Imminence of Disaster

Emmanuel Lévinas, in a short autobiographyi, briefly recounts his childhood in Lithuania and Ukraine, his arrival in Strasbourg in 1923, his university career culminating in a professorship at the Sorbonne in 1973. This « disparate inventory » is dominated, he stresses, « by the presentiment and memory of Nazi horror ».

He then evokes, without any transition, the work of Husserl, whose method, he explains, consists of « respecting the intentions that animate the psyche », and seeing how it appears.

Surprising angel leap. Coagulation of extremes. From one line to the other, an unexpected change of subject – the passage from « Nazi horror » to « phenomenology ». Levinas links the pain of History, the praise of intention and the putting into perspective of what he calls « the unsuspected horizons where the real lies ».

Calm style of thought, through a succession of powerful jolts.

Time abounds in intimate fractures, in a thousand vacillations, constantly « presented » and « represented ». In each of them, the consciousness can decide to display its own will, a desire for rupture, or a refusal.1

From this capacity for rupture, from this refusal of abstraction, from this reflex of negation, from this scathing feeling of imminence, Levinas deduces the existence of beings of consciousness, who tear themselves away from the totality, who do not associate themselves with it, do not encompass it.

From these consciousnesses, from the pluralism of subjectivities and the myriad of experiences – he infers the necessity of the « other », the necessity of the relation of the being with other beings, and with the Other.

Nice ideal.

From the same premises, however, a much more pessimistic lesson could be drawn.

The rupture with the present, the gaping of the imminent, the uprooting from nature, the refusal of the principle, the execution of the impersonal and the negation of the totality do not necessarily lead to the apotheosis of the relation, the revelation of the being in front of the being.

Why would the refusal of the Whole certainly open the way to the Other?

The refusal of the Whole could rather imply a certain, absolute, assured solitude. The observation of Hegelian failure, the flight from totalizations, are not sufficient conditions for a new Exodus. Moreover, if there were a new Exodus, who would be its Moses, and to what Earth, with what people?

A Promised Land, where one could meet Angeli Novi, à la Klee? Or a wounded land, traversed in all directions by angels of Death, furious demons, incubi and succubi, — a land of Hell?

A disputed, bruised, bloodless land, where black clouds, funeral mounds, mass graves, and putrid smells spread out?

Which new prophet will tell us what the future Promised Lands still in the making will be?

For the addicts to phenomenology, the name of one of these putative prophets would be: Intention !…

Following this lesson, we should listen to the « intention » lurking in the depths, we should watch out for the « psyche » at work in ourselves. We must not stop being even more attentive to what could, coming unexpectedly, « appear » in the world, or in our consciousness, at any moment.

We must give consciousness this unique credit: to be able to sense in due time the imminence of disaster.


1« Le temps ne doit pas être vu comme  »image » et approximation d’une éternité immobile, comme mode déficient de la plénitude ontologique. Il articule un mode d’existence où tout est toujours révocable, où rien n’est définitif, mais est à venir – où le présent même n’est pas une simple coïncidence avec soi, mais encore imminence. Ce qui est la situation de la conscience. Avoir conscience, c’est avoir du temps, c’est être en deçà de la nature, dans un certain sens ne pas être encore né. Un tel arrachement n’est pas un moindre être, mais la façon du sujet. Elle est pouvoir de rupture, refus de principes neutres et impersonnels, refus de la totalité hégélienne et de la politique, refus de rythmes ensorceleurs de l’art. » E. Lévinas. Difficile liberté, 1976, p.375

iE. Lévinas. Difficile liberté. Chapitre Signature, 1076

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