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Other Others: Levinas, Literature, Transcultural Studies by Steven Shankman (review)

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Abstract

Emmanuel Levinas’s writings express a good deal of ambivalence regarding the ethical dimensions of art: while Levinas never hesitated to appropriate Dostoevsky’s Starets Zosima’s declaration that “each of us is responsible for everyone and everything, but I more so than others” or to proclaim philosophy’s indebtedness to Shakespeare, his “Reality and Its Shadow” rightfully has given literary critics pause. Jill Robbins’s influential Altered Readings (1999) sought to reevaluate the relationship between Levinasian ethics and literature, and literary scholarship followed suit, producing an array of investigations into the ethical dimensions of literature, including two recent edited volumes on Levinas and literature that concentrate on period-specific investigations (Levinas and Nineteenth-Century Literature , edited by Donald Wehrs and Daniel Haney [2009] and Levinas and Medieval Literature , edited by Ann Astell and myself [2009]). Steven Shankman’s Other Others , however, does not confine itself to one time period or even to one hemisphere. Shankman’s transcultural study of the other in literature has two main goals. His first and primary goal in this book is “to show how literary texts are similarly interrupted in the direction of ethics, texts that interrupt themselves in order to gesture toward the transcendent otherness of the other person, the revelation of whom is beyond vision, revelation and representation” (10–11). His second goal has to do with the role of “others” in academic discourse. He writes: “By ‘other others,’ I thus mean (1) something other than what the term the other is commonly taken to mean in literary and cultural studies today; and I also mean (2) the articulation of this other, Levinasian notion of otherness in traditions other than the Judeo-Christian” (19). With these goals in mind, Shankman follows a broad trajectory in his study. These are essays “about the irruption of ethics in and through literature, through writing” (19), “‘saids’ that gesture toward the ‘saying’ necessarily betrayed by these ‘saids’ inscribed by a number of authors from a variety of religious and cultural contexts” (157). His introduction offers the reader an insightful and foundational meditation on Rembrandt’s The Sacrifice of Isaac , a terrific reading that lays out the hermeneutics for much of what will follow. For those unfamiliar with the specifics of Levinasian ethics, Shankman’s introduction provides the reader with some basics that prove helpful. Although the chapters cover very different literature(s) from various cultures, Shankman subtly unfolds his reading of Levinas and literature throughout his study, creating an ongoing transcultural exchange between these very diffuse texts. This is no small task in a book that investigates the works of Primo Levi, Shakespeare, Mongo Beti, and Mahfouz and that compares Marco Polo and Calvino; Confucius, Mencius, and Sima Qian; Euripides, Hölderlin, and Celan; and Valéry and Edgar Bowers. Shankman offers the careful reader a compelling overarching narrative that binds all of these works together. He essentially allows the works to address one another transculturally, anachronistically (a very Levinasian gesture), enabling them to perform for the reader the crux of his argument. For example, while at first glance his inclusion of Shakespeare’s Merchant of Venice seems to be an odd choice of study, one quickly realizes its crucial position in the overall trajectory of the book: it stands between the chapter on Celan, whose Tenebrae “recovers the Jewish faces that the persecutors of the Jews—blinded by the image they had of the Jews—refused to see” (91) and his chapter on Mongo Beti’s Le pauvre Christ de Bomba , whose protagonist mirrors Shakespeare’s Portia in his uncharitable actions toward others, “in particular toward those he is hell-bent on converting” (108). The real strength of the book can be found in the close readings Shankman performs for the reader. Shankman repeatedly demonstrates, though much more rigorously in some places than in others, how a Levinasian reading can inform and transform our understanding of these texts. In his essay on Primo Levi, Shankman takes the reader through a brilliant close analysis of Levinas’s “linguistic play on ‘attention’” in Totalité et infini (28), putting it in close dialogue with Levi, as if the two readers were addressing Dante together. Shankman’s most sustained...

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