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Rossitsa Borkowski


Abstract: Drawing on Emanuel Levinas’ metaphysical ethics, this article offers a model of the relations between agents involved in the literary process. The text explores how the value of literary writing changes from impossible responsibility to impossible irresponsibility after a writer experiences the encounter with a singular Other. I take the Other as the one who encounters the writer face-to-face before writing, disturbs her/him and questions her/his existence in imperative. To this extra-literary figure, a corporeal Other, whose mortality the writer witnesses at any instant, s/he (the writer) struggles to respond "Here I am for You", but is doomed to fail. Still s/he writes. The reader in my interpretation is the Third, or the one who justifies both the writer’s failure and response.



I. Before the Encounter: the impossible responsibility of art
II. The Encounter: Interruption and Trace
III. After the Encounter: from the Other through Self/Subject back to the Other
IV. The Third: the Reader’s two avocations



In this text I suggest that literary writing as poiesis is a subject first to ethical, and then to philosophical (literary) criticism. I draw on Emmanuel Levinas’ thesis, "Ethics is before reason, it is first philosophy" and his notions of Other, Same and Third. I attempt to rethink (and question) Levinas’ own aesthetic positions as presented in his essay "Reality and Its Shadow" (1948) and spread to other texts, including his two main works Totality and Infinity (1961) and Otherwise Than Being or Beyond Essence (1974). The argument is aporetic, for in his essay Levinas denies the art experience (producing and perceiving) sense of responsibility and initial ethical significance, while I contend, based on Levinas’ subsequent texts, that it is impossible for true literary experience to be ethically irresponsible. I first suggest a distinction between ethical and philosophical (literary) criticism through Levinas’ terminology. Then I attempt to design an ethical literary model exploring the relations between four agents. These are the writer (Self/Subject) and his Other, and the reader (Third) and his Other. Let me first very quickly clarify this seemingly confusing terminology.

According to Levinas, "I" lives in the world (exteriority) as Ego, separating itself from world’s totality and in the same time identifying itself as the center of its own world (interiority). Experience and knowledge for the Ego are in terms of grasping and understanding, thus assimilating the unknowable exteriority and expanding the boundaries of interiority. However, Levinas insists, in this process is not the Ego that renews itself but the exteriority is reduced to the Ego. Therefore, the Ego does not experience anything essentially new and remains the Same, hence the sense of boredom and solitude, and a vague metaphysical Desire for something else, something other than "me".

Levinas believes that only another human being, the Other could interrupt the vicious circle of the Same. The Same approaches the Other as anything else in the world and attempts to "understand" or "use" her/him, but encounters the Other’s resistance. The Other always escapes the images and frames in which the reason and habits of the Same design. This situation shakes the stability of Same’s world and questions her/his power. At this point Levinas announces the ethical significance of encountering the Other. The Same undergoes profound transformation and "will never be the Same"; she/he becomes a Subject, that is subjected to the Other.

Although the event of encountering the Other must be face-to-face, it does not have phenomenological or ontological character, but pure metaphysical. The expression of the Other’s face is the first language, and it is the command "Thou shalt not kill!" to which the Subject cannot avoid responding. Even the refusal to respond secured with palliative excuses "I did not hear you", "I did not understand you", all these are also responses (although being responses of irresponsibility). The presence of the Other establishes asymmetrical multidimensional relationship between the Other and the Subject. The Other is incomparable, injusticiable, always higher than the Subject, who is always responsible and never responsible enough. In this "world of two", judgment is excluded. The question then is "Is the Subject not reduced to the Other?"

The negative answer comes from Levinas’ claim "The third party looks at me in the eyes of the Other" (Levinas 1991: 213). The meaning of the Third is that she/he is also a human being; another person other next to my Other, or every other, my neighbor, the community, the society, human totality. The presence of the Third reestablishes the ontological order of the world, where the Subject now has to obey rules, respect institutions, make choices, and judge thus betraying or doing injustice to some-Other. However, this ontological order would never be the same as before encountering the Other, who incessantly awakens the Subject. The purpose of introducing the Third is not to restore justice after injustice, but to found justice and reason (and critic) on concrete human basis, not conceptual, categorical, and political or ideological.

How then are we to understand ethical criticism? This means, in first place to consider not the literary text, i.e. how and what a writer wrote, but to whom. The question seems trivial and unnecessary, in light of the widely-accepted view that the writer writes to/for the reader. I believe the answer is not so obvious. It is true that these two figures constitute the intimate society directly involved in literature; they are, so to speak, the human material of flesh and blood of literature. Or, using Levinas’ terminology, the writer and the reader are related one to another like Subject and Other, the Little Prince and his Rose.

But maybe we should give up this seemingly very plausible configuration, if we are to follow Levinas’ strict requirement for direct (sensory-ontological) contact between Subject and Other. In other words, the writer and the reader never encounter each other face-to-face. The text is always between them; and as a third element of its own right (detached) and fixed (unchanging) ontological presence, it attracts the attention of critics.

What is then the relation between the writer and the reader, these two intangibles (or rather indirect and imaginary tangible) figures, which one by one watch over the corpse of time locked in the coffin of a book? The answer I propose, disturbs the peace of this peculiar intimate mourning, and introduces in literature, again following Levinas’ ethical terminology, another figure of flesh and blood, namely the Third. Thus, the answer to the question "What are to each other writer and reader?" is: "They are as the Subject to Third."

This perspective, I believe, opens a possibility to distinguish between ethical (metaphysical) and moral-philosophical (ontological) criticism, and the first gives the ‘height’ from which to consider the second (Levinas 1972: 100). One of the first questions of ethical criticism would be to detect in the text the presence/absence of the trace of the Other.

But who then would be the Other? Like Marcel Proust’s Albertine (Levinas 1996: 99-106), the Other is a non-literary figure, always missing from the literary space, but leaving traces and haunting it. It is this Other who ‘humanizes’ art, rather than the philosophical critic, as Levinas posits in his essay "Reality and its Shadow" (Levinas 1948), because the Other deponently not only pulls the text within and beyond reality and time, but also justifies the otherwise solitary activities of literary figures, respectively writing and reading. Accordingly, the question "Who does the writer write for/to?" now acquires two dimensions, which have the Encounter as a central point of gravity and thrust. The first dimension is before the Encounter, when the writer is a solitary Self/Same in the search of something else/other than "me". From this point of view, we would agree with Levinas’ conclusion of the impossible responsibility of art and artist. The second dimension of the above question is after the Encounter, when the write undergoes ethical transformation. From this perspective, I argue, the notion of the impossible irresponsibility of a literary figure could be justified. Let me approach in a greater detail each of these two dimensions.


I. Before the Encounter: the impossible responsibility of art

Levinas’ positions on aesthetics are in many ways in the trace of Plato, who takes earthly reality as an imitation or reflection of the world of Ideas - a first degree away from the truth. The objects for everyday use, which are products of human activity, form a second degree of remoteness from the absolute truth. Therefore, artist (‘the poet of mimesis’), whose object of representation (imitation) is precisely those human products, produces images of a third degree away from absolute truth. The work of art is a myth, argues Levinas, and as such it is to be explained not as a symbol but symptom, and warns us: "Beware of the illusions that they can cause if their purely phantasmatic existence is taken for the meaning of the true" (Levinas 1971).

But living his earthly life and wandering among objects produced by humans, the writer is always in social relations. Sartre would say the writer is always "already in a situation", referring to the others taken together, the "big social, political, and historical picture" , and hence the writer’s commitment lies in his intention to change it (Sartre 2001). If, however, following Levinas, instead of trying to grasp the big picture, we deepen our vision, we would find that the writer, whose personality would be difficult to divide into "creator" and "simple human being", before withdrawing into his creative world, is already affected by the expression of the Other. The summon of the Other cannot be left without a response. Moreover, the writer owes his creative impulse to the Other. Nevertheless, since this effect is affective, and because transcendence cannot be not conceptualized, the writer is not always aware of the power that the expression of the Other has on him. He is therefore inclined to attribute to himself (his talent) the credit for "revealing" the truth about the world and continues to live, motivated by the desire for domination and control. I believe that the notion of the artist’s impossible responsibility that Levinas advances in "Reality and its Shadow" and which he grounds on the concepts of passivity, is related to what I will call "writing before the Encounter".

Let me sketch Levinas’ argument. Passivity of the image can be traced in four dimensions: i) completion of the work, ii) substitution / resemblance / obscurity / uselessness, iii) twisted-interest and participation, iv) rhythm. At the first dimension: the work saturates itself and its completion appears to be independent from the will of its creator. Therefore, on the one hand, Levinas emphasizes the pretension that the literary work is an "independent ontological event" and transcends reality. On the other hand, he describes the artist as a being who has no power over his own work and this liberates him from his ethical and moral obligations. Moreover, the work’s self-saturation gives the artist reason to argue that it somehow reveals some invisible truth about reality.

The second dimension of passivity is the most elementary but essentially ambiguous event of art, naming the substitution of real object with its image. The image undoes our usual connection to the real objects, which is based on understanding through concepts by being aimed at imminent action, and replaces it by a "waking dream", another form of passivity. This passivity is not a denial or lack of activity, but like the work’s completion, appears as an "independent ontological event".

The third dimension presents us with the image distorting the relationship of interest to the real object that is no longer interesting for its usefulness, but is "interesting" in the literal (etymological) sense, i.e. inter-esse, "among things". Deprived of the usefulness of real objects, the image is not "disinterested" (Kant), it is rather interesting: but in terms of participation, however, not as the involvement of a subject among things, but as a thing among other things. Thus, participation is also a form of passivity.

Fourth: musicality. Levinas defines rhythm as a common aesthetic feature, but attributes it more to the impact that the image holds on us, the impact of "transition from power to participation". Bewitched by rhythm, the subject does not fall into non-consciousness, but his mind is paralyzed by the free play of rhythm, and consciousness is steeped into anonymity and passivity.

Thus, passivity is an essential characteristic of art, and this gives Levinas a reason to argue that art is immanently irresponsible on the hither (ontological) side, and therefore should be distinguished from transcendence that is beyond the rise in the world of Plato’s ideas.

Contrary to the phenomenological understanding of the transparency of the image (Sartre), Levinas argues that through its thickness and picturesqueness the image blocks consciousness on the way to the original. Consciousness stops at it, amazed by the image’s resemblance to the original. However, resemblance doubles the reality already doubled in time’s duration.

Levinas follows Henri Bergson (1859-1941), for whom time is not related to movement in space, but is a qualitative multiplicity, and every present instant is simultaneously split into past and future, with their corresponding images in the human mind. The image of the future is "noticeable" because of its focus on imminent activities. The image of the past, in some sense already "useless", is distanced from the original and escapes our attention. It seems to "lag behind" being, as its shadow. The event of splitting and re-pairing time and reality is continous and occurs at every instant. This "split" event takes place simultaneously and loosens consciousness, disconnecting the present from its future and past and re-connecting it. In some sense, reality is always a caricature of itself; that is, our consciousness uses images that resemble the real, but are not, and it is precisely them that the artist captures and represents.

Levinas’s idea about the artistic image as doubling the already caricatured character of reality prepares the core of his analysis, namely the art as idol. Aiming at the ancient Greek statues as a recognized example of classical beauty, Levinas points their obvious pretensions to correct the imperfections of existence. However, according to him, they only contain within themselves the possibility of enchantment, and hence the "indifference or ethical cruelty". The only thing an idol approves is the plasticity of an image. It stops, freezes into an eternal duration, doomed never to move forward into time; a meanwhile in which art brings its specific "inhuman" temporality.

We would partly accept Levinas’ notion of "the poet of mimesis", which in my interpretation is "the poet before the Encounter". This poet works from a center located within himself, that is, the center of a total "I", who proclaimed himself as master of his own interiority and of the world given to him. In other words, the art of such a poet is on what Levinas calls "the hither side of existence" for the simple reason that he himself is always there.


II. The Encounter: Interruption and Trace

Levinas calls "inhumane" and "monstrous" the eternal meanwhile, in which art-time is frozen, because its illusion threatens us to miss the face-to-face Encounter with the Other, the only ethical relation. Levinas relates the notion of instant with the emergence of the existent from the anonymous being (il y a) and the event (hypostasis) of existent’s power over its own existence, through which the existent becomes "I". The instant then, according to him, is a beginning of its own, within which the solitary "I" endlessly circles. The event, or better the drama of the Encounter breaks the shell of the hypostatic instant and bestowals temporality. The face of the Other loosens "the hinges of the present" introducing the diachrony of time.

To reconstruct the Encounter between the Other and the Self qua writer is not much different than any other Encounter. Levinas points out that the Self does not initiate the Encounter. It hits the Self at once and immediately burdens her/him with insurmountable responsibility. This is not an event that happens once and forever, it rather happens within every instant. The Other persecutes the Self, as if it adheres to his skin, even before the Self realizes s/he is like a hostage of the Other. Moreover, because the face of the Other escapes any conceptualization, it questions the existence of the Self, who is now forced to justify it. The Encounter is an event dramatically oscillating between two worlds - the ontological and metaphysical. On the one hand, Levinas insists on the ontological significance of the body and flesh, i.e. the sensory-affective nature of the Encounter. However, the face is also in the trace of Infinity, and speaks "without words". Its expression has a dual character. Being mortal, naked and defenseless, it simultaneously begs and commands.

This enigmatic effect is due the emotional impact a human face has over another human being, or what Levinas calls the "interruption". The face of the Other calls the Self for not leaving him alone in the instant of her/his death, thus already ordaines and orderes: "Thou shalt not kill!" The Self has nowhere to escape and hide. S/he is forced to respond. Even silence is already a response. The answer "Here I am for You" coincides with the openness of the existence of the Self. Respons-ibility is the essence of the Encounter.

At every moment the Encounter transforms the mode "for-myself" into "for-the-Other". This is the meaning of substitution - I substitute the Other in her/his death but nobody can substitute me - not the sacrifice of Self or coalescence with the Other. The mode "for-the-Other" is proximity and distance in the same time, a vertigo-like shift of orientation. Subjectivity comes true within the responsibility. Self, as a transitional station on a road that has the Other as a point of departure and final destination, becomes an ethical Subject.


III. After2 the Encounter: from the Other-through Self/Subject-back to the Other

All of the above is valid for the writer except that, although the obsession of the proximity of the Other is "first and final discourse", for her/him is not the only one. With the response and responsibility comes language and dialogue, but there also comes the internal dialogue as well, from which writing originates. The origin of language, for Levinas, is always in the act of communicating with the Other. However, the response does not come from the intentional consciousness, which is under question itself. However, Levinas warns, it is not about to respond (nor be responsible) spontaneously and uncritically either, coming from some naive pre-consciousness. Later he suggest the term "consciousness without reflection", which describes consciousness as "both critical and spontaneous" and defines the "orientation and the one-way sense in the moral relationship" as the movement from the Other to the Self/Subject and back to the Other (Levinas 1972). Is this not precisely the state of writer’s mind when creating imaginary worlds? And if so, are we still to claim echoing Levinas’ view that the artist as Subject does not know what s/he is doing?

The present instant is constantly pushed back to the past by the next instant, so is the response the Subject gives to the Other. No more than any other Subject, a writer feels persecuted by the Other, as a hostage of the Other, and as such finds her/himself in a permanent position of responding: response that is doomed never to reach the Other. But unlike any other Subject, the writer is obsessed with the always-lagging-response. It is like the writer is subjected to an instinct to smell out the trace left behind by the Other. Thus, in a peculiar way the persecuted pursues his persecutor. In this endless effort I see the demand of ethical writing.

Does not precisely this impossibility for a synchronized "on time"-response deepen the writer’s responsibility? Is not this impossible irresponsibility her/his ethical chance? The message that the writer inweaves in her/his work, is not an expression or appeal of/for freedom and trust (Sartre), but a Response to the Other. Nothing else. Or, if it is something else, then it would not be considered ethical. Of course, Levinas would be suspicious about such a claim, on account of his general mistrust of the ethical possibilities of writing and art. However, it was Levinas in his essay on Max Pickard (Levinas 1966), who admitted that although he had never met Pickard, thanks to his letters he had ‘the impression of having seen his face … almost like evoking an apparition, but one that is strangely real’. Thus, if we accept Levinas’ notion of literary work as a stoppage of time, does it necessarily mean it is ‘inhumane’? Or, instead of likening it to a descent into the realm of shadows, are we not be able to ‘hear between the lines’ both the cry ‘Thou shalt not kill’ and the response ‘Here I am, for You’? A cry written and enclosed in a bottle and thrown into the sea of time? A future salvation left in the hands of those who will open the bottle?


IV. The Third: the Reader’s two avocations

However, being does not consist only of an intimate face-to-face-world where the Subject and the Other constitute their relation. It is the Third, visible and invisible, who peeks behind the Other and prevents the Subject to become a slave to the Other. The Third brings up the discussion of justice, for the Subject as well as for another Other. S/he represents the world of reason, society, institutions, and human totality. In other words, the Third represents the inevitability of reason and common values, who pushes the Subject to understand, describe, reflect, and judge. Thus, through the concepts of the Third and justice Levinas reverses the direction from the meta-ethical to onto-moral relations in the structures of the Logos (state, legal institutions, culture), but now through the lenses of ethics.

How does this situation apply to the "space of literature" when a writer-Subject has completed her/his literary work? Detached from the writer, the work "flies" to unknown readers, one by one, never together (otherwise they would be listeners or spectators), and carries not only the writer’s response for the Other, but also the writer’s guilt and plea to be justified for being late. From the point of view of the writer, the Reader as Third is called upon to pronounce justice. He remains outside the face-to-face relationship between the writer and her/his Other, and could be anyone who reads the text, including the writer, as far as s/he distances her/himself from it.

The notion of the Reader asThird has a double meaning. When reading "for himself" without engaging public judgment, s/he refers the text to her/his own world haunted by her/his own Other. I argue that reading is a private activity because of reader’s unique experience with the singularity of another person. From this perspective, "What the author meant to say" is a hollow question, for the reader can only feel or detect her/his own response to her/his Other.

Comparing these feelings with other books or universal concepts and then sharing the conclusions in public transforms them into criticism, and shifts his position from one of an intimate (private) ethical-Third to a moral-Third. While as ethical-Third the reader remains enclosed, un-exhibited, but always present, in the position of moral-Third s/he represents the social and moral, the rules of institutions and reason. Does the moral-Third remember his reading as ethical-Third when he later (as a moral-Third) scrutinizes the literary work as evidence of the writer’s ever-delayed response and responsibility, and justifies it by pronouncing him: Guilty?




1. This article was first written as ‘The Role of Philosophical Criticism: Ethics of Impossible Irresponsibility’, and presented at the 43rd Convention of the Northeast Modern Language Association, Rochester, New York, March 15-18, 2012. [back]

2. "After" refers to "after the Self realizes the meaning of the event of Encounter the Other." [back]




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© Rossitsa Borkowski
© E-magazine LiterNet, 28.11.2012, № 11 (156)