- Transcendence and Salvation in Levinas’s Time and the Other and Totality and Infinity
This short essay argues for a thematic connection between Emmanuel Levinas’s Time and the Other and his Totality and Infinity. Time and the Other directly addresses the problem of salvation, and this concern with salvation can be traced through Totality and Infinity, where it is implicit in Levinas’s conception of desire — so there is a religious concern at the core of that (purportedly) secular work. And this thematic connection suggests a further interpretive question about the role of fecundity in both books, which is addressed in the final section of this essay.
These themes are connected with two strands in the secondary literature. First, Kris Sealy’s article, “Levinas’s Early Account of Transcendence,” focuses on Levinas’s account of impersonal [End Page 53] existence, the “there is” (il y a), in Existence and Existents.1 The present essay extends that focus to Time and the Other, another early work, which has been the subject of relatively little critical discussion. Second, Diane Perpich describes the problem of transcendence in Time and the Other as an “odd and uncompelling problem.”2 In contrast, this essay will show that the problem of transcendence is far from odd and uncompelling. The problem of transcendence is, instead, the problem of salvation, and that problem orients one central theme in Totality and Infinity (the phenomenology of desire).
Ontological Solitude and Salvation in Time and the Other
Time and the Other offers a genealogical account of the emergence of subjects — genealogical because the account draws out certain aspects of subjective experience, though without describing the emergence of subjects in a literal or historical sense. Levinas describes the original state as an anonymous, impersonal field of forces without subjects — the “there is” (il y a). Because there are no subjects, this state can only be described verbally using impersonal pronouns, as in the statement, “It is raining.” Consciousness “ruptures” the “there is”: with consciousness subjects emerge, and subjects go on to interact with objects and persons in order to secure their material needs (cf. TO 51; and parallel passages in TI 143–45 where Levinas explicitly invokes the “there is”). And in the process of acquiring, using, and knowing objects, otherness — “alterity” — is eliminated. This point is emphasized in a passage from Totality and Infinity where Levinas describes nourishment as “the transmutation of the other [food] into the same [the self or the subject], which is the essence of enjoyment” (TI 111; cf. 35–38, 58, 62, 143, 147). The same is true when the subject interacts with other persons in order to secure his or her needs: otherness is eliminated (or ignored), so the subject remains alone (see also 117–18). [End Page 54]
Solitude is usually defined against the background of a social group or collective, in terms of an individual being removed from the group. Levinas acknowledges that this definition is “anthropologically incontestable,” but he claims that it is “ontologically obscure” (TO 40) — meaning that, as subjects, we experience solitude when isolated from the group, but we misunderstand the origin of that experience. The subject’s interaction with the group masks ontological solitude, which more than any other feature characterizes the state of being a subject. So, when the subject is removed from the group, solitude is exposed, not produced. This “ontological solitude” is therefore not the “factual isolation of a Robinson Crusoe” (43).
The fundamental question is whether and how ontological solitude can be overcome. As Levinas describes it, this is the “preoccupation” and the goal of everyday life, and it is identified explicitly as a concern with salvation (TO 58).3 (Note here that the original state is without subjects, so the subject cannot go back to that original state to overcome ontological solitude.)
Solitude can only be overcome through contact or relation with another person who remains other, that is, who remains fundamentally strange to the subject, strange in the sense that the other person resists being assimilated to, controlled by, or possessed by the subject. At the same time, overcoming solitude requires that the subject...