Michael L. Morgan (Ed.): The Oxford Handbook of Levinas

The Oxford Handbook of Levinas Book Cover The Oxford Handbook of Levinas
Michael L. Morgan (Ed.)
Oxford University Press
2019
Hardback £125.00
880

Reviewed by: Tyler Correia (York University, Canada)

The Oxford Handbook of Levinas provides another key step on the way to entrenching the possibility of continued scholarship on the rich thought of philosopher Emmanuel Levinas, as well as providing an accessible entry-point into the ever-growing body of commentary on his works. Although at times the structure of the handbook makes gestures toward necessary contributions that are currently absent, both in outlining the field of Levinas’s influences or interlocutors, and in terms of key engagements with contemporary concerns, it has also amassed an exciting range of discussions from a diverse array of scholars. Contributions are well-researched, insightful, and make Levinas’s notoriously difficult thought comprehensible and intriguing. Further, certain departures with conventions of reference texts in the composition of contributions—he articles being of comparable length to those of scholarly journal’s—creates space not only for informative but critical treatments, as well as facilitating dialogue and challenge.

The editor, Michael L. Morgan is a prolific scholar in his own right in Jewish studies and on Levinas specifically. He has authored other introductory texts including Discovering Levinas (2007), The Cambridge Introduction to Emmanuel Levinas (2011), and recently published on his ethico-political thought and practice in Levinas’s Ethical Politics (2016).

There are certainly benefits to a handbook both of this magnitude and this breadth. The text is a nearly nine hundred page collection of thirty-eight entries, including contributions from notable Levinas scholars such as Robert Bernasconi, political philosopher Annabel Herzog, Levinas translator Bettina Bergo and editor of The Levinas Reader (2001) Seán Hand. Also certainly, a text of this kind provides a crucial opportunity for a multiplicity of scholars of varied backgrounds to contribute—scholars of history, religion, philosophy, ethics, politics, classics and art, who contextualize Levinas’ expansive works and biography through critical, interpersonal, dialogical, feminist, hermeneutic, theological frameworks. It is divided into six section with entries on a wide range of topics and themes by which one could enter into scholarship: covering Levinas’ life and influences, key philosophical themes, religious thought, ethics, and critical assessments of his work.

One of the potential drawbacks of a ‘handbook’—and consistent with all genres of reference texts more broadly—is the prefiguration of a conversation as one in which specialists communicate information to non-specialists, rather than opening the possibility of dialogue and interpretation. The pragmatic context of a ‘handbook’ still makes it unlikely that professional scholars will refer to this text as an entry-point into key controversies and as a site of engagement even over more specific collected volumes. A text like this, then, fills the space of a general reference and guide into the multiplicity of avenues that Levinas’ thought might open, and in its capacity as a general reference book it does well, even though it is competing with a number of more specific works on Levinas—whether reference volumes, essay collections or single-author monographs—that are also available for Anglophone scholars with an equally wide breadth; works on Levinas’ engagements with Martin Buber and other Jewish thinkers, with Asian thought and with ancient philosophy, on Levinas’ contributions to hermeneutics and theological exegesis, a swath of texts on Levinas’ ethics, on his interlocutions with poststructuralist and deconstructive thought, and texts that (re)situate and seek for his ethics to speak to their own and our socio-political contexts. In this way, a reference text of this sort helps best to locate oneself in relation to a veritable library of Levinas scholarship, and to identify those signposts, even if often as an index to an index.

Accordingly, the handbook attests to an emerging polarization of Levinas scholarship concerned with two key conceptual constellations in his ethical thought; on responsibility and vulnerability. The former has perhaps been considered the central aspect of Levinas’s work traced to the importance of the text most often called his magnum opus, Totality and Infinity (2011 [1961]). Not merely the outline of ‘responsibilities,’ Levinas’s conceptualization of responsibility grounds his fundamental claim that ethics is first philosophy. Not just in the content of responsibility, but in the provocation or the desire (later he will call this intrigue) to respond to and respond for the Other, Levinas finds the opening of ethics as an infinitely asymmetrical relation grounded in the unconditional command to be for the Other. In its poetic force and uncompromising gesture, one’s responsibility for the Other and on their behalf is perhaps the aspect of Levinas’s work that draws most scholars to him. It also becomes the rich ground from which he rejects conventional and general  practices of philosophy as projects of securing, organizing and reorganizing both ontology and metaphysics as the totalizing structure of ‘the Same.’ Beyond the sort of A=A identity, the structure of the Same is all that operates under the heading of ‘Being’ and at the disposal of the privileged Self. Thus, where philosophy in general and phenomenology in particular meet, Levinas finds a notion of the Self within a world that they might appropriate, incorporate, or otherwise violate as if it were exclusively ‘their own.

In contrast, Levinas finds an entirely unappropriable and thus infinitely transcendent disruption of the structure of the Same in the encounter with the Other, where the face to face meeting and the very face of the Other themselves, escapes all such appropriative attempts to fix them in place within the horizon of the world of the Same. Instead, the face of the Other seems to call to the Self with a commandment, the fundamental interdiction “Thou Shalt Not Kill,” further disrupting the absolute enjoyment (jouissance) that would otherwise be the prerogative and entitlement of the Self within its own world. In place of this enjoyment is the unsatisfiable desire to be with, and be for, the Other, the ground upon which an infinite and unconditional responsibility emerges. Then, all subsequent thought is a matter of bearing out the implications of this unconditional and infinite responsibility for the Other in its applications and tensions.

Incrementally, this picture, as outlined by readings of Totality and Infinity, has expanded as more scholarship has turned toward the ‘other pole’ of Levinas’s work as represented by Otherwise than Being (2016 [1981]). No longer willing to accept the ‘Self’ as originally in a position of comfort, chez soi, or at home with oneself, Levinas reconsiders the place of the encounter with the Other as both fundamental for thought and fundamental to the very existence of the subject before subjectivity can be claimed. In the exchange of the ‘word’—even the word that proclaims ‘I am I’—the Self is less so in proximity to an unchallenging world of their own, than they are in proximity to an Other. In this most basic sense, vulnerability is the fundamentally disruptive trauma of recognizing that the self comes after an encounter with the Other (see Bergo’s chapter as well as Staehler’s). Robert Bernasconi theorizes vulnerability in two particularly interesting ways. On the one hand, he notes that responsibility operates on the subject as disruptive enough to veritably tear the subject apart, what Levinas calls dénucléation. He explains, “Dénucléation is apparently a word used to refer to the coring out that doctors perform when, for example, they remove an eyeball from its socket while leaving everything intact. Levinas used this same word to describe breathing as a dénucléation of the subject’s substantiality, albeit in this context it also has an association with transcendence” (pp. 268-69).

Although Bernasconi will motivate a reading of Levinas that prefigures the need to defend both the subject and its subjectivity, he summarizes his exploration of the notion of vulnerability that is too traumatic to ignore: “I showed that he went out of his way to say that the exposure to outrage, wounding, and persecution was an exposure to wounding in enjoyment. This is what qualifies it as a “vulnerability of the me.” It touches me in my complacency. But vulnerability extends to the trauma of accusation suffered by a hostage to the point where that hostage identifies with others, including his or her persecutors” (p. 269). He continues that this fact of vulnerability, then, is compelling enough to enact an experience of substitution in the subject, as if the subject is provoked to experience themselves as Other.

Following these considerations, I would like to make note of two particularly useful aspects of the handbook, and to applaud Morgan and the contributors for them. Firstly, some of its richest content is the contribution to an Anglo-American readership on the scope of Levinas’ writings of which we currently do not have complete access. Pieces by Sarah Hammerschlag and Seán Hand rectify this condition with stimulating discussions of his wartime notebooks and his early poetry and novel fragments respectively. Still an English-speaking public does not have access in particular to either the Carnets de captivité, nor to his wartime literary works in Éros, littérature et philosophie, both of which were recently posthumously published in French.[i] With Hammerschlag’s survey of Levinas’s wartime notebooks, though, (spanning, in fact, from 1937-1950), and Hand’s reconceptualization of Levinas in light of the literary dimensions of these personal writings, they make stellar contributions to Anglophone Levinas scholarship by filling those gaps. For this alone, the handbook is already an invaluable resource for scholars of all sorts.

Secondly, the fourth section of the handbook, dedicated to applications of Levinas’ thought beyond his own sphere is truly effervescent. Special attention should be paid to this section in its eclectic reach, where the very notion of a foundation (the presumed objective constraining any ‘handbook’ faces) opens up into a display of generative and rich ideas. Exactly where the ‘cut and dry’ necessity of a text of this kind breaks down, we are treated to an array of interventions and interpretive supplements that carry Levinas scholarship forward in great leaps. Again, Seán Hand’s resituating of Levinas’ works in light of early literary engagements is a delight, as well as Kris Sealey’s far-reaching discussion of Levinas’s contributions to critical race theory (which I will discuss further below). Moreover, not a single contribution in this section fails to illuminate and extend the possibilities of scholarship—from more traditional surveys of the possibilities of attending to philosophical thought within other domains of academic inquiry, such as psychology (David M. Goodman and Eric R. Severson), law (William H. Smith) and Levinas’ comments on war (Joshua Shaw), as well as his contributions to pedagogy (Claire Elise Katz), film (Colin Davis), and his use of food metaphors (Benjamin Aldes Wurgraft).

Similarly, Kevin Houser’s attempt to position Levinas across the Continental-Analytical divide is admirable. This is similar to Morgan’s attempts himself to have Levinas’ work placed in proximity to Bernard Williams, Charles Taylor, Christine Korsgaard, Stanley Cavell and others. In this piece, Houser finds Levinas speak to concerns of linguistic objectification embedded in the notion of reason as metaphysics against which he poses what he calls the ‘absolute interlocutor.’ He extends this discussion by placing him in conversation with P.F. Strawson on freedom and resentment. Houser’s claim is that “de-facing reason,” and not “reason itself as the practice of de-facing generalization,” is what is at issue in Levinas’s work. However, perhaps Houser’s reading can come off as reductive given that he seems not to be willing to take his own critical stance as far as Levinas would. That ultimately an analytical account of reason is valorized through a complementary reading of Levinas and Strawson would also be a grounding condition for the possibility of such reconciliation between reason and the face of the Other. Yet, this is something Levinas seems consistently to reject, and why Houser must work so hard to reconcile the positions in the first place; the position of reason itself with the positioning of a refusal of reason (not merely an ‘unreasonable’ or even ‘pre-rational’ stance).

Houser’s final discussion regarding the generalizability of ‘reason’—as something that is specifically not my reason, but a reason (p. 604)—bears many possibilities to build from, perhaps also anticipating a challenge to Levinas by deconstructionist linguistics. One can also imagine such a reading figuring importantly into the prefiguration of Otherwise than Being, which seems to bear out the not-yet-subject specifically in light of the pre-existence of language in the demand to speak as ‘giving reasons’ (see Baring, Coe and of course Bernasconi’s chapters). It also helps to reconcile how, for example, in Oona Eisenstadt’s chapter, she finds Levinas capable of saying that three rabbis in the Talmud—Ben Zoma, Ben Nanus and Ben Pazi—can offer three different answers to the question, “which verse contains the whole of the Torah?” where each will make a different universal claim as a manner of expanding upon the last (p. 462). Nevertheless, it would seem that the reason-and-objectivity oriented language of analytical thought does not prepare one to bear out this tension between the particular and the general in a way that is non-totalizing; it answers the question of responsibility rather than responding to it. As such, it substitutes the sphere of representational description in place of the vocative dimensions of language as address. In the end, even capturing the dialogical subject in relation to the absolute interlocutor, one is still speaking about language as if no one else is there, a sort of monological ‘dialogue,’ lest the reason they give may be contradicted. The Other seems to have faded into the background.

I would like to address, though, a potential drawback of the handbook. What is at times a lack of much needed general study of Levinas’ engagements not merely with particular thinkers—both predecessors and contemporaries, if not friends but fields of scholarship—can often leave the reader without proper orientation. No doubt, the task of presenting an exhaustive groundwork specifically for Anglo-American scholarship is at best aspirational, and to his credit, Morgan himself identifies certain oversights in the handbook that should be noted. In terms of groundworks, he rightly mentions that the handbook would have benefited from contributions that survey Levinas’s engagements with foundational Jewish thinkers from Maimonides to Buber and Rosenzweig. There is also no specific account of Levinas’s debts to Russian literature. Finally, general overviews of both Levinas’s situation within French thought broadly from the 1930s to the 60s would have been extremely helpful to orient readers, even if they still find much needed context especially in Kevin Hart’s discussion of the relationship between he and Blanchot, and Edward Baring’s account of his encounters with Derrida. This is so as well for the absence of a general account of Levinas’s predecessors ‘at large,’ although one is able to orient themselves with texts on Husserl (Bettina Bergo), Heidegger (Michael Fagenblat), as well as Platonic or Aristotelian thought (Tanja Staehler), early modern thought (Inga Römer), and the German Idealists (Martin Shuster).

There are other oversights that a large reference text is especially beholden to ensure don’t go unnoticed that we might categorize as ‘essential additions’ to these groundworks. Increasingly important is a critical appraisal of eurocentrism and colonialism. It would also be imperative to outline Levinas’ reading of the Torah on ‘Cities of Refuge,’ something only tangentially touched upon by Annabel Herzog in her daring discussion of Levinas and Zionism.  One might argue that Levinas’s statements on the State of Israel in particular are critical for understanding some of the most recent explorations of a sort of Levinasian cosmopolitanism—especially where it intersects with Jacques Derrida’s (1999) explorations on the issue (and because it would seem Derrida’s encounter with the notion of cosmopolitanism is in large part due to their relationship). This is perhaps a particularly difficult oversight to reconcile because, as Morgan notes, readers of Levinas “…are drawn to him by the centrality of his insight that our responsibilities to others are infinite. To them, Levinas is the philosopher of the dispossessed, the displaced, the refugee, the impoverished, the suffering, and the hungry. He is the spokesperson for the weak and the oppressed; his philosophy, for all its difficulty and obscurity, in the end speaks to our most humane and caring sentiments” (pp. 4-5). Unfortunately, these concrete engagements are conspicuously absent in the handbook.

Kris Sealey has the sizeable task, then, of orienting readers looking for critical responses to Levinas relating to Eurocentrism, colonialism, and theories of race and racism. In that measure, Sealey does a spectacular job finding inroads between Levinas with both critical race and postcolonial scholars including Paul Gilroy, Orlando Patterson, Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak and Michael Monahan. She also performs such an important task of bridging scholarship on critical race theory and Levinas studies by focusing her discussion on a review of literatures published in the 2012 volume of Levinas Studies contending with race, which included contributions from  Lisa Guenther, Oona Eisenstadt (also present in this handbook), John Drabinski and Simone Drichel.

Sealey’s contribution, though, may also give pause especially insofar as there remain some crucial tensions in her work with Levinas’s. Particularly, she draws her conclusions in a way that notions of race are ‘reified’ not on biological but communal and relational grounds that are perhaps difficult to square with Levinas’ statements on the ‘nudity of the face’—as much as they are in tension with Paul Gilroy’s (2000) rejection of both biological and cultural formations of ‘race.’ Sealey’s turn toward Michael Monahan seems to authorize the possibility that, “we can be against racism without being against race” (p. 653 n. 41). The statement from which this note arises is quite important, and perhaps should be quoted at length:

In an important sense, a creolizing subjectivity bears witness to her rootedness in the world, insofar as she is constituted by the ways of that world. But, as creolizing, she also bears witness to her transcending of that world, insofar as her antiracist praxis will invariably be an active contestation of the meaning of race. In other words, she is both obliged to her materiality and positioned to take a critical stance against that materiality as well. That critical stance calls for a vigilance that never ends, lest she succumbs to the inertia of a purity politics and the racist structures for which it codes. Might we not see, in this, echoes of what Levinas calls for in “The Philosophy of Hitlerism”? Is this not a recognition of incarnation (of one’s rootedness in, or entanglement with, history) without the essentialization and stagnation of biological determinism? (p. 644)

Here we might identify a key contention—the ground for what may be a generative controversy in the transposition of Levinas’ thought to an Anglo-American context. Levinas’ contention against the ideology of Hitlerism is not reducible to its relation exclusively to biologism, but speaks to a desire to escape the very notion of ‘incarnation’ itself (see Eaglestone, Fagenblat, and Giannopoulos’s chapters). Hitlerism itself is not exclusively a biologist ideology; rather it binds a notion of spirit with the materiality of the ‘body as much as it fetishizes that body as the material symbol of ‘racial purity,’ or the ‘spirit of a people,’ as an incarnation—the becoming-flesh of spirit. It’s not clear if any notion of identity, not even one proposed to be hybridized, socially and historically determined, or relational escapes this logic. One might point out how Sealey’s creolizing subject, recognizing their rootedness and transcendence, isn’t necessarily difficult, as both are already coded as positive identifiers in an unambiguous metaphysical structure, even if they contradict one another, and occlude the disruptive primacy of the Other. Being rooted—rather than being imprisoned or entangled—and transcendence—above, beyond, outside of the world—both already speak to their own ideals. But one finds in Levinas’ work instead both a potentially failed desire to escape (On Escape [2003/1982]being an aptly titled expression of this unabiding arrest in his early works), and an uneasy navigation of the rooted interior of identity.

We find further that the not merely biological implications of Hitlerist ideology entails also that—as Annabel Herzog notes of Levinas’ critical stance against the State of Israel—the entrenchment of the ‘Self’ within the soil (as in the Nazi slogan, ‘blood and soil’), and the attachment to land or territory remains also a critical site upon which Levinas rejects this manner of reification. That is, rather than being—or under the pretense that one ‘recognizes themselves to be’—rooted in their world, Levinas finds instead in political practices of justice a certain exilehood on Earth represented in the call of the Other and the asymmetrical responsibility that follows. This grounds the particularity of his claims on Judaism and often against the State of Israel (see below), even when he concedes that an otherwise uncompromising ethic needs account for survival. Thus, there remains a tension between justice and survival that is not comfortably set aside in order to commend one’s being ‘rooted in their transcendence,’ but always uneasily attested to as the disruptive and traumatic condition upon which a foundational ethics preceding ontology, an ‘ethics without ground’ which refuses to appeal to the world and the comfort of being rooted in it is asserted.

We might fashion two contrapuntal examples of scholarship that refuse these dynamics in the extremely careful readings offered by Annabel Herzog on Levinas’s relation to Zionism and Cynthia Coe’s feminist analysis of his works. Herzog has quite admirably explored a controversy well beyond even the scope of the academy by contending squarely with Levinas’s writings on Zionism in relation to his conceptions of ethics and politics. Even in the form of her analysis we can see a principled refusal to allow her representation of him to be anything other than embroiled in a complex set of concerns, where she presents first his defense, and then his criticism of the State of Israel. Of the former, it would seem that Levinas finds in the State of Israel the every-present possibility—a particularist possibility for Judaism—for the concrete actualization of his ethical ideal as justice. Such a state could make an ethic of dialogical solidarity, refusal of violence, and refuge for the Other practically real. It is also one that merges these ideals with the enduring need for survival following the Holocaust. Perhaps this rendering bears similarities to Sealey’s account of a creolizing subject.

On the other hand, though, the State of Israel is also always in a position to reject or neglect these ideals; where notions of space and place are re-instituted in the territory, in the very soil, or where the Other is banished from that territory. This is much like Sealey’s comment that valorizations of the logic of ‘race’ demands constant vigilance lest one find themselves once again under the inertia, and in the realm of a politics of purity. Herzog cites a telling instance in which Levinas refused to leave the tour bus while attending a conference on Martin Buber after hearing that Bedouin communities in Be’er-Sheva were required to burn their tents to be eligible to receive stone houses from the government (p. 478).[ii] She follows this tension up until the events of the First Lebanon War, and the Sabra and Shatila massacres in 1982 when his statements on the matter of Israel become dispersed and infrequent, even if he does not waver in his defense by the time of his 1986 interview with Francois Poirié. It would seem, in this case, that the vigilance Sealey advises, and the enduring possibility of ‘purity politics’ reemerging finds a real example in Levinas’s subsequent silence. But leaving this possibility open seems already to speak to the need to refuse attenuation of a Levinasian ethic in the first place both in practice, and in the theoretical refusal of ‘rootedness’ or ‘incarnation.’

Cynthia Coe’s reading of Levinas is equally nuanced in its ability to balance a careful analysis of his works with an unwavering commitment to feminist scholarship. This is so even where she marks a delineation between—and within—texts of his that represent heterocentric and masculinist presumptions in his philosophy, and where concepts and arguments are coded in gendered language, while also being potentially capable of disrupting those structures. Particularly early Levinas (as Simone de Beauvoir attests regarding Time and the Other) seems to find ground for a narrative framework where a masculine protagonist is compelled to depart from totality. He does so by situating him in the dichotomy of a conception of the feminine as inessential and inabsolute alterity to a totalizing and interiorized masculine counterpart.

However, in this, and especially in her reading of Otherwise than Being, there remains a seed from which the disruption of this framework is enacted or can be enacted. Firstly, the reversal of values in Levinas’s work—rejecting totality in favour of a more ambiguous infinity, and subsequently masculinity for the feminine—begins this process, if in a way that remains deeply flawed. Secondly, Levinas’s subject is increasingly characterized, even by the time of Totality and Infinity, by events and experiences that are wildly outside of their control, not least of which is the face to face encounter with the Other. Thus, the notion of a masculine subjectivity ‘always in control’ is undone by their vulnerability to the Other. Finally, in Otherwise than Being, Levinas begins with the incomplete subject, one who is subjected to a responsibility primordial to themselves, before themselves as a traumatic disruption Coe also terms vulnerability. As well, she finds in Levinas (without romanticizing) the possibility that a mother might pass away in childbirth to be an expression of vulnerability which demands one reckons with a responsibility that interrupts their self-possession. This, by the way, is rendered also in Giannopolous’s discussion of Levinas and transcendence in terms of ‘paternity’; where one—coded as the ‘father’ in this case—must reckon with the birth of their child as “a way of being other while being oneself” (p. 230).[iii]

Potential tensions one might identify in one or another contribution are perhaps another way of branching some key difficulties the handbook faces on a structural level with its own self-contextualization. Morgan identifies the handbook as being a resource specifically for Anglo-American scholarship on Levinas—perhaps because in English-speaking contexts globally, or in the European context, Anglophone philosophy is already in proximity to Francophone and multi-lingual continental thought to ignore it. However, the reductive potential of such a translation—not merely into an English idiom, but into an Anglo-American one—seems to allow the possibility that conclusions like Housers’s which valorize rather than critique a notion of reason, and Sealey’s which affirms rather than contending with the logical structures of race, find little response in other places in the handbook. Morgan should be lauded for gathering together a diverse array of scholars from many backgrounds, even when he already notes that most are located in North America. It is also, perhaps, not feasible to engage a global scope of scholarship for a project like this. However, the implications of a foundational reference-work bearing such absences are reflected in the non-universal dialogue that manifests itself within its pages.

Even with these problems in view, there is no doubt that The Oxford Handbook of Levinas makes an important contribution to scholarship in the diversity and richness of its philosophical engagements, and in the explorations and controversies attested to. If it is any indication, studies of the profound works of Emmanuel Levinas are likely to continue, and perhaps even to expand in new and unforeseen ways. If so, this handbook will stand as a testament and signpost for all those looking to enter the field.

References

Derrida, Jacques. 1999. Adieu to Emmanuel Levinas. Translated by Pascale-Anne Brault and Michael Naas. Stanford, Calif: Stanford University Press.

Gilroy, Paul. 2000. Against Race: Imagining Political Culture Beyond the Color Line. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.

Levinas, Emmanuel. 2003. On Escape. Translated by Bettina Bergo. Stanford: Stanford University Press.

———. 2009. Carnets de captivité suivi de Écrits sur la captivité et Notes philosophiques diverses. Edited by Rodolphe Calin and Catherine Chalier. Paris: Éditions Grasset et Fasquelle, IMEC Éditeur.

———. 2011. Parole et silence, Et autres conferences inédites. Edited by Rodolphe Calin et Catherine Chalier. Paris: Éditions Grasset et Fasquelle, IMEC Éditeur.

———. 2011 [1961]. Totality and Infinity: An Essay on Exteriority. Translated by Alphonso Lingis. Pittsburgh: Duquesne University Press.

———. 2013. Éros, littérature et philosophie: Essais romanesques et poétiques, notes philosophiques sur le thème d’éros, Edited by Jean-Luc Nancy and Danielle Cohen-Levinas. Paris: Éditions Grasset et Fasquelle, IMEC Éditeur.

———. 2016 [1981]. Otherwise than Being, or Beyond Essence. Translated by Alphonso Lingis. Pittsburgh: Duquesne University Press.

Malka, Salomon. 2006. Emmanuel Levinas: His Life and Legacy. Translated by Michael Kigel and Sonia M. Embree. Pittsburgh: Duquesne University Press.

Morgan, Michael L. 2007. Discovering Levinas (2007). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

———. 2011. The Cambridge Introduction to Emmanuel Levinas. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

———. 2016. Levinas’s Ethical Politics. Bloomington: Indiana University Press

Morgan, Michael L. ed. 2019. Oxford Handbook of Levinas. Oxford University Press.


[i] Emmanuel Levinas, 2009, Carnets de captivité suivi de Écrits sur la captivité et Notes philosophiques diverses, ed. Rodolphe Calin and Catherine Chalier, (Paris: Éditions Grasset et Fasquelle, IMEC Éditeur). Emmanuel Levinas, 2013, Éros, littérature et philosophie: Essais romanesques et poétiques, notes philosophiques sur le thème d’éros, ed. Jean-Luc Nancy and Danielle Cohen-Levinas, (Paris: Éditions Grasset et Fasquelle, IMEC Éditeur). These two texts were issued as part of a (currently) three-part collection by publishing house, Éditions Grasset, of the complete works of Levinas. The other volume gathers early lectures given at the invitation of jean Wahl to the Collège Philosophique. See: Emmanuel Levinas, 2011, Parole et silence, Et autres conferences inédites, ed. Rodolphe Calin et Catherine Chalier, (Paris: Éditions Grasset et Fasquelle, IMEC Éditeur).

[ii] This anecdote was quoted from: Salomon Malka, 2006, Emmanuel Levinas: His Life and Legacy, trans. Michael Kigel and Sonia M. Embree, (Pittsburgh: Duquesne University Press): p. 217.

[iii] The passage is a quotation from: Emmanuel Levinas, 1969, Totality and Infinity, trans. Alphonso Lingis, (Pittsburgh: Duquesne University Press): p. 282.

Theodor W. Adorno: Notes to Literature: Combined Edition

Notes to Literature (Combined Edition) Book Cover Notes to Literature (Combined Edition)
Theodor W. Adorno. Edited by Rolf Tiedemann. Translated by Shierry Weber Nicholson. With a new introduction by Paul Kottman
Columbia University Press
2019
Hardback $120.00 £100.00
544

Reviewed by: Richard J. Elliott (Birkbeck College, University of London)

 Adorno’s Critique of Aesthetic Intentionalism & its Limits

 

A prominent yet understudied feature that permeates Adorno’s aesthetics is a critique of intentionalism. In this review essay, I will look at this critique and one manifestation of it, as it appears in his Notes to Literature.

Previously published in two volumes, Columbia University Press have for the first time combined Adorno’s Notes to Literature in a single work, translated into English.  The scope of topics Adorno treats is broad, and reading is often difficult but frequently rewarding. Topics span from epic poetry, to Dickens, the free use of punctuation and its ramifications, reviews of individual texts, to more general methodologically loaded tracts on the status of art or particular aesthetic traditions. This is not exhaustive by any measure. As such, a sufficient characterization of this wealth of topics treated by Adorno in the short space available to review would be exceedingly challenging, likely impossible. Instead, I will restrict the focus of this review to a common feature across many of Adorno’s treatments of these topics: his rejection of intentionalism in aesthetics, in this instance, authorial intentionalism in literary works. This rejection appears to some degree in many if not all of the essays within the two volumes. It also looms large in Adorno’s aesthetic theory more broadly. However, it is usefully illustrated by means of a particular formally derived critique Adorno offers, about subject-driven exposition of narrative as an authentic and autonomous force in literary works. I will also argue that Notes to Literature aides in demonstrating an internal limit to Adorno’s anti-intentionalism, as it appears in such works. This internal limit offers a qualified role for the creator of autonomous works, and some insight into the machinations of this role – these will be discussed below.

Intentionalism is the presupposition many would-be aestheticians bring to artworks. The presupposition is that the pure intention of the creator (the composer, artist, or author) is what bestows aesthetic value to such works. Notes to Literature features many instances of a prominent critique of this position, as applied to literary works. Adorno views subject-derived expositions of narratives, particularly streams of consciousness as a narrative device, as one example of formal expressions of authorial intentionalism in literature. Its widespread employment demonstrates the primacy of this intentionalism. Viewing it as an authentically expository force involves a kind of presupposition to aesthetic methodology, and to any discernment of the value to be gleaned from works. This presupposition, Adorno claims, places the individual author in a position of epistemic priority. This position is an erroneous one, as it encourages the proffering and evaluating of works without exploring the social totalities which constitute the conditions for any such individual’s presentation of aesthetic knowledge. The role of the creator for Adorno is inherently mediated within the context of such totalities. Intentionalism and its formal manifestation in subjective narrative shirks this exploration, to the detriment of the autonomous potential that literary works might possess.

One particular target of Adorno’s is a manifestation of intentionalism in a particular conception of the genius. This conception gained predominance as a particular oppositional reaction to Kantian aesthetics. Kant describes the genius as “nature giving the rule to art”, contrasting it with the notion of the single creator doing so, from some epistemically authoritative vantage point. The conception that opposes Kant broadly states that as the wellspring from which aesthetic value flows, the intention of the genius offers a model of salvation, relayed through their work. The figure of the genius, so it broadly goes, is the one who oversees the total expression of their authorial or creative intention in the work, and this successful expression of that intention is the vehicle of aesthetic value for works of art, music and literature equally. On this model, appreciation of works then occurs with reference to this value. Adorno rails against this model.  While Adorno ultimately agrees with Valéry’s claim that great art “demands the employment of all of a man’s faculties” (‘The Artist as Deputy’, 115), this is not the claim that this employment manifests the expression of the conscious intentions of the creator of that art.

Underpinning this presupposition is the wrong-headedness as Adorno sees it of aesthetic intention operating as if immediate value of a work can be transmitted, its message there to be received by an audience who can grasp it if they accept it. Here Adorno opposes an assumption shared by both Kant and those reacting to him, since they converge on the notion that this transmission can take place between agents – in Kant’s case certainly, rational ones. But operating with this kind of presupposition, Adorno thinks, is to be oblivious to the inherent alienation as “a fact that irrevocably governs an exchange society”. To illustrate this, in an approach characteristic of Adorno, he employs Hegelian motifs as a means of undermining of Hegelianism itself – Adorno targets ‘objective Spirit’ as represented in art. For Hegel, the truths purveyed through art (as well as religion and most importantly philosophy) claim to offer representational knowledge into the development of Geist, eventually culminating in the ironing out of all contradictions of reality. Built into this understanding, Adorno claims, of the Hegelian motive for art is that it “wants […] to speak to human beings directly, as though the immediate could be realized in a world of universal mediation” (‘The Artist as Deputy’, 116). But this claim in itself about the representational power of art, says Adorno, is a kind of utilitarian degradation of the aesthetic. In literature specifically, this degradation makes ‘word and form’ into a “mere means” – a manner of utilizing the formal presentation of the work for expressing what the creator takes to be a truth or value relayed through art.

Structurally, Adorno here shares with Hegel the basic claim that art can illustrate certain kinds of truths. But he diverts from Hegel in a qualified way, in how he sees the promise for the role of autonomous art. Hegel conceived of putting art to use in the task of Geist’s reconciliation by means of what the work represents. By contrast, Adorno conceived of autonomous art’s power to at best be able to illustrate the current impossibility of reconciliation, due to the inability of the work to coherently represent reality, in the manner Hegel claims it can. It should be noted that it appears Adorno sees it possible for certain kinds of non-representational knowledge to be gained from successful works of art. Autonomous art can bestow negative knowledge of reality (‘Extorted Reconciliation: On Georg Lukács’ Realism in our Time’, 223). This would initially seem to clash with the claim that this is itself a form of knowledge. But rather than this constituting representational knowledge, Adorno is in some way offering the potential for a kind of aesthetic exposure to an intuition that demonstrates the impossibility of representational knowledge. This is arguably one route to the ‘loss’ that Adorno counts as the second-order objectivity facilitated by autonomous artworks. More on this below. But in the context of the Hegelian assumption, Adorno thinks that this has ramifications for critical engagement. The Hegelian optimism for the revolutionary potential of art in fact pulls the rug out from underneath the work, by undermining its formal and practical autonomy, and its applications.

In this vein, Adorno critiques subjective exposition of narrative, as a manifestation of the intentionalist’s presumption about aesthetic value. This critique tracks formal characteristics intrinsic to presentations of works themselves. It is a claim about the inherent formal critical power or lack thereof that motivates his critique of literary subject-centrism, and the idea of subjectivist narrative as having expository primacy in its formal mode of presentation. It is not just that this is open to criticism as a bourgeois mode of attempted presentation, of the kind indicated above about the power of the author’s intentions. Rather, this more formal critique is aimed at narrative of this kind also for its reduction of the reader or spectator to being merely receptive to such a subjective flow of consciousness. Adorno claims that the proponent of formal narrative subject-centrism identifies “nodal points of conditioned reflexes” of the would-be passive human being, qua “mere receptive apparatuses” (‘The Artist as Deputy’, 119). The work’s recipient responds to intake from their sensibility by the truth-bestowing flow of an intentional consciousness in the work. The presupposition here is that exposition is granted authentic force as a mode of formal description by the author. As such it is employed as a way of receiving and interpreting a work by an audience. This is problematized due to its assumption that the audience has been given the necessary sensibility for the narrative, on a kind of presuppositionless set menu of aesthetic evaluation. The presumption here is that the audience receives a formal presentation of the sensory scheme or stream of consciousness of the ‘genius at work’, to which they should passively engage.  The audience is a conduit to be filled up with aesthetic truths.

But this presumption exposes another facet to Adorno’s critique, centered around the assumption that any subject creating aesthetic works can provide such a coherent formal exposition, by virtue of their professed narrative. The work of Proust, perhaps ironically, is valorized by Adorno for upsetting a presumption in the “prevailing consciousness” about the notion of the unity and pre-given wholeness of the person. This presumption is characterized as a false idol by Adorno (‘Short Commentaries on Proust’, 181), which Proust’s works act as an ‘antidote’ to. A philosophical presupposition of this view concerns the power of subjective narrative. The audience doesn’t receive this subject and its narrative in some necessary and uniform fashion. Nor is the self-representation of either one of the subjects involved, author or reader, of an immediate cognitively accessible character. Rather, Adorno claims that such narrative is the product and cause of further alienation. Only in genuinely autonomous works can there be an intimation of this alienation by a display of the “social relationships [that] reveal themselves to be a blind second nature” (‘Short Commentaries’, 183). Again utilizing while subverting a familiar Hegelian motif, this of second nature, social relationships limit the remit of pure thought, not in a manner that adapts pure thought to nature, but shows its perversion at the hands of the productive forces at work in it.

In this respect, something Adorno claims favorably about Paul Valéry is his capacity to buck the trend of centralizing “the triumph of subjective over objective reason” (‘Valéry’s Deviations’, 161). Though Adorno takes this to be a product of the enlightenment, it is evident from his discussions of many post-enlightenment figures that he views them as capitulating to this trend, too. For example, Adorno writes that for Sartre, “the work of art becomes an appeal to the subject because the work is nothing but the subject’s decision or non-decision» (‘Commitment’, 349). This centrality has ramifications both theoretical and practical. As a result of it, “Sartre’s approach prevents him from recognizing the hell he is rebelling against”, namely the objective self-alienation that latently motivates him to make the proclamation that hell is, in fact, other people (‘Commitment’, 353). Indeed, Adorno’s infamous statement about the barbarism of writing poetry after Auschwitz is reaffirmed, in the context of this continued primacy of the subjective. He claims it “expresses, negatively, the impulse that animates committed literature” (‘Commitment’, 358). This criticism applies also to Heidegger. A ‘decision’ is demanded by Hölderlin, for Heidegger, in Adorno’s devastating excursus of Heidegger (‘Parataxis: On Hölderlin’s Late Poetry’, 380). Claiming this, not only does Heidegger rob and ‘deaestheticize’ Hölderlin of his “poetic substance”, it also eliminates Hölderlin’s “genuine relationship to reality, critical and utopian” (‘Parataxis’, 381). This is done on the grounds of the notion of subjective decision being prioritized by Heidegger, erroneously recapitulating to “the idealism which is taboo for Heidegger [but] to which he secretly belongs” (‘Parataxis’, 385).

Motivating this critique in all of these forms is Adorno’s broader claim that “the social totality is objectively prior to the individual” (‘Extorted Reconciliation’, 224). The presupposition that successful, genuinely autonomous works still somehow belong to the author misses this point. Rather, a work’s success consists “in its becoming detached from [the author], in something objective being realized in and through him, in his disappearing into it”. (‘Toward a Portrait of Thomas Mann’, 295, my emphasis). Autonomy is not bestowed upon a work due to any relation with some condition of genius possessed by the author.

 Yet in pursuit of this thought, Adorno makes an intimation about what positive role the artist qua producer of works of art can have, should a work be successful in the possession and conveyance of truth content. In an ironic twist, he inverts the idea that the work is the instrument of communication for the intentions of the creator. Instead, this possession and conveyance involves the artist becoming an instrument, through which aesthetic form assumes a life of its own. It is this mode of production which ensures the artist does not “succumb to the curse of anachronism in a reified world” (‘The Artist as Deputy’, 117). Adorno assumes his own idiosyncratic kind of interpretivist stance towards the possibility of aesthetic autonomy. Discussing the ways in which artistic creation is subject to reification, and on the point of to whom the truth-qualities of an art work ‘belongs’, Adorno endorses Valéry’s attack on “the widespread conception of the work of art that ascribes it, on the model of private property, to the one who produces it” (‘The Artist as Deputy’, 118).

So Adorno postulates a kind of aesthetic virtue gained by means of a degree of liberation from the folly of intentionalism, including its formal presuppositions about subjective exposition. This liberation, Adorno notes, is a kind of recognition, namely a recognition on the part of the artist, such as Valéry’s bourgeois art as bourgeois, and that this recognition precludes it from conscious or intentional escape from that framework. In this sense, Adorno sees in Valéry (and also, for example, Thomas Mann) a critical platform through formal literary presentation in this “self-consciousness of [its] own bourgeois nature”. The premium is placed on a certain kind of self-knowledge, attained by a capacity for critical distance. This self-consciousness doesn’t determine the truth content of an artwork itself. Rather it constitutes a recognition by the artist that self-consciousness precisely doesn’t determine such truth content. Indeed, in an example of Adorno’s often ironic and flirtatiously paradoxical prose, this self-consciousness comes by the aesthetic judgement

“tak[ing] itself seriously as the reality that it is not. The closed character of the work of art, the necessity of its giving itself its own stamp, is to heal it of the contingency which renders it unequal to the force and weight of what is real” (‘The Artist as Deputy’, 118).

With some nuance, Adorno criticizes the aims of recent art, at a “retreat of productive forces [as] a surrender to sensory receptivity” – in other words, it recapitulates to viewing subjective and specifically sensorially derived authorial creativity as the primary means of producing truth. This in fact diminishes the capacity for abstraction, or for the construction of artworks as possessing a genuinely autonomous character.

This makes Adorno’s claims about Valéry and Proust somewhat ironic, but arguably productively or virtuously so. Despite Valéry’s own processual and solipsistic mode of presentation, it is so by virtue of his “advocacy of the dialectic” qua the recognition that the only freedom possible is freedom in relation to the object (‘Valéry’s Deviations’, 150). This in a roundabout fashion actually serves to undermine the idea that the subjective stream of consciousness is an authentic expository force for narrative truth.

Adorno writes that Valéry’s philosophical affinity to this advocacy “erodes from below […] the illusion of immediacy as an assured first principle” (‘Valéry’s Deviations’, 150). Indeed, intentionalists presuppose some primary or immediate access to the author or creator’s epistemic faculties via the formal presentation of the subjective narrative. But attempts at cleanly cutting through the social conditions which engendered the work are inhibitions to aesthetic truth, for Adorno. There is a broadly ethical dimension to Adorno’s rejection of this presupposition, too: “[t]he objectification of works of art, as immanently structured monads, becomes possible only through subjectification” (‘Presuppositions: On the Occasion of a Reading by Hans G. Helms’, 368).

Adorno offers the potential for a positive way out. He describes an emancipation made possible through aesthetic endeavour, when works are forced to try and re-establish a kind of objectivity which is lost

“when it stops at a subjective reaction to something pregiven, whatever form it takes. The more the work of art divests itself critically of all the determinants not immanent in its own form, the more it approaches a second-order objectivity” (‘Valéry’s Deviations’, 152, my italics).

Developing dialectically out of its own deficiencies, this particular route to disillusionment constitutes a second-order objectivity – a kind of knowledge of one’s disillusionment, through aesthetic form. This is an objectivity which, depending on how one interprets Adorno, facilitates the possibility for reconciliation, or at least the knowledge that reconciliation is presently beyond our ken or grasp (‘Valéry’s Deviations’, 154). This has already been discussed by Adorno in the context of a certain kind of self-consciousness. But Adorno also discusses a kind of forbidden mode of consciousness, which, if we had access to it, would allow us access through art and literature to a genuinely different and non-reified mode of approaching our genuine needs (‘The Handle, the Pot, and Early Experience: Ui, haww’ ich gesacht’, 473). One might interpret this forbidden mode of consciousness as something necessarily inaccessible, like Kant’s intellectual intuition. Or one might interpret it as something contingently improbable, an obfuscated mode of consciousness which might come to be available to us under certain productive conditions. Regarding this difference of interpretation, I remain non-committal about, for the purposes here. But this second-order objectivity partly constitutes an acknowledgment of some kind, of this mode.

What might this second-order objectivity amount to, in the context of the work? Herein I argue lies an important internal limit to Adorno’s anti-intentionalism. The loss of the subject as an authentic expository force can lead to a realization that objectivity by this means constitutes a “loss”, Adorno claims (‘Valéry’s Deviations’, 152). Adorno then claims that the subject’s pursuit of this “critical path is truly the only one open. It can hope for no other objectivity” (Ibid.). The ramifications for this in aesthetics is that the construction of works “no longer conceives itself as an achievement of spontaneous subjectivity, without which, of course, it would scarcely be conceivable, but rather wants to be derived from a material that is in every case already mediated by the subject” (‘Presuppositions’, 371). This is not mediation by the purely spontaneous, causa sui subject, a la the presupposition of the intentionalist. Rather, the creator of the genuinely autonomous and truth-contentful work of art must be in some respect a “representative of the total social subject” (‘The Artist as Deputy’,  120, my italics).

It is only by virtue of recognizing this representative nature of works as something interpreted by the social and cultural conditions it is subject to, that art can “fulfill [itself] in the true life of human beings” (Ibid.). Adorno’s conception of the artist involves acting as a “midwife” to the objectivity inherent in the autonomous artwork – which is delineated “in advance by the form of the problem and not by the author’s intention (‘Valéry’s Deviations’, 168)”. Indeed, in line with Adorno’s authorial anti-intentionalism, the problem of delineating a work’s autonomous value is framed by its historical contingency, determined by the conditions of possibility that the forces of social production allow for the work to rupture through. It is autonomous works which can attain this expository status in relation to these forces. Put succinctly in his essay critical of Sartre and the idea of committed literature, “art, which is a moment in society even in opposing it, must close its eyes and ears to society”, while holding out the presence of “an ‘it shall be different’”, which Adorno claims “is hidden in even the most sublimated works of art” (‘Commitment’,  362).

Important to note here is that the success of the work in its autonomy is to some extent accidental, if viewed from a purely intentionalist perspective. Formal technique can only contribute to the intention of “what is presented”, as opposed to what the author purely intended. Its conditions of success are determined by the ability to recognize its autonomy within the context of objective social reality (‘Extorted Reconciliation’, 224). This includes a rupturous expression of what is concealed from reality by reifying processes, or as Adorno describes these processes, the purely “empirical form reality takes” (‘Extorted Reconciliation’, 225).

A paradox arises at the heart of Adorno’s position about this criterion for success. It is chance that “proclaims the impotence of a subject that has become too negligible to be authorized to speak directly about itself in a work of art” (‘Valéry’s Deviations’, 156, my italics). Yet at the same time as this claim about the possibility created by chance, it is this subjectivity, as

“alienated from itself, against the ascendancy in the objective work of art, whose objectivity can never be an objectivity in itself but must be mediated through the subject despite the fact that it can no longer tolerate any immediate intervention by the subject”. (‘Valéry’s Deviations’, 156)

This is a convoluted qualification by Adorno, merciless in its demands on the reader. In a reductive sense, the brute intentionalist model of subjective creativity is rejected. But the importance of the subject in some mediated sense remains of critical importance, for Adorno. Creators of autonomous works acknowledge “the paradoxical relationship of the autonomous work to its commodity character” (‘Valéry’s Deviations’, 158).

Adorno makes the allowance that this mediation via the subject is not an enterprise which the subject remains wholly unaware of, within narrative structures. But at the same time, he frames this as an eventual culmination, in a particular mode of formal consciousness towards an “estrangement of meaning” (‘Valéry’s Deviations’, 156). Adorno claims that its projection of this estrangement within an autonomous work “imitates the estrangement of the age”. Artists capable of producing autonomous works come to possess some conscious disposition towards an awareness of this imitation, by virtue of their being estranged. But how to understand this disposition toward an estrangement of meaning? Adorno thinks that it comes from a particular intuitive awareness of reification. Using Valéry as an exemplar, “[f]or Valéry’s aesthetic experience, the subject’s strength and spontaneity prove themselves not in the subject’s self-revelation, but, in Hegelian fashion, in its self-alienation. The more fundamentally the work detaches itself from the subject, the more the subject has accomplished in it” (‘Valéry’s Deviations’, 167). What Valéry and Adorno see interrelatedly, quoting Valéry, is that “[a] work endures insofar as it is capable of looking quite different from the work the author thought he was bequething to the future” (Ibid.).

Mere intention isn’t what makes a work autonomous: a presupposition of its primacy amounts to a recapitulation to the alienating forces as Adorno seems them as regnant in society. Rather, the author or creator is instrumental – “with the first movement of conception, the author is bound to that conception and to his material. He becomes an organ for the accomplishment of the work’s desires” (Ibid.). The most plausible manner of making sense of the idea that a work itself possesses desires is within the context of the claim about the artist or author as a midwife. The work embodies the hidden intuitions of a collective, expressed without ascribing any one individual’s intentions to the production of a work. Difficult as this may seem, I take it that Adorno’s point here is that autonomous works implicitly channel the hidden but genuine desires of the collective of human individuals, within their socio-historical context. Rather than representing the individuated subject, it represents the reification of the “latent social subject, for whom the individual artist acts as an agent” (‘Valéry’s Deviations’, 168). Once again, the representation of the social subject is of an instrumental rather than intentional kind through the aesthetic creator. Since Adorno thinks that all those under the same socio-historical conditions are bound to a mode of reification, there will be broad similarity underwriting the mode of self-alienation the representative artistic agent embodies and formally expresses, as themselves a conduit through which the work comes to be. The self-alienating autonomous work is described by Adorno as itself possessing ‘wants’, but intuitions of these are framed by the demands of the human condition to recognize the ill, perhaps impossible fit of the forces of social production upon that condition – the blind second nature which all are forced to adopt.

The use of the term ‘latent’ in this context is important, since Adorno frames the capacity of the contingency of the subject in psychoanalytic terminology. The ego has heretofore been assumed as the origin of pure aesthetic intentions and the harbinger of aesthetic truth, by means of its transparent route to creativity. Contrary to this assumption, Adorno claims that the ego “cannot be healed of its cardinal sin, the blind, self-devouring domination of nature that recapitulates the state of nature forever, by subjecting internal nature, the id, to itself as well” (‘Presuppositions’, 373). Rather, the ego can only be healed “by becoming reconciled with the unconscious, knowingly and freely following it where it leads” (‘Presuppositions’, 373–4). In some sense for Adorno, the regulating ego is to some extent aware of obedience or concession to the unconscious id in the creative process. The ego wants to find out what it wants, or at least wants to become aware of what it is about empirical reality that it doesn’t want.

Once this awareness takes place, the experience of autonomous artworks gives “the sense that their substance could not possibly not be true, that their success and their authenticity themselves point to the reality of what they vouch for” (‘Short Commentaries’, 187). Or, as Adorno puts it punchily elsewhere, autonomous art “represents negative knowledge of reality” (‘Extorted Reconciliation’, 222-3) – not positive representational knowledge in Hegel’s fashion, but the poverty of representational knowledge to track the real. Adorno offers an explanatory metaphor for this in a powerful discussion of Ernst Bloch’s musings on ‘An Old Pot’ at the beginning of Bloch’s Spirit of Utopia. Emulating the conscious disposition which can be intuited through autonomous works, Adorno self-referentially writes, “I am Bloch’s pot, literally and directly, a dull, inarticulate model of what I could be but am not permitted to be” (‘The Handle, The Pot, and Early Experience’, 472).

There might be no right living in a world gone wrong. But through autonomous works, formal glimmers exude, that give us intuitions of its wrongness. Whether these intuitions could develop more concretely, or be instantiated practically, is of course another story, one that cuts to the heart of Adorno’s immanent critique.

Theodore George: The Responsibility to Understand: Hermeneutical Contours of Ethical Life, Edinburgh University Press, 2020

The Responsibility to Understand: Hermeneutical Contours of Ethical Life Book Cover The Responsibility to Understand: Hermeneutical Contours of Ethical Life
Contemporary Continental Ethics
Theodore George
Edinburgh University Press, 2020
2020
Hardback £80.00
240

Annabel Herzog: Levinas’s Politics: Justice, Mercy, Universality, University of Pennsylvania Press, 2020

Levinas's Politics: Justice, Mercy, Universality Book Cover Levinas's Politics: Justice, Mercy, Universality
Annabel Herzog
University of Pennsylvania Press
2020
Cloth $55.00
208

Theodor W. Adorno: Notes to Literature (Combined Edition), Columbia University Press, 2019

Notes to Literature (Combined Edition) Book Cover Notes to Literature (Combined Edition)
European Perspectives: A Series in Social Thought and Cultural Criticism
Theodor W. Adorno. Edited by Rolf Tiedemann. Translated by Shierry Weber Nicholsen. With a New Introduction by Paul Kottman
Columbia University Press
2019
Paperback $40.00 £34.00
544

J.L. Chretien: Spacious Joy: An Essay in Phenomenology and Literature

Spacious Joy: An Essay in Phenomenology and Literature Book Cover Spacious Joy: An Essay in Phenomenology and Literature
J.L. Chretien. Translated by Anne Ashley Davenport
Rowman & Littlefield International
2019
Paperback £29.95
208

Reviewed by: Paul Downes (Dublin City University)

Seeds of a Primordial Spatial Phenomenology: Chrétien’s Spacious Joy

A dual, entwined argument takes place throughout this book. These arguments require disaggregation. One layer of argument is a concern with foreground phenomenological content in experience. The second layer pertains to background phenomenological structure. The foreground argument is a highly distilled one that concentrates its focus on a specific term, dilation (dilatatio), as a content of experience. This experiential content is sensitively explored through multifarious dimensions across predominantly Christian thinkers and mystics, though with a range of poets also embraced, such as Whitman, Rimbaud and Rilke. Chrétien explicitly states that his focus is on ‘spiritual authors’ such as poets and mystics where ‘the Christian tradition predominates’ (2) rather than on philosophers,

This phenomenological content of experience goes beyond simply Husserlian intentionality, in terms of both scope and claimed source; it also interrogates the precognitive in experience and invokes experience of a Christian God. The range of texts chosen for interrogation in terms of experiential dilation is quite limited, while Chrétien largely resists the temptation to invite obvious resonances with wider philosophical sources for these accounts of experiential content in relation to dilation.

The background argument is somewhat more surreptitiously expressed and unfolded. It is in terms of a spatial structure or system of experience. Dilation is irredeemably spatial, resting on background spatial suppositions. The contours of this spatial background for experiencing, underpinning experience of dilation, is adverted to in a sustained way throughout the book, though not in terms of a systematic argument or overarching conclusion as to the features and trajectories of these spaces of experience in experience. The structural features of these spaces tend to remain for Chrétien as illustrative, though his claim at the outset of the book is that these spaces are primordial and are prior to metaphor.

Chrétien seeks to retrieve a space for experience that has been glossed over in much of the Western tradition. Significantly, Aquinas is viewed by Chrétien as taking ‘the fatal step of splitting the concept of dilation into two, namely, into a physical meaning and a metaphorical meaning’ (7). He seeks to challenge this Aristotelian construction between the literal and metaphorical for space, upon which Aquinas built this cleavage. Chrétien raises the pivotal question, ‘Is there not a more primordial sense of dilation, anterior to the split ?’ (7), a split that reduces space to mere metaphor or bodily experience. Chrétien explicitly states that he draws on authors in this book that ‘do not treat the dilation of the heart as a mere metaphor’ (7). He seeks a more primordial space than the metaphorical and possibly also prior to the metaphysical. In doing so, he assails the Cartesian definition of matter that ‘implies that spiritual substances such as Gods, angels, or our own mind cannot be extended’ (9). Moreover, given that Descartes treated space as an empty non-entity,[1] Chrétien is challenging this whole Aristotelian-Cartesian edifice for space.

With explicit search for ‘their phenomenological basis’ (47), the accounts of the content of dilation as lived experience of the various thinkers offer some common threads pertaining to space. However, the broad range of experiences invoked for dilation raises the question as to whether, grasp all, lose all ? Do the wide domains of dilation dilute its meanings ? It is purportedly both an extremity of experience and yet, available naturally in the everyday; ‘dilation is found at every level of experience, including at the highest level of mystical moments’ so that the ‘supernatural is not necessarily the supra-sensible’ (96). Dilation is and brings both love and joy, as well as renewal (100). Though for St. Theresa of Avila, it is a passage to a higher spacious mode of experience, dilatatio invades the senses of sight, sound, smell, as an expansion of perception, as a ‘transformation of all the senses’ (128); it is proposed to infiltrate action, emotion, memory and thought, while emanating from a level of soul prior to the heart. As a spatial movement, ‘dilation is an act and a motion; it cannot form a perpetual state’ (175). It is an experiential process of movement.

Dilation is portrayed as including cognition within its ambit, both as intellect and volition (117), while also accommodating contemplation as dilation. Thus, dilation as a mode of experience appears to stretch into terrains of both the Dionysian as a prerepresentative experience of rapture in early Nietszche, and the Apollonian as self-conscious condensing into form as a process of cognition, without being reducible to either or all aspects of the Dionysian or Apollonian in Nietszschean terms.  A powerful final chapter 9 on the breath in terms of expansion/contraction, as a mode of dilation, offers a prior site of experience to sheer sensuality.

The retort that Chrétien would give to this risk of dilution of understanding of dilation is that it is part of an inner unification process (71) and unity is not totality of experience, ‘the very act of dilation unifies the self’ (16). Yes, the scope of dilation is ambitious on Chrétien’s account. His spatial search via dilation is not merely the phenomenology of space as perception, as that of Gaston Bachelard. Bachelard acknowledges his spatial concerns are in the miniature and not at the extremes of experiential and conceptual depths, ‘Such formulas as being-in-the-world […] are too majestic for me and I do not succeed in experiencing them […] I feel more at home in miniature worlds’ of space (1964: 161). In contrast, Chrétien is entering the caverns of experience to extract a unifying pulse of principle as dilated spatial movement.

This quest is for a spatial system of dilation as ‘porous boundaries, or boundaries with holes, allowing it to open itself to the infinite and incorporate it’ (169), which can be juxtaposed with the ‘heart…as thick as grease’ (v.69 Bible of Jerusalem), cited by Chrétien (63) and implicitly echoed by Schopenhauer’s ‘thick partition’ (211) between self and other in the person lacking compassion. Chrétien’s spatial phenomenological concern is with boundaries for experience, not only as constraints but as the opening process of dilation; ‘dilation is an opening up’ (31), a ‘joy that opens space up’ as ‘the gift of space’ (42). This opening ‘does not denote a simple expansion of space. It denotes a space that is different from the old space’ (42).

Dilation operates as a counterpole to compression with both as spatial movements, as Chrétien invokes St. Gregory’s words, ‘compressed by pain and torments’ (48), for ‘the theme of dilation of love, joy, and hope in the very midst of tribulations’ (49). Dilation serves as a directional counterpoint to the relative closure of compression of experiential space, ‘If we are assigned a boundary that cannot in any way be pushed back or overtaken, we are filled with dread at the thought of a definitive imprisonment, of a constriction that diminishes us and stifles us’ (155). Where existentialist dread dwells in the awareness of the constricted space of sealed boundaries, resistant to the expanse of dilation in their firmness of closure, dilation is the possibility of an opening of space, a capacity for spacious experience that lives in a precise correlation to this dread, as a directional opposition. Angst may offer the awareness of the capacity for this directional movement between these Siamese twins, namely, the relatively more closed and open spaces of dread and dilation.

This spatial phenomenological questioning of background structure shaping lived experiential contents offers a key insight regarding a spatial expansion of experience that is not simply a blank space removal of all boundaries, ‘another kind of dread would take hold of me, characteristic of dilation, namely the dread of self-loss and self-dissolution. Since the joy of dilation does not desire or aim at self-loss, it requires that I remain at all times the self that dilates’ (155). He continues, distinguishing the opening of dilation from a frantic obliterative opening, ‘Otherwise, what is involved would be more like an explosion than a dilation’ (156). A spatial structure is needed to distinguish the relative opening of dilation that retains a sense of assumed connection to self from a monistic fusion with background stimuli that surrenders all sense of personal identity. The spatial expansion of dilation is not simply empty space, it is not space as the nonentity of limitlessness.

He emphasises that capacity to receive experience of divinity is a spatial concern, tracing the etymology of capacity to the Latin capax, with spatial connotations. In his account of St. Augustine, Chrétien appears to accept the traditional Christian framework of grace that would treat dilation as a gift outside the control of the subjective ego, of the conscious mind. If so, a precognitive dimension to dilation as an expansion of space requires amplification, one that does not simply rest in a stale selfconsciousness or state of reflection as contemplation, though Chrétien also subsequently includes these modes within the ambit of dilation processes. Augustine’s cogitatio as thought is also treated as being infiltrated with dilation. The vacillation here between the precognitive and cognitive for dilation may be that Chrétien is more concerned with revealing the positions of the various thinkers whose texts he explores than with exploring in detail clashes between their various positions or emphases.

Chrétien highlights that St. Gregory ‘ties wicked dilation to power’ (47). An unexplored implication of Chretien’s acknowledgment of ‘evil dilation’ (48), envisaged also to include pride, is that it suggests an active spatial force propounding evil that appears prima facie to challenge the traditional Thomist doctrine of evil as privatio boni. An implication of dilation as a spatial movement also pertaining to evil is undernourished in Chrétien’s book. This implication is that as a spatial movement, evil is not simply a negation of good, as a kind of non-being as privation, but an active force in some way. Much may depend here on the level of description, as for example, what may be initially a negation may gain momentum as an active movement in space; causal and ontological levels of description may also import different characterisations of evil as lack or active force. Going further, this could be construed as seeking spatial movements prior to the diametric opposition of absence/presence that melds together a framework of evil as negation of good rather than as a spatial movement. However, this book is less concerned with theological implications of the spatial analysis of the phenomenology of dilation, whether as joy, love or even evil, than with describing the specific experiential unfolding of dilation as a spatial movement, across a range of thinkers.

Much of Chrétien’s concerns with dilation and space is to characterise them in terms of a prior judgment as good or bad, as life giving or pathological. Yet this is itself a space, a diametric spatial projection. Moreover, Chrétien’s exploration of Pierre Corneille’s experiential accounts ‘with an open heart’ (99) invites what Chrétien describes in diametric oppositional terms as where the heart ‘must win the struggle against what blocks it’ (99). This diametric oppositional space lurks in the background without any explicit analysis in his spatial structural questioning.

Like Wordsworth who crossed the Alps without knowing it, Chrétien has arguably discovered a whole spatial system of experience. A pervasive aspect of these spaces in this book is that they express expansion and contraction, as a spatial movement, as a rhythm where both the expansion of dilation and the narrowing of contraction are in mutual tension and interaction; dilation is part of a unified rhythm in spatial-structural terms for experience, as ‘a set of rhythmic and palpitating systems’ (169). This experience is treated as a cosmic spatial system affecting experience though not reducible simply to experience as subjectivity; it is ‘a process of cosmic widening’ (150). The relative openness of the expansion in dilation as a space of experience and a spatial ‘capacity’ for experience is frequently characterised by Chrétien’s selected thinkers and writers as being circular in movement, as part of a circular widening, where ‘the furthest circumference preexists already in the center’ (160); it is a ‘radiant’ (145) circular movement ‘spreading out in waves and circles’ (115).

Portrayed at the level of imagery in terms of fluidity, as ‘heavenly liqueur’ (p. 88), citing Claudel’s ‘liquid breathing’ (178), this can be further construed in spatial structural terms, where, by way of contrast, desiccation is a feature of contraction, a drying up as a loss of dilation. Moreover, this fluidity of the breathing experience as part of experiential dilation offers a fluid space to be distinguished structurally from monistic fusion and empty space, ‘Airy or liquid respiration, together with its dilation, forms the place where we are related to the limitless, but not to a limitlessness that loses itself in emptiness; to a limitlessness, rather, that is a totality’ (178). Chrétien thus invokes and quests for a space that is a fluid unity or unifying process for an experiential opening. He contrasts this space not only with contraction but also with the empty space of monistic fusion as a totality. This is first cousin of a recognition that truth unity claims are to be distinguished from truth totality ones.

Another argument made, albeit en passant, is that thought is structured like the structure of our breathing, and needs to reflect this interplay between systole and diastole. Spatialisation of experience moves into a terrain of impact upon thought, as a spatialisation of thought. This is a different embedded structure for thought than one simply resting on bodily analogy, such as that employed by Freud for oral, anal and phallic stages of development. The breath gains force as an animating space underlying thought. This is a promising argument left largely in the shadows in this book, though hovering at its edges. The inhalation/exhalation superstructure for thought may offer a counterpoint, as a different mode of interactive polarity to the Gestalt figure/ground focus on foreground and background in thought. If ‘the rhythm of breathing characterizes all living things’, where ‘the general laws of respiration…are the laws of dilation’ (168), this invites treatment of thought as a living thing giving expression to this breath rhythm of dilation, of spatial movement as expansion and contraction, in the very structure of thought itself.

The discussion of dilation as pathology offers rich resources for interpretation, resonant with recognition in a Jungian tradition that mystics and schizophrenics find themselves in the same ocean, where the mystics swim and the schizophrenics drown. Dilation of space in experience offers an account of this ocean, pertinent also to the oceanic feeling recognised by Freud through his friend Romain Rolland. This oceanic feeling contrasts with ‘the airless dungeons we have built for ourselves’ (20), in Chrétien’s memorable phrase.

Chrétien’s challenge to treatment of space as a mere metaphor is stated at the outset of his book. While it is developed through examples of dilation, he does not seek to amplify this argument in detailed philosophical terms. Nevertheless, his argument for a realm of spatial experience that is irreducible neither to mere metaphor nor to the body offers a rapprochement with concerns of Paul Ricoeur in La métaphore vive. Ricoeur seeks to suspend primary reference of truth as correspondence to an external world in science and to invoke a split reference to encompass another referential domain for metaphor in discourse, a ‘world’ or state of affairs of poetic reference. Chrétien can be understood as taking a further expansive step through a concern with a phenomenological reference to a state of experience of dilation in its multidimensional forms expressed in language.

Spatial understandings pervade much of Ricœur’s discussion of metaphor in terms of proximity and distance, tension, substitution, displacement, change of location, image, the ‘open’ structure of words, closure, transparency and opaqueness. Yet this is usually where space is discussed within metaphor, and as a metaphor itself, rather than as a precondition or prior spatial system of experience interacting with language.[2] Chrétien also invokes language in terms of a poetics of dilation though again he leaves reservoirs in his text to explore a conception of a spatial system of experience, for unifying experience that is prior to metaphor and language. He reaches this threshold in this book, but does not carve out this pathway in detailed, sustained terms as part of a structural spatial phenomenological argument. He offers seeds of a primordial spatial phenomenology.

Viewed in contrast with Charles Taylor’s A Secular Age that explored temporality as a horizon of experience taken for granted in the social imaginary, in a distinct socio-historical set of contexts across Europe with implications for a secularist Zeitgeist, Chrétien’s scope of works are more confined. However, they can be construed as overcoming a key caesura in Taylor’s work with regard to spatial conditions or horizons underpinning religious and mystical experience. Moreover, Chrétien is not pitting space against time, he incorporates a temporal dimension into the rhythm of the dilation as openness interacting with the compressed, contraction process of closure. This temporal dimension is of space as a movement, of spatial capacity for movement.

A key strength of this book is its opening of a series of promissory notes to a more primordial spatial phenomenological structural questioning, regarding dilation, its interplay with contraction, the structural features of this spatial movement, its embedding in the breath, the circular expansive movement in what is tantamount to concentric spatial terms of infinite dilation sustained as a series of extended concentric spatial movements. This important contribution of Chrétien is allied with the pulse of vitality that runs through the sensitive interpretation of the accounts of the various thinkers regarding dilation, to embed dilation as a major feature of mystical experience, with dilation arguably offering as much of an Archimedean point for these experiences as does Angst for existential-phenomenological concerns.

It can be inferred that four modes of space, not necessarily all distinct from each other, emerge from Chrétien’s spatial phenomenological account. A fluid open and opening concentric circular space of dilation, a contracting, compressed, desiccated space, and an empty space of monistic fusion, as mere limitless totality through obliteration and explosion of all boundaries. The other space is that of diametric spatial opposition, whether between good and evil, openness and closure, as oppositional directions in mutual tension. This is a diametric space not only as structure and position, but as direction. Chrétien does not directly address the interplay between these spaces of experience.[3]

Though the argument for a spatial system of experience as dilation and contraction is as part of a claim for a primordial space prior to metaphor, it is this key argument that merits much more expansion, dare it be said, dilation, in this work. What is the ontological status of dilation as a mode of space, as a spatial system in rhythm with contraction, as a dynamic interactive spatial movement ? This pivotal question is only addressed indirectly by Chrétien, with hints and fragrances, in Spacious Joy.

References: 

Bachelard, G. The Poetics of Space. Boston: Beacon Press, 1964/1994.

Descartes, R. Descartes: Philosophical Writings. Trans. E. Anscombe & P.T. Geach. London: Nelson, 1954.

Downes, P. The Primordial Dance: Diametric and Concentric Spaces in the Unconscious World. Oxford/Bern: Peter Lang, 2012.

——– At the Threshold of Ricoeur’s Concerns in La Métaphore Vive: A Spatial Discourse of Diametric and Concentric Structures of Relation Building on Lévi-Strauss. Ricoeur Studies/Etudes Ricoeuriennes, 2016, 7 (2): 146-163.

——–Concentric Space as a Life Principle Beyond Schopenhauer, Nietzsche and Ricoeur: Inclusion of the Other. New York/London/New Delhi: Routledge, 2019.

Nietzsche, F. The Birth of Tragedy, trans. D. Smith. Oxford: Oxford University Press, (1872/2000).

Ricœur, P. La Métaphore Vive. The Rule of Metaphor: Multi-disciplinary Studies of the Creation of Meaning in Language, trans. R. Czerny, with K. McLoughlin & J. Costello London: Routledge, 1978.

Schopenhauer, A. On the Basis of Morality. Trans. E. F. J. Payne. Providence: Berghahn Books, (1839/1995).

Taylor, C.  A Secular Age. Boston: Harvard University Press, 2007.


[1] Descartes referred to ‘empty space, which almost everyone is convinced is mere nonentity’ (1954: 200).

[2] Downes, P. At the Threshold of Ricoeur’s Concerns in La Métaphore Vive: A Spatial Discourse of Diametric and Concentric Structures of Relation Building on Lévi-Strauss. Ricoeur Studies/Etudes Ricoeuriennes, 2016, 7 (2): 146-163.

[3] For detailed examination of these modes of spatial experience as a spatial phenomenological questioning not only of space but through space, distinguishing concentric and diametric spaces from monistic fusion, see Downes, The Primordial Dance: Diametric and Concentric Spaces in the Unconscious World. Oxford/Bern: Peter Lang, 2012 and Downes, Concentric Space as a Life Principle Beyond Schopenhauer, Nietzsche and Ricoeur: Inclusion of the Other. New York/London/New Delhi: Routledge, 2019.

Christophe Bident: Maurice Blanchot: A Critical Biography

Maurice Blanchot: A Critical Biography Book Cover Maurice Blanchot: A Critical Biography
Christophe Bident. Translated by John McKeane
Fordham University Press
2018
Paperback $40.00
632

Reviewed by: Tyler Correia (York University, Toronto, Canada)

A dubious undertaking would be to propose a biography of an author who attends to the demand that a text might bear witness to itself and of its own accord. This is the legacy of Maurice Blanchot, whose testimony is that of the vanishing author—a text addressed to other texts and not, perhaps, an author to their audience. This is so much so that between what is called literature and the problematic of its very possibility, a dialogue appears only by the instrument of death, under condition of its undoing. We might, then, express concern over such an undertaking were it not for Christophe Bident’s tireless sensitivity in Maurice Blanchot: A Critical Biography, translated by John McKeane from the original Maurice Blanchot: Partenaire Invisible. Reading Bident, one is almost confronted by such lucidity and knowledge—almost insofar as confrontation gives way to the uncanny feeling of mentorship. Bident’s text balances the demands of biography, which draws on official accounts and established readings. Yet, one who wishes to gain a furtive glance into the other life of Maurice Blanchot will be satisfied by how record-keeping is balanced by careful exegesis of his works.

On the other hand, those chapters that begin and end with the biographical, or the historical, seem also to give way to the implosion of what they recount—from Blanchot’s controversial engagement with right-wing journals in the 1930’s and 40’s, to his later political refusals (the «Manifesto of the 121» and his speeches of May ‘68)—often ending (albeit in a very different way) as they began: the termination of Blanchot’s political projects. This is no critique of Bident’s writing; he deals with these instances, too, with patient sensitivity. There is much to be learned, though, regarding the ever-present possibility of failure in confronting the ‘risk of public life’ Blanchot espouses.

Some housekeeping: when it appears as the title of the twenty-second chapter, and on the one-hundred-forty-fifth page, Blanchot’s emerging style of literary criticism in the name of the other—as Bident terms—may create confusion, if one has forgotten the French subtitle’s reference to an invisible partner. In fact, in this chapter, it will not yet be fully disclosed what these mysterious terms indicate—and certainly purposefully given that Blanchot would only be on the cusp of a literary project that would give flesh to them. The first glimpse of this thematic is to be found in that section which captures such a critical (re)turn in Blanchot’s work: the events at his family home in Quain in June 1944 where Blanchot is confronted with imminent execution. This reinvigorates his lasting concern with death, which will spill into his work on writing, friendship, literature, the impossible, always, as Bident argues, such that it “provides a model for inner experience, an experience lived, but lived by the invisible partner within us” (197).

Bident also weaves into the text the return of a peculiar piece of Blanchot’s writing on the primal scene: a child confronting the nothingness of being, the il y a (there is). This takes place when a child stares from the window out into the garden of their home, filling the space with impressions of play and the familiar, until the sky above opens onto absolute emptiness, and they begin to cry. This coincides with a feeling of «ravaging joy» which their parents confuse for sorrow (7). This scene runs continuously through Bident’s work. He mentions that Blanchot is not often accessible to, nor concerned for ‘childhood.’ However, between these two extended thematics—the invisible partner and the primal scene—Bident has framed much of his critical engagement with Blanchot’s most pressing concerns.

Part I (1907-1923) introduces Blanchot’s life in a way consistent with biographical stricture, from a short genealogy of his family’s lineage, to an introduction of the ‘Chateau’ in Quain referenced in The Instant of my Death. Relations are outlined and grand, controversial events are prefigured. It is in the interstices of the exigencies of biography, however, that Bident’s text almost immediately distinguishes itself. Bident’s deep involvement with Blanchot’s thought—and the singular demand not to rely on the logic of biography as a genre—appears as an appendage to each chapter in which we  are greeted by an aesthetic of storytelling, and direct engagement with pertinent writings of Blanchot’s. So we find in the opening chapter also certain phenomenal passages on his birth—2:00 a.m, September 22, 1907—in a time of exilic and (busy) night, the “other night” of writing (12), which will be the condition for much of his works to extend beyond the self of day; when Kafka pens, at the same time, five years and one day later, the entirety of The Judgment (8-9).

This is the beginning of a kind of mythology surrounding Blanchot’s search for solitude: from his home in Quain to his residence in Èze. Bident supplies a composite of motifs that will guide the work from biography into the realm of the literary in this section, in which one can imagine—veritably to fantasize—their own sleeplessness, troubled by the demand of writing; solitude, childhood, night, writing, insomnia. The theme and the mofit, in Blanchot, might be inseparable; between meaning and matter only the regulatory power of the term, ‘fiction,’ can sustain such a barrier. If one were faithful to Blanchot, the boundary would be lost; Bident, then, is faithful to Blanchot. We are not in the realm of literary ornament, but an image sharing in an equally justifiable claim to truth, and one that is shared amongst us.

The third chapter of this section provides a panoptic of Blanchot from the perspectives opened in later sections of the book: his peers in right-wing circles in the 1930s describe him as deathly; his friends admire his kindness, his soft-spokenness, and his grace; many are concerned by how ill his countenance seems and yet how he endures; Bataille pays the homage only a great friend and thinker can (16-18).

For even those somewhat familiar with Blanchot, it will be clear that the horizon of Part II (1920s-1940) suggests a gathering storm. In the first three chapters, we are introduced to Emmanuel Levinas, and the philosophical partnership shared between the two, until Levinas quickly dissolves from view. from chapters seven to fifteen, Bident presents Blanchot’s movements in right-wing circles, and among the children of Charles Maurras, including Thierry Maulnier, Paul Lévy, Jean-Pierre Maxence, Maurice Bardèche, Robert Brasillach, Jean de Fabrègues, Daniel Halévy, Georges Bernanos, Henri Massis, and Paul Bourget.  Blanchot contributes, in the 1930s and early 40s, to Action Française, Combat, L’Insurgé, La Revue Française, Réaction, La Revue du Siècle, Ordre Nouveau, Le Journal des Débats, Le Rempart, Aux Écoutes, and La Revue du Vingtième Siècle. He was clearly Germanophobic, and anti-Bolshevist, anti-democrat, a French nationalist, and willing to espouse a view of violent rebellion under the shadow of emergent monolithic powers, particularly the materialist-capitalist degradation of spirit. The circles he frequents cleave undeniably closely to the language of anti-Semitism, as does he in certain writings: the international and internationalist conspiracy, the spectre of capitalism, the foreigner and Other, behind which is the hated image of the Jew (75). Bident notes that anti-Semitism is one element within a logic of purification first articulated in Blanchot’s piece Mahatma Gandhi, but perhaps also goes too far to exculpate his subject, in saying that such anti-Semitism is a tool used for «eloquent oratory and insidious punches» (loc. cit.). None of this should obscure the public and consistent statements condemning Hitler’s anti-Semitism, which Blanchot declares to be the sour testimony of a pan-German barbarity reliant on a demagogue and the need to persecute (55-56). However, it cannot also merely be forgotten.

As such, Bident is fair to uphold the ‘role’ of the biographer, or as he says, to «follow the movements of conviction» of the Blanchot of the time (40, italics in original). This must include displacements and transformations, as well as the «real substance of intellectual experience» (loc. cit.). However, we should be critical of the subtle establishment of a boundary between the ‘fictional’ and the ‘real substance’ if one’s expectation is that we may dismiss Blanchot’s own framing of an anxious energy around anti-Semitic invectives. Frankly, he does not attempt to speak a truth separated from positioning within an increasingly extremophilic political web, and an epoch hurtling toward madness. At the moment that Bident proclaims his ‘sound judgment’ for rejecting all policies of disarmament—for on 14 October, 1933, Germany leaves the League of Nations negotiations on the matter (53)—we are likely to share in a certain discomfort. Was Blanchot exercising sound judgment? Was he exercising judgment at all? Certainly, Blanchot identifies the gathering of arms, and forging of Germany’s ‘warrior spirit,’ around an origin and destiny (56). And yet it would still seem both a betrayal of friendship with Blanchot, and a clear misstep, to proclaim his suspicions ‘confirmed’ if only in the hindsight of history. The point is not that Bident is wrong. It is rather that the matter should not be submitted to such judgments at all, giving the impression that all positions taken up by Blanchot must be found consistent and free of disdain, or that they can be disproven—both as fact and personal conviction—as the “failings of thought” of a young political pundit (90).

In parallel, Bident marks the near-unbelievable plurivocality of Blanchot at this time; between his work as a political commentator whose call for action are escalating toward ‘terrorism’ in favour of public safety, separated from to his literary criticism, while his personal experiences remain on the fringes of these overwhelming spheres, still contained within that ‘other night’ of solitary writing. There is a way that this part of Bident’s text is, like Blanchot’s life, veritably disrupted. Rather than offering a final sentence of his own on Blanchot’s controversial involvement with the French right-wing preceding the war, Bident finds another sentence already proclaimed in his récit of 1937. Between chapter 14 and the end of the section, Bident will give full focus to Blanchot’s public criticism (where notably he discussed even-handedly authors both censured and acclaimed by the French right-wing), and to his early récits: Death Sentence, and Thomas the Obscure as well as smaller pieces The Last Words, The Idyll. Bident’s exposition of Thomas the Obscure in particular reads like a lucid subject watching, horrified, the comforting borders of their life dissolve into the convulsive death-throes of body and soul.

Part III (1940-1949) opens on the cusp of Germany’s occupation of France and the establishment of the Vichy Government under Marshall Philippe Pétain, and thus the horizon of a great change in Blanchot. Bident notes that his slow political withdrawal in the late 1930’s, and increasing interest in literary rather than polemical endeavours, are exacerbated by his silence during the occupation within which another ‘death’ overcomes him; fragmenting into the need to rearrange his professional dealings, his declared convictions and his writing (124). At this time, Blanchot’s ties to the French resistance are stressed, as well as his assistance of Jewish friends—he and his sister save Paul Lévy’s life when they warn him of arrest, and he aids Emmanuel Levinas’ wife, Raissa, and their daughter in hiding (125).

Around the same time Blanchot attempts to «use Vichy against Vichy» through its funding of Jeune France—an association for the arts formally impolitical, and under such a guise, working relatively autonomously. Blanchot’s plan is unsuccessful, ultimately leading to the dissolution of Jeune France at the moment collaboration becomes overt. His disillusionment is so engrossing that Jean Paulhan’s similar strategic attempt to have Blanchot sit on the steering committee of the Nouvelle Revue Française is rejected (174). Contemporaneously, Blanchot meets Georges Bataille, with whom a personal and intimate friendship would persist, opening Blanchot to what Bident terms ‘atheological mysticism,’ to the shock of eroticism, and the philosophico-political engagement of the absence of self and book, absence of authority, and writing on friendship.

Blanchot’s shift is, from our vantage point, coming into view. Bident notes that his ‘Chronicles of Intellectual Life’ at the Journal des Débats demonstrates not yet so much a movement from left to right-wing politics (which he does mention in terms of a growing discontent with nationalism and reappraisal of communism), but a receptiveness to a wide body of literature—praise of Freud, French Surrealism, Breton, Gide comes on the heels of scorn for Pierre Drieu la Rochelle and Georges Bernanos, while still under the purview of Vichy (147). The collaborationist government positions Blanchot to be their new scribe—in Jeune France and at the Journal des Débats—and his response is to uphold, contest, and evade these responsibilities all at once (149). This response, Bident argues, is in the name of the other. It is a matter first of all of self-evacuation, and then of critique (often, following Jean Paulhan and Stéphane Mallarmé, of the edifice of literary criticism), play, chance, resistance at the level of language itself (151-57). It is also here where the invisible partner appears; as the text’s other, sometimes the ‘character,’ who carries the speech of the author only capable of speaking through them, at other times the hidden interlocutor (Levinas, Bataille, Paulhan) who may receive a deceptively beautiful dedication, or perhaps simply a ‘wink’ within the text (156; see also 171). Bident is exciting to read for his recognition that Blanchot’s (auto)biographical demands are high, but certainly not impossible; a self-reflexive problematization of the role of biography plays out in the name of the other, amongst the récits, such that it is always «disseminated, displaced, altered» (158).

There are moments here too, however, where sensitivity is overtaken by an apprentice’s defense of their mentor. Opening the chapter on Blanchot’s “Chronicles of Intellectual Life” in the Journal des Débats, he notes: “Blanchot’s elegant, arrogantly indifferent articles were printed alongside intolerable propaganda, whether in the form of articles or advertisements,” (145) which we are wont to expect from his writings in 1941-44. Bident in the same passage performs inscrutability: “This was a strange object, a conciliatory invective, which seemed to lack any feeling for history: how was this column possible?… Did he badly need to money, as he would later say to Roger Laporte? That is not entirely true: he was receiving a salary from Jeune France” (145). These questions are crucial, and their pointed honesty are compelling; they are exactly those that would be necessary for holding to account a subject embroiled in this controversy, and to exceed the bashful apologetics of an admirer. It is because of these questions that it is also unsatisfying to see Bident turn away from the possibility they open. Blanchot, throughout the text, seems to be conveniently at a distance to those repugnant organizations that cause such controversy around his legacy even today, whilst playing an equally muted, but somehow more expansive role in reputable projects (in this case, Jeune France). We should not clamour for a sacrifice, and Bident is right to direct us to a number of contestations and evasions that constitute Blanchot’s refusal wholeheartedly of Pétain and Hitler. This does not bring Blanchot out of the constellation of right-wing thought for his time, in which he will continue to pit French nationalism against German, and in such ways that—having rejected ‘blood and soil’—will continue to speak of an essentialist mythology: a France of “order and style” (121).

These concerns are a stark contrast to the récits. From Thomas the Obscure, to Aminadab, and after the war The Most High, The Madness of the Day, Death Sentence and a second edition of Thomas, the chapters dealing respectively with Blanchot’s récits provide some of the most intriguing reading. Bident is careful with his exigesis; under the heading of a critical biography, it would not be fair to expect that an author’s texts have been read, and he offers summaries of what loose plot-points a récit may offer. These are weaved deftly amongst considerations of Blanchot’s changing personal life and political convictions. Do the récits mark out singularly such shifting ground? Bident notes that «perhaps his political past was becoming something akin to a dream» (168). In any case, they do entangle with those philosophical, literary and personal concerns that will culminate in Blanchot’s near-execution around the close of the war. Famously, The Instant of my Death (published in 1994) tells of a semi-autobiographical situation in which a narrator and their family is confronted in front of their ‘Chateau’ by imminent death at the hands of a German firing squad (later revealed to be part of the Russian Vlasov Division fighting for the Nazis). He is released instead, and takes refuge in the nearby forest where he watches as his village is burned down, his own home to be saved by a peculiar sentiment of the invaders toward its «noble appearance» (183-84). This episode had a strong impact on Blanchot—as such an experience might—reinforcing his explorations of writing, literature, and death, and granting him a sort of ‘lightness.’ Blanchot becomes “a nomad moving from demourrance to demourrance” (dwelling to dwelling), following this experience (184).

The period of writing in the immediate post-war era is concomitant with Blanchot’s increasing melancholy, however, and withdrawal from French literary circles that seem keen on the ‘purification’ of their ranks (188). He writes for, and edits Bataille’s journal Actualité, as well as publishing more frequently in Maulnier’s Cahier’s de la Table Ronde, founded for those rejected by the leftist Comité National des Ecrivains. This was followed by further writing for L’Arche, Les Temps Modernes, and Critique.

Part IV (1949-1959) opens in a way characteristic of Blanchot, who initiated many rescissions in the summer of 1944, escaping to Quain around the end of the war, and to Èze starting in 1946. From 1949-57 he remains in Èze, where literature will overtake him. In this same way, Bident allows for a reversal of the structure of his biography consistent with Blanchot’s movement: his récits and critical essays, their contexts, will be placed at the forefront and all other material will be displaced. Blanchot himself is slowly fading in order to open the space of literature, where Bident’s refrain of a literature in the name of the other takes place under the condition of an ‘essential solitude.’ During this time, Blanchot publishes the récits When the Time Comes, The One Who Was Standing Apart from Me, and The Last Man, as well as, through his contributions in particular to Jean Paulhan’s resuscitated Nouvelle Nouvelle Revue Française, what would become the core of The Space of Literature and The Book to Come (as well as Friendship and The Infinite Conversation) (271-72).

Again Bident demonstrates such electrifying acuity in his discussion of Blanchot’s texts. When the Time Comes tracks Blanchot’s ‘nocturnal capacity’ to attend to even his fictional interlocutors, opening the rupturous space of a resistant partner—a character who cannot, by the ‘authority’ of the author, be ordered to relinquish their secrets (257-59). This will be expanded in The One Who Was Standing Apart from Me, where the neuter begins to take shape in a crepuscular adventure, a conversation with an unnamable interlocutor, and within a space that is both sheltered from the world and where a world of shelter can arise (263-64). The question as to how writing is possible appears alongside such a solitary wandering, to which Blanchot’s essay collections respond—which is to say, they continue to reopen these questions in multifarious ways. Selections in The Space of Literature and The Book to Come are marked out for their contributions to the neuter: as reserve and prophecy in what escapes and threatens, but also opens the space for, the work; as autobiography and the abandonment of autobiography in the authority of the author; as an interruption of thought, a cruel act of refusal of certainty (276-78, 280-82).

Alongside his literary production, this section marks three large shifts in Blanchot’s life that will prefigure his future endeavours and return to political publication. First, his mother passes away in 1957 prompting a return to Paris and proximity to emerging political events—especially the imminent presidency of Charles De Gaulle. Second, Blanchot encounters for the first time in 1958, Robert Antelme, whose work he read and appreciated, and whose friendship, Bident notes, «was already certain» (297). Third, and completing this section, Blanchot, alongside Dionys Mascolo and Antelme, initiate the 14 Juillet project. The journal, intended to respond to De Gaulle and the French post-war political landscape, was founded on a manifesto of faith to revolution, return to resistance and refusal of providential power, as well as the fear of fascism and opposition to a politic of salvation in a leader (304). Although it would publish few issues, the journal seemed to be a culmination of the change that had taken place in the last decade: Blanchot returns to the ‘risk of public life,’ forges critical bonds with Mascolo and Antelme as well as René Char, and concentrates his political project, as Bident notes, around action «in the name of the anonymous» (308). 14 Juillet would pre-figure a project of opposition to a sedimenting civic-society in favour of the self-effacement explored in the récits, and a staple of Blanchot’s literary theoretical approach.

It would be inaccurate to say that certain aspects of Blanchot’s strategy of writing is completely unrecognizeable upon his return to public life. He demonstrates a distinctive concern for the importance of writing as the act of political involvement par excellence. Part V (1960-1968) opens with an extended chapter on the «Declaration on the Right to Insubordination in the Algerian War,» penned primarily by Mascolo, Jean Schuster, and himself, under the backdrop of an ambiguous socio-political situation in which political indifference allows for the unabated use of torture, and the entwining of the political with the military (315-16). The «Manifesto of the 121,» referencing the signatories approached during the summer of 1960, was circulated on September 1, to immediate controversy. It was denounced by right-wing publications (including Thierry Maulnier in Le Figaro), submitted as evidence in the trial of Francis Jeanson for high treason (who had organized a network of militants in support of the FLN), and initiated a wave of arrests of prominent intellectuals which gave rise to protests and international outcry in defense of the signatories (321-22).

Bident mentions some of the most crucial features of the document in terms both of its relation to Blanchot’s intellectual attitude, and as a politico-historical event. Of the latter, it marked (perhaps for the first time) the right—beyond duty—not to oppress. This involves an expansion of responsibility rather than its contraction consistent with the affirmation of a freedom to act inhering in the concept of ‘right,’ where previous texts concluded on the right not to suffer oppression (318). Further, it was an important instance of such a document calling for illegal action in support of deserters and insubordination. Of the former, it seems that much of the grounding of these positions flowed from ‘essential solitude,’ not merely as refusal or reclusion from the world, but the abyss from which no author may singularly emerge, no singular signature can mark ownership—from the neuter, from the there is itself (loc. cit.). The success of the «Manifesto» would lead to an attempt to extend the project of an anonymous and plurivocal space responding to the most urgent issues of the time. Named the International Review, the subsequent journal would bring together a multiplicity of voices in the shared truth of being a writer, and welcoming the speech of the Other (320).  In light of the erection of the Berlin Wall in 1961, Algerian Independence in 1962, and Georges Bataille’s death, the journal would not see a first issue, and the project was abandoned by 1963 (328-32).

This precipitates in Blanchot another change, and a consistent disillusionment with the possibility of politics that upheld even in his revived action during the May ’68 protests. In the meantime, he would devote himself to friendships, and to writing Awaiting Oblivion, as well as the pieces comprising the Entretien. The neuter emerges in many places in Bident’s text in multiple forms, but always with uncanny familiarity, in these chapters. Variously, Bident mentions that the neuter may be conceived as wandering into estrangement, the extremity of thought, self-extrication from the ‘completion of metaphysics’ as an anti-Heideggerian position, the unfinished response to the impossible, an anonymous biography of a faceless someone, the stirring of indifference, and the overtaking of ‘the book to come’ with ‘the absent book’ (351-59). The Entretien persists as one of the best exemplifications of fragmentary writing, the interruptive conversation, which, like Awaiting Oblivion, imbues speech with vitality without allowing it to manifest; a conversation that demands community.

May ’68 is preceded by the ‘Beaufret Affair.’ François Fédier, compiling a volume in honour of Beaufret entitled L’endurance de la pensée, enjoins a number of writers, including Blanchot, Char, and Derrida, to contribute. After allegations of Beaufret’s anti-Semitism emerge (likely from Roger Laporte), a number of private meetings are held in Derrida’s office at the École Normale Supérieure (371-72). Blanchot is notified of the allegations, and begins meeting with Derrida to deliberate on their course of action—which incidentally opens a dialogue that will continue after the affair—and Blanchot resolves to publish «The Fragment Word» on two conditions: that it be accompanied by a dedication to Emmanuel Levinas (who may have personally been affected by Beaufret), and that all authors are informed of what has transpired (372). He then meets, alongside Derrida, with Levinas who had not been informed, but who invites subtlety on the matter (374).

The conditions preceding, and initially surrounding May ’68, then, are piqued by Blanchot’s disillusionment and melancholy, which seems somewhat to give way to a renewed vigor; he is a consistent speaker at protests and meetings, and establishes—with Mascolo—a writer’s union intent on relinquishing authorial authority, support of the protests, and recognition of the anonymous textual production of the period not captured by ‘the book’: from banners, to graffiti, chanting, and pamphlets (379-79). The writer’s union gives rise to a bulletin, named simply Committee, which quickly succumbs—similarly to the International Review—to internal divisions stemming from international events, this time the invasion of Prague by the USSR (384-85). Blanchot leaves in agitation, and due to problems with his health.

Part VI (1969-1997) documents the latter years of Blanchot’s career—not until his death in 2003, as Bident published the original French text of the critical biography in 1998. This will include the publication of his final works, The Step Not Beyond, The Writing of the Disaster, The Unavowable Community, as well as works discussed briefly: Vicious Circles, A Voice From Elsewhere, and The Instant of my Death. In this lengthy stretch, Blanchot’s commitment to explorations of Judaism and Hasidic mysticism, his vigilance against anti-Semitism, his perseverance in friendship, and his experimentation with margins, boundaries, and the outside of thinking converge with Bident’s account of various responses to his work. Blanchot once again rescinds, this time into the suburbs of Paris with his brother René, in increasing secrecy that will give rise to one of the most dubious and enduring features of his legacy; of the responses to Blanchot, one seems to be a popular fixation on the image of the person, and violation of his solitude. This is such that a living myth emerges, and is propelled by a photo taken of him for the magazine Lire in 1985. The photo will be republished variously and frequently (423). It is also around this time that right-wing articles Blanchot wrote preceding and during the Second World War re-emerge, of which he takes full responsibility so many years later, referring to them as «detestable and inexcusable» (455).

Some truly fantastic commentary on Blanchot’s works are published by Jacques Derrida, Emmanuel Levinas, Sarah Kofman, Edmond Jabès, and others, as well. It is at times a shock, and at others a relief, to note both the rarity of commentary on his works—which today has amassed to a sizeable amount nonetheless—alongside what Maurice Nadeau underscores as the challenge of commenting on his works (417). Bident seems—and John McKeane echoes this sentiment in his afterword on Blanchot’s legacy and the evolution of studies of his works—that scholarship on Blanchot is fraught with missteps, and false confrontations.

McKeane’s translation of Bident’s critical biography is undoubtedly an important contribution to scholarship on Maurice Blanchot, provides a new opening particularly for English-speaking readers into his decidedly complex texts and their contexts. With this in mind, Blanchot’s legacy will remain an open-ended question. Bident provides particularly magnificent commentaries on Blanchot’s texts, and is deeply sensitive to his life—if admittedly one may take issue with his having done so too handily. It is in light of the more vociferous contemporary scholarship on Blanchot that the claim that one is misguided in mounting such an attack rings with a certain genuineness impossible to deny, and might be taken insofar as the re-emergence of a politic of writing seems to obscure engagement with his works. In any case, It will be a stimulating sight as Blanchot studies progress to open a space to contend with some of the most compelling and difficult concerns posed to us by existence and nothingness, the book to come and the book of absences, and the work or worklessness of community.

[1] Christophe Bident, Maurice Blanchot: A Critical Biography, trans. John McKeane (New York: Fordham University Press, 2019).

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