In lieu of an abstract, here is a brief excerpt of the content:

  • Aesthetic Totality and Ethical InfinityLevinas on Art
  • Jill Robbins
Jill Robbins
State University of New York


1. This essay will refer to the following works by Emmanuel Levinas, abbreviated in the text as indicated:

“Lévy-Bruhl et la philosophie contemporaine,” in Revue Philosophique de la France et de l’Etranger 147 (1957); rpt. in Entre Nous (Paris: Grasset, 1991): 53–67. [LB]

“The Other in Proust,” trans. Sean Hand in The Levinas Reader (London: Blackwell, 1989): 161–65. “L’autre dans Proust,” in Deucalion 2 (1947): 117–23. [OP]

Totality and Infinity, trans. Alphonso Lingis (Pittsburgh: Duquesne University Press, 1963). Totalité et infini (The Hague: Nijhoff, 1961) [TI]

“The Transcendence of Words: On Leiris’ Biffures,” trans. Sean Hand in The Levinas Reader: 145–49. “La transcendence des mots: A propos des ‘Biffures’ de Michel Leiris,” in Les Temps Modernes 44 (1949): 1090–95. [TW]

“Reality and its Shadow,” trans. Alphonso Lingis in Collected Philosophical Papers (Dordrecht: Martinus Nijhoff, 1987): 1–13. “La réalité et son ombre,” in Les Temps Modernes 38 (1948): 771–89. [RO]

2. By the time of “The Trace of the Other” (1963) and “Meaning and Sense” (1964), there are at least two conceptions of the work, one which returns to the same and one which goes out to the other.

3. Cf., “Unlike facial expression,” where a being “attends to his own manifestation,” in the work a being “is simply signified in it by a sign in a system of signs, that is, as a being who is manifested precisely as absent from his manifestation” (TI 178). A similar dyadic hierarchy of speech and writing, conceived as the difference between presence and absence, is evident in the 1949 Leiris essay where Levinas opposes “the living word, which is destined to be heard,” to written works, which he characterizes as “disfigured words, ‘frozen words’ in which language becomes document and vestige” (TW 148–49). Again, by the time of “The Trace of the Other,” it is precisely this vestigial, or trace-structure, of language that will be privileged for the signification of alterity.

4. In Totality and Infinity, Levinas refers to “the order of responsibility, where the gravity of ineluctable being freezes all laughter” [l’ordre de la responsibilité où la gravité de l’être inéluctable glace tout rire] (200).

5. Cf., “The exceptional structure of aesthetic existence invokes this singular term magic” (RO 3).

6. The difficulty here lies in the extent to which the inner life’s relation to the other (l’autre) (written in lower case), resembles the relation to the kind of finite alterity that the self encounters as a detour on the way to itself, that Levinas will later call “identification,” and that is described in the Proust essay as a structure in which “everything that encounters me exists as coming from me” (OP 164).

7. In his 1961 “Heidegger, Gagarine, et nous,” Levinas writes: “Le mystère des choses est la source de toute cruauté à l’égard des hommes.” Difficile liberté: essais sur le judaïsme (Paris: Albin Michel, 1963) 301.

8. This preface was probably authored by Merleau-Ponty, surmises Salomon Malka, no doubt on the basis of the dates of MP’s editorship of Les temps modernes. Salomon Malka suggests this as well in Lire Levinas (Paris: Cerf, 1984) 32.

9. John Llewelyn, The Middle Voice of Ecological Conscience (New York: St. Martins Press, 1991) 89–113.

10. This classical theme might have already been detected in Levinas’s doubts about whether poetry can teach. Levinas’s critique of art in RO should be thought together with his denunciation of rhetoric. For these and other Platonic motifs in Levinas’s discourse on the aesthetic, see Die Passion des Sagens (Freiburg/Munich: Karl Alber, 1988) 315–46.

11. A covert citation of the Psalter: “Their idols are silver and gold, the work of men’s hands. They have mouths but do not speak; eyes but do not see. They have ears, but do not hear; noses, but do not smell. They have hands, but do not feel; feet, but do not walk; and they do not make a sound in their throat. Those who...


Additional Information

Print ISSN
pp. 66-79
Launched on MUSE
Open Access
Back To Top

This website uses cookies to ensure you get the best experience on our website. Without cookies your experience may not be seamless.