Lewis and Levinas on the Other as Iconoclast

For all their obvious differences of opinions on multiple matters, C.S. Lewis and Emmanuel Levinas seem to be in agreement on at least one point: the iconoclastic nature of the Other. That is, the ability of the other to “incessantly triumph over your mere idea” of them, in the words of Lewis (A Grief Observed, pg 66), and cause a fissure as a “being who breaks my categories,” in the vocabulary of Levinas (Hilary Putnam, The Cambridge Companion to Levinas, pg 42).

In A Grief Observed, Lewis recounts his experience and agony following the death of his wife Joy Davidman. In this, the book provides a powerful and emotional account of one man’s thoughts and emotions from such an extreme loss.

In the passage that I would like to draw attention to, having just read through his previously written thoughts, Lewis is recounting his frustrations with himself in feeling like his writings portray a person who is only concerned with his wife’s death in how it has effected him. In response, Lewis resolves that he needs to “think more about H. [the sign he uses when talking about his wife throughout the book] and less about myself” (GO, pg. 18). However, he quickly realizes that thinking about her isn’t the real problem, but thinking rightly about her, an action that ultimately escapes him apart from her presence critiquing his thoughts. It is not the the things that he thinks of are untrue about H., but they are selective and, therefore, ultimately lacking. Lewis states in his own words that his thoughts are

“[f]ounded on fact, no doubt. I shall put in nothing ficticious (or I hope I shan’t). But won’t the composition inevitably become more and more my own? The reality is no longer there to check me, to pull me up short, as the real H. so often did, so unexpectedly by being so thoroughly herself and not me” (GO, 18).

Later on in the book Lewis picks this theme back up with reference to images of the divine. God is the great iconoclast he urges, the one who’s presence is so often marked by such shattering of our images (referencing the incarnation as the supreme example of this) (66). “All reality is iconoclastic,” he continues. “The earthly beloved, even in this life, incessantly triumphs over your mere idea of her. And you want her to; you want her with all her resistances, all her faults, all her unexpectedness…”Not my idea of God, but God. Not my idea of H., but H. Yes, and also not my idea of my neighbour, but my neighbour” (66-67). For Lewis, the tendency we are all confronted with is acknowledging all others (be it God or people) not as who they are, but according to the picture or perception of them that we have constructed in our mind. A critique similar to that of Levinas, leveled against Edmund Husserl.

Emmanuel Levinas is known largely for his insistence upon the primacy of ethics, or ethics as first philosophy. For Levinas, philosophy should not be primarily understood as the “love of wisdom,” as it traditionally is, but, rather, as the “wisdom of love.” So, whereas traditionally philosophers have sought out knowledge and truth as primary, building ethics upon this understanding of “the way things are,” Levinas argues for an ethic of infinite responsibility upon the subject toward the other (a term which in Levinas’s writings almost always refers to an other person) that precedes any understanding of them. Allow me to try and explain in brief.

Given Levinas’s Jewish background, there are many places in his writings where one finds biblical allusions that tend to guide his thoughts. For instance, his discussions of the ethic of responsibility that is placed upon the subject has a background in the prophetic literature of the Old Testament.

Recall, for a moment, the story of Samuel (while 1 and 2 Samuel aren’t usually categorized as “prophetic literature” in many english bibles, the traditional Jewish TaNaK ordering of the OT places them among the prophetic lit.). While Samuel is serving in the Temple under Eli, the LORD calls him. Samuel replies, “Here I am!” (hineni), and mistaking the voice runs to Eli. This occurs two more times until Eli realizes that the voice calling Samuel was the voice of the LORD. He then tells Samuel what he should say if he hears the voice again, etc.

For Levinas, this sort of encounter, between Samuel and the LORD, serves as a paradigm for the the encounter of the other by the subject. In the language of Levinas, the other is spoken of in terms that often have a divine echo in the Hebrew Scriptures. So, in Otherwise than Being Levinas speaks of the encounter with the other as experiencing “the Glory of the Infinite” (OB 140-162), an encounter that elicits an infinite responsibility in the subject and an obligation to be for the other.

It is important to note that, for Levinas, this ethical obligation to the other is not derived from any metaphysical or epistemic grounding. To do so would be an act of violence upon the other, reducing their difference and bringing them into a level of sameness with the subject.  The other, in their difference, will always allude your grasp; and here is the connection with Lewis. As Hilary Putnam has stated in his discussion on Levinas and Judaism (The Cambridge Companion to Levinas, pg 42), the “encounter with the other is an encounter with a fissure, a being who breaks my categories.”

So with both Lewis and Levinas,  the other functions in an iconoclastic role, shattering our images of them in their difference, a difference that ultimately calls us to service. In another work of Lewis he speaks of this encounter that leads to service in terms of recognizing the “weight of glory” in the other. For Levinas it is the experience of the “glory of the infinite.” However, for both, the other elicits our service as a being who alludes our grasp and critiques our images of them. Confronted with something beyond us, we are drawn into to an existence of a giving up of ourselves for the sake of the other.

I will leave you with a quote by Lewis in his essay The Weight of Glory as an attempt to provide some application, from a Christian perspective, on some of these abstract concepts.

“It may be possible for each to think too much of his own potential glory hereafter; it is hardly possible for him to think too often or too deeply about that of his neighbour. The load, or weight, or burden of my neighbour’s glory should be laid on my back, a load so heavy that only humility can carry it, and the backs of the proud will be broken. It is a serious thing to live in a society of possible gods and goddesses, to remember that the dullest and most uninteresting person you can talk to may one day be a creature which, if you say it now, you would be strongly tempted to worship, or else a horror and a corruption such as you now meet, if at all, only in a nightmare. All day long we are, in  some degree, helping each other to one or other of these destinations. It is in the light of  these overwhelming possibilities, it is with the awe and the circumspection proper to them, that we should conduct all our dealings with one another, all friendships, all loves, all play, all politics. There are no ordinary people…next to the Blessed Sacrament itself, your neighbour is the holiest object presented to your senses” (The Weight of Glory and Other Adresses, 18-19)

…and for those who still feel like they need a little more inspiration I have included the following by Thomas Kincade:

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5 Responses to “Lewis and Levinas on the Other as Iconoclast”


  1. 1 adamsteward March 20, 2008 at 8:32 pm

    Thanks for this post, Eric. I haven’t yet read any of Levinas myself, but I appreciate his Buberian insistence on preserving the integrity of an encounter as always “I-thou” and not “I-it.” I have a few reservations, though. Maybe you could help me out with them.

    I’m worried, first of all, that what Levinas intends to preserve in his rendering of the interpersonal encounter is actually some notion of an individual with specific rights that must not be infringed upon by the existence of other people. To my thinking, such a human simply cannot exist, or at least not properly as a person. I am not so confident that there could be or ever ought to be such a think as a non-violent encounter with another person. If, as he says, other people are iconoclastic, they do violence to my concepts. If my concepts have anything to do with who or what I am, then the existence of other people has an extreme bearing on the character of my own existence. Sometimes just by virtue of the fact that the insist on brushing their teeth next to you when your trying to read:/) I really appreciate Lauren Slater’s essay on B.F. Skinner in this regard.

    Second, it seems like what Levinas and Lewis are saying is that we can’t put other people, but most of all, God, into language. These are two separate problems, so we should talk about them separately.

    As for people, I don’t think there is any such thing as a pre-linguistic self that we can appeal to. It is not only that other people get us wrong by the concepts/words they hold about us, but also that we in the first place derive our selves from the things other people say to us. In that case, it gets real tricky to talk about some inner self that comes before and therefore critiques speech about it. It seems that we shouldn’t talk about non-conceptual selves, but rather the correct-conceptaul selves that have the power to break down idols.

    As for God, we obviously have the problem of the incarnation, of God himself coming as the Word. Given that God is Triune, we need not and ought not appeal to a pre-linguistic God either. What I am learning from Barth and Jungel right now is that, yes, we can’t venture to speak of God, but since God in the Trinity is already subject and object of revelation, we may participate in linguistic and conceptual interaction with God.

  2. 2 ericroorback March 21, 2008 at 5:07 pm

    Hey Adam,

    Thanks so much for your response! I appreciate your critical engagement with the post and I hope to be able to answer your comments in a way that answers your concerns. I think your concerns are appropriate, however, I think they have more to say to my attempt to communicate the ideas of Levinas, than to his ideas themselves. A few comments, in brief:

    Concerning your first comment on Levinas trying to preserve a notion of an individual w/ rights that ought not be infringed upon by others, you need not be kept up at night by such worries. From what I have read thus far I believe Levinas would be one of the first to argue against such an idea. The language that Levinas continually uses to talk about the relation between myself and the other is couched in terms of self-dispossession. For Levinas, the ethical relation between the I and the other is not one based on certain rights inherent to either the I or the other. It is based neither on universals or abstractions (such as “humanity”), but is rooted in the response to another person. In this sense Levinas distances himself from many of those before him, because he is not building the ethical response on top of a prior “recognition” or “understanding” of the other (allowing the other to be truly other). It is far more of a confrontation that I experience by the other. It is an ethic that is based on a relation to a person. Hi adamant emphasis on the difference (“alterity” in his words) of the other from myself would argue against any sort of “human rights” to guide interpersonal encounters.
    I think the prophetic example is a helpful one. I’ll give one I was just reading this morning, though not actually from the prophetic lit. In Exodus 3 Moses is confronted by the angel of YHWH through the burning bush. As Moses approaches the bush to see what is going on YHWH calls out to him, “Moses, Moses!” “Here I am,” Moses responds. After this YHWH calls Moses to go back to Egypt, etc. This prophetic type-scene is the paradigmatic backdrop for Levinas’s ethical relation. What you have is a person confronted by an other, and a response of “Here I am” (hineni). This hineni is our appropriate response of self-subjugation, a being-for/toward-the-other, to the call of the other.
    Levinas doesn’t seem to be concerned with preserving the rights of individuals from the intrusion of others. Almost the opposite, he argues that in the encounter of the other, the only appropriate response that one can give is a giving up of yourself on their behalf. He goes so far as to speak of our substitution for the other’s sufferings, even unto death. Much of his language and terminology sounds Christological in form, even though there aren’t any real connections (nor should any probably be sought). He even has an article from his later years entitled “Judaism and Kenosis” in which he borrows the idea of Christ’s kenosis from Phil. 2 and incorporates it into a kabbalic system.

    With regard to violent encounters, I would agree that there will be violence done in all encounters at some level, but this doesn’t mean we shouldn’t seek to prevent any intentional violence we might cause. The point with Levinas is that the attempt to approach the other from a position of “recognition” or “understanding” reduces their otherness to the level of sameness. It essentially steamrolls their alterity and reduces them.

    Concerning your second comment, I will come back and answer it this afternoon. I’m out of time for now. Let me know your thoughts.

  3. 3 adamsteward March 22, 2008 at 6:33 am

    Without some universal notion such as “humans are good, have rights, and deserve to not have their rights infringed upon,” it’s hard to see why we ought to be concerned about alterity in the first place. Especially when it’s so much more convenient not to.

    To say that reality is iconoclastic seems to need to imply that icons are of a different order from reality, that reality exists prior to and untainted by the things that are said and thought about it. I don’t think this is the case.

    If the ethical relation is grounded in address (you sound very similar to Bultmann on that), then still, is it an unmediated address? Do we ever have access to the other apart from the medium of language?

  4. 4 ericroorback March 23, 2008 at 5:25 pm

    Adam, thanks again for your engagement on this post. I really do appreciate your input. It is helpful to have someone to offer critiques and comments as I try and wrestle with the ideas of Levinas. I want to be careful in what I say so that I don’t attribute ideas to Levinas’s thought that would be foreign to him, a difficult task given my recent exposure to his work. Because of this I will try and be clear in distinguishing what are my opinions and what he has directly stated.

    ON the issue of an antecedent universal notion to ground a concern for the alterity of the other, I will have to hold off. I want to go back and try and find an answer from Levinas’s writings rather than continue forward with the discussion and run the risk of implanting any theological presupposition of mine into the philosophical conversation of Levinas. Your question, I believe, is the million dollar one, and one I’m sure Levinas has answered somewhere in his writings (or at least tried to): “Why should I have a concern for the other?

    In brief: Given Levinas’s adamant insistence on the inevitability of reducing the otherness of the other to the sameness of a “humanity”, or some other universal idea, I’m pretty sure that his response would be that in the encounter with the other the subject experiences the infiniteness (if that’s a word. Transcendence might be better) of the other which elicits a response of…awe, of obligation, of responsibility.

    From what I have read, he doesn’t speak of the ethical relation in any sort of Kantian terms like a categorical imperative. The ethical relation is less of an “ought” based on reason or some rationale, and much more of an “is” that happens in the encounter. For Levinas, ethics is critique. There is the drive for a person to “persevere -in-being,” to maintain their existence by any means, and this, Levinas seems to recognize as the primary disposition of people. How ever, I believe Levinas would say that the encounter with the other critiques us in our “perseverance-in-being” and elicits a response of infinite responsibility, a “being-for-the-other.”
    I will come back to this though. As I said, I want to wait in answering this question (even though I have ended up responding to it anyway) to see if I can find a more complete answer from Levinas himself.

    On you second point of words being different from reality,I would say (and this is my opinion, not necessarily that of Levinas) that they are, that the words we use to talk about things are not the things in themselves. I do think that our access to reality is mediated by language and there is no direct access to it outside of this medium. We live in a world of language and can have no direct knowledge of a world outside of this. It still seems reasonable to me to speak of such a distinction as Kant’s of things as they appear (phenomena) and things as they are (noumena), even if I’m unable to say anything about that thing beyond it being other than my perception. Language is always indirect and never univocal.

    In this sense, I think language constantly needs revision and critique. I don’t think that it is an inadequate medium, but it is definitely not a perfect one. It is here that I think I would agree with Levinas in his “ethics as critique.” I guess this also sort of leads in to your last comment. I don’t, speaking for myself and not necessarily Levinas, think we have access to the other apart from language, but, given that language isn’t univocal, I would say that it needs critique, and this is the sort of critique, I believe, that Levinas offers in his idea of the ethical relation.

    I hope I’m not misunderstanding your second comment on icons and reality, though I feel I might be. If not, I would be interested to hear why you don’t think they are separate. As one last qualifier, I want to be careful not to speak of things-in-themselves as a prior and pure reality accessible to me outside of the linguistic world I inhabit. My world is one of signs, not that which is signified.

    I hope this all makes sense and isn’t too self-contradictory.

  5. 5 ericroorback March 24, 2008 at 2:21 am

    Actually, just disregard my second to last paragraph. I apparently lost track in my thinking about what we were talking about. Levinas’s critique has nothing to do with language and its indirect nature. Thus far in my reading this is not a primary issue for him, or even one that he has directly addressed. His critique, or, the critique that comes from encounter with the other, is of the disposition of perseverance-in-being. Sorry for the confusion.


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