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The "Difficult Reading" of English and Rabbinic Texts
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.
Gift, Responsibility, Diachrony, Hope
Over the course of six decades, Emmanuel Levinas developed a radical understanding of time. Like Martin Heidegger, Levinas saw the everyday experience of synchronous time marked by clocks and calendars as an abstraction from the way time functions more fundamentally. Yet, in a definitive break from Heidegger’s analysis of temporality, by the end of his career Levinas’s philosophy of time becomes the linchpin for his argument that the other person has priority over the self. For Levinas, time is a feature of the self’s encounter with the face, and it is his understanding of time that makes possible his radical claim that ethics is first philosophy. Levinas’s Philosophy of Time takes a chronological approach to examine Levinas’s deliberations on time, noting along the way the ways in which his account is informed by aspects of Judaism and by other thinkers: Rosenzweig, Bergson, Husserl, Heidegger. The progression in Levinas’s account, Severson argues, moves through his viewing time as a gift or a responsibility in earlier works and culminates in the groundbreaking expressions of his later works in which he rests his resounding philosophy of radical responsibility on an understanding of time as diachrony. Further, by focusing on this progression in Levinas’s thought, Severson brings new insight to a number of aspects in Levinas studies that have consistently troubled readers, including the differences between his early and later writings, his controversial invocation of the feminine, and the blurry line between philosophy and religion in his work. Finally, drawing on Levinas’s own acknowledgment that significant work remained to be done on the concept of time, Severson considers the problems and benefits of Levinas’s understanding of time and ultimately suggests some possibilities for thinking about time after Levinas. In particular, he reconsiders Levinas’s account of the feminine and gender, identifies an implicit “fourth person” that functions behind the scenes of Levinas’s work, and highlights the concept of hope in both a future justice and the possibility of a restoration that is not egocentric but for-the-other.
Vol. 6 (2011) through current issue
Dedicated to scholarly work on the innovations and implications of the thought of Emmanuel Levinas, Levinas Studies includes insightful and inspiring essays by well-known and newer Levinas scholars. Under the general editorship of Jeffrey Bloechl, one volume of original essays appears each year.
Ethics, Philosophy, and Religion
A prominent scholar of the life and work of Emmanuel Levinas, Richard A. Cohen collects in this volume the most significant of his writings on Levinas over the past decade. With these essays, Cohen not only clearly explains the nuances of Levinas’s project, but he attests to the importance of Levinas’s distinctive insights for philosophy and religion. Divided into two parts, the book’s part one considers Levinas’s philosophical project by bringing him into dialogue with Western thought, including Plato, Aristotle, Kant, even Shakespeare, as well as twentieth century thinkers such as Heidegger, Husserl, Sartre, and Buber among others. In part two, Cohen addresses Levinas’s contribution to religious thought, particularly regarding his commentary on and approach to Judaism, by using the interpretive lens of Levinas’s Talmudic writing, “A Religion for Adults.”
Throughout the book, these seminal essays provide a thorough illumination of Levinas’s most original insight and significant contribution to Husserlian phenomenology — which permeates both his philosophical and religious works — that signification and meaning are ultimately based on an ethically structured intersubjectivity that cannot be understood in terms of language and being. Cohen succeeds in defending and clarifying Levinas’s commitment to the primacy of ethics, his “ethics as first philosophy,” which was the hallmark of the French phenomenologist’s intellectual career.
As a reader of her literary predecessors, and as a writer who herself contributed to the emerging literary tradition, Margaret Cavendish is an extraordinary figure whose role in early modern literary history has yet to be fully acknowledged. In this study, Lara Dodds reassesses the literary invention of Cavendish — the use she makes of other writers, her own various forms of writing, and the ways in which she creates her own literary persona — to transform our understanding of Cavendish’s considerable accomplishments and influence. In spite of Cavendish’s claims that she did little reading whatsoever, Dodds demonstrates that the duchess was an agile, avid reader (and misreader) of other writers, all of them male, all of them now considered canonical — Shakespeare, Jonson, Donne, Milton, Bacon. In each chapter, Dodds discusses Cavendish’s “moments of reading” of these authors, revealing their influence on Cavendish while also providing a lens to investigate more broadly the many literary forms — poetry, letters, fiction, drama — that Cavendish employed. Seeking a fruitful exchange between literary history and the history of reading, Dodds examines both the material and social circumstances of reading and the characteristic formal features and thematic preoccupations of Cavendish’s writing in each of the major genres. Thus, not only is our view of Cavendish and her specific literary achievements enhanced, but we see too the contributions of this female reader to the emerging idea of “literature” in late seventeenth century England. Most previous studies of Cavendish have been preoccupied with literary biography, looking into her royalist politics, materialist natural philosophy, and ambivalent protofeminism. The Literary Invention of Margaret Cavendish is significant, then, in its focus outward from Cavendish to her most enduring and positive contributions to literary history — her revival of an expansive model of literary invention that rests uneasily, but productively, alongside a Jonsonian aesthetics of the verisimilar and a Hobbesian politics of social strife.
Throughout history, artists have often taken their inspiration from religious sources, stories, and imagery, especially from episodes centered on the miracles or martyrdom of Christian saints. In our present age, works of art have never been more carefully preserved and enhanced; museum exhibitions and visits to view artwork in churches and cathedrals have never been more popular. Yet the meanings behind these masterpieces and their tremendous artistic heritage, in contrast, have never been so neglected.
The Lives of the Saints through 100 Masterpieces has been designed to look beyond the unquestioned artistic merit of these paintings — often quite well known to us as visual images — to deepen our appreciation of the meanings behind such masterpieces. Jacques Duquesne’s descriptions of each piece recount the stories they represent and explain, further, the religious, historical, and cultural background surrounding them.
Levinas and Metaphysical Desire
One of the most persistent and poignant human experiences is the sensation of longing—a restlessness perhaps best described as the unspoken conviction that something is missing from our lives. In this study, Drew M. Dalton attempts to illuminate this experience by examining the philosophical thought of Emmanuel Levinas on longing, or what Levinas terms “metaphysical desire.”
Metaphysical desire, according to Levinas, does not stem from any determinate lack within us, nor does it aim at a particular object beyond us, much less promise any eventual satisfaction. Rather, it functions in the realm of the infinite where such distinctions as inside and outside or one and the other are indistinguishable, perhaps even eliminated. As Levinas conceives such longing, it becomes a mediator in our relation to the other—both the human other and the divine Other.
Dalton follows the meandering trail of Levinas’s thought along a series of dialogues with some of the philosophers within the history of the Western tradition who have most influenced his corpus. By tracing the genealogy of Levinas’s notion of metaphysical desire—namely in the works of Plato, Heidegger, Fichte, Schelling, and Otto—the nature of this Levinasian theme is elucidated to reveal that it is not simply an idealism, a “hagiography of desire” detached from actual experience and resulting in a disconnect between his phenomenological account and our own lives. Rather, Levinas’s account of metaphysical desire points to a phenomenology of human longing that is both an ethical and religious phenomenon. In the end, human longing is revealed to be one of the most profound ways in which a subject becomes a subject, arising to its “true self,” and hearing the call to responsibility placed upon it by the Other.
Throughout, Dalton explicates the nuance of a number of key Levinasian terms, many of which have been taken from the Western philosophical tradition and reinscribed with a new meaning. Eros, the “Good beyond being,” shame, responsibility, creation, the trace, the il y a, and the holy are discovered to be deeply tied to Levinas’s account of metaphysical desire, resulting in a conclusion regarding longing’s role in the relationship between the finite and the Infinite.
The prevalent worldview of early modern England, clearly shaped by Protestantism, dismissed magical belief as an ideological delusion inherent in Catholicism. That same Protestantism encouraged a strong sense of individualism, with its emphasis on self-transformation, through which a new masculinity found expression. Why, then, did magical self-empowerment retain such a hold on the artistic and cultural imagination of early modern English society?
Ian McAdam’s innovative study suggests that the answer to this question may lie partly in an increasingly ironic presentation of magic. While the magical beliefs of the period asserted, on the one hand, individual empowerment through a quasi-religious self-justification and a presumed mastery of the objective world, those beliefs also gave rise to various anxieties concerning power and control — anxieties that created difficulty with conceptions of masculine and feminine gender roles as well as cultural attitudes toward Nature and the natural. Thus, McAdam contends, the increased interest in magic was connected to a crisis in masculine identity, which was exacerbated by the Protestant Reformation and its concern with individual empowerment as well as class, sexual, and religious identifications. Moreover, as artistic presentations — especially in the theater — were concerned with magic as a form of psychological, ideological, and cultural control, the study finds the psychoanalytic concept of narcissism useful in explaining the notion of selfhood as it developed in early modern England.
In chapters that explore various literary texts, McAdam considers depictions of magic by tracing a chronological path that follows a dialectical struggle involving a precarious attempt to balance “supra-rational” and “sub-rational” impulses. Beginning with Greene’s Friar Bacon and Friar Bungay, which depicts some ambivalent attitudes toward magical self-empowerment and the cultural concern of a feminine sexual threat to masculine (magical) control, the book moves to the Calvinist constructions of manhood in Marlowe’s Doctor Faustus and eventually to considerations of male self-definition and its reliance on women, class considerations in more oblique magical contexts, and surrender to magical (and ideological) powers in the works of Shakespeare, Marston, Middleton, Chapman, and Jonson.
In addition to appealing to those who study early modern literature and drama, this book will interest scholars of gender and those concerned with the theological basis of human subjectivity in the Renaissance.
"Written to Aftertimes"
This is the first full-length study of the relation between Milton and Homer, arguably Milton’s most important precursor. It is also the first study of a major interpoetic relationship that is responsive to the historicist critical enterprise, which has been dominant within literary study for the past 30 years, and engages the work of theorists of canon formation such as Barbara Herrnstein Smith and John Guillory. Most studies of the relation between one poet and another are wholly diachronic, examining the way in which brief, verbal recollections of the earlier poet—allusions—enhance or qualify the significance of passages in the later, alluding poet’s work. But this study goes beyond that, considering its focal poets within a synchronic framework that allows us to respond to the Homer of mid-seventeenth century England specifically rather than to some transhistorically unvarying Homer, thus revealing that Homer is important not only to the significance but also to the canonical status of Paradise Lost. Machacek not only examines the ways in which Homer enriches our understanding of Paradise Lost, but also argues that Milton was guided by the ways that Homeric epics were being reproduced in his time to “leave something so written to aftertimes as they should not willingly let it die.” The Homeric poems influenced Milton in his own ambition of composing an enduring work of literature, as Machacek details in chapters on the war in heaven as moral exemplum; on Milton’s negotiation of the contradictions inherent in the genre of Christian epic; on the relation of Paradise Lost to the emerging critical categories of originality and the sublime; and on the institution of the school, to which Milton entrusted the perpetuation of his epic. Milton’s approach to (and success at) securing canonical status for Paradise Lost provides important insights not only into his own artistry, but into the dynamics of literary canon formation in general. Milton and Homer will appeal to Miltonists, classicists, scholars of early modern literature, and those interested in the debate over the formation of the literary canon.