Thursday, April 16, 2009

Levinas and Medieval Literature: The "Difficult Reading" of English and Rabbinic Texts


Herewith I offer a shameless plug for the just-arrived book [available in both hardcover and paperback from Duquesne University Press], Levinas and Medieval Literature: The "Difficult Reading" of English and Rabbinic Texts, edited by Ann Astell and Justin Jackson, and in which I have a chapter, “'in his eyes stood a light, not beautiful': Levinas, Hospitality, Beowulf.”

In their preface to the book,“Before the Face of the Book,” Astell and Jackson ask, “What does a modern philosopher like Levinas have to do with medieval literature? Better put, what can sustained reflection on the work of Levinas contribute to the understanding of medieval texts? And conversely, what can medieval sources (and medievalist resources) contribute to the study of Levinas’s philosophy?” In partial answer, they write,
Certainly, Levinas cannot be said to have influenced the literature of the Middle Ages, but his writings—as the essays in this collection show—can truly alter our reception, our reading, of that literature. Of equal importance is the discovery that the literary works of the medieval period can illumine our understanding of the Levinasian oeuvre—its characteristic style, method, and themes, as well as its profound resistance to thematization. This is so, moreover, not just in the sense that Levinas indubitably read the literary works of medieval authors and was influenced by them, often in unacknowledged ways. Rather, despite manifest differences, the literature of the Middle Ages stands in a startling, close proximity to Levinas’s own.

What allows for this approximation across centuries is a third entity, which exists prior to the Middle Ages, to Levinas, and to us—namely, the sacred scriptures. Like medieval authors, Levinas accords a special status to the Bible. His writings may, indeed, be regarded as an original, modern, philosophical extension of the ancient biblical commentary tradition—its “translation” from “Hebrew” to “Greek.” Levinas explains: “Every philosophical thought rests on pre-philosophical experiences, and . . . for me, reading the Bible has belonged to these founding experiences.”
To the question, however, of whether or not Levinas's philosophy can have any bearing on literary criticism [as opposed to exegetical, or Biblical, commentary], Astell and Jackson cite Jill Robbins's caution that, “Levinas’s philosophy cannot function as an extrinsic approach to the literary work of art, that is, it cannot give rise to an application,” due to the “incommensurability between Levinas’s ethics and the discourse of literary criticism.” In response to this caution, Astell and Jackson argue that,
The literary criticism of the Middle Ages, however, unlike that of modernity, arguably understood the work of art in a manner akin to Levinas’s philosophy. Strongly tied to the materiality not only of manuscripts but also of human bodies, the literature of the medieval period was read aloud or sung, usually to a listening group of people, who responded with sounds, gestures, and interpretive commentary. For Levinas, as [Gerald] Bruns explains, “The sound of words is an ethical event, which Levinas does not hesitate to characterize as critique, not only because others interrupt me in making themselves felt, setting limits to my autonomy, but because even when I myself speak—even in self-expression—I am no longer an ‘I,’ am no longer self-identical, but am beside myself.” In answer to the question “Is self-expression only the manifestation of a thought by a sign?” Levinas answers no; self-expression is always already dialogic: “By the proffered word, the subject that posits himself exposes himself and, in a way, prays.”

Writing about the ancient “psalms of David . . . the prayers of Israel,” Levinas remarks, “They have become the liturgy of the nations. They trace out, in our space, the way leading from the most intimate interiority—to beyond all exteriority.” This way across time and peoples is possible, in Levinas’s understanding, not only because of a diachrony within time itself, but also because of the Oral Torah of the Jews: “Parable and homily (genres known by philologists, but which appear minor to them) have stored the treasures of Jewish thought and spirituality. . . .The Talmud and its commentaries, and the commentaries on these commentaries . . . prolong (while stabilizing in writing) a very ancient oral tradition from which the Bible emerged and in which, for a Jew, it breathes.” From the perspective of this Jewish (and, to a large extent, also historically Christian) experience, the Bible as a book is and remains a Saying, a word (verbe), that thrives in the inter-subjective space of the community: “In the Jewish reading, episodes, figures, teachings, words, letters, receive—through the immediate meaning, as if it were transparent—other innumerable meanings.” The Bible, precisely because its literal meaning is not transparent, generates the literary as a commentary upon itself and as an extension of its own opaque, mysterious, material, and spiritual speech.
Ultimately, according to Astell and Jackson, Levinas and Medieval Literature "is not a set of essays that try to apply Levinas’s philosophical insights one-directionally to works of medieval literature that are said to illustrate them. Instead, the two 'ands' in Levinas and Medieval Literature, English and Rabbinic imply a dialogical approach that (weirdly, perhaps, but engagingly) performs a contemporary resurrection that allows Levinas, medieval authors, and the exegetes of old to speak to each other, using proper names."

A brief preview of the volume's Table of Contents [which I, myself, cannot wait to read]:
  • Valerie Allen, "Difficult Reading" [a "systematic exposition of the ways in which Levinas’s reading and writing reflect and continue (albeit in a modern, post-Holocaustal key) the tradition of medieval understandings and practices of the Book"]
  • Susan Yager, "Levinas, Allegory, and Chaucer's Clerk's Tale" [argues that "medieval allegory, properly understood, is not the (Coleridgean) allegory from which Levinas properly distanced himself in his 1948 essay, “Reality and Its Shadow”; rather, allegory is a truly "speaking otherwise"]
  • Eileen Joy, "in his eyes stood a light, not beautiful': Levinas, Hospitality, Beowulf" [takes up the "problematic relationship between ethics and politics in Levinas’s thought, especially as those two realms are joined in the single image of the home (or mead-hall) with its two facades: one opening inward, toward the secrecy of the domicile, and the other opening outward, toward the street, the wilderness, its strangers, and the hospitality due to them"]
  • Alexander L. Kaufman, "There is Horror: The Awntyrs off Arthure, the Face of the Dead, and the Maternal Other" ["calls attention to the frightening ghost of Queen Guinevere’s mother and sets this ghost before and beside the Shakespearean ghosts to which Levinas frequently alludes"; "compares and contrasts the medieval poet’s exploration of the debt owed by the living to the still-living dead to Levinas’s opening memorial dedication of Otherwise Than Being to the victims of the Holocaust, including six of his own relatives"]
  • Daniel T. Kline, "Doing Justice to Isaac: Levinas and the Brome Play of Abraham and Isaac" ["seconds and extends Levinas’s critique of Søren Kierkegaard’s treatment (in Fear and Trembling) of the akedah (the binding of Isaac) in Genesis 22"; "argues that the Brome play is more Levinasian than Levinas himself, in the way it extends the ethical relationship between Abraham and God to include Isaac (and Sarah) as a third party"]
  • James J. Paxson, "The Personificational Face in Piers Plowman Rethought Through Levinas and Bronowski: Postmodern Philsophy, Scientific Humanism, and Problems in Late Medieval Personification Allegory" ["compares and contrasts Levinas’s notion of the Face with some other modern theorizations of the Face—specifically, the deManian cult of prosopopeia and the Deleuzean notion of machinic facialization"; this chapter also "finds an unexpected dialogue-partner for Levinas in the rationalist employment of the perceived human Face in the ‘scientific humanism’ of poet, philosopher, mathematician, and historian of science, Jacob Bronowski"]
  • J.A. Jackson, "'And euer þe lenger þe lasse þe more': The Infinite Desire of Pearl" ["demonstrates the ways in which Pearl is already working through the simultaneity of the irreducible Divine-human/human-human relationship that concerns much of Levinas’s own writing"]
  • J. Allan Mitchell, "Criseyde’s Chances: or, Courtly Love and Ethics About to Come" [considers "the theme of love’s adventure and, on that basis, reconsiders the potential moral dimensions of fortune in Troilus and Criseyde"; "draws support for his analysis from Levinas, who is 'particularly sensitive to the way love adumbrates the ethical relation by virtue of its fortuitousness, future contingency, exteriority and anteriority to the active will'"]
  • Cynthia Kraman, "The Wound of the Infinite: Re-reading Levinas through Rashi’s Commentary on the Song of Songs" ["answering, in part, to feminist criticism of Levinas, Kraman explores Levinas’s view of Eros as an infinition by configuring it, in its positive and negative aspects, to Rashi’s verse-by-verse commentary on the biblical Song of Songs]
  • Sandor Goodheart, "A Land that Devours Its Inhabitants: Midrashic Reading, Emmanuel Levinas, and Medieval Literary Exegesis" [argues that "reading Levinas, as he reads the rabbis, as they read the Torah, makes it possible for us to 'rediscover the contexts from which medieval literature appears to have come, its continuities with the ancient world in which allegoria, as translation, extends what, in fact, the midrashic thought of the Rabbis was already practicing'"]
  • Ann W. Astell, "When Pardon is Impossible: Two Talmudic Tales, Chaucer’s Pardoner’s Tale, and Levinas" ["adds Chaucer’s famous tale about avarice and sudden death to the Talmud’s two tales of Rab as a third, belated exemplum and a new narrative 'climate' in which to explore principles concerning forgiveness]
  • Moshe Gold, "Those evil goslings, those evil stories: Letting the boys out of their cave, or a hyperbolic Levinasian encounter between Boccaccio and the Talmud" ["dares to comment on a Talmudic text (the story of Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai in a cave), upon which Levinas wrote no commentary, by pairing it with a tale from Boccaccio’s Decameron, rubbing the two medieval tales together" to argue that "both are 'retellings of the allegory of the cave (from Plato’s Republic)' that serve to 're-evaluate the Platonic good beyond being,' thus anticipating in an uncanny way Levinas’s own later reappraisal of it"]


Nicola Masciandaro said...


I look forward to having a look at this, which now appears uncannily coincident with the commentary conference. Is the volume criticism or exegesis, or neither, or both? Do you think the volume does what Levinas does or does it work to preserve criticism in the face of an ethics that is incommensurable to it? Are the living authors equal interlocutors in the "contemporary resurrection that allows Levinas, medieval authors, and the exegetes of old to speak to each other"? Is this a real resurrection or a staging of a possibility or desire for one?

Below is a relevant passage from the longer version of my becoming spice paper slated for Collapse.



Commentary-as-spice embodies the risky work of philosophy, understood by Levinas as the “adventure” of producing “the truth of what does not enter into a theme” via the reduction of the said to the saying, a reduction which is “both an affirmation and a retraction of the said” and which operates as a continual interruption of essence: “The reduction could not be effected simply by parentheses which, on the contrary, are an effect of writing. It is the ethical interruption of essence that energizes the reduction.”[1] This is philosophy not, of course, as a discipline among several, but as the spice of disciplines, what makes all disciplines “ways and kinds of philosophizing,” part of the movement Heidegger calls the attack [Angriff] that “the Da-sein in man launches . . . upon man,” driving us “out of everydayness and . . . back in to the ground of things.”[2] Like pilpul, the movement of philosophical truth-production, says Levinas, is round and multitemporal: “it is produced out of time or in two times without entering into either of them, as an endless critique, or skepticism, which in a spiraling movement makes possible the boldness of philosophy, destroying the conjunction into which its saying and its said continually enter. The said, contesting the abdication of the saying that everywhere occurs in this said, thus maintains the diachrony in which, holding its breath, the spirit hears the echo of the otherwise.”[3] And, it is a movement that originates in proximity: “Saying states and thematizes the said, but signifies to the other, a neighbor, with a signification that has to be distinguished from that borne by words in the said. The signification to the other occurs in proximity.”[4] So commentary, which happens in proximity to and not (as in the case of its bastard offspring the annotated critical edition) in parenthesis from the text, which moves from this proximity as the very ground of its truth, and which is saturated with its own event in the form of the extra or outside presence of its essentially deictic gesture, may be called the savory circulation of the interruption of our exposure to the otherwise.[5]

[1] Emmanuel Levinas, Otherwise Than Being, or Beyond Essence, trans. Alphonso Lingis (Pittsburgh: Duquesne University Press, 1981), 44, my emphasis.

[2] Martin Heidegger, The Fundamental Concepts of Metaphysics, 32, 21, respectively.

[3] Emmanuel Levinas, Otherwise Than Being, 44.

[4] Emmanuel Levinas, Otherwise Than Being, 46.

[5] Cf. “Citation and commentary open up the non-compelling obligation in reading—without abandoning discourse (and which only the most recalcitrant of readers can doubt reflects yet again on how we are reading and commenting, reading these others and writing for still other others—here, ‘at this moment itself’ that is also not now. I read and write commentary here to hold open for others, to call for other books to read. This text is a reading text, reading in the ethical exigency to call to other readers).” (Richard Gibbs, Why Ethics?: Signs of Responsibilities [Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2000], 113).

Eileen Joy said...

Nicola: it's so weird, but as I was reading through Ann's and Justin's preface to the Levinas book, and their descriptions of the individual chapters, I kept thinking, also, how much uncanny synchronicity there was between these chapters and so much of what was discussed at the "glossing is glorious" conference this past week in New York. And because of Eve Sedgwick's untimely [and tragic] death this week, and the fact that I was, at the time I heard about this, re-reading her essay on "reparative reading" [from "Novel Gazing"] for one of my Kalamazoo presentations, I started thinking how her description of what reparative reading *is* is really commentary [something I will write about further in a subsequent post on the conference, etc.].

In regard to your questions, I myself have yet to read through the Levinas book, but I think in many ways, it both simply is and has also been designed to be *commentary* [more so than criticism] on Levinas's thought and writings in relation to a variety of other texts, which are made to speak to/rub against each other, more so than they are "interpreted" [in Gumbrecht's formulation: pierced *through*, read *vertically* for "meaning"]. In regard to your second question, I want to believe [hope] that the volume does not so much preserve criticism in the face of an ethics that is incommensurable to it, so much as it seeks to practice an ethical criticism, or, to *approach* ethics via commentary, but also via the conjoining of texts that are, in the editors' language, given space to say/speak to each other in their "proper names." Are we, the contemporary authors, "equal interlocutors"? No, only belated. Is it a real resurrection? Are any resurrections real? Let's call it, again with Gumbrecht, and perhaps with Walter Benjamin, a "conjuring." It is also, as in your "Spice" paper, an adventure.

Matt said...

Thanks very much for this post. I'm currently working through a stack of commentary by Levinas exegetes on his take on the biblical story of the Akedah... and it's clear that I should (and will) be reading at least some of the essays in this book for their Levinascense.

(Pity tho, these books are so expensive...)

Eileen Joy said...

Matt: Duquesne UP is offering, simultaneously with the soft-cover edition, a paperbound edition for only $24.95, which I hope [to think] is not too terribly expensive.

Matt said...

Sold! Thank very much m

Karl Steel said...

Looks like you got cut off there, Matt.

But, yes, I'm looking forward to reading this, and not only because some of my favorites grace the TOC.

I've a few scattered responses to material you quote from the preface:

In re: Levinas's purported lack of influence on the Middle Ages. I think it bears repeating that the past is never one thing. Bracketing for the moment the interrelations between and intimacies of the binaries I'm about to propose, there are two main pasts: the common past and our own, individual past. The literary past is invented anew for each reader. Lord knows, for better or worse, Tolkien--for example--is the past of so much medieval literature we or our students encounter. In that sense, Levinas becomes the past of medieval literature when we read him before we read our medieval texts, when, indeed, Levinas crowds out our initial readings to present himself as the 'new past' when we reread forgotten texts. This volume, then, is contributing to the 'new past' of medieval literature in general. I think the (typical?) anxiety of the 'applicability' or 'conversations between' postmodern theory and medieval literature could have taken an insight like this, as wan as it is, and ran with it.

In re:

"The sound of words is an ethical event, which Levinas does not hesitate to characterize as critique, not only because others interrupt me in making themselves felt, setting limits to my autonomy..."More to the point, time taken to read is time taken away from other activities. The time of pleasure, or study even, can be understood ethically, by trying to understand what it does to others. What are we leaving undone that might be done by deciding to give ourselves to scholarship? Apart from the bromides of late medieval testamentary traditions, apart from an attention to the needs of his own soul before God, what drove Chaucer to retract his oeuvre? Perhaps it was his sense that a life devoted to culture rather than, say, to justice was a life that left countless others to suffer? Again, such an insight could be turned to us, doing our profession, in a time when the human race, at any rate, faces self-created threats from the excess of its own existence, when humans seem--at least seem--to need ecologists and sustainable energy experts more than they need medievalists.

In re:
Writing about the ancient “psalms of David . . . the prayers of Israel,” Levinas remarks, “They have become the liturgy of the nations. They trace out, in our space, the way leading from the most intimate interiority—to beyond all exteriority.”This is where I have to start to get off the theist bus. I regret such a transhistorical comprehension of the Psalms, when, for example, I think of the recapitulation of a creation story in the midst of Psalm 74:

12 But God is our king before ages: he hath wrought salvation in the midst of the earth.
13 Thou by thy strength didst make the sea firm: thou didst crush the heads of the dragons in the waters.
14 Thou hast broken the heads of the dragon: thou hast given him to be meat for the people of the Ethiopians.
15 Thou hast broken up the fountains and the torrents: thou hast dried up the Ethan rivers.
16 Thine is the day, and thine is the night: thou hast made the morning light and the sun.
17 Thou hast made all the borders of the earth: the summer and the spring were formed by thee.

Is this best understood as a prayer of Israel, like that of any other Psalm? What is lost in such a reading? What does the theistic, ethical commentarial tradition get us? My sense is that we lose the historically interesting specificity of these verses, which preserve what the compilers of the Hebrew Scriptures otherwise did a pretty good job of suppressing, namely, that YHWH, like other Mesopotamian Creator deities, made the world only after defeating great sea beasts. In other words, Levinas's theistic approach to the Psalms, at least as its presented here, wipes out the particularity of this verse and its record of a lost polytheistic past in favor of the monotheistic Judaism that eventually became dominant. This purportedly ethical reading, in other words, strikes me as deeply unethical approach to the text precisely because it's carried out within the monotheistic, (falsely) ahistorical claims of a modern Judaic commentarial tradition...