Sunday, June 28, 2009

Multiplicity and the Secret of the Text

I often find treasures in the middle of night, when everything is opened up and illuminated by darkness. Here, silence is not golden, but it is razor sharp.

I'm in Toronto for the North American Levinas Society conference. I have a presentation tomorrow on Levinas's essay "Reality and its Shadows," in which he questions the nature of art and criticism. I'm going to use this essay to offer a reading of Anne Michaels' Fugitive Pieces, which is so perfect that my heart hurts every time I read it.

Of course it's 2am and I have not finished my presentation, so I'm working--alone, where it's silent and I can see the darkness outside.

Accidentally, a few minutes ago I started re-reading Levinas's essay "Revelation in the Jewish Tradition." I read the following:

"...the totality of truth is made out of the contributions of a multiplicity of people: the uniquness of each act of listening carries the secret of the text; the voice of Revelation in precisely the inflection lent by each person's ear, is necessary for the truth of the Whole. The fact that God's living word can be heard in a variety of ways does not only mean that the Revelation adopts the measure of the people listening to it; rather, that measure becomes, itself, the measure of the Revelation. The multiplicity of people, each one of them indispensable, is necessary to produce all the dimensions of meaning; the multiplicity of meanings is due to the multiplicity of people."

Even when I am unabashedly appalled by someone else's viewpoint, I must--according to my reading of this passage--listen to his or her contribution in order to discover the "secret of the text." Perhaps one only finds meaning in a room where a number of people are engaging in disagreement.

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Yo, judío: Borges Looks for the Jew in the Mirror

A few months ago I saw Ilan Stavans give a talk at UCLA. Today there's a piece over at Jewcy that he's written about Jorge Luis Borges' connection to the Jewish world. Stavans writes:

"'Yo, judío,' [Borges'] brave and unapologetic response to Crisol, pointed out, in the measured prose that was to become his trademark, a deep desire to find the missing link in his ancestry--the Jew in the mirror."

Lately I've been really interested in this phenomenon (okay, so it's not really a phenomenon) of non-Jewish philosophers and writers exploring their invisible/imagined Jewish side. There's Maurice Blanchot, of course, whom I convinced Jeffrey Goldberg to add to his Philo-Semite 50 list. And of course there's Bernard Malamud's "All men are Jews" statement. And now Borges.

I always say that Judaism is a mode of being (please bear with my implied conflation of Judaism and Jewishness here). But I wonder if these writers are getting at something else when they seek out their own personal connections to Judaism and/or Jewishness. I wonder if they are tapping into something that is beyond any philosophical, literary, or cultural articulation of Jewishness.

Then again, I suppose they say that there was a certain number of non-Jewish people present at the giving of Torah at Sinai...I love seeing these people emerge in contemporary society.

Monday, June 15, 2009

The Love Affair Continues

"In the night one can die; we reach oblivion. But this other night is the death no one dies, the forgetfulness which gets forgotten. In the heart of oblivion it is memory without rest," writes Maurice Blanchot in the context of his discussion on the various forms of night: night, the first night, and the other night.

For Blanchot, when everything disappears in the night, it is in reality the appearance of
the disappearance. At least, this is what happens in the other night. It's when absence shows up, when the wound is revealed. You can see where I'm going with this: back to trauma (the absence) and midrash (the night that reveals the disappearance): "Here the invisible is what one cannot cease to see; it is the incessant making itself seen."

And now my own ego brings it back to me.

Blanchot writes, "Those who think they see ghosts are those who do not want to see the night. They crowd it with the terror of little images, they occupy and distract it by immobilizing it--stopping the oscillation of eternal starting over."

I go through periods of time where I experience night terrors consistently--where I wake up and experience a hallucination. These nights are crowded with the terror of little images. And then there are periods of time where I experience only the memory of the terror. On these nights I fall peacefully into the revelation of absence, quite content to see "the incessant."

Perhaps I have only myself to blame for the terrors with which I have crowded
my night. I want the invisible made accessible, the absence illuminated, but sometimes the night contains the unbearable textures of sadness. I've written about this before in some way-- about Levinas's notion of the Il y a, the nothingness/somethingness that represents the rumbling I hear when I put the old seashell up next to my ear. I'll defer to someone else here.

I have a feeling none of this really makes sense. But Blanchot just does this to me: the chaos that brings everything into order.

Friday, June 12, 2009

The Dynamic Duo: Hitler and Obama

I can't sleep. And it's probably because I keep thinking of the creepy sign that these even creepier young people are holding. Last weekend we walked down to the 3rd Street Promenade in Santa Monica to have lunch. There are always any number of street performers and soap box preachers to be found at the Promenade, but this was the craziest experience I've ever had there.

I had neve
r heard of Lyndon LaRouche, but apparently this guy has quite a record for stirring up crazy conspiracies--he's an extremest crackpot with a political cult following, it seems. At any rate, a large group of college-age kids spouting off countless LaRouche inspired philosophies had gathered to speak out against Obama's healthcare plan. Okay, that's fine. I have my issues with "universal" or government-run healthcare too. But that wasn't the problem.

The problem was
that they were using the Holocaust to create a spectacle that they imagined in their LaRouche-induced stupor would somehow advance their worthy cause. There were 8 different signs (most of which I snapped photos of) depicting Obama as Hitler and explicitly stating that Obama is continuing the work that Hitler began with his new health plan.

I usually don't indulge crazies. Arguing
with them gets you nowhere. They simply stare right through you and continue to regurgitate whatever propaganda they've been fed no matter what you say. But when I saw a young black man (part of the group) dressed in a suit, wearing a name tag that said "Prez" and sporting a sharpy-drawn Hitler mustache on his lip, I couldn't restrain myself.

I walked up to the table to collect some of the literature, and said to the young man handing it out, "Yes, you guys are absolutely right. What Obama is doing is EXACTLY the same thing as stuffing millions of innocent people into gas chambers and crematoria." And he told me that it is the same thing, that Obama has explicitly stated that he intends

Do you laugh? Or do you spit in his face? I mean, really? The issue is not whether or not I like Obama or his ideas regarding healthcare reform. I think it's clear what the issue is here. He then went on to tell me that I knew nothing about the Holocaust. Good those are fighting words.

I have so much more to say about this, but it will have to wait until tomorrow's post. In the meantime, here are a couple more pics from the spectacle.

Thursday, June 11, 2009

Spinoza Transfusion

I've been reading a bit of Spinoza as I finish an article on Levinas and Dara Horn's novel In the Image. In the novel, there is a character who develops an obsession with Spinoza in the context of some much larger questions about the nature of God and commandment in a post-Holocaust world.

In a review of Rebecca Goldstein's Betraying Spinoza, Harold Bloom writes:

"As in Epicurus and Lucretius, Spinoza's God is scarcely distinguishable from Nature, and is altogether indifferent to us, even to our intellectual love for him as urged upon us by Spinoza. Many Americans are persuaded that God loves each of them, personally and individually. Is that our blessing, in this era of George W. Bush, or is it not the American malaise, partly productive of the daily slaughters on the streets of Baghdad? A transfusion of Spinoza into our religion-mad nation could only be a good thing."

Our nation--"religion-mad"? No...

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

The Diversity of Night Terrors

My night terrors are becoming so much more ethnically diverse. Usually--at least two nights each week--I awake from a deep nighttime sleep to see a creepy white man standing either in the corner of my room or directly above me. He's always about to kill me, of course, because nobody hallucinates about people who are there to hang out and have an intellectual discussion unless there are quaaludes involved.

But last night there was a diversity breakthrough. I awoke about three hours after I had fallen asleep to see a very tall light-skinned black man crouching down in the corner of my room opposite to the one where the creepy white guy is always hovering--I think he was a cross between Obama and Dwight Howard from the Orlando Magic. I sat up on my bed, stared at him, and started screaming my head off while edging myself off of the bed and calling for my boyfriend, who had moved to the couch because apparently I had already screamed twice earlier in the night.

No, I wasn't more frightened because he was black. I was more frightened than usual because I've grown accustomed to the creepy white guy. I just wasn't used to this new would-be killer. But I suppose it's a good thing that my hallucinations are growing more diverse. I think it's probably something like what they say about learning a new language: you know you are fluent when you begin dreaming in the foreign language. I'm hallucinating about people of all races killing me now: I am truly tolerant.

Thursday, June 04, 2009

God Looks for a Wrestling Match

In an essay from her newest book For the Love of God (which I reviewed for Shofar a while back), Alicia Suskin Ostriker writes:

Open disclosure: I write as a Jew, a woman, a wife and mother, a third-generation lefty, a feminist, a poet. And I write as a reader, for whom words are primary—even sacred—realities. The Hebrew Bible marks, for me, the point in Western culture where human life, human language, and the human experience of the divine, most fully converge. I can learn from it. I can wrestle with it. It fights back, and we both grow stronger. It is both a primary source of my most strongly held values and a source of much that I deplore and struggle against. I believe that the Bible, and God in the Bible, want to be wrestled with. This is how they stay alive. This is why the sages say, "There is always another interpretation."

For me, apart from my lifelong fascination with Torah, Ostriker's work is where it all began. She is one of the most magnificent and compelling writers out there when it comes to dealing with the Hebrew bible in the context of poetry, story, and philosophy. I think I have always loved most the idea of wrestling with God--of a God who truly wants to be wrestled with, rather than blindly and uncritically obeyed.

Tuesday, June 02, 2009

Levinas in France!

I'm excited about this one--our next North American Levinas Society conference will be in France, and we'll be teaming up with another organization (SIREL). Below is the Call for Papers.

Société internationale de recherches Emmanuel Levinas (SIREL, Paris)
North American Levinas Society (NALS, USA)
International Conference: "Readings of Difficult Freedom"
July 5-9, 2010: Toulouse, France


First published in 1963, with a second edition in 1976, Difficile Liberté, Essais sur le judaïsme is considered Levinas' mostaccessible book and constitutes an e xcellent introduction to his work. This collection of essays which appeared in a variety of journals (L'arche, Information juive, L'esprit, Evidences, etc.) reflects the society, culture and philosophy of France from the 1950s to the 1970s. These essays are closely bound to traumatic events of the time, but Levinas – and this is one of the strengths of the book –tackles these issues directly. He sets forth the reconditions for the reconstruction of a world governed by aspirations for justice and a renewal of Judaism, as signified by the living symbol of Israel.

Difficile Liberté should not be seen purely as a collection of circumstantial writings. Levinas attempts to define post-Holocaust Judaism, and charts the conditions and the need for Jewish thought and education in an authentic but distanced dialogue with modern, i.e. Christian, society. These considerations are often interspersed with references to writers and thinkers who influenced Levinas such as Claudel, Heidegger, Hegel, Spinoza, S. Weil, Gordin and Rozensweig, but more frequently to sacred texts, the Bible and the writings of the Sages of Israel which Levinas felt were so critical to study. Can it be said that Levinas' modernity may be found in his appeal to Jews to return to those old "worm-eaten tractates" (the Jew of the Talmud should take precedence over the Jew of the Psalms)? These articles are still innovative, sharp, concise and overarching; the style is sometimes lyrical – Levinas rarely wrote in such a strident, argumentative way, blending conviction and stupefaction.

Beyond the obligatory step of analyzing the title (taken from the last few words of the article "Education and Prayer") this conference aims not only to place the essays in Difficult Freedom in their historical context and within Levinas' evolving thought, but more importantly to examine them afresh – with the wonderment and probing they still elicit today. Diachronic and synchronic analyses of the articles in Difficult Freedom will help situate them with respect to Levinas' other works, themes could be explored such as the Holocaust, Israel, phenomenology, ethics, links to Heidegger, Rozensweig, French philosophers and writers, Talmudic readings, Levinas' relationship to Christianity, etc.

This international conference is organized by the Société internationale de Recherches Emmanuel Levinas (SIREL), and by the North American Levinas Society (Purdue, USA), in conjunction with the Levinas Ethical Legacy Foundation (New York), the Centre Raissa et Emmanuel Levinas (Jerusalem), and other partners to be announced. The conference will host participants from all over the world, with more than a hundred presentations. Priority will be given to students and young researchers. The proceedings will be published (articles selected by the editorial committee). If funding permits, some financial aid may be made available, in particular to young researchers.

1. On or before July 14, 2009: submission of title and a short author bio-bibliography.
2. On or before September 30, 2009: submission of a 500-word abstract presenting the paper (talks will be 20 minutes, in French or in English).
3. On or before November 15, 2009: author notification, based on the decision of the scientific committee.
4. February 2010: publication of conference program.

Questions concerning this conference and all submissions should be sent
(preferably as Microsoft Word files) electronically to:
Society Newsletter, 4.1 May