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ELH 71.4 (2004) 867-897

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Hospitality in Autobiography:

Levinas Chez De Quincey

University of California, Irvine

What would a Levinasian autobiography look like? Is such a thing imaginable? The question is directed in the first instance at autobiography, as a question concerning its ability to go beyond the representation of the subject to write the encounter with the absolutely other for which Levinas's ethical philosophy calls. But it is also, in the second instance, a question for Levinas, concerning the potential of autobiography to represent an alterity perhaps not fully accounted for by his philosophy. This double question presides over the reflection that follows.

Certainly, the notion of Levinasian self-writing is, at first blush, unpromising. In the accepted notion of autobiography, the aim of the genre is the disclosure of the I's self-sameness through the representation of its experience. Experience can only be thought as my experience; as De Quincey says in the Confessions of an English Opium-Eater, "No man surely, on a question of my own private experience, could have pretended to be better informed than myself." We assume that autobiographical knowledge comes through the consciousness of an individual subject standing apart: "[E]ach man's consciousness [is shut up] into a silent world of its own, separate and inaccessible to all other consciousness."1

But Levinas's ethics, as he explains in Humanisme de l'autre homme, contains a critique of experience, representation, and the isolated individual:

It is rather a matter of the questioning of EXPERIENCE as the source of meaning, of the limit to transcendental apperception, of the end of synchrony and its reversible terms; it is a matter of the non-priority of the Same and, throughout all these limitations, of the end of actuality, as if the untimely (l'intempestif) were come to upset the agreements of representation.2

To quest after meaning in representation misses the point for Levinas. Thought is not equivalent to a knowledge derived from experience, and the subject's aspiration to knowledge of objects [End Page 867] always neglects something more fundamental—the question of the other as source of a meaning that is not reducible to my representation. As for the self, self-identity (le Même) and self-presence (l'actualité) stand indicted. In short, if we accept that autobiography is indeed limited to the representation of the egocentric subject's experience with a view to securing self-sameness, it would seem quite impossible to conceive of it along Levinasian lines.

Perhaps, however, Levinas's concern with the other might link his thought to another aspect of autobiography, namely, its performative dimension. Without an address to the other—be it Augustine's prayers to God, Lazarillo's ironically obsequious "Vuestra Merced," Rousseau's over-the-shoulder references to "le lecteur," or Jane Eyre's abrupt interpolations to "Reader"—there could be no autobiography. As Georges Gusdorf already understood, the autobiographer does not write a treatise on experience, but rather its apology.3 In saying experience, the I attests, excuses, premises, promises, confesses, testifies or otherwise translates the discourse of knowledge into that of power and justice. And Levinas's insistence on the "pure sign made to the other; sign made from the giving of the sign," his concern with a language that is not one of message ("an incessant unsaying of the said") but of address "from the revelation of the Other," places him squarely in the domain of the performative.4 A consideration of the performative might allow Levinas and autobiography to be linked.

Besides, as Levinas knows very well, there is no escaping the subject, even if that subject has to be conceived as in crisis, a subject whose unstable horizon is given and threatened by the other. In its address to the other, the subject constitutes itself as an ethical being, while violently usurping the former's place in the world by the same speech act. At least one reading of the performative in Levinas makes it a privileged form of the face-to-face with the...


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