vrijdag 30 mei 2008

Levinas and May '68

With the fact that the other, my neighbour, is also the third in relation to another, neighbour in his turn, thinking, consciousness, justice and philosophy come into being.

It must have been Levinas’ confrontations with politics that brought him to such an appreciation of the institutionalized crystallizations of thought. First of all the experience of the Russian Revolution which in 1917 he witnessed in the Ukraine. But most of all his fate as a Jew during the Second World War is important. It was brought home to him what it means when the constitutional state cannot garantee anymore the rights of its members and one is delivered to rightlessness.

If you so much cherishes the institutions of the constitutional state – political authority, jurisdiction, universities – what will you do when, as a professor, you are being confronted with revolting students? That’s what happened to Levinas when in 1968 he gave his lectures on Hegel for beginners and Husserl for advanced students in Nanterre.

What did he do? He kept out of it as much as possible. He did not disapprove of the events openly, for he found enough heart-warming messianism in the marxist slogans. But he did not want to play any role in the protests, in contrast to for example his collegue Ricoeur. He fled the riots: when the university was open he would accurately give his lectures and when not he would not be around.

He actually was overtly indignant at the lack of respect for authority and about the use of violence. One could see him walk with firm steps through the university corridors, grumbling about the teared curtains and the graffittied walls. In those scenes he appeared as the authority-abiding personality he used to be, attached to hierarchy and order. Which will have had to do not just with his political experiences but also with his character.

But on a deeper level he must have recognized the totalitarian tendencies that took the marxist students in its grip. Already for decennia the danger of totalitarianism was one of Levinas’ themes. And as early he had been in pointing out that danger in the bourgois societies of the thirties, as alert he was in discovering it with the rebellious students. So he writes:

In the flashing outbursts at certain privileged moments in 1968 – which were soon extinguished by exactly the same conformistic use of language and the same rubbish as they were supposed to replace – being young consisted in rebelling against a world that others dismissed already for a long time.

Also Levinas had his critical and angry moods. But things had to remain intact.