restricted access Levinas in "Ithaca": Answering the Joycean Worldstage
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Levinas in "Ithaca":
Answering the Joycean Worldstage

"In the beginning was the gest" —so Joyce reminds us (1939: 468) that, ethically speaking, the joke is always already on us. For if we attempt to imitate the creative Word in an effort to produce, in or through our own lives, good as a phenomenon, as that which can be seen, the way God saw good in and through his six-days labor, we must first act in the absence of any orienting image. Our relation to the divine pattern cannot be a matter of copying because that would make goodness no more than a role, and reduce the transcendent to the immanent. "Natural" reflexivity, such as Kant associated with the faculty of intuition (which apprehends objects as appearances in space and time in conformity to our representing consciousness), must be put aside in favor of a quasi-heroic venturing toward the infinite as the ideal limit of reason. Gesture as performance—another meaning of "gest," from the Latin gesta—would become, as Stephen Dedalus announces on his in medias res entrance to the "Circe" chapter of Ulysses, the equivalent of a "universal language" (U 353).1 Transparently coincident with the givenness of [End Page 61] moral good, "gest" as deed (from the Old French geste) is therefore what counts. But not to count is precisely the point in this context. According to Kant, one must be good for nothing, act without any expectation of reward, without calculation. And Emmanuel Levinas goes even further: starting from Kant's proposition that the categorical imperative is concerned "not with the matter of the action and its presumed results, but with its form and with the principle from which it follows" (1964: 84), Levinas refines the notion of "action" into a concept of non-phenomenological response. Although Levinas agrees that action in accordance with the moral law requires no interrogation into what must be done (the categorical imperative is not "you must do x " but merely "you must"), he insists that ethics requires a modality that is entirely non-intentional and therefore as irreducible to subjectivity as it is to knowledge (see 1989: 75-87, 85 and 1985: 32). Gesture in this case would indicate a divesting "orientation" towards the infinite beyond any recuperative limit, even, or especially, the guiding light of reason (1996b: 33-64, 48). Philosophy itself is put in question in this still more profound shift away from the economies of the question "what?" To produce good in the world, the world as good, ethics thus requires action without knowledge and response without interrogation. If we are to take this seriously, what alternative is there but to laugh? Borrowing a word and begging the question would seem to make us all merry gracehopers.2 So it is that in ethics as a practice of meaning, we all become good Joyceans.

Following the example of Stanley Cavell, who argues that Shakespeare would not be able to sustain "the name of the greatest writer in the [End Page 62] English language" if his writing did not engage "the philosophical preoccupations of his culture" (1987: 2), I will, without contesting the exclusive entitlement to that name, say the same of Joyce.3 What I propose to argue is the possibility of intuiting Levinas's ethical objections to Heideggerian phenomenology as already fully existent in Joyce. My goal, however, is less to credit Joyce with extraordinary philosophical prescience than to comment on what might be called the prophetic function of literature. That is, although philosophy shares with literature the linguistic capacity to extend meaningfully beyond primary intent —to "contain more than it contains" in the manner of the Cartesian cogito —literary expression has nonetheless a greater ability to say in advance. This is not to say that literature functions analogously to religion. Whereas living in light of religious expression is living fundamentally for another world, living in light of literary expression is living always for this world, albeit under a sign of optimistic belatedness. Literature interacts with experience before and after by developing every present telling as a function of an irremediable past that might yet dream the future. This is to speak poetically...