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James Lomax

SelflessnessJonathan Rée
Proper Names 
by Emmanuel Levinas, translated by Michael Smith.
Athlone, 191 pp., £45, January 1997, 0 485 11466 6
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Levinas: An Introduction 
by Colin Davis.
Polity, 168 pp., £39.50, November 1996, 0 7456 1262 8
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Basic Philosophical Writings 
by Emmanuel Levinas, edited by Adriaan Peperzak, Simon Critchley and Robert Bernasconi.
Indiana, 201 pp., £29.50, November 1996, 0 253 21079 8
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‘For God’s sake leave me alone!’ ‘Why the hell should I?’ ‘What’s it to me anyway?’ That sort of unilateral declaration of indifference must be the starting point of nearly all family quarrels, and plenty of political catastrophes as well. ‘Why should I always give way to other people? Am I my brother’s keeper?’ But eventually the question will be turned sarcastically back on you. ‘You think you’re so special? The only pebble on the beach? It’ll be a different story when it’s you that’s run out of luck, just you wait and see.’

This homely dialectical routine is, I suppose, the basis of all our traditions of moral education. Aristotle started from the premise that ‘the good man should be a lover of self,’ and Jesus took the next step with the injunction to ‘love thy neighbour as thyself.’ In the beginning – the assumption goes – you care for nobody except yourself; but then, all being well, your selfishness will start to expand. Through the mechanisms of sympathy and calculated advantage, as described by moral economists like Hobbes, Rousseau and Adam Smith, self-love will be transformed into social benevolence. Your affections will spread like ivy, till at last the whole world is clasped in their tenacious tendrils and covered with your verdant love. In the end you may even shed all sense of separate selfhood as you learn, with Spinoza or Hegel, that there is no true identity short of an all-encompassing God.

Charity, it appears, begins in your own mind. We all started out, as Freud put it, with a cheerful ‘auto-erotism’ or ‘primary narcissism’, but in our bid for normal adulthood we hurled our libidinal harpoons out into the unknown, hoping to wind them back with a big enough catch to feed our sexual hunger for ever. But this self-centred theory of love has been pretty decisively snookered during the 20th century. Freud’s own consulting-room, for a start, received hundreds of patients whose problem was that they liked themselves too little, not too much. They could not even make it to the classic moral starting line, and it would be bad news indeed if they were to love their neighbours as themselves. And outside psychoanalysis, the idea of good deeds based on healthy self-love was falling into still deeper disrepute. As the century’s political daydreams turned into nightmare realities, goodwill revealed itself to be quite as destructive as selfish malevolence and there has surely been nothing more dangerous than persons on good terms with their conscience.

All this has led to a crisis of ethical thinking that cannot be settled by totting up new totals of pleasure and pain, or by striking a different balance between self-sacrifice and self-interest. The difficulty cuts much deeper: what can you ever have meant by the ‘self’ that enters into these hyphenated relationships with love, esteem, satisfaction and interest? And what defines the ‘neighbour’ you are expected to treat like yourself.

No one has done more to shine a light onto these issues than Edmund Husserl – the most austere of modern philosophers, the most self-effacing, and perhaps the most intelligent. In Logical Investigations, published in the first year of the century, he argued that philosophy must give up its old dream of portraying the mind and the world from some absolute standpoint outside the limits of human experience. Instead, it should content itself with the world as we know it – in other words the world of phenomena. Philosophy should reinvent itself as phenomenology, or the methodical study of experience. In doing so, it would have nothing to lose but illusions: what could ‘the world’ ever mean, except that to which our experience is directed? And what were we and our experiences, except a certain readiness or receptiveness towards the world? The world and the self were not separate entities that we could scrutinise from outside, and the old metaphysical see-saw with objectivity on one end and subjectivity on the other was a myth: they were as inseparable as the two sides of a sheet of paper. We should stop fantasising about a philosophy that would propound eternal truths about a world beyond our knowledge, and start trying to work out what things can mean to us within the horizons of our ordinary finite experience. This would give us the only absolutes we need; in fact, the only absolutes there are.

Husserl never strayed far into ethical philosophy, and it was many years before anyone woke up to the fact that his attempt to reorientate philosophical inquiry and redraw the distinction between subjectivity and objectivity might cast some new light on ethics. But this was the motive that eventually impelled Sartre to go off to Berlin in 1933, and bring back the exciting news to France. Phenomenology had destroyed the traditional primacy of inward experience, according to Sartre in The Transcendence of the Ego: feelings and memories, even consciousness itself, could never again be treated as if they were items of secret private property. There was no such thing as a vie intérieure, and the notion of real substantial selfhood – an inner spirit or soul or personality – was nothing but a bourgeois confidence trick.

But if there was no self presiding over our experiences and actions, what then of human relationships? How could there be love and hate, friendship and strife, in a world without secret selves? How could two nonselves ever meet? How could there be strangeness and surprise if, as Sartre thought, there was nothing to us except our explicit acts and choices – if we harboured no inner depths?

But, even if there is no private inner life, that need not prevent people from being a mystery to each other. It is not that they keep lots of little secrets to themselves instead of telling them to someone else; rather there is something about each of us that can never conceivably be shared – a single great mystery entire unto itself. The otherness of others constitutes a paradox, according to Sartre, a kind of epistemological monstrosity that sends us reeling back in horror whenever we try to approach it. When we think of other people, we make them into objects of our experience; but when we think again, we realise we are wrong: they are subjects of their own experience before they are objects of ours, and in their experience we figure as objects, not subjects. To acknowledge the otherness of others is to recognise them as exceeding the limits of our own experience, and hence to confront a nauseating black hole within our everyday self-satisfactions. The subjectivity of others is essentially ‘impenetrable’, and ‘radically refractory’ to our understanding. ‘No consciousness can even conceive of a consciousness other than itself,’ Sartre said. We cannot understand others, because if we did we would have destroyed their otherness. This paradox is not an illusion or a contingency, but essential to the structure of the world.

Wherever he looked, Sartre observed us living our ordinary lives as if we were self-centred beings, though we always implicitly know that the world contains neither centres nor selves. So if ethics was to be established on a sure foundation, it had to be built, not on our jovial but deluded enjoyment of other people’s company, but on our terrified and authentic apprehension of their inconceivable otherness. This strange ethical vision was expounded with vivid and remorseless logic in Being and Nothingness (1943), but Sartre’s attempts over the following thirty years to elaborate it into a systematic theory of political hope or moral obligation were, as he came to realise, stale, dreary and unconvincing. His phenomenological analysis of the horror of otherness got him into a theoretical hole, and all he did was carry on digging.

It may be, however, that the fault lay not with phenomenology itself, but with the peculiarly demonic spin Sartre gave it. It is also possible that Sartre never properly understood the implications of phenomenological theory. He never learnt German well enough to read Husserl ‘in the text’, and in any case, the favoured medium for learning phenomenology was personal instruction. Husserl – like Freud in this respect if in no other – was intent on turning his new method into a worldwide movement, staffed by the generations of students who passed through his seminar at Göttingen and then Freiburg.

The most remarkable of these students was Heidegger. Being and Time was dedicated to Husserl, and in some ways it can be read as a restatement of his principles; but Heidegger’s style was bold, urgent and implacable, a violent storm after his master’s unvarying steadiness and calm. Heidegger dramatised Husserl’s patient analyses, presenting philosophical clarity not merely as a hard scientific task, but as a daunting personal vocation, a constant crusade against bewitchment by the waffly approximations of everyday thinking. In 1928, a year after Being and Time was published, Heidegger was given a Chair at Freiburg, and his first professorial year there coincided with Husserl’s last before retirement.

There could hardly be a more exciting intellectual conjunction: for anyone with half a mind for philosophy, it must have been bliss to be in Freiburg that year; for a young student it must have been heaven. And one of the lucky ones was a 22-year-old Jew from Lithuania called Emmanuel Levinas. He had been born in 1906 – which made him just six months younger than Sartre – and after spending his youth in the Ukraine became a student in Strasbourg, where he gained a licence in philosophy, adopted French as his first language, and also learned German in order to read Husserl. And now he was in Freiburg, about to participate in Husserl’s last seminars. Once there, however, things changed: Levinas found Heidegger a far more attractive teacher than Husserl. He relished the excitement of Heidegger’s seminars (‘only a chosen few are admitted,’ he wrote, ‘but there are representatives of all the nations ... even Australia’), and his public lectures were so popular that Levinas would take a seat before midday, though the performance did not begin till five.

Heidegger himself was too engrossed in his work to attend to his young admirer. But Husserl was different, and Levinas – who died in Paris more than sixty years later, in 1995 – never forgot his kindnesses: his hospitality, his generosity with money and especially the tact with which, as an assimilated Jew, he shielded his student from the casual anti-semitism of Frau Husserl (she of course was Jewish too).

Back in France a year later, Levinas put his experience in Freiburg to good use. He completed his thesis on Husserl, and collaborated on a fine French translation of Husserl’s Cartesian Meditations, a brilliant series of lectures setting out the principles of phenomenology in brief: they contradicted Descartes’s doctrines, Husserl argued, but only out of a passion for his stringent ideals of conceptual clarity. The crux was that we could never be alone with our thoughts in the way that Descartes supposed: we could not have any conception of ourselves or the objective world unless we already understood the idea of other subjectivities who experience the same world as us, though in ways we might never be able to share. ‘I have within myself the experience of the “world” of “others” ... as a world that is foreign to me,’ Husserl wrote. Other people were not only ‘objects in the world’; they were also ‘subjects for this same world ... who also therefore have the experience of me’. And the realisation that individual experience presupposes a plurality of other subjectivities should, Husserl suggested, open up some promising new paths to problems that had always been shrouded in metaphysical mist: the central issues of ethics and religion.

Levinas’s translation of Cartesian Meditations was the main text on phenomenology in France over the next two decades, and a main source for Sartre’s life’s work. But Levinas himself paid surprisingly little attention to it. In fact, his thesis on The Theory of Intuition in Husserl’s Phenomenology concluded rather brutally that Husserl was ‘tainted with intellectualism’, insensitive to the ‘historical situation of man’, and blind to the ways in which ‘aesthetic and ethical categories are also constitutive of being’. In retrospect, Levinas’s complaints against Husserl appear to be based on a verbal quibble rather than a real disagreement. Husserl argued that knowledge includes ‘intersubjectivity’, whereas Levinas wanted to stretch aesthetics and ethics to cover ‘knowledge’; but the implications were much the same either way: knowledge cannot be uprooted from the soil of human contingency. At that time, however, Levinas was keen to distance himself from Husserl, and to advertise his daring defection to Heidegger’s camp: ‘we feel justified in being inspired by him,’ as he convolutedly said. In 1932, in one of the first articles about Heidegger in French, Levinas claimed that Husserl had been left far behind by his brilliant pupil. Heidegger had managed to trace all human experiences back to their ‘ontological roots’, thus obliterating the ‘distinction between existence and knowledge’ and showing that authentic philosophy was a work not of mere intellect but of ‘moral conscience’.

Levinas was still in his mid-twenties at the time. He had lived in Paris since 1930, obtaining a teaching post at the Alliance Israélite Universelle, and finding a congenial welcome at the heart of the French philosophical establishment, especially from the Christian philosopher-playwright Gabriel Marcel, and the Jewish metaphysician and poet Jean Wahl. They all aligned themselves with the broad tradition of Henri Bergson, with its taste for combining philosophy with belles lettres, and Levinas noticed a fundamental congruence between phenomenology and the Bergsonian idea that experience is framed by a living temporality that cannot be reduced to the dead, ‘spatialised’ time of the natural sciences, or measured out by clocks or coffee spoons.

Levinas’s advocacy of phenomenology was already making its mark on French philosophy, but despite the friendship and encouragement he found in Paris, he now plunged into a period of intellectual depression. For in 1933, when he was still preaching the moral excellence of Heidegger’s ‘fundamental ontologism’, he learned that his hero had just been installed as the first Nazi rector at Freiburg, with students singing the ‘Horst-Wessel Lied’ and raising their right arms to shouts of ‘Sieg Heil!’ In 1934, Levinas published a bewildered article on ‘The Philosophy of Hitlerism’, in which he suggested that it was phenomenology itself, by abandoning the old dualisms of classical metaphysics, that had sapped the strength of enlightened liberalism and left the field open for racism and violence.

Levinas was conscripted into the French Army in 1939 and soon taken prisoner, spending five years in an officers’ camp in Germany. It was under these conditions that he wrote the first work in which he spoke with a recognisable voice of his own. De l’existence à Pexistant, which is perhaps the best of all Levinas’s books, revisits the phenomenological problem of otherness, in the hope of discovering ethical absolutes. There is much discussion of Husserl and Heidegger, but Levinas’s main target, it would seem, was Sartre, who had stolen a march on him in the early Thirties with his ethical elaborations of Husserlian themes, but who had, as Levinas saw it, debauched the enterprise by yoking it to atheism, existentialism and anti-bourgeois antics in genera).

From Levinas’s point of view, Sartre’s secularism was not an isolated aberration: his this-worldliness was typical not only of phenomenology but of the entire Western philosophical tradition, which had inherited from the Greeks a stubborn unwillingness to acknowledge anything that transcended the boundaries of human experience. There were exceptions, however: especially, there was Plato with his bold view of the Good as a real transcendent form, not a mere thought or poem or dream. Plato’s sovereign Good was neither subject nor object: it belonged to the realm of the il y a – the ‘there is’ or ‘it comes to pass’ – and it preceded the objective being and subjective nothingness of our familiar human world.

Western philosophy could not tolerate this pre-personal primordiality, however, and that was how it had acquired its habit of seeing everything in terms of antagonisms, polemic and even war. Heidegger, for instance, was merely following this tradition when he advocated the resolute repudiation of the routines of everyday thinking. Like the mass of other philosophers, he was perpetually slandering the ‘sincerity’ of ordinary living. But human existence, according to Levinas, was really about idleness and passivity rather than striving and strife, and it found its true expression not in activism but in selfless vigilance and unfocused insomnia – an egoless anonymity beyond the reach of language or philosophical analysis.

But retreating to the neutral territory of the il y a did not mean dissolving the difference between self and others in an ecstasy of fused identities. On the contrary: any idea of ‘collectivism’, or even ‘organised charity’, was for Levinas an obscene hypocrisy. It presupposed a delusive egoistic ‘we’ – a ‘we’ that is interested only in ‘the other who stands at my side’ – as opposed to an authentic ‘we’ who gazes welcomingly into the eyes of ‘the other who faces me’. It was necessary to reach through the ‘cosmos of Greek thought’, Levinas said, into the chaos of unsynchronised temporalities that constitute the incalculably other.

Despite its obvious debts to Bergson, Husserl and Heidegger, De l’existence a l’exisiant was a remarkably original work – not just for its celebration of the ineffable ‘excendance’ of others, but also for its strange juxtaposition of different styles of argument, even, when it came to combining Platonism with phenomenology, blatantly incompatible ones. Levinas was not unaware of the problems, and in the Preface asked forgiveness on the grounds that he had written the book during his period of captivity, away from libraries and colleagues. But, he added immediately, ‘I am not invoking the stalag as any guarantee of profundity.’

And of course his status as a prisoner of war had itself been a troubling paradox, since it saved him from the atrocities in which nearly all his Lithuanian and Ukrainian relatives died. Afterwards, Levinas identified increasingly with Judaism: he subjected himself to a ‘merciless’ Talmudic training, and began to make links between the Holocaust and the inherent violence of ‘Western thought’ – even treating philosophy’s inveterate ‘hatred of the other’ as synonymous with anti-semitism.

These alignments seem to have given Levinas a new intellectual confidence. His old aspiration ‘to propound the principles that Greece could never grasp’ was far easier to articulate when it could lay claim to an origin outside Western philosophy, and perhaps his real point had always been a very simple one: that the hard bright rationality of ancient Greece had triumphed only by attacking and desecrating the dark wisdom of the Bible and its God.

The first book in Levinas’s assured new manner was Totality and Infinity, a lengthy meditation on how Western philosophy has always tried to imprison subjectivity within rigid intellectual totalities. But the experience of otherness, according to Levinas, showed that we always ‘contain more than our capacity’, because in order to respond to others, we have to open ourselves to ‘infinity’. Genuine pluralism and justice arose only from an unconditional openness to the ‘face’ of the other: not the face as we experience it or think it or ‘totalise’ it, but the face in itself, touching us immediately. For the face was the supreme ethical phenomenon: it was identical with the injunction ‘thou shalt not kill’ – not an argument, but a pure ‘epiphany’, and a constant embarrassment to the Western conceit of self-containment.

There is indeed something fascinating about faces. The idea of a face is obviously associated with sight (le visage, das Gesicht), but it is not clear whether that is because it sees or because it is seen. For every face is really two-faced. The face faces two ways: it is at once what faces us and what we face. And if we take care never to forget this ambiguity, we may save ourselves from the worst but easiest of crimes: the violence that forgets that others are the subjects of their own experiences, that they will always have their own unexpected stories to tell. We will remember that, however well we understand someone else, there will always be something left over: that they face their experience, but we face only them. Unlike Sartre, Levinas saw this transcendent otherness as a glorious salvation, not a threat or a curse. It enabled us to break out of the secular ‘heroic isolation’ of Western moral experience, to discard the Greek ‘manly virtues’, and to accept that we depend for our existence not on ourselves but on the immensity of the other as a ‘subject living in infinite time’.

Levinas’s meditations on the ‘epiphany of the face’ are certainly suggestive; but they are also diaphanously vague – vague in the way that people who do not like poetry call ‘poetic’, and vague in the way that people who do not like philosophy call ‘philosophical’. And while it is easy to see why he insists that we are touched by the face itself, not our perception of it, it is difficult to stop yourself disloyally noticing that this makes no sense: a face could hardly touch us with infinity until we recognised it as a face, bringing it under some general concept of faces. We cannot jump out of our conceptual skin: no infinities, you might say, without totalities.

Levinas’s facial reveries were inspired, it would seem, by the Swiss art historian Max Picard, to whom Levinas paid tribute in the collection of occasional essays now translated as Proper Names. In Das Menschengesicht (1929), Picard issued a warning to Western civilisation: it was losing its ability to ‘contemplate the human face’ – and the face, after all, was originally ‘the image of God’, an image which appeals in His name to all who gaze on it. God created faces not in everyday time but in the rhythms of eternity, so that no one ‘could dare attack the invisible field of the face’. Modernity, however, was suicidally intent on expelling God from ‘the space between his creatures’, and the modern face was therefore driven to ‘cower within itself ... becoming sharp and shiny like polished metal’. Still, for those who could still see into its invisible field, a genuine face remained a talisman against desecration and disenchantment: ‘if a human face is present, then so is God as well.’ Picard’s warm di-thyrambic religiosity may not be everyone’s cup of tea, but Levinas lavished praise on the entire Picardian ‘philosophy of the face’, and even endorsed the mind-numbing argument that ‘the face of man is the proof of the existence of God.’ Like Picard, Levinas had no aversion, when logic failed him, to the imperious use of sentimental hyperbole.

Totality and Infinity came out in 1961, the same year as Foucault’s Madness and Civilisation. In this company, Levinas’s pious old-fashioned literariness was bound to sound a bit glum. A couple of years later, though, Foucault suffered a mauling from the young Jacques Derrida (in a lecture to Jean Wahl’s Collége Philosophique), and shortly afterwards Derrida published a vast essay in praise of Levinas, ingeniously framed by two quotations: Matthew Arnold on Hebraism and Hellenism, and ‘Jewgreek is greekjew’ from Ulysses. Thanks to Derrida’s abiding loyalty and sincere flattery, Levinas suddenly found himself hoisted to a position among the celebrities of Parisian post-structuralism – an eminence for which his past had not prepared him.

This was the predicament that called forth his last major work, Otherwise than Being, in 1974. Levinas now attempted to write the ‘new kind of philosophical book’ once anticipated by Jean Wahl – more like a musical composition than a sustained argument. A question of Wahl’s – ‘Is inferiority inferior to superiority?’ – made an apt epigraph, and Levinas then launched into lengthy repetitions of all his old themes: the claims of others are constitutive of our selfhood, not derivative from it, and otherness lies ‘beyond being’ and ‘beyond ontological categories’. Hegel had spoken of the ‘prose of the world’, but Levinas aimed at a ‘poetry of the world’ instead – a poetry that was ‘prior to the truth of things and inseparable from proximity’. Although the proximity of a neighbour was neither a phenomenon nor a concept, it was still somehow tangible: it was, Levinas said, a quality that can be directly felt by a caressing hand, for ‘proximity signifies in the caress as proximity, not as the experience of proximity.’ The caress reveals the self as ‘hostage to others’, beyond both egoism and altruism. Our ‘disquiet for others’, and hence our capacity for justice and responsibility, were sent to us from beyond history and experience, indeed ‘beyond being’.

Those who love Otherwise than Being – and there are many who do – regard it as a minimalist masterpiece, and admire the hypnotic effect with which the motif of ‘beyondness’ is reiterated. And even those with a lower threshhold of boredom must recognise it as a kind of landmark, and welcome the fact that it brought Levinas the recognition that had long been due to the person who had done so much to introduce phenomenology to France. On the other hand, it makes a very tempting target for the roving logic-louts of analytical philosophy. If the infinity of others is absolutely beyond us, they will say, then we should shut up instead of endlessly rhapsodising about it. And even if it made sense, the idea of an unconditional responsibility to others is so absolute, they will add, as to be absurd. Levinas emphasises that our responsibility extends to everyone – not only friends and comrades, but strangers and foreigners, and even unforgivable criminals (he mentions perpetrators of the Holocaust). Our responsibility must, he says, be responsive to absolutely everyone without distinction, past and future as well as present, possible and probable as well as actual. (And why only human others? Don’t animals have faces?) Levinas liked to cite Hamlet’s incredulous: ‘What’s Hecuba to him, or he to Hecuba,/That he should weep for her?’ But Hamlet’s point is hardly the same as Levinas’s: his self-reproach arose from comparing Hecuba’s fictional claims on an arbitrary actor with his own father’s vastly stronger claims on him. Hamlet was not equating his responsibility to his father with his responsibility to Hecuba, in the name of an infinite beyond; nor was he singing variations on ‘Am I my brother’s keeper?’ He needed to make distinctions between different responsibilities – a basic ethical need which Levinasian absolutism does not even acknowledge.

These kinds of objection may be meanspirited: the lapses and flaws and misjudgments in Levinas’s later work, and even its passages of ugliness and tedium, may be redeemed by the grandeur and defiant oddity of his achievement as a whole, and by the consistency of a philosophical existence lived to the full. Without Levinas, after all, the ethical resonances of the phenomenological approach to selfhood might never have been brought to light.

It has been Levinas’s fate to be taken up, in the past ten years, by the sector of Anglo-American edubusiness known as ‘Continental philosophy’, where career-wagons are hitched, often rather uncritically, to isolated sure across the water. The fact that Levinas was sponsored by Derrida, and that his shoutline was not ‘deconstruction’ but ‘ethics’, meant that he filled a big gap when politics, Marxism and anti-humanism went out of style and sentiment, and liberalism and nostalgia came back in. And if his writings are obscure and contradictory, at least they keep his interpreters in work.

But when Levinas became a celebrity he was not a young innovator; he was a survivor – an elderly disciple of Bergson and a colleague of Wahl and Marcel, anxiously influenced by Husserl and Heidegger, desperately trying to defend a Platonistic and theistic conception of the Good while conducting a constant battle on the side with the ubiquitous Sartre. Levinas-for-export, however, was packaged as a post-structuralist, with Totality and Infinity and Otherwise than Being presented as immaculate early works rather than late continuations of meditations and conversations begun decades before.

English translations of Levinas began to appear, followed by a parade of student introductions, of which Colin Davis’s is the latest and one of the best. Poor Davis, though. He begins cheerfully enough by noting that ‘Levinas’s conception of ethics may cause some initial confusion among English-speaking readers,’ as if the fault must all be ours. But by the end chill doubt has crept in. Davis starts to wonder whether the tortuous multiplicity of Levinas’s prose is any more than a ‘defensive gesture’ to cover up confusions, and he confesses that he sometimes finds it ‘tempting to act as if (and to believe) one understands’ when in fact he suspects that Levinas’s arguments are simply ‘rebarbative’ and ‘lacking rigour, with central notions inadequately defined’. Thus we watch Davis’s faith in his hero evaporate before our very eyes; and it is not inconceivable, after all, that Levinas is simply not very good.

Those wanting to decide for themselves may well turn to Basic Philosophical Writings, a collection of ten essays in Levinas’s ripe autumnal style, translated into the kind of mid-Channel language that Continental philosophers like: for example, ‘this protrusion of ipseity into being is accomplished as a turgescence of responsibility.’ The articles overlap with his later books, sometimes word for word, and restate their doctrines with as much emphasis and repetition as they (or I) can bear. New readers are unlikely to feel either encouraged or persuaded by these essays, and perhaps they ought not to start here, but with Levinas’s early commentaries – modest but irreplaceable – on Husserl and phenomenology. After all it is the foreshortened Levinas, with the first half of his philosophical life obscured, that precipitated Davis’s crisis of belief. And the unswerving loyalty of the collection’s editors is more intimidating than reassuring: ‘all readers who take his work seriously,’ they say, ‘are aware that his mode of thought shakes the foundations of philosophy as it has been practised hitherto.’ But can’t we be left to enjoy the philosophical landscape without signing up to a sect? Are we to be ostracised for a flicker of doubt? You would have thought these ‘serious’ Levinasians would brim over with attentiveness towards transcendent otherness ... and we unpersuaded readers, are we not others too?

In 1964, Levinas attended a conference in Paris on Soren Kierkegaard – a writer who, with his religious passion for the paradoxical absoluteness of existence, would seem like a natural neighbour for Levinas, even a model. The conference was addressed by Levinas’s old antagonist Sartre, who might have been expected to make short work of Kierkegaard’s petty-bourgeois individualism. In the event, however, Sartre’s lecture shone with enthusiasm: Kierkegaard would always be a step ahead of any critical attempt to trip him up or pin him down, he was a thinker ‘other than any other, other than himself, other than what he wrote’. The following day, Levinas spoke up, and where Sartre had praised Kierkegaard exuberantly, Levinas denounced him for ‘violence’, ‘harshness’, and an ‘exhibitionistic, immodest subjectivity’ which, in his opinion, foreshadowed Nazism. The tirade, reprinted in Proper Names, is not only meanspirited and perverse, but disquieting. Sartre’s way may not be as ingratiating as Levinas’s but it could prove far more generous and perceptive. Was there not a self-righteousness behind Levinas’s self-denial – an iron hand, a steely eye? Perhaps we can never really separate the self from the other, but if there was violence and harshness out there that day, the source was not other than Levinas.

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