Levinas and Medieval Literature: The "Difficult Reading" of English and Rabbinic Texts

By Sessler, Tal | Shofar, Spring 2011 | Go to article overview

Levinas and Medieval Literature: The "Difficult Reading" of English and Rabbinic Texts


Sessler, Tal, Shofar


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'osuvre along the lines of Emmanuel Levinas's ethical hermeneutics. Lévinas 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 Lévinas 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 Lévinas 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 Lévinas and the medievale 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, "AU that is written is written for our doctrine," a premise which stresses the nonreducibility 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. …

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Levinas and Medieval Literature: The "Difficult Reading" of English and Rabbinic Texts
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