The question that I kept before me as I was reading this book and preparing to write this review is whether philosophers can learn anything valuable from it. After all, it is a book written by someone who has published extensively on film, it treats various Hollywood and European films that are classics and certainly worthy of attention, and it purports to engage with the work of an important twentieth-century philosopher as part of its project. To be sure, one can learn something even from a book that has significant deficiencies, but what I have been asking myself is something different. It is whether a philosopher could learn anything positive from the book. Does the book say helpful and interesting things about Emmanuel Levinas? Does it show us how to explore films in the light of Levinas’s philosophical work? Does it read films in a way that is philosophically novel and interesting, about film itself or about these particular films? I wish that I could answer “yes” to one or more of these questions, but I cannot. The most I can say is that in the course of reading what Girgus has to say about Levinas and the nine or so films he discusses, one is provoked to reflect upon a number of problems and issues concerning Levinas and film, and although Girgus has nothing particularly helpful to say about most of them, it is worthwhile to have them called to our attention. Continue reading
Since I wasn’t all that interested in reading it to begin with, I completely forgot Richard Cohen’s Levinasian Meditations had already been published until I saw this review by Martin Kavka in the NDPR just now. The review certainly makes for some interesting reading. While Kavka admits Cohen broaches some important, if not crucial topics in Levinasian scholarship (and beyond), there seems to be a defensive tone that runs through the whole book:
Levinasian Meditations, in its structure, embodies a claim frequently found in scholarship on Levinas, namely that Judaism and its other-centered ethics, through its countercultural stance, can play a role in saving the modern West from the historical evils that have resulted from the West’s tendency either to create social commonalities through political violence or to erase social difference through genocide and ethnic cleansing. Those who read these essays seriatim will quickly infer that many of them are, at least in part, responses to unnamed others who have offered dismissive responses either to Cohen’s approach to Levinas or to Levinas’s philosophy tout court. It strikes me as very possible that readers of Levinasian Meditations will misinterpret it as a result. Continue reading
NORTH AMERICAN LEVINAS SOCIETY
Sixth Annual Conference and Meeting
“Celebrating Totality and Infinity at 50”
May 1-3, 2011 | Texas A&M University
Call for Papers
Celebrating the 50th anniversary of the publication of Totality and Infinity, the North American Levinas Society invites submissions of individual paper and panel proposals for our sixth annual meeting and conference, hosted by Texas A&M University, to be held May 1-3, 2011. We are especially interested in organizing the conference around considerations of Totality and Infinity, with regard to both its historical framework and relevant contemporary readings and questions that the work continues to engender. Although preference will be given to papers that address the conference theme, papers and panels on any topic related to Levinas will be considered. Continue reading
I was re-reading some interviews with Levinas today and I came across an odd encounter he had with Sartre. In 1964 Levinas wrote a letter to Jean Paul Sartre congratulating him for refusing the Noble Prize for Literature. In an interivew in Is it Righteious to Be? Levinas wrote that Sartre:
perhaps was the only man who had the right to speak, and maybe this was the moment where he had to speak: to go to Nasser in Egypt to propose peace with Israel. Crazy Idea! But I told him, “You’re the only man Nasser will listen to (43).
Upon receipt of the letter Sartre, allegedly, asked: “Who is this Levinas anyway?” Levinas was somewhat offended. For, over twenty years before this episode, Sartre had stumbled across an early publication by Levinas on Husserl and declared “All this I wanted to say myself, but Husserl has already said it.” Regardless, the offense dissipated shortly thereafter when Sartre invited Levinas to contribute to an issue of Les temps modernes about the Palestinian question. Levinas, I believe, wrote “Poltics After!”( in either New Talmudic Readings or Nine Talmudic Readings), which is about the meeting between Sadat and Begin and the ensuing hope for a peaceful resolution.
By Michaël de Saint Cheron Translated by Gary D. Mole
An ardent admirer and student of Emmanuel Levinas during the last decade of the philosopher’s life, Michaël de Saint Cheron sat down with his mentor for these interviews, conducted in 1983, 1992, and 1994. Throughout, their conversations provide further insight into the key concepts of responsibility, transcendence, holiness, and the hostage for understanding Levinas’s notion of ethics as first philosophy. As Levinas and Saint Cheron discuss a variety of topics — death and time in the philosophies of Heidegger and Bergson, eros and the feminine, the Judeo-Christian dialogue, Levinas’s differences of thought with Paul Ricœur, reflections on the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising and the “end of history” with the fall of Western Communism — we can clearly see Levinas’s ceaseless engagement with the justification for living after such horrors as those of Auschwitz, Hiroshima, Stalinism, Cambodia, or Rwanda. Continue reading
Yesterday I mentioned Levinas’s impression of the Davos dispute from an interview with Francois Poire (it can be found in Is it Righteous to Be? Interviews with Levinas, 33ff). In that same interview, here’s Levinas describing the play put on by the students in which he played Cassirer:
At that time I had an abdundance of black hair; we put a lot of white power on my hair in order to evoke the noble gray head of the master. As for Bolnow [who played Heidegger]…I furnished him with the reply which to me seemed to caricture the eymological findings of Heidegger: “Because interpreting means to put a thing upside down.”
Levinas is asked if people felt a “great trembling” at Davos:
Certainly! Cassirer presented an order which was going to be undone. Now one has a slanted perspective which perhaps falsifies memories. I think that Heidegger announced a world that was going to be turned over. You know who he would join three years later; one would have to have had the gift of prophesy to sense this already at Davos. I have thought for a long time–in the course of those terrible years–that I had felt it then, in spite of my enthusiasms. The value judgments of them have necessarily changed over time. And during the Hitler years I reproached myself for having preferred Heidegger at Davos. Continue reading
Ok, dusting off my Levinas books! In a comment to a post on some thoughts her talk about the Midrashic impulse triggered for me, Monica writes:
His [Levinas] 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.
This is an interesting (and accurate in my view) comment. Talmudic study, according to Levinas, is an awakening of language to what perpetually exceeds its reach, drawing reading and writing into a mode of infinition, of constitutive incompletion. The translation of Talmudic study into practice starts with the assumption that there is nothing that cannot be expressed in a community defined by its willingness to communicate and disagree, except the name of God. Continue reading