- Alterity and Transcendence
A thinker like Levinas, whose ethics demands nothing short of a reverential attitude toward the other, deserves a translation which would at least adopt a similar posture toward its original. Unfortunately, Michael B. Smith’s translation of Altérité et Transcendence cannot be credited with such sensitivity. Its numerous flaws range from harmless typos to omitted apostrophes and prepositions to serious misspellings of terms and proper names: antinomy appears as antimony (xi, 85); the theologian John of Damascus retains his French name, but unorthographically as Jean Damescène instead of Damascène (63); the Italian visionary Giordano Bruno becomes Giodano (66); and most surprisingly, the priestess Diotima of Plato’s Symposium is not only mistranslated but also transgendered to Diotimus (10). The translation’s general inattention extends to inaccurate referencing: where Levinas refers to Book Delta of Aristotle’s Metaphysics, the translation cites Book Alpha (39).
Despite such shortcomings, this translation is an important addition to the American reception of Levinas. A collection of essays and interviews, the book could function as an introduction to Levinas’s work. However, any hope that essayistic crystallization might be the most direct way to approach such a difficult thinker quickly dissipates after reading the first part of this volume, which erects a discursive wall from the rest of the text. This section presents an abridged philosophical history and analysis of the notions of transcendence, totality, and infinity, and assumes the reader’s fluency in continental philosophy as well as in the Levinasian vocabulary. (Its impenetrability is in part a problem of the translation which, in trying to be faithful to the alternately elliptical and long-winded diction of the original, ends up losing the desired poetic effect and accentuating instead syntactic awkwardness and semantic opacity.) In contrast, the next chapters address concrete questions regarding peace, socialism, human rights, the relation of representation to ethics, and finally our responsibility before the death of the other—the cornerstone of Levinas’s philosophy.
What links philosophical abstraction to our individual stance in the world is the ubiquitous figure of Pascal, whose critique of the I resonates throughout the [End Page 230] book: “The I is hateful” (164, 179), or “My place in the sun [is] the beginning and the archetype of the usurpation of the entire world” (23). Locating transcendence above and across oneself, Levinas argues for an asymmetrical ethics, in which the self is perpetually responsible for the other without the expectation of reciprocity. Hence, justice is also non-distributive and non-reciprocal, issuing from “charity” (176) and “saintliness” (109). Although Kantian disinterestedness informs Levinas’s ethics, this aspect of asymmetry is predicated on a self-effacing stance, an anti-egotistical motive that Kant would still identify as a “pathological sensibility”: love—albeit without lust (129)—posits the neighbor’s precedence over oneself. “The human,” Levinas writes in this vein of self-abnegation, “is the return to . . . the possibility of its fearing injustice more than death, of preferring injustice suffered to injustice committed, and what justifies being to what ensures it” (29). Following the Judaic taboo on representation, Levinas arrives at the human by stripping away the everyday masks that hide the real face’s vulnerability in front of death. Such an ethics of the true face yearns for the Enlightenment’s ability for discernment and for the foundational—now unspoken—philosophical concepts of truth, totality, transcendence, and divine infinity that help establish a respect for universal imperatives. Compellingly, if strangely, Old Testament law meets Christian piety and Antigonian justice to form an ethics that argues for the authority of “defenselessness” (29), and for the goodness of the “feeble-minded” (108).
As postmodern citizens, or students of Nietszche, many of us might resist the deferential and theological tone of this book. After all, the pious, self-hating Pascal is followed in Levinas’s admiration by none other than Descartes, a thinker of identity and an eminent target of contemporary theory, who is also the last philosopher to allow for infinity and transcendence. Yet, however justified such a resistance might be...