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  • Speech and SilenceLevinas and the Postwar Refounding of Ethics
  • Seán Hand (bio)

The year 2011 saw the publication by Grasset/IMEC of a second volume of Levinas’s posthumous papers entitled Parole et silence et autres conférences inédites au Collège Philosophique.1 This collection gathers previously unpublished material delivered by Levinas to the Collège Philosophique from 1948 to 1962, that is, from immediately after Time and the Other (Le temps et l’autre) — which had been delivered as four lectures to the College in 1947 prior to being published thereafter by the College’s organizer Jean Wahl in his journal Deucalion — up to immediately after the 1961 publication of Totality and Infinity (Totalité et infini).

Significantly, the 2009 publication by Grasset/IMEC of the first volume of posthumously released writings and talks, entitled Car-nets de captivité suivi de Écrits sur la captivité et Notes philosophiques diverses, had alerted the reader to a number of unsuspected details that recontextualized Levinas’s published work and confirmed status. Most dramatic of these was undoubtedly the revelation that notebooks written by Levinas during and after his incarceration as a prisoner of war in a German Stalag camp rehearsed a novelistic rather than philosophical articulation of such existential conditions [End Page 183] as marginal existence, eros, and temporality. Levinas further pursued this experimentation to an extent that suggested how he experienced this period in part as both the dislocation of a certain philosophical filiation and a speculative construction of intellectual and affective alternatives.

This philosophically isolated phase of reformulation, which incidentally we can see drew more on the contents of the Stalag library than on any isolatable Jewish return, was to be recontextualized in the war’s immediate aftermath by the rapid, aggressive, and sometimes opportunistic moral and political rearticulations produced during the provisional government of the French Republic and the initial developments of the Fourth Republic. The tense political gestures of the épuration légale, therefore, combined with an over-determined Vichy syndrome and various intellectual forms of tabula rasa (including those refined during the Occupation as a French naturalization of Heideggerian existentialism) in order to generate intolerant and melodramatic breaks with supposedly superseded schemata, whether of the idealist variety represented by a Brunschvicq, or the intuitionism of a Bergson, or the Catholic conscience of a Maritain. The tenor and thrust of this impetus, where certain swiftly celebrated thinkers effectively paralleled the Gaullist sublative narrative of self-won liberty and heroic self-determination, and even benefitted from the occasionally declamatory obfuscation of general attentisme, is historically often associated with Sartre, whose sudden emergence at this time has been understood by some as “part and parcel of the process of the selling of the Fourth Republic.”2

Unsurprisingly, then, when Levinas’s talk “Speech and Silence” (delivered over the course of two sessions February 4–5, 1948) begins by casting moral doubt on a fundamentally Heideggerian philosophy that exalts silence (PS 69) or cultivates a silent intimacy with primordial comprehension (79), Sartre is also implicitly referenced. This is not only because of his already well-known, heavily advertised, and expertly orchestrated lecture “Existentialism Is a Humanism” (L’existentialisme est un humanisme) — delivered at [End Page 184] the Salle des Centraux, as part of the Club Maintenant talks, on October 29, 1945, and published by Nagel the following year — but also because of Sartre’s instantly memorializing article “The Republic of Silence” (La république du silence).3 This piece had already been published in the first nonclandestine issue of Les Lettres Françaises in September 1944, alongside similarly glorifying evocations of the Republic by the Catholic writer François Mauriac and the Communist editor and journalist Claude Morgan, and had also been broadcast on French national radio. In it Sartre gives himself the national reconstructive role of categorizing the entire Republic as silent resisters, while en passant amalgamating the fate of Jews into this homogenizing narrative.4 When Levinas, therefore, contrastively characterizes humanism as the belief that “the person is a freedom, that is to say a power” (La personne est une liberté, c’est-à-dire un pouvoir) (PS 79), it is easy to read this not only...