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Emmanuel Levinas and Iris Murdoch:
Ethics as Exit?
C. Fred Alford
THE LEVINAS EFFECT it has been called, the ability of Emmanuel Levinas's texts to say anything the reader wants to hear, so that Levinas becomes a deconstructionist, theologian, proto-feminist, or even the reconciler of postmodern ethics and rabbinic Judaism. Talmudic scholar and postmodern philosopher, Levinas has become everything to everyone. Abstract and evocative, writing in what can only be described as the language of prophecy, we pretend we understand what he is talking about, writing in much the same style, so as to say whatever we wanted to say in the first place. Even those who disagree with Levinas generally criticize him from within the framework of his project, sharing his assumptions while trying to make Levinas more Levinassian. 1
How might one disrupt the Levinas Effect? By disrupt, I mean criticize Levinas sympathetically, from a perspective outside his "system," but not outside his world. Levinas's world is one in which the self is the enemy not only of the other, but of authentic existence. Iris Murdoch shares this view with Levinas. Like Levinas, Murdoch sees the self as the enemy. "Unselfing," as she calls it, is the means; the end is to overcome totality, which means the subjection of the other to my categories and my experience. Levinas means much the same thing by totality. It is his philosophical idée maîtresse, the troubling tendency of Western thought from Plato to Hegel and beyond.
"What breaks the drive of consciousness to totality is not an appeal to an abstract social or linguistic whole, but an encounter with the concrete other person." Levinas did not say this, nor did Iris Murdoch. Maria Antonaccio says it in a book about Murdoch, in which she compares Murdoch's views to those of Levinas. What they share, says [End Page 24] Antonaccio, is this critique of totality, even if "Murdoch would reject the language of command, lordship and accusation that pervade Levinas's account." 2
Certainly Levinas's language of persecution is one of the most striking aspects of his account, and I will not ignore it. But it is not the most important thing that distinguishes him from Murdoch. One might argue that it is the "concrete other person" that distinguishes Levinas from Murdoch, for in many respects the other is an abstraction for Levinas. "The best way of encountering the Other is not even to notice the color of his eyes!" says Levinas. 3 Only at a distance is the other abstract enough to remind us of infinity.
This distinction comes closer to capturing the difference between them. Even more important, Levinas shares Sartre's nausea at the thingyness of the world. Levinas calls it the il y a, the "there is." It is this that makes his account closer to Sartre's than one might imagine, and more distant from Murdoch. This does not, of course, make Levinas wrong. The comparison with Murdoch is a way of getting out from under the Levinas Effect.
My goal is to better understand Levinas by comparing him with Murdoch. This requires that Murdoch's philosophy be seriously considered, but perhaps not as seriously as that of Levinas. Murdoch is the other, Levinas the subject. Possibly we will end up understanding the other better than the subject.
The outlines of Levinas's philosophy will be familiar to many readers. I will elaborate upon a story told by Levinas to recount it. 4 Imagine that someone rings your doorbell and disturbs your work. As you walk to the door you are distracted, still thinking about your latest project. It takes you a moment to recognize your neighbor at the door, the one who lives upstairs; as soon as you recognize his face you invite him in. You talk for a while. He tells you his problem, you tell him what you might do to help him. You share some pleasant conversation, and soon enough your neighbor leaves. What you originally experienced...