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Creative ontologies and the infinite task of language in Levinas's and Rosenzweig's notions of poetic expression.


On the final page of Reality and its Shadow, Emmanuel Levinas states that the task of philosophical interpretation is to become conscious of the creative event, an event that eludes cognition during the very act of creation itself. While it sounds like Levinas demands an impossible task from the philosopher, I will show how this knowledge is possible by understanding the expressive aspect of language and speech that is different from the meanings they aim to convey. Through revealing the ethical possibilities of expressive language, the paper will develop Levinas's interpretation of Shai Agnon's poetry, whose work illustrates an ethical rupturing in being's creative unfolding. Levinas writes in Proper Names that Agnon is an ethical poet who is not bewitched by passive illusions, but rather whose use of language and poetic tropes express a world of shared, cultural, and religious memories to develop the "creature" that is being. Agnon's poetry will be used as an example to illuminate how echoes of Rosenzweig's concept of creation is developed in Levinas's own work on poetic language.

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 Shoah (2) 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." Levinas suggests that his thought on ideas that totalize the other is intertwined with Rosenzweig's, so much so that he cannot distinguish his own voice from the other's. The effects of ideas that totalize the Other and the partial representation of the human subject are precisely what Levinas aims to show, with his contrast of a subject who can register or is subjected to infinity through a relationship with an Other, (4) the significance of which is noted in the very title of his book.

Silvia Richter, in Language and Eschatology, describes Rosenzweig's echoes within the thought of Levinas. She writes, "Levinas's discourse as a whole is so deeply penetrated by Rosenzweig's thought that Levinas does not even try to separate it through citation marks which would function as a sort of demarcation line between the original text and influences from other sources. The transitions to Rosenzweig's Star are thus fluidly inherent in the entire discourse of Totality and Infinity." (5) Richter's work draws parallels between Levinas's and Rosenzweig's general notions of language and eschatology, and accentuates in particular their concepts of revelation and speech. These latter concepts will be important in this analysis, which turns a sensitive eye toward poetic speech, thought, or, using a term Rosenzweig inaugurated, "speech-thought" as thought that can never be abstract but is always contextualized between two persons.

We begin with Levinas's notions of language, poetic language and its creative power relative to a nonstatic or determined being, and ontology to show similarities with Rosenzweig's approach to the creative and revelatory power of speech.


In Totality and Infinity, Levinas links ethical responsibility with the expression of language. (6) In order for any system of signs to convey meaning, we must presuppose a "straightforwardness" for one to take another at his word. Expression is that aspect of language that exceeds its mere use as an instrument of reason. For him, discourse creates an ethical relation between two speakers because of this openness that obligates and makes each vulnerable. (7) As speakers, we cannot completely anticipate what will be said in a response, or even fully predict what we ourselves will say at any given moment. The speaker expresses a human being who is nontotalizable. There is a capacity for surprise that manifests as language in the giving of thanks or teaching, for example, that opens the possibility of taking care of the other.

Regardless of what is said, language is that which relates two seemingly separated beings without reducing them to the same. (8) A speaker is present and becomes herself in the very act of her speaking. More than just expressing sociological or historical content through words, for Levinas, she "attends her manifestation" in expression. (9) The essence of language resides in its expressing a manifesting being over and above its instrumental or functional capacity to be used as a tool for further action. We may understand this expression as coming from an infinite superfluity.

Already we can see two aspects of language here. First is the instrumental and practical aspect, which is radically different from language in its very activity, or expression. (10) The Song of Songs is often used as an illustrative example to distinguish this expressive aspect of language from the instrumental. Regardless of what these biblical songs of love sing about, they orient the reader toward the very sense of song itself, "the symphony where all senses become song," in any song. (11)

In the concluding chapters of Totality and Infinity, Levinas writes, "The presence of the Other, or expression, source of all signification, is not contemplated as an intelligible essence, but is heard as language, and thereby is effectuated exteriorly." (12) Language, as such, has the power to effectuate the presence of the Other. (13) When we are confronted with a plea or command, there is first a positing voice that puts the other into question. The ethical is enacted immediately when there is a responsible response. If language is the expression of otherness, cloaked in words and symbols of the ethical command--"Thou shalt not kill" for example--then there is a locatable relation here with an anarchical exteriority.

Imminently and immanently, metaphysical exteriority gains expression as the ethical response of a being who stands for an Other. (14) Exteriority, as such, can shine in the world in any given place between two speakers when they become subjects. Two speakers stand as an opening beyond being, rather than representing mere, totalized themes. In this bond that cannot be declined, and created by language, we hear the traces of a persecuted subject that Levinas develops in Otherwise Than Being or Beyond Essences.

It may be important to note that revelation is an experience between two interlocutors that speak one to the other, as discourse. (16) The freedom of each speaker is put in question in their response to the infinite demand that begins in the face-to-face encounter. As Richter points out, "through the experience of eschatology, realized in the face-to-face encounter, human beings gain the ability to speak." (17) The experience of eschatology that Richter describes may not have a phenomenal quality, though it is an event in being that constitutes a relation beyond it. In moral expression one is called forth to an infinite demand, "to their full responsibility." (18) An ethical relation with the absolute Other is an event in being that instantiates a relation beyond it, which we will see is attainable in poetic expression.

In a section of The Poet's Vision titled "Impersonal Speech and the Presences of Absence," Levinas appreciates that for Blanchot, "The mode of revelation of what remains Other, despite its revelation, is not the thought, but the language, of the poem." (19) In the notion of a given that is always only in a proximate relation, Levinas notes a positive relation with exteriority. When words are said, silence is required to let words bare their meaning. In contrast to vision, where an object seen "can determine an act" and become integrated by signification into the observer's world, discourse in its essence, as expression, "is not a species of consciousness whose ray emanates from the I; it puts the I in question. This putting in question emanates from the other." (20) Exteriority in this context, for Levinas, paradoxically also always remains without ontology, or is always beyond totality. No concept, symbol or knowledge can lay hold of this exteriority.

Silences play an important role in Levinas's phenomenology. Language shows through discourse its unique power to reveal in symbols an ethical command. At the same time, language conceals in the silences between words the absolute Other, beyond any presented or perceived theme. (21) Silence creates in a listener anticipation that presupposes a passage that is already, and at times uncomfortably, at work in any exchange. Levinas's discussion of poetry that can illustrate an ethical posture, Agnon's in particular, provides a wedge into understanding this tense relationship of exteriority cloaked as a responsible form of poetic expression. We will explore in the third section to whom or what does the poet stand in relation if his discourse is not with another face, or subject. Given the influence Rosenzweig's writing had on Levinas, we may approach these topics of language and poetic expression in Rosenzweig's work for deepening our appreciation of Levinas.


As we turn to discuss Franz Rosenzweig, I will begin with a quote from part 2, book 1, in the Star of Redemption, where creation and revelation are shown to have momentary essences. I believe it sheds light on a worldview of creation that is, to a certain extent, implicit in Levinas's work on language and can help fully articulate Levinas's view of ethical responsibility that is attributable to poetic expression, like the kind we will find in Agnon.

Rosenzweig writes, "The relationship we are seeking between the world and the creator was not, for the world, the fact of having been created once and for all, but its continuous Revelation as creature.... In the world, which reveals itself as creature, this lasting essence changes into a momentary essence, 'endlessly renewed' and yet universal." (22) Genesis did not happen at some distant time in the past, but is happening constantly, nor does revelation require power beyond that which is given to speech.

In part two of Rosenzweig's, The Star of Redemption, there is also a comprehensive view of a constantly renewing world whose order is brought in part by language. (23) We can have naive trust in language because, "it is in us and around us, and when it comes to us from the 'outside,' nothing other than it echoes from our 'inside' toward the 'outside.'" (24) Rosenzweig places the spatial terms, "inside" and "outside" in quotation marks. These marks make us question the spatial-temporal implications of inside/outside first, but more importantly, of the supposed separate nature of subjectivity and community, or subjectivity, the world, and God as Rosenzweig conceives these. Here we can see how an isolated subject, a self, is always in motion toward another through language. (25)

For Rosenzweig, there are two forms of silent prelanguages that precede spoken language. (26) Math and logic are included in these forms of inexpressible language. They require blackboards and rigid formulas for their expression. The second type of silent prelanguage is found in art, representing the subjective language of a "mute primordial world." (27) Rosenzweig states that art is like the "saying" before speech enacts a "said." Later in Otherwise Than Being, (28) Levinas develops these concepts that are similar to Rosenzweig's.

For Rosenzweig, poetic language is one type of prelinguistic thought in art. Poetry began as a subjective monologue. Ancient tragedy illustrates this subjective monologue where the hero stands in the light of his own will. He is not in community with others where his speech enacts relations. Instead, the hero's will and assured power always reaches a tragic end in itself. In ancient tragedy for example, the hero and the chorus's silent words of speech are not expressed in dialogue, and remain intrinsically subjective and empirical. Antigone's language does not find efficacy in her community while she lives, but remains paradigmatic only for those who follow after her death. The true tragedy and limit of the Attic drama, Rosenzweig points out, is that "the dialogue does not achieve a relationship between two wills, because each of these wills can only want its singularity." (29) Antigone suffers a death sentence and her brother apparently comes to know about her monologue only after her sacrifice.

In contrast to poetic language, visual art is "a thing said," again placed in quotes in Rosenzweig's text, indicating that "the said" is not necessarily vocal. "A thing said" implies that it has the quality of determinacy. Visual imagery coupled with language in poetry, on the other hand, can reveal a reality moving beyond what would only be a determined, visual said. Poetry can move the visual said into dialogical speech. (30) Poetry reflects the eidetic involvement of a poet's concerns in his life and reality. Once a work is made public, the originator's idea is offered and made into distinctive signs for others--his or her spectators--to interpret.

Through language the world grows along with its speakers. (31) Geniuses, artists, or poets have the capacity to be originators and creators of expression. They come out of the enclosure of themselves to create a dialogue for and with the unexpected Other. (32) According to Rosenzweig, the word of God and the word of man are the very same, (33) where they only differ drastically in their "ways." Man, also, has the additional task of discovering his individualized contribution to the world's process. Rosenzweig writes that language is "self-evident ... [and] ... deeply rooted in the original words in the subterranean foundations of being, but already in the root words language shoots up to the light of life on earth, and in this light it opens its petals into a colorful multiplicity, a bouquet in the middle of life which grows everywhere; language is nourished by this life, and this life nourishes it." (34) The use of "subterranean" clarifies that language and words are not arbitrary, nor do they reflect an arbitrary reality. The spectator, or listener, is essential for art or poetry to truly speak. Poetry has more flexibility to convey expression, over the more determinate and fixed meaning that visual art expresses for interpretation. In the real activity life, interpretations establish spacious living and a lasting existence that can aesthetically inspire little by little a rich totality of human life. (35) The totality however, is never complete.

A spectator's immersion in his inner associations lends the poetic expression a lasting influence in reality. Afterwards it can affect fashion, history, education, or any other "public" institution. (36) When a work reaches this character of dialogue, its poetic expression transcends its maker. Rosenzweig uses Wagner's operas as an example for when art became alive in Germany. When the names of his heroines, Elsa and Eva, for example, became trendy and people named their children after these heroines, only then did Wagner's art come to life. The spectator's passive enjoyment while listening, on the other hand, is when the poet's expression risks losing its life in community. Levinas also more often emphasizes when the poet's expression is used to charm, beguile, and prevent an open welcome for the Other. (37)

It may also be tempting to imagine "public" institutions, a word also in quotation marks in Rosenzweig's text, as physical buildings constructed out of poetic letters, building blocks, or physical art objects. However, the quotations around "public," and the immersive quality of the spectator's ideas, go against this reading of a literal, physical space for the poetic word. Public cannot mean a place that is independent of the spectator. Artistic expression moves neither in time nor place, but within creative imagination, "where time and space have their inner origin, in imagistic thinking." (38) For Rosenzweig, revelation brought about by the artist in the spectator is "precarious," and can be understood as unexpected, as is the confrontation of the face-to-face relation for Levinas.

Echoing Levinas, Rosenzweig asserts that an idea or sentiment that is expressed through a poem is not hidden behind it, but lives in its very movement when a reader is immersed in its dialogue. Rosenzweig writes, "Among the arts, the poem is the one that goes out into the market of life without having timidly to safeguard its dignity." (39) Philosophy holds itself to a particular kind of discussion; philosophy's vocabulary and methodology are separate from that of the common people. Socrates and Nietzsche were two exceptions in the philosophical tradition who saw philosophy as poetry, needing to reach into the lives of common people. Much to the irritation of their respective communities, and like embodied poetry, they went into the marketplace to create new life. Science, too, relies on an internal method, for example, of repeatability and verifiability, to secure its claims. Poetry, on the other hand, finds its place and reach in the people. It speaks their language in art, making the content of life. (40) Overall Rosenzweig gives more significance to poetic expression than Levinas; however, the similarity is worth bearing for our understanding of the power of language as such in Levinas.

In many regards, Rosenzweig's work on language and the power of speech makes explicit an idea about creation, or revelation, in Levinas's work. Rosenzweig's and Levinas's theories of language rest on the shard notion of being and human relations that are inherently creative. Still configuring itself, language is one way for the world to become itself, and self-conscious of itself. (41) Michael Oppenheim recognized that for both Levinas and Rosenzweig, "language is creative; not only does it awaken responsibility, it creates the power to respond." (42) Levinas would make the stronger claim that language is that openness of response that one cannot decline. Your subject as ethical is obligated without even the possibility of an indifferent response. Indifference is still a way of being with the Other. If ethical relations are believed, thereafter, to have a place in actually creating the real world, then the world for both thinkers is an unfinished process working itself out.

Creation must then still be in process. For Rosenzweig, God and man come together to create the world as phenomenon. (43) Rosenzweig also states that "God and man already are, the world is becoming." The world is not yet complete, therefore when the I emerges from the self towards the Other, to express love for one's neighbor or nation, for example, the self loses its mute character and not only exists, or lives, but creates real dialogue.

God's revelation--the world, and the people creating in it--His "creature" as Rosenzweig calls it, is the becoming present of the world. Every moment is given universal import in God. As such, institutions, societies, feelings, things, and works are alive. The unfolding world is the content of God's revelation. In this polar relationship between God, the created world, and man, "everything that happens between them happens simultaneously in each of them." (44) Human existence in this way can complete its creation as it works toward divine redemption.

Until that is reached however, the world is formed with our help, because it is "not yet finished." (45) Both Levinas and Rosenzweig despise totalizing philosophies. Here we find Levinas's striking resemblance to Rosenzweig on a totality of being which stands in relation to the infinite Other. There is no way of predicting those moments where an ethical relation, dialogue, or even poetic language will move or fail to shape being. Situations that give rise to those moments of expression cannot be anticipated or recaptured, but only seized as each opportunity arises.

Furthermore, Rosenzweig, like Levinas, warns that life is more than that which language or art can capture, shape, or influence. Language is not the reality it can give rise to. Only part of creation can be brought to bear in any of these forms because the world as creature is unfinished and ambivalent nature. Totalizing philosophies believe that the relationship of the world to its origin can be integrated and measured by relations contained therein. In Levinas and Rosenzweig, however, there exists an immeasurable relationship between beings because the process of creation begins when the unexpected and infinite Other appears, hears, and becomes aware of the expression of creation, or creative expression.

   But in another vision, the poet sees again, in the town now
   deserted, two survivors, Haim the beadle and Shalom the cobbler.
   [Excerpt from Agnon's Complete Stories follows] I said to them:
   "Let me ask you one more question. You said that after the second
   catastrophe no one was left alive in the town. So you are
   yourselves no longer alive!" They smiled, then, as the dead smile
   when they see that we think they are no longer alive. (46)

Let us think again about this manifesting, or expressive, aspect of language where exteriority is, "exercised, deployed, and brought about in language." (47) In Levinas's discussion of Shai Agnon's poetry, poetic activity is not taken in its negative aspect, in its ability to passively enchant and enrapture its reader. The poetic activity Levinas finds in Agnon is recognized as expression. Levinas writes, in Poetry and Resurrection: Notes on Agnon, "All craft, allegiance or commitment aside, the quest for a certain sound (and a sense unsayable without it) finds in Agnon--in that language, that life, that land--... a full range instrument for its expression." (48) Agnon's commitment to a Hebrew community, and Israel, provides content to talk about, but here the emphasis is placed on Agnon's expression, not person. (49)

Jill Robbins, who calls Agnon an "ultra ethical writer" in Altered Reading, points out that for Levinas, Agnon accomplishes ethical illustrations through his linguistic expressions. (50) Agnon's linguistic expression is not seen as ethical because of the facts or knowledge he presents. Rather, by illustrating traces of an author who cannot be totalized, Agnon signifies in his text the abyss within him in order to attend his "own manifestation." (51) The reader participates in this manifestation with every reading and interpretation of his texts.

In Totality and Infinity, Levinas grants language "the very power to break the continuity of being or of history." (52) In Notes on Agnon, Levinas further writes that Agnon's poetry breaks away from a determined, or certain, ontology. (53) Even while being present in his words, Agnon's totalized person always remains absent. For example, by reaching into the sur-reality of a deep, shared past, Agnon helped create the future of Hebraic literature. Hebrew was a language for ritual and religious observance only, and was not used in common life. Agnon contributed to resuscitating it from its biblical tomb. His resuscitation initiated a resurrection, a reawakening from death, which for Levinas "constitutes the principal event of time." (54) The continuity of a time that left the Hebrew language for dead was discontinued, interrupted, and recommenced in new form, illustrating a true temporality that is emphatically not definitive for Levinas. Let's continue to understand Agnon's poetry in light of the linguistic distinction made earlier, the instrumental use of language and its expression.

Agnon is situated in a given time and place. Elis time is after the Shoah, and his place is Palestine before the State of Israel was established. He makes references in his poetry to historical or social events that newspapers, posters, or memoirs also document. These include anecdotal elements or social criticisms that ask questions such as whether any literary work is a biography or fiction. (55)

In the first movement of using language as instrument, we relate to the content of Agnon's works, the common objects used in rituals, street names, and biblical characters to which he refers. Agnon writes, for example in "Shas Shel Beit Zeqeni" (The Talmud in My Grandfather's Home), "Like the golden dinars sparkling in my purse, so sparkled the names of the tractates, engraved in golden letters, from the backs of the volumes of Talmud." (56) Drawing from his time and place he writes about the dinar, a currency used mostly in Islamic countries. Dinar is the transliterated word for a coin that dates back to the Byzantine Empire. Agnon reflects his intimacy with the dinar, its possession in his purse where he keeps his important belongings, and makes it shine in parallel with his grandfather's rabbinic and sacred texts. Literal meanings are important here; however, the crucial element for expression that is ethical can be found in the poet's creative impetus, the meaning that always must remain without an explicit symbol.

The second movement in Agnon's language includes him, as the artist, making the poetic work. Levinas's discussion of Agnon is about this second movement that illuminates the possibility for an ethical, but "strictly untranslatable dimension," of poetry. (57) Here poetry, as such, signifies through its very song, beyond the author's craft that created it. His art is the ability to give a definite sound to his concerns, "an anachronism attributable to the modality of inspiration" that is left for generations to interpret. (58)

For example, Levinas explains that for Agnon there is Ahavat Israel, the love of Israel, in his poetry. Agnon's love is not in the work proper, but finds its expression in the poetry he created. With nothing less at stake than a resurrection of Israel's language and community, Agnon's work, "is closer to us than any present, the Un-representable will not be represented in the poem. It will be the poetry of the poem. Poetry signifies poetically eschatology, or the resurrection, that sustains it: not in the fable it sings [first movement], but in its very singing." (59) Agnon's care for the land of Israel is articulated in the document of his poem, his anxiety finds expression beyond the words of the text.

Agnon's committed love is what creates the second movement, for Levinas, and the space for an engagement with a good beyond being, by means of poetic language. Barshai recognizes this same creative tension that comes to expression in Agnon when he writes, "The chains of generations-gone-by on the one hand, and of modernity on the other, create a tension that fertilizes his creativeness and transforms him into an artist whose soul is split, a writer who gives expression to the spiritual anguish of the Jew in modern times.... In his works Agnon gave expression to the special attachment of the Hebrew writer to leshon hakodesh (the holy tongue)." (60) In language that is eerily reminiscent of Levinas's, Barshai notes Agnon's expression in relation to these people of the Bible returning from a long exile to the land of their longing.

Similar to Levinas and other poets like Franz Kafka, Agnon wrote during a meaningful transition in Hebraic history. At the time, people were coming to Palestine/Israel from many different countries. The only commonality for these people was an ancient language that was used during religious ceremonies and in their interpretation of ancient texts. The people of the book were coming to life in a land that as a place of worship was previously denied to them. Agnon is an embodied example of their expression.

These people read about the Hebraic God, an idea of infinity that was transmitted through a common ancient language. These shared texts passed through their readers to create a common history regardless of their time or place. Agnon's poetry was impressive in its capacity to call on this shared history that simultaneously aimed for a new experience in contemporary or modern Israel. By delving into the Hebraic past, Agnon was creating the future of a modern Hebraic expression. It is no wonder, then, that Agnon's writing exhibits a certain amount of social and religious dissonance, much like that found in Franz Kafka's work.

Stephane Moses, in The Angel of History, writes that for many German Jewish thinkers, writers, and poets of this time, especially Kafka, there is an "engraved trace of an escaped transcendence in the obsessive repetition of the themes of doubt, uncertainty, and forgetting, as in the proliferation of linguistic forms of negation and ambiguity." (61) Negative theology resurges during this period in Western Europe where the transmission of a tradition was broken. In Kafka, there is rebellion against or abandonment of the tradition, rather than an attempt to positively situate it in its new time and place.

For Levinas, a notable difference between Agnon and Kafka's expressions is the latter's disillusionment, abandonment, and enchantment, with a noncoherent sur-reality for which his poetic expression is in service. Kafka initiates his reader into the most mundane aspects of life that are represented as anything but mundane. His short story, The Judgement, can be seen as a work that was most celebrated by Kafka as a literary feat. He wrote in his diary, "The fearful straining and joy, how the story developed before me ... How everything can be said, how for everything, for the strangest fancies, there waits a great fire in which they perish and rise up again ... Only in this way can writing be done, only with such coherence, with such a complete opening out of the body and soul." (62) The short story was written in one evening and, in contrast to his usual habits, Kafka read the story aloud to several close friends immediately after its completion. Kafka enjoyed a period of prolific writing after this engagement with themes that became characteristic of his later work on guilt, punishment, and the law. (63)

For Kafka, The Judgement paradigmatically exemplified his feelings of losing a coherent narrative in life or literary structure. The loss is illustrated in characters who are broken in their sense of self and recoil in their psychological break. They also lose trust in the psychological composure of reliable figures, such as a father. There is also a loss in the reliability of testimonies and experiences that his characters offer. These are expressions of Kafka rejecting the idea of an eternal form of truth that can be found within oneself, in addition to the loss of an objective truth that nature or reality can offer.

In The Hermeneutic of "The Judgement," Stanley Corngold writes on this abyss over which Kafka's reader and interpreter is suspended, "Kafka exists not as the reader's pathos but as the large "impassiveness" of his text, somewhere off to one side of that bridge over which, in "The Judgement," there passes an almost infinite traffic. This impassiveness is at the same time anxiety, in a way which may well point to the final undecidability of literature itself--that literature which Kafka declared, on good authority, to be wholly the case." (64) The reader in the end of Kafka's work is sentenced to drown under the noise of modernity with the main character sentenced by the judgement of a father who may be as mad as the son.

Similar to what Corngold finds in Kafka, Ken Frieden also notes what he calls an "anxiety of influence" in Agnon's writing. (65) Caught in a time of transition, Agnon also mixes secular and religious influences, sometimes with an explicit tension between them. Along with themes similar to Kafka's existentialism, and his own references to modern German life and culture, there are deep and specific intertextual Hebraic biblical references. Frieden finds in Agnon, "A masterful expression on the linguistic level, that revolves around the relationship between Hebrew and the languages of the nations. Agnon's bi-lingual mastery enabled him to dominate the inter-linguistic drama, and to suppress his powerful precursors." (66) With a constant sense of irony and doubt, Agnon uses Hebrew and German words or expressions intertwined with references to ancient and modern literature. His use of irony indicates a blatant naivete with an undertone of doubt and skepticism.

Modern Hebrew and its literature continue to employ and develop upon biblical references. Whether the secular community realized it then, or understand these etymological roots now, religious references permeate every level of Hebraic society even today in what can be endearingly termed an Agnonian style. Levinas saw Agnon's poetry as pivotal in seamlessly integrating modern language with traditional references and the anxiety it conveyed. For example, even today, secular Hebrew expressions are oriented towards the Talmudic tradition. There is a Hebrew saying where one anxious and baffled interlocutor asks another, "Ma Hakesher?" Translated, this question literally means, "What (or, for English speakers where) is the knot?" Kesherim has a religious etymology that refers to a metaphysical or epistemological puzzle often found in Talmudic interpretations of biblical texts. In a modern context, one can ask another where the rabbinic knot is in their dilemma.

Under what can be seen as an Agnonian influence, a contemporary rabbinic expression is used for secular purposes. One often simply asks, "Ma Hakesher?" that is, "Where is the (rabbinic) knot," at the grocery store, for instance, in order to clarify some mundane fact. Without realizing the root of this expression, secular Hebraic speakers ask for clarification, not realizing they are asking for the fundamental or metaphysical, philosophic assumption used in an argument.

Much like Rosenzweig and other Hebraic thinkers of the time, (67) Agnon was suspicious that modern linguistic expression may degrade Hebrew, which until then had only used for religious purposes. Further in line with the responsible poet Levinas envisions, Agnon was critical of the very art he created. Rather than being irresponsible and harboring an aversion to his sensitive time and place in history, Agnon confronted his environment through his poetic linguistic expression. For Levinas, Agnon can be seen as assisting the developing creature that is historical being, who questions his freedom and becomes a moral being by recognizing his singular importance in the unfolding of universality. (68)


In Reality and Its Shadow Levinas uses the terms creation and revelation in conjunction three times. All these passages describe a failed artistic enterprise that neither create nor reveal being, "but in fact just the opposite." (69) Understood in the context of Rosenzweig's being that is constantly renewing and creating itself, these notions of creation and revelation that fail for Levinas articulate unrealized expressions that cannot be renewed.

Agnon's poetic language is an expression that reaches beyond totalized beings, while simultaneously giving voice to the social and religious concerns of his time. We can see how for Agnon, "language would exceed the limits of what is thought, by suggesting, letting be understood, without ever making understandable, an implication of a meaning distinct from that which comes to signs from the simultaneity of the logical definitions of concepts. This possibility is laid bare in the poetic said, and the interpretation it calls for ad infinitum." (70) The resuscitation of a dead language came through that which Agnon poetically said for a resurrection of what would become modern Hebrew.

In this scheme it is easy to see where poetic expression can have a place in creating the world. Authors like Agnon can reach back through associative memory to illustrate the human condition, not in abstract principles but in Active flesh and blood, in images, and in life that is paired with words. Levinas has more negative things to say about poets who more often misuse their linguistic vision by creating rhythmic and enchanting images, thus rendering their spectator unreflective. Kafka's expression initiates his reader into the abyss of meaning. For him, language cannot be naively trusted, as Rosenzweig and Levinas allow. However often abused, the potential for using imagistic language to illustrate and develop ethical existence always resides within the power of poetry and expression that reflects its responsibility.

Richard Cohen locates the particular contribution made by Rosenzweig and Levinas to Western ontology in "their elevation of the sociality of dialogue over the egoism of monologue." (71) Rosenzweig and Levinas share the perspective that truth, reason, and ideas are marred in symbolic and historical significations. If the lived world is going to be a place where ethical or metaphysical relations are created, then the irreducible in expression and speech offers a place for an immanent nature to brush up against the infinitely Other in its proximity, and always imminently create its future. The constantly immanent and elusive nature of those creative moments continually pass; however, they are always available. Poetry as creative expression, like philosophy when ethics is its optic, opens a dialogue in its approach of the always silent Other, and the never yet created.


(1.) Emmanuel Levinas, Totality and Infinity, trans. Alphonso Lingis (Pittsburgh: Duquesne University Press, 1961), 79.

(2.) In their book, Double Takes: Thinking and Rethinking Issues of Modern Judaism in Ancient Context, Zev Garber and Bruce Zuckerman develop, through the article "Why Do We Call The Holocaust 'The Holocaust?' An Inquiry into the Psychology of Labels," the etymology of the term "Holocaust" in contrast to the term "Shoah." The former was made popular by Eli Weisel and connotes utter devastation by fire as oleh, or sacrifice. Using this etymology, Levinas's use of Shoah may indicate his reluctance to accept any religious or sacrificial nuances that the etymology of Holocaust carries. We see in the third section how Levinas still considers the religious connection in his appreciation of Agnon's writing. Garber and Zuckerman aptly address the dis-analogies between victims of the Nazi genocide, who, unlike the figure of Isaac, were ordinary people. They were not mythically heroic figures whose deaths could be justified by recourse to a future redemption or messiah. The term Shoah also avoids running the parallel risk of permanently turning "The Germans" into a general totalized class of evildoers who perpetuate God's will.

(3.) Bernhard Casper, "Responsibility Rescued," in The Philosophy of Franz Rosenzweig, ed. Paul Mendes-Flohr (Waltham: Brandeis University Press, 1988), 95.

(4.) Levinas, Totality and Infinity, 26.

(5.) Silvia Richter, "Language and Eschatology in the Work of Emmanuel Levinas," Shofar 26, no. 4. (2008): 54-73.

(6.) Levinas, Totality and Infinity, 202.

(7.) Ibid., 297-98.

(8.) Ibid., 295.

(9.) Ibid., 297.

(10.) The term "expression" is similar to what Levinas develops more fully later in Otherwise Than Being as "the saying" (le Dire). Sixteen years prior to OB Levinas already started describing "the saying" in his work Proper Names, as that which "always opens up a passage from the Same to the Other, where there is as yet nothing in common. A non-indifference of one toward the other!" (6). The instrumental use of language is developed into what will be called "the said" (le Dit). Presuming that Levinas writes about one and the same subject across these three works, this distinction developed after Totality and Infinity will be used sparingly in this paper where appropriate to elucidate the point. How these terms Levinas used in OB can be reconciled more fully with terms used in 77 to describe two aspects of the same subject is saved for another paper.

(11.) Emmanuel Levinas, Humanism of the Other, trans. Nidra Poller (Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 2003), 24.

(12.) Levinas, Totality and Infinity, 297.

(13.) Later in Otherwise Than Being, terms like "signification" and "traces of the other" replace Levinas's use of the term "presence," to avoid using totalizing language for the other. With this caveat in mind, the terms used in this paper will remain consistent with those used in Totality and Infinity.

(14.) Ibid., 303.

(15.) Ibid., 301.

(16.) Ibid., 77.

(17.) Richter, Language and Eschatology, 62.

(18.) Levinas, Totality and Infinity, 23.

(19.) Levinas, Proper Names, 130.

(20.) Levinas, Totality and Infinity, 195.

(21.) Ibid.

(22.) Franz Rosenzweig, The Star of Redemption, trans. Barbara E. Galli (Madison: The University of Wisconsin Press, 2005), 131. Momentary essences do not result in a fragmented, poststructural world. Rosenzweig secures truth in a meta-logical world, a "ramified system of logical forms ... seized by the power of the Creator" (132). Other commentaries have developed Levinas's ethics that is associated with ultimate singularity, or Alterity. The ethical responsibility becomes so grave because of the unrepeatability of momentary essences that have passed. For both these thinkers, redemption is offered only in moments which if they go unseized are never to return again.

(23.) Ibid., 137.

(24.) Ibid., 163.

(25.) Ibid., 157.

(26.) Insight owed to Robert Gibbs, Correlations in Rosenzweig and Levinas (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1992), 92.

(27.) Ibid., 137.

(28.) "The Said and the Saying" is a chapter in the section titled Essence and Disinterest.

(29.) Rosenzweig, The Star of Redemption, 86-87.

(30.) Ibid., 162-63.

(31.) Ibid., 160.

(32.) Ibid., 161.

(33.) Ibid., 163.

(34.) Ibid., 157.

(35.) Ibid., 261.

(36.) Ibid., 262.

(37.) Levinas, Totality and Infinity, 203.

(38.) Ibid., 263.

(39.) Ibid., 265-66.

(40.) Ibid., 266.

(41.) Ibid., 129-30.

(42.) Michael Oppenheim, Encounters of Consequence: Jewish Philosophy in the 20th Century (Brighton: Academic Studies Press, 2009), 171.

(43.) Rosenzweig, The Star of Redemption, 235.

(44.) Ibid., 246, 267.

(45.) Ibid., 240.

(46.) Levinas, Proper Names, 14.

(47.) Levinas, Totality and Infinity, 296.

(48.) Levinas, Proper Names, 8.

(49.) While the discussion here does not mean to dismiss the importance of the broader political and social implications of the Jewish aliya to Palestine, our focus will remain on the movement among Hebrews returning from the Diaspora. This experience is one of return, or fulfillment, for which an oft-cited prayer was dedicated, "may we meet next year in Jerusalem." Reference to "Jews" in terms of a Hebrew language, rather than religion, is significant in the context of this paper and may be important for orienting our thought about a subject who becomes manifest in an ethical language. Shifting the emphasis to language from religion opens the possibility of an ethical relation that does not depend on a particular religious teaching, but on a kind of relation affected through language as such.

(50.) Jill Robbins, Altered Reading: Levinas and Literature (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press. 1999), 136.

(51.) Levinas, Totality and Infinity, 297-98.

(52.) Ibid., 195.

(53.) Levinas, Proper Names, 9.

(54.) Levinas, Totality and Infinity, 284.

(55.) Levinas, Proper Names, 10.

(56.) Elu veElu, 216. Referenced by Avinoam Barshai in "Agnon Between Tradition and Modernism," in Texts and Contexts in English Translation, ed. Leon I. Yudkin, 59-67 (New York: Markus Weiner, 1988), 61.

(57.) Levinas, Proper Names, 10.

(58.) Ibid., 7.

(59.) Levinas, Proper Names, 12.

(60.) Barshai, Agnon Between Tradition and Modernism, 66.

(61.) Stephane Moses, The Angel of History (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2008), 143.

(62.) Franz Kafka, The Diaries 1910-1913, ed. Max Brod (New York: Schocken, 1948), 345.

(63.) Hartmut Binder, "The Background," in The Problem of the Judgment: Eleven Approaches to Kafka's Story, ed. Angel Flores (New York: Gordian Press, 1977), 13.

(64.) Stanley Corngold, "The Hermeneutic of 'The Judgement,'" in The Problem of the Judgment: Eleven Approaches to Kafka's Story, ed. Angel Flores (New York: Gordian Press, 1977), 61.

(65.) Frieden, Intertextual and Interlinguistic Approaches to Agnon's Writing, 74.

(66.) Ibid.

(67.) Gershom Scholem, Hannah Arendt, Martin Buber and Walter Benjamin have lengthy and involved correspondences on this issue of the secularization of biblical Hebrew and its implications on the sacred status of its language. See Stephane Moses's Angel of History for an illuminating reflection on this dispute.

(68.) Richard Cohen, Levinasian Meditations: Ethics, Philosophy, and Religion (Pittsburgh, Duquesne University Press, 2010), 168.

(69.) Levinas, Collected Philosophical Papers, 3.

(70.) Emmanuel Levinas, Otherwise Than Being or Beyond Essence, trans. Alphonso Lingis (Pittsburgh: Duquesne University Press, 1998), 169-70.

(71.) Richard Cohen, Levinasian Meditations: Ethics, Philosophy, and Religion (Pittsburgh: Duquesne University Press, 2010), 277.


Barshai, Avinoam. "Agnon Between Tradition and Modernism." In Agnon: Texts and Contexts in English Translation, edited by Leon I. Yudkin, 59-67. New York: Markus Weiner, 1988.

Binder, Hartmut. "The Background." In The Problem of the Judgment: Eleven Approaches to Kafka's Story, edited by Angel Flores, 13-38. New York: Gordian Press, 1977.

Cohen, Richard. Levinasian Meditations: Ethics, Philosophy, and Religion. Pittsburgh: Duquesne University Press, 2010.

Corngold, Stanley. "The Hermeneutic of "The Judgement."" In The Problem of the Judgement: Eleven Approaches to Kafka's Story, edited by Angel Flores, 39-62. New York: Gordian Press, 1977.

Frieden, Ken. "Intertextual and Interlinguistic Approaches to Agnon's Writing." In Agnon: Texts and Contexts in English Translation, edited by Leon I. Yudkin, 69-75. New York: Markus Weiner Publishing, 1988.

Gibbs, Robert. Correlations in Rosenzweig and Levinas. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1992.

Kafka, Franz. The Diaries 1910-1913. Edited by Max Brod. New York: Schocken, 1948.

Levinas, Emmanuel. Collected Philosophical Papers. Translated by Alphonso Lingis. Pittsburgh: Duquesne University Press, 1987.

--. Proper Names. Translated by Michael B. Smith. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1976.

--. Otherwise Than Being or Beyond Essence. Translated by Alphonso Lingis. Pittsburgh: Duquesne University Press, 1998.

Levinas, Emmanuel. Totality and Infinity. Translated by Alphonso Lingis. Pittsburgh: Duquesne University Press, 1969.

Moses, Stephane. The Angel of History. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2008.

Oppenheim, Michael. Encounters of Consequence: Jewish Philosophy in the 20"' Century. Brighton: Academic Studies Press, 2009.

Robbins, Jill. Altered Reading: Levinas and Literature. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1999.

Rosenzweig, Franz. The Star of Redemption. Translated by Barbara E. Galli. Madison: The University of Wisconsin Press, 2005.

Zev, Garber and Bruce Zuckerman. Double Takes: Thinking and Rethinking Issues of Modern Judaism in Ancient Contexts. Studies in the Shoah Series 26. Maryland: University Press of America, 2004.
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Author:Giovanini, Valerie Oved
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Geographic Code:7ISRA
Date:Jan 1, 2016
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