Levinas : For the Feminine Other

LEVINAS : FOR THE FEMININE OTHER

Introduction

Emmanuel Levinas is not a philosopher of love. The Lithuanian-born, French Jewish thinker gave birth to a rather substantial œuvre, writing for nearly seventy years on a variety of themes and questions. If love appears in the prose of Levinas, including in his two major works, Totality and Infinity (1961) and Otherwise Than Being (1974), it is not as a topic in itself, but for the role it would play in the larger discussion that the author wanted to undertake. In fact, love, and its correlated notions of eros, concupiscence, etc. appear early on, from the first of Levinas’ properly creative works (for about two decades, Levinas had dedicated his time to explanatory commentaries on, and translations of, the fathers of phenomenology, Edmund Husserl and Martin Heidegger). Thus, in Existents and Existence (1947) and Time and the Other (1948), the solitary character of human existence, its separation, is already set for Levinas, and romantic love seems, through the bodily experience of the erotic, as a possible escape from the subject’s own self. His two magnum opuses, thirteen and twenty-six years later, would present two thoroughly revised accounts of love and eros. In Totality and Infinity, love is precisely seen as the main illusion of one’s hope for self-transcendence, but it is valuable inasmuch it is the medium towards fecundity, which is the final, valid phenomenon guaranteeing the cohabitation of self and same between the father and the son. In Otherwise Than Being, romantic love is still on the side of philosophical illusions, but it is necessary, and used, as a means to reach the “higher” level of love that will create the sense of justice in human society.

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Levinas’s prose, intentionally poetic in style, carries the climate of an almost spiritual discussion. Levinas’s words have a certain aura, a sense of solemnity, the impression of a profundity that one would only find in sacred texts. Inherently, there is a sort of timeless beauty and depth visible from the first sight, in the texts of Levinas. But is it the charm of a benevolent figure, or is it the persuasive argumentation of a partisan?

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Levinas’s prose, intentionally poetic in style, carries the climate of an almost spiritual discussion. Levinas’s words have a certain aura, a sense of solemnity, the impression of a profundity that one would only find in sacred texts. Inherently, there is a sort of timeless beauty and depth visible from the first sight, in the texts of Levinas. But is it the charm of a benevolent figure, or is it the persuasive argumentation of a partisan? Historical conjuncture has permitted a fortunate encounter: Totality and Infinity would appear by the time of the early years of second wave feminism. While the book interested no publisher in France, and would remain broadly unknown for at least a decade, some of the early commentators of Levinas would be feminist authors such as Simone de Beauvoir and Luce Irigaray. Their reaction would be the most legitimate: anyone coming across Levinas’s early words on love could discover surprisingly reductive comments on women, the feminine and feminity. It would appear as if patriarchal and misogynistic reflexes had found their way even through the thoughts of a philosopher who seemed at first so inspired towards an ethics acknowledging and respecting differences, and placing the self’s responsibility towards the Other as infinite. But, just like sacred texts, Levinas’s books are not easily decipherable pieces. Levinas announces, from the beginning of Totality and Infinity and other works, that his reflection is one bereft of, and one even militantly opposed to, what he called “formal logic,” not far from what Jacques Derrida would call, a few years later, as the logocentrism of western philosophy. In other words, Levinas’s work is meant as anything but a system, and the content carried in words and expressions are meant to activate emotional recognitions in the reader, and not just classical theoretical concepts. The words of Levinas, therefore, rarely mean what we would generally associate them with. This may set the feminist critiques of Levinas back in perspective.

It is this tension between Levinas and feminist commentators, which I shall try to explore in this essay. Behind the scholarly discussion, the stakes of this question is the place of concerns of genders in a contemporary, and otherwise incredibly seductive theory of ethics. Should one gender be necessarily ‘sacrificed’ in the construction of an understanding of ethics? But, if not, how much can we invest ourselves in pretensions of universal equality and sameness between the genders? Would not that be denying fundamental differences? In other words: can we acknowledge the genders and their differences without, by the same, forming a new hierarchy? This is, I believe, the underlying challenge that this historical debate represents. I shall initiate this exploration by looking at the main arguments of the feminist commentators criticizing Levinas’s approach to the feminine. This commentarial literature is now profuse; I will focus on early responses by major figures of feminism, and one later account. In the second stage of this reflection, I will look at later feminist defences of Levinas regarding his potentially controversial statements. This process will be completed by the study of one recent and very surprising commentary on the question, which undeniably transforms the problem and opens up to many new possibilities.

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References

Image courtesy: Aaron Logan

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