Academic journal article Shofar

Creative Ontologies and the Infinite Task of Language in Levinas's and Rosenzweig's Notions of Poetic Expression

Academic journal article Shofar

Creative Ontologies and the Infinite Task of Language in Levinas's and Rosenzweig's Notions of Poetic Expression

Article excerpt

But resurrection is the explicit concern of the last part of Agnon's last collection of texts, Ha Esh Veha Etzim "The Fire and the Wood." Is this a title or a question? The words refer indisputably to the fire and wood of the gas chambers, but they are taken from the question that Isaac, walking behind his father toward Moria mountain, asked Abraham: "Behold the fire and the wood: but where is the lamb for a burnt offering?" Everything is a question in this text, and in the next to last story in this collection "The Sign." These are questions without answers, to be taken note of in their very interrogativity. In "The Sign," the author, settled in the land of the ancestors, learns, on the eve of Shavuot, the news of the extermination by the Germans of all the Jews in the Polish town where he was born.

-Emmanuel Levinas, Proper Names

One of Emmanuel Levinas's most notable claims is that ethics is first philosophy, or in other words, that "metaphysics is enacted in ethical relations."1 But what could it mean to say that the taking of responsibility, one's response to and for another, in whatever form that may be, enacts, or creates, metaphysics? By calling ethics an optics, Levinas positions every other theoretical question within the purview of moral obligations. In other words, first comes the primacy of one's relationship with another, for instance, in the significations made in a community, in the teachings passed on to others, and in the creation of frameworks of justice to which all are subject. This paper aims to show how Rosenzweig's thought in regards to poetic language helps us understand Levinas's writing about poetic expression, because both expressed similar views regarding an ontology that is not fixed and manifests in the creative, or what is called the expressive, aspect of language. I conclude by examining Agnon as a morally exemplary poet whose anxiety about the creative power of poetic language finds expression in the social reality of his time.

Levinas's phenomenology of the ethical subject often stands in contrast to that of other phenomenologists such as Martin Heidegger and Jean-Paul Sartre, who were his contemporaries. Standing in the unique position of being a superlatively ethical writer, it is interesting to see to whom Levinas gives credit and from whom he receives his teachings. Where does Levinas's thought and language develop into a speaking with others, and what ideas could be developed after placing him within a constellation of others' thoughts? Contrasts and criticisms of his thought in relation to other phenomenologists abound; however, my ultimate goal here will be to show how his ideas on the creation of ontology through poetic expression are rooted in and shared with Franz Rosenzweig's notions of expressive language and its power to create being.

Rosenzweig lived between 1886 and 1929, which created some overlap between his and Levinas's life. Both lived through world wars and were deeply engaged in German Idealism, a representative of the philosophical milieu of their time. Both were critical of traditional Western philosophy. From its beginning in Plato, they found a disastrous, overarching theme in philosophy, which was the totalizing and rationalization of being to logos, or reason. Levinas eventually lived to see the horrors of the Shoah2 and placed its events in light of their criticism of the logocentric understanding of being, and what to him was most threatening, was the logocentric understanding of the human being.

Rosenzweig is not as known in mainstream philosophy. Levinas's debt to him is incalculable, however, because Rosenzweig originally developed a notion of the "meta-ethical man," which turned into the responsible human being in Levinas.3 Levinas's indebtedness to Rosenzweig is professed in the preface of Totality and Infinity. There he admits being, "impressed by the opposition to the idea of totality in Franz Rosenzweig's Stern der Erlosung [Star of Redemption], a work too often present in this book to be cited. …

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