beneath all particular expressions, which cover over and protect with an
immediately adopted face or countenance, there is the nakedness and destitution
of the expression as such, that is to say extreme exposure, defencelessness,
vulnerability itself". Emmanuel Levinas, 'Ethics as First Philosophy'
Now that I have the reader's attention, allow me to disown the ridiculous assertion of Levinas's conversion. I abuse both 'conversion' and 'Catholicism' here (not to mention Levinas himself) to point to the interesting, fascinatingly gripping, dilemma Levinas articulates in his important essays, "Ethics as First Philosophy" (The Levinas Reader, S. Hand, ed., Cambridge: Blackwell, 1989; henceforth EFP), and "Peace and Proximity" (Emmanuel Levinas: Basic Philosophical Writings, ed. A. Peperzak, et al., Bloomingtion: Indiana Univ. Pr., 1996; henceforth PP). Levinas employs Athens and Jerusalem as metonyms for (among other things) the Hellenistic and Hebraic ethos, respectively, especially as he critiques the notions of Europe and Europeans, and the concept of the West. His 'conversion' is his embrace of a both/and posture, and a sophilology (my coinage and appropriation of 'Catholicism' in this context), the 'wisdom of love' (PP, 169), which always complements philosophy, the 'love of wisdom'. As Judith Butler has suggested in her Precarious Life (London:Verso, 2004, p.135f.), Levinas might very well be getting at a vision of Europe where Jerusalem surpasses Athens in vying for the very heart of the West.
"Let justice descend, O heavens, like dew from above, like gentle rain let the skies drop it down" (Isaiah 45:8).
For Levinas, justice can only be the Derridean justice to come. "But the order of truth and knowledge has a role to play in the peace of proximity...the ethical order of human proximity...calls for the order of objectivity, truth and knowledge...the very sense of Europe: its biblical heritage implies the necessity of its Greek heritage." Levinas denies a "simple confluence of two cultural currents" which, he declares, "do better than converge." Europe is the "concreteness" where peace and proximity "demand a reason that thematizes, synchronizes and synthesizes...concepts necessary for the peace of humanity" (PP, 168). This gentlest of rain is "the first question of the interhuman."
The iconic (pace Jean-Luc Marion) face of the other means this proximity (EFP, 82). In fact, there can be no justice if such a justice traces itself back merely to truth and knowledge. We need to know just what brand of justice we are to embrace, to hope for, whose advent is always just on the horizon. We need, as Levinas asks, to know if such 'justice' comes from war (and the risk of perpetual war and conflict) and destruction and violence, or from "the irreducible responsibility of the one for the other" (PP, 169). Such responsibility is the claim of the Other upon me, a claim that does not 'lay claim' upon some deontological imperative, something I bring to the table, but a claim that comes only from absolute alterity:
"But, in its expression, in its mortality, the face before me summons me, calls for me, begs for me, as if the invisible death that must be faced by the Other, pure otherness , separated, in some way, from any whole, were my business. It is as if that invisible death, ignored by the Other, whom already it concerns by the nakedness of its face, were already 'regarding' me prior to confronting me, and becoming the death that stares me in the face. The other man's death calls me into question, as if, by my possible future indifference, I had become the accomplice of the death to which the other, who cannot see it, is exposed; and as if, even before vowing myself to him, I had to answer for this death of the other, and to accompany the Other in his mortal solitude" (EFP, 83).
This is the face, in its iconic stature of the saturated phenomenon, in its 'regarding' of me, gazes upon me, even before I turn my gaze, and seizes me, positions me to see that the face is seen, that I recognize the condition of threat, the state of siege that the face of the other finds itself (Befindlichkeit). Perhaps a mutual illumination presents itself here, the call of the spread body as coming from an elsewhere and an itself, a coming from the presentation of the spread body and the appresentation of the personhood of the itself. Levinas boldly appropriates Husserl's 'appresentation' as the 'epiphany' of 'the unicity and alterity of the unique' as 'concretely the face of the other human' (PP, 166). May I now be equally bold in appropriating the epiphany of the icon of the face, now as the voice, the call of my patient's body lying in her bed on the hospice care unit? Thou shalt not kill is the this is my body transposed into another key in the same symphonic motion of the Other's appearance before me. Both unconditional calls from the iconic face of the Other, one calls me to the movements of society and the polity of the 'one for the other'; the other calls me to the movement of my patient under siege, under the threat of death, of dissolution and expansion into oblivion, and the movement to healing.
These biblical warrants, the thou shalt not kill and the this is my body, make claims upon any "I" encountering any Other. For Levinas, the 'one for the other', the wisdom of love, tends to obviate any recourse to violence, would render a response of violence unintelligible. The hybridization of the Hellenic and the Hebraic would write into Europe itself the face of the Other and the one for the other. The wisdom of love, the both/and of the body and the human person (the recognition of a hybridization), plays out at the bedside of the suffering and dying as presentation and appresentation of the spread body and human person, respectively. Only in the peace and proximity of the face does the call of the spread body receive its voice.