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  • Salvation through LiteratureLevinas’s Carnets de captivité
  • Seán Hand (bio)

The one-volume collection of Levinas’s writings entitled Carnets de captivité suivi de Écrits sur la captivité et Notes philosophiques diverses, published posthumously in 2009, notably collects seven basic sets of notebooks written mainly during wartime captivity. These notebooks are combined along with a number of previously unseen but incidental postwar pieces comprising an unpublished reflection on captivity, a magazine article (which Levinas complains has been insultingly truncated by the editors), the text of a radio broadcast, and an unpublished “hommage” to Bergson. All of these texts obviously refer to the wartime period of persecution and endurance.1 However, this material constitutes only half of the overall volume. The total period touched upon in fact runs from the end of the 1930s to the beginning of the 1960s, or in terms of Levinas’s corpus, from On Escape (De l’évasion) right through and beyond Totality and Infinity (Totalité et infini), which we could think of as defining almost the first half of his oeuvre. The second half of the volume gives us a very large set of liasses or bundled philosophical fragments, which Levinas tended to collect in loose folders around [End Page 45] both chronological and thematic indications. The most significant set of these fragments includes work done in the 1950s on metaphor, which includes the now already well-known postulation: “The metaphor of metaphors—God” (La métaphore des métaphores—Dieu) (CC 240).

Nonetheless, of these unpublished writings it is undoubtedly the prison notebooks that exert the greatest initial fascination. Of the seven sets, the first six relate to the period of Levinas’s incarceration as a French Kriegsgefangener or prisoner of war in labor camps (rather than in a death camp, since his French citizenship and uniform, combined with the Third Geneva Convention, protected him from this fate). More concretely, the first two of these sets cover the period from the end of 1940 to June 1942, when Levinas and others were shunted back and forth between Frontstalags in France (Rennes, Laval, and Vesoul). Approximately one third of the way through the second set, the simple entry “Allemagne,” notes his transportation to the Stalag XIB at Fallingbostel, near Hannover, in Lower Saxony, northwestern Germany (CC 70). (The nearby Bergen-Belsen concentration camp was designated XIC until the summer of 1943, when it became a branch of XIB.) Here Levinas, assigned to an Arbeitskommando or work camp near Ostenholz, in the wooded vicinity of Fallingbostel, was to remain incarcerated for the remainder of the war, until the camp was liberated on April 16, 1945, by a recce group of 8th King’s Royal Irish Hussars, Seventh Armoured Division, of the British Eighth Army.2

Writing (in) Captivity

Given their experiential rather than retrospective nature, Levinas’s writings completed in captivity will obviously not reflect the closed dystopic teleology of canonic post-Holocaust accounts such as Wiesel’s Night or Levi’s The Truce. However, it is immediately apparent that Levinas’s notes are also not essentially concerned to record dehumanization, general conditions, or internal organization [End Page 46] in the stalag, any more than they echo the characteristic personalizations of Levi or the driving resentment recorded by Améry.3 Levinas does not dwell extensively here on his labor as a woodcutter; his now rather overpopular piece “The Name of a Dog” (Nom d’un chien) actually supplies us with more color and pathos in this respect (DF 151–53).4 In similar fashion, we learn rather indirectly of the fact that even within segregated Kommando units there was further segregation of Jews who were put together within particular barracks and work parties. Levinas again notes this detail more poignantly after the war, both in “The Name of a Dog” and in the broadcast “The Jewish Experience of the Prisoner” (L’Expérience juive du prisonnier) included in this volume. There he specifies that Jewish labor camp prisoners suffered the double separation of being isolated from other prisoners as well as the local population (CC 210). Moreover, independent sources provide us with evidence, including photographic records, of certain diverting activities of French prisoners...


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pp. 45-65
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