Emmanuel Levinas, Don Quixote, and the Hunger of the Other Man

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Like many Jews over the centuries, I am fasting to commemorate the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem in 70 AD.  Now that I’m in middle of the fast, I’m having a hard time distracting myself from my hunger.  In the midst of being enthralled with my hunger, an academic memory came to my rescue.   I remember how the Jewish philosopher Emmanuel Levinas, in apposition to the German philosopher Martin Heidegger, argued that it’s not about my death and suffering (as Heidegger would say (in translation) my “being-towards-death”), it’s about the death and the suffering of the other.  Echoing this, I thought: perhaps Levinas is right, it’s not about my hunger; it’s about the hunger of the other.

Strangely enough, Levinas writes about the “hunger of the other man” in relation to Don Quixote (a comic figure which has appeared quite often in Schlemiel in Theory).  In 1975 and 1976, Levinas gave a course at the Sorbonne. His course notes are included in the book God, Death, and Time (translated by Bettina Bergo).   On his February 13th 1976 lecture, Levinas addresses Don Quixote and the “hunger of the other man.”  This talk, to my mind, gives us at least one angle to understand Levinas’s approach to humor.

Let me sketch it out.

Before making his reading of Don Quixote, Levinas prefaces with a meditation on the relation of thought to the world. He writes: “thought contains the world or is correlative with it”(167).  He notes that by “correlative” he means that it comes “prior to” the world.  In this spirit, Levinas argues that thought “disqualifies” anything that would be “disproportionate to the world.”  He provides two adjectives to describe things that would be disqualified: “all thought said to be ‘romantic’ or ‘theological’ in its inception.”

“Disqualified” thought, argues Levinas, is not equated with the world (which thought contains); it is equated with what is to come.  It is, for this reason, equated with “a question” and “hope.”  Levinas goes on to say that “God” is also included as something which is “disproportionate” with thought and the world.   To be sure, God, hope, and the question are deemed to be “outside” thought and, for that reason, outside the world.

Writing of this, Levinas wonders how much we can be “affected by what is not equal to the world, how one can affected by what can be neither apprehended nor comprehended”(167).  In other words, how much can we be affected by that which is disqualified by thought?

Following this question, Levinas launches into a discussion about the disenchantment of the world.  He addresses this, like Martin Heidegger or the sociologist Max Weber, from the angle of technology.  Unlike them, Levinas sees the disenchantment fostered by technology as good.  Here, however, he notes that although it is good, technology “does not shelter us from all mystification”(168).  Now “there remains the obsession with ideology, by which men delude each other and are deluded.”  And, says Levinas, even “sober knowledge…is not exempt from ideology.”

Everything, even knowledge, is still threatened by mystification.  Levinas finds the source in what he calls “amphibology”: “technology cannot shelter us from the amphibology that lies within all appearing, that is, from the possible appearance coiled at the bottom of all the appearing being.”

Benjamin Hutchens explains that amphibology is the “confusion between what something is and the concept that enables what it is to be known.”  This, says Hutchens, leads to a “kind of ambiguity.”  John Llewelyn cites Martin Heidegger’s notion of Being – in his claim that “language is the house of Being” – as an example of “amphibology.”  Being is ambiguous and this ambiguity troubles Levinas as he sees it as the source of what he calls “bewitchment.”  And, as Llewlyn suggests, this ambiguity goes along with the ambiguity of language.  Perhaps this implies (and may even be a jab at deconstruction) that one can easily become enchanted with the play of words and language and this may distract us from the other.

What Levinas seems to be saying here is that what threatens the project of demystification most is the embrace of ambiguity as such and this kind of ambiguity is associated with how things show themselves or appear.  Levinas notes that the basis of “man’s persistent fear of allowing himself to be bewitched” is “amphibology.”

And, strangely enough, the writer who best illustrates amphibology and the attending fear of being “bewitched” (and “allowing” oneself to be bewitched) is Cervantes in his book Don Quixote.  In fact, Levinas says that “bewitchment” is the book’s “principle theme.”  Levinas finds this to be most pronounced in chapter 46.  Hinting at his own phenomenology of the face, Levinas calls Don Quixote the “Knight with a Sad Face” and points out that “he lets himself be bewitched, loses his understanding, and assures everyone that the world and he himself are the victims of bewitchment.”

Bewitchment, it seems, is another word for foolishness.  And Don Quixote, the “Knight of the Sad Face,” lets himself become a fool.  Levinas hints as such when he cites Don Quixote’s urgent claim to his side-kick Sancho Panza: “’Sancho my son,’ he said, ‘now you realized the truth of what I have many a time told you, that everything in this castle is done by means of enchantment.”    Levinas stresses the point that Sancho Panza is clear minded and is “stronger” that Don Quixote for this very reason: “Sancho alone maintains a lucidity and appears stronger than his master.”

In other words, the person who watches the schlemiel or the fool is more “lucid” and “stronger” than him/her.  To give this reading more textual support, Levinas cites a passage in which Sancho Panza is astonished by the “gullibility” of Don Quixote.  Yet, at the same time, he can see the “shapes” that Don Quixote conjures up.  Levinas notes that “these ‘distinguished shapes’ that Sancho doubts are a priest, a barber, and a whole group that had decided to take Don Quixote back to his country, where he could be cured.”

After noting this, Levinas concludes: “thus the adventure of Don Quixote is the passion of the bewitchment of the world as the passion of the Knight himself.”  At this point, Levinas knew he had to relate his reading of Don Quixote to the beginning of his lecture: to thought, the outside, amphibology, and bewitchment.

To this end, Levinas goes right to work and claims that “we must understand that the whole of Descartes’s Evil Genius is present in these pages.” To be sure, Levinas is asking us to read philosophy by way of Don Quixote!  Continuing on this thread, and indirectly explaining amphibology, Levinas argues that in this passage from Don Quixote “enchantment functions in the form of an imprisonment within a labyrinth of uncertainties, lacking any connection between faces, which are only masks or appearances.”

Playing on Descartes notion of the cogito (mind), Levinas argues that, in the midst of his bewitched experiences, Don Quixote “experiences, in a way, the cogito on which a certitude is founded.”(169).  Citing Don Quixote, Levinas allows for Don Quixote to merge with Rene Descartes: “I know and feel that I am enchanted, and that is not enough to ease my conscience…I allowed myself to lie in this cage, defrauding multitudes of the aid I might offer of those in need and distress…”

The last line of this passage from Don Quixote is crucial for Levinas.  It separates Don Quixote from the Rene Descartes we hear in the opening lines, and this line brings the reader face-to-face with what Levinas calls the “hunger of the other man.”   To be sure, we can see from these lines that Don Quixote is ashamed.  He sees himself as allowing “to lie in this cage, defrauding multitudes of the aid I might offer to those in need and distress.”

I put the stress on the word “allowing” only because Levinas does.  But one doesn’t simply choose to be or not to be bewitched.  Levinas believes that this passage could not be written if Don Quixote was not, in some way, disenchanted by the “hunger of the other man.”  Levinas calls this interruption of bewitchment “transcendence.”  It comes from “outside” thought and disturbs it.   And he calls the process of disturbing this bewitchment “secularization.”

To be sure, Levinas is suggesting that the only thing that can truly “secularize” or “demythologize” reality and clear away the bewitchment of ideology (which is the project of the Enlightenment) is the “hunger of the other man.” This hunger is what, Levinas claims, awoke Don Quixote from his “bewitched” slumber.

What interests me most, as a schlemiel theorist, is what this kind of reading implies for the schlemiel.   How does it fit?  After all, Mendel Mocher Sforim, the father of Yiddish literature, wrote Benjamin III with Don Quixote in mind.  In that book, we have schlemiels who are, like Don Quixote, caught up in dreams. But can we say that these schlemiels are caught up in the same problems?  And if we take Levinas’s position are we taking the position of the clear-thinking Sancho Panza toward Don Quixote?  In other words, would Levinas think of the schlemiel in the same way he would think of Don Quixote? Does humor put the accent on the bifurcation between being “bewitched” and being “responsible” for the hunger of the “other man?”

I don’t know about you but I’m hungry for an answer!

(To be continued….)

3 thoughts on “Emmanuel Levinas, Don Quixote, and the Hunger of the Other Man

  1. I am very pleased to find your beautiful blog. This is very well written and I can understand it.not being a philosopher I get very confused sometimes by the language professionals use.I shall revisit to read more of your posts.Thank you so much

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