Who is Emmanuel Levinas, whose centennial seems to have been marked, posthumously, only yesterday? I'm reading texts by Levinas, complicit in a work of evocation, elicitations, replication in every sense. Should Iout of respect for the person, or a superseding fidelity to meaning suspend the tradition of talking about the author in the present tense? The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy restricts itself to speaking only of Levinas the philosopher. Is such a figure of the thinker required in order to read thoughts in the best sense, in order to read by the author? It must be said that, given an alternative configuration of textual life, thoughts could be published anonymously. I suspect that when we characterize we often wind up thinking we know far more than we can adequately be responsible for. (The more you know about me, the more you may be inclined to regard my suspicions with suspicion. I exhibit symptoms. My love of close reading is born of necessity.) "Words are disfigured or 'frozen', when language is transformed into documents and vestiges. The living word struggles against this transfer of thought into vestige, it struggles with the letter that appears when there is no-one there to hear" (Levinas, "The Transcendence of Words" (trans. Seán Hand, in The Levinas Reader, pp. 143-149), pp. 148-149).
Is the figure unambiguously good, an unequivocally positive valence? The word "figure" also has ghastly harmonics. A dissonance rages between the figure, not just the figure of the author, but also figures of readers, all manners of figuration on the one hand, and, on the other, living, the living word, and the discordance plays out not just between these polarities, but amid them, each within the other, the living word within the figure, the figure within the living word.
Here are some words for Yusef, whom I surmise will be ambivalent about bifur/bifurre, but who nonetheless may appreciate Levinas' call to criticism: "The primordial status of the notion of erasure affirms the simultaneity of multiplicity, and the irreducibly ambiguous nature of consciousness" (p. 146). Who am I kidding? These words are alive for me. And hasn't Yusef in an important sense also already animated these words for me, illuminated them one might say, with his discussions of bifurcation? I don't go into reading alone, and I don't come out alone. Levinas won't dare and contradict me. (Go ahead ask me about living grammar. (I taunt taunting, fwiw.)) For Yusef, for real: "But in these bifurcations and erasures Leiris is less concerned to go down the new paths opened up or to latch onto the corrected meaning than he is to capture thought at that special moment when it turns into something other than itself. It is because of this inherent ambiguity in bifurcation that the very phenomenon of the association of ideas becomes possible" (ibid.).
For Michaelbut not just for Michael, for all those who read along with Michael, including those (those figures, am I calling upon nameless figures too?) who also read along with me:
By creating beauty out of nature, art calms and quietens it. All the arts, even those based on sound, create silence.
This silence may be the result of bad conscience, or it may weigh heavy, or cause dread. This need to enter into a relation with someone, in spite of or over and above the peace and harmony derived from the successful creation of beauty is what we call the necessity of critique.
I find it necessary to criticize the following quotation, and I call upon Levi, who will also be critical, to momentarily suspend his judgment, for our sake, in the event that there is in fact a sense in which this position means something more to us than a hegemony over the real, the material, or the natural: "The sounds and noises of nature are failed words. To really hear a sound, we need to hear a word. Pure sound is the word" (p. 148). We can appreciate Levinas' dialogism even as we maintain our critical distance: "because thought is symbolic, ideas can link up to form a network of associations. From then on. . . this network, further enriched by all that the signs of writing can then evoke, is important not for the way it displaces one idea onto another, but because it assures the presence of idea in another" (p. 146). How can we not hear in every dialogism the echo of other dialogisms? Or is it pure dissonance? Perhaps we need to hear what Levinas is saying more fully, what he is saying in these texts by Levinas, because he too has a sense of what "real" means.
As I review this last quotation, my thoughts are with Shahar, while at the same time they wander back over the territory of thoughts about the imagination that has become familiar to mea certain quotation from Bachelard comes to mind:
The use of the word wrenches experience out of its aesthetic self-sufficiency, the here where it has quietly been lying. Invoking experience transforms it into a creature. It is in this sense that I have been able to say elsewhere that criticism, which is the word of a living being speaking to a living being, brings the image in which art revels back to the fully real being. The language of criticism takes us out of our dreams, in which artistic language plays an integral part. Certainly, in its written form, it in turn generates new criticism. Books call up booksbut this proliferation of writings halts or culminates at the moment when the living word is installed and criticism blossoms into teaching.
(p. 148, my bold)
I butcher a chicken, I thank the chicken. Foul thanks. How can I thank Levinas? How can I? Levinas the creature? Never. Too creepy. Yet isn't there a sense in which I desire to be such a creature, a "man who speaks"? Chthonic replicant, reader of the autochthonic. Whichever way I turn it appears I am forced to abdicate learning, to subvert a loyalty, or turn my back on a critical engagement. Levinas? The inexpressible sadness of echoes? Are those my words now? Hardly. I don't keep them from you, fellow students of melancholy. Nor do I ask you to accept them uncritically. It is an irony that "the inexpressible sadness of echoes" says something about the sadness of echoes. I feel it.