:: God, Death & Time ::

Sean and David read Emmanuel Lévinas' ''God, Death & Time''
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:: Friday, July 18, 2003 ::


:: Sean 4:11 AM [+] ::
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Lecture 23: Thinking about Death on the basis of Time

After the first two paragraphs of this comparatively long lecture on thinking about death on the basis of time, Lévinas makes no further reference to death. In this penultimate lecture, it is almost as if time were the Aufhebung of death. Or, perhaps more accurately, these lectures on death have ultimately been a question for Lévinas of time. If Heidegger does indeed think time on the basis of death, the overriding themes of Lévinas’s lectures on death is to question and to refute the use of death to argue for the finitude of time, or time as finitude. For Lévinas, time is a diachronic “relationship with the other, rather than with the end.” Is the relationship with the other then never a relationship with the end? I suppose that is Lévinas’s most profound point: the relationship with the other never ends: it has no end, especially my end, that I can claim, know or capitalise on. But, as always with Lévinas, the question is what kind of other are we talking about? The relationship with the other who has already died has no end; the relationship with the loved one has no end; the relationship with the unencompassable, infinite idea that has been put in me of God has no end. But what if the other wants to put an end to our relationship? What if the always, endless relationship with me is too much for the other? Or what if the other wants to put an end to me, to murder me? Lévinas writes at the end of the first paragraph: “We shall have to attempt to start from murder as suggesting the complete meaning of death.” For Lévinas, the relationship with the other is itself a kind of Kantian categorical imperative against murder. But what about the murderous other who does not ascribe to the universal laws of pure practical reason as the ground for the moral law and the actions of the free will? What about the other who is not a Kantian? Lévinas himself had raised this question in his short autobiographical essay “The Name of a Dog, or Natural Rights,” when he writes: “This dog was the last Kantian in Germany, without the brain needed to universalise maxims and drives.”

But, as I said, this lecture isn’t really about death. It is a remarkable coda on Lévinas’s thinking of time otherwise than Hegel, Husserl and Heidegger. I cannot help but be convinced by his challenging the assumptions of presence of the same founded on “time as a series of instants,” and yet I am not sure what to make of Lévinas’s eloquent alternative: “a disquietude that would be identified as indiscernible”; time as a non-phenomenal, noncontainable, unqualifiable, infinite diachrony; a diachrony “without a punctuality that would let it be designated”; a diachrony that resists the present, representation, synchrony and synthesis; time as tearing, splitting apart by excess, transcendence as nonindifference, as awakening without rests. How is one to read this time that has been so carefully carved out from the edifice of Western philosophy? Is it a kind of quasi-romantic, rational negative theology of time? Such an idea of time may account for death, for ethics, but how does it account for the phenomenal, the synchronic, the containable, the qualifiable, the present and, perhaps above all, finitude? Is there an end that is also a relationship with the other?

:: Sean 4:02 AM [+] ::
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:: Sunday, July 06, 2003 ::
Lévinas: Lecture 22 - A Reading of Bloch: Toward a Conclusion

In your first comments on Lévinas’s reading Bloch you reacted to my reference to Derrida’s notion of a messianism without a messiah as affirmation of the à-venir, the future that is always to-come. In fact, it is possible that Derrida formulated this idea as much from Lévinas as Nietzsche. In the preface to Totality and Infinity (interestingly enough, published 3 years after Bloch’s The Principle of Hope, though there seems to be no obvious reference to Bloch), Lévinas speaks of “the eschatology of messianic peace”. Eschatology, he writes, “institues a relation with being beyond the totality or beyond history [par-delà la totalité ou l’histoire]”. Lévinas opposes this eschatology, which is “prophetic” in its origins, to war and ideas of morality founded on, accommodated to, politics. Though I have not seen it, I know that Howard Caygill has published a book on Lévinas and politics and perhaps part of the slight strangeness of these concluding lectures on Bloch is that they hint towards a political theory, which one perhaps does not necessarily associate with Lévinas’s thought. And yet, from his early essay on Hitler, politics have always been a part of Lévinas’s work. It is hardly fortuitous that Totality and Infinity opens with the question of the relationship between morality, war and politics, or that Lévinas would conclude his academic career in these final lecturers by linking the thought of death founded on time to the melancholy interruption of the always utopian working for “a world to come”. Beyond the neverending debate with Heidegger, Lévinas begins his own leave taking with an affirmative eschatology, a reassertion of time beyond the finitude of death.

It is interesting that he foregrounds Bloch’s notion of habitation (which, as part of the larger question of possession and dispossession plays a central role in Totality and Infinity) with the fleeting epiphany of astonishment, of glimpsed moments of hope which promise “the Da might be fully realized and not simply Dass-sein”. There is something very romantic about this and though it may be more from Bloch (the quote from Tolstoy) than from Lévinas, I have often been struck by the moments that Lévinas privileges in his works from Shakespeare and Dostoyevsky. I am not quite sure how to characterise these. Are they simply raising the aesthetic or are they blinding epiphanies that rupture the aesthetic and affirm something else (like “a ray of light coming from the utopian future”). I think we need to read Lévinas’s 1948 essay on the arts, Reality and its Shadow.

It is also struck me that Bloch’s emphasis on working for a world to come that overcomes the opposition between Man and World could be inspired by Rosenzweig, whom Lévinas credits as one of the principal influences on Totality and Infinity. In a 1959 essay, Levinas notes that Rosenzweig denounced Hegelian totality as “a totalitarian tryranny” and argued for a return to the question of Man in relation to World and God. The relation of God and World is one of creation. The relation of God and Man is one of revelation and the relation of Man and World is one of redemption. Lévinas writes: “Revelation provokes Redemption”, “God’s revelation therefore begins the work of Redemption which is none the less Man’s work”: “Redemption is the work of man.” It is perhaps the long standing occulted debt of both Bloch and Lévinas to Rosenzweig and to the idea of work as God provoked labour to bring Man and World together – in an always utopian future – that underpins the short-hand of Lévinas's “break” with Heidegger at the end of these lectures on death.

:: Sean 3:06 AM [+] ::
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:: Tuesday, July 01, 2003 ::
On Lecture 21:A Reading of Bloch (continued)

What is remarkable to me about this lecture is the ease with which “an alternative to Heidegger’s account of death and time” can be offered. One would think that after having one’s denial of death stripped away and being brought face to face with its ineluctability it would be no mean feat to turn around and say that of course if you look at it right it’s not such a big deal, just one phase in something else that one actually cares more about.
I think that Lévinas in his exposition of Bloch brings this off rather well. How is it done?
Simply by evoking a number of literary references, Hamsun and Tolstoy. In addition to this he spins out a theory based I suspect on the Marxist concept of alienation which contrasts the debased form of leisure under capitalism with its fetished commodities with a utopian leisure of man under socialism who feels at one with all he has produced. These two accounts are somewhat at odds with each other, since the literary references point to moments of “astonishment” within an unredeemed social order, moments presented as complete in themselves. I would call these moments of grace, when the “burden is lifted and we see into the heart of things” – profoundly unalienated moments, but in which I do not necessarily discern a “tua res agitur”. I think it is true that we are all not so far from entering these moments, at any time, these intimations of immortality which do suddenly make the solid realities of a Heidegger recede into the far distance, but I don’t know that they can be claimed for any political program.
Lévinas wants to underline their connection both to ethics and to love, but before discussing his arguments here I want to digress with an anecdote. Recently it occurred to me to meditate on “the morning after my death”, to imagine the world going on without me, the trees, the trams, the manifold busyness of the city, the little clumps of smokers in front of city buildings, my corpse - now just clay - cooling somewhere, etc. All of it seemed very beautiful, it was like imagining a world utterly cleansed of the fever of the self and its needs and wishes, a world no longer needing me, witnessed with perfect equanimity – I could affirm it wholeheartedly. But then I attempted another twist, I thought, “What if you don’t just die alone, but in some massive holocaust, as if the entire city is destroyed by an atomic blast and none of the things you were imagining are still there, much less anyone to witness them.” I found I could not affirm this, the vision of it filled me with pain and disgust. It actually surprised me to find such a reaction, but it seemed a Blochian moment. It is not that I feel a solidarity with aspirations to a human utopia, but there is a solidarity with a world where the freedom to shift awareness into a contemplative mode is still available. This kind of awareness is impersonal, but it is not inhuman. I suppose my horror would extend to worlds like those of “1984” or “brave New World” or “The Matrix”, where again the possibility of contemplation was almost entirely extirpated.
Lévinas says that this vision of the Good “subordinates being and the world to the ethical order” because the telos of the vision is to “end exploitation”. I have problems with all the parts of this. The ability to grasp the world in astonishment, “sub species aeternitatis” may be the outcome of a rigourous ethical clarification as in Spinoza, but a moment of grace which permits such a vision still comes down to an influx of feelings of a certain kind, and by themselves feelings can never be wholly ethical. Even impersonal feelings are merely subjective, and the “ethical order” is still not yet ethics. To fill it out one needs some principles, for example the ending of exploitation, but this last is a rather vague and at best incomplete principle in whose name much evil can be done. Freedom from exploitation is an essentially egalitarian principle and as such threatens the more important principle of liberty in its implementation.
“There is in all this an invitation to think death on the basis of time, and no longer time on the basis of death. This takes nothing away from the ineluctible character of death, but it does not leave it the privilege of being the source of all meaning.”
There is an extraordinary suggestion here that in these Blochian moments of release there is an authentic experience of time which goes deeper than the sense of time engendered by the knowledge of death. I’m not sure if Lévinas unfolds all that might be gained for phenomenology by following this clue. It is also rather surprising to be reminded in the above passage of the degree to which Heidegger has “psyched” us into a monochromatic world of the stark alternatives, life and death. It is characteristically adolescent to find the world drained of all colour once one has seen the skull beneath the mask. There always comes a compensatory moment when desire reaffirms itself, but there may remain the sense that this renewal is essentially absurd. The Blochian vision offers that it is not.
I’m not sure what to make of the last paragraphs of the lecture. Is it Lévinas dragging back his albatross(?): “However, it is not my non-being that causes anxiety, but that of the loved one or of the other, more beloved than my being. … The love of the other is the emotion of the other’s death.” Or is there something quite new (?): “It is my receiving the other … that is the reference to death.” As if “receiving the other” names a kind of connection understood by way of the redeemed vision which is reduced to the reference to death by being reframed in ontological terms.


:: David 8:22 PM [+] ::
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:: Wednesday, May 21, 2003 ::
testing 123
:: David 11:18 PM [+] ::
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:: Tuesday, May 20, 2003 ::
Another Digression

I just wanted to add a digression on one of your remarks from the last lecture:

Even a community, such as the Jews of Masada, under immediate threat of annihilation does not have a communal being towards death but takes on mass suicide as a positive act. (I must admit that Andrea Dworkin, a writer who I find egregiously wrongheaded on most things forever desmystified Masada for me, by questioning the unanimity of the decision for suicide, and evoking the forms of coercion that were probably needed to achieve that ‘transcendent’ solidarity.)

I have not read Josephus, but I have read two interesting essays, “Flavius Josèphe et Masada’ (1978) and ‘Flavius Josèphe et les prophètes’ (1985), by Pierre Vidal-Naquet, collected in his book Les Juifs, la mémoire et le present (1995). For Vidal-Naquet, “Masada” is represented ‘d’un récit et d’un espace’: two very different forms of information which must be treated with caution. In contrast to Yigal Yadin, the Israeli archaeologist who took Josephus to Masada to find archaeology to confirm his narrative, Vidal-Naquet makes a distinction between facts, le récit and the discourses or speeches within le récit. The facts are that Herod built a fort at Masada. There is evidence that Jews were at Masada and that there was a fire and a later Roman occupation. The history/story by Josephus is the ONLY account of the death by mass suicide of 960 Jews at Masada. The discourse is Eleazar Ben Yair’s speech making the case for mass suicide. The relation between the archaeological site, the facts, the history/story and the speech is complex and has commonly been amalgamated into a single narrative and unambiguous historical event.

There are some recent scholars who have gone so far as to suggest that there was no mass suicide and only a Roman massacre. Vidal-Naquet is cautious about any firm conclusions and, while not denying that there may have been a mass suicide, raises many questions about the commonly accepted view of the mass suicide as an historical fact.

For example, Josephus’s story is structured by the necessity of survivors to tell the story: two women escape and tell the Romans what happened. This often used fictional strategy casts some doubt upon the narrative as historical fact. Though there is ONE precedent of Jewish suicide (during the Maccabee period) – in this case of an individual – and numerous cases in the medieval and modern period of group suicide, mass suicide was a well-established Greco-Romano discourse. Josephus, writing in Greek to a Roman audience was presenting a comprehensible event to his readers.

Interestingly, FOR Josephus mass suicide is NOT part of the Jewish tradition and he prefigures the events at Masada with his own decision not to collective suicide and rather to live and join the Roman enemy.
Joseph depicts an event of mass suicide that he disapproves of and, Vidal-Naquet suggests, links it to the destructive excesses of apocalyptic discourses, pseudo-prophets and Zealots in Jerusalem who precipitated the destruction of the Temple. Eleazar’s speech, which is in two parts, begins as an apocalyptic call for death (Arnaldo Momigliano and others reject this association of the speech with apocalyptic discourses) and ends as obviously Hellenistic and pagan argument for the virtues of suicide.

Having re-read Vidal-Naquet’s essays, I think that one should be very cautious about the uses that the myth of Masada are put to. The archaeology appears to suggest that Jews and Romans were at Masada and that there was a devastating fire there at some point. It can tell us nothing else. As the ONLY source for the events at Masada, Josephus’s version must be treated with caution. His antipathy to the apocalyptic destruction brought about by the zealots and disapproval of the events he describes at Masada; his reliance on Judeo-Greco discourses to account for the mass suicide; his writing in Greek to a Greco-Roman audience and status as a ‘traitor’ who is still loyal to Judaism (Momigliano) – all of these make the story of Masada an unanswerable question about the motives and reliability of Flavius Josephus. Perhaps most tellingly, the Talmud makes no reference whatsoever to Masada. Vidal-Naquet implies that it is perhaps only in the late 1940s and 1950s when the world was focused on the heroic defence of the new State of Israel that Masada – the site and the story – became an unambiguous, indispensable part of Jewish identity.

In ‘What Flavius Josephus Did Not See’, Momigliano argues that Josephus’s Judaism ‘is flat, not false or trivial but rhetorical and generic’. It rejects apocalypse (and has no understanding of the already established tradition of the synagogue) and has some similarities to the rationality and pragmatism of the early Talmudic Sages, such as Johanan ben Zakki, but unlike the Rabbis of the Talmud: ‘What one finds lacking in Flavius Josephus is the act of rejoicing in the Law, the sense of a disciplined community life, the love and concern for younger generations, and a faith in God that – together with a high degree of intellectual freedom, juridicial competence and obsession with norms of purity – characterize the rabbis who emerged as leaders of a nation without a state, without a territory, and without linguistic unity’. Momigliano concludes by noting that Josephus’s work was preserved by the Christians and played little role in Jewish tradition until the medieval period.

:: Sean 6:07 AM [+] ::
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:: Tuesday, May 13, 2003 ::
Lecture 21: A Reading of Bloch (continued)

I really don’t have much to add on this second lecture on Bloch. There is undoubtedly a political gesture here, but I think Lévinas is primarily concerned with offering an alternative to Heidegger’s account of death and time. For Bloch. ‘the utopianism of hope is the temporalization of time’ and, as Lévinas comments, ‘the first ecstasis is utopia, not death’. With all its attendant political dangers – which, as a Lithuanian, he can hardly be cavalier about or be merely pandering to a fashionable Parisian Marxism – Lévinas sees in Bloch’s notion of utopia an excess, an always elusive surplus (somewhat similar to the desire structured by the idea of the infinite), an ‘authentic future’, that exceeds the unrelenting finitude and manifold uses of death in Being and Time.


:: Sean 4:34 AM [+] ::
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:: Saturday, May 10, 2003 ::

:: David 10:43 PM [+] ::
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:: Sunday, April 27, 2003 ::
Lecture 20

My reading of this lecture is coloured by reflections from the career of the composer Erwin Schulhoff two of whose string quartets I was listening to earlier in the week – and mighty fine they were too. He was a German speaking Jew from Prague active in the pre-war years as a leading pianist and composer and champion of the new music. He could not only play the most demanding avant-garde works but he was also a gifted jazz pianist.
Artistically, he searched for a perfect synthesis of German and Bohemian elements within a modernist idiom that was vital and even slightly jazzy. He’d been living in Berlin when Hitler came to power and so he fled back to Prague where he seemed to have embraced the utopian promises of communism. As the war neared and many of his peers would have been searching out way of getting to America he opted for the Soviet Union and eventually took out citizenship in that entity while still living in Czechoslovakia. Perhaps with the Hitler-Stalin pact it seemed like a good gamble, but needless to say it was not. When the Germans came he was under a triple jeopardy – as a Jew, a Communist and a Soviet citizen – he and his son were arrested and sent to the nearest Concentration camp and killed – but even if he had made it to the Soviet Union in time his fate would most likely have been the same and for pretty much the same reasons.
A sad story and an understandable one considering how so many highly educated people at the time believed, or maybe just hoped beyond hope, that a new and collectivised social system would come and sweep away all the “social evils” that had bedevilled the European past – whether that system called itself National Socialism or just Socialism. It seems to me that the major error of these hope addicts was to place Equality, or worse still Fraternity, as ideals ahead of Liberty . This confusion was perhaps part of the subtle twist that the French revolutionaries gave to their (failed) imitation of the spirit of the American revolution.
At any rate I assume that in 1976 a majority of Lévinas’ audience would still have called themselves Marxists, or at least Marxians of some stamp or other and hence the necessity of his addressing the marxian version of time if not the marxian version of death – about which there could also be much to say, couldn’t there?
The change of key in this lecture when he introduces a social perspective is palpable. When he says “death is not the source of all sense and nonsense…” this seems an inadequate way of accounting for the fact that the entire investigation that he had been pursuing up to this point is suddenly shunted to the side. This may be because for social thinking, that is the thinking on behalf of the community, death does not exist, since the social entity goes on despite the death of its individual members. Even a community, such as the Jews of Masada, under immediate threat of annihilation does not have a communal being towards death but takes on mass suicide as a positive act. (I must admit that Andrea Dworkin, a writer who I find egregiously wrongheaded on most things forever desmystified Masada for me, by questioning the unanimity of the decision for suicide, and evoking the forms of coercion that were probably needed to achieve that ‘transcendent’ solidarity.)
It seems to me like a sort of category mistake to put the temporality of Heideggerian being towards death side by side with that of a social philosophy’s hope in a progessive and (never final) alleviation of social evil. They are not strictly comparable since the locus of the former is in the soul’s solitary communion with itself, which is not to be dissolved in any kind of aufhebung to the authentic Heimat. If on one side we have become used to the symptomatic critique of our own subjectivity under the rubric, “the personal is the political”, it is quite another thing to discover a phenomenology of political aspirations, a “the political is the personal”, which would place the intrinsic temporality of a political movement at the core of one’s being. It is commonplace enough in our world, however I believe that the philosopher’s role is to question such bad-faith rather than to encourage it.
I am being a bit disingenuous here because it is central to Lévinas’ philosophy to undermine the division between the personal and the inter-personal. For Lévinas at the core of my inner subjectivity when I attempt to grasp it in its truest depth there is the imperative of the Other, the ethical imperative which necessarily displaces any drive to gnosis. This prioritising of the ethical marks Lévinas’ meeting point with Marxism, as mediated by a thinker like Bloch for whom the demand for justice is the engine of a form of dialectical materialism. As a branch of Marxism this is very much on the fringe. The usefulness of this as a way into Marxism is its appeal to bourgeois intellectuals, but when one’s understanding is fully matured on must suspend the prioritisation of the good, the true and the beautiful, at least until the party’s work of re-making subjectivity is complete.
The other distinction which Lévinas strategically blurs is that between morality and religion; my turn towards the Other is so absolute that it can only be underwritten by God, even though God is nowhere to be seen in this relation to the Other in that I am not absolved of it to any degree. How does this square with Bloch’s elevation of the theological virtue of Hope to the rank of primary marxian virtue? In Judeo-Christian terms Hope is tied to messianism, which to me is the worst idea ever to emerge from the Jewish genius. Lévinas is much too smart to treat it naively – your Derrida quote perhaps illustrates the vapid form it now takes in the most sophisticated thinking. Vapid but still poisonous, since evil is what takes place while you are once more purging your premises of (Western) metaphysics.

:: David 4:35 AM [+] ::
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:: Monday, April 14, 2003 ::
Escaping Literature: another digression



I have always been haunted by the idea that literature is a form of escape. While I am untroubled by the drug-like pleasure of the lights dimming in a cinema, promising a brief liberation, literature seems a dangerous therapeutics of escape. I am always thinking of the great renouncers Balzac and Proust, who withdrew from the world in their thirties to spend twenty years in relentless nocturnal creation until, in mid sentence, they died. There is always something of death when it comes to literature. The sentences that I read as an teenager and still remember were as much about an adolescent disbelief in mortality as a strange suspended presence of death in literature: ‘So we drove on toward death through the cooling twilight’ (The Great Gatsby); ‘Many years later, as he faced the firing squad, Colonel Aurelio Buenida was to remember that distant afternoon when his father took him to discover ice’ (One Hundred Years of Solitude). Even the first great sentence of David Copperfield suggested an awful displacement in the suspended presence of life: ‘Whether I shall turn out to be the hero of my own life, or whether that station will be held by anybody else, these pages must show’.
What J. Hillis Miller has called in his fine book On Literature (2002) the magic of virtual worlds seems a virtual escape that escapes nothing, that feigns and, somehow, announces, introduces the inevitable:

Sweetest love, I do not go
For weariness of thee,
Nor in hope the world can show
A fitter love for me;
But since that I
Must die at last, ‘tis best
To use myself in jest,
Thus by feigned deaths to die.
(John Donne, Song)

I have sometimes bestowed on this strange suspended presence of death in literature the sweet hovering melancholy of the last, perfect line: ‘And gathering swallows twitter in the skies’ (Keats, To Autumn). I might celebrate Whitman’s insistence in ‘Crossing Brooklyn Ferry’, ‘It avails not, time nor place – distance avails not’, as he calls beyond his own death, in the past-tense, to the future, ‘Just as you feel when you look on the river and sky, so I felt’, but I always return to the static grandeur of creation as death, of death-by-creation, caught by Browning in My Last Duchess, Andrea del Sarto and The Bishop Orders His Tomb at Saint Praxed’s Church.
Blake suggests that literature is the involuntary inspiration of divine dictation and Blanchot that it is the inexhaustible autonomous demand of the work that is written despite the author. Hillis Miller argues that the literary work is ‘discovered, not fabricated’. The possibility that literature is neither creation as transcendence, indulgence or death – that it is malgré moi – is strangely comforting. For Blanchot, ‘If to write is to surrender to the interminable, the writer who consents to sustain writing’s essence loses the power to say “I” ’. Writing ‘makes what is ungraspable inescapable’. Writing, as Blanchot understands it, is a kind of death that cannot be harnessed as an extension or aggrandisement of the life of the author. This stark curtailing of the hubris of creation almost mitigates the unforgiving mortality of literature as a voluntary creation.

:: Sean 12:21 PM [+] ::
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:: Thursday, April 10, 2003 ::
Lecture 20: Another thinking of Death: Starting from Bloch

‘And he who reveals secret things makes known to thee what shall come to pass’. This lecture brought to my mind these lines from Daniel (2:29-30). Lévinas’s is moving from one grand discourse around death (the alternation of being and nothingness) to another (the alternation of the present and the future).

It is interesting that he introduces Bloch through the concept of ‘the world’. Both Heidegger and Bloch have concepts of world, though they make use it in different ways, for different temporalties or social constructions. In Foi et savior, Derrida has asked what is “the world”? The world is ‘neither the universe nor the cosmos nor the earth’. He argues that le monde has a very specific Christain history and links it to ‘la mondialatinisation’ (this strange alliance of Christianity, as experience of the death of God and of tele-techosciencetific capitalism)’. Despite the politics, it could be said, that both Heidegger and Bloch are caught up in an essential ‘religious’ deabte about the world (an anti-eschatology (which is already caught up in an eschatology), on Hedigger’s part and eschatology reworked for Bloch).

Somehow it seems that these grand discourses about death are really always about time. Lévinas suggests here that Heideggarian time ‘goes back’. Where ever it goes, time always goes back to being-toward-death and to finitude. Heideggerian time always ges back to the alternation between being and nothingness, in other words, to finite being. Time is always a projection that goes back.

Blochian time, on the other hand, ‘does not go back’, but it is not a projection. I’m not sure I fully understand the difference between time as projection and time as fulfilment. Time does not throw something foward (like spirit through history, like being), it is (it it accounts for), the action, the performance of an accomplishment. (But how is this different from Hegel and time as fulfillment of the performance of spirit as history in abolute knowledge? Hegel’s time is perhaps a projection as fulfillment). Bloch seems to have a Hegelian model for the journey, with with destination always held in suspense. Time is the (concrete) fulfillment what is not accomplished, yet. Time as fulfillment requires a future that is, now, ‘nowhere’. Time as fulfillment is utopia and hope: protecting from the present what it is always expecting as the expected.

This seems a bit like Daniel’s dreams: dreams of things that are always ‘secret things’ in the present that ‘make known what shall come to pass’. Always somehow reserved, protected or held back from the present they are guaranteed, they guarantee, a future, a to come, whether it be a death beyond finite being, or the messiah.

Bloch perhaps never looses hope in the certainty of hope and in a present that in fact assures and completes the future as incomplete. This seems to be a mirror image of a nothingness that is always already being.

In the last 10 years, Derrida has increasingly spoken of a messianism without a messiah as a structure for an à-venir that neither of the present nor of the future (sans horizon d’attente et sans préfiguration prophétique). In his most recent book, Voyous, he speaks of the à venir:

Cet appel porte tous les espoirs, certes, mais il reste, en lui-même, sans espoir. Non pas désepéré mais étranger à la téléologie, à l’espérance et au salut de salvation. Non pas étranger au sault à l’autre, non pas étranger à l’adieu (“viens” ou “va” en paix), non pas étranger à la justice, mais encore hétérogène et rebelle, irrédutible au droit, au pouvoir, à l’économie de la rédemption.

It seems very difficult to avoid the good conscience of the pure not yet, of a clean redemption to come. And yet, when I think of Jacob as the first great figure of remdemption, there is never any good conscience, just anguish, patience and time.

:: Sean 6:18 AM [+] ::
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:: Tuesday, April 08, 2003 ::
Lecture 19. Part 2 A Digression: ‘Death, Speaking Poetry and Heidegger’.

I think your idea about tragedy in Lecture 19 is very interesting and ‘blood and soil’ as a metaphor for the understanding still in ‘thrall’ to being makes sense. (A ‘little off-beam’ is always more interesting than ‘on beam’). It is not quite the same thing, but in Difficult Freedom, Lévinas talks about the seduction and limitations of pathos (particularly a Christian pathos in Dostoyevsky). I am not sure about the Duino Elegies as ‘poems of earthy being’, the Sehnsucht and sublime terror of beautiful angels seemed to me, when I last read them some 10 years ago, more rarefied. Isn’t it who Heidegger turns from the fractured romanticism of Rilke to a poetic ‘earthy being’? I am not really sure about all this, so I am just glancing at the beginning of ‘What are Poets For?’ at the moment. Without getting diverted from Lévinas ...

From Heidegger’s reading of Hölderlin, there is ‘the Ab-’ as the ‘absence of the ground’, of the defaulting God that should ground the world. The ‘Ab-’ is also the absence of ‘the soil in which to strike root and to stand’. The ‘Ab’ is the default of God, ground and soil and announces ‘the world’s night, the abyss of the world’ which ‘must be experienced and endured’. How much of this is Heidegger and how much of it is Hölderlin I don’t know, but there is something heroic (it makes me think of The Robbers and Byron’s Manfred - heroism within the tragic) in enduring the abyss, in reaching ‘into the abyss’. Heidegger also links the ‘Ab-’ to the ‘the destitution of time’, almost as if the wealth and dwelling of time is found in soil-ground-God - and, as if, this restitution begins with the soil. But on the other hand, through Hölderlin, Heidegger only discerns traces of the ‘holy’ ‘ether’ of the ‘fugitive gods’. It is not the soil, but the wine and bread of an kind of disembodied transubstantiation that offers almost entirely ‘obliterated’ traces of restitution.

When he turns to Rilke, Heidegger sees a similar destitution of time ‘not only because God is dead, but because mortals are hardly aware and capable even of their own mortality’. How does one become ‘capable’ of his or her ‘own’ mortality? This makes me think of what remains, in my limited reading, the best of Blanchot: The Space of Literature (‘Doesn’t this faith which he [Rilke] expresses - this thought that one can die greeted by a death of one’s own, familiar and amicable - mark the point at which he eluded the experience by enveloping himself in a hope meant to console his heart?’). For Heidegger, or for Heidegger reading Rilke, time is destitute ‘because it lacks the unconcealedness of the nature of pain, death, and love’. All that ‘remains’ is ‘the song ... which names the land over which it sings’. Is this land a land, or a metaphor for the absent, concealed land of death, of Being? Without the German text, I can’t even begin to answer this, but it is interesting that Heidegger goes on to cite an untitled poem of Rilke’s which begins:
As Nature gives the other creatures over
to the venture of their dim delight
and in soil and branchwork grants none special cover,
so to our being’s pristine ground settles our plight;
we are no dearer to it; it ventures us.

For Heidegger these lines ‘contrasts [the] human being with all other creatures’ , placing ‘things in an identical setting to make the difference visible’. Both humans and animals, as being, have a relation ‘to their ground’: ‘The ground of beings is Nature. The ground of man is not only of a kind identical with that of plant and beast. The ground is the same for both’. Soil is again linked to the ground that is more than the earth (it is the the ground for the world) and Nature is added to the absent triptych soil-ground-God from Hölderlin but, in this case, seems very much to be present. How is the ground of Nature different or similar to ‘the soil in which to strike root and to stand’? Heidegger goes on to call Nature, ‘the Being of beings’, the ‘ground ... for nature in the narrower sense’. Rilke’s pristine ground [Urgrund] is Being. I suppose in this sense, poetic speaking of soil, of ground is a metaphor for Being. I also just came across these lines in “poetically Man Dwells”, again through a reading of Höderlin: ‘Poetry does not fly above and surmount the earth in order to escape it and hover over it. Poetry is what first brings man onto the earth, making him belong to it, and thus brings him into dwelling’.

Blanchot: ‘The search for a death that would be mine sheds light, thanks to the obscurity of its paths, upon precisely what is difficult in artistic “realisation’’.
:: Sean 6:37 AM [+] ::
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:: Monday, March 24, 2003 ::
Lecture 19.
This is probably a little off-beam, but I had the impression while re-reading this lecture that Lévinas’ goal was to show that art, in the sense of tragedy or poetry cannot answer to death for us. In this it seemed that Hegel, with his aesthetic religion puts forward tragedy as the place where we can come face to face with death in its human dimension. It is no so much the Germanic blood and soil thing as the fatalistic quality of the tragic arc that Lévinas cites as as evidence that this way of understanding is still in thrall to a positivistic sense of Being. In the language of tragdy this is the metaphoric assimilation of earth and ground. Fink, represents a refinement of this view, by way of Heidegger, and it seemed to me that the jist of what he makes Fink stand for is the late-Heideggerian view that poetic speaking can speak Dasein’s true relationship with Being. This kind of poetic speaking is alluded to when he says that [according to Fink] “Comprehension is in language and language can recount comprehension according to its modes (labour, war, love, play), which are behaviours in and towards being.”
I think the kind of poetry to have in mind here is something like Rilke’s Duino Elegies or the Sonnets To Orpheus. These are poems of earthly being, and of the turning towards the mystery of death but in a profoundly neo-pagan way.
Perhaps I’m forcing this interpretation somewhat. What Lévinas actually stresses is “intelligibility” - although in a way that seems contradictory. First he says that the difficulty of speaking of death is what marks it as intelligible, as if intelligibility is the obverse of thinkability, “We know death, but we cannot think it; we know it without being able to think it. It is in this sense that death …. must be received in silence.”
In the next paragraph however, it is the other way around, “In Fink, as in Heidegger, intelligibilty coincides with what can be said…” This is why I think that it is poetic speaking that is being alluded to – because it resolves the contradiction of what can be spoken but not thought, what we speak of while remaining silent about. It is the very aufhebung of silence and speech (sprachen).
“Can death be said without its nothingness being converted into a structure in-the-world?” asks Lévinas, begging the question of just what it means to think death with all due gravity as a part of earthly life. It already seems as though it is not enough, as if we are being encouraged to hastlily dismiss this way of speaking of (life and) death because “there is no liberation” in it. But just what sort of liberation does Lévinas have in mind?
It may well be that the tenor of feeling that Lévinas wishes to evoke is of a far more extreme kind than one finds in Rilke and the neo-pagans. I must confess that the enchantment of Rilke or Richard Strauss’s Four Last Songs or the elegies of Arvo Paart doesn’t really work for me the way that it once might have done. It is usually the role of religion to bring us to peace with death, by somehow making it intelligible, and to hold out against this, against all forms of appeasement seems more honest, although even here we are preceded by poetry of perhaps an even more banal kind.
I am thinking also of Miguel da Unamuno’s “The Tragic Sense of Life” which is premised on exactly this refusal to be reconciled with death. I’m sure that this is not what Lévinas has is mind even in his protest against “being subsumed by the worldly”.
I’m not sure what he means about the “negative anthropology”, especially when he glosses this as the “search for a transcendental concept of man, a thinking prior to being.” The word “negative” here is probably not meant as an allusion to Blanchot, but rather as a trope for Heideggerian poetic post-metaphysics which he treats as if it were a form of dualism. The error it falls into, according to Lévinas, is to imagine that a thinking that is prior to being is anything but one more way to be subsumed by being. Whatever one thinks of Heidegger this seems to be question begging, on Lévinas’ part, in the extreme.
Similarly in his last paragraph. Isn’t the incomprehensibility of death a sign that the thinking that seeks to speak being is still on track? It may be “comprehension” is some larger sense, but it knows “don’t know”. It is Lévinas who at the end is left demanding some “model” of death – making a demand that can only be answered by that turn to higher forms of mythology known as religion.

:: David 4:33 AM [+] ::
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:: Sunday, March 09, 2003 ::
Lecture 19: The Scandal of Death: from Hegel to Fink

I had intended to add some notes on Derrida’s reading of Antigone in the last lecture. Very briefly, in Glas (1974) Derrida is concerned with the ‘moment’ of the family in the Philosophy of Right and reads Hegel on the Aufhebung of: love, the Holy Family (as a spirtual father-son relationship with the mother as a material by-product), Judaism and Jesus. He then turns to the question of sexual difference and death and comes to Hegel’s reading of Antigone and the role of the sister in burying the dead. I can’t even begin to summarise the 50 pages or so that Derrida devotes to Antigone. Just a few points. Derrida is interested in the apparently unqiue relation between the brother and sister that suspends all desire (“a sexual difference posited as such and yet without desire”). He asks why is Hegel fascinated with “this sister who never becomes citizen, or wife, or mother” - the ‘eternal sisiter’ who is without “womanly, wifely desire.” He also looks at Hegel’s relationship with his own sister. For Hegel, more than the daughter, mother or wife, the sister is the most “spirtual”, “ethical” of women. Perhaps one day we can return to Antigone, Hegel and - if you can bear it - even Derrida.

It must have been quite strange going to these lectures and having to wait a week for the last paragraph, the summation, of each lecture. I had some difficulty following this trasnsitional lecture as it moves from Hegel to Fink (and seems to recall Heidegger) before moving to Bloch and the final coda on death. I am just going let myself wander a bit ... and respond, obliquely, to your pertinent additional remarks on the radical dis-interest (as a divesting) of ethics by “post-modernism” and “otherness” as a sacramental ethics that perhaps elides the very singularity it seeks to protect and respect (the other as Other, as more than just another). I didn’t fully understand his use of the wonderful phrase “a negative anthropology”, but perhaps much of the greatness and the limitation of Lévinas’s sacramental ethics can be found in this phrase.

The summation of last week’s lecture seems to be: corruption is just a generation waiting-to-happen (a death-to-spirit). At the same time, Lévinas seems to allow for a pathos of finitude in Hegel. Knowledge is dangerous and what is “real is destined for destruction,” but, oh what a sublime destruction! Hegel recognises finitude and yet puts death to work for Spirit, for the univseral.

What is this undercurrent in the lectures on blood and soil? How to choose between the unrelenting grey finitude of Heidegger and the black and red drama of Hegelian finitude and the struggle to the universal? Perhaps, as Lévinas suggests, the brown earth brings the Germans together. Heidegger tries to take death out of Berlin Alexanderplatz and bring it back to earth in the pagan grottos. Hegel and Heidegger find grounds for being and the being of ground in death. Lévinas seems to imply that German death is an idealism of the elements, a phenomenology of the earth, an ontological nationalism. It reminds me of the end of the first series of Heimat, when all the voices of dead are valted over the German countryside and then gathered into the earth itself.

As you say, the emphasis on the importance of the survivor in Hegel suggests that Lévinas is closer to Hegel than he would admit (and this is Derrida’s point in ‘Violence and Metaphysics’). Perhaps Lévinas is saying, if death is unthinkable, unintelligible, if it is has nothing do with being or nothingness, nor with blood or soil - if it can be separated entirely from ontological-nationalism - then “death” is really about what kind of survivor you have, and how she or he uses death. Is death an incomprehsible irreducible singularity, one name after another or is it just a singularity on its way to some kind of explicit or implicit universal? As Derrida might ask, can it ever just be one or the other?

So, perhaps the question is - after Lévinas’s readings of Heidegger and Hegel - how do we not use death? Can death avoid “being converted into a structure in-the-world?” Can we avoid usuing death as something thinkable about being, family, place? Perhaps, for Lévinas death should not only be “no response” but also “no place”. But is such a prohibition possible? What does it mean to take death out of the world, out of history? And can it be read as a response to the uses of death in the aftermath of the twentieth century? Perhaps there cannot be such a thing as a “history” of death and yet the traces of nineteeth and twentieth century ideas of blood and soil almost seem to provide the occulted “ground” of Lévinas’s texts. Is such a prohibition only a reponse to the unburied? What is a negative thantology? Is it no more than an impotent cry that Death (as we have used it) shalt die?
:: Sean 10:55 AM [+] ::
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:: Wednesday, March 05, 2003 ::
Thoughts out of sequence.

Our recent e-mail exchanges prompted me to define my difference from a classically conservative position, and it was not hard to see that far from being of that persuasion I am a more of a libertarian who finds that in the current climate the opposition is more likely to be sighted on the left than on the right. Not always, however, as for example the recent proposals by the Howard government here in Australia to impose blanket censorship of the internet in the interests of keeping pornography from teen-age boys. This kind of thing raises my hackles, not out of any regard for internet porn, which I think is mostly horrible stuff in every way, but at the arrogant assumption by the governing powers they are fit to determine what should or shouldn’t be seen by private citizens. A bit later some other things got me thinking about this in another way, which minus the particular circumstances, amounted to asking “What would Lévinas (or rather Lévinasian ethics) say about this?”
The ethical question is different from the political question, since the latter, at least on issues like this, is to some extent is concerned with the way in which ethical decisions are to be carried out, and with prioritisation of values. That said, it seems to me that the Lévinasian view would be strongly opposed to the dissemination of pornography because it proliferates images of the human face and form in contexts which make it impossible to feel the pathos of the ethical, and which work beyond their context to generally coarsen our ability to see others in their unique humanity, and to appreciate the tenderness and mystery of human relations.
This is not to say that people who consume pornography are less moral than others, only that their access to the Good as it is defined by Lévinas is hindered. Perhaps, however, Lévinas’ version of the Good is not the only one, perhaps it doesn’t even claim to be?
Shifting the question a bit, one might wonder to what extent the opening to an other in their radical otherness is central to ethics. It seems to me that a significant cause of Lévinas’ recent popularity is that post-modernism, with a kind of ethical zeal in the name of Otherness, demolished all principled ethics by demostrating the very particular interests that formed their hidden ground – the only thing that remained as a quasi-principle in all this was Otherness itself; and here was Lévinas basing his ethics on just this, and carefully and subtly demonstrating that Otherness, rightly understood, is not itself just another ground. I don’t think Lévinas had any intention of presenting post-modernism with a great-white-hope, I think he was trying to develop a religious vision of everyday life with sufficient ethical depth to withstand what Blanchot called “le désastre”.
Without attempting to create an exhaustive list one could say that there are three kinds of ethical system that enable a fine-tuning of our relations with others, as distinct from some kind of revealed legalistic rule based system. The first and most secular focusses on pain. This includes the ethics of karma in the Buddhist sense, where the pain we create in others comes back to us, and so as we see this compensatory function more and more clearly we become more and more tender in our dealings with others. In effect we become compassionate, since we can no longer distinguish anothers pain from our own. This kind of effective-compassion can also arise, it seems on purely logical grounds, as in the case of utilitarians. All pain is equivalent, in this view, no matter who feels it, so it is incumbent on us to act so as to reduce its aggregate as much as possible, or equivalently to raise general happiness.

The second is a rational-principial ethics as in Kant. What emerges here is not simply the empirical facts about pain, which may go either way, but an injunction with the authority of Reason which insists that the other is an end in himself, and can never be treated as a means. The split with utilitarianism could not be greater, as evidenced by some of the views of Peter Singer, who has taken the latter to its logical limit. In particular, there is his view that parents have the right to kill off a seriously disabled, but viable, child at birth. The Kantian sees the other as an absolute, but does not have to open his heart to the other in any way, doesn’t have to feel anything in relation to the other. There must however be a recognition of the other as other and I’m not sure how a Kantian would deal with certain marginal cases except by a further appeal to the categorical imperative - which may considerably sharpen one’s conscience. If a Kantian was tempted to consign some category of humanity (eg disabled babies) to non-personhood, he need only ask himself about the merits of making such determinations mandatory and he will most likely be dissuaded.

The third is the kind of ethics that Lévinas is presenting. I would call this a sacramental ethics, since in this the relation with the other ultimately occurs on the sacred plane. A Christian writer I recently saw quoted put it like this (freely paraphrased): We come to know each other in the love that God bears towards Himself, as we are parts of God. This is a rather beautiful sentiment, and it entails a least one interesting conclusion which none of the other ethical systems attain, and that is, that it is Good in itself to know the other deeply, even though you can never fathom any other person completely. One doesn’t find this expressed in so many words in Lévinas but I believe it is there – the up-side, one might say, of all his hostage-giving / in extremis stuff. Since he is speaking to a secular audience death comes to stand for the entire spiritual sphere because it is the one thing which even an atheist must stand in fear and trembling before. Again, this idea of the intrinsic good of intimate knowing of an other is close to the de facto ethics of literary humanism, which is another reason why university post-modernists hang on to Lévinas.
We can also see why Lévinas is so repelled by Hegel’s “divine law” which seems in some ways to be close to his own view. Dragging us back to the family and its hothoused resentments is exactly the opposite of the sacramental cosmic family, freed of resentment, in which we participate as worshippers of God.
In this kind of ethic there is an intrinsic vision of what a community consciously sacramental would be like and a commitment to work towards the realisation of such on earth. This is not sympathetic to lassez-faire libertarianism, it takes sides, it acknowledges the existence of evil.
Beautiful as it is there is to me something suspicious about this sacramental ethics, and I think it lies in the Big ideas that are brought in which give the ethics so much depth but seem to miss the responsibility to the petty, comic, everyday, tit-for-tat sides of human nature. These enthusiasts would have us be uninterruptedly sublime, and in doing so commit an injustice to our small, all too human, selves.

:: David 5:39 PM [+] ::
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:: Friday, February 28, 2003 ::
Lecture 18

Before I begin I want to acknowledge the death of Maurice Blanchot on the 20th Feb 2003. Reading Blanchot forever deepens one’s appreciaion of the mysteries of death and the phenomena of life and its reproduction. I presume that right now the shade of MB is recovering from the surprise of finding out that he got it all terribly wrong.

Back to Lévinas.
I actually found this lecture to be quite puzzling and possibly tendentious. After giving a very fair account of Hegel’s observations on Human Law and Divine Law in the previous lecture in this one he seems to overlook so much else that Hegel says in order to be able to relegate him to a convenient distance from the main track.

I take your and Derrida’s point here about a certain generation of French thinkers being too quick to see Hegel’s philosophy as an infernal machine sublimating everything human – but no longer to be called human – into idealised vapour.
Also about their ideologically driven insistence on their own immense respect for the concrete particular, which even in D&G is a sort of Satrean move. One proved one’s ethical purity by the fierceness of one’s denunciation of idealism. (I was tremendously impressed with this when at odds with my own idealising urges.)

I don’t accept Lévinas’ argument that seems to run like this: The divine law is still a law, therefore it thinks the person “by virtue of the universality of law.” Death then is viewed as the means for the divine law to get its hands on the person in the form of a manifest universality, namely as “deceased”.
One of the big things he skips over here is the gendered nature of the relevant passages in Hegel. Within the family, which is the locus of the divine law it is the brother/sister relationship in which it is most purely manifest and even here it is particularly the sister.

“In this relationship … the moment of the individual self, recognising and being recognised, can here assert its right, because it is linked to the equilibrium of the blood and is a relation devoid of desire. …
[The brother] passes from the divine law, within whose sphere he lived, over to human law. But the sister becomes… the guardian of the divine law. In this way the two sexes overcome their natural being and appear in their ethical significance..” [457-9]

Again this sense of the law is not something raised into conceptual universality:

“Therefore they do not desire one another, nor have they given to or recived from one another this independent being-for-self; on the contrary; they are free individualities in regard to each other. Consequently the feminine, in the form of the sister, has the highest intuitive awareness of what is ethical. She does not attain to consciousness of it…because the law of the Family is an implicit inner essence …” [457]

I would say that this is a model for Lévinas’ ethical relation, albeit restricted to the Family, in fact to a dyad having “blood-ties”. Lévinas makes much of the “blood-ties” – he loves to quote this phrase and to juxtapose it with references to the earth, in order to create the connotation that Hegel is just spouting more of that German “blood and soil” stuff, but actually if you look at the references to blood-ties in this passage from the Phenomenology they are actually about absence of sexual desire, which is ascribed to an “equilibrium of the blood”. Indeed it is easy to imagine the same kind of ethical relations functioning in any community where the men are all “brothers” and the women “sisters”.

To tease out the status of death in these passages of Hegel it is not enough to focus on the material relating to burial, to do this is to beg Lévinas’ question, since you are bound to find many chthonic references. Consider instead this: “The loss of the brother is therefore irreparable to the sister and her duty towards him is the highest.” This seems to me another prefiguration of Lévinas’ view, but in the key of the family relationship. It reminds me of a remarks I made early on, that Lévinas wants to make Antigones of us all, and also of a thread that has run through our discussions of acknowledging the preremptory duty that the death of another imposes upon us but seeing the locus of this as extending not much further than our extended family – with ‘extended’ in the loosest sense.

I must confess that I didn’t understand what Lévinas was getting at in the last parts of this lecture. What does this mean: “.. Hegel comes closer to it here, but he speaks of it on the basis of the behaviour of the survivor [why the ‘but’? Isn’t this exactly what Lévinas does too?] – although one could not take a less reifying approach to death than Hegel does here, since it is neither a thing nor a person, but a shadow.” [Where does Hegel call death a shadow?]

Why does Lévinas suddenly announce, “We can now turn to Hegel’s chapter on religion.” We are far from that chapter in the text of the Phenomenology. He only makes the vague connection between the reading of Antigone that is taking place here and the “Aesthetic Religion” in order to invoke a number of terms that might otherwise seem out of place. I’m thinking in particular of the ground/appearance distinction which Lévinas seems to trace to the imaginal invocation of the “shades” of the dead.

This is actually a Blanchottian moment in Lévinas, the treating of the dead boby as the source of the aesthetic image, whose false-in-the-true easily slides into the true-in-the-false of idealism.

There is a more interesting discussion of the efficay of the shade in the Phenomenology at 474.
“But if the universal thus easily… carries off victory over the rebellious principle of pure individuality, viz the Family, it has thereby entered on a conflict with the divine law…. For the latter is the essential power, and is therefore not destroyed, but merely wronged, by the conscious Spirit. But it has only the bloodless shade to help it in actually carrying out its law… Being the law of weakness and darkness it therefore at first succumbs to the powerful law of the upper world …. But the outwardly actual which has taken away from the inner world its honour and power has in so doing consumed its own essence. … Thus it is that the fulfilment of the spirit of the upper world is transformed into its opposite, and it learns that its supreme right is a supreme wrong… The dead, whose right is denied, knows therefore how to find instruments of vengeance … these powers are other communities whose altars the dogs of birds defiled with the corpse which [precisely as defiled] has now acquired as a force of divine law a self-conscious real universality.”

This could be interpreted as saying that the death of the other does command a certain power of vengeance, not through metaphysical agencies, ghosts and such, but through the fact the bright powers of consciousness that affront it have their source in the dark powers of the unconscious, which exert an inexorable compensatory force. This is a highly un-Levinasian thought. We are supposed to be beyond all of that karma or punishment stuff, and yet by basing his ethics on the phenomenon of death Lévinas opens himself to all of these forces.


:: David 10:58 PM [+] ::
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:: Sunday, February 23, 2003 ::
Lecture 18: Reading Hegel’s Phenomenology

I have no home on earth and none below,
not with the living, not with the breathless dead
Antigone (941-42)


This is an remarkable lecture, surrounding an extraordinary quote from the Phenomenology. There is something very strange about this paragraph in Hegel. It is as if the Hegelian machine runs on after death - as if the journey of the soul from sense through self-consciousness to absolute knowledge is not really concerned with the life and death of a man or woman (except perhaps Antigone). The great speculative machine goes on after death and gives a ghostly almost vampiric - even cannibalistic - quality to “the dead individual” at the “mercy” irrational forces and “unconscious appetites.” The vampire that feeds on “the dead individual” is matter. Burial by the family enacts what is presumably the last Aufhebung (but we haven’t reached “religion” yet), the last ‘incorporation’ or ‘de-corpsing’ of an individual by a universal.

I recently read Deleuze and Guattari insisting in What is Philosophy? that "the concept as a specifically philosophical creation is always singular" and I was struck by so many post-war philosophers (particularly in France) sharing what must a post-Hegelian refusal of universals. Lévinas makes his own stance very clear: “here, in our present inquiry, the person is an individual other, and every universal must begin from there” (85).

I also wonder, is Hegel really talking about “persons”? The “dead” is a “being-for-itself that becomes a “universal individuality”. Obviously this is Lévinas’s point, the individual other is entirely subsumed or consumed in the Hegelian machine. But I also recall Derrida challenging the “anthropologistic reading of Hegel” in “The Ends of Man” (1968), noting;

First of all, the Phenomenology of Spirit, which had only been read for a short time in [post-war] France, does not have to do with something one might simply call man. As the science of the experience of consciousness, the science of the structures of phenomenality of the spirit itself relating to itself, it is rigourously distinguished from anthropology.


For Hegel, burial of the dead by the family overcomes “matter” as “the master” of being. Hegelian burial (and his reading of Antigone) are, Lévinas says, “a destruction of death.” As I suspected in the last lecture, Lévinas makes much of the dead as the deceased and not as a cadaver in Hegel (which must have some resonance from his reading of Heidegger), but I found the last section of Lévinas’s lecture very subtle.

He argues that Hegel turns death into a “shadow,” a dematerialisation of “the dishonour of anonymous decomposition.” But, at the same time, he discerns in Hegel’s treatment of death a “the idea of ground, or final ground” that is a “return to the ground of being.” Death, as part of relentless machine of ever diminishing and ever increasing singularity and universality, overcomes matter and, in what is perhaps the “final" Aufhebung, is the ground of being. Though I am not entirely sure I followed this, Lévinas also seems to imply that death is the possibility of phenomenology: as a dematerialised ground of being it introduces an authentic “world of appearance” into thought. Is death then at the “beginning” of the Phenomenology, before sense-certainty, as it is in the Preface? As if the end has already authenticated the beginning? As if the Phenomenology - phenomenology itself - must already be buried, be dead, to begin? Finally,when Lévinas say that Hegel describes the “return to the ground of being” as “the return to the elements,” I am sure he is directing his listeners to his account of the elements in Totality and Infinity:

Before possession as dwelling in a home (before the “enjoyment of self”), the subject encounters the elements. The elements are “essentially non-possessable, ‘nobody’s’: earth, sea, light, city.” “Every relation or possession,” Lévinas insists, “is situated within the non-possessable which envelops or contains without being able to be contained or enveloped.” Formless, anonymous, the element presents “the strangeness of the earth,” the there is, “the nothingness which separates.”
:: Sean 6:01 AM [+] ::
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:: Saturday, February 15, 2003 ::
Lecture 17

The resonances you note in your opening lines are inescapable these days. I was struck too in a similar vein, but I was thinking of the “peace movement” and the reluctance to consider the option of war of contemporary Germany. This seems to be such an ethical position and yet something always smells bad about it to me. There isn’t that red thread of recognition of the divine law.

These passages in Hegel have always been among my favourites and they provide endless food for thought. I agree that Lévinas’ exposition is wonderful, and wonderful too how it illuminates the French Hegel of his time. I’m holding out however for the punchline in the next lecture(?). One can see Lévinas positioning himself but I don’t want to pre-empt.

It seems however that as much as Hegel in these passages appears to be pointing the same way as Lévinas – the death of the other as an indelible responsibility to them – if you extrapolate from Hegel you don’t get to Lévinas – at the very least H. still rests on an element of “blood and soil” – the divine of his “divine law” is a cthonic divine – something that repels Lévinas on many levels.

To some extent it comes down to the question of who you feel this spontaneous responsibility for. Is it the Other as every other, every bearer of a human face, in whatever form, or is it just your family, tribe, circle of friends or special interest group?
The Hegel passages are redolent of a certain historical period, a pre-modern stage in the development of civilisations. “Man contemplates himself in the public law and opposes himself to the obscurity from which he detached himself. In the law, in broad daylight, he reflects himself.”

(I am reminded of a story by Bashevis Singer: A Warsaw Jew who has educated himself in the best of Western Culture shares his enlightenment by penning essays on Kant for the Yiddish press. The typesetting was manual and sometimes strange mix-ups occured. A key phrase is missing from one of his pieces and he searches through the rest of the paper to find it. Finally it appears in a piece of court reporting about a low-life accused of incest with his daughter. The witness’ report reads, “I entered the room and found them in the transcendental unity of apperception!”)

At any rate Lévinas does not seem to belong to such a world. His ethics are for a kind of self that we might only find in the post-modern, or perhaps a self that it still to come. There is a belief current among spiritual types that the circle of concern expands and universalises as one “develops” spiritually. That’s why there always seems to be something of the cutting-edge about things like veganism and pacifism, which seem more properly, to me, to belong to Hegel’s “beautiful soul” formation.
If Lévinas is advocating something like this extension of the moral sense, the true aufhebung of the divine law, to its widest possible compass, then it is incumbent on him to do more than propose this in a pious way but show us how to reconcile it with the complexity that that level of perception entails.

Your observations about the question of the question seemed on the mark too. It seems to go something like this: the essence of response is questioning, but the essence of questioning must be response – or at least responsibility. The first is the quintessential phenomenological move: to properly respond is to answer to the depth of things, and to meet this depth one must uncover its origin within ourselves, to question. The second is the great French discovery, by way of Mallarmé, that the essential question is the unanswerable question, is the negative of the question. I still like to hover in the strangely vibrating nothing that this points to, and so feel a little harried when Lévinas tells me it is time to stop dreaming and start taking responsibility.


:: David 3:49 AM [+] ::
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:: Friday, February 14, 2003 ::
Lecture 17: From the Science of Logic to the Phenomenology.

Reading this lecture, as an hour and half away from me, tanks patrol Heathrow airport, I wondered if anyone in the White House had been reading the Phenomenology of Spirit lately? For Hegel, war is the recalling of the individual from nature and the family towards spirit and the state. War is for the communal spirit and, through the political, a becoming aware of the whole as an encounter with death.

More mundanely, I was reminded again of the great importance of the Phenomenology for post-war French philosophy and the influence of Jean Hyppolite.

Lévinas asks, how do we respond to “the undeniable end”? Again, Lévinas suggests that death raises a question of the question. To respond to death “is a questioning that is not a simple modality of the theoretical expression of belief, of doxa.” We must, Lévinas says, “search for a response that is not a response” - suggesting that we will know that we have asked the right kind of question about death when, uniquely, there is no response.

However, he adds, that we must look for “a response that is not a response but responsibility.” I am still unsure about the link between the uniqueness of death as non-response and the ubiquity of responsibility for the other. But perhaps, the responsibility from the non-response of the death of the other is uniquely the responsibility of the survivor, perhaps that is part of Lévinas’s point in returning to Hegel’s preoccupation with Antigone?

Reading Lévinas’s account of Hegel, I think it is a pity that he did not write more commentary directly on the Phenomenology. I have to say that I had never made the connection with the “immediate” being a Cartesian “cogito all alone” (yet another reason for the importance of the French reception of Hegel as the introduction of thinking as ‘a thinking between consciousness” and for the necessity of recognising the other).

If - following Antigone - the first responsibility (following the divine law) of the survivor to the non-response of death is seeing to burying of the dead (despite the law of the state), Hegel imbues this responsibility for the dead with the progression of substance to subject, with the spirit as “universal and nonimmediate consciousness”. He also infuses the corpse with spirit. For Hegel, the first responsibility to the non-response requires that “the dead one” has a status that is at once individual and universal (“a universal essence without being a citizen”).

If the first responsibility of the survivor is seeing to burying of the dead, I wonder when Lévinas says at the end “the act of burial is a relationship with the deceased, and not with the cadaver,” - a cadaver is perhaps an absolute singularity, a “dead one” that is without response and that I am responsible for, a “dead one” which is without spirit (a death without Antigone) - if he is not also implicitly thinking of the lines from the beginning of Psalm 79:

The dead bodies of thy servants they have given to be food to the birds of the sky, the flesh of thy pious ones to the beasts of the earth. Their blood have they shed like water round about Yerushalayim; and there was none to bury them.

:: Sean 3:30 AM [+] ::
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:: Monday, February 03, 2003 ::
Lecture 16
Yes, this was a refreshingly short lecture, which gives me all the less of an excuse for being so tardy in getting to it. What can I say? It has been so ennervatingly hot here in Melbourne and since I live in two houses on opposite sides of town I don’t always have my copy of GDT with me…

There is an interesting distinction running through your post. For me it almost amounts to saying that Kant is to Hegel as Judaism is to Christianity. Yes, of course Kant would have been horrified with what Hegel made of his finely drawn limits of Reason – like anthropomorphising the sky God we’d just spent several centuries de-anthropomorphising. Still, Judaism has its own fair share of dialecticians, especially amongst the Kabbalists.

I’m interested too in your question, “Why is there no becoming that is not phenomenal?” It is close to the question that suggested itself to me as I was reading this lecture. If the nothing of the pair being/nothing does not apply to the death of a fellow human, surely it is also true that being doesn’t wholly apply to the lives of such as us? Even in a Heideggerian or Satrean way we can say that our mode of being is to hold Being in question. So then, rightly, if our death were a victory of the nothing then it would be as if we had been mistaken all this time in doubting our being, it would prejudice the outcome of a research that cannot end. No, the evidence of death is precisely equally divided on the sides of being and nothingness – just as all the efforts of life to manifest being once and for all always fall short, no matter how monumental the achievements of the life.

Returning to non-phenomenal becoming, one could say that everything phenomenal is a becoming because in order to reveal itself a being must bring about some kind of change that draws attention to it. Who can say how much undiscovered immensity there is in our witnessing of life, only that it has never yet moved, and constituted as we are we cannot attend to it. But this is not the same as saying that every becoming is phenomenal. What is it that cannot by any definition, or any shift of attention, be a phenomenon? Only that which sees phenomena, the eye which cannot see itself but which must be present in any seeing. It seems to me that this, which you could call perhaps, pure witnessing, escapes the categories of being/nothingness just as well as death. And in so far as verbs suit it better than nouns one could stretch then so far as to call it becoming – but of a scandalously non-Hegelian kind.

:: David 5:03 AM [+] ::
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:: Saturday, January 25, 2003 ::
Lecture 16: Reading Hegel’s Science of Logic

I don’t really have that much to say about this short lecture (the students must have been in and out of the Sorbonne in no time). I just have a few rather elliptical remarks.

I was thinking about what you said some time ago about Kant and reason (“the thing that is most real, most concrete for Kant is Reason itself”). Lévinas brought to my attention that for Hegel “a thought of Reason” is a “speculative proposition”. What would Kant say about this, how would it effect the reality and authority of Reason?

“Becoming is the phenomenal world, the manifestation of being.” Why? Is there no “becoming” that is not the phenomenal world, the manifestation of being”?

Though we have not touched on it here, we have talked elsewhere about Catherine Chalier’s writing on the creatio ex nihilo in Lévinas’s work as an indication of the religious preoccupations (the conflict between Christian and Jewish theology - the creatio ex nihlio marking a radical separation of the divine and human world that both rejects any anthropocentrism and is the very source of responsibility for others as a act for God - and more specifically, between the mitnagdim and hassidim in Lithuania) informing his philosophy. I was struck by his emphasising that the unity of being and nothingness in Hegel (difference, negation always already working for becoming) is “a Christian thought” and, therefore, that the creatio ex nihlio “would confirm the speculative proposition”.

I’ve also been thinking about the so-called pre-Socratics. Hegel quotes Heraclitus and I’ve always thought Hegel was inspired by Heraclitus’s observation that the universe “in differing, agrees with itself”. I’ve been reading the fragments of Parmenides and now know who to blame for this endless story of being (Heidegger goes on and on about it and Lévinas’s goes on and on about Heidegger). Parmenides (and his pupil Melissus) seem to be saying (in a phrase that only reinforces Heidegger’s observation that language has always already “got us’ when it comes to being) - ‘there is never not being’. Melissus says what exists has always existed and it is infinite (and therefore, as Lévinas notes, the opposition between “what is” and “what is not” is in no way like the “seizure” of death). However, I noticed that Melissus also adds that what exists is also incorporeal (infinite, incorporeal, cannot not exist ... sounds familiar .. we always seem to get back to “God” one way or another). Still, my favourite pre-Soctratic philosopher, and perhaps the most Jewish of the lot, was Xenophanes, who said that “there is one god, greatest among gods and men, similar to mortals neither in shape nor in thought”. He also recognised the Greek propensity to represent the divine in their own image, saying: if cows had hands they would draw their gods like cows .




:: Sean 2:32 PM [+] ::
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:: Wednesday, January 15, 2003 ::
Lecture 15.

I agree that Lévinas seems far less encumbered when not speaking of Heidegger. With Hegel one makes jokes, that is the general feeling. Of course this has all been set up by the conclusion of the previous lecture – after all what else is Hegel for Paris than “Western” thought incarnate?

I’m inclined to ask, “What’s wrong with the Aufhebung anyway?” – At least as a process of thought or understanding it does serve to describe the way that views supercede each other and grow more inclusive. Of course not everything is preserved, and the path traced out may not be unique or determined by any destination (how would we know if we are still on it?), but these reservations still leave us with an Aufhebung of sorts. When I think of myself and my understanding of life as it was ten, twenty or thirty years ago, it seems to me that I stand at a higher, albeit more lonely, and more tired, point of vision than I did then. Perhaps we need a new version of that old 70s song, “Aufhebung is not a dirty word.”

The point being that once you embrace such a notion it becomes immediately clear what its limitations are, immediately clear that Lévinas’ “other” is in no way analogous to the nothingness which fits so snugly with being in the Hegelian crib.
I think the reason for the lip-curling rejection of the Aufhebung in intellectual circles of the second half of the 20th Century is a purely aesthetic one. The shape, the tonality, the music of it did not sound right to our ears. We were mad for a certain elusive dissonance and strove to find it everywhere and could hardly imagine we’d end up with Philip Glass!

In suggesting that Lévinas’ distinction between self and other is effectively a Hegelian thesis/antithesis, Derrida as usual is barking up the wrong tree, but if Derrida did not exist we would have to invent him, he is the exeplary dupe of the jargon of signification. You have to step out of the text to see what Lévinas is pointing to, and there is absolutely no way to persuade anyone to do so. I agree that Derrida is in an ongoing dialogue with Lévinas, and it is also possible to see in late Lévinas an ongoing dialogue with Derrida, but then Derrida “wins” and you lose the awakening that Lévinas offers in a maze of quibbles.

On the other hand Lévinas’ confidence that he has found a point within the philosophical examination of life where one must step out of the role of thinker, not merely because one’s wife is suggesting that it is time to go to bed, but because of the exigencies of the thought itself, is surely misplaced. If anyone can prove this confidence is misplaced it is Derrida! Lévinas overplays his hand of course with all that stuff about “Every death is a murder.” - he is asking for his own thought to be murdered.

One could say that the dialectic is the best that we come up with when we try to understand understanding as a concrete historical impulse in in our lives and in our worlds. Does it also entail the belief that there is nothing but understanding? I think not, but this is a tricky question when we come to pose it because it is asking for an understanding of the limits of understanding, and hence to some degree of what is beyond understanding. The precise degree involved is what determines whether we are in the Kantian or nominally Hegelian camps. Does knowing that you can’t know entail knowing what you can’t know?

Lévinas’ relaxed exposition of Hegel’s originary dialectic of being and nothingness makes it clear that this is of quite a different order than what he has been pointing to in the effect on us of the death of someone we are face to face with. There are two different nothingnesses here, in the simplest terms we could call them a first/third person (subjective/objective) nothingness and a second person nothingness. If we vividly grasp how strange it is that there should be two such heterogenous originary nothingnesses then of course we are immediately led to an Aufhebung, an expansion of understanding in which our world is enlarged and we stop dumbly trying to reduce the second person to an effect of the first and third. This doesn’t mean that we now claim to “understand” the other – to think that would be to miss the whole point, no, we have just come to understand what the other is for us.

Hope and Love conducted by a trio of saints. Before the last of these he is struck blind
Towards the end of the Paradiso Dante submits to a series of oral exams on Faith, as a result of peering with too much curiosity into the light-body of St James. The allegorical meaning however is that love, the highest of the theological virtues is independent of understanding. The content of Dante’s answers belies this to a large extent, he derives love as if it were a logical conclusion from the authority of the scriptures and this despite the fact that it is the very personal love between him and Beatrice which has enabled this entire ascent. When the examination is over it is the rays from Beatrice’s gaze into his eyes that resore Dante’s sight to him, “So that I saw better than I had before.” There is a performative acknowlegement here of something that “Western” thought has always known but never understood.

:: David 2:44 PM [+] ::
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:: Sunday, January 05, 2003 ::
Lecture 15: Hegel’s Response: The Science of Logic


I liked your redefinition of the question of how to think nothingness in relation to death as an inconsolability and the hope for consolation. I think you are right that Lévinas relies on Kant more than he admits to get “outside” Heidegger. I was also struck, reading lecture 15, by the difference in style when Lévinas is speaking of Kant or Hegel and when he is speaking of Heidegger. The concise, magisterial summary of Kant and Hegel is so different from the laboured, entangled and endlessly reworked reading of Heidegger. It is interesting what you say about Lévinas’s earlier texts and it is almost as if once he sets himself the explicit task of thinking beyond being, he is inextricably tied to Heidegger, like Ahab and the whale.

I still think that Derrida makes a compelling case for the short comings of Lévinas’s reading of Hegel: in attempting to avoid negativity - the engine of the Aufhebung - Lévinas adopts an “absolute” anti-Hegelianism (a transcendence of negation, of history and difference) which “mirrors” and “invites” the Aufhebung and history as spirit that culminates in absolute knowledge. At the same time, I am still curious about both Lévinas’s and Derrida’s relation to Kant. It seems that so much of the French reception of Heidegger (and perhaps Husserl) is based on a variation of a complex negotiation between between Kant and Hegel. I seem to remember Ricoeur referring somewhere to a post-Hegelian Kantianism. Anyway, I still have much to read.

Again, perhaps because of the change in style, I actually really enjoyed this lecture. Lévinas begins, as I would have expected in a reading of Hegel, with the question of “a negativity radically other than the negativity thought by Greek philosophy.” And yet, his fine reading of “the beginning” as “indetermination” does not rush to transcendence. The indeterminacy of a dialect at the start is, in effect, the grist of an inevitable determination. History is the history of becoming: “the beginning is not yet, but is going to be.” The beginning is a nothingness that must become something: being. The negation or movement of negativity that gets things going at the start (the petrol for the Aufbehung as the engine of the history as spirit) ensures that to think nothingness is, ultimately, to assert identity (74).

I wonder if in some way Lévinas is also referring here to Derrida’s critique of his own anti-Hegelianism. Lévinas seems to appreciate that “pure being” or “pure nothingness” are, to change metaphors, just wood for the Hegelian, a pure difference that invites the Aufhebung. How is Lévinas going to counter the Hegelian dialect of nothingness and being as the history of becoming? By a “pure” anti-Hegelianism?

Having enthused about the inability to think nothingness in the last lecture (and, as I am sure you have seen, I am always a sucker for a scrap of epiphany), I would now like to enthuse over Lévinas’s account of a “confined” nothingness, a nothingness that is put to work in the great Hegelian machine. Of course, I would add that Hegel’s architecture of becoming (of being that is already becoming) is - as Lévinas says - founded on “a difference which has equally immediately resolved itself” and, as Derrida suggest, this difference is hardly assured in the Hegelian project.

Finally, to return to opening of the lecture.

Lévinas appears to echo Husserl’s definition of consciousness as “consciousness of something” when he says that death is “the death of someone.” Perhaps, as you suggest, there is an occulted phenomenology of death in Lévinas’s lectures.

Thinking of some of your earlier remarks (about murder and the other), beyond the always unexpected moment of death, what does it mean when Lévinas says “every death is a murder”?

And why is it that ‘everything unfolds in death as though man were not a simple being that perishes’? This still seems to me an essential question and evokes on the one hand, an “empirical” imperative of death as the physicality of dying in a hospital and, on the other hand, the inconsolability and the hope for consolation that you speak of. Though I enthuse about not being able to think nothingness and about being able to think it in the operation and faults of the Hegelian machine, it is perhaps also Kant that I rely on when thinking of death.
:: Sean 4:17 AM [+] ::
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:: Thursday, December 26, 2002 ::
Lecture 14.
I suppose what you mean by Lévinas’ stab here at a “philosophy of dying” is that in raising the question “How to think nothingness?” he is implicitly insisting that the only way to satisfy this demand is to present a way of speaking of what death confronts us with – “what death, in its nothingness, puts in question other than our being.”

This seems a strange and self-contradictory demand – like some Zen injuction: “Speak of what cannot be spoken of!” – but it seems to me that Lévinas is more interested in playing the French game of exposing the blind-spots in “Western thought” than in actually waking anybody up.

“One cannot fail to acknowledge the nothingness of death, but one cannot know it either.” This sentence is in the register of a certain humility in the face of death, iseparable from one way of grasping the human condition – we immediately know how to read this, what tone to give it. Immediately afterwards he shows up a lot more sure of the stakes: “… the negativity of death, as more negative than nothingness, as vertigo and risk experienced in the ‘less than nothing.’ A negativity that is neither thought nor even felt…” Who say?!
The only positive terms here are “vertigo and risk,” and these belong perhaps to your undeveloped philosophy of dying. As such, I would say that they are primarily psychological terms and would need to be examined thoroughly to see whether they justify being lifted into philosophical clues as to the nature of the reality of death.

I’ve gotten a little ahead of myself here, I’d planned to begin by tracing out the shape of the lecture, so let me try to do that now. There are two parts separated by the parenthetical section on p.67, the hiatus makes it appear that they are more closely linked than is in fact the case. The first is on the “place” of Kant’s rational hope, that is, its place in the metaphysical universe. The conclusion he draws is that since it can’t be in space and time it is in “nothingness”. This may be fine in a manner of speaking, but I don’t think Kant would be too happy with such language. We are distracted from wondering about this by the parenthetical section, which hints at the way that Lévinas is leading us. The hope may be in time, but not a time such as you, Horatio, have been able to conceive it. If it is God’s time or Messianic time towards which hope is pointing then this leaves a blank on our radar not because it is out of time, or in some kind of nothingness, but because our antennae cannot register such an unprecedented event. Eugen Fink is trotted out as the token benighted phenomenologist, so mindlessly attached to the category of being that he cannot grasp the place of this hope as anything more than some shadowy interspace. The key thing is that he only concept able to deal with the place of this hope with an intensity equal to what such a hope must do for our lives, here and now, is Lévinas’ own “beyond being”.

In the second, and longer, section Lévinas treats the various ways in which certain philosophers have treated the concept of nothingness: Bergson, Heidegger, Husserl and Aristotle. Bergson and Aristotle are philosphers for whom being is life and so their perspective blinds them to the essence of death – as Lévinas is unfolding it, which is death as experienced by us in the event of facing it, whether our own imminent death or that of another person close to us – the touchstone of which is that we are shaken to the core: Timor mortis conturbat me, as the old lyric puts it, (“Fear of death is freaking me out” – as we would say.) Husserl doesn’t catch it either because, although he is a philosopher of infinitely fine examination of experience the units of experience are “thoughts”, or better “theses”, all the way down. There is no room here for an experience of what “conturbat” could mean, the point when the little man commentating in your head finally vanishes. The treatment of Heidegger is a little more tricky, since Heidegger is precisely fascinated by philosophical content of non-thetic phases of life – “sentiments, actions, etc., which are all irreducible to serene representation”. In fact Lévinas’ method, at least in his earlier works was just in this line, examining boredom and insomnia for non-theoretical clues to our true metaphysical state. In this lecture he lumps Heidegger with the other thinkers whom death has “defied” because Heidegger’s interest is “to think nothingness”, and this word “think” makes it seem as if he is still with Husserl. This is a bit disingenuous, and not really necessary since he has made a pretty good case that Heidegger’s grasp on nothingness is slanted by his insistence on “Being” as the highest category.

The paragraph the sums it up is on p.70 when he says, “In death, as pure nothingness, as foundationlessness – which we feel more dramatically , with the acuteness of that nothingness that is greater in death than in the idea of the nothingness of being …”
This is however, presented here as something we feel, rather than think, not quite the Blanchottian “negativity that is neither thought nor even felt” of two pages ago. As feeling it is hardly something absent from the Western tradition, it is what one might call “inconsolability”.
To pursue further into this as a philosophical cue, as in Heidegger, but with the added “risk” that one does not take Being as a foundation (which is the path of the late Heidegger as well) seems to me to be a veiled way of repeating the Kantian move. We are inconsolable and yet we “know” somehow that there must be consolation and so we find ourselves called into a context beyond being, a sacred context.

:: David 6:17 PM [+] ::
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:: Wednesday, December 18, 2002 ::
Lecture 14: How to Think Nothingness

Given our discussion from Lecture 13 of a rational hope that suggests - as you say - “a larger cosmic order” for Kant, or “sacramental”, and even “quasi-messianic” folds in time and traces of otherness - given all this, it was a surprise to find that we have now moved to the limits of ‘Western thought’ and gazed from those limits into the abyss of an unthinkable nothingness.

Without, as you say, “getting all Blanchot” about this nothingness and giving it the privileged status of a “temporal nothingness” than can be thought in the West (and which gives the impersonal, the neutral, the ‘empty’ a grace and grandeur) or giving it some kind of Eastern virtue of negation (like neti-neti) - without all these temptations - I was actually relieved to see Lévinas using Kantian rational hope marking out a threshold that was a threshold, a limit - of death as an unthinkable and “undeniable” nothingness.

My relief was in a sense an intellectual satisfaction at a philosophy of the limit, of the limitations of philosophy - somehow, in this context, it is a limit that gets closer to death as dying in a hospital (last night I saw a remarkable TV film, directed by Mike Nichols and starring Emma Thompson, called Wit, about a Professor of English who specialises in Donne’s holy sonnets (‘Death be not proud...’ was discussed, of course and emphasis put on the proper punctuation of the last line of the poem being: ‘And death shall be no more, death thou shalt die’). The film is almost entirely shot in a hospital and follows her chemotherapy for ovarian cancer and her dying. Far from the question of anticipation of death as an opening of the future or responsibility for death of the other, this film left me with a profound fear of dying and it made me think that philosophy can perhaps only deal with death and somehow cannot address dying. Without recourse to an ‘empiricism’, is a philosophy of dying possible?)

It is interesting that Lévinas had characterised Kantian rational hope as both in and beyond time, whereas here rational “hope is a hope that cannot be compared with hope in time”: it is a non temporal rational hope, a “void” that cannot be filled by either time or being. What kind of “rational hope” is unfufillable, a-temporal and transcendent? Is this, to pick up on a point you made a few weeks ago, a virtual hope and a virtual rationality that projects itself (“like an extra-ordinary projection of meaning”) across the abyss of nothingness? Is this part of what Lévinas hints at when he asks, ‘Is to think simply to live’?

It is also interesting that Lévinas seems to be turning to negation and the negative - to a nothingness more negative than Aristotle or Bergson can address and a nothingness more inaccessible than Husserl or even Heidegger can admit. Derrida, I think rightly, makes much of Lévinas’s shying away from the negative in his early work in an attempt to avoid the Hegelian colonisation of negation as the engine of history as spirit. Though I hardly can presume to have a good knowledge of Heidegger, it seemed like a real insight into his work when Lévinas says, “what fascinates Heidegger about death is the possibility he finds in it of thinking nothingness’.

I also found the “performative” nature of the parenthetical note on page 67 fascinating - is this an unscripted aside in his lecture? It is presented as an aside and yet it appears to say something quite significant: pure nothingness can perhaps be thought in time (in the temporal ecstasis), if it is in relation with ‘what cannot come to pass” and with an awaiting that is always exceeded by what is awaited. Lévinas (or Rolland) leave this in parenthesis and turns back to a-temporal nothingness that is impossible to think.

Though I still think Lévinas’s use of the question (of “putting in question” as a kind of critique) is tied more closely than he will admit to being as to be in question - I was struck by the question of “what death ... puts in question other than our being”.

Death, as pure nothingness cannot be thought; it marks a limit to Western thought (perhaps THE limit). Pure nothingness is affective - we “feel” it - and yet all we “feel” is that it is without foundation and that it marks a change in which “nothing” ‘subsists’.

Perhaps in this lecture, in which Lévinas seems to have suspended or bracketed his ethical imperatives, he comes closer to a “philosophy of dying” than in any of the previous lectures.

:: Sean 12:59 PM [+] ::
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:: Wednesday, December 11, 2002 ::
I too have made some hospital visits recently which worked in spite of their occasions to put Lévinas to the test. You are right, there is a dark comedy of the body, to put it mildly, of which Lévinas says nothing – in fact, if one knows of him, he becomes one of the personages in it. But that is perhaps not an unsuitable role for a philosopher. We would like philosophy to have the last word and maybe we dream of a larger more rollicking philosophy, but to see the limits of philosophy in the company of the other major conversations that cast their nets over life is to see an important philosophical truth.
Some philosophers acknowledge this, like Kant and Lévinas, others apparently like Heiddeger, who would like to say that at ground all discourses are discourses of being, do not.

Visiting hospitals always leads to the thought, “What if it was me?” – because it will be me soon enough – and then you see how all you have are attitudes and reaction formations, some hearsay knowledge and some shallow humour and plenty of hardness and cynicism of heart which seemed like good ideas when it was just a matter of getting through life, and you wonder how you are going, in the very limited time you may have, to fashion a “boat of death” (D. H. Lawrence). And you know, at least if you are me that it is more a matter of some old tableau of “the death of a sinner” than of the Leopard’s slim consolatrix in her “brown travelling dress.”

In spite of such canny assesments Kant’s question, “What am I entitled to hope?” imposes itself at such times and it may point to nothing more, although this is already a lot, a tremendous amount perhaps, than, at the centre of the storm, a peaceful acceptance of fate – even the absurd fate imposed by drugs and organ failure.

The precise sense of Kant’s rational hope is not for an afterlife but simply that there be a larger cosmic order in which justice prevails and happiness is the reward of virtue. I would venture to add that it is an impersonal hope because in it one aligns oneself with reason – a subjunctive hope: may justice prevail! “Mathematics works,” a pure mathematician friend once reported after a stay in hospital for some painful chemotherapy. Kant’s hope would seem to be of a similar nature, “to find the self is to forget the self,” because if one were to personalise the whole thing and to try to estimate how much happiness was due to one for the sake of one’s virtuous deeds one would by that very act be diminishing them.

Like you I am feeling around for what “realm of essence” is the rightful home of Lévinas’ hope. The realm of the ideas of reason seems too remote for the work of religion which ought to lie somewhere between Kant and Miguel da Unamuno. For Unamuno the primal scene is when we are lying in extremis and all abstractions have been burned away and desire with concentrated fury fixes upon its first and last prize, indefinite continuation of ME. The wisdom of religion is to see that this bravado is just another evasion, a way of getting away from the self, away from the place where we are most wounded, most incomplete, most answerable for the way we have lived, where the possibility of hope, or of forgivness, might melt us, might touch us most to the quick.

Or is this perhaps too Christian a view of the soul’s drama? Is a ‘quasi-messianic’ hope of a different order? Whatever it be I don’t think the religious can be separated from a certain yoking of opposite categories, a metaphysical catachresis, something almost in bad taste, an intercourse of the human and the divine, of the evanescent and the eternal.
Where could there be an opening to such a possibility? Only in the folds of time, time itself as a mysterious offspring of human reality and universal being, the dimension in which “the trace of the other” and messianic hope are equally at home. Every way of access to the human has its own specific temporalisation, there is a psychoanalytic time and a time of waiting at tramstops, a time of making love and a time of waiting for the medicine to work – as the psalm says, but they are simultaneous and interpenetrating not successive, and it is not hard to see them each as sacramental.

I have enough crumbs of religious mania left in me to be able to see things this way at times but I can also be brought up short by the sort of rhetoric that is heard in the two quotes you give from Chalier. I used to thrill to this sort of thing when I was a fan of Simone Weil – proving the yes by the no, finding the trace of God in the very silence of God. I’m not sure if it is quite the same move as the turn to hope, since the latter may be motivated by the needs of reason even if it excedes reason’s grasp, the former reminds me too much of Weil whom I eventually concluded was a prima donna of the soul.

There is also a danger, it seems to me, in locating the site of eschatological witness in an interzone, marked off with a philosopher’s rigour from both the negative and the positive, that one finds oneself surfacing in the realm of art, unable to tell the difference between scripture and literature.
If Weil is Scylla then Blanchot is Charybdis.


:: David 6:54 PM [+] ::
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