Trace of Judaism
Dostoevsky, Babel, Mandelstam, Levinas
Publication Year: 2008
Published by: Northwestern University Press
This book first emerged as a dissertation under the kindly and hyperactive direction of Caryl Emerson, who did for me only what she continues to do for most of her Ph.D. students—which is to say, far more than can be optimistically expected even from the best of mentors. As a comparative literature student at Princeton, my work also benefited—intellectually, materially, or morally ...
List of Abbreviations
Introduction: Levinas and Russian Literature
The world wants to be seen. It demands one’s attention and response. This is an ethical demand and an aesthetic one. Nearly every artistic or literary manifesto claims to offer an aesthetic sensibility that will better “do justice” to the world. Wittgenstein’s cryptic assertion that “ethics and aesthetics are one and the same” feels strangely intuitive either because it must be true or because we need it to be true.1 ...
1. Idiots and Demons: Dostoevsky’s Aesthetic Perils
Dostoevsky's characters tend toward vocal excess: excessive sincerity, insincerity, feeling, intellection, faith, doubt, and above all, excess speech. They talk too much. And their talk is typically charged with cosmic and practical questions of right and wrong—questions animated and muddled by the gales of human nature that Dostoevsky depicts so well. ...
2. “And I Most of All”: Levinas in The Brothers Karamazov
"I'm leading you alternately between belief and disbelief,” the devil confesses to Ivan Karamazov, who is tormented because he is unable to sort out his responsibility in the murder of his father, Fyodor Pavlovich (PSS 15:80; BK 645). Nina Pelikan Straus notes a tonal kinship between Jacques Derrida and this shabby devil that Ivan hallucinates in The Brothers Karamazov.1 She suggests that Derrida’s late turn toward a “new ...
3. Isaac Babel’s Dirty Ethics
It seems counterintuitive to make the leap from Dostoevsky to Isaac Babel. If anything, Babel, who wanted to write at least as well as Tolstoy and Maupassant, nominally sought to distance himself from Dostoevsky.1 In his cheerfully wry 1916 manifesto, “Odessa,” a 22-year-old Babel calls for a “Literary Messiah” to bring southern sunshine to Russian literature, citing Dostoevsky as the emblem of that dark Petersburg tradition ...
4. Osip Mandelstam’s Judaism: Chaos and Cares
Poetry is synecdoche for all aesthetic activity because it seems like the most autonomous, least instrumental art, even as it retains a denotative link to the world at large. This paradoxically concrete signification-for-its-own-sake perhaps explains why almost anything remotely aesthetic may be described as poetic, if not always fictional or musical or architectural. It is appropriate, then, to conclude a book on ethics and ...
Conclusion: The Ethics of Aesthetics, the Aesthetics of Ethics
The prevailing modes of ethical critciism, in Robert Eaglestone’s account, are “traditionalist” and “postmodernist.” The first looks to realist, “readerly” texts for a content-based ethics from literature. The second favors more “writerly” works that interrupt reading by evoking the gap between life, text, and interpretation - suggesting literature’s basic “unreadability” and therefore the need for an ethics of criticism.1 ...