- Levinas and LacanFaced with the Eclipse of Christianity
Doch was ist der Geist? . . .
Der Geist ist das Flammende— Martin Heidegger, Die Sprache im Gedicht
What justifies the closure of this triangle “historiclly”? Does it not remain open from its origin and by its very structure onto what Greek and then Latin had to translate by pneuma and spiritus, that is, the Hebrew ruah?— Jacques Derrida, Of Spirit: Heidegger and the Question
By reintroducing the transcendence of the Infinite into thought in such a radical way, Emmanuel Levinas, as he says himself, puts himself in opposition to Hegel’s philosophy from within—hence to philosophy as such. For philosophy holds on principle that “the [End Page 1] transcendent is always to be reduced,” and it compels us to acknowledge its conviction that “the real is rational” (GCM 77).
The thought of Hegel purports to be the synthesis of the history of Western philosophy, as we can see in the Phenomenology of Spirit, which unites all of the shapes of philosophy—“from Ionia to Jena,” as Rosenzweig said1—as well as all of the figures of religion, from the natural religion of Perseus up to Christianity. The very title of Levinas’s principal work “Totality and Infinity” marks the terrain of a counteroffensive in which Infinity is meant to supplant Totality, as well as a philosophy in which absolute knowledge does not care about human suffering. For Levinas, above all, it is a question of “waging war on war,”2 and this undoubtedly calls for an alternative to the theoretical problematic that seeks to grasp the real via the concept. Levinas’s position is thus plainly motivated by factors other than those of knowledge and science. His motivations were born of the history of the twentieth century, which means that his thought is rooted in a place and time when the “real” of history was not at all reasonable. As Levinas said of the twentieth century, “Being reveals itself as war” (TI 21). The intellectual challenge that followed was forever captured by the question abruptly and gravely asked by Theodor Adorno in his Negative Dialectics: How can one philosophize after Auschwitz?3
This question, now even more today after the fall of the Berlin Wall and the collapse of the USSR, haunts our memories. How can anyone not see that this question has as much to do with Christianity as objective spirit as it does with the speculative knowledge from which Christianity drew support? For indeed, the heart of the Christian world wavered with the collapse of the ethical substance of Europe and particularly that of Germany, as Hannah Arendt demonstrated again and again in her Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil.4 Moral judgment became so diseased that crime became legal. This is why we think it is possible to speak of an eclipse of Christianity as others have spoken of an eclipse of reason (see Horkheimer). More precisely, we can speak of an eclipse [End Page 2] of Christianity insofar as the meaning or spirit of the latter—taken as the norms and fundamental values at work within a society, and as the set of habits that allow these values to be internalized and represented in the immanence of conscience—had disappeared. One might also recall the complacent attitude of the Vatican during the war. In the ironic words of Bruno Puech, from his beautiful novel Sous l’etoile du chien, “There was something of a shortage of love at Treblinka.”5
Seen in this light, the work of Emmanuel Levinas appears to be a response not only to the Shoah, but also to the eclipse of Christianity that was one of the conditions for it. Consequently, when Levinas critiques Hegel, one suspects that by targeting “philosophy” he is actually aiming at much more than the philosophy as theoretical discourse that is the heir to the Platonic tradition. From this perspective, Levinas seems to be calling into question a form of thought which reached one of its fullest expressions in Hegel’s discourse. In other words “Hegel,” for Levinas, is one name...