Midrashic Impulses: Some thoughts on Levinas

Monica over at Dreaming Without Memory in Strangled Sleep has an audio link to a talk she recently gave at UCLA entitled “Literature, the Holocaust, and the Midrashic Impulse.”  She hits on a number of interesting tacks one may take when trying to engage the problem of representation and the Holocaust (which has interesting connections with testimony, witnessing and trauma), and focuses on various examples of what she calls the “midrashic impulse.”  An extensional logic (at work in a variety of different mediums, not just sheer textualism) that may or may not directly engage the Holocaust per se, but is a working through trauma without recourse to representation.  Interesting stuff, indeed.   And you should definately go check it out.

As Robert Antelme –himself a survivor of Dachau–wrote in The Human Race:

No sooner would we begin to tell our story than we would be choking over it, and then, even to us, what we had to tell would start to seem unimaginable (3).

Such is the aporetics of testimony: how do we testify to the unrepresentable, unimaginable etc?  Monica appeals to and glosses over Levinas’ notion of discourse as well as his critique/understanding of the role of aesthetics in ethical life, and focuses on the work of Doctorow and the painter Samuel Bak, but I wonder if we pay attention to Levinas himself we may also catch a glimpse of the midrashic impulse. 

Levinas’s own hostility towards aesthetics has three components. For one, as statuary, art is powerless to open up to the infinitude of the other. Second, Levinas’s distrust emerges out of the Nazi aestheticization of politics to encourage fascistic participation, and finally is the acknowledgement of the limits of representation and writing to bear witness to the Holocaust.  Yet, at times, his work takes on a rather poetic tone.

For one example, in his essay “Revelation in the Jewish Tradition,” Levinas asks,

Could we account for intelligibility in terms of a traumatic upheaval in experience, which confronts intelligence with something far beyond its capacity, and thereby causes it to break?

and immediately responds

surely not…unless we consider the possibility of a command, a ‘you must,’ which takes no account of what ‘you can.’

It is only in this manner that the exceeding of our capacity would make sense. Levinas equates practical reason with the fracture that would be produced from a movement outside of totality, but would somehow retain the self-sufficiency of reason, if reason is understood as the counterpart to the stability and identity of the world. As a traumatic upheaval in experience, the Holocaust is an event that paradoxically bears witness to the collapse of witnessing and as a result leads to an endless aporia. One bears witness to the aporia of Auschwitz, only indirectly by indicating over and over in various repetitive formulas the impossibility of acceding to it through representation. This paradoxical witnessing is reflected in–I think–the manner in which Levinas writes his work. As a translation of the non-audible grunts of the Muselmanner it engenders his reassertion of ethics.  Then again, hmmm…too close to Agamben?

Also, there is the clear connection between the midrashic impulse (which Monica alludes to I think) in Levinas’ theory of language.  Levinas equates the Saying (to be opposed to the Said) with the immanence of the body, with the diachrony of ageing and pain, and with the sensibility of flesh. In contrast to structuralism, which synchronizes the relations between signs in an atemporal horizontal totality, Levinas posits the primordial relation with the other. In this instance, signs are given as gifts between interlocutors before they are fixed into impersonal structures. Time de-phases the identical. In Otherwise than Being Levinas utilizes an unexpected example to figure this punctiform nature of time, Dufy’s paintings, “where the colors spread out from their contours and do not rub up against them.”   The notion of time introduces the movement of the other into the same. Levinas argues that essence cannot refer to a namable thing, concept, content, occurrence or action; rather, temporality is essence.

The mortification formed by time indicates an extreme sensibility and vulnerability of humanity. This makes us non-identical with the self-enclosed representing and synchronizing consciousness and all its systems. Such a corporeal alterity disturbs the speculative gaze of the philosopher; therefore, the ethical relation cannot be expressed in language as Said. Rather, the ethical relation is evoked in language as Saying.

Given this brief overview of the Saying and the Said, the appropriate question—since we are dealing with a midrashic impulse—is does Levinas’s writing mimic the de-phasing of time and the subject? A provisional answer is offered by Blanchot, who in, “Our Clandestine Companion,” comments:

Jean Wahl used to say that the greatest transcendence, the transcendence of transcendence, is ultimately the immanence, or the perpetual referral, of the one to the other. Transcendence within immanence: Levinas is the first to devote himself to this strange structure (sensibility, subjectivity) and not to let himself be satisfied by the shock value of such contrarieties. Yet, one is always struck by one of his typical procedures: to begin, or to follow out, an analysis with such rigor…until we get to a minor remark…which fissures the whole of the preceding text, disturbing the solid order we had been called upon to reserve, an order that nonetheless remains important (in Re-Reading Levinas, 142).

Blanchot’s comment effectively reflects both Levinas’s writing style and the ethical relation rendered in the language of Saying. According to Levinas, Saying signifies prior to identity. It is more fundamental than any given Said. Saying is no more than my exposure to alterity, and my response to the unexpected event of the other. Never indifferent the self deposes the tyranny of the ego by declaring “Here I am.”  The saying is indistinguishable from bodily life in as much as it is devoted to responsiveness, giving and expressing. This would seem to describe the work that much of the literature and painting Monica describes does, but I have to think through some of this some more.  Especially how to situate Levinas and the Holocuast.  I thought I had it all worked out, but now, I’m not so sure.

Anyway, just some thoughts.  It seems to me that someone like Sarah Kofman would be an interesting voice to throw into the mix.

2 thoughts on “Midrashic Impulses: Some thoughts on Levinas

  1. Thanks for this–well-articulated, as always. You’re right to suggest that looking particularly at Levinas himself reveals the “midrashic impulse” of his own work. In fact, his Nine Talmudic Readings is a precise example of this–the explicit use of the midrashic mode in the explication of texts/events. In the larger paper that was circulated before the talk, I delve much deeper into Levinas, but you hit on some points I hadn’t fully considered. I think the Saying and the Said is extremely important in this regard, and your post reminds me to re-visit it as I work on my project.

    When you quote Blanchot (“Yet, one is always struck by one of his typical procedures: to begin, or to follow out, an analysis with such rigor…until we get to a minor remark…which fissures the whole of the preceding text…”) you are (or, he is) on to something with regard to Levinas. His writing–at least in my reading–imitates precisely the style used by Talmudists and the rabbis and sages who created classical Midrash. There is always that moment in the text that flips the text itself upside-down and forces a re-reading from that particular point in the text. Sometimes these moments are so subtle that we miss them, which I think in some way leads us back to the question of responsibility even on the part of the reader (?). This is, again, I think, what brings us to the ethical, at least in regard to the way I’m using it in my work to describe the midrashic impulse. The ethical is about that (diachronic?) moment of rupture in the text, and the way it compels us to respond to it. I’m still working through the idea of the ethical in relation to the midrashic impulse, though. I don’t know if you listened to the questions/answers at the end of the talk, but one woman was in strong disagreement with my suggestion that the mode of midrash (its theory/structure/impulse rather than its content) is an ethical mode. I’m still learning to respond to such contentions.

    Thanks again for your remarks!

  2. Pingback: Midrash, Quotation, Levinas: Some More Thoughts « Perverse Egalitarianism

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