Levinas and the Demand for Aesthetic Criticism

February 15, 2017 § Leave a comment


Emmanuel Levinas’s essay, “Reality and Its Shadow” was published in Les Temps Modernes in 1948.  Although Levinas was 42 years old and had been working in philosophy for some time, he was not nearly as famous as Jean-Paul Sartre, although Sartre would not have had access to Martin Heidegger’s writings which inspired his phenomenology had Levinas not translated them into French in the 1930s.  Les Temps Modernes was an avowedly left-leaning journal, but it would be a mistake to read Levinas as a Marxist.  In his magnum opus, published in 1961 as Totality and Infinity, Levinas importantly writes:

Demented pretension to the invisible, when the acute experience of the human in the twentieth century teaches that the thoughts of men are borne by needs which explain society and history, that hunger and fear can prevail over every human resistance and every freedom! There is no question of doubting this human misery, this dominion the things and the wicked exercise over man, this animality. But to be a man is to know that this is so. Freedom consists in knowing that freedom is in peril. But to know or to be conscious is to have time to avoid and forestall the instant of inhumanity. It is this perpetual postponing of the hour of treason – infinitesimal difference between man and non-man – that implies the disinterestedness of goodness, the desire of the absolutely other or nobility, the dimension of metaphysics.[1]

In this important distinction between human and animal, Levinas is simultaneously qualifying Satrean notions of freedom and politics by appealing to what he calls the metaphysical desire, a desire which is more than lack and “non-adequation,” unable to be understood as a concept or the grasping of vision.  It is all the more significant then, that in “Reality and Its Shadow,” we get some of Levinas’s work related to aesthetics.  What is important to note is his use of sound and music in his discussion.  In this post, I will offer a close analysis of Levinas’s essay while relating its contents to Levinas’s larger project of ethics as “first” philosophy.

Levinas opens “Reality and Its Shadow” stating that, generally, people think of Art as extraordinary.  It is “more real than real” and thus maintains a metaphysical position. In other words, people tend to relate Art to a metaphysical desire, a desire for an Other.  Realism thus “retains its prestige”[2] because Art, in capturing the Invisible, is able to capture how things really are.  Criticism then supports the metaphysical place of art as extraordinary and professes, through a “parasitic” existence and explication, to access a “depth of reality inaccessible to conceptual intelligence” which “becomes [criticism’s] prey.” Criticism, as the metaphor implies, is bestial and predatory.  It seeks to do violence to the Invisible by making it visible, by saying more than the work can say.  Either that, or criticism professes to be Art itself.

Criticism, Levinas says, is “the public’s mode of comportment. Not content with being absorbed in aesthetic, the public feels the irresistible need to speak.”  The critic is “the one that still has something to say when everything has been said, that can say about the work something else from the work.”[3] In this view criticism aims to produce an adequation or understanding of the higher truth that the work represents, and in Plotinian and Augustinian hermeneutic fashion (literal, allegorical, parable, anagogical) align the public with true reality.  Levinas uses literature as an example: “We are not always attentive to the transformation that speech undergoes in literature.  Art as speech, art as knowledge, then brings on the problem of committed art, which is a problem of committed literature. Here Levinas cites Sartre’s Literature and Existentialism.  A relevant passage from Sartre might be:

One does not write for slaves. The art of prose is bound up with the only regime in which prose has meaning, democracy. When one is threatened, the other is too. And it is not enough to defend them with the pen. A day comes when the pen is forced to stop, and the writer must then take up arms. Thus, however you might have come to it, whatever the opinions you might have professed, literature throws you into battle. Writing is a certain way of wanting freedom; once you have begun, you are engaged, willy-nilly. (65)

Sartre’s words here profess the kind of committed Art to which Levinas is referring. But Levinas is saying that in our conventional dogma, we underestimate the way a completed artwork disengages from the material production.  Or, on the flipside, we might seek to see an element of art in the process of craft.  In either case, the artist eventually stops because the work “refuses to accept anything more.”  In emphasizing the overlooked detachment of art, Levinas is quick to say that he is not valorizing “art for art’s sake,” which he regards as “immoral inasmuch as it liberates the artist from his duties as a man and assures him of a pretentious and facile nobility.”  For Levinas, the “disengaged” “formal structure of completion” is essential for a work to become art, and so it is by attending to the disengagement that we come to understand aesthetics.  He moves on to question if disengagement must always move toward Platonic ideals or if there is something else.  He thinks there might be something in art that exceeds the understanding.  Contrary to conventional notions of art in the Plotinian sense above, Levinas sees something obscuring and unrevealing about art: “it is the very event of obscuring, a descent of the night, an invasion of shadow.”  Thus, Levinas’s thesis is that, far from illuminating reality, Art is created by an eventual rupture in time that obscures reality, moving “in just the opposite direction” of creation.

Levinas goes on to critique Kantian aesthetic disinterest and “grasped” concepts.  Images rather interest us by taking possession of our senses.  He appeals to rhythm’s incantatory nature which brings about a transformation: “in rhythm there is no longer a oneself, but rather a sort of passage from oneself into anonymity.  This is the captivation or incantation of poetry and music.”[4]  Art puts us into a state of waking dreams.  This phenomenon he calls “an exteriority of the inward,” equating it to the “ecstatic rites” described in ethnology.  There is thus a kind of primitivism at work in Levinas’s conception of the experience of art as de-subjectivizing the self and producing fodder for a sacrifice.

Music and rhythm take us away from concepts.  To the extent that an image is musical, it entrances us: “Sensation is not a residue of perception, but has a function of its own – the hold that an image has over us, a function of rhythm.”[5]  Because art “consists in substituting an image for being, the aesthetic element, as its etymology indicates, is sensation.” Because the entire world can be reduced to sensation there is always something representational about art, whether it is abstract art or classical art.  Levinas then goes on to critique transparency of images.  Again, Levinas implicitly invokes the Plotinian or Augustinian hermeneutic model in which the interpreter moves toward abstraction, toward an anagogical engagement.  Images differ from the “pure transparency”[6] of signs and symbols precisely in resemblance.  Image produces the shadow of reality.  A duality occurs within the internalized projection by which the imagination brackets the world.  Levinas specifically addresses allegory as “an ambiguous commerce with reality in which reality does not refer to itself but to reflection, its shadow.”[7]  Note that Levinas places allegory in the imaginative construction of the artist.  This, however, glosses over something historical and temporal.  Hermeneutic reading of early written work imposes allegory and typological readings through divinatory uses of texts.  Although this does not counter Levinas’s point, it does qualify it with respect to his focus on the artist.  He seems to have in mind an artist who knows “himself” as such.  He notes that in animal stories “men are seen as these animals and not only through these animals.”

The internalization of an image whose rhythm captures being, which Levinas describes as “that which reveals itself in its truth,” emphasize again that art produces reality’s shadow “on the hither side” of “inner life.”[8]  The notion of the shadow affords us the ability to “situate the economy of resemblance within the general economy of being.”[9]

While Levinas is sounding sufficiently Platonic in his resonance to the allegory of the cave, his locating the shadow on “the hither side” of being is uniquely modern.  It is in locating this place that he invokes the problem of idol worship.  The phenomenon of the idol is more present in the plastic arts than in literature and music.  Even in masterpieces the figures are caricatures of aspiration to be alive.  Tragedy is embedded within this caricature.[10]

The paradoxical static-dynamic nature of resemblance produces the idea of fate, as in the ways characters are frozen into the repetition of the same actions in a novel over and over.  Here, we must note that Levinas is prioritizing the power of the text in itself as opposed to the hermeneutic ability of the reader, whose life would necessarily change between different readings of a novel and producing different resonances with its contents.  He moves backward historically to Greek drama to say “That is what myth is: the plasticity of history.”[11]  There is something of a euhemerist quality to Levinas’s theory of literary development here.  The genius of modern literature, for Levinas, is in its way of “seeing inwardness from the outside.”[12] Writers like Poe are especially able to capture the “interval” of the anxiety of being-toward-death: “It is as though death were never dead enough, as though the parallel with the duration of the living ran the eternal duration of the interval – the meanwhile.”[13]  He then takes a religious turn: “The proscription of images is truly the supreme commandment of monotheism, a doctrine that overcomes fate, that creation and revelation in reverse.”

Returning to his initial metaphor of predator and prey, Levinas begins his conclusion saying, “Art then lets go of the prey for the shadow.”[14]  There is something about art that, more than distorting reality or merely offering a bad copy, actually dissuades us from doing violence to the metaphysical Other – although he has only implied that Other in this essay.  Art’s value is in its suspended state of duration: “The value of this instant is thus made of its misfortune.  This sad value is indeed the beautiful of modern art, opposed to the happy beauty of classical art.”[15] At the same time, art risks evasion from “initiative and responsibility.”  He goes on a bit more harshly:

Myth takes the place of mystery.  The world to be built is replaced by the essential completion of its shadow.  This is not the disinterestedness of contemplation but of irresponsibility.  The poet exiles himself from the city.  From this point of view, the value of the beautiful is relative.  There is something wicked and egoist and cowardly in artistic enjoyment. There are times when one can be ashamed of it, as of feasting during a plague.[16]

Here Plato’s Republic resounds over post World War II Europe.  Art, by itself, is not committed.  So, for Levinas, Art cannot be the “supreme value of civilization” – it cannot, in a Kantian sense, mediate a dialectic by substituting symbols for human conflict and producing a conversation through which a progressive Enlightenment may occur.  Levinas laments that in his postwar moment, “for almost everyone, [art] is identified with spiritual life.” It is that very sentiment, a carryover of humanism, that is irresponsible for Levinas’s kairotic moment.

Criticism, then, has the possibility of integrating “the human work of the artist into the human world.”  It is in doing so that criticism “links this disengaged and proud man to real history.”  For Levinas, “the artwork must be treated as myth: the immobile statue has to be put into movement and made to speak.”[17]  Myth becomes, “the source of philosophical truth.”  By nature, criticism must “choose and limit.”  It is in the interpretation of criticism that we speak in “full self-possession.”  Modern literature, according to Levinas, although it is “disparaged for its intellectualism” is to be praised for manifesting “a more and more clear awareness of this fundamental insufficiency of artistic idolatry.”  The artist comes to be an interpreter of myths “himself.”  The modern artist has the possibility of moving beyond the Renaissance mimetic “creator-God,” but that remains only a possibility. Criticism remains necessary in its return to the living from the shadows.

One hears in Levinas’s conclusion at once the distant echoes of Odysseus leaving the underworld, leaving Circe’s helpful magic behind; and simultaneously his invocation of an emergent ethical conversation concerning “the relation with the other” that will become the focus of Totality and Infinity.


The “last gasp of humanism” associated with French existentialism and Les Temps Modernes is certainly apparent in Levinas’s essay here, but in retrospect what he is saying is even more pregnant.  During the 1950s, many former Nazi intellectuals turned toward art criticism.  Martin Heidegger, Hans Robert Jauss, and Carl Schmitt are among the most famous.  Importantly, in Schmitt’s Hamlet or Hecuba (1956), Schmitt notes the elevation of modern tragedy through the introduction of time into the play.  Analyzing Hamlet through the historical situation of King James I’s mother, Mary, Queen of Scots and her “overhasty” third marriage to James Hepburn, with whom she may have plotted the murder of her second husband (and James’s father), Schmitt accounts for the “event” that lifts Shakespeare to “true tragedy” and the founding myth for modernity in the specificity of the historical moment.  He is not claiming that later audiences necessarily know that history but that the “introduction of the real” – which some scholars see as preceding Lacan’s “Real” and thus theoretically important – infuses tragedy.  Implicitly, Carl Schmitt, who refused to go through denazification, is refusing to disavow his own past and critiquing a German tendency to turn to aesthetics to mask their own pasts.  Levinas’s “Reality and Its Shadow” also (and before Schmitt) calls for the intrusion of time both in the initial event that breaks the work into its “finished state,” producing resemblance that obscures and casts a shadow, as well as in the necessity for the critic to bring the work back from the shadows.  One is tempted to see two sides of one coin in comparing Levinas and Schmitt here: while Levinas invokes the possibility for a heightened attention to the ethical relationship with the metaphysical Other, Schmitt announces, rather proudly, his complicity with National Socialism. It is between these two modes and desires that I believe criticism must – and I am following Levinas here – do its work of demystification in a public forum that not only “understands” a work but maintains an ethical dialectic.  Art, no matter how pessimistic Levinas may seem about it, has an important part to play in this process, especially for the committed artist, committed politically and committed to the prison of resemblance.  While I am critical of Levinas’s privileging of monotheism over the “subsistence” of paganism,[18] and his seeming disdain for “ecstatic rites,”[19] his argument implies more broadly that in engaging with Art we are engaging in the sacrifice, and that in engaging in criticism we are engaging in maintaining an awareness of the performative nature of sacrifice and, above all, what sacrifice is for in the first place: the maintaining of human community, not against outsiders or strangers, who are after all cyphers, but against the violence that arises from our very selves and the meanings we construct.  The ongoing question is how to remain vigilant in our ethically critical stances in relation to aesthetics.



[1] Emmanuel Levinas, Totality and Infinity, Trans. Alphonso Lingis, Pittsburgh: Duquesne University Press, 1969, 35.

[2] Emmanuel Levinas, “Reality and Its Shadow,” Collected Philosophical Papers, Trans. Alphonso Lingis, Pittsburgh: Duquesne University Press, 1987, 1.

[3] Ibid., 2.

 [4] Ibid., 4.

 [5] Ibid., 5.

[6] Ibid., 6.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Ibid., 7.

[9] Ibid., 8.

[10] Ibid., 9.

[11] Ibid., 10.

[12] Ibid., 11.

[13] Ibid.

[14] Ibid., 12.

[15] Ibid.

[16] Ibid.

[17] Ibid., 13.

[18] Ibid., 11.

[19] Ibid., 4.

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