Levinas, the Other, and Me
Some years ago, I went to a conference on Emmanuel Levinas at the University of Chicago. I had just discovered Levinas, found him a dramatically original and appealing philosopher, and went out there with no paper of my own to present or axe to grind. I just wanted to find out more about him.
Levinas is a French/Jewish philosopher to whom we owe the vocabulary – much in use nowadays – about the Other. In its present usage, the Other is taken to signify the one whose culture, race, sex, sexual orientation, or distinguishing characteristics are different from one’s own, or different from that of the majority in one’s own culture or domain. As currently viewed, the otherness of the Other is to be respected in the following ways: not appropriated (borrowed without leave); not homogenized to blend with one’s own particularity; not sacrificed to an ideal of universality, which is assumed to mask one’s own perspective stretched to dominate that of the Other.
Only the Other is the expert on the Other. Only the Other can tell you what it’s like to embody that otherness.
If I understand Levinas, this is not what he meant at all. He was drawing on the illustrative experience of Jews being uprooted, removed from all social protections, and isolated in order to transport them to their deaths. The long and terrible journey wasn’t going to end in a natural death. The person transported was going to be murdered.
What struck Levinas about that whole interaction from start to finish was that the killers were refusing to see the human face of their victims. By the Other, Levinas meant to underscore that difference between people which is needed for any human relationship to come into being. The human face is not far away. It’s right in front of me, inviting recognition, dialogue and reciprocity.
The murderer, by contrast, is caught up in his own monologue. The murderer’s future is elsewhere. It’s not in the present, not in the here and now – not where our human relationships are already actual.
So, by a curious backflip that is often the fate of ideas once they gain popularity, what Levinas meant by the Other is exactly the reverse of what people mean when they use the term today!
By the way, how was the conference on Levinas? Well, it was quite an experience. I learned that Levinas is read and applied by a wide spectrum of social types. There was the youthful community organizer who put Levinas to use breaking up gangs in Chicago. There was the British philosopher, with his Oxbridge accents, whose inner life was getting enriched, to his great surprise, by a guided study of Talmud, inspired by Levinas. Academics had come from around the Anglophone world and from Europe.
There was also a Frenchwoman, a philosopher named Catherine Chalier, who, with soft-spoken authority, articulated the Jewish sources of Levinas’s thought. Chalier was a philosophic disciple who spoke from direct and personal acquaintanceship with Levinas, who at that time was still alive.
(Back in Paris, she was to tell me later, she told Levinas that she had attended a conference in America on his philosophy. “Ma philosophie,” he had commented, “est tres malade.” My philosophy is very ill.)
One oddity about the conference began early to strike me. With the exception of Chalier and the Englishman who studied Talmud, no one with whom I chatted seemed comfortable with any reminder that Levinas wrote as a Jew – sharing the wisdom of that tradition recast in philosophic terms. Their shoulder shrugs seemed more urgent than casual – telling me that the Jewish part ought to be treated as irrelevant.
Some time later, when I met Catherine Chalier in Paris, she told me that Levinas’s classrooms had to be guarded by gendarmes, lest anti-semites storm his lectures. To the would-be murderers, the Jewish part appeared highly relevant. Did they know something the conferees didn’t?
During one session, a panelist digressed from his main topic to insert some one-sided sideswipes at the Jewish state. After the panel, I stepped up and spoke to him about what I took to be the unfairness of his remarks. There were balancing realities he had neglected to consider and I mentioned a few of them.
He listened and then turned frontally to say that …
told him that I was … I forget what, exactly … incapable of human discourse? filled with some kind of badness of which he was cognizant but I was wholly unconscious?
Funny, but for the life of me, I can’t now recall his exact words. They were striking to me at the time because they precisely enacted the attitudes toward the human face that Levinas had gone to all his philosophic lengths to oppose. This man’s erasure of my face also reversed Levinas’s view of the right reciprocities between a man and a woman.
Seeing Catherine Chalier in the hall, I stopped and told her what had just happened. Did I do wrong, I asked her, to try to talk to him as I had?
“No,” she said, in her French-accented voice of large experience. “You did not do wrong. It’s hatred. And it’s hopeless.”
I thought about it all the next day and on the plane ride home. It’s hopeless? Does God think it’s hopeless?
I think God thinks
I remember that my “encounter” with the philosophy of Levinas began in the late 90s, when I read his Totality and Infinity. (Checking my shelves, I see that I have 7 books written by or about Levinas.)
I came to Levinas by way of the late Pope John Paul II, who much admired his work. In fact, I judged that they shared a common philosophical project: articulating that dimension of the human person that escapes any and every “totalizing thought” that would presume to comprehend “the other” within a system. Levinas referred to that dimension as “the face” of the other; he was especially interested in its implications for ethics.
On the other hand, Wojtyla/John Paul II (e.g., in his The Acting Person) was pursuing a phenomenological analysis of the acting human person that, in his judgement, was not adequately addressed within the inherited Aristotelian-Thomistic philosophic tradition.
What a helpful comment, filling out the philosophic story! Thanks so much, Frank.