Mascarenhas Sidney J. ,
Relationes bibliographicae: T. Eskanazi - G. Philips (eds.), Levinas and Biblical Studies,
Antonianum, 79/3 (2004) p. 551-561
The book contains an introduction by Tamara Cohn Eskenazi, an article of Levinas: On the Jewish Reading of Scriptures, 10 contributions, a bibliography, and notes on the contributors.
The Introduction by Eskenazi tries to familiarize the uninitiated reader with some key ideas of Levinas. (p. 2) It does so in two parts. The first part surveys some of his key works in view of their impact on our understanding of the Bible. The second part offers a few reflections on their consequences for Biblical interpretation. Obviously, these consequences are not proposed by Levinas. (p.2)
The whole volume is a conversation with the work of Levinas. (p. 2)
It begins with a sample work of Levinas: On the Jewish Reading of Scriptures.
It is followed by essays of Aronowicz (p. 33-48) and Hennessy (p. 49-63) that expound Levinas’ thought and explore its implications for interpreting the Bible. The articles of Beal (p. 65-74), Bongmba (p. 75-90), Havea (p. 91-112), Linafelt (p. 113-123), and Srajek (p. 125-144) that apply Levinas’ insights to biblical texts. Then, there are the essays of Eskenazi (p. 145-157) and Shapiro (p. 159-195) that wrestle with Levinas’ ways of interpretation, especially regarding gender issues. Lastly, the volume concludes with a response of Chalier to some of these essays (p. 197-202). There follows a Bibliography (p. 203-211) and a note on the contributors that also includes their email addresses(p. 213-214).
Eskenazi proposes these as the most important categories for the purposes of this volume: 1) Infinity, 2) Ethics, 3) “Here I am” (hinneni), 4) the Other and 5) the Face (panim el panim) (p. 4). Eskenazi justifies this choice for the purposes of this volume. We cannot dispute her purpose here. She is justified in making delimitations. But, it could seem, that the Levinasian categories are taken just because they serve this book’s purpose! The interest in Levinasian philosophy has the smack of self-serving utilitarian goals rather than it’s inherent “Goodness!”
Eskanazi also writes: “Most of all he (Levinas) places ethics as the first philosophy and interprets ethics in a distinctly biblical way, as the obligation to the one who commands me, the Other whom I face. He thereby replaces autonomy by heteronomy.” (p. 5) I beg to disagree. Levinas’ philosophy is not altruism versus egoism or autonomy versus heteronomy. Levinas is not a spiritual writer or a supporter of altruism and heteronomy. He does not condemn egoism and autonomy. In fact, Levinas does never underestimate man’s struggle with anonymity, his necessary pleasure (his egoism and autonomy) in himself and his system, and, his being a neighbour. The first, apostasy, is a real and constant threat. The second, economy or happiness and enjoyment, is a necessity. The third, hospitality or goodness, is ethical. Levinas, personally, was even well aware of his own totalizing tendencies. He wrote: “But it belongs to the very essence of language, which consists in continually undoing its phrase by the foreword or exegesis, in unsaying the said, in attempting to restate without ceremonies what has already been ill understood in the inevitable ceremonial in which the said thoughts delights.”(TI.f(1961), p. xviii = TI.e(1969), p. 30.) Levinas, therefore, is certainly not replacing autonomy by heteronomy. The other, in Levinas’ philosophy, does not norm but rather commands and invests the I’s autonomy.
In her Introduction, Eskenazi refers to Levinas’ publications. She begins with 1947, Time and the Other in order to highlight Levinas’ persistent concerns. (p. 3) By doing so, it could be suggested that Levinas’ allergy to Being and the way of his interpretation of events and texts began there. Eskanazi also states that Levinas was “troubled especially by the quest of totality, so prevalent in Western thought, leading as it did, inevitably, to totalitarianism. He saw already in 1934 the dreaded consequences for such a philosophy and wrote about it then. But it took World War II and the Holocaust, as well as other forms of imperialism over the third world, to expose the consequences fully.” (p. 5) Interestingly enough, it seems that Eskenazi does not mention the dreaded consequences of such philosophy in countries that were colonized – or, does she put them among the third world! To what “altruism” may we attribute this slip? Further, I am convinced that every culture and philosophy tends towards an “apostasy” or Being and “an apology” or its enjoyment and economy in the face of other cultures and philosophies. No one’s hands are clean! No one’s culture and philosophy is pure! I, therefore, think that the owl of Minerva was troubled not only about the quest for totality that is prevalent in Western thought. “No one is allowed a relaxation of attention or a lack of strictness” (AEAE.f(1974), p. 25 = AEAE.e(1981), p. 20).
In fact, and in my view, such an attempt is already suggested in the conclusions of his doctoral thesis published in his book: Théorie de l’intuition dans la phenomenologie de Husserl (1930). Further, fascinated as he was with Heidegger in 1932, when he wrote in the superlative, about Heidegger’s philosophy: “tres grande beauté” (MHO(1930), p. 420). In 1947/1967, he dropped this superlative and wrote “une grande beauté” only (MHO(1930) in DEHH(1967), p. 71). He did not, however, drop the superlative with regard to Heidegger’s philosophy, just a line earlier in both versions. The para VIII of this article is completely reworked in DEHH(1967). “L’effort très intéressant de Heidegger” (MHO(1930), p. 433) finds no place in the 1967 version.
It only shows that Levinas was in “conversation” with persons and events of history!
It could be said that Levinas’ changed his attitude to Heidegger after the war and the experience of Nazism. But, in my view, that is a shot misfired against Levinas. The change in Levinas, in my view, lies far deeper. The aversion to Heidegger, the allergy to Heidegger, lies far deeper. Already in 1934, when the Nazis were in power just for a year and Germany was undoing the wrongs done them after the First World War, the “owl of Minerva” sighted the snake amidst the “shine” of a Germany feeling the darkness that the depression brought in the post World War I years. Almost prophetically Levinas wrote the following phrases in RPH(1934):
« ….l’idéal germanique de l’homme apparaît comme une promesse de sincérité et d’authencité. » (RPH(1934), p. 297).
« Mais à quoi oblige cette sincerité? Toute assimilation rationelle ou communion mystique entre esprits qui ne s’appuie pas sur une communauté de sang, est suspecte.» (RPH(1934), p. 297).
« La volonté de puissance que l’Allemagne moderne retrouve et glorifie n’est pas seulement un nouvel idéal, c’est un idéal qui apporte en même temps sa forme propre d’universalisation : la guerre, la conquête. » (RPH(1934), p. 208).
For Levinas, it was humanity that was at stake. (RPH(1934), p. 208). Any culture or philosophy which prides itself in its blood, race, system and cultural roots with the promise of sincerity and authenticity can be a threat to humanity. (And who does not easily succumb to these temptations!)
But in the effort to forestall this, a return to Being (which implies an apostasy of humaneness!)for the sense of our human existence, puts our humanity at stake. It exposes the human to anonymous and destructive forces. But, I think, this is not merely a lesson for Germans but also for all nations. Every nation that expects sincerity and authenticity, runs the risk of universalization: wars and conquests! Colonialism also was just one side of such a toss of the coin! No doubt, it brought good, but it also sowed considerable damage and violence.
Again, before these destructive forces of Nazism took their toll on the nations, Levinas wrote: « Il s’agit de sortir de l’être par une nouvelle voie au risqué de renverser certaines notions qui au sens commun et à la sagesse des nations semblent les plus évidentes.» (E(1935/36), p. 392).
It is interesting to note Levinas’ allergy towards meaning founded on Being, precedes the Nazi horrors of the years 1938-1945. It is founded on his allergy towards a way of thought which sought the being and essence of everything. This research would lead him all the way to the great book, unfortunately published with many errors, Autrement qu’être et au-delà de l’essence(1974). It is a way of thought and language that is other than common sense and the wisdom of nations had taken for granted: Being and Essence. But let us note that he uses the term autrement or otherwise. This would certainly not imply a condemnation of common sense and the wisdom of nations: Being and Essence.
It is also interesting to note his views, in the same vein, about the universal tendencies of Western philosophy. Totality and the search for the Universal is necessary. But they need to submit themselves to the questions that come from the other bank. The tribunal is not Reason but the other. An ear and will to converse with the other, who questions the “I” and, thereby, invests the “I.” The “other” does not abolish but contains and invests the “I” as a “one-for-the-other.”
Lastly, it is worth noting that, in fact, even in the West, philosophy originated with the dethroning of the mythical gods and the initiation of conversation in the market place. That was the great merit of Greek Philosophy. (TI.f(1961), p. 19 = TI.e(1969), p. 48). In this, Greek philosophy works on the same plane as monotheism. Monotheism also marked a break with a certain conception of the Sacred. (DL.f(1963), p. 29 = DL.f(1976), p. 30 = DL.e(1990), p. 14) It (monotheism) is also a school of xenophilia and anti-racism. (DL.f(1963), p. 204 = DL.f(1976), p. 232 = DL.e(1990), p. 178).
From 1948 onwards, Levinas adds another task to his research. We read in: Pluralisme et Transcendance PT(1948/49): « Le sujet est-il seulement sujet de savoirs et sujet de pouvoirs? Ne s’offre-t-il pas comme sujet dans un autre sens ? » (p. 382). The same question is repeated in TI.f(1961), p. 253; TI.e(1969), p. 276; P(1971), p. 373; AEAE.f(1974), p. 104; AEAE.e(1981), p. 83.
The famous saying of Francis Bacon that “Knowledge is Power” is put into question.
This double concern seems to be a thread in his way of thinking from 1948.
Evidently, Levinas, does not deny that the human person lives in anonymity, as is often the case even in our present society. Nor does he deny that the human person is a center of knowledge and power (consciousness or sleep, a way of resting in systems we create and live in). But, it is clear, that his philosophy also seeks to describe another intrigue expressed by every person, namely, conscience, a way that is noble, a way that exceeds the systems we create and live in. A way that is expressed in the simple word and deed: “Please, after you.”
The three intrigues are not antipodes of each other. They proceed simultaneously in every person. It is not a question of an “or” but a question of an “and.” This is stressed right from Levinas’ first publication. (See S.(M). J. Mascarenhas, The Human Condition. Towards a Socio-chrono-nomical Intrigue-Scrutiny-Locution in the writings of Emmanuel Levinas up to 1974, Dissertation présentée en vue de l’obtention du grade de docteur en philosophie, Université Catholique de Louvain, Louvain-la-Neuve, 1982; The Human Condition : Towards Sociochronomy. Part-I In Divayadaan (Journal of Philosophy & Education), 9(1998), n° 3, p. 220-229.)
All this is only to point out that the alterity that Levinas talks about is not to be equated with “altruism versus egoism” or “autonomy versus heteronomy.” His discourse is far deeper and on the level that the “I”’s egoism is in fact an investment from the other rather than just an unfolding of the “knowledge” and “power” of the “I”. This process began far earlier than presupposed by Eskenazi in his Introduction.
Further, Eskenazi claims that “in opposition to totality, Levinas posits infinity.” (p. 5). Is this wilful? I beg to differ.
The very title of Levinas’ great work speaks about “Totality and Infinity.” (Emphasis is mine) The and is found back in all the sections of the book. Section I: “The same and the other.” Section II: Interiority and Economy. Section III: Exteriority and the Face. I see no opposition nor any thing complementary in that “and.” I rather see an asymmetry. I rather see egoism affirmed in section II of the book, Totality and Infinity, as well as Infinity affirmed in Section III and IV of the same book. Why does Eskenazi ignore this? I think, every clear thinking human feels duped by his egoism and altruism. They are two faces of the same coin. Charity is not to be confused with altruism. Charity is not my love for others (altruism). Charity is the love of God for men. Charity is not a finite’s love for others but the Infinite’s love for others. It is Trinitarian life invested in humans, to use Catholic discourse! It is not, in my view, the “how” and “why” of our becoming human that occupies Levinas’s work” as Eskenazi proposes (p. 6). It is not wonder that drives Levinasian philosophy. I think it is rather the “listening, hearing the word” or the “here I am-for-the-others” (AEAE.f(1974), p. 233 = AEAE.e(1981), p. 185) that occupies Levinas right from the beginning. This determines his allergy to Being and autonomy/heteronomy. Levinas accepts “the return to the one” as a matter of fact. But he also tries to describe the “I” after its return from the Other with the commandments, struck by the majesty and nobility of the Other. In fact, Eskenazi recognizes this slant of Levinas, later, when she says (p. 7) that TI.f(1961) “will present subjectivity as welcoming the Other, as hospitality. (See TI.f(1961), p. xv = TI.e(1969), p. 27). But Eskanazi does not go far enough!
It is this noble side of the human, “one-for-the-other”, that occupies Levinas work especially after 1948.
This volume begins with a sample work of Levinas: On the Jewish Reading of Scriptures. This first appeared in Lumière et vie (1979). It was then incorporated in Levinas’ publication: L’au-delà du verset (1982). The English translation of this work appeared in 1994. The article was republished in Sens, 39(1987). In English, there exists a translation published in Cross Currents, 44(1994). The author does not indicate that this article has parallels with Lecture Talmudique sur la justice. (Traité Makoth 23a-24b), a reading that was first presented to the Consistoire Central Israélite in 1974 and privately circulated. The article also has parallels with Exégèse et Transcendance. A propos d’un texte du Makoth 23b which appeared in G. Nahon and Ch. Touati, Ed., Hommage à Georges Vajda. Etudes d’histoire et de pensée juives, Louvain : Peeters, 1980, p. 99-104. The article also appeared in German : Exegese und Transzendenz. Zu einem Text aus dem Traktat Makkoth 23b. Tr. R. Funk. In B. Gasper, Ed., Gott nennen, Phänomenolgische Zugänge. Freiburg, Verlag Karl Alber, 1981. So actually, the article dates back to 1974, the year that Autrement qu’être ou au-delà de l’essence was published. It is a period in Levinas’ thought where he focuses on “Beyond being or beyond essence.” Both, Being and Essence were key ideas and screens or fields of sense in western philosophy. In the previous period of Levinas he focused on “Totality and Infinity.” The conjunctions “and” in 1961 and “or” in 1974 were deliberate and indicate a new focus in his thought. Totality and Infinity focussed on “psychism” that precisely opens upon the idea of Infinity. They are not antipodes. (See TI.e(1961), p. 78 = TI.e(1969), p. 105). Levinas clearly says: “We are the same and the other. The conjunction and (italics is Levinas’) here designates neither addition nor power of one term over the other. We shall try to show that the relation (italics is Levinas’) between the same and the other – upon which we seem to impose such extraordinary conditions – is language. (TI.f(1961), p. 9 = TI.e(1969), p. 39). Again in 1961 he writes: “The conjuncture of the same and the other, in which even their verbal proximity is maintained, is the direct and full face (italics is Levinas’) welcome of the other by me. This conjuncture is irreducible to totality; the “face to face” position is not a modification of the “along side of …” Even when I shall have linked the Other to myself with the conjunction “and” the Other continues to face me, to reveal himself in his face. Religion (italics is Levinas’) subtends this formality.” (TI.f(1961), p. 53 = TI.e(1969), p. 80-81). Or again in 1961, Levinas writes: “That infinite being not be a possibility enclosed within the separated being, but that it be produced as fecundity, involving, therefore, the alterity of the Beloved, indicated the vanity of pantheism. That in fecundity the personal I has its place indicates the end of the terrors whereby the transcendence of the sacred, inhuman, anonymous, and neuter, menaces persons with nothingness or with ecstasy. Being is produced as multiple and as split into same and other; this is its ultimate structure. It is society, and hence it is time. We thus leave the philosophy of Parmenidean being. Philosophy itself constitutes a moment of this temporal accomplishment, a discourse always addressed to another. What we are now exposing is addressed to those who shall wish to read it.” (TI.f(1961), p. 247 = TI.e(1969), p. 269).
According to Eskenazi, Levinas sums up in three words key aspects of the Hebrew Bible: the elsewhere or promised land, the otherwise or the messianic aspirations and the other or the face-to-face meeting (p.7) This claim makes this book all the more interesting. Perhaps, it is the beginning of a way to philosophize on the Bible, and thereby, to refract the Bible’s Good News to all humans. In fact, the promised and permitted, not appropriated Land, Word and Relation is very important in Levinasian philosophy.
Important about all this, in my view, is the fact that Levinas opens the way to the world that is not merely universal but also pluriversal. It is not an “heteronomous self” as Eskenazi claims on p.12. I think there is a great difference between an heteronomous self and the “Here I am” or “hinneni:” This is the contrast between Abraham and Ulysses. This is the contrast between “I think, therefore, I am” and “you speak to me, therefore, here I am.”
Eskenazi goes on to give some interesting examples from the Bible of this mutation or transubstantiation of the human person that takes place in the Bible. (p. 13ff) All this within the frame of an infinity. Important to notice is Eskenazi’s remark that infinity marks “the resistance of biblical narrative to closure, to ring composition.” (p 15). Eskenazi rightly remarks that the Biblical narratives more typically move towards infinity, not totality. (p. 15).
Eskenazi also goes on to indicate how Levinas brings new vitality and intense force to the already powerful face-to-face encounters in the Bible. (p. 15) The term “visage” translates the term “panim.” This was a form of highest encounter with God in the Bible. (p.15) In Levinas, this is extended to the meeting with the human other, the orphan, the widow, the stranger. But the Hebrew, “panim”, remarks Eskenazi, offers significations that are not contained in the French. (p. 16-17) He offers the Hebrew terms, “pnim” or “pnima,” “lifne”. Eskanazi says that English, rather than French, offers the full force of Levinas’ meanings of the face as reflected in biblical Hebrew. (p. 16) For example, “lifne” is more forcefully rendered in the English “before” which would mean “be-for” someone! Be ahead in front of someone. In fact, such is life: to “be-for-someone” and not “be-towards-death” as Heidegger would have it! Ethics is not inspired by the possibility of one’s death! On the contrary, I think, it is inspired by generosity, a divine generosity and pardon that breaks the cycle of action-reaction and initiates an action-action! Generosity and pardon are not a reaction but an action. This lack of generosity and pardon explains the violence around the globe today, in my view.
Aronowicz tries to extricate the hermeneutical principles and their implications that guided Levinas’s notion of justice, focussing on the Guemara. She returns to the mishnah to show them at work (p. 34). Ultimately, she shows that by resisting the erotic no justice is brought about in the world (p. 38-39). Justice is brought about through generosity (p. 39). Without generosity, each remains locked in his or her own self (p. 39). Someone needs to break the chain of action and reaction! In my view, only generosity, mercy and pardon achieve this.
Coming to the realm of hermeneutics, it is the willingness to be taught by a text. Within the limitations of the imagery, pattern and convention of a text, it is our task, while using our language of today, to show up this imagery, pattern and convention. Extraction of meaning is more than just extraction of ore from a mine. As far as the pattern is concerned, the semi-circle seating arrangement of the Sanhedrin seems to be important. It signifies that any interpretation must not be made within a closed circle. The semi-circle leaves space open for what could come from outside. Thus, in a semi-circular hermeneutics, the stress is not only on the reader’s responsibility to the voice of the author who is being interpreted in the text. It is also a responsibility to the voices in the reader of the text. These voices come from two different sides: those we have studied, read or listened to and the people we are addressing. In this sense, Levinas addresses also different sources of the Greek and Western tradition (p. 43).
The hermeneutics followed by Levinas, therefore, challenges the self-enclosedness of both traditions: Jewish and Greek. It involves opening out those containers in which we live and move. His is not a circular but a semi-circular interpretation.
The article of Scott Hennessy, Creation, Chaos, and the Shoah: A theological reading of the Il y a. Scott rightly stresses that, unlike the western world, where the creation story fitted into a philosophy of “Nothing and Being (creation ex nihilo),” in the Near Eastern world, it fitted into the emergence of a community, a benevolent and life-sustaining order (p. 52). The creation story is not about the origins but a narrative that speaks about a humanity at stake in the present situation (p. 52).
Scott rightly stresses that according to Levinas, beings are never free from this threat of the “il y a.” But is the threat or the dissipation of persons and things only the fate of a Jew under the forces of Nazism? I think that it is also present when we hear leaders who repeatedly claim: “The system works!” I think that the “Owl of Minerva” hoots not about a past but rather a constant threat in the present! In fact in an article that originally appeared in 1961, Levinas also mentions “the arrival on the historical scene of those underdeveloped Afro-Asiatic masses who are strangers to the Sacred History that forms the heart of the Judaic-Christian world.” (See DL.e(1990), p. 160). Although I disagree, as an Indian, with the superior tone and exclusive possession of a benevolent and life-sustaining order in that text, I think, the text reveals new fears facing the Judaic-Christian world --- the cry of the Old Cultures and the Third World for justice! (Let us not forget that some of these nations are also as old as this earth!) But I do not think, that sense for justice is a prerogative only of the Judaic-Christian world. It is the groan of all creation, amidst the threat of the “there is.” Countries like India, did not require Auschwitz to know this! I also think the “there is” lurks around when a society faces migrants, cultures face cultures, religions face religions! The list is long. The threat of the “there is” is relevant to all humanity, at every moment and within all systems.
I would agree with Hennessy in saying that “Levinas avoids proving God’s existence” (p. 61). It is quite obvious. Today, it is not God’s existence that requires proof. It is our human dimension of hospitality and mercy that requires proof!!!! Proof in deed.!!! I would add, rather than proving God’s existence, the big question today is to prove our humanity within our diverse cultural worlds!
I also need to point out two errors in this article of Hennessy:
The first is the reference of a citation on p. 60. The citation that begins with “In this obedience…” (p. 60), is not as he says from (1981:136) but rather, like the previous citation, from (1987a:136).
Then, he misses a line without any indication in the first citation from (1981:149) on p. 61. The line missed is: “This recurrence is quite the opposite of return upon oneself, self-consciousness.” It is to be inserted after “---the saying itself.” And before: “It is sincerity….”
Next to follow are five articles that apply Levinas’s insights to Biblical texts. These are: Timothy K. Beal, Facing Job (p. 65-74), Elias Bongmba, Eschatology: Levinasian hints in a Preface (p. 75-90), Jione Havea, To love Cain more than God (p. 91-112), Tod Linafelt, Damages due to fire: Levinas, the Bible, and the Holocaust (p. 113-123) and Martin C. Srajek, Constitution and Agency in light of some passages from Ezechiel 1-4: A re-reading of Levinas (p. 125-144).
Then we find two articles that deal with Levinas’s interpretation especially in matters of gender. These are: Tamara Cohn Eskenazi, Love your neighbour as an other: Reflections on Levinas’s ethics and the Hebrew Bible (p. 145-157), Susan E. Shapiro, “And God created woman”: Reading the Bible otherwise (p. 159-195).
The final article is a response from Catherine Chalier. Chalier claims that “In thinking the birth of human subjectivity in the mode of the “Here I am” (hinneni) said to the other, Levinas establishes a relationship that is of a very demanding nature in terms of this subjectivity and the other. Now this relationship signifies the defeat of egoism not only of those inclined to serve themselves off the other or to live at another’s expense but also of those enslaved to the desire for the other and subject to the other, consciously or unconsciously (p. 197).
First of all, the statement could suggest that according to Chalier it is Levinas who establishes a relationship that is of a very demanding nature.
I beg to disagree here. In my view, it is not Levinas who establishes this relationship. It is the Other-than-me who initiates this asymmetric and ethical relation. Prior to being my hell, as Sartre thought, the other invests me as an “here-I-am.” Ethics is an optic. (TI.f(1961), p. xvii = TI.e(1969), p. 29; DL.f(1976), p. 31 = DL.e(1990), p. 17).
Further, Chalier’s statement could suggest that Levinas attaches no importance to the “horror of being” and “egotism.” If this is so, Levinas’ philosophy would be cheap spirituality without any foundation in everyday real life. If this is so, Levinas’ philosophy would be for elite people and rather ethereal.
I think otherwise.
Levinas do never underestimate the ever constant presence of the horror of being – the temptation of apostasy! Nor does Levinas ever deny the importance of egology and egotism – the temptation of economy and sleep! These are necessary, and not just a necessary evil to be combated or tolerated.
But recognizing all this, there is also the way that is noble: “Here-I-am.” “Please, at your service.” “Can I help you.”
In short, I believe there are three intrigues, scrutinies and locutions at work in the writings of Levinas. I believe that for Levinas, anonymity and totality are not abolished by the Other. They are real temptations that no one can abolish, not even Levinas! But there is also a third intrigue, scrutiny and locution, alas, too often refused, namely, that of a conscience and hospitality! Too often, we only relate to one another anonymously or as commercial units. Too often, we philosophize only anonymously and just to know and understand. I think that the merit of Levinas lies in the fact that he draws attention to and uses phenomenology to “highlight” a third way that has been neglected in the past: the “Here-I-am.” Here, consciousness is transubstantiated into conscience and “ob-session.” Here, truth is preceded by justice. Here violence is preceded by “peace be to you” or a blessing. Levinas himself says: “Ethical consciousness is not, in effect, a particular commendable variety of consciousness, but a contraction, a retreat in self, in short, the systole of conscience” ( DL.f(1976), p. 378 = DL.e(1990), p. 294. The part in italics is my translation from the original French. This important line is for some reason missed out in the DL.e(1990) translation).
In fact, as Levinas says: “We should mistrust a purely rhetorical pervasion, the ideology that builds its nest in pathos.” (DL.f(1976), 363 = DL.e(1990), p. 283). In fact, the first section of Levinas’ Difficile Liberté is entitled “Au-delà du pathétique.” The Holocaust is, in my view, a grave reminder of a danger which all nations and peoples not only constantly face, but are also capable of, Jews included! It is a real capacity that any of us can take up and a threat we all can face. We do not have to be pathetic about it. Conscience is not a possession of a privileged few but a time and norm to forestall the instant of inhumanity, the hour of treason (TI.f(1961), p. 5 = TI.e(1969), p.35).
In this sense, I think the scope of the volume should have paid greater attention to an important remark of Levinas as regards the “Holocaust” and the tendency to patheticism. No doubt, the Holocaust was a stain on human conscience, but this is no reason for being pathetic. Which nation and culture can claim a pure heart and clean hands! We cannot ignore violence that follows a chain cycle and shows no mercy and forgiveness! The irony is that no one seems to learn and cultivate hospitality, the gift of pardon and mercy. Are we ready to put even our revealed religions under this two-edged sword?
The volume does lack this part of the “history.”
The volume does certainly provoke a “con-versation.” But is this just between an Occidental and Jewish world! Is it an unconscious apology? If so, it also remains a threat to humanity. What irony in a world that also needs to “con-verse” in a pluriverse, and not just a universe!!!! Is there not more at stake? Does the semi-circle just concern Jews and Christians?