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American Imago 57.3 (2000) 235-259

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Levinas and Winnicott:
Motherhood and Responsibility

C. Fred Alford

How might one criticize the work of Emmanuel Levinas, postmodern ethical philosopher and Talmudic scholar? No one does it very well, except perhaps Jacques Derrida. Could a psychoanalytic perspective help, or would it be an alien imposition from another intellectual world? It depends on the psychoanalytic perspective.

Abstract and evocative, writing in what can only be described as the language of prophecy, Levinas has become everything to everyone. We pretend we get it, writing in much the same style, so as to say whatever we wanted to say in the first place. The Levinas Effect it has been called, the ability of Levinas' texts to say anything the reader wants to hear, so that Levinas becomes a deconstructionist, theologian or proto-feminist, or even the reconciler of postmodern ethics and rabbinic Judaism. 1 Even those who disagree with Levinas generally criticize him from within the framework of his project, sharing his assumptions while trying to make Levinas more Levinassian (Davis 1996, 140).

What is lacking is criticism of Levinas' assumptions, probably because there seems to be nowhere outside Levinas' assumptions to stand, except in another land across an ocean of incomprehension. Like so many great thinkers, Levinas has created a world so comprehensive that the only choice seems to live in Levinas land, or leave it for another, a land so different they share not even a lingua franca. But all lands have things in common.

One is motherhood, a leading trope in Levinas, one of the ways in which he characterizes what he means by our infinite responsibility to the other. [End Page 235]

D. W. Winnicott has also written about motherhood, though it might be more accurate to say that Winnicott writes about mother- and baby-hood, for he always said he'd never seen a baby without a mother (Winnicott 1975b). I hope that the lingua franca of motherhood, understood as a way of caring for another, will provide a common language, or at least a patois, by which denizens of different lands might communicate.

Winnicott's land is Athens, the land of emerging individuality and creativity, where the self-conscious psyche (the Greek term we translate as self) first emerged. Levinas' land is Jerusalem, the land of prophecy, faith, and worship of a being so infinitely other that it is beyond being. Yet, philosophers and prophets have spoken to each other before. Some have even combined the roles, like Plato. Why not now?

Does it matter that Winnicott is a psychoanalyst? Does that make the land from which he speaks even more distant and obscure? Not necessarily. Levinas (1991 44-45) has a few good things to say about psychoanalysis, criticizing not its assumptions but its reliance on a few endlessly repeated fables, like the Oedipus complex. Winnicott introduces some new fables, something Levinas would surely appreciate, such as the story of the transitional object, both me and not me, mother and not mother, all at the same time. Until, that is, someone asks which it really is. Then the magic disappears forever. Is the transitional object not a fabulous character?

More to the point, several authors enormously sympathetic to Levinas' project have turned to psychoanalysis in order to explain and explore his work (Kunz 1998; Faulconer; Halling 1975). Of course, it's important to pick the right psychoanalyst. I have chosen Winnicott not just because he shares the trope of motherhood with Levinas (for Winnicott, of course, motherhood is more than a trope), but because he shares Levinas' leading concern as well: how to connect with another without imposing oneself on the other, without doing violence to the other's awesome otherness. Both Winnicott and Levinas make the one-on-one relationship central. Others count, but unlike Freud, for whom it is the Oedipal triangle that structures psychic reality, it is the intimate but unsymmetrical [End Page 236] relationship between two people that makes a world for both Winnicott and Levinas. This distinguishes both from Martin Buber, for whom the symmetry of...


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