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  • Grotesque, Fascinating, Transformative:The Power of a Strange Face in the Story of Saint Christopher
  • S. C. Thomson

This paper argues that the early medieval legend of Saint Christopher—in which a giant, dog-headed figure becomes a saint and converts a city—demonstrates the potential impact of being prepared to place the body, and in particular the face, in the center of our frame of vision. This paper suggests that Christopher's transformative impact occurs not despite, but because of, his strangeness. Further, the audience is invited to identify with and emulate not Christopher himself, but those he encounters. In this story, which hovers between the monstrous and the hagiographic genres, we are not the strangers, but the ones who meet the stranger and must decide how to respond. Using some of Emmanuel Levinas's thinking about strangers and their faces enables the suggestion that the transformative impact of the passio has, just like the actions of its protagonist, potentially far-reaching social implications. That is, placing a strange face in the center of the frame—focusing on rather than ignoring its strangeness—can change the world. Because this discussion ultimately relies on Levinas's structures of thought, some aspects of his thinking will be laid out, before considering how those ideas might enable deeper understanding of what is happening in Christopher's story.

Levinas's most famous proposition is that encountering the face of a stranger has a profoundly transformative impact on each individual, and that such an encounter necessitates all ethical principles. It is perhaps most straightforward to apprehend the aspect of his philosophy used in this paper by constructing a simplistic contrast with Heidegger. To some extent following Aristotle's sense of humanity as fundamentally social, Heidegger promotes the idea of Miteinandersein [being-with-oneanother]; that is, that we can join with other people and form communities through our likenesses.1 This is fundamentally connected with, perhaps founded upon, Sprechendsein [being-through-speaking], the two of which together constitute Heidegger's fundamental conditions of what it is to be human. So an individual constructs [End Page 83] personality through speaking about self with others; our individuality exists only insofar as we construct it in relation to a communal group through speech. That is, "self and world belong together in the single being, Dasein."2 Crudely put in modern social terms, this can be described as assimilation: through existence and dialogue, we should—and inevitably will—become connected with other people and they should become connected with us, in the process redefining ourselves and forging a common culture which combines disparate elements.

Levinas's focus is, by contrast, on retaining other-ness. A community is still constructed, but not through assimilation; it is, instead, founded on mutual strangeness. In this way of thinking, when we "encounter" or "see" another person, what we immediately recognize is not how they are like us, but how they are not: "The face of the other is pure alterity, pure strangeness, the other freed from every particular difference."3 Levinas rejects the idea that we can become assimilated into unity; the other, he says "remains that which I—closed up in myself—am not."4 So, in recognizing this 'pure strangeness,' we identify two things. First, if the stranger is strange to me, then I am also strange to them. Second, once I recognize the true existence of an-other, I cannot remain "closed up in myself" but must extend myself, my sphere of responsibility, to those who are not-me.5 This is how strangeness leads to community: "In this relation of the unique [self] to the unique [other] there appears, before the purely formal community of the genus, the original sociality."6 Community, or sociality, is therefore not conceived of "as a dispersion but as an exit from the solitude one takes sometimes for sovereignty," founded on the sense of responsibility toward the stranger and on each being able to retain their own uniqueness: community is a patchwork quilt rather than a blended fabric.7

Like Heidegger, Levinas seeks to connect the process of reaching out from the self with a sense of something beyond the human, often described as...


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