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Levinas and Medieval Literature

The "Difficult Reading" of English and Rabbinic Texts

Edited by Ann W. Astell & J.A. Jackson

Publication Year: 2009

This collection of essays puts into dialogue the ethical philosophy of Emmanuel Levinas with a variety of English and rabbinic writings from the Middle Ages, when literature was regarded as ethical discourse, and reading itself, when rightly performed, was seen as a moral act.

Levinas and Medieval Literature takes the unique approach of connecting Christian allegory, talmudic hermeneutics, and Levinasian interpretation. Levinas’s philosophy illuminates what it means to classify medieval texts as profoundly ethical; and the medieval works, in their aurality, fragmentation, and layered narrative structures, provide a crucial context for understanding Levinas’s “difficult reading” and his underappreciated aesthetics.

These discussions draw inspiration from Levinas who, as a philosopher and talmudic commentator, continues premodern traditions in a postmodern key. In their view, Levinas’s “postmodern” method of reading, his ethical sensibilities, his very language, appear anachronistically medieval. At the same time, they discover that Levinas hyperbolically amplifies the themes with which medieval writings resonate: hospitality, onto(theo)logy, infinity, theodicy, Creation, eros, the maternal, the Face, substitution, and pardon. They find in medieval interpretive practices the very concerns with ethical reading that powerfully engaged Levinas.

Encountered dialogically, these mutual themes and concerns of the medievals and Levinas inform and transform our sense of intellectual history.

Published by: Duquesne University Press

Title Page, Copyright Page

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pp. vii-viii

The idea for this collection was inspired by sessions held two years in a row at the International Congress on Medieval Studies in Kalamazoo, Michigan in 2004 and 2005. We want to thank the organizers of those Congresses for accepting our proposals for special sessions on the topic “Levinas and Medieval Literature.” The response to the calls for papers, the papers delivered, and the ensuing discussions made it clear...


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pp. ix-x

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1. Before the Face of the Book: A Levinasian Pre-face

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pp. 1-14

In an Anglo-Saxon riddle, the Bible speaks, alive as a book after its death as an animal’s skin. It describes its killing by an enemy, its washing in water, its drying in the sun, the scraping off of its hair, its being cut with a sharp knife, its inscription with a pen, its binding, its rubrication with blood-red letters, its illumination with gold, its great usefulness to humanity. At the end of its cryptic autobiography, it teases...

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2. Difficult Reading

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pp. 15-34

Whereas Russian was the language that Levinas initially spoke with his family, the first language he learned to read was Hebrew. Contrary to the sequence of most children’s acquisition of a language, namely, from oral to literate, Levinas read Hebrew before he spoke it. Moreover, the feel he developed for the “extraordinary presence of its characters"...

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3. Levinas, Allegory, and Chaucer’s Clerk’s Tale

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pp. 35-56

Although Emmanuel Levinas has seldom (if ever) been called an allegorist, some of his writings share surprising elements with medieval allegory. His work, for example, is rich in figurative language, including such terms as the face, the trace, the hostage, and...

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4. “In his eyes stood a light, not beautiful”: Levinas, Hospitality, Beowulf

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pp. 57-84

I begin with an ending.1 In Adieu to Emmanuel Levinas, Jacques Derrida argues that Emmanuel Levinas’s philosophy, especially in Totality and Infinity, has bequeathed to us an “immense treatise of hospitality.” According to Derrida, although “the word ‘hospitality’ occurs relatively seldom

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5. There Is Horror: The Awntyrs off Arthure, the Face of the Dead, and the Maternal Other

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pp. 85-106

The Gospel according to St. Luke records Jesus’ parable (unique among those in the synoptic Gospels) of the rich man and Lazarus, the poor man, to whose hunger, rags, and sores the wealthy one, living luxuriously, pays no heed. Tormented after his death in the flames of Hades (the Greek term used to translate the Hebrew...

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6. Doing Justice to Isaac Levinas, the Akedah, and the Brome Play of Abraham and Isaac

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pp. 107-136

As Eric Auerbach so famously noted, the account of Abraham’s near sacrifice of Isaac is spare and enigmatic, but in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, Middle English dramatists fleshed out Genesis 22 to suit their own dramatic needs, religious aims, and ideological purposes.1 Six versions of the Abraham and Isaac episode are preserved in Middle...

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7. The Personifi cational Face Piers Plowman Rethought through Levinas and Bronowski

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pp. 137-156

Among the ancient rhetorical tropes, prosopopeia, or personification, has, along with its superordinate mode allegory, come to enjoy some renewed attention in Piers Plowman studies. Most notably (and recently) Mary Carruthers has urged readers of the poem to think of a scale or spectrum concerning Langland’s figural language, ranging...

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8. The Infinite Desire of Pearl

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pp. 157-184

Theodore Bogdanos’s beautiful meditation on Pearl begins to define the inexpressibility of the poem’s theopoetics: “A fraction of historical time in a man’s life is engulfed in eternity; yet it suddenly expands and possesses eternity within itself — if only for a flashing moment of powerful vision.”1 The vision at the heart of the poem cannot be properly...

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9. Criseyde’s Chances: Courtly Love and Ethics About to Come

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pp. 185-206

As is well known Troilus and Criseyde stretches the reader’s conception of moral and political agency where important constraints on human freedom are concerned, constraints that are repeatedly figured by chance, adventure, and fortune.1 To take a conspicuous example, Troilus’s amorous feeling is generated as a result of a fortuitous glance...

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10. The Wound of the Infinite: Rereading Levinas through Rashi’s Commentary on the Song of Songs

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pp. 207-226

According to Hamlet, “there is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so” (II.ii.259). While to the contemporary mind this might suggest moral relativism, a medieval as well as a Renaissance audience (to a large degree) would have rather emphasized the implications of the...

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11. “A Land that Devours Its Inhabitants”: Midrashic Reading, Levinas, and Medieval Literary Exegesis

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pp. 227-254

The Gospel according to St. Luke attributes the historical beginning of Christian exegesis of the Hebrew Scriptures in chapter 24:13–32 to Jesus himself.1 Two disciples, on their way to Emmaus, encounter (but do not immediately recognize) Jesus after his resurrection from the dead. “Beginning with Moses and with all the prophets,” Luke relates,...

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12. When Pardon Is Impossible: Two Talmudic Tales, Chaucer’s Pardoner’s Tale, and Levinas

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pp. 255-280

In the long history of thought about pardon, questions about the impossibility of forgiveness have traditionally arisen at one of two poles in the affected relationship: that of the injured party and its capacity to forgive or that of the offender, who must first beg and then accept forgiveness. Emphasizing the first of these, Emmanuel Levinas sees...

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13. Those Evil Goslings, Those Evil Stories: Letting the Boys Out of Their Cave

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pp. 281-304

How can stories of allegorical caves help demonstrate the value of ethical criticism summoned and scrutinized by Levinas? Unlike narratives in which, according to Levinas, “image[s] neutralize [the] real relationship” between a concept and an object,1 Boccaccio’s introduction to the fourth day...


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pp. 305-358

About the Contributors

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pp. 359-362


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pp. 363-374

E-ISBN-13: 9780820705453
Print-ISBN-13: 9780820704203

Page Count: 384
Publication Year: 2009

Research Areas


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Subject Headings

  • Lévinas, Emmanuel -- Ethics.
  • Literature and morals.
  • Religion and literature -- History -- To 1500.
  • Ethics in literature.
  • English literature -- Middle English, 1100-1500 -- History and criticism.
  • Rabbinical literature -- History and criticism.
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