No heir apparent

As the world celebrates the centenary of French-Jewish philosopher Emmanuel Levinas, his son Michael remembers the teachings of his father.

emmanuel levinas 88 298 (photo credit: )
emmanuel levinas 88 298
(photo credit: )
The international series of celebrations for the centenary of Emmanuel Levinas (1906-1995) which began last month are the most recent manifestations of this French-Jewish philosopher's transformation from a relatively obscure teacher and writer into an internationally acclaimed figure who is hailed as one of the major philosophers of the past century. One hundred years after his birth in Kovno on the Russian-Lithuanian border, Levinas's works have ceased to be studied exclusively by academic experts, and are becoming increasingly fashionable in a wide range of intellectual and cultural circles in Europe, North America and Israel. The centenary celebrations, which debuted in early January with a series of articles in Le Monde, continued in mid-January with a five-day conference organized by the Hebrew University in Jerusalem. Featuring a series of Israeli and international experts, the conference - the first of 22 official events to take place around world - examined the wide-ranging implications of Levinas's work for the fields of ethics, aesthetics, politics and Jewish philosophy and thought. In Israel, the rabbi and philosopher Daniel Epstein has just published a new book devoted to Levinas's thought. In France, the Editions de Minuit, the Librairie Philosophique Vrin and the Presses Universitaires de France have announced the forthcoming publication of the complete works of Levinas, edited by a series of experts including the philosopher Jean-Luc Nancy and the professor of Jewish philosophy St phane Moses. Levinas, who studied in Strasbourg in the early 1920s, where he befriended Maurice Blanchot, traveled in 1928 to Freibourg, where he encountered both Husserl and Heidegger, about whose works he would later write important commentaries in French. After having been conscripted into the French army following the outbreak of WWII, Levinas spent five years in a German prisoner-of-war camp. While his wife Raissa and daughter Simone were taken in by Blanchot and survived the war hiding in a monastery, the rest of his family perished in the Holocaust. In 1945, Levinas became the director of the Ecole normale Israelite orientale in Paris. That same year, he met the enigmatic Monsieur Chouchani, his admired guide to the world of Jewish scholarship. It was under Chouchani's tutelage that he began seriously studying the Talmud, which he would come to interpret in a unique manner, as formal and informal courses on Judaism came to play an important role in the renaissance of post-war Jewish intellectual life in France and in Europe. Levinas's interpretation of Jewish texts coincided with his philosophical thought, which is today considered to be one of the most original bodies of philosophical work in the 20th century. At the core of his ethics, which he saw as the foundation of all philosophy, was the relationship between self and Other, and his interpretation of the Talmud and the Torah similarly focused on the ethical dimension of the Jewish texts. IRONICALLY, LEVINAS'S philosophical legacy has engendered a fierce battle for the intellectual ownership of his work. In his will, Levinas appointed his son, the composer and pianist Michael Levinas, as the heir to the intellectual rights to his work. His daughter, Simone Hansel, contested the validity of Levinas's will shortly after his death, and the legal battle between her and her brother is still ongoing. Two different associations - led, respectively, by Levinas's son and by his grandson David, Hansel's daughter, have launched a series of parallel events in celebration of the philosopher's centenary. Speaking by phone from his home in Paris last month, Michael Levinas, who is overseeing the publication of his father's collected works, talked about his relationship with his father, with whom he maintained a fertile dialogue on aesthetics and music. "It is very difficult to compartmentalize the elements that have been transmitted to me by my father," said Levinas. "I entertained a long dialogue with him as a philosopher, a father and a Jew." "My entire childhood," he said, "passed in his proximity, and in the proximity of Rabbi Chouchani. My father considered Chouchani to be his second great encounter after Heidegger; he was present in our home since the day I was born, and had a very specific role in the evolution of my father's thought." Michael Levinas described the world he was born into as one defined by "an extraordinary climate, which included the resurrection of a certain kind of Judaism." The atmosphere in his childhood home, he said, was akin to that of a "kind of yeshiva," whose curriculum included the Rashi courses given by his father and those given by Shoshani and attended by secular French philosophers such as Blanchot. "I believe that until the end of his life, my father was deeply preoccupied with the question of the symmetry and the responsibility in our relation with the Other," Levinas said. "It was his manner of transcending the experience of the Shoah. "But there was also my mother's piano and my encounter with music, which my father supported. I worked on my first compositions in the room where he wrote his books." Growing up in the Levinas household, he said, meant "being part of family that was extremely solitary and isolated - four people protected, in a way, by the microcosm of the Jewish school that my father directed, and which was the locus of the renaissance of Jewish thought in Paris." When he was six years old, Levinas recalled, he and his father were sitting in a train car that had been stopped for hours. "I remember a very short dialogue that took place between him and a woman seated across from us," he said. "The lights went out, there was no heating, and in the dark I heard the voice of this French woman addressing herself to my father: 'Monsieur,' she said, 'this is unbelievable - it seems as if we were refugees.' "My father responded - he had the accent of a refugee, a Russian accent, and there was this fugitive quality to his voice: 'Madame,' he said, 'that is, perhaps, the ultimate form of nobility.'" "There was something in my father that I attributed to this nobility of the refugee," Levinas said. "There was always this sense of being there, but being on the margins. He gazed at the intellectual life in Paris from outside the game, as if he was on another plane - it was another kind of exile. "There was a phrase he always repeated when his writing was lauded in later years - repeated not as a means of self-effacement or false modesty, but as an expression of survival: 'Who would have believed it?' he used to say. 'There must be some sort of misunderstanding. I've just gotten off the Kovno-Paris train.'"