A Model for Love in the 21st Century

By Walters, Coilin | The Washington Times (Washington, DC), May 4, 1997 | Go to article overview

A Model for Love in the 21st Century


Walters, Coilin, The Washington Times (Washington, DC)


Alain Finkielkraut is a French thinker and social critic who, while taking a position in the political center, says unexpected things. His is, for example, against letting Jewish children attending French schools wear the "kipa" (yarmulke) or Moslem female students the "foulard" (head scarf).

He is a writer who can sear with a bulletlike condemnation: "Terrorism? Fast-track humanism." In his hands, the thought applies equally to the poor, exhausted Marquis de Condorcet, apprehended in his flight from the French Terror when he paused to eat an omelet, as to the 1983 execution, after a so-called trial, of Germana Stefanini, a harmless, 67-year-old prison guard (her job was distributing packages to the prisoners) by Italian Red Brigades.

Elsewhere, Mr. Finkielkraut is arresting in other ways, as when he sees "a secret affinity" between romantic consciousness and moral consciousness, between the amorous and the religious. This is not a Hindu or a Buddhist talking, mind; rather a Jew centrally conscious of his Jewishness.

Mr. Finkielkraut argues for his daring synthesis of erotic love, civic morality and religiosity in "The Wisdom of Love," which is new in this English edition but originally came out in France in 1984 before the end of the Cold War.

The idea key to his book's reasoning, that minorities should be included in the larger community while at the same time being not only permitted, but helped by their majority neighbors to preserve their separateness, depends on the efficacy of a paradox (as does much Christian, Hindu and other religious doctrine).

The Christian thus summoned to love his Jewish neighbor, while at the same time minding the latter's irremediable separateness, may think of St. Paul and caritas. But Mr. Finkielkraut is asking for a more tension-filled - and let's face it, multicultural - relationship, entailing the conscious knowledge that here undeniably is the Other, an unwanted intruder busy making himself a "heavy burden" to oneself.

How the writer came to this position is interesting. The child of Holocaust survivors born a couple of years after the end of World War II, Mr. Finkielkraut imbibed Marxist thought in his youth - par for the course in France at that time - and participated enthusiastically in the student demonstrations in 1968. Later, however, his thinking took a skeptical and more conservative turn.

An earlier book, "The Imaginary Jew" (a University of Nebraska Press paperback edition is in print), came out in 1980, making the argument that European Jews in the postwar years were indulging an inauthentic position by identifying themselves with the Hitler Holocaust and so among history's oppressed, while at the same time knowing little about what being Jewish in Europe before 1939 actually had been about.

The loss not only of European Jewry's culture, but of the memory of it, too, was what primarily concerned Mr. Finkielkraut. (More recently here in the United States, Alan Dershowitz's new book, "The Vanishing American Jew," (Little, Brown) makes a somewhat parallel case with its call for better Jewish education to reinforce a community fabric long geared to defense against oppression but now undermined by majority acceptance.)

Kevin O'Neill and David Suchoff, American translators of Mr. Finkielkraut's books, emphasize in their introduction to the earlier one the French thinker's Walter Benjamin-esque achievement "in connecting Jewish culture with the central political questions of his day." This is quite true, and in the new book he is spring boarding off the work of Emmanuel Levinas.

A guiding idea of that French philosopher, developed in his "Totality and Infinity" (1961), is that of an ethical "face-to-face" relation with the Other that is singular but also transcendent. Not a thought that anyone who has been in love should find at all strange (just think of Dante and Beatrice), it is the foundation on which Mr. …

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