restricted access Altered Reading: Levinas and Literature (review)
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Reviewed by
Jill Robbins. Altered Reading: Levinas and Literature. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1999. xxiv + 185 pp.

Jill Robbins’s book is a thoughtful and important attempt to grapple with the relation of Levinasian ethics to literary study, despite allegiances to a philosophic tradition that turns out to be the object of Emmanuel Levinas’s criticism. Levinas’s work is hot right now. For those of us in literary studies who are interested in the intersection of the literary, the ethical, and the religious, Robbins’s book is the kind of study for which we have been waiting. Structuralism and poststructuralism have led us to the door of ethics. Levinas wrote powerfully on the matter of ethics. The conjunction would seem a natural.

The problem is that Levinas wrote comparatively little about literature and most of it is negative. Literature is an example, in his view, of the plastic, the imagistic, the iconic and idolatrous. In “Reality and Its Shadow” and elsewhere, Levinas outlines his objections to the aesthetic as an evasion of responsibility and thought, a betrayal of the face of the other individual that always expresses to us utter defenselessness, a “Thou shalt not kill!” If Levinas is more positive about literary writing after the Holocaust, it may be because it is somewhat harder for that writing to evade responsibility and the project of aestheticizing somewhat more difficult to undertake. But these works may only be “exceptions” (to use Robbins’s word). And we would seem left, if we are to value both Levinas and the literary, either to dismiss his perspective as idiosyncratic, a curious blind spot in an otherwise brilliant array of critical insights, or accept it as pointing the way to a hitherto unexamined double impulse within the literary and its criticism, an [End Page 1098] impulse on the one hand to aestheticize that has playfulness and decoration as its goal, and an impulse on the other to think critically about ethical matters, one that concerns our responsibility toward other individuals, even if such a pursuit assumes the dislocations of story and mythology.

It is to her credit in my view that Robbins adopts the second path.

The book is divided into two parts, four chapters concerned with Levinas’s ethical philosophy and the possibility of an ethical language, and four with the aesthetic. Chapter 1 considers Levinas’s call, in Totality and Infinity, for an “I” that escapes identification, the perennial return of the subject of knowledge before an object of consciousness to the same. He finds that “I” in generosity, and he finds ethical language, as a result, to be a language of the face in which such generosity speaks. In chapter 2, Robbins relates the face to the trace and suggests that for Levinas, God in the Hebrew Bible may be understood in such a fashion. Levinas offers these notions, Robbins suggests, as an escape from the metaphysics of presence, although for readers like Derrida and Lyotard they set in motion a strange double bind, and Robbins herself is not sure such non-ethical language—rhetoric, for example—is as separable from ethical language as Levinas would have us believe.

In chapter 3, Robbins asserts that the discourse on the literary for Levinas is intertwined with the discourse on the Judaic. Discourse on the Judaic is necessarily Greek, and therefore, in her view, necessarily Christian. To approach the Judaic (and thereby the literary or the aesthetic), she reads Levinas on Christian figural reading—Paul Claudel—in which the violence of such figural reading is made evident. In chapter 4, Robbins examines the cessation of communication, and in particular the relation of the ethical to murder, the definition of the face for him as defenselessness, as the “Thou shalt not kill.”

Does the work of art give access to the ethical? Robbins asks this question in the first chapter of part two and proceeds to consider the ways in which Levinas answers resoundingly in the negative in Totality and Infinity, “The Other in Proust,” “Reality and its Shadow,” and “The Transcendence of Words.” In the second chapter, she considers Levinas’s notion of the il y a or “there is...