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  • Levinas on Art and AestheticismGetting “Reality and Its Shadow” Right
  • Richard A. Cohen (bio)

1. The Standard Misreading of Levinas on Art

a. Introduction

Much has been written in the secondary literature about Levinas and art and about Levinas and literature more specifically. In addition to Maurice Blanchot’s observations in The Writing of the Disaster, which is more a primary text than a secondary source, two exceptional studies — well-written, insightful, nuanced, erudite — in English on Levinas and literature are Robert Eaglestone’s book of 1997 entitled Ethical Criticism: Reading after Levinas and Jill Robbins’s 1999 book entitled Altered Reading: Levinas and Literature.1 No doubt there are other fine studies, but these two will be sufficient for our purposes. They are scholarly in the best sense, effecting to understand Levinas first of all, hence hermeneutically sympathetic, and at the same time taking critical distances, articulating reservations, basically unconvinced by Levinas’s claims. Unfortunately, given all their considerable virtues, these books are also hampered by a serious flaw, one that unhappily appears in all too much of the secondary literature on Levinas and art. [End Page 149] Despite their good will and intelligence, both books fundamentally misunderstand the relation of Levinas’s thought on and to art, and thus also his relation to literature more specifically, because they misconstrue the nature and the status of Levinas’s account of art within his philosophy. Surely this is serious and unfortunate. One aim of the present essay is to expose this flaw, despite its pervasiveness and entrenchment. Another aim, more positive and ultimately the means by which to accomplish the first, is to present a faithful account of what Levinas really has to say about art.

Counter to the misgivings leveled against Levinas in the above two books, not to mention the many commentaries that repeat more or less the same things, the present article proposes two theses in his defense. To the charge that Levinas has misrepresented art, my first claim is that Levinas does not misrepresent art and, indeed, that he has a fine sense of it. To the charge that Levinas is hostile to art, my second claim is that Levinas is not at all hostile to art, one sign of which — noticed by both critics — is the literary and aesthetic references that abound in his own writings. That is to say, contrary to his critics, Levinas grasps quite well the nature and the value of art. His own literary practices, found throughout his own writings, some of them quite obvious, such as exegeses of Shakespeare and repeated citations taken from Dostoevsky and Grossman, not to mention a wealth of other references and allusions to artists and writers, and, of course, including explicit comments and discussions about art, all these are consistent with and help underwrite my larger claim that Levinas understands and values art and, indeed, that he understands it very well and values it highly.

To be sure, and no one can mistake this, Levinas’s philosophy is ultimately an ethics and not an aesthetics. The ultimum verbum belongs not to aesthetics but to moral responsibility and the quest for justice. It is here, for those who would make aesthetics ultimate, that the rub lies, here that we find the spur and speculum for their distortion and darkening of Levinas on art. All the more necessary, then, are the two sides of the present essay: to understand properly what Levinas is saying by means of a careful reading of his one article devoted entirely to [End Page 150] art, “Reality and Its Shadow,” to discern in as unprejudiced a fashion as possible what Levinas actually has to say about art and its value, and by so proceeding to unmask the inadequacies of Levinas’s aesthetic critics. Getting Levinas right certainly does not foreclose criticism, by any means. It is, nevertheless, the first step to serious criticism or to acceptance. Getting him wrong, however, goes nowhere at all, because it has not even begun.

Inasmuch as their mishandling of Levinas is in an important sense basically the same, in the following I treat Robbins’s Altered Reading and Eaglestone’s...


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