In 1937, Emmanuel Levinas published a review of Lev Shestov’s Kierkegaard and the Existential Philosophy.1 In one of the first studies in English on Levinas, Edith Wyschogrod claims: “What Levinas writes of Shestov’s analysis of Kierkegaard might well be taken as a program for his own future work.”2 The review of Shestov’s Kierkegaard book shows Levinas sympathy with Shestov’s rebellion against rationalism and totalism, his complaint that the individual and all her concerns, desires, and suffering were crushed by the world and ignored by philosophy. But his review of Shestov’s book also shows Levinas’s concern the rebellion could end in “the vanity of personal protest” and substitute subjective imprisonment for the imprisonment of history.3 Such irrationalism could lead to its own forms of violence, which in 1937 were becoming apparent.
Like Levinas, Shestov helped introduce Husserl in France, although in Shestov’s case as an adversary to Husserl with whom he developed a friendship.4 The exchange between Shestov and Levinas’s Strasbourg teacher Jean Hering helped publicize Husserl in France.5 As an [End Page 237] exile in Europe, Shestov published his most powerful works Potestas Clavium, In Job’s Balances, Athens and Jerusalem, and Kierkegaard and the Existential Philosophy. Shestov sought, through a continued hammering, to escape the trap of Being toward radical freedom.6 The form of Shestov’s escape attempt can be situated between Levinas and Kierkegaard. He shares with Levinas the desire to escape ontology but, like Kierkegaard, Shestov’s version of the escape is into a radically individual relation with God through a violent repudiation of the universal; thus, both Levinas’s disagreement with and attraction to Shestov in his 1937 review of Kierkegaard and the Existential Philosophy prefigure his rejection of Kierkegaard.
One must be wary of reading Shestov as a kind of introduction to any thinker he engages, and thus the inclusion for many years of Shestov’s book on short bibliographies on Kierkegaard was extremely misleading. The book was quite influential when it appeared in 1936 around the same time as Jean Wahl’s Études Kierkegaardiennes. Shestov’s work is filled with hyperbole, exaggeration, and polemic. All of his writings are more literary essays than works of scholarship. And it is this mesmerizing writing that Russian literary critic D. S. Mirsky called “the tidiest, the most elegant, the most concentrated. . . in short, the most classical prose in the whole of modern Russian Literature.”7 A more perceptive reader than many Kierkegaardians who have read Kierkegaard and the Existential Philosophy, Levinas wrote in 1937 that “the philosophical project of M. Shestov often takes on the allure of brilliant literary essay. It is a ‘poem’ rather than a ‘work.’ The author is more present therein than his subject.”8
Here Levinas notes several important points about Shestov’s Kierkegaard book. Perhaps the most important is that it is not primarily about Kierkegaard that “the author is more present therein than his subject.” Levinas sees Shestov had indeed seized on one of the central aspects of Kierkegaard’s thought but “what affects us more deeply still, and this is not its smallest attraction, the ideas of M. Shestov.”9 This is true of all of Shestov’s work. It is a “vast symposium” around the problems that agitated Shestov. [End Page 238]
Emmanuel Levinas, review of Kierkegaard and the Existential Philosophy (Vox clamantis in deserto), by Leon Chestov, trans. T. Rageot and B. de Schloezer, Revue des Études Juives 101, nos. 1–2 (1937): 139–41.
The thought of Søren Kierkegaard, Danish philosopher, dead in 1855, has known for some time a rare good fortune. Jaspers and Heidegger in German, Jean Wahl and Gabriel Marcel in France, are some of the names that permit us to measure the quality of the influence, which, in a very solid manner, he has also exercised on the only modern philosopher of Judaism worthy of the name, Franz Rosenzweig. This good fortune is not just a mode. The moral crisis opened by the War of 1914 has given men a pointed feeling of the impotence of reason, of the profound discord between rationalist civilization...