Levinas’s Wartime Notebooks

Summer Reading- Levinas’s Wartime notebooks. From the brief excerpts in the review in this week’s Forward, it seems that the content is steps on the way to his “Existence and Existents.” It also shows the early interest of Levinas in fiction and human nature. The short quotes seem to have a Nietzsche quality or a Thomas Mann pessimism.

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.

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Yet none is as startlingly, indeed stunningly, revelatory as a new book… Levinas’s previously unpublished “Notebooks in Captivity” the first volume of a planned series of his complete writings.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… 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,

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.”
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.”

Excerpts from Emmanuel Levinas’s nine small wartime notebooks:

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.

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