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Judaism against Paganism Emmanuel Levinas}s Response to Heidegger and Nazism in the 1930s* Samuel Moyn Jews, Nazism and the Holocaust have an unsuspected importance as themes in that body of thought usually known in the English-speaking world as "post-structuralist" or "postmodernist." In fact, any meaningful appraisal of that group of loosely affiliated intellectuals in post-World War II France comprised of Maurice Blanchot, Jacques Derrida, Sarah Kofrnan, Philippe Lacoue-Labarthe, Jean-François Lyotard, Jean-Luc Nancy and several others would have to acknowledge and understand the precipitate of twentieth-century history that appears in different ways in their work. Whether it is the honorific status these thinkers confer on Jews and especially German-speaking Jews such as Walter Benjamin and Franz Kafka, or their interest in what one may call an "aesthetics of survivorhood" in poets like Paul Celan and Edmond Jabès, or their direct and indirect commentaries on National Socialism and the Holocaust themselves, this precipitate demands attention and may even indicate the existence of a single, non-exclusive, hitherto largely unoccupied but privileged vantage point from which the emergence of this body of thought can come to be understood historically and in context. Any full-scale interpretation of an entire tradition in postwar intellectual life based on these assumptions would, of course, have to make sense of the complexities of a movement or "discourse" whose links to Nazism and the Holocaust were always highly indirect. This discourse emerged to special prominence only in the 1970s with 25 Samuel Moyn Marxism's apparent collapse, and partly depended on and departed from the terms set by the delayed return in the late 1950s and 1960s of the Holocaust as a subject of deliberation and inquiry. How both of these developments occurred relates deeply to the structure and form of the new discourse. If there exists any historical, generative relationship between the Nazi genocide and this body of thought, it is clearly an extraordinarily complex as well as a highly mediated one. And yet grounds for positing such a relationship not only exist but deserve the closest scrutiny. AU of this complexity of development and diversity of incarnation notwithstanding, many ofthis discourse's roots extend back to the work of a single thinker who influenced all the others yet labored in relative isolation for decades before his thought experienced the curious afterlife it came and continues to enjoy. The encounter of that thinker, Emmanuel Lévinas, with history in the 1930s is a largely unknown story but a fascinating one pregnant in implications for understanding his intellectual legacy after 1945. Lévinas once wrote that his life had been "dominatedby the presentiment and memory ofthe Nazi horror," l and this essay claims that this "presentiment" needs to be understood as a recuperative move to Nazism in the crucial few years after 1933 and more specifically to Levinas's imaginative philosophical connection of a politically barbaric ideology to a certain variant of phenomenology. Before 1933 Lévinas had been perhaps the most important interpreter and naturalizer of the early philosophy of Martin Heidegger in France, but after he learned of the latter's decision to support the Nazi Party, he could not continue along his earlier trajectory unperturbed, as ifthe philosophy ??Being and Time and Heidegger's political allegiance had been only contingently related. Instead, he groped toward a theory of the ways in which Heideggerianism and Hitlerism might have a deep and intimate association, and this nascent conceptual linkage dislodged him from the position of Heideggerian acolyte and both permitted and demanded the development ofan independent and unique philosophical stance. This specific moment in Levinas's career has to be understood in as much detail as possible ifone wishes to grasp its results: a turn to and an elaboration ofa conception ofJudaism which afforded an escape from crisis, and an integration of that conception into philosophy with 26 Judaism against Paganism eventually far-reaching consequences for twentieth-century intellectual life and the contemporary, post-1968 scene in particular. The fury of the recent "Heidegger controversy" makes it necessary to recall that the German philosopher's Nazism has been a matter of record and in many quarters...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1527-1994
Print ISSN
0935-560X
Pages
pp. 25-58
Launched on MUSE
2011-03-30
Open Access
No
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