Levinas and the Plot against Literature
The remarkable interest in ethical theory shown over the last decade may simply be a return to the norms of literary scholarship. After all, ethics has dominated criticism of literature since Plato and Aristotle, and even with the emergence of formalism, in both its Russian and American varieties, ethical justifications of literature remained in place.
However, the increasing influence of Emmanuel Levinas upon literary theory raises questions about the relation of ethical philosophy to literature.1 As his 1948 essay “Reality and Its Shadow” reveals, the ethics of Levinas represents an uncompromising challenge not only to classical Greek ethical thought and the aesthetics that stems from it but to contemporary criticism as well. Critics who have turned to Levinas have focused on his distinction between the Saying and the Said, which comes to the fore in Otherwise Than Being; or, Beyond Essence. The Said refers to the reification of time and language in “a memorable temporality”; it is the language of ontology or essence, and a “correlative of the logos.” Saying goes “beyond essence,” or is an interruption of being.2 Saying, in Levinas’s terms, is “the anarchical, the non-original” exposure to being’s other (OB, p. 7). The Said objectifies; it is the thematization and, consequently, the betrayal of the anarchical Saying. I will return [End Page 265] to this distinction below; here I want to point out that any nonthematic reading of the “Saying” of a literary text must account for the betrayal of it in the Said.3
We can view the relationship of the Saying to the Said as a problem of philosophical language, a topic first pointed to by Derrida in his 1964 essay “Violence and Metaphysics.” The question may be simply put: can one oppose the language of metaphysics in the language of metaphysics without returning to what one would escape? Levinas notes the paradox whereby the otherwise than being “is betrayed in the said that dominates the saying which states it” (OB, p. 7). In light of Levinas’s rejection of Heidegger’s elevation of the poetic word, we are faced with the perplexing fact of Levinas’s growing influence on literary studies. How can the language of thematization and representation be ethical in Levinas’s terms? Can literature perform the equivalent of extracting the otherwise than being from the Said in which it comes to light? Can it undo the thematization in which what cannot be thematized is represented?
We are speaking here of something different from the reflexive undoing of representation, the confronting of an aporia that exposes the indeterminacy of representation. The undoing of thematization would have to be construed as an undoing of literature insofar as it belongs to the discourse of the whole, or being. According to Levinas, going beyond being, or the thinking that escapes ontology, is an interminable process of discovering the outside. To think what is otherwise than being is not the negation of literature and thematization but the end of literature, a break with the order of a discourse of the whole or totality. It is not my claim that literature performs this reduction of thematization to the Saying, as if poetic writing undoes the philosophical Said, but that literature, if it is to be ethical, means never to be done with the nontotalizing or “unenglobable literary space.”4 It amounts to reading against the plot, which means reading the end of literature—which is to say, literature is always already at its end, crossing over from the language of synchrony and approaching ethics.
Levinas’s condemnation of art is real. Art fixes beings in the meanwhile, a frozen interval that is “never finished, still enduring—something inhuman and monstrous.” “The fact that humanity could have provided itself with art,” writes Levinas, “reveals in time the uncertainty of time’s continuation and something like a death doubling the impulse of life.”5 Art would give us the presentiment of the future but instead gives us its shadow. Art belongs to the hither side of being, or is “an event of darkening of being, parallel with its revelation, its truth” (RS, p. 9). [End Page 266]
Art, then, is the inversion of being, and as such it solicits an ethical response, even if it is to condemn art as irresponsible. While art, according to Levinas, is “something inhuman and monstrous” in its “materialization of things,” it retrieves things from the world of representation (RS, p. 6). As the experience of the inhuman, art, says Gerald Bruns, marks “the limits of the human, which for Levinas means the limits of the ethical.”6 It is not that art is simply unethical; rather, art is the other of ethics, which in Levinas’s terms is not a claim that it is unethical but that it is an event, as exemplified in the works of Blanchot, that delivers us up to the “inhuman, to the frightfulness of the Neuter” (PN, p. 154). The Neuter is not of the order of being, nor is it the ineffable: “it is but an excluded middle that, properly speaking, is not even. Yet there is in it more transcendence than any world-behind-the-world ever gave a glimpse of” (PN, p. 155). In Blanchot, literature does not express, it does not reduce disorder to order; it does not even signify disorder or the Other. It is instead an interminable crossing out of meaning (PN, p. 153).
The question that arises is whether Blanchot is an exception to Levinas’s characterization of literature in “Reality and Its Shadow” or the writer who exemplifies literature’s resistance to meaning, including the ineffable. The essays collected in Proper Names and On Maurice Blanchot suggest that certain writers allow for the experience of the Other in their rejection of the unity of being and knowing, or of the I and consciousness.7 We might be able to construct a Levinasian canon of writers for whom literature is the occlusion of meaning and the subjection of totality to alterity, but such an endeavor subordinates literature to his ethics, thereby making it illustrative of the experience of absence or the strangeness of the self or of alterity.
In “Reality and its Shadow,” Levinas argues that the artwork is a doubling of the real or of the thing of which it is an image. He contrasts the image, which refers to its object by resemblance, with signs, which are “pure transparency” (RS, p. 6). Resemblance, however, is not “the result of a comparison between an image and the original, but … the very movement that engenders the image.” Reality, then, is “not only what it is, what it is disclosed to be in truth, but would be also its double, its shadow, its image” (RS, p. 6). Reality is already allegory; it is that which is and its resemblance, its own image—or such is a view of reality that takes it as the sensible or material manifestation of being. If art as image requires a philosophical criticism to make it speak, to wrench it from the meanwhile, the frozen instant, and return it to the [End Page 267] human world, then reality also requires criticism insofar as it is under the dominion of sight or perception, sameness, and totality, as Levinas charges. This means that art is a self-constatation along the lines of the Saying and the Said.
Levinas echoes his argument about myth and art in his essay “The Other in Proust” when he cautions that “the true interiorization of the Proustian world … is not the result of a subjective vision of reality … [but] arises, rather, from the very structure of the appearances, which are at once what they are and the infinity of what they exclude. This is the case of the soul itself” (PN, p. 101). “The Other in Proust” describes the scission in the soul that separates the I from its state, as if I were accompanied by another self (PN, p. 104). Levinas says that the poet does not teach us or provide knowledge because this would destroy the mystery of the Other, “the proximity of the other. A proximity that, far from meaning something less than identification, opens up the horizons of social existence” (PN, p. 104). Proust’s novel, then, situates the real in relation to “the other as absence and mystery” (PN, p. 105).
I cite this essay, published in 1947, a year before the appearance of “Reality and Its Shadow,” because it not only qualifies Levinas’s criticism of art but also anticipates the argument, spelled out in Otherwise than Being and “Diachrony and Representation,” that the thematization of the Saying in the Said “‘gathers’ the diachrony of time into presence and representation.” The “objectivity of theoretical language” is necessary but is an order derived from the original temporality of the face-to-face or responsibility for the Other.8 Levinas’s view of art cannot be reduced to his rejection of images but rather has to be supplemented by his analysis of ethics as the origin of subjectivity and temporality. In doing so, we find that we approach the philosophical criticism wherein writing is the relation to the nondefinitive, the infinite relation to the Other.
Once we understand the radical nature of Levinasian alterity and, consequently, the burden of what he means by responsibility, then we recognize the inadequacy of much of the moralistic criticism that evokes responsibility to the Other—it reduces the Other to a variant of the same in a universal humanity. This tendency would be deemed unethical by Levinas insofar as it is based on notions of reciprocity and empathy.9 But something else is also at work here; this debased notion of alterity is derivative of what we might call a “Greek” concept of representation—it is more fitting of Aristotle than it is of Levinas or Derrida. Greek ethics are oriented toward the seen—what is representable—and toward exemplarity. An ethical reading of literature or a literary ethics, if such [End Page 268] a thing is possible, must then confront the ancient quarrel between philosophy and literature. Beyond the question of philosophical approaches to literature lies the question posed by Plato and Aristotle, “How should one live?” Plato accused literature, or poiēsis to be more precise, of being a bad instructor, feeding the passions rather than promoting reason. Aristotle, however, offered a defense of literature that, in the view of Martha Nussbaum, recognizes literature’s capacity to render logical, or give a rational account of, the contingent or noncommensurability of events and experiences.10 In short, Aristotle’s ethics and poetics provide a rational account of the uncontrollable, or as Nussbaum argues, the basis for an ethical response to the singular, that which is not accountable to generalization or rule-governed thought.
This concept of the ethical as the capacity to respond to the singular makes the novel, for an Aristotelian such as Nussbaum, a guide to ethics. It rests upon the symmetry between Aristotle’s ethics and his concept of mimesis. It is, I might add, what makes those who think of the other in political terms Aristotelian, at least in their aesthetics if not their ethics.
We can contrast this Aristotelian concept of singularity with that of Levinas, who proposes a singularity without universality. As we have seen, Levinas shares with Plato the belief that art neither teaches nor provides knowledge, but his defense does not lead him to the Aristotelian position, espoused by Nussbaum and shared by Robert Pippin, that art, as in the works of Henry James, gives us “material for reflection … on moral life,” from which we have much to learn.11 This is true in Levinasian terms, insofar as the Said congeals the unique and original relationship with the Other into a universal and abstract “synthesis of the ‘I think’” that finds expression in moral judgments. Such readings rest upon treating the work of literature not only as an example, which demands that the singular be treated thematically and the Other as another ego or the same, but also as subordinate to philosophical discourse, which treats the universal as prior to the individual.12
To reach the singular, it is not enough to suppress this universal discourse; rather, one must discover “the place language has in thought,” which will “remain a consciousness” but an “a-thematic” one, “without an active subject,” without the polarity of subject and object necessary to intentionality. This “consciousness as the passive work of time” is to be described in terms of proximity, of the ethical, not by intentionality (LP, p. 114).
“There is in speech,” Levinas writes, “a relationship with a singularity located outside of the theme of the speech, a singularity that is not [End Page 269] thematized by the speech but is approached” (LP, p. 115). Against the view of language as communication or “the logical work of speech,” Levinas introduces the concept of proximity, which is not physical contact but is itself a signification wherein “the intentional has become ethical.” By ethical he means “a reversal of the subjectivity” that represents beings to itself and takes them as this or that “into a subjectivity that enters into contact with a singularity, excluding identification in the ideal, excluding thematization and representation—an absolute singularity, as such unrepresentable. This is the original language, the foundation of the other one” (LP, p. 116). The ethical designates “a relationship between terms such as are united neither by a synthesis of the understanding nor by a relationship between subject or object, and yet where the one weighs or concerns or is meaningful to the other, where they are bound by a plot which knowing can neither exhaust nor unravel” (LP, p. 116n6).
There is something enigmatic in Levinas’s use of the term plot. What is clear is that the encounter between a subject and the Other is neither an intentional act nor an empirical event. But when he says they are bound by a plot, he appears to mean narrative. While much of Levinas’s account of proximity or the encounter between self and Other takes the form of a narrative, his argument is transcendental. The inexhaustible plot is the ethical, the contact between absolutely singular persons that he calls “proximity.” If this relation is a plot, it is prior to thought or understanding, prior to any story, but as signification it makes stories possible.13 Levinas’s innovation is his argument for ethics, rather than ontology, as first philosophy—an argument that makes little sense if one reads him as describing experiences that lead to the recognition of the Other. The relationship to the Other is an interruption that is never present but past; it appears as an absent presence or a trace. To go beyond the thematic is to betray the plot, to expose its secondariness to a saying that reveals itself in proximity, the encounter with the face of the Other in a past that is never present.
In short, the face-to-face or encounter with the Other is not a social relationship but an originary one; it is with the presence of the third party that the social relationship emerges and thematization becomes necessary. For literary criticism, this means that any reading that remains thematic operates on the level of the Said and cannot account for the original relationship to the Other or the ethical. Therefore, it must be stressed that if reading begins with thematization, it must go beyond the thematic. It remains a question whether we can ask the novelist to account for the Other or if we can respond to the work of literature [End Page 270] ethically, which means betraying it, but I argue that such a betrayal has been the plot of literature all along.
1. Among the more valuable contributions to Levinas and literary studies are In Proximity: Emmanuel Levinas and the Eighteenth Century, ed. Melvyn New with Robert Bernasconi and Richard A. Cohen (Lubbock: Texas Tech University Press, 2001); Levinas and Nineteenth-Century Literature: Ethics and Otherness from Romanticism to Realism, ed. Donald R. Wehrs and David P. Haney (Newark: University of Delaware Press, 2009); and Jill Robbins, Altered Reading: Levinas and Literature (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1999).
2. Emmanuel Levinas, Otherwise Than Being; or, Beyond Essence, trans. Alphonso Lingis (1974; repr., Pittsburgh: Duquesne University Press, 1998), pp. 37, 38; hereafter abbreviated OB. Originally published in 1974, Otherwise Than Being has been held to be Levinas’s response to Derrida’s reading of Totality and Infinity in his “Violence and Metaphysics: An Essay on the Thought of Emmanuel Levinas,” in Writing and Difference, trans. Alan Bass (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1978), pp. 79–153 (originally published in 1964 in Revue de Métaphysique et de Morale). Robert Bernasconi, Simon Critchley, and John Llewelyn have all written extensively on the relation between Derrida and Levinas. A representative sampling of their works includes Bernasconi, “The Trace of Levinas in Derrida,” in Derrida and Differance, ed. David Wood and Robert Bernasconi (Evanston: Northwestern University Press, 1988), pp. 13–29; Bernasconi, “Levinas and Derrida: The Question of the Closure of Metaphysics,” in Face to Face with Levinas, ed. Richard Cohen (Albany: State University of New York Press, 1986), pp. 181–202; Critchley, The Ethics of Deconstruction: Derrida and Levinas (1992; 2nd ed., Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 1999); and John Llewelyn, Appositions of Jacques Derrida and Emmanuel Levinas (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2002).
3. Levinas says that this methodological betrayal is inherent in philosophy: the Saying must be “unsaid in order to extract the otherwise than being from the said” (Otherwise Than Being, p. 7).
4. Emmanuel Levinas, “A Conversation with André Dalmas,” in Proper Names, trans. Michael B. Smith (Palo Alto: Stanford University Press, 1996), p. 151; hereafter abbreviated PN. This edition differs from the French by including Sur Maurice Blanchot (Paris: Fata Morgana, 1976), where the interview I am quoting from originally appeared.
5. Emmanuel Levinas, “Reality and Its Shadow,” in Collected Philosophical Papers, trans. Alphonso Lingis (Dordrecht: Martinus Nijhhoff, 1987), p. 11; hereafter abbreviated RS.
6. Gerald L. Bruns, “Art and Poetry in Levinas,” in The Cambridge Companion to Levinas, ed. Simon Critchley and Robert Bernasconi (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2002), p. 220. [End Page 271]
7. Edith Wyschogrod sees a kind of symmetry between the formlessness of Levinas’s ethics—the Other resists language—and art’s divesting of things of form and reducing them to sensation. See “The Art in Ethics: Aesthetics, Objectivity, and Alterity in the Philosophy of Emmanuel Levinas,” in Ethics as First Philosophy: The Significance of Emmanuel Levinas for Philosophy, Literature and Religion, ed. Adriaan T. Peperzak (New York: Routledge, 1995), pp. 137–38.
8. Emmanuel Levinas, “Diachrony and Representation,” in Entre Nous, trans. Michael B. Smith and Barbara Harshav (New York: Columbia University Press, 1998), p. 165.
9. See Colin Davis, Levinas: An Introduction (Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 1996), pp. 25–33. Davis discusses Levinas’s critique of Husserl’s argument that empathy gives evidence of other consciousnesses. This results in making the Other the Same.
10. Martha Nussbaum, Love’s Knowledge: Essays on Philosophy and Literature (New York: Oxford University Press, 1990), pp. 36–37.
11. Robert B. Pippin, Henry James and the Modern Moral Life (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000), p. 18. I attempt to deal with the problem of thematic readings of Jamesian ethics in “The Betrayal of Love: The Golden Bowl and Levinasian Ethics,” Henry James Review 37, no. 1 (Winter 2016): 1–19.
12. Emmanuel Levinas, “Language and Proximity,” in Collected Philosophical Papers, p. 113; hereafter abbreviated LP.
13. See the discussion of proximity in Michael L. Morgan, Discovering Levinas (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2007), pp. 126–27. [End Page 272]