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  • Aesthetics As First EthicsLevinas and the Alterity of Literary Discourse
  • Henry McDonald (bio)


Notwithstanding the considerable amount of scholarly attention paid since the 1980s to Emmanuel Levinas’s ethical philosophy of “the other,” critics and theorists have generally approached the relation between ethics and aesthetics in his work warily. Although readings of poetry and fiction inspired by Levinas’s philosophy continue to grow at a rapid rate, arguments applying that philosophy to literary and aesthetic theory have been few and tentatively advanced. Some critics have contended that Levinas was something of a Platonic moralist who “disparaged” and “denounced” art and literature as failing to conform to his idea of what was “ethical.”1 If there is a critical consensus on the issue, it would seem to be that Levinas believed that art and ethics are incompatible.2

Based on the aesthetic writings that Levinas produced over a four-decade period, as well as on the role literature played in the genesis and development of his ethical philosophy, such assessments seem puzzling. A Lithuanian Jew who studied with Husserl and Heidegger in 1929–30, Levinas (1906–95) came to philosophy initially through literature, especially Russian literature and Shakespeare: “the whole of philosophy,” he said, “is only a meditation of Shakespeare.”3 In the first work of his philosophical maturity, Existence and Existents (1947), discussions of aesthetics and literature introduce and develop the notion of being as il y a (there is), an account which, in giving emphasis [End Page 15] to being’s “horror” (horreur), simultaneously critiques ontology and places ethics on a tragic basis.4 The il y a, along with its temporal counterpart, the entretemps (between times), introduced just one year later in “Reality and Its Shadow” (1948), are of particular importance to his writings on aesthetics, produced during a period from the 1940s through the 70s.5 The latter provide abundant evidence of the potential for ethical meaning, indeed transcendence, he attributed to the artwork, as in “The Poet’s Vision” (1956), in which he asserts: “Literature is the unique adventure of a transcendence beyond all the horizons of the world . . . the authenticity of art must herald an order of justice” [“The Poet’s Vision” 134, 137]. Although Levinas never completed anything approximating a “system of aesthetics,” it is nonetheless true that in pieces ranging from developed essays on literary theory and aesthetics to brief commentaries on dozens of literary figures and works, he gave substantive indications of the ways in which his radically nonconceptual, nonontological account of ethics might alter our understanding of the status of “the literary artwork.”

Most crucial among those indications is the close connection he posited between the alterity, or otherness, of the artwork and its tragic nature, which he defined in terms of his antiontological accounts of “being” and especially “time” (entretemps, “between times”). As early as “Reality and Its Shadow,” Levinas proposed the thesis, extended in his later essays, that the alterity of art and literature was located not in any ontological or conceptual “beyond”—in a spiritual dimension “which sets itself up as knowledge of the absolute” [1]—but in the “interstices” of language [3], in the “between times” (entretemps) of its modes of temporality: which can be accessed only by way of “the tragic” in art. Time in Levinas’s aesthetics is signified diachronically, from within a region of diaspora. What Levinas terms “alterity,” or otherness, points not toward a privileged, interpersonal dimension freed from the problematics of modernity, but strives to expose the complicity between the West’s concept of rationality and its history of barbarism exemplified by the Holocaust, its history, as Levinas put it, of “National Socialism, Stalinism, the camps, the gas chambers, nuclear weapons, terrorism and unemployment.”6 Art and literature demonstrate a utopian, emancipatory potential in revealing the fissures and hidden pathways that run through the hegemonic structures and totalizing frameworks of modernity.

A central aspect of such an aesthetics is its privileging of music and musicality, which Levinas shares with a more recent thinker and critic, Paul Gilroy.7 Like Gilroy, Levinas deploys “musicality,” which he characterizes as “writing in its significance without signifiers” [157] not just to “refute,” as Gilroy...