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Divine Anonymities: On Transascendence and Transdescendence in the Works of Levinas, Celan, and Lispector

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Those points at which Emmanuel Levinas's later work touches on the question of God express a profound ambiguity. Here it is often the case that theism becomes indistinguishable from atheism, ethics is shown to be indistinguishable from religion and, to cite two important concepts invented by Levinas, il y a (lit., “there is;” denotes bare, senseless material existence) becomes indistinguishable from illeité (lit., “it-ness;” denotes the absolute distance or anonymity of God). While Levinas insists upon a measure of ambiguity or enigma in all truthful religious discourse, these series of ambiguities are often covered over by Levinas's ethical project as soon as they appear. With the aid of two deeply philosophical writers in whose work we find literary analogues of the ambiguities thematized in Levinas—the poet Paul Celan and the novelist Clarice Lispector—this paper offers a critique of Levinas's thin, often moralistic, concepts of alterity and transcendence. The critique proceeds by showing how Celan and Lispector demonstrate the consequences of thinking the anonymity of God and the corresponding undecidability of the most-high and the most-low (i.e., transascendence and transdescendence) to its logical conclusion. In the process, Celan and Lispector emerge as original religious thinkers in their own right, not merely as counterweights to Levinas.

Affiliations: 1: The University of Chicago Divinity School


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