- The Face of the Dead Other:A Levinasian Reading of Contemporary Israeli Novels by A.B. Yehoshua and Shifra Horn
In 1948, French philosopher Emanuel Levinas condemned art as "the very event of obscuring, a descent of the night, an invasion of shadow" ("Reality and its Shadow" 132). Echoing Plato's criticism in the Republic, Levinas rejects ontological claims that art is something that can give us knowledge: "art does not belong to the order of revelation. Nor does it belong to that of creation"; it "moves in just the opposite direction" (132). Moreover, art creates images that should not be trusted, that "impose themselves on us without our assuming them" (132), i.e., without our consent. It produces illusions, which act like sleight-of-hand magic or rhythmic melodies that distort and deceive.
Levinas's ethical project is a criticism of Western philosophy, which he condemns in Totality and Infinity as the "imperialism of the same" (87). The subject's search for coherent structures of meaning leads to subordinating the particular to the general and reducing the unknown to the framework of "sameness" (42–48). This reduction also occurs in a relationship between two people, when one approaches the other and tries to know and comprehend him or her. In Levinas's thinking, ethical relations are based on a face-to-face encounter with another person. They do not depend on knowledge or understanding, but instead involve a welcoming of [End Page 395] the unknown and the incomprehensible. In these ethical relations, the concrete face of the other "resists possession, resists my powers" (197), yet affects the self and obligates the individual to take on unconditional responsibility for the other. In "Reality and its Shadow" Levinas argues that the power of art to recruit the imagination in ways that involve deep emotional engagement with the artwork, neutralizes real relationships, invoking blindness and passivity, and thus impedes the possibility of ethical relationships between the self and the other (132).
However, this objection is only one layer of Levinas's attitude to art. His writings on literature are more ambivalent and nuanced regarding the possibility of literature to foster or undermine ethical thinking. Books were an important part of Levinas's childhood. In an interview with Francois Poirier, he talks about his father who had a bookstore in Kovno, and said that he was raised in the Russian language and culture which "in my eyes remains great" (Is it Righteous to Be 24). In another interview, this time with Myriam Anissimov, Levinas notes when commenting on Pushkin, that "It is still today the literature that is my life blood" (85). Pushkin, Gogol, Dostoevsky, and Tolstoy were part of Levinas's basic education, and literature accompanied his philosophy. In Time and the Other, written in 1947, he admits that "it sometimes seems to me that the whole of philosophy is only a meditation on Shakespeare" (72). Levinas refers to literary texts in many of his writings, including Shakespeare's Macbeth in Time and the Other, Pushkin and Tolstoy in Otherwise than Being (195, 129), and Dostoyevsky in Ethics and Infinity (101). Robert Eagleston suggests that in his later texts Levinas's references to literature are designed to show how "the interruptions of language . . . in literature are open to the saying and to the ethical responsibility for the other" (158). Thus, Levinas turns to literature not only for examples of ethical behavior but also as source of wisdom. This is the case, for instance, when he cites Dostoyevsky to define our responsibility to the other: "we are all responsible for all men before all, and I more than all the others" (Otherwise than Being 146; Ethics and Infinity 101).
Although Levinas did not develop a comprehensive theory of aesthetics, he penned several essays on literary texts collected in Proper Name (originally published in 1975). Modifying his comments regarding the misleading nature of the artwork, in this collection he suggests that literature can indeed "cast us up upon a shore where no thought can land" ("The [End Page 396] Poet's Vision" 134). In his 1947 essay "The Other in Proust," he claims that "the mystery of Proust is the...