Beyond Tragedy and the Sacred: Emmanuel Levinas on Evasion and Moral Responsibility

Dissertation, York University (Canada) (2000)

John Caruana
Ryerson University
Levinas argues that tragic descriptions---from the Greeks to Nietzsche and Heidegger---rarely dare to draw the full implications of asserting that being is tragic. At the same time that it accurately attests to the irremediable character of being, the tragic position proposes a remedy that presupposes the self's capacity for transformation and meaningfulness. Heidegger, for example, holds that Dasein possesses as its highest possibility the capacity to embrace its finitude. For Levinas, however, the self is mired in a hopeless state of perpetual ambivalence---oscillating between moments of enjoyment and a horror of being. If the self lacks the means to rectify its condition in being, what is the genuine source of meaningfulness and purpose in our lives? Levinas attempts to respond to this question by inquiring into what he dubs the Desire for transcendence. Though western philosophy has at times voiced this Desire---for example, Plato's notion of a 'good beyond being' or Descartes's conception of the idea of the Infinite---ultimately, the philosophical tradition betrays the Good, because transcendence is almost always conceived in relation to anonymous being. For Levinas, the true 'site' of the Good is the face or presence of the other human being that speaks to me directly. The deepest level of the human drama takes place in what he calls the "ethical intrigue" that binds the self to the Other. The Other's plea for me to address the ruins of being affects me immediately. Integrity or moral wholeness involves the mature capacity to accept bad conscience---which always bears the Other's imprint---as fundamental to being human. The capacity to be responsible necessitates desacralization. Levinas awakens us to the importance of uprooting the sacred impulse at both the social and the individual level. The sacred is the attempt to bypass the ethical intrigue for direct communion with a supposed supernatural world. The sacred experience, like the tragic position, ultimately promotes moral evasiveness by undermining the Other's call to be responsible
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