Emmanuel Levinas: His Life and Legacy

Article excerpt

Emmanuel Levinas: His Life and Legacy, by Salomon Malka, translated by Michael Kigel and Sonja M. Embree. Pittsburgh: Duquesne University Press, 2006. 330 pp. $21.50.

In addition to being a student and close friend of his biography's subject, Salomon Malka is a writer and a journalist. Here he familiarizes readers with Levinas, the twentieth century Lithuanian-French philosopher and scholar of the Talmud whose groundbreaking work on one's ethical responsibility for the Other person introduced a powerful new vocabulary and philosophy for post-Holocaust European thought and moral practice. Moreover, in Malka's rich and illuminating text, readers not only encounter Levinas the philosopher and Talmudic commentator, but also are introduced to Emmanuel Levinas the man: the son of Lithuanian Jews, brother, student, friend, teacher, husband, father, grandfather, World War II prisoner of war, Holocaust survivor, and passionate thinker. It is this latter, more personal side of Levinas that English-language readers have been hitherto lacking. Malka competently adds the existential, historical, and cultural backdrop from which Levinas's life and thought emetged. It is this account of Levinas's life and legacy that Malka narrates most effectively.

Readers expecting an intellectual, straightforward, or fully chronological biography will be surprised here, if not potentially frustrated. Malka admits that he "decided to look less into the works themselves than into the archives, the testimonies of others, the personal encounters, the mark left on places passed by, the memories in the classroom and of anyone who can bring him to mind and talk about him" (p. xxxv). A longtime student and associate of Levinas' at the École Normale Israélite Orientale (Enio) in Paris, Malka inserts himself and his personal experiences with Levinas into his text, producing an intricate and complex, yet eminently readable, interweaving of anecdotes and personal encounters. As Levinas's philosophical and Talmudic writings bear witness to the uniqueness and singularity of the human face, Malka goes to great lengths to describe the "face" of Levinas in deeply personal terms, including as a family man and teacher. One could contend that this biography is a practical application of Levinas's philosophy: Emmanuel Levinas: His Life and Legacy recounts Malka's description of the experience of the ethical encounter with Levinas, the Other person.

Two interrelated parts compose this book. Part One, entitled "Places," comprises chapters 1-8. Here Malka describes the multifaceted environments that gave rise to Levinas, his pedagogical and scholarly work. Here the reader can follow Levinas's footsteps from his childhood and traditional upbringing in Kaunas, Lithuania to Paris, where he spent much of his post-war life. Along the way, Malka recounts Levinas's early and longstanding love of Russian literature, his exposure to the Hebrew Bible, and his academic studies in philosophy. Levinas's studies took him to Strasbourg France, then to Freiburg, Germany, where he attended classes of Husserl and Heidegger, the giants of German phenomenology. It was under the tutelage of these two figures that Levinas discovered the method for his philosophy.

In 1936, six years after obtaining French citizenship, Levinas enlisted as an officer in the French Army. In June 1940, his battalion surrendered to the Germans, and Levinas was placed in a prison work camp, Stalag XIB in Falingbostel. Here he spent five years in captivity. At this time, unbeknownst to him at the time, all of the close members of his Lithuanian family - father, mother, two brothers - were murdered by the Nazis. His wife, Raissa, and daughter, Simone, were saved by Levinas's friend Maurice Blanchot. After the war, with very few exceptions, Levinas did not speak of the horrors of the Shoah, and refused to step foot in Germany ever again.

In the 1950s, Levinas encountered and studied under the enigmatic and brilliant master of the Talmud, Mr. …