dinsdag 12 mei 2009

A real shame

How frustrated can you become by reading Levinas?

Rather much, I would say, when sometimes I hear the negative reactions to the ‘Philosopher of the Other’. Those reactions remind me of the resentment that some people inherited from their Christian upbringing. They have experienced that education as demanding, inimical to life and unrealistic, and they don’t want to have anything to do with it anymore. When the importance Levinas attibutes to our confrontation with someone else becomes a similar burden, then it is quite natural that his work will easily be pushed aside as unrealistic. And that would be a real shame.

The tendency to present Levinas in absolute terms is clearly visible. Recently for instance that happened on the occasion of the opening of a health care centre in Rotterdam which is dedicated to Levinas. One of the initiators told on that occasion that the centre takes the unconditional responsibility for the other as a point of departure.

But how realistic is it really to depart from a permanent, absolute responsibility for (every?) other? I think that such a startingpoint doesn’t help us any further. It saddles us with an impossible mission and easily becomes moralistic. This kind of Levinas interpretation (to which – it must be said – he himself contributed in his later work) makes his work irrelevant. By talking in permanent, absolute terms a simplification is made: the real puzzle is taken from sight. Namely: the absurdity that, in a world in which everything is relative, all of a sudden something may appear which doesn’t tolerate relativizing.

But of course, nobody is obliged to interpret Levinas as is being done in the above mentioned startingpoint. Another possible interpretation comes to the fore when some Levinas readers stress the existence of the third: apart from the other with whom I have a compelling encounter, there are others who may claim me equally. As I cannot do ten things at a time, the claim of the one other restricts the claim of the other other. In this way the absolute is being relativized and social acting can again become a matter of calculation at last.

But I don’t like this solution either. I think this way of reasoning takes away Levinas’ unique contribution to the moral debate: the urge which originates from the compelling other. To keep Levinas interesting one has to take seriously the urgency which he connects to the face of the other, as well as the experience that everything is relative within a rationally ordered whole.

This position leads up to an impossible but at the same time very true combination of words: relative absoluteness. It’s difficult to phrase the paradox which this combination contains. It is especially the young Levinas who knows to present this paradox in a convincing way. He manages to show that the steadily crawling time with its balances of interests once of a sudden can be broken through by the absoluteness of death or by the Other. To result consequently in a situation of a new, relativizing balance of interests which in its turn undoubtedly will be broken.

This sounds realistically. So Levinas does not have to be more burdening than reality itself.

See also Emergency Shelter and Levinas and egoism