Home » Literature Demands An Ethical Response

Literature Demands An Ethical Response

In this essay I want to explicate the intuition that literature demands an ethical response that not only precedes interpretation but also serves as its basis. I am not arguing that the response to texts should be ethical, but simply that it is ethical before it is interpretive. The interpretive position adopted by critics of literature is determined not by the “interpretive community” to which they belong, nor by their “a priori” biases and ideological perspective, but by the responsibility they assume toward the text.

The community to which a critic belongs and the biases and perspective that give shape to her interpretation are themselves determined by the critic’s responsibilities. How we respond to others establishes our commitment to them. The response to a literary text is a pledge and critics bind themselves to a view of it by what they take themselves to be responsible for. Perhaps the best account of responsibility is that of Emmanuel Levinas. Although the philosophical discussion of responsibility is at least as old as Aristotle’s Politics, since the 1940’s the term belongs by rights to Levinas.

A naturalized French Jew born in Kovno, Lithuania, 92 percent of whose 30,000 Jews were murdered by the Nazis including most of his family, Levinas survived the war as a French officer in a POW camp near Hanover, studying Hegel, Proust, Diderot, and Rousseau (Cohen 115-21). As shown his own work, “From the Rise of Nihilism” it is likely that he experienced the “belated shame” often experienced by Jews after the Holocaust occurred (220). It shows that he experienced the kind of survivor guilt that gnaws at the conscience of the individual and is expressed clearly in authors like Primo Levi.

In fact, Levinas’s entire philosophy grows out of the tentative anxiety that one person’s life usurps another’s. All those who lived through the years 1939 to 1945 “retained a burn on their sides,” he remarks, “as though they had to bear for ever the shame of having survived” (221). Levinas argues in his “Ethics as First Philosophy” that human subjectivity or self-consciousness is “mauvaise conscience,” the feeling of being “not guilty, but accused” (72). Stripped of its intentionality and existing in a condition of passivity, the human subject is put into question.

What am I? To be, I have to respond. “But, from that point,” Levinas explains, “in affirming this me being, one has to respond to one’s right to be” (my emphasis 74). Self-consciousness is then self-justification, because it is consciousness of being without the intention of being. By this thinking, I am aware of my existence, but I did nothing to bring about my existence. I am prey to the gnawings of conscience but does that mean that it is possible that I came into being as the result of a crime of which I am unaware?

Levinas puts it even more strongly later in “Ethics as First Philosophy:” My being-in-the-world or my “place in the sun,” my being at home, have these not also been the usurpation of spaces belonging to the other man whom I have already oppressed or starved, or driven out into a third world; are they not acts of repulsing, excluding, exiling, stripping, killing? Pascal’s “my place in the sun” marks the beginning of the image of the usurpation of the whole earth. (81-82)

Since the first stirrings of consciousness are the anxiety, the first question before the human subject is the ethical question, how are you to respond to this uneasy sense of being “not guilty, but accused”? All human action, every effort to budge from the passivity of subjectivity, is a response to ethical challenge. Hence ethics are “first philosophy,” logically prior to any other mode of thought (71). The advice of deontology, that it is better to suffer injustice than to cause it, is hardly comforting to those who are rasped by the “mauvaise conscience” that they have already caused injustice.

Self-consciousness is not an inoffensive action in which the self takes note of its being,” Levinas says; “it is inseparable from a consciousness of justice and injustice” (“Ethics” 75). What he proposes in “Transcendence and Height” is to replace deontology with a counterfactual ethics of responsibility. This is to say that, if I am not guilty of hurting another I cannot be blamed for it; but if I nevertheless feel accused of it I can take responsibility for it. In this way perhaps I can both ease my conscience and begin to repair any damage that I might have caused.

My responsibility to the person I might have hurt, the human Other, preempts any claims of my own. Because the injury is counterfactual, because it is not specified and unlimited, my relation to the other is a relation of infinite responsibility, which means there is no escaping it (20-21). Not to respond is to treat the other as an It’ rather than a Thou,’ to borrow terms from Literary Criticism, an object to which things are done rather than a person with whom I might speak. But for Levinas there is no not responding, if you will allow me the double negative.

To ignore another is to shame her and make her aware of her isolation from me and thus to duck the responsibility for hurting or in this case not hurting her. Everyone is responsible to another whether he knows it or not and being human is living in responsibility. As Levinas clearly argues in “Meaning and Sense” his ethics are not prescriptive but descriptive. It is not that I should be responsible; I already am responsible by virtue of having consciousness. Every new encounter with another raises the question of how I am going to respond to her.

Either I can accept responsibility or I can default without a third alternative. The injustice to another “imposes itself upon me,” Levinas says, “without my being able to be deaf to its call or to forget it, that is, without my being able to suspend my responsibility for its distress”(54). My entire basis for academic interpretation is based on knowledge as ideological, by which I mean that it belongs to a historical world and is composed by the particular interests of that world.

But like Levinas says in “Meaning and Sense” a human being cannot be reduced to an object of knowledge; the effort to do so is “disturbed and jostled by another presence,” which cannot be “integrated into the world,” namely, the presence of a human face (53). This is perhaps Levinas’s most famous insight expressed most clearly in “Ethics and Spirit. ” The human face is the site of human personality. “The face is not the mere assemblage of a nose, a forehead, eyes, etc. ,” he says; “it is all that, of course, but takes on the meaning of a face through the new dimension it opens up in the perception of a being” (8).

The other is always already a Thou,’ because she has a face; she forbids every effort to reduce her to an It,’ because objects do not have faces. When I look upon the other’s face, I perceive the presence of something more than a composition of interests. I glimpse a being. Her face establishes her uniqueness, her irreducibility to interpretive context, her being-in-herself. ‘ Just as Levinas says in “God and Philosophy,” I can account for her behavior, but I can never account for her face.

Her presence before me, revealed by her face, is a summons to respond, to bestir and thus to identify myself: “here I am” (182-84). The I-Thou relation is constitutive of the self, not the other. I construct myself as a person by how I respond to others. But I can also deconstruct myself. As Levinas makes clear in “Transcendence and Height,” I can hold myself in unresponsive silence, leaving open the possibility that I have treated the other unjustly, or I can seize her in an effort to know her, committing an act of violence that transforms counterfactual injustice into actual injustice (15-17).

So responsibility precedes understanding. Now this would seem to be a paradox, as pointed out by Derrida, since the response to another usually takes the form of speech, and speech is usually taken to designate a meaning. In “The Notion of Persecution in Levinas’s Otherwise than Being, or Beyond Essence,” Elizabeth Weber notes that Levinas observes that speech has a moral purpose which is distinct from its linguistic purpose (i. e. you speak to me not only to disclose a semantic content but also to establish and deepen a relationship with me.

You await my response). Speaking to another, as Levinas puts it, is a self-denuding before the other, “the risky uncovering of oneself, in sincerity, the breaking up of inwardness and the abandon of all shelter, exposure to traumas, vulnerability” (quoted by Weber 72). All speech is testimonial before it is propositional. This is to say that all speech is first a confiding, a plea for acceptance, a building of trust. Everything depends upon how it is received.

To listen exclusively for the message is to treat as nothing your courage in revealing yourself or to be suspicious of your sincerity. It is to humiliate or to reject you. In either case, it is a failure of love, because all self-revelation is an act of love and a summons to love in return (75). This means to answer you, I must renounce all claims to domination and sovereignty and acknowledge your claims upon my attention and concern. For example, I must abandon the powerful position of silence.

The dialogue of speech and response, then, as Levinas puts in it “Ethics and Spirit,” “institutes the moral relationship of equality and consequently recognizes justice” (8). Weber explains how Levinas is like speech-act theorists, he analyzes speech according to how the saying is said but unlike speech-act theorists, he distinguishes types of speech not in formal terms, but in the intentionality of speaking and listening (73). Speech is “for-the-other” when it is offered as testimony on behalf of the other, but it is “by-the-other” when it is heard as testimony by her own means.

To try to clarify, in speech for-the-other I designate an object of communication, because I have a responsibility to communicate with you; but in speech by-the-other you display a willingness to be wounded, you risk “suffering without reason,” and I have a responsibility to attend to you (quote used by Weber 78). Thus, propositional meaning is a by-product of responsibility. In other words, speech by-the-other is answered with speech for-the-other. Understanding is possible only because I accept you as a partner in a face-to-face dialogue before I even try to understand you.

I speak to you, not to disclose my understanding, but to assume responsibility toward you. As Levinas puts it in “Toward the Other” this is the basis of community, because in responding to you I assume responsibility toward you “on behalf of someone else. ” To speak for-the-other is to engage the interest of everyone who has interests in common (20-21). This is where Levinas approaches the concept of collective responsibility, which emerged in post-Holocaust philosophy to characterize German guilt.

According to this thinking, members of a community are held responsible for things they did not participate in but which were done in their name. Levinas, however, does not ground collective responsibility upon “the silent dialogue between me and myself” to arrive at one’s duty because there is little to prevent this silent dialogue from concluding with the decision to cause injustice (20). At such a state, injustice would have to be prevented by appeal to something outside the self, which is counter intuitive for Levinas because the self is its response to the other.

The dialogue of morality is not between me and myself, but between you and me. If you call out in distress it accuses me, even if I am not guilty of making you call out, because your distress confronts me with the question whether I am going to do anything to alleviate it. And I can assume responsibility on behalf of someone else, someone who might be obligated to me. Members of a community are held responsible for things they did not participate in but which were done in their name, because a community springs from the responsibilities that its members assume toward one another, even if they are not obligated to do so (25-26).

As a white male I am part of a community that treated as objects black males and females. When reading The Autobiography of Frederick Douglass, Beloved, or Middle Passage, I feel that I am not guilty, but that I am accused. The gnawing of my conscience caused me to look away from these texts because they threatened me, I was afraid of feeling responsible for the pain and trauma of the text. I joined with those who said Slavery was in the past and should stay there, enough is enough. According to Levinas, it is not poets but critics who return literature to its ethical responsibility.

In his essay “Reality and Its Shadow,” Levinas argues that literature is irresponsible in as far as it encourages the contemplation of images, breeding passivity and paralysis. A classroom is often paralyzed by Borowski. The suffering in tragedies of another is offered for enjoyment or the tragic pleasure, as it is sometimes called. Instead of evoking the responsibility to relieve suffering, the tragic artist freezes or immobilizes the face of suffering, detaching it from the human reality. Every artistic representation is the image of an absent other, because an image is what a person leaves behind in withdrawing her being from it.

Literature conceals this absence by soliciting the contemplation of the image, reality’s “shadow. ” Criticism is the ethical activity of restoring literature to responsibility by reattaching images to the human reality (130-43). A literary text makes a claim on its readers that is logically prior to meaning, because it is all that remains of a being. This is particularly true of the traumatic texts of the Holocaust and of Slavery, to whom the nightmare of not being listened to is a constant threat.

The statement that Slavery or the Holocaust is over and done with is the threat of indifference of the other. The Holocaust and the slave narrative like forms of speech are testimonial before they are prepositional. They testify to beings whose being has been eliminated from the suffering it represents. And so it must be received before it can be analyzed and to analyze it prematurely and rush to interpretation is to convert Holocaust and slave testimony from speech by-the-other into speech for-the-other.

No longer is the other identified with the voice within the testimony, the sufferer or witness by whom it is delivered; the interpreter usurps the other’s place, assuming that the testimony is for him. This is an act of indifference, which can be characterized as hermeneutics of suspicion and by which the otherness of the other is denied and lost sight of, does violence to the face of the text. Instead of acting on her behalf, the interpreter acts on his own. The text is treated as an object upon which to demonstrate his professional ingenuity.

But a text is independent of interpretation, because the other exists apart from me. Speech by her is not necessarily speech for me. To think that somehow her speech depends upon me is to threaten its existence. If interpretation is to avoid doing further moral damage it must spring from a moral response to the other; it can depend upon nothing else. It cannot presuppose, as all hermeneutics of suspicion do, that there is a difference between surface or literal’ and concealed or poetic’ meaning.

Interpretation can only presuppose the otherness of the speaker from which my responsibility to her derives. And so it must pause to take its direction from her. The interpretive stance I adopt toward her is determined by the responsibility I assume toward her. I must answer her, which means that I must try to translate speech by her into speech for her. Doubtless the “interpretive community” to which I belong, to say nothing of my biases and perspective, will interfere with my good-faith effort to do this. And so they are not irrelevant aspects of interpretation.

But before it is anything else interpretation is the effort to cast my response to the other into speech that is intended for her. It is what I understand her to need. In rhetorical terms, the audience for interpretation are the sufferers on whose behalf the text witnesses. Nevertheless, I must expect to betray them more often than I am adequate to the challenge of their need. Literature of Slavery and the Holocaust for example are a summons to responsibility for the victims of objectification, but this merely describes what is possible, not what is real.

The reality of six million deaths in the Holocaust and “Sixty Million and more” deaths from 400 years of Slavery is something I can neither alter nor deny; the suffering on sixty-six million faces is something to which I can never adequately respond. But if I can do nothing about the past I may yet affect the future. It is often said that the purpose of studying the Holocaust is to prevent it from ever happening again. As the sociologist Zygmunt Bauman is quoted in “Reality and its Shadow” by Levinas, he says:

Much more is involved in [studying the Holocaust] than the tribute to the memory of murdered millions, settling the account with the murderers and healing the still-festering moral wounds of the passive and silent witnesses. Obviously, the study itself, even a most diligent study, is not a sufficient guarantee against the return of mass murdere[r]s and numb bystanders. Yet without such a study, we would not even know how likely or improbable such a return may be. (143) This indicates that the Holocaust does not belong only to history but also to possibility.

If its outcome cannot be affected, its meaning can be. Events mean nothing in themselves; they must be interpreted. But what this also indicates is that meaning arises from responsibility. The counterfactual possibility of doing something appropriate about the Holocaust is what creates a responsibility to it, and if meaning is to be discovered that is, to interpret the Holocaust, then interpretation must be shaped and guided by a responsibility. Paying tribute to the memory of murdered millions, responding to human suffering, will affect the interpreters as well.

Cite This Work

To export a reference to this essay please select a referencing style below:

Reference Copied to Clipboard.
Reference Copied to Clipboard.
Reference Copied to Clipboard.
Reference Copied to Clipboard.