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Levinas' Challenge to the Modern European Identity: Part 3
by Dr. Emanuel Paparella
2007-05-29 09:59:54
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In mytho-poetic language, it’s as if Lévinas were to come face-to-face with the goddess Europa, as she is being abducted by a black bull (Zeus in disguise), to journey to another shore, there to assume a different persona, and he were to ask her, “Europa quo vadis?” after warning her to remember her original identity: “nosce te ipsum”; which is to say, go back to the future and know yourself holistically: know your Greco-Roman origins, yes, but also the Biblical tradition (the foundation for Christianity), the Christian heritage, the Humanistic synthesis of Graeco-Roman and Christian civilizations, Celtic and Germanic cultures with their ideas of freedom, the universalizing Enlightenment rooted in the democratic-scientific tradition born in ancient Greece, the Islamic influences. Voltaire and Descartes yes, but Vico and Novalis too are part of your identity. Your unity will be a chimera if it is only a unity of a bank and neglects its spiritual elements.

Undoubtedly this hermeneutics, or re-interpretation of the Cartesian ego, placing at its core an non-refusable responsibility for the other without granting the ego any time to think it over and choose, so to speak, challenges some of the most basic assumptions of modern, and in some way classical, rationalistic philosophy. Not since the times of Mamonides in the 13th century had a Jew dared such a fundamental challenge from within the Western philosophical tradition. It is the challenge of Paul to Greek culture revisited. For indeed Lévinas is saying nothing short of this: the knowing ego does not exhaust what it means to be human. Some have called his philosophy one of “ethical subjectivity,” as a way of dismissing it as the raving of a lunatic, just as the ancient Greeks dismissed Paul in the agora. For the serious reader, however, it is rather a re-definition of subjectivity face to face with a totalizing kind of Cartesian reflection.

While Lévinas does not write directly about the Holocaust, other thinkers, who influenced Lévinas, were nevertheless reflecting upon the philosophical implications of this dark event of human history. One such was Berel Lang who wrote an essay titled “Genocide and Kant’s Enlightenment,” which appeared in his Act and Idea in the Nazi Genocide. In this essay Lang uncovers certain lines of affinity between some classical aspects of Enlightenment thought, and the Nazi genocide. His conclusion is that there are two important aspects of the Enlightenment that formed the intellectual heritage, which needed to be in place, for genocide to occur in the heart of civilized Europe: namely, the universalization of rational ideals, and the redefinition of the individual human being in terms of its possessing or not such a universal rationality. The genocide, Lang argues, was aimed at those groups who stuck to their own ancient pre-Enlightenment sources of particularistic identity, considered “irrational.” Hence the racial laws and racial exclusion were expression of ingrained Enlightenment prejudices. Which is to say, the Enlightenment sheds light on everything except itself; it remains to be enlightened.

This powerful essay leads many cultural anthropologists comparing civilizations, to begin to wonder: which, in the final analysis, is more obscurantist: religious fanaticism and fundamentalism, or a so called “enlightened” era throwing out the window the baby with the bathwater and arrogantly refusing any suggestion that it ought to enlighten itself, and not with its own light?

This conjures up that terrible face to face encounter of Dante with the poet Bertrand Del Bornio in a cave in hell doing “light to himself” with its own decapitated head. There we have reason eating its own tail; internal logical thinking and assuming the grammar of lunacy. I dare say that such a question has not been satisfactorily answered yet. In that question lies the challenge of Lévinas’ philosophy: in its displacing of the centrality of Cartesian thinking within modernity, in order to re-center it around ethics: the face-to-face encounter with another human being which is always hopeful unless it occurs in hell.


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Sand2007-05-29 11:02:50
It is bitterly ironic that this academic romantic Luddite decries the revolution in technology that permits him and almost any other individual to express themselves across the world as somehow having their individuality assaulted by the very articulation granted it by advancing technology.

He exalts Nazism with having the intellectual validity to philosophically confront the philosophic cohesion of pre-rational concepts when the raw fact is that the Nazis utilized any convenient cohesive minority as a scapegoat to focus the original anger of the German public at the injustices they felt as the result of the Versailles Treaty. The gypsies and at end, homosexuals, also served the purpose but were less rewarding in both numbers and potential loot to satisfy the thugs in charge for power and thievery. And, due to Christianity , the Jews were a prime victim since the propaganda of the church had centuries of history to re-enforce the vicious insanity of the Jews being “Christ killers” when it was the praised Romans with their “democratic heritage” who were the enforcers in the matter.

Scoundrelism has a long history in both political and religious regimes and is very evident in the activities of the majority of governments and religions today who profess loudly their kindness towards humanity and for its freedom while vigorously butchering people by the millions and undermining whatever freedoms might still prevail to limit the greed of the powerful.

Nostalgia for imaginary nonsense is no cure for this mess.

quidnunc2007-05-30 09:21:29
To whom is that comment directed at? Heidegger?

Sand2007-05-30 09:53:12
No. To Paparella who disdains the potentials accorded the world by technology in his love affair with the romantic idiocy of naive mythology. The ancient gods were replete with vicious callow callousness in congruence with the social orders that created them to exemplify their ideals of male dominance and macho delight in the viciousness of combat. It is noteworthy that the bestial rapes are carried off by the male gods. I have not seen any tales of Aphrodite becoming some type of animal to sexually inflict herself upon some helpless mortal male.

Erica2008-04-30 20:48:49
It seems that Sand has misread Paparella, prompting quidnunc to ask whether these comments are directed to Paparella or Heidegger. Far from "exalting Nazism", Paparella is here using Levinas' thought to denounce the "universalization of rational ideals" that allowed Nazism to emerge and mass genocide of "the other" to occur. As Paparella critically admonishes him for in an earlier installment of this essay, it was Heidegger who heard echoes of "the voice of being" in Hitler’s speeches and joined the Nazi party for a time. One must read the whole essay with one’s presuppositions in check in order to not miss the fundamental point.

Sand also writes: "I have not seen any tales of Aphrodite becoming some type of animal to sexually inflict herself upon some helpless mortal male." No, but Aphrodite did disguise herself as a mortal maiden to seduce the shepherd boy Anchises. When she revealed her true nature to Anchises after their encounter, Aphrodite warned that if he told anyone of their affair, Zeus would strike him down with a thunderbolt. Even in the admittedly misogynistic mythology of ancient Greece, goddesses too had their way of using deceit and "vicious callow callousness" to best their sexual conquests. I don’t see how this is directly related to Paparella’s metaphoric use of mythology in this essay though.

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