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Levinas and Medieval Literature: The “Difficult Reading” of English and Rabbinic Texts, edited by Ann Astell and J. A. Jackson.  Pittsburgh: Duquesne University Press, 2009.  374 pp.  $24.95. 

Levinas and medieval literature is an audacious, if at times anachronistic, attempt to ascertain the saliency of re-reading medieval chefs d’œuvre along the lines of Emmanuel Levinas’s ethical hermeneutics. Levinas always saw the act of reading as intrinsically religious, irrespective of whether the book at hand constitutes part of a sacred canon or not. In that respect, a book indeed has a face, and the face is “a book,” and inasmuch as one focuses upon these themes, there is indeed ample ground to read and re-read medieval works within the context of the Levinasian discourse.

A human face, like the face of a book cover, indeed conveys an irreducible and vulnerable truth, echoing our own revered mortality, as Levinas and the editors of this volume convey time and again. In fact, the gist of the Levinasian ethical enterprise constitutes a contention with, and a response to, the upheavals and exigencies of the zeitgeist (the totalitarian esprit with its underlying metaphysical and epistemic totality), which sought to diminish the sacred nature of the written Word, and the intrinsic sanctity of its phenomenological companion—the face of the human Other which carries an ineffaceable trace of the Infinite.

A recurrent leitmotif in the present volume is the commonalities its contributors find between the reverence Levinas holds for the Bible as foundational for our civilizational discourse, and the manner in which the medievalists regarded the medieval canon’s raison d’être as instructive and leading to a life of virtue and ethical exemplification, hence also the resistance to thematization inherent in both the Levinasian and the medieval hermeneutics. Both Levinas and the medievals thus see the essence of a text as wrought with existential vitality and relevance for our being-in-the-world, rather than as a product of a given epoch, with its own underlying manifestations such as genre, school of thought, and socio-cultural, economic, philological, and linguistics undertones. As one of the contributors, Geoffrey Chaucer, aptly puts it, “All that is written is written for our doctrine,” a premise which stresses the non-reducibility of the text, and also invites a consideration of Derrida’s celebrated mantra “Il n’y rien hors du text.

              To paraphrase one of Levinas’s own dicta, he shares with the medievalists a common hermeneutical temperament and disposition, i.e., “Literature as first ethics.” Like philosophy, literature carries its ultimate telos as an ethical exigency, a heteronomy and quotidian praxis. The purpose of reading is thus not epistemic (augmentation of knowledge), but rather it is moral and inter-subjective, as opposed to solipsistic and self-enclosed (ego-logical, as Levinas would have it).

Here we see the commonality between the pre-Cartesian medieval approach, and the post-Cartesian ethics of Levinas, which follows in this respect in the footsteps of Heidegger’s fundamental ontology. In one instructive essay, William Franke seeks to textually excavate affinities between Dante and Levinas. According to Franke, for both Dante and Levinas “it is in ethics that the significance of any kind of knowledge is realized.” Another contributor, Jill Robbins, stresses once more the intrinsic vocation of the art of reading, which Levinas shares with the medieval canon, hence “the incommensurability between Levinas’s ethics and the discourse of literary criticism.”

For both Levinas and the medievals, as Brun asserts, the “orality” of the text is pivotal (the literature of the medieval epoch was often times read aloud or sung, in a manner reminiscent of the way the Torah is read in a Jewish traditional communal setting).

Contributors such as Joy, Kaufman, Kline, Paxon, Jackson, and Mitchell focus the lion’s share of their expositions on the merits and appeal of reading Levinas in dialogue with leading works of English literature of the Middle Ages, whereas others (including Kraman, Goodhart, Astell, and Gold) offered compelling readings of Levinas’s celebrated Talmudic readings as symptomatic of the manner in which one may approach medieval literature in a critical, yet literary manner.

The editors of this volume do well to methodologically qualify this otherwise creative endeavor, by stressing that strictly speaking, this is “not a study of Levinas’s writings on the Middle Ages,” but rather an attempt to ascertain the applicability of Levinas’s hermeneutics to this literature, “weirdly, perhaps, but engagingly,” as they themselves assert. And in that respect, the plausibility of the project, however esoteric and prima facie counter-intuitive it may seem, may indeed be justified. 

Tal Sessler

Jewish Theological Seminary