Gioia Laura Iannilli: L’estetico e il quotidiano

L’estetico e il quotidiano: Design, Everyday Aesthetics, Esperienza Book Cover L’estetico e il quotidiano: Design, Everyday Aesthetics, Esperienza
Esperienze dell’estetico
Gioia Laura Iannilli
Mimesis
2019
Paperback 22,80 €
300

Reviewed by: Asia Brunetti (University of Bologna)

Questa è la storia di un tentativo di emancipazione: quello del concetto dell’”estetico”, o meglio, della cosiddetta dimensione estetica. Si tratta di un concetto che per lungo tempo ha rischiato di fossilizzarsi irrimediabilmente sullo scoglio della propria dimensione istituzionale e istituzionalizzata, e al quale oggi, invece, è finalmente concesso prendere aria. La concezione tradizionale dell’estetico, infatti, che lo voleva come membro dell’equazione quasi monolitica “estetico = artistico” — la quale ha segnato la storia dell’estetica filosofica per diversi secoli -, è stata fatta scendere finalmente dal piedistallo che l’aveva ospitata fin quasi alla metà del XX secolo. Oggi, fortunatamente, possiamo revocare in dubbio questa idea (pur ancora fortemente consolidata nell’opinione pubblica, oltre che in quella di alcuni esperti in materia); ci è concesso di guardare al di là dei rigidi bordi del concetto dell’estetico, di avvicinarci sempre di più a questi confini – un tempo concepiti come rigidi e netti – per scoprire, man mano che ci avviciniamo, che sono in realtà ampiamente sfumati e tutt’altro che ben definiti.

È bene ricordare inoltre come questa stessa sorte toccata all’estetico sia efficacemente rimbalzata anche sul secondo termine della nostra monumentale equazione: l’artistico. Anche il concetto di arte nell’ultimo secolo ha subito un affascinante ridimensionamento, volgendo la propria natura ad una nuova capacità inclusiva e di “apertura”, talmente evidente da garantire un’accoglienza entro il novero degli oggetti d’arte persino a quei prodotti di consumo costruiti in serie come risultato di un’opera di progettazione, ossia gli oggetti di design. Sarà allora possibile, in maniera quasi paradossale, elaborare persino un’estetica del design; oppure, rendendo all’estetico ciò che da sempre gli appartiene  ma che ha portato a lungo con sé solo nel nome come radice etimologica, — ossia il suo riferimento alla sensibilità, all’esperienza sensibile — pensare ad un’estetica che non comprenda più al suo interno solo il campo semantico dell’artistico, ma, letteralmente qualsiasi cosa, fino a ciò che più si discosta dalla straordinarietà delle opere artistiche, persino le cose ordinarie, quotidiane, la nostra everydayness.

Proprio di questi temi tratta ampiamente l’opera di Gioia Laura Iannilli, L’estetico e il quotidiano, che fa di “Design, Everyday Aesthetics ed Esperienza” i tre cardini o pilastri sui quali installare la riflessione, come recita appunto il sottotitolo del testo. Sono proprio queste tre grandi tematiche, appunto, a scandire il flusso delle considerazioni dell’autrice, nonché a dividere il testo in altrettante sezioni volte al loro approfondimento. Ciò che si vuole sostenere con fermezza è la preziosità che contraddistingue elementi di per sé difficilmente accostabili all’ambito dell’estetico – poiché esso è stato a lungo marcato dal profondo pregiudizio arte o natura-centrico – come l’ambito quotidiano, le pratiche ordinarie e la progettazione di oggetti quotidiani (il design), per una riflessione sull’esperienza estetica che voglia aspirare ad una certa completezza.

Per quanto riguarda il primo elemento di questa triade, il design, esso viene messo in rilievo nel testo per la sua potenzialità nel far emergere la dimensione pratica dell’estetico, una sfaccettatura di quest’ultimo raramente presa in considerazione negli studi dell’estetica filosofica. L’autrice, nel delineare le categorie concettuali — principalmente coppie di concetti, dicotomie — e tutto l’apparato interpretativo attraverso il quale è stato studiato il design a livello istituzionale (utile/bello; funzione/forma; consumo/immagine), rivendica una modalità nuova di avere a che fare con questo tema: «È necessaria un’analisi estetologica sul design che si concentri sulla categoria dell’esperienzialità (o della relazionalità) che trova riscontro nelle pratiche quotidiane». Il migliore amico del design, d’altra parte, è proprio il quotidiano, la dimensione della “everydayness”, dalla quale esso appunto risulta estremamente inscindibile. In secondo luogo l’autrice rivolge la trattazione verso l’analisi della genesi e degli sviluppi di un ambito di studi relativamente recente, sorto in seno all’indagine estetica; una linea di ricerca che si potrebbe quasi definire “oscura”, incerta, sulla quale l’autrice, perciò, vuole tentare di gettare un po’ di luce e di chiarezza: si tratta della cosiddetta “Everyday Aesthetics”, sub-disciplina dell’estetica sviluppatasi pressappoco negli ultimi tre decenni.

La valutazione dell’autrice in merito a questo nuovo ambito di studio risulta chiaro fin dalle prime pagine del testo: si tratta di un vero e proprio congedo. Infatti, pur mettendo in campo elementi essenziali nel gioco della riflessione estetica — in primo luogo proprio i fenomeni quotidiani — tuttavia essa tende a ricadere troppo spesso nella trappola dei pregiudizi e delle impostazioni tradizionali degli studi estetici; una grande “pecca” dell’Everyday Aesthetics sarebbe ad esempio, quella di conferire troppa poca importanza all’ambito del design. Tuttavia, l’analisi dell’Everyday Aesthetics compiuta dall’autrice in questa sede risulta molto accurata e particolareggiata; il suo intento principale è quello di sistematizzare quelli che sono i più importanti contributi sorti in grembo alla disciplina, scandendoli in base al criterio della loro vicinanza e adesione oppure rifiuto e lontananza rispetto alla tradizione estetica consolidata. Vengono a delinearsi in tal modo da un lato degli approcci “deboli, continuisti o straordinaristi”, cioè fedeli alla tradizione, e dall’altro degli approcci “forti, discontinuisti o familiaristi”, che appunto se ne distanziano in maniera evidente. Tra i grandi autori dei quali l’autrice esamina i contributi, cioè i maggiori esponenti dell’Everyday Aesthetics, si può rintracciare nel primo gruppo Thomas Leddy con la sua Aesthetics of Aura Experience e Ossi Naukkarinen con la sua Aesthetics of Everydayness, nel secondo Yuriko Saito, fautrice di una Aesthetics of Care, Arto Haapala, di una Aesthetics of Lacking e Kevin Melchionne, propugnatore di una Aesthetics of Well-Being.

Dopo aver trattato approfonditamente le posizioni di questi teorici, da considerarsi i veri e propri “pilastri” dell’Everyday Aesthetics, l’autrice passa in rassegna quelli che denomina i suoi “meta-teorici”. Questi ultimi, i quali si sarebbero spesi in una revisione critica degli approcci teorici dell’Everyday Aesthetics, sarebbero a suo avviso i responsabili della svolta normativa della disciplina in una direzione intersoggettivo-continuista. Tutto ciò vuol significare il rientro in campo con piena dignità di una colonna portante del discorso estetico tradizionale, specialmente di matrice kantiana: la dimensione della condivisione dei giudizi di gusto, dell’intersoggettività, appunto. Ma ciò non significa affatto che i “meta-teorici” dell’Everyday Aesthetics convergano tutti verso una medesima prospettiva: tutt’altro; anche per quanto riguarda i più recenti approcci “critici” ciò che emerge è un’aria di disaccordo ed un certo attrito. L’autrice prende in considerazione in particolare i contributi di Cristopher Dowling, Dan Eugen Ratiu, Jane Forsey e la prospettiva dell’Egalitarian Aesthetics avanzata nel 2016 da Giovanni Matteucci, i quali concordano appunto nel riconoscere la necessità di rintracciare un aspetto normativo entro la cornice della nuova sub-disciplina dell’estetica; inoltre essi tendono a condividere, non a caso, una linea di pensiero di carattere continuista.

Il binomio intersoggettività-continuità, che dunque qualifica in maniera determinante la linea teorica dei cosiddetti approcci “meta-teorici”, è evidentemente sotteso ad una fondamentale dimensione dell’estetico, ossia al suo carattere di relazionalità. Scrive infatti l’autrice: «La relazionalità […] è indubbiamente cifra specifica dell’estetico in quanto è proprio in un contesto fondamentalmente intersoggettivo, ossia espressivo (sia esplicito sia implicito, sia proposizionale sia gestuale), che l’esperienza estetica ha luogo». Ma, come ribadisce l’autrice in un altro punto, questa relazione che connota l’estetico in quanto tale in ogni suo dispiegarsi, è sempre “da qualche parte”, cioè è sempre situata, e quindi «specificata e vincolata topograficamente». Quest’ultimo aspetto ci spinge ad aprire un ulteriore contesto di riflessione: quello che riguarda gli “spazi estetici”, e in particolare gli spazi estetici quotidiani. Essi vengono ripartiti dall’autrice nelle seguenti categorie: gli spazi estetici privati, pubblici, istituzionalizzati, virtuali-globali e commerciali. Si vuol far emergere in tal modo una caratteristica di fondo dello spazio estetico quotidiano, ovvero la dimensione di benessere che esso tende a produrre: «Gli spazi estetici quotidiani sono spazi in cui “si sta bene”», che garantiscono una qualche gratificazione, e far risaltare inoltre l’intreccio che attraverso questi spazi viene a configurarsi tra l’estetico e l’economico.

L’autrice sofferma infine la propria attenzione su una configurazione del design di origine molto recente: il cosiddetto Experience Design — risultato del recentissimo processo (cominciato all’incirca negli anni ’80 ma sempre più diffuso) di «smaterializzazione, diffusione e integrazione del design nelle pratiche quotidiane» -, facendone un caso esemplare per dispiegare ulteriori concetti sottesi alle dinamiche estetiche quotidiane. Esso consiste generalmente nella produzione di esperienze nelle quali la componente materiale decresce progressivamente d’importanza a favore di una dimensione interattiva sempre più rilevante. Tale ambito viene introdotto dall’autrice soprattutto al fine di rimarcare e giustificare la caduta e risoluzione delle dicotomie e delle storiche antinomie tra “soggetto” e “oggetto” e tra “natura” e “tecnica” o “artificio”. I due settori ai quali l’autrice fa riferimento nell’esame di questo recente sviluppo del design sono quelli della moda e dell’interazione con le interfacce.

L’Experience Design viene analizzato alla luce di una contrapposizione di fondo tra due concetti: quello di Lebenswelt e quello di Everydayness, proprio per sottolineare l’impatto che esso produce su tali dimensioni. L’intento dell’autrice è mostrare l’inadeguatezza ai nostri scopi di questi termini e proporre dunque una sostituzione di questi ultimi con le nozioni di “habitus” da un lato e di “campo” dall’altro, dove la prima dev’essere intesa sulla scorta di Bourdieu come «strutture strutturate predisposte a funzionare come strutture strutturanti, cioè in quanto principi generatori e organizzatori» e la seconda come «contesto dinamico in cui interagiscono energie significative», o meglio, bisognerebbe parlare di: «Mondo della vita, dinamicizzato in habitus, e quotidianità restituita alla sua funzione di campo di gioco». L’autrice ritrae tale nuovo settore come una vera e propria radicalizzazione odierna del design, la quale porta con sé l’«intreccio tra esteticità e quotidianità in una prospettiva centrata sulla intersoggettività e sulla continuità tra i vari livelli dell’estetico». Scrive inoltre che: «L’Experience Design […] plasma in modo sempre più significativo la nostra realtà proponendo un tipo di esperienzialità basata sulla “immediatezza”, sulla “superficialità”, sulla disponibilità, e sul piacere che deriva proprio dalla facilità con cui è possibile realizzare le esperienze che esso progetta, propone o innesta nella vita quotidiana».

Alla luce di quanto emerso è facile notare come il problema fondamentale per noi sia quello di cercare una risposta ad un tale interrogativo: se, dato che la progettazione (il design) sembra orientare sempre di più e in modo maggiormente pervasivo le nostre esperienze estetiche, tale circostanza conduca ad una alienazione oppure consenta, al contrario, dei margini di spontaneità e libertà. L’estetico può essere inteso come un mezzo di emancipazione dell’individuo contemporaneo oppure no? Per usare le parole dell’autrice: «Non potrebbe forse l’estetico rivelarsi un fattore di disincantamento dalla metafisica dualistica, piuttosto che propriamente di alienazione, e dunque essere un mezzo di emancipazione per l’individuo contemporaneo?».

Oggi le dinamiche esperienziali quotidiane sono modellate con un’incidenza sempre maggiore dal design, dalla progettazione, spesso attaccato come se fosse causa dell’estinzione della spontaneità. È innegabile quanto l’esperienza sia «oggi sempre più evidentemente in oscillazione tra spontaneità e natura progettata»; ma questa dinamica, risultata dallo sviluppo sempre più incredibilmente rapido e inarrestabile delle pratiche umane, ed in questo caso specialmente delle arti, ci accompagna davvero necessariamente di fronte ad un baratro oltre il quale non c’è più umanità (intesa qui come spontaneità naturale dell’uomo)? Per quanto possa sembrare difficile rispondere a questi interrogativi, ciò che è evidente — e questa è l’opinione portante del testo — è il bisogno di elaborare ai nostri fini «un’estetica generale che si occupi anche di quotidianità avendone acquisito i motivi al proprio interno senza farli diventare caratteri essenziali, ma relazionalmente e dinamicamente strutturali dell’estetico»; infatti «è proprio su queste basi, ovvero su basi relazionali, o intersoggettivo-continuiste, che andrebbe elaborata una teoria generale dell’estetica (del quotidiano), di fatto non ancora disponibile». Solo in tali condizioni, infatti, potremmo essere in grado di riflettere ampiamente ed apertamente sulle recenti acquisizioni dell’ambito estetico e sulle sue nuove promesse, liberati finalmente dal giogo del pensiero più tradizionalista e diretti verso un nuovo mondo, il mondo ordinario, quello che da sempre tutti abbiamo ed abbiamo avuto sotto gli occhi, ancora tutto da scoprire.

Martin Heidegger, Karl Löwith: Correspondence: 1919–1973

Correspondence: 1919–1973 Book Cover Correspondence: 1919–1973
New Heidegger Research
Martin Heidegger, Karl Löwith. Translated by J. Goesser Assaiante, S. Montgomery Ewegen
Rowman & Littlefield
2021
Hardback $125.00 • £96.00
334

Reviewed by: Taylor J. Green (Carleton University)

A fifty-four-year correspondence between teacher and student is what Correspondence: 1919-1973: Martin Heidegger and Karl Löwith brings to English readers. Part of a larger series of The Collected Letters of Martin Heidegger, Correspondence 1919-1973 is a compiled set of one hundred and twenty-four letters, postcards, and telegrams, seventy-six from Martin Heidegger and forty-eight by Karl Löwith, published with helpful annotations, supplementary material, and biographical information. The relationship of Heidegger and Löwith is, certainly, marked by Heidegger’s actions in 1933, but also by an enduring and distinguished bond between two philosophical giants of the twentieth century. The final two letters in 1973 of these compiled correspondences are not sent to Karl Löwith but to his wife after his passing. Heidegger, outliving his former student by three years to the exact day, remarks to Frau Löwith, “may the mercifulness of your husband’s death diminish the pain of his departure, and with time transform it into thoughtful remembrance…The circle of those awakened for thinking during the 1920s grows ever smaller. Soon, at the very most, they will only live on in the memory of a few individuals” (156).

The warmth, trust, erudition, and philosophical conversion that Heidegger and Löwith share in these correspondence exposes a past philosophical era of the previous century, one of which thinking was the central tenet. Translators Assaiante and Ewegen capture the keen philosophical wit of a young Karl Löwith navigating early adulthood through philosophical discourse with one of the greatest German philosophers. In the translation, they also capture the essence of Heidegger’s mentorship and strict academically centric mind. As the translators state upfront, references to lost letters not compiled in this edition “are not in the possession of the estate” (ix). Any shortcomings in compilation does not mean, however, that these letters, as they stand, are nothing short of enlightening for scholars to gain insight into two excellent minds of our contemporary age. The explanatory annotations, the careful translation, unabridged correspondence, and the thoughtful editor’s forward and afterward provides a book easily recommendable to those interested in either or both philosophical minds, in their own written words, as they matured through the early twentieth century.

The language of the letters is “causal and friendly” and lacks the “specialized language” of Heidegger’s lecture courses. Yet there are times when Heidegger prioritizes supervising and guiding the young Löwith by engaging in dense philosophical discourse. Löwith more than obliges and, eventually, extends Heidegger’s existential thinking to-be-with-others in his 1928 habilitation. Captured correctly in the translation is Heidegger’s radicality, his growing disregard for Husserl, his dissonance with the arid bureaucratic structure of the university, and his prescient formulation of the arguments of Being and Time (1927). The translators, attempting the difficult task of uncovering Heidegger’s own self-references, convey the meaning of Eigendestruction in English as destructuring, self-destructuring, or destructing one’s own. This concept is important as Heidegger refers to the term often in the years leading up to the publication of his first major work.

In the “Editor’s Afterward”, it is stated that the letters represent four distinct periods in the relationship between Heidegger and Löwith (288). Classifying the letters in this way is helpful: (1) 1919-1925, Löwith is a student of Heidegger’s until the time he leaves for Italy. This period by far contains the most letters between them. (2) 1925-1929, Heidegger has become a proper professor, as Löwith prepares for his habilitation (successfully habilitated in 1928). (3) In the 1930s, notably, Heidegger becomes rector of University of Freiburg. On page 165, the translators provide an “Excerpt from Karl Löwith’s Italian Diary (1934-1936)”, detailing the last encounter Löwith had with his mentor prior to the war, where Heidegger does not take off the party insignia on his lapel, translated unabridged and with a different tone from what is printed in Richard Wolin’s The Heidegger Controversy. The last phase (4) is a “reconciliation” between Heidegger and Löwith. The impact of Heidegger embracing the rectorship of Freiburg in 1933 does not heal for Löwith, as evidence in Löwith’s documentation of their last encounter and in the salient lack of correspondence. This period contains the least exchanges. One is a birthday wish to Heidegger for his sixtieth birthday in 1949. Another is Heidegger consoling Löwith on his deathbed. Heidegger attaches a poem, or rather, “a series of Thoughts”, entitled Pathways, that reads “Pathways, footsteps loosening up, echoing a humble fate. And once again the distress of dusk, hesitant, in the waiting light” (156).

I review and reconstruct much of the conflating narratives and major themes throughout the work. I analyze the letters in each phase in the chronological structure the editors have provided. In this way, we gain the most detailed insight into the correspondence, as each period builds on the previous. A distinct relation between the two thinkers further defines each period of exchange. Thematically, we read the correspondence initially as two intellectuals yearning for philosophical discourse and influencing each other in the early days of the 1920s. This relationship is strengthened through the habilitation period but is abolished and forever ruptured by 1933. As Heidegger’s later work, post-denazification trials, became as important as his early work, essays such as “The Question Concerning Technology” and “A Letter on Humanism” for example, Löwith would take up the theme of Heidegger’s political decision deriving from his philosophy in such works as “The Political Implications of Heidegger’s Existentialism” and “Heidegger: Thinker in a Destitute Time”. Although the centrepiece of this volume is the teacher-student relationship, 1933 perhaps persistently looms as a shadow cast over the dialogue, as we read into the historicity of the exchange knowledge of the present.

Period 1: 1919-1925

From 1919-1922, Löwith studies with Heidegger and Husserl in Freiburg. Although Löwith received his Ph.D. in 1923 under Moritz Geiger, already in 1920, Löwith is writing to Heidegger that “I am not merely being polite when I admit to you quite readily that it is solely your lectures that I miss” (13). Löwith, in 1922, writes to Heidegger that “Geiger is familiar with every last bit of hastily published modern shit, but with nothing decent. He is interested in my dissertation. A few days ago, I gave him a fully corrected and typed copy. He is somewhat amazed by the fact that one can learn quite a bit more in Freiburg than here” (53). The four letters we have from 1919 suggest that Heidegger has an intellectual interest in the gifted student but, initially, maintains formal relations. In early 1920, Heidegger shows gratitude to Löwith for “that excellent presentation of yours, in which I detected actual intellectual spirit without adherence to a specific scholarly dogmatism (which is the death of all philosophy)” (4). From 1920 onwards, the letters grow long with philosophical discourse, criticisms of academia, criticisms of Husserl, academic gossip, and book suggestions. Heidegger often uses Löwith as a springboard for lecture course topics to pursue. According to a 1920 letter, Heidegger asserts, “I have nixed the entire summer lecture course and am now reworking it anew…Perhaps I will dare to try this experiment in the coming semesters after all. Even we in philosophy are so weighed down by tradition, so unhistorical {unhistorisch}, that we no longer know ourselves. I have again thought about the Hegel seminar, and must say that there is no way he [Jonas Cohn] could have chosen a more inappropriate text than the Encyclopedia of Logic; it is evidence of the absolute innocuousness of everything when compared to Hegel, and also of the sort of dallying with philosophy that is so often practiced here” (5).

During this period Heidegger is a Privatdozent, a lecturer, and not the “secret king of thought” he would become after 1927’s publication of Being and Time. From 1919-1923, Heidegger is an assistant to Edmund Husserl at the University of Freiburg. In the letters of 1920, Heidegger often advises his student on many matters of the state of philosophy in Weimar Germany, and what Löwith can do to combat this pervasive philosophical shallowness. In Document 7, Heidegger elucidates to the young Löwith that “Spenglerizing seems to be subsiding, and it is now finally time for one to engage these ideas philosophically…You are still in those pleasant years during which one has time to read; only rarely do I have occasion to do so, and when I do read, it is always ‘with a particular purpose’…for we do not practice philosophy in order to stockpile bits of knowledge and propositions, but rather to shape life” (6). We also find quips in Documents 9 and 10 where Heidegger warns “against making relativism into a standpoint”; or muses “to become a Hegelian is only half as bad as becoming a Kierkegaardian”; or advises that “chattering on about the religious based on what one has read in an encyclopedia”; or imparts that “one should not desire to create proselytizers” (7-10). Around this time of exchange, the letters become intellectually dense and engaging. Heidegger writes to Husserl about taking on Löwith as a student, where Husserl is in “heartfelt agreement” (9). Heidegger, however, hesitates soon after by saying he is overworked and that he “is too poor at the moment to buy books” (9) and that “I myself am not even seen as a ‘philosopher’ anymore, for I am in fact only still a theologian” (12).

Löwith responds a month later in a moving letter demonstrating the student’s intellectual gifts. “For as much as I agree with you,” Löwith suggests, “about the separation of philosophy and scholarship, the problem nevertheless remains unsolved, given that today one cannot allow oneself to posit philosophical claims in the manner of Schelling or even Hegel” (14). He further claims that Max Weber comes close to “lifting such a heavy burden” for philosophy as at one time Hegel did (15). But after some skepticism, matched, in the previous letter, by Heidegger’s doubts on German philosophy, Löwith affirms, “given such doubts and such hesitancies regarding scholarly activity, it is difficult to justify making philosophy into a career” (15). To comment on Heidegger’s growing disinterest but incredible academic powers, Löwith ends the letter by requesting of Heidegger if he can speak truthfully. In describing his soon-to-be mentor, Löwith boldly expounds that he understands Heidegger on a spiritual level: “One senses a certain unease and humane insecurity within you, whose consequence is a slightly overcomposed acerbity and mistrust, and one seeks in you that indefinable inner freedom and ability to be in control of oneself. I am sure you yourself are suffering the most from this, and I would never mention it if I myself were not able to empathize all too well” (15).

Due to such statements and lengthy philosophical discourse, throughout the 1920s, Heidegger’s trusts his pupil immensely. Heidegger, for example, says to Löwith that the new volume of Kant Studien is worthless in its entirety (16). Löwith frequently criticizes Husserl attempting, I believe, to impress Heidegger, and Löwith appears to approach philosophy more in line with Heidegger than any other major German philosopher. In a 1923 letter, Heidegger asserts, “never in his life, not even for a second, was Husserl a philosopher. He is becoming increasingly ridiculous” (63). One can only imagine the substantial content of their in-person philosophical diatribes, as many of the letters confirm dates to meet in various German cities, while roaming the state for invited talks and conferences. Heidegger, on occasion, invites Löwith to his hut in the Black Forest. In Supplement 5, the editors include Karl Löwith’s written entry at the Heidegger family hut in Todtnauberg (1924). Although on that day, “philosophy of language came to expression in such a way that philosophy was not discussed” (169). “And now you have a letter full of gossip,” Heidegger writes in 1922, “but this is the only way that one can write about one’s situation; to speak of other matters in between would be a shame, it’s better to do that in person” (57). During these exchanges, Heidegger must have shown his increasing irritation with Plato philosophically and Husserl personally, although still dedicating Being and Time to the latter. Löwith convinces Heidegger that he is able to “strip off all of that rationalistic Platonism” (17). Later on, Löwith cites an encounter where during his second semester he voiced to Heidegger that he had a “vehement resistance to [Husserl’s] philosophical cast of mind. Today it is absolutely clear to me that Husserl, on the deepest level, is not a great philosopher, and that it is a massive delusion to put him on the same pedestal as Kant; his whole disposition is infinitely far removed from reality—it is without life and is doctrinally logical” (21).

Aside from a shared criticism of Husserl, which persists through the decade, Heidegger’s predisposition towards a pedagogy guided by philosophy shines forth from the text. Whatever can be said about Heidegger, these letters expose Heidegger’s devotion to teaching philosophy. In Document 25, there are ambivalent statements for Löwith to unpack, such as Heidegger’s ideal of “one’s mastery of things [which] arises out of the clearest and most stringent expertise—but in the philosophy itself, one should not notice this. These days, it is particularly difficult to advance toward a vibrant and enlivened philosophizing and to accomplish what it demands. And that is why you must not work at half strength, but must rather fuse reflection into, and with, philosophizing. Philosophy is not fun—one can be destroyed by it; and he who does not risk this will never come to it” (20). Although Heidegger desires an ambitious philosophical career, he does not wish to “make the world better—even less so university philosophers; everyone should say what they want to say, and then apply themselves accordingly” (20). Moreover, in a particularly chasten letter addressed to him, Löwith, on his teacher’s request, must take philosophy more seriously. Almost challenging Löwith forward into the path of higher learning, Heidegger evaluates, “you must become more disciplined in your work—not in regard to quantity, but in regard to quality. The meaning and sense of philosophizing is itself historical {historisch}, and what matters is to find one’s own—and to leave aside all the yardsticks of earlier philosophers…One should not unduly hasten the formation of one’s thoughts” (20).

The translators have correctly captured Heidegger’s incisive play on the word existence by leaving the term existentiell untranslated. Heidegger changes the word for existence in his later works to distinguish from conventional notions of the term. Engaging with Löwith on interpretations of his work, Heidegger seeks to charm the young scholar into following “the existentell interpretation of facticity” (37). We find the use of the term Dasein (again, correctly untranslated) as early as 1921, in perhaps a set of letters that provides the deepest philosophical dialectic between the interlocutors. In Document 25, Heidegger denies a definition of philosophy proposed by Löwith in a previous letter by stating philosophy is pointless in isolation. Philosophy only matters as belonging to existentell facticity. By claiming he does not follow Kierkegaard, Heidegger notes that tailoring one’s philosophical work to suit the “cultural tasks” of the “common man” is absurd (37). Instead, university philosophers must be tied essentially to factical-existentell life; however, Heidegger is “not hereby asserting that philosophy only exists within the university, but rather that philosophizing, precisely because of its foundational purpose at the university (understood in an existentiell way), therein has the facticity of its own enactment, and with that, its own limits and restrictions” (37). Löwith’s rebuke of this claim concerning inherent limitations in facticity would become the foundation of his thought for the rest of his philosophical career.

These early letters are filled with advice for Löwith to become a scholar in his own right. Admitting that he does not wish his time as a student upon anyone, Heidegger acknowledges he is today a great thinker because of his resolve as a student (39). What Löwith shows in Document 24, his most extensive and erudite letter, is extraordinary. He receives the lessons of his mentor’s pedagogy, proving so by claiming that one cannot “exist in the proper sense within just any and all sorts of scholarly philosophical questioning…One can only exist in a true and complete way when asking questions about existence, and existence does not coincide with scholarly fanaticism” (32). The self-discovery process through philosophical rigor is the quality, it appears, Heidegger holds in the highest regard, not only for himself, but also for his most promising pupil. From these letters preceding Being and Time, we can conclude that Heidegger’s early pedagogy is one of existentiell authenticity for himself and his student.

Period 2: 1925-1929

Löwith stays in Italy in 1924-1925. In summer 1923, Heidegger informs Löwith that he has “obtained an appointment in Marburg with the rights and status of an Ordinarius Professor beginning on October 1st” (73). In the following letter, Document 74, Löwith’s warm adoration of the good news presupposes that he and Heidegger, by this point, are close friends and philosophical confidants. As early as 1922, a year before the Beer Hall Putsch, Löwith writes to Heidegger, “frighteningly, hidebound nationalism and anti-Semitism (fueled by Bavarian beer) are spreading. Campaign posters are being hung in the lecture halls…They demand, for example, that the university should only be allowed to have 1 percent Jewish professors, because this correlates to the percentage of the population at large” (57). Löwith’s letters, from 1923 forward, reflect an anxiety about a career in philosophy, an existential concern voiced in previous letters. This time, however, the reason of concern is material subsistence. Löwith writes, “the little bit of money that [I] earn here doesn’t go very far given this ever-rising inflation. There won’t be many other opportunities for money in a small city like Marburg…Please excuse these tiresome financial matters, but unfortunately, nothing is possible without them” (75). Weimar inflation, Heidegger’s new position, lack of employment opportunity, anxiety about material goods, and growing anti-Semitism in Germany are the reasons we gain by reading the correspondence for why Löwith accepts a job to work at a bookstore in Rome (87).

Indeed, despite his student residing in Italy, Heidegger accepts Löwith to habilitate under him. In Document 56, Heidegger lays out his demands, should Löwith have plans to habilitate, “then the only thing that matters is to submit a solid work; apart from that do not let the intention become explicit in any way. On this occasion, I must tell you once again that the prospects of a position as a professor in the next decades are poorer than ever, owing to the fact that chairs in philosophy will most likely be reduced…The career track is a matter of luck. If you put effort into it, you will have my help. However, beyond that, I don’t want the aggravation of having to lead you by the hand” (85).

Despite his location, Löwith wishes for the prospect of habilitation. Habilitating only depends on “(1) if I produce a work that meets your expectations and that leads you to advocate for me, and (2) on the faculty…If you share my view, I would be very happy if you could send me this in your reply…” (86). “Naturally,” Löwith continues, “I am not in good spirits right now, but I am also not without hope…for I believe myself not to be in error when I take the two weeks…to be a sign that nothing was in vain, that I have not been given a burden too heavy to shoulder, and that my philosophical—scholarly abilities have continued to grow silently along with me, despite, and because of everything” (87). Heidegger confers his student to keep his head high as things are not so bad (126), despite Löwith’s sick father and the turmoil surrounding lack of career prospects. Heidegger responds, “I come from a very poor family—all that my parents scrimped and saved, without ever understanding what I was studying or what I planned to do—all of that was still so meager that I had to endure my time as a student with far greater privation than is the case today among ‘poor’ students. And it worked out because I never gave up…You will not starve to death, but life is not pleasant; not even when one is an Ordinarius Professor” (89). In a 1928 letter, Heidegger writes that every semester he started with nothing in his pockets. He had to go into debt and go hungry; he implores Löwith to persist through the adversity (126).

After his time in Italy, Löwith interprets Heidegger’s Being and Time for his habilitation thesis. In 1927, Löwith asks Heidegger to think back to his time under Husserl in Freiburg to “recognize the thankfulness within my unevenly matched assault” (111). Löwith is now thirty years old, and ready to defend his habilitation. In his own work, he has tried to present what he understands to be a problem of Heidegger’s thought (111). Whereas Heidegger’s Being and Time is about the authenticity of the ontological against the ontic of the das Mann or the they, the inauthentic crowd, Löwith’s central focus of his thesis is that Dasein is a being-with-others [Miteinanderseins] that “lies on the same plane of conflict as one’s authentic existence, and through ‘nature’ (sensibility) it does not become unproblematic but rather concretely and specifically problematic” (117).

Heidegger accepts Löwith’s habilitation thesis. Document 77 is a technical response from Heidegger to many of Löwith’s charges that Dasein must be-with-others. Defending his own work against Löwith’s interpretation, Heidegger is unwavering in his conviction that ontology is only founded ontically, and that he is the first person to have fully articulated this claim (121). The interlocutors write back and forth for the rest of 1927 and part of 1928 about the faculty process of passing Löwith.

In Supplement 2, the editors have printed in full “Martin Heidegger’s Assessment of Karl Löwith’s Habilitation Thesis (1928).” The thesis is entitled Der Individuum in der Rolle des Mitmenchen. The assessment outlines a shared world from being-with-others, another concept that has remained untranslated in English, Miteinanderseins, where subjects create relations of “personae” playing roles for others in a shared world (162). Out of this shared world, individuals determine their existential subjectivity by the world of things belonging before that of people (162). The adoption of a shared world is limited by the individual, as each shares a responsibility to individuality as such so that others maintain this existential process. In his assessment, Heidegger calls this the “I-You” relationship (162). Heidegger admits in prior letters that psychoanalysis and anthropology are irrelevant to crucial issues and not of much interest to him. But in the evaluation of the thesis, Heidegger praises the work as it shows “a scholarly independence that exceeds what is typical of habilitation theses in philosophy” (163).

Period 3: 1930s

In a letter dated April 29, 1928, Heidegger writes to Löwith that the committee “stands in agreement; thus your work can be disseminated to the faculty as quickly as possible” (127). After the habilitation period, Löwith searches for academic positions. Löwith becomes a Privatedozent in Marburg—from 1928 until Hitler’s ascension in 1933—where Heidegger advises him to “hold at least a three-hour a week lecture concerning the history of modern philosophy since Descartes. You have to immerse yourself and take from it what you can get…In the future, do not be too surprised if you come to experience more, and more powerfully, the demoralization of the university” (130-131).

In 1929, Löwith marries Elisabeth Ada Kremmer. Heidegger sends his best. Then, the relationship of the decade-long pen mates turns tense. Document 96 displays Heidegger’s disregard for superficiality, especially among the university elites, as he is thankful to Fate that he is “truly made of stuff that cannot be harmed by all this whispering and whining. Despite the inner necessity of the creative process, I would rather choose to remain in utter silence than have my work be dependent on this profession” (136). He criticizes the fact that Löwith cannot get away “from Dilthey, Nietzsche, and psychoanalysis”, which was proven “during your first semester when you did not follow my advice to study a wide range of historical lectures, which would have forced you into other matters. But how could I blame you for such things! Then, I could have quite easily and effortlessly prevented your habilitation” (136). As a lecturing academic, and no longer a student, Löwith defends the claims of his habilitation thesis against the charges. According to Löwith, “for then it would indeed be tautological to say that the human only ‘is’ the human on the basis of the Dasein within him…in reality it is neither tautological nor self-evident; and a justification for why this is so was lacking from Being and Time, a jettisoning of the ‘neutrality’ of essential ontological claims, and I see the first signs of such an attempt on pages 17 and 18 of your lecture [What is Metaphysics], where this purity of Dasein is proven on the basis of the one…who experiences anxiety, and where you say that anxiety ‘transforms’ the human into pure Dasein” (138). Nevertheless, Löwith confesses to Heidegger that “an astonishing number of students have learned an unconditional respect for philosophy through you, and you have probably experienced more joy with some of them than you did with me” (141).

1931 and 1932 hold many of the same previous themes of going over lecture topics and explication of philosophical concepts, besides the fact that now Löwith is asking for Heidegger’s advice on lecture topics. Just before the new year in 1932, Heidegger sends his sincere condolences for the loss of Löwith’s father. In the tumultuous year for the relationship when Heidegger embraces the Nazi party, we have three letters and one telegram from 1933, all from Heidegger. We are missing at least two because Heidegger thanks Löwith for letters mid-1933, which is after the April date of Heidegger’s rectorship of Freiburg University. Also, Heidegger congratulates Löwith on a stipend in July. One of the omissions is Löwith asking if he could dedicate his book to Heidegger (the editors suggest the book in question is Löwith’s Kierkegaard and Nietzsche, or the Philosophical and Theological Overcoming of Nihilism). Heidegger responds, “in reality I know well how you feel about me, even when your work goes in other directions. Also, with an eye toward possible situations in which I might be asked to render a judgement about you, I suggest that you omit the dedication” (149). Two letters appear from Heidegger in 1936-1937. Löwith emigrates to Japan in 1936, as living in Europe grows calamitous.

Period 4: Reconciliation

Löwith would ride out the war in America, teaching at Hartford Seminary in Connecticut (1941-1949) and at the New School for Social Research (1949-1952). In 1952, he moves back to Germany to become an Ordinarius Professor at Heidelberg. From New York, Löwith sends a telegram in 1949 giving Heidegger best wishes on his sixtieth birthday. In Document 113 Löwith writes Heidegger from his new position at Heidelberg. After almost two decades of silence, interrupted only by the birthday telegram, Löwith discusses academic conferences and interpretations of Nietzsche. While 1966 is the year Heidegger claims that “only a god can save us now” in the famous Der Spiegel interview, a year later Heidegger and Löwith reconnect when Löwith is in Freiburg for a two-day colloquium on “Modern Atheism and Morality” (277). The return letter from Heidegger indicates that they did plan to visit each other. Unclear is how close the relationship is immediately afterwards. In the 1970s, nothing of substance is exchanged in letters. Heidegger writes Löwith in 1973 when he learns from Gadamer about his illness. During time of sickness, Heidegger writes, “the world contracts and withdraws into the simple. In our old age, we think of the end—but also of the beginning—of our paths” (155). This remark undoubtedly draws attention to the good moments they had discussing philosophy and gossiping about Husserl in the early 1920s. After Löwith’s death, we draw the correspondence to a close when Heidegger receives a photo of the departed from Frau Löwith to which Heidegger says shows him “in a state of calm and collected contemplation” (156).

What Correspondence 1919-1973 brings to English readers is indispensable. It uncovers a foregone age of thinking between two monumental figures. The major linchpin thematically is the year Heidegger becomes a figurehead for National Socialism. Before then, in the correspondence, Löwith is an astute student, and after, the relationship fragments. While Löwith would finally embrace a professional career in philosophy, after all his written anxiety about the pursuit, his insight into 1933 becomes a topic of an autobiography originally published as an essay for a competition at Harvard in 1939 “My Life in Germany Before and After 1933”. Indeed, many of Löwith’s later writings find Heidegger’s existentell analytic a reason for his political involvement with National Socialism. Undoubtedly due to Heidegger’s unique philosophical pedagogy in early 1920s, Löwith would make a laudable philosophical career searching for limits in a time when society removes traditional constraints. What these exchange of letters makes known with clarity is that Löwith, while habilitating under Heidegger, already finds the concepts of authenticity and facticity problematic for their lack of ground for being-with-others. The translators of this volume capture all the necessary components to make sense of Heidegger’s early thinking, while the editors carefully provide more than enough supplementary material to contextualize and situate the often-perplexing references. By providing English readers with Heidegger and Löwith’s erudite relationship, in their own written words, Correspondence 1919-1973 is essential reading for anyone interested in twentieth-century continental thought.

Wolfgang Gleixner: endlich/philosophieren: Die anthropologisch-existentielle Wende der Phänomenologie, Karl Alber, 2022

endlich/philosophieren: Die anthropologisch-existentielle Wende der Phänomenologie Book Cover endlich/philosophieren: Die anthropologisch-existentielle Wende der Phänomenologie
Wolfgang Gleixner
Karl Alber
2022
Paperback
520

Steven DeLay: In the Spirit: A Phenomenology of Faith

In the Spirit: A Phenomenology of Faith Book Cover In the Spirit: A Phenomenology of Faith
Steven DeLay
Christian Alternative Books: John Hunt Publishing
2022
Paperback
173

Reviewed by: Sarah Pawlett Jackson (St Mellitus College and University of London)

In the Spirit is a short text comprised of nine chapters and a conclusion. Each chapter has a loose thematic centre, which it explores associatively. The author draws out different existential threads in conversation with the Christian scriptures and a range of different works of art. There is a particular journey that the book hopes to take its reader on, although I didn’t fully appreciate this until I got to the end. Starting in darkness, with the soul asleep, journeying through resistance to conversion to a life renewed, the book ends with a vision of perfection and the pattern of a divinely ordered life.

The opening chapter – ‘A Drunkard’s Sleep’ – takes drunkenness as its phenomenological and theological meditation. In this chapter DeLay draws substantially on Adriaen van Ostade’s Drunkards in a Tavern to illuminate his various conceptual forays on this theme. He goes in a number of different directions exploring the image and experience of drunkenness. Intoxication by alcohol is associated variously with sleep, dreaming, lying, illusion, blindness, restlessness, simmering rage, hardness of heart and a failure to be satiated. These different qualities of the drunk and the addict find obvious correlates in the existential and spiritual realm. For DeLay, that which the drunk’s restless thirst longs for is ultimately the living water which Christ offers the Samaritan woman in John 4; the water that is himself. Yet the drunk ‘dulls his sensibility’ (12) to this living water, which is why there is a wakefulness, a ‘sober-mindedness’ (16) needed before it is even possible to drink from that which will satisfy. There is a particularly interesting reflection in the midst of this meandering exploration, on two types of blindness. DeLay takes us to Christ’s diagnosis in Matthew 11:18-19 of those that reject both he and John the Baptist, but for different reasons. John is rejected for his sobriety while Jesus is rejected for his so-called gluttony. As DeLay puts it: ‘Doubt, then, comes in two forms of blindness: with John, an unduly suspicious seeing that does not see what meets the eye, simply because it does not want to see it; with Christ, a self-servingly shallow seeing that sees only enough to be able to remain blind to whatever more it does not want to see.’ (18) DeLay puts the question to us – where else do these two types of blindness show up (or fail to show up) in the reader’s life and experience – the not seeing what is there and the only seeing what is there?

The second chapter – ‘The Strong Wind and a Still Small Voice’ – majors on the theme of dependence. It focuses on the Biblical story in 1 Kings 19 where the prophet Elijah is fed by an angel after waking alone and exhausted in the wilderness. DeLay considers the weakness, fragility of Elijah in his moment, which leads him to a broader reflection on the vulnerability and dependency woven through the human condition, requiring a posture of something like Løgstrup’s ‘basic trust’. He notes the ways we can resist this part of ourselves and try to maintain an illusion of independence. DeLay considers different artist’s impressions of this moment in Elijah’s story (Escalante, Bol, Maggiotto and Moretto.) These different ways of depicting the moment give us, as the reader, a way into imagining different possible postures – both of resistance and of receptivity – in Elijah in this moment, and in ourselves.

The third chapter – ‘On the Broad Way’ – circles around the theme of desire. It considers both desires locked into their own sense of themselves, as well as the possibility of a desire that leads to divine transcendence. DeLay tells us, starkly, that ‘Desire’s transfiguration, from inattentive or feverish, on the one hand, to attentive and judicious, on the other, is an upheaval of everything, that great moment of lucidity marking the fear of God.’ (35) This chapter circles back to themes from the previous two, picking up the narcotising theme from the first chapter. He again uses different pieces of visual art (Rodin and Munch) to invite us to consider different ways of seeing-as-artist, and so different ways of desiring. With echoes of Levinas he identifies the desire which hoovers the world into one’s own totalising artistic project, and an alternative which is receptive to the interruption of God.

Chapter Four is called ‘The Golden Calf.’ As its title suggests, this portion of text riffs on the theme of idolatry. Here DeLay engages with the contemporary prevalence of social media, thinking phenomenologically about the pressure it exerts to keep us preoccupied with images of ourselves. He diagnoses a new very and yet very old phenomenon, traced back to the myth of Narcissus. In an enjoyable pun, he diagnoses: ‘Narcissus, in fact, is the ancient predecessor of what for us has become rampant, a transcendental egoism consisting in the illusion of independence and self-sufficiency from God, a shallow pride leading to the pursuit of self-adoration, thereby culminating in an existence whereby one becomes one’s own idol, one’s own golden calf.’ (54) Taking this pronouncement further, he claims that this narcissism becomes ‘demonic’, because ‘divorced from the goal of becoming wise, the task of being oneself meets with failure. For underestimating evil, it fails to take adequate refuge from it.’ (65)

Chapter Five – ‘Through the Veil of the Word made Flesh’ – is something of a hinge chapter. Here DeLay tells us retrospectively what he has been seeking to do so far, and why: ‘If, then, the preceding chapters have aimed to establish one thing, it is to disclose the stupor in which we grope when we are estranged from God, whatever the particular reason is. Having fought for however long it may be to live apart from God, how will coming to know him be achievable after persisting alone? What form can a reconciliation between God and us take?’ (66) This chapter tries to illuminate the moment of conversion, where the inverted, self-satisfied ego is taken out of itself and transformed. This, then, is the frame with which to read this chapter, and the whole of the second half of the book. The exploration of a phenomenology of the closed-off life becomes an exploration of the phenomenology of conversion becomes an exploration of the phenomenology of the spiritually open and given-over life. DeLay’s orthodox answer to the question of what form divine-human reconciliation might take, is that ‘the incarnation changes everything.’ (66) It is the incarnation of God that ruptures our experience (of drunkenness, independence, feverish desire and idolatry) and addresses us. The recurring image – once again explored through the eyes of various artists, but particularly in this case, Caravaggio – is of St Paul’s Damascus Road conversion. It is Paul’s confrontation with the incarnate and reconciling person of Christ that knocks him (and us) off our horse. DeLay describes it thus: ‘The haze lifts. The riddle dissolves. Life ceases to be a Promethean project of forging an identity by way of the purposes we choose to determine for ourselves. Now, it instead takes on the pure form of a divinely appointed vocation, a task God gives us…Henceforth, the incarnation points the way for us, because Christ, while in earth, dwelling among us, leaves the pattern of life by which reaching eternal life is possible.’ (68) In the second half of this chapter he starts the constructive work of articulating what a phenomenology of this life so patterned involves. He offers a rich description of the ‘spiritual senses’ – what-it-is-like to have spiritual sight, hearing, smell, taste and touch (the eyes, ears, nose, mouth and hands of the heart, as it puts it) awake and attuned.

The sixth chapter – ‘The Purple Robe’– takes evil as its theme, particularly evil’s resistance to the conversion held up in the previous chapter. Different manifestations of the resistance to conversion are explored, but DeLay’s focus is evil’s pattern of denial of the truth followed by violent attack on the truth. The counter-pattern of the converted life works against this grain of denial-and-attack: ‘Displaying the futility of evil’s will to destroy the truth, Christ’s personal victory over death takes on universal significance. Having passed through suffering unto death, and back to life, his resurrection guarantees the good’s ultimate triumph over evil. Even when evil seemingly has overpowered the truth to the point of putting it to death, it fails, for the truth only rises again. This is the eternal power of the good originating beyond the world, a good having issued its first word with creation, and its last word with the resurrection.’ (102)

Work and rest are the central theme of the seventh chapter, titled ‘Apparitions of the Kingdom’. By implicit contrast to the locked-in desire and restlessness explored in earlier chapters, this is an examination of a work redeemed and a true rest that springs from outside of the self. As we find in all these chapters, DeLay offers a taxonomy of experiences. Of particular interest here is his distinction between different types of restoring rest – rest found through connection with the whole, and rest found in meditation on the dignity of the details, which he demonstrates in his discussions of Turner and Monet respectively. Again, what is offered is a phenomenology of the life spiritual – after the pattern of Christ. Rather than embroiling himself in classic philosophical debates about work and rest (usually cashed out as activity and passivity, or freedom and determinism) he rather points us to the fact that ‘metaphysical questions regarding God’s relation to creation and the relation between divine and human action are resolved simply by imitating Christ.’ (109)

‘Paul and the Philosophers’, DeLay’s eight chapter, takes wisdom as its theme. Paul’s famous sermon to the Greeks at Mars Hill is explored through various painterly depictions (Raphael, Ricco, Fortuny, Pannini and Rothermel.) The wisdom that is the pattern of Christ DeLay describes as ‘a third way’ (120) between the wisdom of the Greek philosophers (both Stoic and Epicurean) and the Jewish wisdom tradition from which Paul himself comes. Most pertinently for the philosophers reading this text, DeLay puts forward the suggestion that intellectualism’s sceptical posture can be destructive not only as a form of idolatry, but also as a form of superstition. For ‘when the truth has been revealed, and one persists in ignorance, what previously had been an admirable attitude of epistemic modesty itself becomes superstition, for it clings to an ignorance that has ceased to be warranted.’ (125) By contrast, Paul preaches obedience to the truth revealed, the person of Christ himself.

Chapter Nine, ‘The World’, considers the theme of overcoming. The Biblical stories paired and explored through artworks here are that of St John’s Revelation on the island of Patmos, and Christ’s temptation in the wilderness. The connection hangs on Patmos as a site of temptation similar to that of Christ’s wilderness. Drawing on both stories, DeLay gives an account the work and experience of overcoming – overcoming the world, overcoming temptation and (rightly) overcoming oneself. Christ is again the pattern book for this existential task. In refusing Satan’s attempts to get him to use his power in the wilderness he shows us, for example, that real power does not always need to show itself, and this is the kind of overcoming that our more spiritually alive selves are called to.

We come to the Conclusion, which is titled ‘Perfection’. The telos of the journey is held before us to continually elevate us, to remind us of the nobility that is possible and to-be-pursued. ‘Existence assumes the form of faith, for it becomes a stretching forth, a perpetual exodus always in patience seeking after the heavenly city, rather than turning back to idle aimlessly where it had begun.’ (150) And yet lest we forget, we are reminded – ‘nobody begins elsewhere than with mercy.’ (151)

My experience of reading this book was that each chapter was something like a homily – less primarily a piece of conceptual analysis (although this is wound through DeLay’s prose) and more of a moral, spiritual and existential exhortation. Or perhaps the foreground use of artworks makes this book feel like visiting a gallery with someone, attending with them, jointly attending and seeing what they see. I could imagine a sermon or lecture companion series to this text. Knowing now the homiletic quality of the text, I might have chosen to read it differently. I suspect that the best way to approach this book is not to read it too quickly, but to treat each chapter as a meditation, pausing between each. There are strands of connection between the chapters, but similarly, one could easily read each chapter as standalone. As so much of the book involves discussion of unseen works of art, reading in a space where one has access to a high resolution screen to search for the images will probably serve this more tuned-in and contemplative reading. (Learn from this reader’s mistake – don’t read on the London Underground with no Wi-Fi to search for images). In an ideal world this book would have included all the images it refers to, but there are a huge number of artworks engaged, which would no doubt have been a huge cost and headache to compile.

Although I want to say that this is a homiletic piece of work, it is also certainly reads as a primary piece of phenomenology in the tradition of Christian existentialism. DeLay’s energy is not directed towards any secondary analysis of any other thinkers – the text is focused on making its own declarations, analyses and exhortations. The prose has a meandering and associative quality, with themes built on implicitly, and in a non-linear way. The form of the book seems to want to evoke some of the texture of our experiential and existential existence. It has no introduction, no framing, no signposting, no overview. We are dropped straight into the meditation on drunkenness and sleep with the question: ‘Am I in darkness?’ Initially I found this jarring and disorientating, but, in settling in to DeLay’s prose, I take it that this abruptness is intentional, evoking our thrownness and the disoriented sense of waking from sleep, not knowing quite where we are or what it is to find ourselves awake (or are we?)

As a work of phenomenology, the extent to which the reader will find it valuable will be the extent to which the rich phenomenological descriptions that DeLay paints resonate with the lived experience of the reader, or not. For this reader, there were many points at which the text spoke to my lived experience – see above, on blindness and intellectualism particularly. On this point I would be fascinated to speak to others who have also read the text. This text is accessible to the engaged and interested reader of any stripe – no previous expertise in philosophy is needed, although my suspicion is that the book may split a room. This is a book that I wish I had been able to read with others, to find out what did and didn’t resonate with them, what they saw, felt or noticed in reading this book that I didn’t, what rubbed them the wrong way. I am particularly curious as to how the book’s assertions might land with those who do not share the theological commitments that are made foreground. For this reader, immersed in and committed to the Christian faith, the theological assumptions are a familiar landscape in which I live, move and have my being. But how might the non-believer respond to the assertion that ‘the incarnation changes everything?’ This of course raises something of the meta-question of the nature, significance and legitimacy of the theological turn in phenomenology, although I think DeLay is rightly unapologetic in assuming that this kind of theological phenomenology is legitimate. I am interested less here in the meta-philosophical question and more in the interpersonal and experiential one: what-is-it-like for an atheist to read this book? There are many kinds of atheist, of course, so there will not be one answer to this question. My sense is that there are flavours and textures of human experience which DeLay puts words to, in conversation with art and scripture, which make this work the kind of site where theists and atheists can dialogue…but I seek the atheist’s opinion here.

In a similar vein, I am also curious as to how the tone and feel of the book is received by a non-Christian audience. The sermonising quality of DeLay’s writing has a certain severity or heaviness to it. This is a descriptive rather than critical point – again, the quality of a primary existential text (as we find in the likes of Kierkegaard, Levinas and friends) definitionally has a confronting tone. I would love to know for whom else this is a holy confrontation, and whether there are those for whom it leaves cold as moralising. One person’s aphorism is another’s cliché. Maybe all existential writing runs this risk, and there is a boldness to DeLay’s unironic frontal delivery which, in a philosophical landscape typically concerned with caveats and an obsession with narrowing the scope of a set of claims, is refreshing. As I say – I am curious to know where this text leads others.

Simone Aurora: Il campo della coscienza. Aron Gurwitsch e la fenomenologia trascendentale, Orhtotes, 2022

Il campo della coscienza. Aron Gurwitsch e la fenomenologia trascendentale Book Cover Il campo della coscienza. Aron Gurwitsch e la fenomenologia trascendentale
Simone Aurora
Orhtotes
2022
Paperback
150

Marie-Eve Morin: Merleau-Ponty and Nancy on Sense and Being, Edinburgh University Press, 2022

Merleau-Ponty and Nancy on Sense and Being: At the Limits of Phenomenology Book Cover Merleau-Ponty and Nancy on Sense and Being: At the Limits of Phenomenology
New Perspectives in Ontology
Marie-Eve Morin
Edinburgh University Press
2022
Hardback £85.00
216

Ethan Kleinberg: Emmanuel Levinas’s Talmudic Turn: Philosophy and Jewish Thought

Emmanuel Levinas's Talmudic Turn: Philosophy and Jewish Thought Book Cover Emmanuel Levinas's Talmudic Turn: Philosophy and Jewish Thought
Cultural Memory in the Present
Ethan Kleinberg
Stanford University Press
2021
Paperback $28.00
248

Reviewed by: Andrew Oberg
(Associate Professor, Faculty of Humanities, University of Kochi, Japan)

Reading Dialectically

1. Content and Structure

To begin, and with consideration for the nature of the journal in which this review appears, it should be acknowledged what this book is not: the work is weakest when it comes to philosophical analysis, for the most part providing descriptions of Levinas’ thought rather than interactions with it (although the latter is not entirely absent). I had expected otherwise and so this was somewhat disappointing, but – to slightly alter the old saying – perhaps we should not judge the book by the subtitle on its cover. The biographical information listed for the author tells us that Ethan Kleinberg is “the Class of 1958 Distinguished Professor of History and Letters at Wesleyan University” (this is also what is given on his institution’s faculty page), and a social media profile (for what such is worth, ours being the digital age) cites his PhD as being in History and Critical Theory. Thus, we should gear ourselves for history, and on that account the work is highly interesting and the reader does indeed gain much insight into Levinas the man from a careful reading of the text. This precisely – the act of careful reading – is the theme which I drew most from Kleinberg’s engaging and enjoyable presentation of Levinas’ Talmudic lectures as I journeyed alongside and through them, and the same shall become our concern in what follows.

A word or two must be given on the unique format that the book employs. Composed of six sections it is divided into four chapters that are flanked naturally enough by an introduction and a conclusion; the chapters, however, are “doubled” in the sense that each contains two separate columns of text which run parallel to each other: picture a single page with prose X on the left side and an entirely disconnected prose Y on the right; turn the page and X continues on as it had been still on the left with Y too carrying forwards on the right. In each of the chapters the right handed Y column ends before the left handed X, and therefore the final few pages simply have that side of the paper blank. It is admittedly not perfectly accurate to describe these two portions as “disconnected” however, for there is a thematic crossover between them which is related to Levinas’ life and personal educational mission. The left side sections offer biographical and institutional narratives connected to Levinas’ series of lectures on passages from the (Babylonian) Talmud delivered to the Colloque des intellectual juifs de langue française in Paris from 1960 to 1989, with an emphasis on what Kleinberg calls the “braid” of Levinas’ influences from and emphases on the trio of Western philosophy, French Enlightenment Universalism, and the Lithuanian Talmudic tradition. (See p. 12; Levinas had learned Talmud study under the mentorship of the well-known but perhaps mysterious Lithuanian master Shushani, being originally of Lithuanian stock himself although his family was forced to flee there for Ukraine after the German invasion of Lithuania in 1915, returning finally in 1920, only for Levinas to decide to leave again to attend university in France in 1923; these and other fascinating details are given in Chapter 1.) The right side sections relate to the content of the lectures themselves, titled respectively: “The Temptation of Temptation” (Shabbath, 88a and 88b); “Old as the World” (Sanhedrin, 36b-37a); “Beyond Memory” (Berakhot, 12b-13a); and “Contempt for the Torah as Idolatry” (Sanhedrin, 99a and 99b; note that the transliteration for these tractate names varies slightly from source to source, here I am simply following the spelling given in Kleinberg’s book).

The biographical (left) portion is further categorized as “Our Side” and the Talmudic (right) as “The Other Side” at the opening of each chapter, and these divisions are references to what Kleinberg outlines in the introduction as Levinas’ formulae – after Rabbi Hayyim of Volozhin, founder of the famed Volozhin Yeshiva – of “God on our side” and “God on God’s own side”: that is, for the “God as revealed in our finite and imperfect world and as such limited by that which we can conceive or imagine” and “the infinite and absolutely transcendent qualities of God that lie beyond our finite abilities to define, conceive, or even name God” (p. 5). We are additionally warned that we must take care (this from Levinas’ thinking) not to presume that what we know from “our side” can be understood as “the essence of God or we reduce God to a mere product of our imagination” (also p. 5). Clearly this makes for a healthy alert prior to any approach for or about the numinous, but there is also a methodological risk here in that these alignments could become useless if taken too seriously, such that the attempt to query and seek God on “God’s side” – however tentatively – is thereby perfunctorily given up; we must have some tools to work with, and moreover the courage to so work. We will therefore try; initially by taking Kleinberg’s “our side” texts before shifting to his “other side”, and finally offering some general summative remarks.

2. “Our Side”

Levinas is probably best remembered for his ethics, and as Kleinberg relates it this in part formed the impetus for Levinas’ pre-war move from Husserl to Heidegger, that it was “through the realization that there was no place for ‘others’ in Husserl’s phenomenological program” and hence the shift to a Heideggerean perspective (one thinks here of Heidegger’s emphases on embedded “world” issues, on Dasein as entering a historical trajectory already “in progress”, and on the necessity of a subject-bound hermeneutics as opposed to (the illusion of) objectivity) which provided Levinas with “themes [that] returned in Levinas’s later writing and in his Talmudic readings when they were recast in relation to his renewed emphasis on Jewish thought” (p. 29). After the war, in the dreadful awakening to the horrors of what came to be called HaShoah (The Catastrophe: the Holocaust) which confronted every thinking and feeling person, but of course most forcefully Europe’s surviving Jews, Levinas re-situated his own commitments to begin to place “his philosophy in terms of his Judaism: ‘My philosophy [this is a quote from Levinas found in the collection Carnets de la captivité (Notebooks from Captivity) published in 1946; he was a prisoner of war] is a philosophy of the face to face. The relation with the other without an intermediary. This is Judaism.’” Hereafter he also withdrew from Heidegger, and he enacted “the substitution of ‘Being-Jewish’ for Dasein” (p. 36).

This particularization and un-finitizing (this blurring) of the self and its place in the cosmos moreover entailed for Jewish identity a necessary tie to the past (election, and therefrom responsibility) within the still-not-yet of the promised messianic future, and it is this orientation to time that distinguishes “Being-Jewish” from, for example, the present focuses of Christianity with its “born anew”, or science with its discovery, or politics with its revolution. Therein lies “the fundamental difference between the ontological meaning of the everyday modern world and the ontological meaning of Being-Jewish” (p. 50). It might be objected at this point that Christianity, science, and politics do each clearly look to their own futures – and in the instances of “new birth”, discovery, and revolution especially so – but perhaps the idea here is that the stresses are on something akin to “May we have it now (new birth, discovery, revolution)” rather than the “split” “Being-Jewish” mindset which always has one eye over its shoulder, as it were, gazing both to the was-then and simultaneously the will-be.

On this issue of identity Kleinberg also locates what he describes as a “blind spot” for Levinas, a level at which he “conserves aspects of the authentic/inauthentic distinction inherited from the philosophy of Heidegger”; evidently this is through the relating of an assimilation into the broader culture with an inauthentic mode of “Being-Jewish” (p. 52). There is an interesting argument here in the sense of assimilated life as less “validly Jewish”, and therefore as juxtaposing with Heidegger’s inauthenticity as less philosophically realized, but for Heidegger inauthenticity was the “thrown” and default condition of the “they” (i.e. everyone) and Dasein needs to make (great) efforts to achieve authenticity, whereas the opposite is the case if one is born into the Jewish lineage: there the efforts required are for assimilation (moving out of one’s heritage, and having to try to be accepted as having so moved out by the “mainstream”), and hence the conceptual matching that Kleinberg asserts is not a perfect fit. Then too we might ask how thin the line is (or should be) between embrace and exclude when it comes to matters of identity, a question that ethically and existentially matters tremendously. Concern for the other is certainly at the core of Judaism, but if each other is always viewed in terms of “Being-Jewish” and vis-à-vis the kind of ranking system thereby implied, then that concern must become colored or even tainted; yet again, if we place ourselves historically in post-war Europe we find our sympathies are unreservedly extended to this manner of thought. It might be that the us/them aspect of any identity simply cannot be rid of the paradoxes and double-edges that adhere: that to ever assert any version of “we” is always and necessarily to negate it in a “they”. Whatever the case may be, this is a critique that Kleinberg returns to in his fourth chapter wherein he cites scholars who have been critical of what they label a hierarchy of people and cultures within Levinas’ writings and, as Kleinberg illustrates, his Talmudic lectures.

Let us though transition from ethics as point of view into ethics within/by/as text (scripture and exegesis), mindful of our stated theme of a “careful reading”. The Talmud came to be central to Levinas for his project of an ethical humanism – the responsibility for the other, facing the other and the taking on of accountability beyond the mere confines of one’s own acts – and that, “For Levinas, ‘the Bible clarified and accentuated by the commentaries of the great age that precedes and follows the destruction of the Second Temple, when an ancient and uninterrupted tradition finally blossoms, is a book that leads us not towards the mystery of God, but towards the human tasks of man’” (p. 73; emphasis in the original). It is the reading of the book (Bible) and the reading of the writings on the book (Mishnah, Talmud, et cetera) that properly conditions one to become a creature who can care, and this understanding both motivated Levinas in his pedagogical objectives and in his – shall we say – seizing of the Talmud away from its customary place in the yeshiva and thrusting it into the academy. Levinas, Kleinberg informs us, “wanted to take control of the chain of transmission, to prolong the spirit of Shushani, and thus to fulfil the call to transmit what has been heard. In essence, Levinas sought to start a new tradition, a new chain of transmission, in keeping with his goals for Jewish education, his reformulation of Judaism as a humanism” (p. 83). This then places us back at the beginning, and the Talmudic lectures themselves.

The initial 1959 lecture that Levinas delivered to the series of colloquia (given at the second commencement, he did not speak at the inaugural meeting) was on the influential philosopher and theologian – or maybe more properly: philotheologian, or theophilosopher – Franz Rosenzweig, but at the third event he presented a Talmud lesson opposite another’s biblical lesson (André Neher; see p. 94). At the time this was quite remarkable; Ady Steg, who would become the president of the Alliance Israélite Universelle from 1985 to 2011, recalled that: “The Bible was familiar to the intellectual world, to the non-Jewish world as well. But the Talmud was something totally ignored, reserved for those good Jews with long beards from Poland to Morocco. The idea that the Talmud could be studied in French, in public, and in the same manner that it was studied by Jews from eastern Europe or from Maghreb [northwest Africa] was extraordinary” (pp. 94-95). This was to become the motif for the years that followed. To Levinas, who accepted the being of God/“God” (I add the scare quotes to allow this concept some attitudinal flexibility), and the subsequent central position God/“God” attains through recognition, an associating with and/or orienting towards the divine was not to be done in the kind of non- (or anti-)rationalist ways that are typical of traditional religion, but instead via the same critical and reason-based thinking which is common in scholarship (p. 112). At numerous points Kleinberg refers to this as Levinas’ “religion for adults”, and the notion seems to have been one that was both dismissive and upholding vis-à-vis faith: denigrating “feeling” faith while lauding “thinking” faith would perhaps be one way to put it. Thus, for Levinas the sacred books were that – sacred – and were moreover of greater value than their interpreters and the schools of interpretation which history has granted alongside them; it is “the text that serves as the conduit or pathway to God on God’s own side” (p. 111). Kleinberg, commenting in general but also specifically about Levinas, remarks that we as readers should not depend upon “the genius of the reader or the writer” but rather “we should look to the transcendent meaning of the text, the opening to the Other that always retains the potential to say more than it says” (p. 126).

There is surely much wisdom in this, but it should also be noted the way that such an approach leaves the door ajar for relativism; Levinas did, it appears, insist on a proper training for taking from the Talmud (adhering to and promoting the method he learned from Shushani), but to bequeath the text (any text) with a “something beyond” is to give it a mysticism that supersedes its actual content (such as is signaled by “conduit”, “pathway”, “opening”, et cetera), and this is a facet of reading that both Levinas and Kleinberg seem comfortable with. Thereby the word can be made to “say” anything, and thusly to actually mean nothing. Yet there is, I think, another possibility here, and that is not to be bothered by this relativism so much as to embrace it in a particular way, to adopt a hermeneutics of the moment, and in this phenomenological reading to take care for the written meaning that one finds from within one’s place at one’s present, without making the additional move of affixing definitiveness to that. We are all, I suppose, postmoderns in this denial of a single, permanent interpretation, but in this latter now-construct just offered it is not a case of everything being there because no-“thing” is “there”, rather that what is there is indeed there but its instantiation rests within a spectrum of potentialities. The text is rooted, what it offers is limited, but even so with a depth that the surface might mask.

These thoughts call to mind Levinas’ concern for dissociating oneself from the prejudices of time, and as we suggested that a reading can be repetitious without ever being repeated (returned and returned to for re- and re-readings without ever finding the same set of results), Levinas advised that we leave aside “what we might call the bias of the modern that includes the presumption that we now know more and better than those who came before us” (p. 161). We do not of course, we merely know differently (as regards the humanities at least, for empirical matters the case is naturally distinct). In such a way Levinas was prepared to let the Talmud, through his “religion for adults”, speak its archaic words to contemporary readers and hearers, and in this he found too (the idea of) God/“God” as the “ethical ground or backstop that keeps reason from devolving into sophistry or the will to power…as the inspiration for good, for Ethics” (p. 138). It will be recognized how close this is to God/“God” as the “call” of writers like John D. Caputo, although on my understanding I suspect that Levinas would give a “meatier” rendering to God/“God” than Caputo might. On this note of the other, then, let us now turn to Kleinberg’s second (the right hand side) column of text – his “The Other Side” – in order to better explore the Talmudic lectures themselves.

3. “The Other Side”

The talk which Kleinberg chooses to begin with concerns itself with what Levinas calls “the temptation of temptation”, namely “the need to make the determination and offer an answer [which then] ascribes that meaning and, in doing so, wrests the event and the possibilities latent in its occurrence away from the Other…creating a closure instead of an opening” (p. 18). As we have here been contemplating, this is quite deleterious to a reading (now-constructed or not) that would be able to take – and be enabling of – an ancient source and apply its voice to the present. Whatever the participants whose discussions are recorded in the Talmud may have had to offer on this or that, the instant we affix Correct Interpretation M to such data then A through L along with N through Z disappear into the aether, leaving us not only the poorer for it but the text itself too greatly reduced. The passage on the page might “be” M now, but we must by all means resist the urge to make it ever-M; and, we may add, the related prompting to make my M forcefully become yours (after all, you could be reading N or O or P, and then let us talk about that and see if we do not in the end arrive at Q, or L). Such dialogical/dialectical proceedings (we will have more to add on this below) are of course not only in accord with the way of the Talmud, they are the way of the Talmud, and as Kleinberg writes, “Levinas instructs us to ‘enter into the Talmud’s game, which is concerned with the spirit beyond the letter, and is, for this reason, very wonderful’” (p. 64).

As an example of this, Kleinberg remarks that for Levinas the history of an institution such as the Sanhedrin “is unimportant, even its historical existence. What is important are the lessons that have been drawn from the Sanhedrin” (p. 55); and by reflecting on this once again we may find our now-construct reading with its rooted but broad word-trees, its textual branches. It does not matter one bit if the Sanhedrin sat in deliberation as is described, nor if its hallowed judges ever lived, what does are the manners by which these stories have been taken and applied to the lived situations of those who read and heard them. This is how the book attains (or is given) timelessness, how it instructs from its own side the reader as hearer as interpreter who then must do something with it today, irrespective of the “when” of its contents. However, in thinking thus we need to also recall the above caution about the inherent spectrums within the words and passages, the caveat that whatever the beauty and the intuited or claimed transcendence of a text, such will never be capable of fully standing outside history (arguably nothing can) and therefore will always be connected to the era of its production and the subsequent recorded interactions of the person(s)/community(ies) with the word. Again, Levinas’ “Being-Jewish” (we might substitute “reading-Jewish(ly)” here) that is at once backwards and forwards-facing. Kleinberg summarizes this aspect with: “the memory need not correlate to an ‘actual’ historical event. This is to say that the ‘memory’ of the exodus from Egypt need not be a memory of something that actually happened but instead the memory must be such that it carries the future within it. The promise for the future is more important than the fidelity to the past” (p. 96). This, I think, is not only indicative of the value a perspective can have but also of that for narratives, for myths and storytelling, for those repeated and beloved tales whose truths are in the virtues they (seek to) impart rather than the information they present. Superman, for instance, never “happened”, but his call for social justice and the championing of the weak (incidentally, highly biblical qualities) are as relevant today as they were when the comic first appeared in 1938; Levinas would no doubt make a very similar remark about the more complex and venerable biblical and extra-biblical incidents with which the Talmud concerns itself (not to compare the two!).

Within this very aspect of the text as having value and being loved, however, lies another danger which Kleinberg introduces in the final lecture he considers: “Contempt for the Torah as Idolatry” (Chapter 4). This is to take the Torah as itself an item due veneration, and Levinas counters this tendency (or temptation) by advising that – as Kleinberg puts it – “The general or universal rule is never enough and must be brought into contact with the actualities of the day [i.e. the reader’s time and place]. Invariable conceptual entities are to be avoided, perhaps, as one resists an idol” (pp. 130-131). For Levinas, a Jewishness which is based on a book (Torah) is that in which one is perforce a student, a reader, and it seems transparent enough that this is the kind of “Being-Jewish” that Levinas wishes to promote. The way, then, to avoid crossing the identity-based matter of “reader” with the commingled risk of an excessive reverence for the object of study is to seek to always read through what might be called a properly dialectical procedure, to move beyond mere dialogue with the words (itself already an improvement on a simple imbibing of the words) and into a realm where the text becomes an Other both affirmed and negated in a synthesis which produces something ever-ongoing: Kleinberg explains, “It is not the context in which the Torah was given that is important nor its status as a religious object. It is the act of reading and interpreting the Torah that brings Revelation to life” (p. 146), and therefore the “right and productive way [to engage the Torah] sees that the Torah must be studied, argued, and debated to be maintained. The wrong way is to take the Torah as a finished product worthy of worship in itself” (p. 148). A good reader, a non-idolatrous reader, will be someone who takes the pages as partners for interaction, who finds in them promptings that are always new and timeless precisely because they are timely, because they are connected to and responsive towards the needs of the moment: unlocked, unshackled from the past which birthed them and which must still nevertheless be known yet without allowing that information to circumspect their potential today. Kleinberg very colorfully describes the opposite of the dynamic approach just outlined as a version of “dogmatism” that “results in a harvest that cannot be consumed because the sowing has ceased” (p. 150). The message – its meaning, exercise, possibly even assessment – must be queried, argued, and found from what thereby emerges: again and again, world without end. The summary Kleinberg gives for Levinas’ focus is that, “Studying must not be a devotion in the sense of piety to an immobile code or rote memorization but a motion forward that reveals the way that such a self is always a work in process, a construction, an other me that can be a better me. As such, it is also an opening to the other” (p. 151).

It will be realized that the “self” of these concerns – for Levinas – is naturally connected to “Being-Jewish”, and Kleinberg transitions in his conclusion to contemplate some critics of Levinas’ work on these matters who find a (perhaps unbeknownst) favoritism or elitism within them that promotes his own in-group above all others. This is a matter of deep gravity for any system that would orient itself ethically, as both Levinas and the Talmud itself does, and moreover for one also dedicated to the legacies of Western philosophy and French Enlightenment Universalism (as Levinas was, outlined above), but it is also one terribly complicated by the “facts on the ground” of Jewish existence that at least in its Diaspora but possibly – in this globalized world – even in Eretz Yisrael faces regular threat and pressure to “be” elsewise. Levinas had lived through the Second World War, he had lost his family to the horrors of its pogroms, and he took it upon himself to struggle to assert a Jewish identity that could be proud and noble without retreating into either what he viewed to be a naïve form of Orthodoxy or a self-negating assimilation in the wider European (or other) culture: both of which would be a disappearance. Kleinberg wonders if these longings might not be extended further than the default exemplarism that comes part and parcel with membership-by-birth, reasoning that it is perhaps via a personal approach wherein such could be found: “He [Levinas] sought to make the past present for the future by blowing on the coals and reigniting the fire that he believed lives within the sacred texts of Judaism. It is in the relationship that we each can have with the text and not through the institutions that guard them” (p. 179). I sympathize with these thoughts, and certainly agree that almost limitless wisdom can be mined from the vast catalogue of writings that Judaism in its many formations has produced over the millennia, but I judge that too much structuring of self and personhood occurs from inside a belonging to permit a similarity of (let alone an equality of) reception to take place. “Being-Jewish” is something one cannot have without the constructive accoutrements that affix from the multitudinous angles of a people and a culture. Levinas wished to help his half-assimilated and/or “hidden” cohorts embrace themselves through his “religion for adults”; and with that as goal, and seen from inside that mindset, I think the preferentialism we can find in these lectures is probably inevitable. For the purposes they serve, moreover, that might not be a negative point.

4. A (Re-)Return to (Re-)Reading

In his turn to Talmud we find in Levinas a “return”, and thus we must invoke the concept of teshuvah, the “turning back” from having “gone astray” or – more colloquially – from “missing the mark”. We have not done what we ought to; we have not been as much as we could have; we have not lived up to our potential, or our calling. The challenge, the beckon, is always there: do (be) better, more. Levinas’ was a mission of education and encouragement, to go back and back and back to the text to seek from it what one may need in the moment for that moment, knowing full well that there can never be a mastery and that each re-reading is a confrontation anew. Kleinberg has given us an excellent snapshot of this facet of the great philosopher, of this piece of time within the man’s life, the concerns that enshrouded it and the motivations that animated it. The “stacked” or “doubled” nature of the four chapters that each contain biographical narratives alongside excerpts from and comments on the Talmudic lectures compel the reader to decide which he will engage with first (a strategy Kleinberg outrightly states in his introduction: this is the point of his arranging the book this way), and the choice may be self-revelatory in one way or another. Whether that is the case or not though, the opposite tack can thereafter be taken upon a second reading (“Our Side”/“The Other Side”: “The Other Side/“Our Side”; or vice versa), a notion one suspects Levinas would agree with (and probably Kleinberg be pleased by). The issue is a fittingly Jacobean one of “wrestling with God” (Genesis 32), of trying and trying and trying, of never giving up despite openly recognizing that there can be neither a completion nor finality. Kleinberg demonstrates how the Talmudic talks can be placed into Levinas’ broader oeuvre, and thereby how the treatments given in their contents might be matched with our own era and struggles for identity, purpose, and meaning. Levinas, along with his earlier contemporary and fellow imaginatively thinking European Jew Martin Buber, was an intellect of the other, of ethics, of relation. This too is a journey that does not end, but through our constant revisiting – and re-pondering – of the texts that help us on the way, may it be we find companions as provocative as these.

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