restricted access 11. THE HOLOCAUST
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11. THE HOLOCAUST The rise of anti-Semitism in the 1930s, the threat of totalitarianism , and the Holocaust itself not only “mark” Levinas’s work, they set in motion a complex intertwining of his philosophical reflection with the state of the world in which it unfolded. I have taken care in this chapter to present Levinas’s writings that have a direct bearing on the Holocaust in chronological order because, whether they are of a philosophical, a political, or a purely personal nature, these utterances should be considered in their relation to the event of the Holocaust itself. Further, important developments in Levinas’s thinking in this respect would otherwise be obscured.1 1934: “Reflections on the Philosophy of Hitlerism” Already in 1934 Levinas published (in the progressive, avantgarde French Catholic journal Esprit, founded by Emmanuel Mounier two years earlier) “Quelques reflections sur la philosophie de l’hitlérisme.” The essay appeared in Critical Inquiry in 1990 as “Reflections on the Philosophy of Hitlerism.” In a short prefatory note to the editors of that journal, Levinas sums up the intent of his startlingly prescient piece: The article stems from the conviction that the source of the bloody barbarism of National Socialism lies not in some contingent anomaly within human reasoning, nor in some accidental ideological misunderstanding. This article expresses the conviction that this source stems from the essential possibility of elemental Evil into 109 SMITH_F13_109-121 3/1/05 6:06 PM Page 109 which we can be led by logic and against which Western philosophy has not sufficiently insured itself.2 The note then makes a clear connection with “the ontology of a being concerned with being,” a formula that is then identified as “a being, to use the Heideggerian expression, ‘dem es in seinem Sein um dieses Sein selbst geht.’”3 Levinas takes the being thus described by Heidegger as still essentially the subject of transcendental idealism, “that before all else wishes to be free.” This freedom is in turn associated with a “liberalism” that Levinas certainly does not disdain — but he questions whether it is sufficient “to achieve an authentic dignity for the human subject.” In fact he judges it as being insufficient, as is clear from his closing question , “Does the subject arrive at the human condition prior to assuming responsibility for the other man in the act of election that raises him to this height? This election comes from a god — or from God — who beholds him in the face of the other person, his neighbor, the original ‘site’ of the Revelation.”4 This short essay begins with a brief justification for even speaking of a “philosophy ” of Hitlerism. Journalists, Levinas says, may be content with contrasting the universalism of Judaism and Christianity with the particularism of race; in language that evokes an existentialist analysis, he proposes rather to return to “the original decision” and to examine “the secret nostalgia” within the German soul. The West has always had a notion of the radical freedom of human beings. History limits that freedom, but both Judaism and Christianity find within the present something that can lift us out of the destiny inscribed in the past. That something is the painful recognition of our powerlessness to repair the irreparable. It announces “the repentance that generates the forgiveness that redeems.”5 Whence the defeat of the tyranny of the irreversibility of time and human freedom. In contrast with the tragic view of life reflected in Greek mythology (e.g., the curse of the house of Atreus), Christianity presents a “mystic drama.” The Cross 110 Part Two: Themes SMITH_F13_109-121 3/1/05 6:06 PM Page 110 liberates, and the Eucharist is a daily new beginning. This new order triumphs by “tearing up the bedrock of natural existence.” The soul’s detachment is “not an abstract state” but rather “the positive power to become detached and abstract.” Liberalism has retained from this spiritual revolution one of its essential elements , “the sovereign freedom of reason.” This is a very direct assertion of the Judeo-Christian origin of liberalism. Already we see an ominous portent, however, for the world of liberalism seems oblivious of the determinative forces of history and the psychological, irrational drives within human beings. Marxism is accredited as the first challenge to this view, with its now familiar questioning of the sovereign individual will which surmounts the material conditions of its being. Hence Marxism is opposed not just...


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