RICHARD WOLIN thenation.com from the February 20, 2006 issue
This year in France is a "Levinas Year." The French philosopher was born in Lithuania in 1906 and died in 1995, just a few weeks short of his ninetieth birthday. There is something perversely appropriate about the commemorative sequence. In many respects Emmanuel Levinas was the anti-Sartre. Like the author of Being and Nothingness, he was enamored of German philosophy. And like Sartre, Levinas viewed himself as an heir to the phenomenological method conceived by Edmund Husserl and consummated by Martin Heidegger. But that's more or less where the similarities end. It would not be an exaggeration to describe Levinas's entire philosophical endeavor as a machine de guerre directed against Sartrean existential humanism. With Sartre, it is the "For-Itself," or consciousness, that constitutes philosophy's Archimedean vantage point. For Levinas, conversely, it is the "Other," l'Autrui, in all its uncanny metaphysical strangeness.
Although the two men were born within a year of each other, Levinas's anti-Sartrism bore a distinctively Oedipal character. Sartre's version of existentialism needed to perish so that Levinas's approach might live. In fact, for the generation of French thinkers who came of age during the 1940s and '50s, Sartre's presence was so titanic that slaying Sartre-the-father became an obligatory rite of passage. So thoroughly did he dominate every field of literary endeavor that his potential heirs felt they lacked breathing space. All of them--Claude Lévi-Strauss, Roland Barthes, Michel Foucault, as well as the two Jacques, Derrida and Lacan--at one point or another fired off venom-tipped textual explosives in Sartre's direction. Under the cover of the "death of the author," the structuralist thinkers were secretly hoping for Sartre's early demise.
Levinas was nothing if not a late bloomer. His magnum opus, Totality and Infinity, appeared in 1961, when he was already 55. Philosophical acclaim came even later. Not until the 1980s, when Levinas was in his late 70s, did France, his adoptive homeland, take this prolific and illustrious immigrant to its bosom. France has a long history of embracing foreign-born intellectuals and scholars: Jean Piaget, Lévi-Strauss, Derrida and Julia Kristeva were all born outside metropolitan France. Sometimes it just takes a bit longer for them to be recognized. In his refreshingly lucid study Origins of the Other, Samuel Moyn aptly characterizes Levinas's approach to ethics as "crypto-theological." By this term Moyn highlights Levinas's intrinsic ambivalence concerning the tension between his secular, phenomenological intentions and his covert eschatological aspirations. In response to the mood of profound cultural despair provoked by World War I, the 1920s witnessed a major theological revival. It is this phenomenon, Moyn contends, that formed the crucible for Levinas's distinctive approach to ethics.