bibliography

173

Plato, Cooper, J. M. and Hutchinson, D. S. (1997), Complete Works, Hackett Publishing. Pollock, B. (2009), Franz Rosenzweig and the Systematic Task of Philosophy, Cambridge University Press. Putnam, H. (2002), ‘Levinas and Judaism’, in S. Critchley and R. Bernasconi (eds), The Cambridge Companion to Lévinas, Cambridge University Press, pp. 33–62. — (2008), Jewish Philosophy as a Guide to Life: Rosenzweig, Buber, Lévinas, Wittgenstein, Indiana University Press. Raffoul, F. (2010), The Origins of Responsibility, Indiana University Press. Rée, J. (1987), Philosophical Tales: An Essay on Philosophy and Literature, Taylor & Francis. Rescher, N. (1991), G. W. Leibniz’s Monadology, Routledge. Ricoeur, P. and Escobar, M. (2004), ‘Otherwise: a reading of Emmanuel Levinas’s “Otherwise than being or beyond essence”’, Yale French Studies, 104: 82–99. Riera, G. (2004), ‘“The possibility of the poetic said” in Otherwise than Being (Allusion, or Blanchot in Lévinas)’, Diacritics, 34(2): 14–36. Robbins, J. (1999), Altered Reading: Levinas and Literature, University of Chicago Press. Rosenzweig, F. (1971), The Star of Redemption, Notre Dame Press. Rosenzweig, F., Udoff, A. and Galli, B. E. (1999), Franz Rosenzweig’s “The New Thinking”, Syracuse University Press. Sandford, S. (2000), The Metaphysics of Love: Gender and Transcendence in Levinas, Continuum. Shankman, S. (2010), Other Others: Levinas, Literature, Transcultural Studies, SUNY Press. Smith, C. (2006), ‘Edmund Husserl and the crisis of Europe’, Modern Age, 48(1): 28. Smith, D. W. and McIntyre, R. (1982), Husserl and Intentionality: A Study of Mind, Meaning, and Language, Springer. Soll, I. (1998), ‘On the purported insignificance of death’, in J. Malpas and R. C. Solomon (eds), Death and Philosophy, Routledge, pp. 22–38. Solomon, R. C. (1998), ‘Death fetishism, morbid solipsism’ in J. Malpas and R. C. Solomon (eds), Death and Philosophy, Routledge, pp. 152–76. Strawson, G. (2004), ‘Against narrativity’, Ratio, 17(4): 428–52. Ströker, E. (1997), The Husserlian Foundations of Science, Springer. Varghese, R. R. (2007), On Reading the Cosmopolitical Novel: Considering the Kunderian Novel Amidst the Specter of Derridean Politics and Levinasian Ethics, University of Toronto Press. Vasseleu, C. (1998), Textures of Light: Vision and Touch in Irigaray, Levinas, and Merleau-Ponty, Routledge. Visker, R. (1996), ‘Dis-possessed: how to remain silent “after” Levinas’, Man and World, 29(2): 119–46. Waldenfels, B. (2002), ‘Levinas and the face of the other’, in S. Critchley and R. Bernasconi (eds), The Cambridge Companion to Lévinas, Cambridge University Press, pp. 63–81.

174

Bibliography

Ward, G. (1996), ‘On time and salvation: the eschatology of Emmanuel Levinas’, in S. Hand (ed.), Facing the Other: The Ethics of Emmanuel Levinas, Curzon Press, pp. 153–72. Weiss, H. (2003), A Day of Gladness: The Sabbath Among Jews and Christians in Antiquity, University of South Carolina Press. Wood, D. (1990), Philosophers’ Poets, Taylor & Francis. Wood, F. (1996), Did Marco Polo go to China?, Westview Press. Wyschogrod, E. (2002), ‘Language and alterity in the thought of Levinas’, in S. Critchley and R. Bernasconi (eds), The Cambridge Companion to Lévinas, Cambridge University Press, pp. 188–205. Zahavi, D. (2001), Husserl and Transcendental Intersubjectivity: A Response to the Linguistic-pragmatic Critique, Ohio University Press.

Index Abraham  1, 69, 87, 163n. 1 Aeschylus  30 Akiva, Rabbi  146 anti-stories  8, 109–42 apology  122–3, 128, 138 Aristotle  32, 54, 88, 97–8, 100, 103, 131, 138, 152 art  113–19, 124–6, 160n. 2 asymmetry  90, 92, 98 Augustine of Hippo  63

dessert  71 Difficult Freedom: Essays on Judaism  159n. 1 Diogenes Laertius  41 Discovering Existence with Husserl  69 Dostoyevsky, Fyodor  1, 112, 120, 126 drama  2–3, 8, 30, 61, 93–5, 101–4, 112, 130–9, 154 Duchamp, Marcel  66, 162n. 5 dwelling  76–8, 81–2, 85–8, 94, 103, 131

Blanchot, Maurice  61, 110–12, 120, 123–4, 135, 162nn. 2–3, 163n. 2 Bretano, Franz  16, 41, 43 Buber, Martin  83–5, 90, 105

Eco, Umberto  ix, 140 economy  96 Eldad ha-Dani  140, 146–7 element  73–9, 124 enjoyment  22, 71–4, 78, 118, 131 enlightenment (philosophical)  25–6, 160n. 4 epic  32, 109, 114 Epicurus  22, 25, 33, 64, 66, 159–60n. 1 epoché see reduction, phenomenological equivocation  7, 46–7, 54, 57, 64, 76, 89, 111, 122–7, 135, 150, 153, 156, 158 erotic relation  8, 13, 58, 69, 79–86, 101, 103, 105, 131 eschatology  96 essence  15–17, 20, 23–5, 30, 47, 57, 83, 119, 124, 129, 149–51 Europe  43–6, 147–8 Existence and Existents  8, 39, 59–61, 67, 69, 71, 74–80, 88, 90, 98, 100, 110, 124, 133, 155, 161n. 1

Calvino, Italo  133, 149–53, 167n. 2 caress  80–5 chess  149–53 Chrétien de Troyes  89, 164n. 2 Claudel, Paul  112 Coetzee, J. M.  2 cogito  40–1, 45 Collected Philosophical Papers  163n. 6 comedy  114 communal singing see ritual community  31, 34–8, 42–6, 83, 96–7, 100–3, 145, 160n. 3 Critchley, Simon  5, 101, 138–41, 148, 159n. 1 Dasein  66, 70–2, 162n. 2 death  13, 15, 21–5, 33–4, 60, 64–8, 95, 99, 102, 114, 117, 124, 149, 152, 159–60n. 1, 160n. 3 Derrida, Jacques  4, 59, 79, 128–9, 135, 138, 161n. 1, 164n. 1, 167n. 2 Descartes, René  13, 30, 40–2, 63, 78, 92, 136, 141

face  31, 33–4, 90–7, 100, 103–5, 109–10, 113, 116–18, 122, 135, 137–8, 141, 153, 157–60, 159n. 1, 160n. 2 Faulkner, William  109–10 fear of being  154–8

176

Index

fecundity  76, 97–103, 117, 164n. 1 feminine other  79–85, 96, 103–5, 154 Feuerbach, Ludwig  83 filiality  100, 104, 156 Fisher King  89, 93, 95 foundations of philosophy  16–18, 35, 37, 48, 103, 140, 145 fraternity  100–3 freedom  22, 34, 78, 90, 118, 123, 137, 160n. 1 friendship  101, 105, 154, 165n. 1 future  20, 37, 45, 66, 76–8, 80–1, 88, 96, 98–102, 117, 163n. 1 Geertz, Clifford  5 God  4–7, 19, 26, 30, 53, 104, 114–16, 141, 154, 163n. 1 God, Death, and Time  65, 92 Goethe, Johann Wolfgang von  126 goodness  85, 95, 101, 141, 167n. 1 Grail  87–90, 93–4, 131, 145 Gyges  121 Hegel, Georg Wilhelm Friedrich  13, 15, 23–5, 29, 69, 88, 103–4, 109, 124, 152, 160n. 2, 161n. 8, 164n. 1 Heidegger, Martin 2–3, 5, 13, 15, 23, 34, 38–9, 46, 65–6, 70–4, 77–8, 80, 99–100, 105, 117, 155, 161n. 1, 162nn. 1–2, 164n. 1, 166n. 1 Hering, Jean  38 heroism  24, 29–30, 45, 61, 67, 69, 71, 73, 75–9, 83, 85–6, 89, 102–3, 130 history  23, 43–8, 67–8, 94–9, 103–4 Homer  112, 115 horror  59–68, 70, 74–5, 78, 80, 85–6, 94, 96, 140–1, 155–8, 167n. 2 Husserl, Edmund  4–5, 7–8, 13–18, 34, 49, 55–6, 62–73, 78–80, 88, 90, 96, 103, 119–20, 123, 125, 130, 135–7, 140–1, 145, 149–53, 161n. 1, 162n. 4, 166n. 2 hypostasis  67, 70, 75–7, 88, 100–1 idolatry  115, 117–19, 121, 126, 148, 165n. 1 idyll  69–71, 73, 75, 77–9, 81–3, 85, 101–2, 109, 131, 166n. 1

il y a  60–2, 67, 72–5, 77, 79–80, 85, 96, 118, 141–2, 155, 162nn. 2–3, 163n. 3, 166n. 1 images  115–18, 120–1, 126, 140, 165n. 1 imitation  114–15, 118–19, 121–3 immortality  45, 63–7, 78, 102, 162n. 4 infinity  94, 96, 99, 101, 109, 131, 137, 141, 155–6, 163n. 1 insomnia  60, 105, 155 instant  61–2, 68, 70, 76–7, 82, 96, 119, 123 intentionality  41, 65, 72–3, 80, 120 interiority  67, 73, 75, 77–8, 82, 94, 122, 163n. 4 intersubjectivity  42, 90, 98, 104–5, 123, 132 Irigaray, Luce  82, 91, 101 Josephus, Titus Flavius  145 joy  154 judgement  41, 95–6, 101 justice  43, 45, 89, 91, 96, 114–15, 135, 146, 163n. 3 Kant, Immanuel  25–6, 62–3, 75, 136 Kublai Khan  148–53 Kundera, Milan  2 labour  75, 77, 79, 103, 111 language  29, 47, 81, 118–19, 123–7, 133–6, 139–40, 164n. 1 Lévy-Bruhl, Lucien  117 literature  2, 32, 112–13, 115, 119, 123–6 logic  98–9 logos see reason love  25–7, 82–4, 102, 160n. 4, 161n. 7 Macbeth  1, 58 magic  89, 117, 119 Malka, Salomon  14, 38 Mao Zedong  149 Marco Polo  147–53, 156, 167n. 1 materialism  71 materiality  70–1, 73, 124–6 Mephistopheles  1 messianism  76, 94–5, 103 metaphor  75, 81–2, 85–6, 101–2 metaphysical quest  13, 87–9, 95–7, 103–5, 130–1, 156, 164n. 2

Index mimesis see imitation mitsein  105 Momus  114 Mona Lisa  117 monads  31, 42, 92 mood  60, 96, 155, 162n. 2 multiplicity  25, 100–1, 105, 125 Nietzsche  26, 155, 158, 160n. 4 Nine Talmudic Readings  6, 81 Odysseus  69, 87 Old Testament  53, 91, 102, 112, 115–17, 119, 157, 165n. 1 On escape/De l’évasion  155, 163n. 2 ontology  16, 61, 67, 93, 95, 97, 100, 103–4, 117, 133–5, 155–6, 162n. 2 ‘otherwise than Being’  4, 156 Otherwise Than Being: Or, Beyond Essence  7–9, 17, 77, 104, 109–13, 123, 126, 128–36, 138–41, 145, 147, 155, 166n. 1 Outside the Subject  15, 34, 131

177

representation  71–3, 117–26, 133, 137, 148–50 responsibility  4, 33, 36, 44–5, 57, 93–4, 99, 102, 109, 118, 121–3, 130, 133, 136, 138, 154, 159n. 1, 166n. 1 rhythm  118–19, 121–2, 124, 133, 139, 148 Ricoeur, Paul  109 Rimbaud, Arthur  125 ritual  31–3, 92 Rosenzweig, Franz  5, 7–8, 13–35, 40, 48–9, 53–4, 57, 59, 62–5, 69, 72–3, 88, 90, 96, 104–5, 112–13, 124, 151–2, 159nn. 1–2, 160nn. 2, 4, 6, 161nn. 7–8, 166n. 1 Rustichello da Pisa  148 Ryle, Gilbert  5

quests  13, 69, 87–96, 155

Sacco, Joe  2 the ‘said’  132, 134–5 Sambatyon  7, 9, 140, 145–8, 156, 158 Sartre, Jean-Paul  155 the ‘saying’  127, 132, 134–5, 166n. 1 scepticism  41, 73, 96, 104, 158 science  17, 35–7, 40, 43–8, 70, 132, 151 separation  62, 67–8, 70, 72–3, 75–6, 78, 88, 101, 122 Shakespeare, William  1, 13, 81, 112–13, 120, 126 signification  118, 132, 134 silence  29–31, 57, 59–60, 81–2, 84–5, 102, 121–2, 154, 166n. 1 Socrates  22, 29, 37, 63, 115, 159n. 1 solitude  29–31, 40, 73, 82, 84, 111, 133 soul  21–2, 63–4, 92, 114–15, 141, 159n. 1, 160n. 4 speech  28–33, 62, 83–4, 118, 120–3, 126, 128, 135, 138 Spinzoa, Baruch  92 strangers  31, 33, 58, 87–96 sublime  75 substitution  129–30, 138

reason  6, 43–5, 115, 122–3, 138, 159–60n. 1 reciprocity  90, 92 reduction, phenomenological  17, 41, 45, 63, 70, 82, 149–51, 157

tales  1–2, 6–8, 13, 33, 43, 49, 54, 58–9, 62, 69, 86, 89, 94, 97, 102–5, 110, 114, 147–8, 153, 155, 157, 164n. 1 technology  36

paganism  117, 153 passivity  121, 137–8, 166n. 1 paternity  97–8, 100, 102–4, 164n. 1 peace  27, 95, 140–1, 146–7 Perceval  89, 93–5 persecution  135, 137–40, 142 Plato  1, 13, 16, 28, 31, 37, 92, 113–21, 125, 132, 152 Pliny  145 pluralism  16, 57, 105, 157 poetry  114–15, 118–27, 133–4, 139, 155 politics  25, 36–9, 61, 97, 101–2, 151, 153 Prester John  147 prose  115, 119, 126, 139 Proust, Marcel  120 Pushkin, Alexander  112

178

Index

Thales  15, 24 time  20–5, 28–34, 53, 62–70, 74, 76–80, 96, 99, 101, 103–4, 110, 117–19, 161n. 8, 162n. 1, 164n. 1 Time and the Other and Additional Essays  8, 59, 64, 67, 69–70, 79–80, 98, 161n. 1 Tolstoy, Leo  112 torture  95 Totality and Infinity: An Essay on Exteriority  ix, 1, 7–8, 13–15, 17–18, 49, 53–9, 61, 64, 66–7, 69–71, 73, 75–80, 82, 84, 86–90, 93, 97, 99, 101, 103–4, 109–13, 118–19, 122, 128–33, 135, 138, 140–1, 145, 155, 159n. 1, 161n. 1, 164nn. 1–2

tragedy  29, 32, 96, 114, 155–7 transcendence  77, 82, 84, 86, 93, 95, 98, 100, 109, 122, 129–30, 141 trauma  129, 133, 135–41 utopianism  27, 36–7, 44, 160n. 5 violence  95–6, 124, 126, 128, 135, 137–8, 140–1, 145, 163n. 3, 167n. 2 war  61, 89, 135, 141 Yeats, William Butler  27 “Yellow Peril”  148 Zeno’s arrow  66