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  • Levinas’s Law
  • Alon Kantor*

. . . I think that in the case before us it may safely be assumed that ‘in the beginning was the Deed.’


Although the shrewdest judges of the witches and even the witches themselves were convinced of the guilt of witchery, this guilt nevertheless did not exist. This applies to all guilt.


I. Before the Law

Before the Law one is already guilty. That is, one does not need the Law in order to be guilty. One is guilty, as such. But in order to know guilt one must face the Law.

Between these poles ethics will have been begotten.

But can we even say poles and claim thereby, a certain binarism? Is there a binarism of guilt and Law? Long before Freud, St. Paul had rendered this “original binary” irrelevant, when he showed the deadly aporetic circularity, rather than a dialectical opposition, of these forces. When Paul writes: “The law entered in, that sin might abound . . .” (ROM. 5: 20), the commandment, when it came, “gave life to sin” and so “slew me” (7: 9), he only anticipates a reversal of that which he just declared, namely, it is sin that, “taking occasion,” employs the Law in order “to bestir itself and work concupiscence in me.” It is sin that, “utilizing the law, seduces me and by its means slew me” (7: 8, 11). It is the Law, therefore, that produces sin, that which makes sin manifest: “It was sin which, in order that it might appear sin, made use of a good thing to procure death for me, in order that sin might exert all its sinful power through the commandment” (7: 13). [End Page 357]

Almost two millennia later when Freud will write, for example, that

When one has a sense of guilt after having committed a misdeed, and because of it, the feeling should more properly be called remorse. It relates only to a deed that has been done, and, of course, it presupposes that a conscience—the readiness to feel guilty—was already in existence before the deed took place . . . But if the human sense of guilt goes back to the killing of the primal father, that was after all a case of ‘remorse.’ Are we to assume that [at that time] a conscience and a sense of guilt were not, as we have presupposed, in existence before the deed? If not, where, in this case, did the remorse come from? There is no doubt that this case should explain the secret of the sense of guilt to us and put an end to our difficulties

(Freud 1930, 131–32),

he will repeat Paul’s position, yet his repetition will add, as all repetition does, a crucial addendum, one which Paul, as a man of faith, could not have foreseen. That is, not only is the schema of the Law fictitious, but its fundamental effect, that of guilt, is above all nothing but mythological. The secret of the Law, then, lies in its double mythological fold: its authoritative power and its effects are both mythological; a formidable fold. Let us follow this fabulous narrative in its initial state as it is told in Totem and Taboo :

One day the brothers who had been driven out came together, killed and devoured their father and so made an end of the patriarchal horde . . . After they had got rid of him, had satisfied their hatred and had put into effect their wish to identify themselves with him . . . a sense of guilt made its appearance, which in this instance coincided with the remorse felt by the whole group. (Freud 1913, 141–43; Italics added) [End Page 358]

Everything in this fable is mythological; it is fiction of as well as fiction as narration (Derrida 1987, 138). Not only the fable as such but, moreover, what is produced, is no less fictitious: that is, Law and guilt.

Why do the brothers feel remorse before the inauguration of the Law? Freud’s issue here is the origins of morality in which one can be guilty only after the inauguration of that which is still to be inaugurated. What in fact creates the Father is what appears after...

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pp. 357-385
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