Aesthetics As First Ethics Levinas and the Alterity of Literary

Henry McDonald
diacritics, Volume 38, Number 4, Winter 2010, pp. 15-41 (Article)
Published by The Johns Hopkins University Press
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diacritics / winter 2008 15
Notwithstanding the considerable amount of scholarly attention paid since the 1980s to
Emmanuel Levinas’s ethical philosophy of “the other,” critics and theorists have gener-
ally approached the relation between ethics and aesthetics in his work warily. Although
readings of poetry and fction inspired by Levinas`s philosophy continue to grow at a
rapid rate, arguments applying that philosophy to literary and aesthetic theory have been
few and tentatively advanced. Some critics have contended that Levinas was something
of a Platonic moralist who “disparaged” and “denounced” art and literature as failing to
conform to his idea of what was “ethical.”
If there is a critical consensus on the issue, it
would seem to be that Levinas believed that art and ethics are incompatible.

Based on the aesthetic writings that Levinas produced over a four-decade period,
as well as on the role literature played in the genesis and development of his ethical
philosophy, such assessments seem puzzling. A Lithuanian Jew who studied with Hus-
serl and Heidegger in 1929–30, Levinas (1906–95) came to philosophy initially through
literature, especially Russian literature and Shakespeare: “the whole of philosophy,” he
said, “is only a meditation of Shakespeare.”
In the frst work of his philosophical ma-
turity, Existence and Existents (1947), discussions of aesthetics and literature introduce
and develop the notion of being as il y a (there is), an account which, in giving emphasis
I am indebted to Alain Toumayan and Tina Chanter for their helpful comments on a prior draft of
this paper.
1. See section 5 for my discussion of what I believe to be Levinas’s clearly anti-Platonic posi-
tion. On Levinas’s so-called “Platonism,” see Robbins 17. Edith Wyschogrod, in her early work on
Levinas, completed prior to the publication of Otherwise than Being in 1974 (although I cite here
from a later edition), speaks of Levinas’s “Platonic bias” in art [Emmanuel Levinas 78]. In a later
essay, however, Wyschogrod’s perspective is much more helpful [“The Art in Ethics”].
2. A crucial work representative of and inßuential in furthering these views is that of Jill Rob-
bins, Altered Reading: Levinas and Literature [xxi, 39–40, 48, 50, 52–53, 75, 85]. The present essay
is in no sense intended as a response to Robbins’s book, which would require a very different kind
of argument than the one I have undertaken. Other studies asserting that Levinas was dismissive
of literature due to its lack of ethical value or meaning include Steve McCaffery, Prior to Meaning
215; and Chris Thompson, “The Look of Ethics: Emmanuel Levinas, Leo Bronstein, and the Inter-
human Intrigue' 316. Many of these studies confne themselves to Levinas's frst aesthetic essay,
¨La réalité et son ombre' (¨Reality and Its Shadow'). I have benefted from Alain P. Toumayan's
commentary on this essay in Encountering the Other [58, 71–72, 120–23, 126–28, 149, 152–53].
Most commentators, unlike Toumayan, simply assume that “Reality and Its Shadow” “denounces”
ethics. See, for example, the otherwise very interesting and challenging perspective provided by
Kevin Hart in “Ethics of the Image” 120.
3. TO 72. For a general discussion of the literary background of Levinas’s philosophical inter-
ests, see Levinas and Robbins, “Interview with Francois Poirie (1986).”
diacritics 38.4: 15–41
to being’s “horror” (horreur), simultaneously critiques ontology and places ethics on a
tragic basis.
The il y a, along with its temporal counterpart, the entretemps (between
times), introduced just one year later in “Reality and Its Shadow” (1948), are of particu-
lar importance to his writings on aesthetics, produced during a period from the 1940s
through the 70s.
The latter provide abundant evidence of the potential for ethical mean-
ing, indeed transcendence, he attributed to the artwork, as in “The Poet’s Vision” (1956),
in which he asserts: “Literature is the unique adventure of a transcendence beyond all the
horizons of the world . . . the authenticity of art must herald an order of justice” [“The
Poet’s Vision” 134, 137]. Although Levinas never completed anything approximating a
“system of aesthetics,” it is nonetheless true that in pieces ranging from developed essays
on literary theory and aesthetics to brief commentaries on dozens of literary fgures and
works, he gave substantive indications of the ways in which his radically nonconceptual,
nonontological account of ethics might alter our understanding of the status of “the liter-
ary artwork.”
Most crucial among those indications is the close connection he posited between the
alterity, or otherness, of the artwork and its tragic nature, which he defned in terms of his
antiontological accounts of “being” and especially “time” (entretemps, “between times”).
As early as “Reality and Its Shadow,” Levinas proposed the thesis, extended in his later
essays, that the alterity of art and literature was located not in any ontological or concep-
tual “beyond”—in a spiritual dimension “which sets itself up as knowledge of the abso-
lute” [1]—but in the “interstices” of language [3], in the “between times” (entretemps)
of its modes of temporality: which can be accessed only by way of “the tragic” in art.
Time in Levinas`s aesthetics is signifed diachronically, from within a region of diaspora.
What Levinas terms “alterity,” or otherness, points not toward a privileged, interpersonal
dimension freed from the problematics of modernity, but strives to expose the complicity
between the West`s concept of rationality and its history of barbarism exemplifed by the
Holocaust, its history, as Levinas put it, of “National Socialism, Stalinism, the camps, the
gas chambers, nuclear weapons, terrorism and unemployment.”
Art and literature dem-
onstrate a utopian, emancipatory potential in revealing the fssures and hidden pathways
that run through the hegemonic structures and totalizing frameworks of modernity.
A central aspect of such an aesthetics is its privileging of music and musicality, which
Levinas shares with a more recent thinker and critic, Paul Gilroy.
Like Gilroy, Levinas
deploys 'musicality,¨ which he characterizes as 'writing in its signifcance without signi-
fers¨ [157] not just to 'refute,¨ as Gilroy puts it [Black Atlantic 73], the Hegelian thesis
of the death of art via philosophy, but to challenge critical theory’s claim of an all-encom-
4. The twelve-page chapter “Existence sans existent” [93–105] of De l’existence a l’existant
(1947), in which the notion of the il y a is introduced, employs the term horreur or its cognates
about twenty times, by my count. The work has been translated by Alphonso Lingis as Existence
and Existents.
5. Discussions of the il y a play a prominent role at both the beginning and the end of Other-
wise than Being. With the exception of “La réalité et son ombre” (“Reality and Its Shadow”), most
of Levinas’s writings on aesthetics important to this essay can be found in Noms propres and Sur
Maurice Blanchot, both of which are translated by Michael Smith in Proper Names / On Maurice
6. Foreword, PN 3. In common with Theodor Adorno, for whom writing poetry, after the
Shoah, is “barbaric” [Prisms 34], poetry has for Levinas what Berel Lang calls a “retroactive
status” in understanding that complicity [“Evil inside and outside History” 11]. See also the works
of Zygmunt Bauman, including Modernity and the Holocaust.
7. See Paul Gilroy’s The Black Atlantic; Postcolonial Melancholia; Small Acts; and his “Fore-
word: Migrancy, Culture, and a New Map of Europe.' In a more specifcally philosophic sense, I
am indebted to the works of Tina Chanter for alerting me to the centrality of time in Levinas’s effort
to establish ethics as ¨frst philosophy.' See her Time, Death, and the Feminine.
diacritics / winter 2008 17
passing textuality: to open up, within the structures of rationality, a tragic, subversively
ethical function for art. “What is coming to a close,” Levinas posits, “may be a rationality
tied exclusively to the being that is sustained by words. . . . Poetry signifes poetically the
resurrection that sustains it: not in the fable it sings, but in its very singing” [Foreword,
PN 4; “Poetry and Resurrection” 12]. It is the diachronic, temporal nature of literary lan-
guage, what Levinas calls its “sovereign forgetfulness” (oubli souverain) which is also a
kind of homelessness, a diaspora of identity—the view from “the Stranger,” “the state-
less person,” “the dispossessed”—that is the vehicle of transcendence [“Servant and Her
Master” 143, Foreword, PN 6]. Such an aesthetics intersects closely with “the Diaspora
concept of culture” developed in recent decades
and is alert as well to what Gilroy calls
“the advantages of marginality as a hermeneutic standpoint” [Black Atlantic 213].
The comparison of Levinas’s view of aesthetics to Theodor Adorno’s assertion that
“To write poetry after Auschwitz is barbaric” is apt in that Levinas’s view of literature,
which cannot be separated from his view of philosophy, refects a postmodern loss of
faith in the effcacy of culture and mind. Unfortunately, the comparison has been made
not for this reason but to point up Levinas’s “negative” attitude toward art. But that is to
distort not just Levinas’s perspective but Adorno’s as well. To quote Adorno more fully:
Cultural criticism fnds itself faced with the fnal stage of the dialectic of culture
and barbarism. To write poetry after Auschwitz is barbaric. And this corrodes
even the knowledge of why it has become impossible to write poetry today. Abso-
lute reifcation, which presupposed intellectual progress as one of its elements,
is now preparing to absorb the mind entirely. [34]
Adorno uses the word “impossible” here in a way similar to that of Levinas: as
conceptual, ontological impossibility, not as ethical impossibility. To assign to art the
function of representing the horror of human existence, the function of presenting its bar-
barism, is to assign it, after the Shoah, the task of representing the unrepresentable, a task
both impossible and necessary. Art performs the ethical risk that it represents. That risk is
a 'fne¨ one, as Levinas put it [OB 120], for the alterity of the artwork is double-edged:
the barbarism from which it cannot be disassociated is the ground of its transcendent
In this essay, I argue that aesthetics plays a crucial role in the central project of Levi-
nas’s philosophy: his effort to make ethics, as he says in pointed allusion to metaphys-
ics, 'frst philosophy.¨ Far from being an anomalous departure from his philosophy as a
whole, as has been suggested, Levinas’s writings on literature and art are at the heart of
that philosophy, providing the point of reference for the tragic yet affrmative content of
his ethics. It is no accident, in this respect, that much of Levinas’s ethical terminology,
clustered around the notion of passivity, has its origin, directly or indirectly, in his aes-
thetics. The question of aesthetics in Levinas’s philosophy is arguably the question of that
philosophy, since it is precisely with reference to the aesthetically and phenomenologi-
cally defned notions of the il y a and the entretemps that Levinas developed his ethical
account of alterity in the frst place. If, in relation to the metaphysical tradition, Levinas
would grant ethics the status of 'frst philosophy,¨ then aesthetics, in relation to his own
work, might be regarded as 'frst ethics¨ [see 'Ethics as First Philosophy¨]. By this I
mean not that aesthetics for Levinas is a kind of ethics, but rather that it is a frst 'frst
philosophy” whose alterity to, and at the same time complicity in, theoretical discourse
functions to delineate the bounds of the ethical, the ways we do and do not conceptualize
ethical categories.
8. See, for example, Rey Chow, Writing Diaspora; and Braziel and Mannur.
Throughout much of the history of Western philosophy, however, aesthetics has been far
from a frst 'frst philosophy.¨ Rather, it has been, as the 'other¨ of ethics, something
much closer to an other “other” philosophy.
It is therefore crucial, and will be the effort
of this brief section, prior to discussing his aesthetic writings themselves, to describe the
post-Kantian philosophical orientation within which Levinas’s views of aesthetics took
shape. That orientation has two prominent features. First, in common with many post-
Kantian philosophers, Levinas challenges the concept of rationality underlying Kant’s
tripartite division of the spheres of philosophy, but he does so less by offering an alter-
native account of rationality, as Hegel, Heidegger, and poststructuralism do in different
ways, than by imposing limits on what is counted as rational, pointing up the boundaries
between the conceptual and the nonconceptual and refusing to assimilate the two to a
common frame of reference.
Such a method tends to be antiepistemological in recog-
nizing the value of untruth, of falsehood (as Nietzsche also stressed); and antiontologi-
cal, desubstantializing and “de-nucleating” [“Poetry and Resurrection” 10] the noumenal
sphere in order to trace the pathways of the nonconceptual in the conceptual. The bounds
of sense, in Levinasian terms, lie not at the border of some ontological otherworld but
within “the interstices” of language: within, that is, the “gaps” in time that language fails
to represent—which are “present” in language as unrepresentable. Levinas laid the basis
for such critique early on through the notions of the il y a and the entretemps, his counter-
Heideggerian accounts of “Being and Time,” respectively (and the title of Heidegger’s
most important work). At the heart of Levinas’s critique of Heideggerian ontology is a
critique of the unity and autonomy of the temporal instant or moment—what is also at
issue in Nietzsche’s “eternal return of the same”
—which serves as the foundation of the
metaphysical view of time as an infnite succession of moments continually passing away
and arriving; and which Heidegger, according to Levinas, did not challenge radically
enough. Here, again, it is a question not of providing an overarching theory or explana-
tion of the way time works but of pointing up, within the instant or moment, that which
is “other” or beyond conceivability, “immemorial” and unpredictable. It is aesthetics, as
a mode of expression of the tragic grounded in the entretemps of the artwork, that gives
access to such a temporally transcendent dimension by virtue of its ability to infltrate,
“between the lines,” its culture and society.
9. By this I refer simply to the inßuence during classical and medieval times, largely up to the
eighteenth century, of Horace’s dictum in Ars Poetica (The Art of Poetry) aut prodesse aut delectare
(to teach or to delight), usually applied more in the form “to teach [ethically, morally] by delight-
ing” and often having reference to another maxim of Horace, ut pictura poesis (a poem is like a
picture). Later critics and philosophers inßuenced by a nonmimetic, ¨musical' model of the arts
saw such maxims as reßecting the assumption that poetry gives a kind of moral knowledge that is in
turn grounded in a more theoretical knowledge: what is described by Nietzsche in his early period
in The Birth of Tragedy [89–93, sec. 14]. According to this conventionalized view of the role of
aesthetics in ancient and medieval times, whose distortions cannot be considered here, the arts are
secondary to morals which are in turn secondary to the theoretical sciences. For remarks on the
philosophical signifcance of aesthetics in modern times see Henry McDonald, ¨The Ontological
Turn”; “American Literary Theory and Philosophical Exceptionalism”; and “Language and Be-
1O. On Levinas’s critique of “philosophy,” with reference not just to Hegel and Heidegger, but
Derrida as well, see “Ideology and Idealism” 238. See also “God and Philosophy” 167.
11. See section fve of this essay for a comparison of Nietzsche's notion of eternal recurrence
and Levinas’s entretemps. My work was completed too early to take into account a remarkable,
exceedingly valuable collection of essays, Nietzsche and Levinas: “After the Death of a Certain
God” [ed. Stauffer and Bergo]. Especially pertinent to my arguments are the articles by Stauffer,
Longneaux, Bergo, and Diprose, although none reßects the focus on aesthetics provided here. See
notes 14 and 20.
diacritics / winter 2008 19
But that ability is at the same time an ethical one. The second general feature of Levi-
nas’s post-Kantian philosophical orientation is that it posits a common basis for ethics
and aesthetics in the nonconceptual and in so doing reconfgures the nature of both. On
the one hand, ethics is no longer subordinated to and largely equated with morality, which
in Kant’s system had been viewed as an adjunct of theoretical reason that he called “prac-
tical reason.¨ Instead, ethics becomes what Aristotle called 'frst philosophy,¨ displacing
both classical metaphysics and modern ontology. On the other hand, aesthetics is not just
given a nonconceptual basis; such had been the central thrust of the modern tradition of
aesthetics after Baumgarten in the eighteenth century, and was common, indeed, to Ger-
man romanticism, French antiexpressivism, and the European-wide “art for art’s sake”
movement, all of which had taken music as the central symbol of the nonconceptuality
of aesthetics.
What is new, rather, is that aesthetics should be rooted in the nonconcep-
tual and linked to a nonmoral, non- (but not anti-) rationalistic account of ethics as 'frst
philosophy.” The link between ethics and aesthetics, in the work of Levinas, is expressed
in the concept of the tragic, which is not just a literary but an ethical concept refecting
art’s philosophic transcendence. Literature, instead of being interpreted by the critic on
the basis of theoretical, ultimately philosophical principles, becomes the vehicle of an
ethical critique of traditional philosophy, of philosophy as modernist rationality. What
enables such critique, what serves as its tragic locus, is the musicality of the artwork, and
the characteristic mode of time, the entretemps, to which it is intimately related. Crucial
to the notion of the musicality of the artwork is the ethical sensibility which animates it,
which is contrasted with traditional morality—to which contrast I now turn, by way of
a brief analysis of Huckleberry Finn that will also highlight a number of themes charac-
teristic of Levinas’s mode of literary analysis before describing the temporal basis of his
tragic aesthetics.
Traditionally, morality has been characterized as the rules and conventions used to guide
a person’s conduct or behavior, such rules and conventions having reference to a “ra-
tionality¨ whose crucial if not defning feature is, as in the case of Kant`s 'categorical
imperative,” its universality. “Ethics,” by contrast, connotes the more personalized, less
universal and consequently less rigorously rationalizable aspects of our moral interaction
with others in the world. If the meanings of the two terms have often been blurred in the
history of moral philosophy, that is because they have been assumed to occupy a continu-
um in which ethics was marginalized in favor of the more “essential center” of morality.
In recent decades, due to the infuence of a diverse range of thinkers, including Ber-
nard Williams, the late Derrida, Rey Chow, and Levinas himself, something approaching
an ethical “Copernican Revolution,” reversing the axis of reference from morality to
ethics, has occurred in the work of many literary theorists, social scientists, and philoso-
From such a vantage point, the history of moral philosophy since Kant appears
in changed perspective: as a history in which morality gained its privileged, essential
12. For valuable accounts of the inßuence of Baumgarten, Kant, Mendelssohn, and Herder
with respect to the antimimetic implications of music as a semiotic model for understanding lit-
erature’s (ontological) mode of existence—a mode Levinas is engaged in resisting—see Beck 283–
86; Dixon 1, 37–38, 48–50, 80–84; Gadamer 16–18; Guyer, “Baumgarten, Alexander Gottlieb”;
Guyer, Kant and the Experience of Freedom 84–85, 95, 132–41; Kristeller 3: 416–28; Dahlstrom
ix–xxx; Henrich 30; and Norton.
13. See Williams; Chow, Ethics after Idealism. Some of the pertinent Derrida references are
Acts, “At This Very Moment,” “Faith and Knowledge,” Of Hospitality, and Politics of Friendship.
For a good account of these issues with respect to Levinas, see Spargo.
status only by assimilating the alterity of ethical experience to the universal categories
of the self—by reducing what is “other” to the same. Justice, as a consequence, can no
longer be equated with reason defned in terms of universality; it requires recognition, to
put it in Levinasian terms, of the alterity, the incommensurability, the unpredictability, of
experience—whether such “experience” consist of an encounter with the other person,
with death, or within the entretemps of the artwork. As Nietzsche urged, ethics begins
where morality ends; the two “converge” only at a semantic aporia where the moral basis
of the self is confronted with its own impossibility.

Such impossibility is at issue when Huck Finn, in the celebrated scene of chapter 31
of Mark Twain’s novel, turns against his own “conscience,” against everything he has
been taught to believe is true and good, which includes slavery and the Christian moral-
ity that justifes it, in order to help free his friend, Jim, from slavery. Huck, it needs to be
emphasized, is not an abolitionist; he thinks that the institution of slavery is moral and
just, and he takes on the commitment to help Jim at the cost of what he dramatically avers
is his own eternal damnation. But readers who would attribute such avowals merely to
the internalization of religious dogma and social convention have not heeded Twain’s
language carefully enough. In this scene and elsewhere in the novel (not to mention in a
later story, where the human conscience is personifed as monstrous and horrifc), Twain
makes clear that it is the moral nature of the self that is at issue.
“Huckleberry Finn,” as
James M. Cox says, “is an attack upon the conscience. . . . And not only the social con-
science . . . but any conscience” [“Uncomfortable Ending” 353]. The vehicle of that “at-
tack,” however, is a certain passivity, a receptivity and trust, which puts in check Huck’s
inherited belief system, casts the reason of his moral self in a hateful light, and compels
him, as it were involuntarily, to obey impulses and recognitions that take shape, in this
scene, in the memory images of Jim’s “talking, and singing, and laughing,” of Jim’s
words and deeds of kindness and unselfshness, of gratitude and friendship [HF 169].
“No one is good voluntarily,” as Levinas says [OB 11]. Huck’s commitment to help Jim,
which is initiated prior to this scene, is an ethical, not a moral, act, a putting of himself in
service to his friend that subverts his settled sense of self, incites him to a state of dis-ease
not just with himself but with most of the people he encounters, and projects him toward
a space of social and moral dislocatedness, toward a sort of diaspora of identity that is
reaffrmed, in the fnal sentences of this novel, when Huck says, in what has become a
pervasive theme of American literature, “I got to light out for the Territory ahead of the
rest” [HF 229]. Huck wants to get “ahead of” the rest in order to get away from the rest;
14. The moral impossibility referred to here is an ontological, not an ethical one. Bettina
Bergo, in “The Flesh Made Word; Or, The Two Origins,” makes a similar distinction [Stauffer
and Bergo 104], although without reference to the contrast between “ethics” and “morality” that
I have drawn. Bergo’s discussion of an ethical alterity associated with “the instant of sensation’s
upsurge” [103] is similarly conducive to the understanding of the corporeal and temporal nature of
ethics that I emphasize in this essay. Also in Stauffer and Bergo’s collection, see Rosalyn Diprose’s
“Nietzsche, Levinas, and the Meaning of Responsibility.” What I am terming “morality” is parallel
to what Diprose calls a “juridical concept of self-responsibility” [116], which she contrasts with
both Levinas’s and Nietzsche’s ”responsibility for the other . . . made possible by an idea of corpo-
real subjectivity . . . based on what I will call somatic reßexivity' that is grounded in the temporal-
ity of the body, in “the body open to an undetermined future” [118–19]. This splendid formulation
goes to the heart of the musicality of the artwork, which I locate in Levinas’s aesthetics beginning
with Existence and Existents (1947) and “Reality and Its Shadow” (1948). See sections four and
15. The story I refer to is Mark Twain’s “The Facts Concerning the Recent Carnival of Crime
in Connecticut.” Other places in Huckleberry Finn where Huck’s “conscience” is made an issue
include chapter 26, when Jim threatens to steal his children back from slavery, and chapter 33,
where Huck remarks, “If I had a yaller dog that didn’t know no more than a person’s conscience
does, I would poison him” [183].
diacritics / winter 2008 21
he sees himself as continuously engaged in an effort to break free from the frozen and
false authority of the present in order to become “a citizen of somewhere else,” as Haw-
thorne put it at the end of the preface to The Scarlet Letter.
To say that Huck’s self-identity is diasporic is to say that it is irremediably split or
divided. Indeed, for much of the novel, it seems to be shadowed by itself. The shadow
has a corporeal form: Huck’s prior, reappearing best friend, Tom Sawyer. Competing
with his loyalty to Jim is Huck’s admiration for Tom Sawyer, who incarnates all the con-
ventional moral virtues—the values of Southern romantic honor which we know Twain
despised and even made “responsible for the war”—that Huck seems driven, but fails, to
turn his back on.
That failure is nowhere so evident than in the novel`s fnal, so-called
“evasion” chapters where Tom, with Huck’s reluctant participation, subjects Jim to a
make-believe version of his morality that is cruel and humiliating to Jim.
These chapters
have stirred much critical offense, and in turn defense, but what such responses often fail
to appreciate, in their understanding of Huck as either intrinsically good or pragmati-
cally self-serving, is the basic duplicity, the tension of ethical and moral imperatives, that
informs Huck’s behavior throughout the novel. Huck’s irresistible attraction to Tom is
emphasized at the beginning and the end of the novel, but it is Huck’s more affecting rela-
tion to Jim, by virtue of the parallelism of his escape from Pap and of Jim’s escape from
his owner, that structures the novel’s plot in between. Indeed, that relation is anticipated
early in the novel when Huck is imprisoned and nearly murdered in Pap’s cabin while Pap
delivers several racist, if comic, harangues, all of which are nothing if not reminiscent
of the conditions some slaves were forced to endure [26–29]. Huck’s character has often
been proclaimed as the founding voice of modern American literature, and that voice, as
scholars have argued, has its origin partly in the voices of the Negro slaves that Twain—
who viewed the narrative artist as a “word-musician”
—was immersed in growing up in
the South:
16. The ideology of the South and Southern fction that Tom reßects was incarnated above all,
for Twain, in the work of Sir Walter Scott: “Sir Walter had so large a hand in making Southern
character, as it existed before the war, that he is in great measure responsible for the war” [qtd. in
Twain, Life on the Mississippi 266].
17. For the better part of a century, critical discourse on Huckleberry Finn has tended to focus
on the fnal so-called ¨evasion' chapters of the novel. This description refers to the explanation
given by Tom Sawyer in chapter 39 when he likens his and Huck's effort to free Jim to accounts he
has read in romantic novels. “When a prisoner of style escapes,” Tom explains, “it’s called an eva-
sion” [211]. During the middle of the twentieth century, critics such as Leo Marx charged Twain
with a similar evasion in the fnal chapters of the novel through his construction of a plot that al-
lows the seriousness of Huck's commitment to free Jim to be subverted by Tom Sawyer's game-play-
ing antics. Twain’s “evasion,” Marx argued, constituted a “lapse in moral vision” that crippled
the novel aesthetically [349]. Beginning in the 1960s with James M. Cox, such arguments were
persuasively countered, if not exactly refuted, by drawing attention to their own moral complacency
The reader's approval of Huck's presumably self-sacrifcing decision to free Jim is exercised, Cox
observed, at a safe distance; it is an approval of a sentiment, not of a political course of action.
Tom's performance at the end, resting as it does on the knowledge that Jim is already legally free,
is an exposure of the reader’s throughout the novel. In the headnote to Huckleberry Finn, Twain
warned against fnding a ¨moral' in the novel, and some critics, including Cox, have taken that
warning in support of a view that argues Huck’s ethical crisis is largely a chimera, a fabrication
of post-Reconstruction sentimentality. Just as it was easy for a reader to condemn slavery after the
war against it had been fought and won, Huck does “the easiest thing,” as Cox put it, in commit-
ting himself to free Jim [HF 351]. Although critics since this time have contributed immeasurably
to our understanding of this novel through their detailed historical and political contextualizations,
the basic critical opposition reßected in Marx's and Cox's readings remains intact today. For only
a handful of the critical and other readings that have inßuenced my view of this novel, see Jehlen;
Carton; Cox; Doyno; Fulton; and Powers.
18. Twain, “Fenimore Cooper’s Literary Offences” 302.
diacritics / winter 2008 23
In Mark Twain’s manuscript pages half a century later, these [slave] voices chal-
lenged the genteel paradigm that had sonorously governed the frst epoch of
indigenous American literature. They ushered in a replacement . . . the solo
riffs of the dispossessed—the advent of an American voice derived not from Eu-
ropean aesthetics, but entirely from local improvisational sources, black and
white. [Powers 8]
The point is not at all that Huck is possessed of the ability to assimilate and internalize,
through Jim, “the reality” of slavery, but on the contrary that precisely as other and inca-
pable of being assimilated such reality exerts its effects on Huck, unsettling and putting
in question his “true” self. It is the experience of Tom, not of Jim, that Huck “internal-
izes.¨ Indeed, that both Huck`s and Jim`s 'escapes¨ turn out to be fctional hoaxes made
possible by withholding information, until the end of the novel, from the reader (Pap is
already dead; Jim has already been freed) suggests that Huckleberry Finn’s “musical
form” is closer to that of a comic opera, with a closed, narrative structure, than a blues
symphony. It is not, in any case, tragic; and nothing signifes that fact more loudly and
dissonantly than Tom Sawyer`s reemergence in the novel`s fnal chapters. Such an end-
ing, as James M. Cox, Myra Jehlen, and Evan Carton have argued, exposes the compla-
cency and bad faith of the post-Reconstruction reader who, like Tom, already “knows”
that Jim is free. More broadly, it refects what Twain often pointed to late in life in his role
as literary icon: the complicity of modern forms of reason and representation, including
fctional discourse, with the human cruelty and terror witnessed in slavery and racism
[see Smith and Carton]. That Huck is himself so compliant in Tom`s stratagems refects
the fractured nature of his ethical identity, encoding the racist cruelty it rebels against but
also its perpetual incompleteness, its distinctive dislocatedness pitting “conscience” at
odds with itself.
It is worth observing, whatever one’s judgment of Huckleberry Finn, that Levinas, for
all his privileging of the form of tragedy, did not fail to defend the “rights” of literature
as pleasure and entertainment, as what Henry James, more darkly, called “amusement,”
connoting a “right” of irresponsibility and immorality.
For these authors, to a greater
or lesser extent, comedy clears the air from, and punctures the pretensions of, a modern,
especially expressivist aesthetics which views art as a form of knowledge or cognition
having the mind or imagination of the artist as its source. As Levinas put it, with studied
An artist–even a painter, even a musician—tells. He tells of the ineffable. An
artwork prolongs, and goes beyond, common perception. What common percep-
tion trivializes and misses, an artwork apprehends in its irreducible essence. It
thus coincides with metaphysical intuition. Where common language abdicates,
a poem or a painting speaks. Thus an artwork is more real than reality and at-
tests to the dignity of the artistic imagination, which sets itself up as knowledge
of the absolute. [RS 1]
For Twain, as I have tried to indicate, as for Levinas, such a view of art was naïve and
potentially of bad faith. Levinas, however, was skeptical of the expressivist view of art
19. “One cannot contest without being ridiculous . . . [art’s being] reduced to a source of plea-
sure' [Levinas, RO 12]. On Nietzsche and Henry James, see my ¨Henry James as Nietzschean.'
for reasons less cynical, less pessimistic—and less romantic—than Twain. He believed
not just that it was a defning property of art to be nonrepresentational, to be disengaged
and disconnected but also-as he said in the introduction to his frst essay on aesthetics,
“Reality and Its Shadow” (1948)—that the question of art is “the meaning” and “the
value” of “this disengagement.” Exercising that post-Kantian discrimination, as I have
described it, which traces the pathways of the nonconceptual in the conceptual, Levinas
asks rhetorically:
Is to disengage oneself from the world always to go beyond [au-delà], toward
the region of Platonic ideas and toward the eternal which towers above the
world? Can one not speak of a disengagement on the hither side [en-deca]—of
an interruption of time by a movement going on on the hither side of time, in its
“interstices”? [2–3]
What is encountered on that “hither side,” beneath representation, is a dimension
characterized by the image, which is distinguished from the concept by its temporality:
by our ability to sense objects, rather than perceive or conceive them. Images, unlike con-
cepts, are not “expressed” or represented, but rather “impose themselves on us without
our assuming them” [4] and compel our participation, impower us,
in a characteristic
rhythm, or externality, that Levinas calls “musical” [3]. Just as music demands from us
an involuntary responsiveness that encloses us in a private yet shared sense of posses-
sion, “an exteriority of the inward” [4], so too art compels a passivity, a participation
prior to understanding, which reverses the ordinary identity of things and exposes what is
shadowy and strange in them, effecting a deconceptualization, a “disincarnation of real-
ity” [5]. “The artist,” Levinas says, “moves in a universe that precedes . . . the world of
creation” [7]. The artist is not a maker, a fabricator, a creator, but rather, as Levinas puts it
in a later essay, 'a nomad . . . wandering . . . as in a desert [where] one can fnd no place
to reside” [“The Poet’s Vision” 136].
What is most striking in such an account, from the post-Kantian perspective I indi-
cated previously, are the homologous roles played by art and ethics in Levinas’s thought:
the passivity, nomadism, and discontinuities of language and time, that function in both
cases to undermine philosophy’s rationalist paradigms. At the core of these homologies
is the role played by aesthetics in Levinas’s ethical critique of ontology. The “universe
which precedes creation” that Levinas denotes, in “Reality and Its Shadow,” as aesthetic,
was described, just one year previously in Existence and Existents (1947), as a charac-
teristic of being as il y a; and the il y a posited a tragic account of being that was the
starting point of an ethical critique of both classical metaphysics and modern ontology.
Most signifcantly, the notion of the musicality of the image advanced in 'Reality and Its
Shadow” is part of a tragic account of time central to that critique. “To insist on the mu-
sicality of every image,” Levinas says in the latter, “is to see in an image its detachment
from an object”—its detachment, that is, “from the category of substance” [5], which was
the basis of Aristotelian metaphysics. It is also to insist that “Non-truth is not an obscure
residue of being, but is its sensible character itself” [7]: which does not mean, as it did for
20. Here and elsewhere in this essay, my use of the term “impower,” or “impowerment,”
contrasts with the expressive or imaginative attributes of empowerment normally attributed to the
artwork. Suggestive of the ethical potential Levinas grants to aesthetics, and drawing on the model
of music in particular, it describes a radical passivity grounded in the temporality of the body. Such
passivity might be understood, in Nietzschean terms, as a sort of somatic self-overcoming: the will
to power as pathos, which Jill Stauffer [33-47] and Jean-Michel Longneaux [48-69] argue power-
fully, although in different ways, is crucial to Nietzsche’s notion of eternal recurrence, relating both
(i.e., will to power and eternal recurrence) to the passivity of Levinasian ethical alterity.
diacritics / winter 2008 25
Plato, that the aesthetic world is a lesser one of becoming. It means that art’s “disengage-
ment” is philosophically subversive, radically so. Critics who claim that Levinas’s view
of art is “Platonic” have confused his critique of the function of representation in art with
a critique of art’s failure to represent. The latter, for Levinas, contrary to Plato, is not a
failure at all. Although art for Levinas is a region of darkness and obscurity, error and
falsehood—of “the untruth of being,” as he put it—the question it poses, from its “hither”
side, is ethical: what are the meaning and the value of such an “untruth of being”?
One of the centrally philosophic ways-grounded in the 'frst philosophy¨ of eth-
ics—that Levinas tries to answer this question is through the notion of the entretemps,
which is a characteristically “aesthetic” time that, in its association with “the time of dy-
ing” or what Heidegger called anxiety toward death, undercuts both metaphysical notions
of time as a “moving image of eternity,” in Plato’s words [Timaeus 37d], and modern,
ontological accounts of time as fnite. Much as ethics confronts the moral self with its
own impossibility, so too tragic art opens up an externality of time, a diachronic tran-
scendence, immemorial and unpredictable, which is subversive of the idols of eternal and
historical meaning guarded by philosophy. But beyond art’s function of subverting the
rationalist paradigms of philosophy—of “calling [philosophy] back to error,” as Levinas
puts it ['The Poet`s Vision¨ 135]-there is art`s tragic affrmation in face of the horror of
being: in face of the Nazi terror and Jewish Holocaust with which Heideggerian philoso-
phy was actively complicit, and to which Levinas was a close witness. Because Levinas’s
aesthetics was formed within the cauldron of such a philosophic history, let us look, very
briefy, at some of its elements.
The genesis of Levinas’s challenge to the ontological tradition in philosophy can be
traced to a series of texts published during an eleven-year period between 1934—the year
after Heidegger joined the Nazi Party upon Hitler’s ascension as Chancellor and when
Levinas wrote 'Refections on the Philosophy of Hitlerism,¨ implicitly linking Nazism`s
'new, biological conception of man¨ to Heideggerian fnitude of being-and 1947, the
year of Existence and Existents, composed largely while still in a German labor camp.

Levinas had personally studied with Heidegger in 1929–30, and many of the terms of his
antiontological ethical philosophy were developed in specifc response to Heideggerian
fundamental ontology. Heidegger was of crucial importance to Levinas not for his betray-
al of the integrity of philosophy, however, but for something close to opposite: because
his work “sum[s] up,” as he later wrote, “a whole evolution of western philosophy” [“Phi-
losophy and he Idea of Infnity¨ 53]. Heidegger`s fundamental ontology claimed that the
question of being had been submerged or forgotten by two millennia of metaphysics, but
what that claim had itself suppressed, according to Levinas, was “the essential possibility
of elemental Evil.”
An elemental evil is a necessary one, evil as an intrinsic part of be-
ing, rather than evil as the privation or lack of what is good, and it is on the basis of such
a notion of being, which Levinas arrived at not theologically but through phenomenologi-
cal analysis of pain and suffering, nausea, and alienation, that he challenged Heidegger’s
ontological philosophy. Using the French term mal, or evil, in close association with its
meaning of “hurt,” he writes in Existence and Existents:
21. For commentaries on ¨Reßections on the Philosophy of Hitlerism,' see Horowitz and
Horowitz, “Is Liberalism All We Need? Prelude via Fascism,” as well as the Milchman and Rosen-
berg collection Postmodernism and the Holocaust, especially the essays by Fabio Ciaramelli, Rob-
ert John Schefßer Manning, Tina Chanter, and Helmut Peukert.
22. This phrase is from Levinas's 1990 preface to ¨Reßections on the Philosophy of Hitler-
ism,' composed ffty-six years after the essay's original publication in 1934. The emphases are
We shall try to contest the idea that evil [mal] is defect. Does Being contain no
other vice than its limitation and nothingness? Is there some sort of underlying
evil in its very positivity? Is not anxiety over Being—horror of Being—just as
primal as anxiety over death? Is not the fear of Being just as originary as the
fear for Being? . . . Being is essentially alien and strikes against us. . . . There is
a pain in Being [Il est le mal d’etre]. [4–5; 9]
What results from Levinas’s “contestation” is the notion of being as il y a, which is
an “excess of nonsense over sense,” an excess of an anonymous being that disallows, by
assimilating and negating, all that is outside itself: a kind of black hole of meaning or
state of radical nonalterity or sameness which precipitates the formation of the subject as
ego—precipitates it, that is, as “other”—by means of the latter’s resistance to its anony-
mous overfow of indistinction and nonidentity. That resistance comes in the form, partly,
of states of nonconsciousness and sleep that are not, in Nietzsche’s terms, “the opposite of
consciousness” [Beyond 201, sec. 3], but are elements of a fundamental passivity which
forms an essential groundwork of identity. It is as though the self, being too full of itself
with a sense of the ceaseless, meaningless activity of its own being, with its own insom-
nia, takes a leap outside itself, calls a halt or at least suspension to such activity, and fnds
the elements of its own gratifcation, its own desires, in that which is 'other¨ to itself.
Originary to the self, in sum, originary to the formation of its ego, is a splitting or
fracturing of self-identity which conditions receptivity to what Levinas will call, in his
later work, “otherwise than being”: to an absolute alterity, an exteriority or discontinu-
ity that puts that very identity in question, compelling the opening up and uprooting of
the subject’s positionality and placing the self in a grammatically accusative position, a
“me” rather than an “I.” Such alterity acts as a demand, a compulsion, in no sense chosen
by the self, which can be neither anticipated by nor assimilated within prior categories
of thought. It is this compulsion, an involuntary responsiveness, that I have likened to
Huck’s act of putting himself in service to Jim; but such an act, in its anti-moral subver-
sion of social and political authority as well as incitement to ethical transcendence with-
out recourse to any settled sense of self, is by no means unique in American literature;
and it is the effect of the argument of “Reality and Its Shadow” and later essays to suggest
that such compulsion and involuntary responsiveness may be rooted in a larger dimension
of literary diaspora and ontological exile of identity in which the self is “called” from its
base or home of identity, to which it does not return, but without being able to discon-
nect or free itself wholly from that home. Transcendence and exteriority beckon toward a
fulfllment whose possibility is impossibility:
Literature is the unique adventure of a transcendence beyond all the horizons of
the world, which even the boldest departures do not let us ßee. Only art would
let us “take off”—but for the fact that in that conquest of exteriority, we must
remain for ever excluded; for, if it did offer shelter to the poet, exteriority would
have lost its very strangeness. [“The Poet’s Vision” 134]
At issue, in such Mosaic-like exclusion, is not self-denial or renunciation, but what
Levinas calls “non-indifference,” a self-overcoming or negating of a necessary egotism
or indifference, which is also a disinteressement or forgetfulness of being (esse).
Out of
forgetfulness of being and the diasporic consciousness which follows in its wake arises a
“nomadic memory”:
23. See Cohen, Elevations 163–64, for a discussion of Levinas’s use of this term.
diacritics / winter 2008 27
From the depths of sedentary existence a nomadic memory [in literature] arises.
Nomadism is not an approach to the sedentary state. It is an irreducible rela-
tion to the earth: a sojourn devoid of place. Before the darkness to which art
recalls us, as before death, the “I,” mainstay of our powers dissolves into an
anonymous “one” in a land of peregrination. It is the I of the Eternal Wanderer,
identifed by gait rather than location, along the border of non-truth, a realm
extending farther than the true. [“The Poet’s Vision” 136]
Such nomadic memory entails a sort of “tragic harmonics,” a musical impowerment, in a
region nonconceptual (of the image), antiepistemological (on the border of untruth) and
nonmoral (of the mal, the evil and the hurt, of existence): a region that is trespassed most
often, in literature, by the genre of tragedy. In classical times, music had been closely
associated with poetry, tragedy in particular; and Aristotle thought there was a morally
signifcant resemblance between the external movements of rhythmical sound and 'the
movements of the soul” [Butcher 132]. But for Levinas, it is not the soul with which trag-
ic art resonates but the formation of the ego out of horror (horreur) of being. In classical
and Shakespearian tragedy, the hero typically experiences an event that causes her or him
to undergo a radical disorientation and loss of self-identity, an insuffciency of self, ego,
and consciousness. In order for this to occur, the event must be experienced not merely as
destructive, but as inexplicable and indeterminate—as nonconceptual and communicable
only by means of “musical” images. When Sophocles’s Oedipus, for example, blinds
himself after learning that he has married his mother and murdered his father, he gives
expression to just such horror. The suffering he must endure is out of all proportion to
any conceivable explanation or justifcation for it-whether that justifcation be viewed
in terms of theodicy (God’s justice) or hamartia (Aristotelian tragic faw). Tragedy dra-
matizes the invasion of Unmeaning into the hero’s life and consciousness: an Unmeaning
that is not “meaningless” in the sense of being the opposite of meaningful, but rather
belongs to a netherworld in between, in violation of the law of the excluded middle. This
invasion forecloses any possibility of the hero’s recovery of his former self-assurance
and settled state of identity. Unlike the epic poet, who acts as a mouthpiece of the gods,
the tragic poet is a mouthpiece of Unmeaning. From beneath representation, a diasporic
disorder arises, spilling into and subsuming any form of order.
The source of such disorder, the temporal counterpart of the il y a but arising in art from
its “interstices,” is the entretemps. According to the account in “Reality and Its Shadow,”
where it was originally and most fully presented, the entretemps is a “between time”
or 'meanwhile¨ that eternalizes, or suspends indefnitely, the evanescence of the pres-
ent moment, a sort of permanent interruption [8–11]. Levinas illustrates the entretemps
mostly with reference to the plastic arts, to statues and paintings, but he makes clear that
it is equally applicable to narrative fction. Just as 'Eternally, the smile of the Mona Lisa
about to broaden will not broaden¨ [9], so too in fction the action told will return as the
same, the identical, action. Such a mode of time is “something inhuman and monstrous”
[11]. What is inhuman or monstrous about the entretemps, in particular, is that it deprives
the present moment of its “essential characteristic”: its evanescence or dissolution. To
deprive the present moment of its ability to “pass” is to abolish both the future and the
Yet the entretemps, like the songs of the Sirens who lured Odysseus’s men to their
death, is also enthralling. Science fction sometimes portrays characters who are given
the fantastic and intoxicating power of stopping or slowing down time, but although what
the entretemps conveys may be fantastic and intoxicating, it is not, Levinas insists, a
power—and nothing shows this better than the fact that the entretemps is not just a purely
“aesthetic” time but that it also characterizes “the time of dying,” which “cannot give
itself the other shore.” Alluding to his critique of Heidegger’s account of being toward
death, Levinas says: “What is unique and poignant in this instant is due to the fact that
it cannot pass. In dying . . . one is in the interval, forever an interval” [11]. For when the
instant “passes,” one no longer is. Like the characters in Edgar Allan Poe’s tales, notably
“The Premature Burial,” but many others as well, death is experienced as an event which
defeats all attempts to master or control it, negating human possibility by frustrating con-
summation. Heidegger, according to Levinas, misses the point when he refers to death
as “the possibility of impossibility,” or Nothingness, for such an account neutralizes the
radical alterity of death by assimilating it to the self-comprehension of the subject as an
existential structure of possibility. “Nothingness” is just the counterimage of the Christian
Afterlife, a picture which reassures Dasein of its manifold, if fnite possibilities-of its
“virility” [see TO 69–73]. It is our rituals and practices around the treatment of the dying,
the burial of the dead, and the preservation of their memory that give meaning to death,
not the existential experience of the consciousness of death.
In order to foreclose such neutralization of death’s radical alterity, Levinas inverts
Heidegger’s formula of death as “the possibility of impossibility” and calls it instead the
“impossibility of possibility,” by which he means to indicate death’s radical exteriority
to, its transcendence of, human consciousness as possibility. Death is what eludes all at-
tempts to master it; in our relation to death, we live in the eternal suspension of the future,
what paralyzes and negates any present. Whether in the time of dying, or the entretemps
of the artwork, by repeating or eternally suspending the present as present, one is locked
in a nightmare of the eternal return of the same.
This phrase denotes the Nietzschean notion frst advanced in The Gay Science [273–
74, sec. 341, “The Greatest Weight”] and elaborated at length in Thus Spoke Zarathustra
[e.g., 179, “Of the Vision and the Riddle”], a notion that tragically affrmed a person`s
ability to “will” the eternal recurrence of “even” the smallest and most regrettable events
of one’s life. The basis for comparing the two notions, eternal recurrence and the entre-
temps, is the critique of time on which they hinge. If the entretemps is like “the moment”
before death, and every moment of life is, potentially, the moment before death, then the
entretemps—and eternal recurrence, in a different way—might be regarded not so much
as an “inhuman and monstrous” time but as an exposure of a certain monstrosity of time
that is concealed by both the classical (metaphysical) and modern (ontological) accounts
of time.

Classical metaphysics, according to Heidegger’s critique, with which Levinas large-
ly agreed and which Nietzsche anticipated, equated time with the being or “presence” of
inanimate objects, rather than with the kind of being characteristic of humans, what he
called Dasein, or being-there. Such a metaphysics of presence posits time as an infnite
succession, a fowing stream, of 'nows¨ or punctual instants that are continually present-
at-hand, at once passing away and arriving. But by viewing such instants only in terms of
“eternity,” it deprived the moment of that which was necessary for it “to be,” its evanes-
cence. Levinas’s entretemps is essentially a dramatization of this fact, viewing the mo-
ment from the inside-out and fnding there, instead of Plato`s 'moving image of eternity,¨
an eternity which does not move.
On the other hand, from a Levinasian and Nietzschean perspective, the alternative
offered by Heidegger did not fundamentally challenge what is presupposed by the clas-
sical picture: the integrity and coherence, the wholeness, of the moment. According to
24. For discussions of the contrast between (classical) metaphysics and (modern) ontology,
see my “Language and Being” and “The Ontological Turn.”
diacritics / winter 2008 29
Levinas, Heidegger’s positing of an existential continuum of past, present, and future,
a projective structure of possibility across a fnite temporal horizon, merely duplicates
the metaphysical tradition’s reduction of time to a self-present instant by making that
continuum a sort of whole, and therefore simultaneous and instantaneous, rooted in Da-
sein’s projection of itself. Such a temporal horizon negates the diachronic nature of time:
both the alterity of the future, what is radically unpredictable and not to be anticipated;
and the alterity of the past, what is immemorial and exceeds memory and conceptual as-
similation. In the same way that the meaning of death does not consist in our subjective
consciousness of it but in the rituals around the dead and dying, so too the meaning of
time does not have reference to an existential continuum, to an already constituted series
of punctual instants, but arises from that which, being immemorial or unpredictable, is
“other” to those instants. As Levinas says in a late aesthetic essay, “Poetry and Resurrec-
tion: Notes on Agnon” (1973): “There, between the present and that which has never been
able to join a present, is situated the ‘between times’ [entretemps] of poetry or resurrec-
tion” [12].
By “that which has never been able to join a present,” Levinas refers principally to
an “immemorial” (or “unrepresentational”) past that cannot “join a present” because it
is in excess of any such present; it is an “exteriority,” a diachronic transcendence, that
is the reference point of the “resurrection” enacted in poetry. But the connotation of a
suspended eternity, suggesting the original meaning of the term entretemps, is present
as well; as though Levinas were signifying, using exactly the same words, both the hor-
ror of a timeless eternity and the transcendence of a diachronic time. Nietzsche’s notion
of “eternal return,” as an eternal return of “the same, yet always different” has a similar
Tragic art, for both Levinas and Nietzsche, is affrmative, a 'saying Yes to life,¨ in
Nietzsche’s words [Twilight 110]—and it is such by virtue of its encounter with a horror
not just of being but of time. In the same way that the il y a, an excess of anonymous being,
serves as the tragic basis of ethics, so too the entretemps, an excessiveness of time from
within the heart of the instant, and a subversion of both the metaphysical and ontological
conceptions of time, serves as the tragic basis for a diachronic, aesthetic transcendence.
It is in the interiority of the moment that the alterity of time is encountered. The source of
poetry’s musical impower, its interruption of the synchronic continuities of philosophical
language, is the interstices of time, the entretemps: “It is of the essence of art to signify
only between the lines—in the intervals of time, between times [entretemps]—like a foot-
print that would precede the step, or an echo preceding the sound of a voice” [“Poetry
and Resurrection¨ 7]. Such signifcation is characterized as 'that exceptional event-that
sovereign forgetfulness, which frees language from its servitude towards the structures
in which the said [le dit] prevails” [“Servant and Her Master” 153]. Providing a satirical
counterversion of the Hegelian account of the death of art via philosophy, Levinas identi-
fes 'the structures in which the said prevails¨ as those of philosophical reason, which is
reputed to love wisdom [and] is all memory, all anticipation, all eternity. [The
language of philosophy] is never-fading, and always has the last word. It con-
taminates with logic the ambiguity inscribed in the trace of forgotten discourse
and never gives itself up to enigma. As the speaker of truth, how can she be
silenced? [“Servant,” Levinas Reader 158]
She can be silenced, it turns out, by poetry’s “discontinuous” and “contradictory” lan-
guage of forgetfulness. In Totality and Infnity (1961) Levinas uses the term “forgetful-
ness” to mean a natural and necessary “atheism” that makes us forget not what we are
but that we are: that we are not, in particular, self-created but must regard ourselves as
such, such “forgetting of transcendence” being necessary to that very interiority of the
self which makes possible our involuntary receptivity to an ethical encounter with what
is “beyond the self”—the transcendence, that is, of the other person.
Literary language’s
“sovereign forgetfulness” is similar to such atheistic forgetting in that it occurs in a mode
of time “before the world’s creation” (that is, of self-creation) and in that it at once pro-
vides access to the interiority of temporal life, with all its suffering, and the affrmation of
a radically other, immemorial or unpredictable time. It is a forgetfulness of being (esse),
disinteressement, that is not sacrifce or renunciation but rather, as Levinas put it, a 'new
kind of passivity,” one “beneath consciousness,” and on “the wrong side of being”: “As
if beyond the ambit of a melody a higher or lower register resonated and mixed with the
chords that are heard, but with a sonority that no voice can sing and no instrument can
produce” [“Humanism” 50]. At the very beginning of Otherwise than Being, Levinas
speaks of his “breathlessness” in striving “to hear a God not contaminated by Being”
Both the entretemps and the eternal return of the same are efforts to deal with the
enigma of time as seen from the perspective of death. The enigma of time is that it is not
something to be gotten “outside of” (as the metaphysical tradition, with its picture of time
as an infnite succession of punctual instants, had assumed), but it is not fnite either (as
Heidegger, inheriting a view of time as duration and horizon from Bergson and Husserl,
had posited). Rather, the problem of time is the analysis, or “opening up,” of the moment;
and it is from the post-Kantian perspective of the moment, in common with Levinas, that
Nietzsche has Zarathustra declare, just prior to announcing the eternal return of the same:
“behold this gateway. . . . Two paths meet here; no one has yet followed either to its end.
. . . The name of the gateway is inscribed above: ‘Moment’” [Thus Spoke Zarathustra
269–70]. The alterity of time can be accessed only by means of the Moment, by means of
that eternity of presentness which is an eternal repetition: that impossibility of time which
is the omnipresence of death. By paradoxically taking responsibility for such impossibil-
ity, Zarathustra—who undergoes cycles of joy and disgust, guilt and happiness—dra-
matizes, perhaps, what Levinas also means by tragic affrmation. For his plunge into the
exteriority of the inward is at the same time a self-forgetfulness, a receptivity to alterity,
that carves a path of destruction. To take on an eternal presentness is to destroy, through
forgetfulness, eternal being. It is to resist injustice, including the injustice of death (for
death is always unjust and never natural, according to Levinas), and affrm the moment`s
evanescence, the radical alterity—what Levinas calls “the diachrony” [e.g., OB 56]—of
past and future.
25. In Totality and Infnity, Levinas says: ¨The idea of infnity, which requires separation,
requires it unto atheism, so profoundly that the idea of infnity could be forgotten [s’oublier]. The
forgetting [L’oubli] of transcendence is not produced as an accident in a separated being; the
possibility of this forgetting is necessary for separation [181]. . . . The paradox of an Infnity admit-
ting a being outside of itself which it does not encompass, and accomplishing its very infnitude by
virtue of this proximity of a separated being—this, in a word, is the paradox of creation” [89–90].
“Forgetfulness” constitutes our existence as separate, created beings; a natural, necessary, but
temporary “atheism” makes us forget not what we are but that we are—that we are not, in particu-
lar, self-created; but that we must regard ourselves as such, as beings possessed of free will and
autonomy. These views have been traced to a current within the Jewish mystical tradition that fnds
expression in Rabbi Hayyim of Volozhin’s 1824 book, The Soul of Life (Nefesh Hahayim), such that
the necessity of our forgetfulness would be not just a “test” of faith but an essential bulwark of cre-
ation. This is to come perilously close, however, to attributing to Levinas a perspective that would
merge ethics and ontology—precisely what his philosophical work tried so hard to keep separate—
or, still worse, to justifying a supposed asceticism, or denial of the body, on his part. What is at
stake in Levinas's ethics is not the denial of the self but the affrmation of the ¨inexhaustibility,' as
Nietzsche says, of its failure.
diacritics / winter 2008 31
From the perspective of death, every moment of life is the moment before death; and
every moment is a suspended eternity within which one is imprisoned. Nonetheless, art,
as the very penitentiary of that moment, dramatizes an “exceptional event”: the overcom-
ing of death—the gaining of more life—within the externality of the moment’s inward-
ness. Such overcoming is a sovereign forgetfulness, a Saying of language that signifes
“the resurrection that sustains it: not in the fable it sings, but in its very singing.”
These words are from Levinas’s essay “Poetry and Resurrection,” on the Israeli writer
S. Y. Agnon (1888–1970). Agnon’s works helped to create, in the midst of the destruction
of East European Jewry, a modern Hebrew literature at a time when this ancient language,
which had not been used in everyday, spoken discourse for almost 2000 years, had barely
advanced beyond the stage, so to speak, of its own rebirth. Like Levinas himself, Agnon
was a modernist immersed in traditionalist sources—the Bible with its rabbinic com-
mentaries, the Talmud, the Midrash, and medieval literature, down to the Musar works
and Hasidism of more recent centuries (though Levinas was, true to the maskilic and
mitnagdic elements of his Lithuanian background, strongly disaffected by the latter). The
themes of homelessness and exile (galut) are everywhere present in Agnon’s writings,
most notably in his major novel A Guest for the Night (1939), but these themes are re-
fected by Levinas, in this essay, across the surface of what he calls Agnon`s 'anguish,¨
which is not an “anguish over the end of traditional Jewish life, but over the possible end
of the literature that could bring it to life” [“Poetry and Resurrection” 15]. What Levinas
shares in common with Agnon is a self-exposing modernism complemented by a richness
and depth of religious tradition.
“Poetry and Resurrection” deepens our understanding of Levinas’s ethical aesthet-
ics by bringing that aesthetics face to face with Judaism: with Judaism not as a faith or
set of beliefs but as a form of language and mode of expression, an “ambiguous” and
“enigmatic” mode of expression
that is illustrated in the ancient practice of the melitsah
(fgurative language), which is a 'trope in Agnon`s writing¨ that 'becomes the breaking-
away from a certain ontology”:
The Jewish way of life signifed in this ambiguous form of speech [melitsah]
belongs to its mode of expression not only in the way a theme belongs to dis-
course. By its “mode of expression” that way of life prolongs and redoubles the
enigma. The community of Israel and the things pertaining to its exile, and the
land regained—these do not have any beginning in the being they spell out! They
attest to that past through ritual. . . . It is as if the land meant nothing but the
promise of land. . . . How can we express that modality, which is totally different
from being? Would not the word beyond be adequate here? Not at all because of
religion, which teaches of the beyond. The opposite would be closer to the truth.
. . . Religion (or, more precisely, Judaism) would be the way in which a desub-
stantiation of being is of itself procured, of itself possible—an excluded middle
in which the limits between life and non-life disappear. . . . The symbolism of the
rite, like the enigma of the Hebraic mode of expression [dire], de-nucleates ulti-
mate solidity beneath plasticity of forms, as taught by Western ontology. [9–10]
26. On Levinas and the Talmud, including the analogies between Talmudic and literary inter-
pretation, see Levinas, “Bad Conscience and the Inexorable”; Diffcult Freedom; Nine Talmudic
Readings. See also Cohen, Elevations; Cohen, Ethics, Exegesis and Philosophy; Bloechl, ed., The
Face of the Other and the Trace of God; and Bloechl, Liturgy of the Neighbor.
diacritics / winter 2008 33
The Hebraic mode of expression is rooted in a diasporic, Jewish community, that
has no “beginning” in “being”! Rather, it is an antistructural, antiontological practice
of language that “has issued forth from the symbol” and to which the term “beyond,” in
an otherworldly sense, is not appropriate. The “Jewish way of life” reverberates within
language: “[It] mirrors, in Agnon, the sonority of the language in which it is expressed. .
. . That life is not just sung; it is itself song” [10].
Levinas is careful to distinguish, here and elsewhere in the essay, between “the sing-
ing and the song”—between the act of telling and what is told—which is a version of his
more basic distinction between the Said and the Saying, le dit et le dire. The Said includes
the totality of language in all its referential and thematic functions. The Saying, on the
other hand, is a condition of possibility of the Said and can be signifed only through lan-
guage, not in it. In attempting to convey the Saying within the Said, language inevitably,
necessarily, betrays itself (which doesn’t mean the betrayal shouldn’t be committed), for
the Saying leaves in the Said only what Levinas calls the trace of itself, a trace that does
not, however, compromise the exteriority of the Saying to the Said.
“Poetry and Resurrection” applies this understanding of language, at least implicitly,
to the performance and transmission of literary texts. The most basic point is that since
stories are not self-originating, are not “acts of creation,” it means that they have refer-
ence to a mode of time “beyond” themselves, a time that has been “forgotten” but which
is nonetheless carried, borne, by the discourse, by the Saying—though not by the story, by
the Said—of the narrative. It is not just that all tellings are retellings, it is that all stories
carry the trace of their prior sayings: of what is said and unsaid, not said and then with-
drawn from what is not said. These retellings, these “eternal” repetitions of the “same”
story, are what preserve the irreversibility of its Saying, the undetectability of its origin,
the resistance to its being totalized in a system of the Said. Such incommensurability
of Said and Saying, story and discourse, this necessary narrative uncertainty, necessary
forgetfulness, bears, in its excessive relation to any referential context, the “trace” of an
immemorial or unrepresentable past, of a radical alerity and transcendence.
bears not in itself but in its saying a relation of diachronic discontinuity with its past. As
Levinas comments on Agnon,
And Agnon’s language, and the life it lets speak (whether in its wholeness or its
disintegration). . . . It all goes back to a past concerning which we are justifed
in wondering whether it could ever have been contained within a present, and
whether today it can be represented. Poetry signifes it, but not in its theme. It
signifes it as song. Its song cannot be reduced to the perfect harmony between
the Saying and the Said attributable to the writer’s craft, nor to the “author’s
love for his people, religion or language” (to the ahavat Israel). All craft, alle-
giance or commitment aside, the quest for a certain sound (and a sense unsay-
able without it) fnds in Agnon-in that language, that life, that land-a full-
range instrument for its expression. . . . [Agnon's] poetry signifes poetically the
resurrection that sustains it: not in the fable it sings, but in its very singing. [8;
Resurrection is the theme of the principal story of Agnon discussed by Levinas, “The
Sign,” which tells of what happens when the author, “settled in the land of the ancestors,”
on the eve of Shavuot—a festival that commemorates the most important event in Jew-
ish history, the giving of the Torah that was the culmination of the Exodus—learns “of
the extermination by the Germans of all the Jews in the Polish town [Buczacz, Galicia]
where he was born” [13]. In the dreamlike vision which is then narrated, Agnon sees the
27. On “narrative uncertainty,” see my “The Narrative Act: Wittgenstein and Narratology.”
dead in what Levinas describes as “their absolute place . . . a place that is not a site . . . in
which place is already non-place.” At one point, the poet says to two of his last remaining
“You said that after the second catastrophe no one was left alive in the town. So
you are yourselves no longer alive!” They smiled, then, as the dead smile when
they see that we think they are no longer alive. [14]
Levinas’s response to this passage is striking:
An enigma set within the enigma. Does not this smile also express the irony the
dead have toward themselves? Are the living completely wrong? Are eternity
and resurrection through poetry free of all illusion? Are language and poetry the
ultimate meaning of humanness? [14]
Notwithstanding the exceedingly high value we have seen Levinas invest in art’s sub-
versive ethics, art’s diachronic modes of time, the answer to this question is clearly no:
literature and poetry are forms of action that gain their value from being part of a human,
if broken and highly indeterminate chain of transmission, one in which the critic, Levinas
stresses, plays a vital role. It might be noted that Levinas’s rhetorical questions, by which
he has inserted himself into the narrative discourse on a level with Agnon, implicitly as-
similate the opposition between life and death to that of life and art, tying the value of art,
once again, to its tragic functions. Indeed, to believe that “language and poetry are the
ultimate meaning of humanness” is to endorse that “hypertrophy of art” which Levinas
warned against; and to undermine the very real and important tragic potential art and
poetry can have, and which Levinas indicates, in the fnal section of his essay, Agnon`s
work does have.
That section starts off with a fairly lengthy quote from the story referred to above,
“The Sign,” whose words are sharply, bitterly ironic in a manner characteristic of Jew-
ish modernism—but going back to the Bible—with an underlying sad sincerity to which
Levinas is acutely sensitive:
Six million Jews assassinated by the Gentiles among us. A third of Israel has
been killed, and the other two-thirds are orphaned. . . . It was a great thought
that He who lives eternally had, to have chosen us from among all the peoples,
to give us the Torah of Life, although it is a little diffcult to understand why he
created facing us, a kind of human beings that would take our lives because we
observe the Torah. [15]
In a late essay, “Useless Suffering” (1982), which his commentary on this passage an-
ticipates, Levinas examines religious doctrines such as Leibniz’s “theodicy” (God’s jus-
tice) concerned to justify God`s role in creating evil and in allowing it to fourish, and
28. Nietzsche, too, warned against a hypertrophy of art which he saw incarnated in the music
of Wagner and the philosophy of Schopenhauer: an antitragic overvaluation of the artist as “a
priest, a kind of mouthpiece of the ‘in itself ’ of things, a telephone from the beyond” [Geneal-
ogy 538–39, Third Essay, sec. 5]. Nietzsche also critiqued the theory of “l’art pour l’art” as a
concealed morality inimical to what was most vital to “the tragic artist”: to be a “genius of com-
munication” [Twilight of the Idols 81–2, sec. 24]. Similar sentiments and views are conveyed in
Thus Spoke Zarathustra [149–52, “Of Poets”] and Ecce Homo [703, “Why I Am So Clever,” sec.
5; 729–30, “The Birth of Tragedy,” sec. 3]. It is in the latter passage, in Ecce Homo, that Nietzsche
declares himself to be ¨the frst tragic philosopher,' one of whose attributes is a (quasi-Levinasian)
“radical repudiation of the very concept of being.”
diacritics / winter 2008 35
concludes that although theodicy in this very broad sense has been a component of much
Western thought, its role has come to an end with the Holocaust. The Holocaust, with its
murder of one million children because their great-grandparents may have been Jewish,
was 'the paradigm of gratuitous human suffering.¨ Referring to Kant`s effort to fnd a
self-determining, self-suffcing structure of consciousness rooted in the Sensibility, and
employing the term mal with the same ambiguity of connotation of “evil” and “hurt” that
we have seen before, Levinas says,
the denial and refusal of meaning . . . is the way in which the unbearable is
precisely not borne by consciousness. . . . Suffering, in its hurt and in its in-spite-
of-consciousness, is passivity. . . . The passivity of suffering is more profoundly
passive than the receptivity of our senses. . . . All evil refers to suffering. It is the
impasse of life and being, their absurdity. . . . Thus the least one can say about
suffering is that in its own phenomenality, intrinsically, it is useless, “for noth-
ing.” [91–93]
At the heart of Levinas’s diagnosis of Western thought is his recognition that the motive
force driving the construction of the moral systems of the West is the need to give mean-
ing to suffering; and that it is that same need which has been the source of those same
systems` immorality and injustice, terror and genocide. It is not Hitlerism that defned the
nature of evil, but its effacement of the human, its ontological denial of the powerlessness
at the heart of consciousness, that constituted its demonic power. It was that denial, that
ontological need, which lay at the source of its violence and hatred of the other. The es-
sence of Hitlerism was its radical incapacity to deal with the impower, the suffering and
evil, at the heart of human being.
Levinas expresses everything he thinks is dangerous about efforts to justify suffering,
whether metaphysical or ontological, when he says, 'the justifcation of the neighbor`s
pain is certainly the source of all immorality¨ ['Useless¨ 99]. To say that the justifcation
of the neighbor’s pain is the source of immorality is to say that I do not have the right to
give meaning to that which, in others, may be inexplicable in myself; and that it is part of
the nature, of the very meaning of suffering, to be unmeaningful in oneself. The justifca-
tion of the neighbor`s pain begins with the justifcation of one`s own pain and the justif-
cation of one’s own pain, begins with the denial of the meaninglessness of suffering, the
denial of the elemental nature of evil.
It is tragic art`s ability to refuse all justifcation for suffering, and to take on the
impower at the heart of human being, that constitutes its ethical transcendence. For to
refuse to justify suffering is, on the one hand, to resist the barbarism of reason: to resist, as
Levinas says in his comments on Agnon’s “The Sign,” “comfortable theodicies, consola-
tions that cost us nothing and compassions without suffering—to recognize “Evil in evil
and Death in death¨ [16]. On the other hand, that refusal is also a tragic affrmation of the
alterity of the self: of a self-forgetfulness that fnds within its own impower the ability to
give meaning not to one’s own suffering, which is always meaningless, nor to the suffer-
ing of the other, which is always questionable, never to be presumed, but to my suffering
for the suffering of the other: which is more generally an affrmation of the asymmetry
of the relation between self and other, a recognition that such relation is not a function of
some common essence shared by individuals, but of those individuals in an interhuman
relationship, such that the very basis of community is its dedication to those who are other
to that community—“the inevitable binding into a community of those human beings
who are dedicated to the other man” [15].
In Ethics after Idealism, Rey Chow cannily identifes, as a point of convergence in
opposing models of critical theory and cultural studies, an idealization of “the other” as
“essentially different, good, kind, enveloped in a halo” [xx], which implicitly privileges
one’s own otherness, whether theoretically or culturally. Is there something to be learned
from the way Levinas draws on the tradition and culture within which his own Jewish
identity was shaped to critique Western universalism, yet refuses to privilege the concept
of otherness per se—whether based in Jewish “election” or anything else—but rather
the capacity of the other to put our settled sense of self at risk? Levinas, an observant
Jew, once went so far as to say, “Judaism is not a religion—the word does not exist in
Hebrew—it is much more than that . . .” [qtd. in Malka 130]. This statement is indicative
of the extent to which Levinas saw his identity as a Jew, his identity as a person bound to
a certain tradition, people, and set of texts, not as the basis for criteria of judgment, but as
the starting point of a process of ethical self-critique continuous with that of philosophy.
Wittgenstein once said: “Ethics and aesthetics are one and the same” [Tractatus
6.421]. Levinas would say, rather, that aesthetics is at its best 'frst¨ in ethics. But they
are also “the same,” for Levinas, in that what is at issue, most generally, in Levinas’s
aesthetics is what is at issue in his ethics, the alterity of language as a non–meaning-
based, nonconceptual, and nonontological form of signifcation that signifes not for but
to a subjectivity, to the constitution of subjectivity. This process of signifcation is partly
destructive, entailing a shattering of identity through a force or shock “from the outside”
which interrupts or disrupts the habitual categories and ways of thinking and perceiving
of the ego. Because art and literature are not obedient to the language of philosophy, they
are better able than any other language, perhaps, to dramatize the identity of destructive
and constructive processes. Such dramatization goes to the heart of the tragic function.
Tragedy gives expression to, opens up a mode of time for, the nonpresence of things:
it signifes 'something¨ radically exterior by means of something radically interior. It
constitutes subjectivity by delineating the bounds of the ethical, by breaking down onto-
logical and conceptual categories into realms of uncertainty, regions of forgetfulness, that
mark the limits of transcendence. The invasion of Unmeaning into the self precipitates an
experience of meaning outside the self. Art and literature, it might be said, attempt, fool-
ishly, wastefully, wantonly, with sovereign forgetfulness of their own self-preservation
and identity, what philosophy would never have the courage to attempt: the representa-
tion of the unrepresentable, the taking on, full in the face, of the horror of the il y a and
the eternal presentness of the entretemps. It is art and literature, by entering the moment
“from the wrong side of being,” from “beneath consciousness,” with a “new concept
of passivity,” that can give breath to that moment and a “resonance” to that “beyond”
[“Humanism” 50]. Nonetheless, “in that conquest of exteriority [transcendence], we must
remain for ever excluded,” for if “exteriority . . . did offer shelter to the poet,” Levinas
says, ever-mindful of the unrepresentable, the unpredictable, without which the whole
idea of “otherness” or alterity would be a sham, “exteriority would have lost its very
strangeness” [“The Poet’s Vision” 134].
What has most impeded recognition of the ethical nature of Levinas’s aesthetics is
the radicalism of his ethics. “Ethics” for Levinas entails a shattering encounter with fail-
ure and insuffciency, which is represented in Judaic thought as well as in classical Greek
and Shakespearean tragedy, and which Levinas drew on in those frst works produced
after his emergence from a Nazi labor camp: an 'aesthetic¨ source of his ethics, a 'frst
ethics,” which shaped the tragic, deeply language-oriented nature of his philosophy to the
end. What Levinas meant by “otherness” does not separate it from the culture or cultures
in which it acts but is rather an “alterity” accessed by means of those cultures. All litera-
tures, Levinas would agree with Deleuze and Guattari, are minor literatures [see Deleuze
and Guattari, Kafka]. All literatures, that is, even the “major” ones, even the ones that
don’t want to, dramatize to greater or lesser degrees a potential to subvert the dominant
social and political norms of the cultures in which they are produced. But that potential,
diacritics / winter 2008 37
Levinas insists, is predicated on literature’s fractured timelessness: its ability to dramatize
language`s self-overcoming, its signifcation of an immemorial past, an unpredictable
future, within the externality of the moment’s inwardness.
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