Levinas & Derrida: The Literary Afterlife of Religion

Sarah Hammerschlag discusses how the work of Levinas and Derrida can help us to rethink the relationship between religion, literature, and philosophy

What motivated you to write the book?

Sarah Hammerschlag, Broken Tablets: Levines, Derrida, and the Literary Afterlife of Religion (Columbia University Press, 2016)
Sarah Hammerschlag, Broken Tablets: Levinas, Derrida, and the Literary Afterlife of Religion (Columbia University Press, 2016)

This project developed organically out of my first book The Figural Jew, which focuses on the revalorization of the figure of the Jew in post-World War II French literature and philosophy. At the center of that project there was already a nascent argument for introducing literary modes of speech into the political sphere to capitalize on the ways in which irony and plurivocity complicate the politics of identity. The last couple of chapters of that book argue that Blanchot and Derrida develop a literary concept of the Jew and Judaism through a reading of Levinas. But I was still concerned to represent the differences between Derrida and Levinas on the question of how to think about the cultural relevance of Judaism in the post-WWII context and to consider the very important political implications of their respective choices. Broken Tablets  gave me the opportunity to track the implications of those differences and to conceive of them in terms of how each philosopher negotiated his relationship to religion and literature as competing discourses to philosophy.

“I was still concerned to represent the differences between Derrida and Levinas on the question of how to think about the cultural relevance of Judaism in the post-WWII context…”

Could you say a little bit about the title, Broken Tablets?

Jacques Derrida
Jacques Derrida

The title is a reference to a line in Derrida’s early essay, “Edmond Jabès and the Question of the Book,” which I use as an epigraph to the preface: “Poetic autonomy, comparable to none other, presupposes broken tablets.” The whole book is really a gloss on that one line, on the kind of freedom Derrida is referring to in this sentence, one at odds with the form of autonomy central to the liberal tradition which begins with a subject of rights and duties. The book is ultimately about the difference between what it is to identify with the poets versus the rabbis and about the relation of literature to religion implied by this statement of Derrida’s.

What connections do you see between literature and religious tradition?

I’m interested in the dynamics of reading within a modern secular context as it compares to devotional reading. I’m interested in the way in which the experience of faith and the role of the promise are germane to both, but how they get negotiated differently within the secular context, particularly, as in the Twentieth Century when the author is no longer the guarantor of meaning. I’m interested in the structures that religious traditions use in order to maintain and defer the promise of disclosure and what happens within the secular context both to maintain that promise and to expose it as a ruse.

Jean-Paul Sartre
Jean-Paul Sartre

How do you read the influence of Jewish writers and thinkers in twentieth-century philosophy?

How and why does the Jewish writer take on such importance in the Twentieth Century? I take this to be the thrust of your question. I think it is tied to the way in which the Jew became exemplary in that century of an experience of alienation in modernity. As Sartre says in Anti-Semite and Jew, there is a kind of over-determination around the figure of the Jew, a redoubling of the experience of otherness. The Jewish writer then appears as the voice of that alienation and its intensification in the Jewish experience.

Why is it important to engage with theoretical writers like Emmanuel Levinas and Jacques Derrida?

It depends on the context in which we are having this conversation. Philosophically, there is no questioning their importance as the inheritors and re-orienters of a phenomenological tradition, no questioning their importance as thinkers who both accept the profound implications of Heidegger’s thought and work to undermine some of its presuppositions without abandoning its insights. But furthermore, I think that a commonality among their projects is a rethinking of the nature of the liberal political subject, whose rights and freedoms follow from a certain construction of agency that begins with the notion of how we define property in the broadest sense. To my mind this makes their thinking politically salient. Additionally they both theorize the nature of cultural inheritance. This makes their conversation profoundly important for thinking about the future of democracy and religious pluralism. These are crucial issues of our time.

How did the Second World War exert a profound influence on Levinas’ life and thought?

I think Levinas himself describes the impact most succinctly in a little essay titled in English “Nameless,” though the more proper translation from the French is “Honor without the Flag,” which is collected in Proper Names. There Levinas writes, as he does often in his wartime notebooks, about the experience of the war as one in which the curtains of civilization fell and the world was revealed in its nakedness, without the accoutrements of civilization, “all the splendors of life swept away like tinsel.” It was a matter then of finding amidst the experience of absolute exposure the source for an ethics that did not depend on societal mores and customs, of locating then “an inner morality belied by the universe.”

Martin Heidegger
Martin Heidegger

Both Levinas and Derrida engaged with the work of Martin Heidegger. Could you talk a little about the presence of Heidegger in the book?

It is true that to engage with Levinas and Derrida is inevitably to engage as well with Heidegger and the impact of Heidegger on both of them. In the book I consider the way in which both thinkers formulate their project in direct relation to his legacy, how Levinas’s conception of being Jewish is formulated as a response to Heidegger’s Dasein and how Derrida’s thinking particularly about American literature is formulated as a response to Heidegger’s disparaging of those forms of literature that he ties to fallen modes of existence, those that he says incite curiosity and idle chatter. Particularly after the publication of the Black Notebooks, there has been considerable attention to what it means to read Heidegger given the realization that the anti-Semitism was not a contigency of his thought, but ingrained in and inseparable from the most fundamental of its concepts and contributions. I would argue that Levinas and Derrida shared a fundamental awareness of this fact before it could be so clearly demonstrated and that furthermore one can read both their projects as indicative of a committed stance to think against its grain, even as they acknowledge some of its profoundest insights and contributions.

How do Levinas and Derrida negotiate with Christian writers and traditions?

This is a question that is often asked about Derrida because of the claim that deconstruction bears a morphological semblance to negative theology. I think though we are increasingly coming to see that it is an even more important question in relation to Levinas. While Levinas has always had a very strong Christian following, and certainly some of his earliest readers and interpreters were at the University of Leuven there were always good reasons for emphasizing the ties he forged between his philosophy and the Jewish tradition. But the wartime notebooks, published for the first time in 2009 expose something very interesting, that during the war he was reading and quoting a number of explicitly Catholic writers and thinkers, from Joseph De Maistre to Léon Bloy. He quite explicitly formulates his conception of being Jewish in relation to Bloy, writing that what Bloy had done to relate human existence to the categories of Catholicism must be done for Judaism.

Detail from Abraham's Sacrifice (1655), an etching and drypoint by Rembrandt. National Gallery of Art, Washington.
Detail from Abraham’s Sacrifice (1655), an etching and drypoint by Rembrandt. National Gallery of Art, Washington.

What role do ruins, remains, and afterlives play in Broken Tablets?

The subtitle of the book is “Levinas, Derrida and the Literary Afterlife of Religion.” Here the term “afterlife” refers to the claim in the last chapter of Derrida’s work Gift of Death that modern literature is an Abrahamic inheritance. One task of my book is to think about the nature of this inheritance and also to argue for the political productiveness of theorizing the relation of literature to religion as an alternative to those theoreticians who want to revive political theology. But the resonance of these images of ruin and remains also follows from the historical context of these thinkers, from a conceptualization of the postwar moment in France as one of ruin, and their task of making sense of what remained of the idea of Europe.

“If Levinas’s project is on one level a thinking of retrieval, a claim for the exigency of Judaism within the postwar context, […] Derrida formulates his own project as one of thinking through both the costs and demands of living as an inheritor of a religious past”

How can the work of Levinas and Derrida help us to rethink contemporary approaches to political theology or the study of religion?

I think that between the two of them they represent two means of thinking about the persistence of religious forms in secular culture. If Levinas’s project is on one level a thinking of retrieval, a claim for the exigency of Judaism within the postwar context, a call to return to the rabbinical tradition and to locate there the source of an ethics older than Athens, Derrida formulates his own project as one of thinking through both the costs and demands of living as an inheritor of a religious past, whether that is formulated in terms of ontotheology or Abrahamic secrecy. Theirs, I argue are two related but also opposed approaches to the challenges of modernity. Reading these two thinkers together provides us a means to examine these two options and to consider their political implications.

What’s next for you?

I have a few editing projects to complete, including editing an anthology of French Jewish Thought for Brandeis University Press. Then I’m doing a collaborative project with Amy Hollywood and Constance Furey on Faith in Religion and Literature. Finally, I’m working to complete an intellectual history of Postwar French Jewish Thought entitled Sowers and Sages: The Renaissance of Judaism in Postwar Paris with the University of Chicago Press.

Broken Tablets is available from Columbia University Press.


About the Author

Sarah Hammerschlag is associate professor of religion and literature at the University of Chicago Divinity School and the author of The Figural Jew: Politics and Identity in Postwar French Thought (2010).

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