A Loving Levinas on War

The French Jewish Philosopher’s Moving ‘Notebooks in Captivity’

Warm Thinker: The heart of Levinas’s philosophy was to discern a spark of the divine in the face of the ‘other.’
Warm Thinker: The heart of Levinas’s philosophy was to discern a spark of the divine in the face of the ‘other.’

By Benjamin Ivry

Published February 10, 2010, issue of February 19, 2010.
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The Obi-Wan Kenobi of 20th-century Jewish philosophy, Lithuanian-born French philosopher Emmanuel Levinas, has grown in fame and stature since his death in 1995. Acclaimed for his philosophy of the “other,” which recognizes morality — and behavior toward others — as the basis for any philosophical thought, Levinas offers a decisive break with his onetime teacher Martin Heidegger’s comparatively individualist obsession with “being.”

In the murderous schoolyard of 20th-century politics, Levinas’s focus on playing well with others seems all the more crucial in retrospect. Moreover, as opposed to Heidegger’s notorious wartime embrace of Nazism, Levinas wrote of Judaism, and the Talmud in particular, as central subjects in the main stream of world philosophy.

This spring, a flood of admiring new books on Levinas will appear: “Levinas and the Cinema of Redemption” from Columbia University Press; “Other Others: Levinas, Literature, Transcultural Studies” from SUNY Press; “Levinasian Meditations” from Duquesne University Press; and “A Covenant of Creatures: Levinas’s Philosophy of Judaism” from Stanford University Press. Yet none is as startlingly, indeed stunningly, revelatory as a new book from Grasset-IMEC Publishers in France containing Levinas’s previously unpublished “Notebooks in Captivity” (“Carnets de captivité”) the first volume of a planned series of his complete writings.

The notebooks were written mostly during the Second World War (some uncollected postwar jottings and essays are also included). Levinas, a French citizen since 1930, had served in the army, and after the Nazi victory he became a prisoner of war in various French camps and finally, from 1942 to 1945, at Stalag XI-B at Fallingbostel, Germany, near Bergen-Belsen. During the rest of his long life, Levinas published relatively little about his wartime experiences, acknowledging that his suffering was minuscule compared to the vast historical tragedy of the Shoah. Levinas was well aware that his own survival was because of his status as a military prisoner of war, “miraculously protected by a uniform,” unlike the millions of Jewish civilians killed in concentration camps.

Still, Levinas was assigned to one of the all-Jewish commandos, doing hard labor for long hours under brutal conditions. He mostly worked in harshly treated forestry brigades, whereas the relatively fortunate non-Jewish prisoners of war at Fallingbostel were even permitted to put on shows for recreation. Despite the evident hardships of his situation, Levinas did have access to the POW library donated by the International Red Cross in Geneva and his wide-ranging reading, from Ariosto to Proust, is reflected in these notebooks. Fascinatingly, the notebooks reveal for the first time that Levinas long planned to write novels, even though these would remain unfinished, surviving in the form of outlines and fragmentary drafts. One, titled “Sad Opulence” (Triste Opulence) and later retitled “Eros,” tells the story of an army interpreter who becomes a prisoner of war. A second novel, “The Lady From Wepler’s” (“La Dame de Chez Wepler”), also set in wartime, is about a protagonist’s obsession with a prostitute glimpsed, but never approached, because of the “chasm which separates respect from sexuality.”

Artful metaphors and similes abound in these plans for novels, including in “Eros,” the repeated description of a group of prisoners squeezed into the back of a truck, riding past a house where German women live. The prisoners gape at a pair of stockings hung out a window to dry, and at a woman sitting next to the window, brushing her hair. Struck by the “quasi-obscene nature of this action,” Levinas notes that even the hairbrush retained “nothing of [its] chaste essence as a utensil.” Alert in prison to sensuality and even sexuality, despite malnutrition and fatigue, Levinas notes: “Sexual love — the only one which may be fulfilled, in which caresses may culminate. Other loves (even filial or paternal) are impotent. Impotent because inexpressible, incapable of being fulfilled.”

Along with sexuality, humor is on occasion also surprisingly present in Levinas’s life as a prisoner, as he notes in an episode that later would appear in his book “Difficult Freedom,” about a dog named Bobby who showed affection for Jewish prisoners. Levinas ironically dubbed the pooch the “last Kantian in Nazi Germany,” referring to the 18th-century German philosopher Immanuel Kant’s “categorical imperative” of respecting individual rights of human beings. By contrast, Levinas notes, Germans at the camp saw Jewish prisoners as “quasi-human, a group of apes.”

Even more telling, Levinas’s notes reveal how, “stationed in segregated barracks and commandos… the Jewish prisoner suddenly rediscovers his Jewish identity.” Indeed, as he celebrates Rosh Hashanah with his (previously assimilated and unobservant) fellow Jewish ex-soldiers, Levinas notes: “A few years ago, these prayers would be interpreted as offering derisory hope. Nice little old outmoded things; now it is all interpreted as reality. The Last Judgment has become reality. Good becomes good again and evil, evil, and quite shatteringly so.” As Levinas writes in a moving 1945 essay, also included in the new Grasset/IMEC volume, Jewish prisoners of war found that “humiliation” reminded them of the “Biblical aspect of being chosen people.”

This recognition of renewed Jewish identity spurred Levinas to ponder philosophical concepts of time and social responsibility, which he would address soon after the war, in “Existence and Existents” and “Time and the Other.” Celebrating Jewish holidays in the camps was doubtless made especially poignant by the absence of his wife, Raïssa, and daughter, Simone, who survived the war in hiding, while all of Levinas’s relatives in Lithuania were murdered by the Nazis.

Family matters also haunted the destiny of these deeply humane texts, the publication of which was long delayed by legal actions from Simone, who is opposed on principle to the publication of her father’s unfinished work. Levinas’s son, Michaël, a noted pianist and composer born in 1949, made the final decision to have them published anyway, as his father’s literary executor. As Michaël Levinas told the French weekly “Le Nouvel Observateur”: “A few steps away from a concentration camp, a Jewish man continues to believe in transmission by the written word. So I felt obliged [to publish them].” Posterity can only be glad.

Benjamin Ivry is a frequent contributor to the Forward.

Excerpts from Emmanuel Levinas’s nine small wartime notebooks:

The boxer is garbed when he is naked.

Appearance of prisoners in Germany. Monastic or moral life. Even old men have something innocent and pure about them.

In the room with the little dormer window, men like clouds which hide the sun.

In Tolstoy the main thing is not truth about human nature but the emotion of someone who suddenly discovers all of life’s falseness, lying, complacency.

Winter sun, like a dead man’s kiss.

The only human perfection — beauty. Like a miraculous branch on a rotten tree trunk. The only miracle.

Tree — the most arrogant vertical of living nature. Its majesty — vertical majesty.

Dostoyevsky and the search for nakedness.

First acquaintance with Conan Doyle…. Objective indices reveal the criminal rather than psychology…. By behaving, we always leave traces.

A woman’s hand, the very small hand which constitutes a home.

Once we start to eat horse, why not eat people?… The horse is inedible because we know it as a beast of burden, a collaborator.

A cat loses all dignity when we step on its tail.

The symphony conductor’s uniquely special situation… the fact that the work is musically experienced by him. It’s a synthesis within him — the passion.

Watch a brief description (in French) of Levinas’s work below.

For a fuller version of the same video, including an interview with Levinas in his early 80s, click here

Click here for an interview with Levinas in his late 80s.

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