The Trace of Judaism: Dostoevsky, Babel, Mandelstam, Levinas (Studies in Russian Literature and Theory)

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9780810125858: The Trace of Judaism: Dostoevsky, Babel, Mandelstam, Levinas (Studies in Russian Literature and Theory)
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Finalist for 2009 AATSEEL Award for Best Book in Literary/Cultural Studies. 

The defining quality of Russian literature, for most critics, is its ethical seriousness expressed through formal originality. The Trace of Judaism addresses this characteristic through the thought of the Lithuanian-born Franco-Jewish philosopher Emmanuel Levinas. Steeped in the Russian classics from an early age, Levinas drew significantly from Dostoevsky in his ethical thought. One can profitably read Russian literature through Levinas, and vice versa.   Vinokur links new readings of Fyodor Dostoevsky, Isaac Babel, and Osip Mandelstam to the work of Levinas, to ask: How does Judaism haunt Russian literature? In what ways is Levinas' ethics as "Russian" as it is arguably "Jewish"? And more broadly, how do ethics and aesthetics inflect each other? Vinokur considers how the encounter with the other invokes responsibilities ethical and aesthetic, and shows how the volatile relationship between ethics and aesthetics--much like the connection between the Russian and Jewish traditions--may be inextricably symbiotic. In an ambitious work that illuminates the writings of all of these authors, Vinokur pursues the implications of this reading for our understanding of the function of literature--its unique status as a sphere in which an ethical vision such as that of Levinas becomes comprehensible.

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From the Author:

Introduction
Levinas and Russian Literature

THE WORLD WANTS TO BE SEEN. It demands one's attention and response. This is an ethical demand and an aesthetic one. Nearly every artistic or literary manifesto claims to offer an aesthetic sensibility that will better "do justice" to the world. Wittgenstein's cryptic assertion that "ethics and aesthetics are one and the same" feels strangely intuitive either because it must be true or because we need it to be true.1 But aesthetic perception has its limits; it can be reductive or essentialist, turning the other into more of the same. Then again, is it fair to ask literature or art generally--a human activity that nudges us beyond things mundane--to attend to this demanding world? After all, art in its otherworldliness not only reflects this world but discloses it--while being part of this world, another of its demanding constituents. All of which demands an "ethical criticism" that can address art without consigning creative works to the realm of philosophical illustration or anthropological corrective, and even more importantly, without suppressing the autonomous instincts that animate the best kinds of aesthetic activity. Unfortunately, the entire project of social criticism--in all its manifold richness, from Chernyshevsky to Foucault--does not satisfy this demand. On the one hand it offers too much--a system that accounts for the human condition, literary and otherwise, whether or not anyone needs such an accounting. On the other hand, in its tendency to overlook the strangeness of aesthetic detail, social criticism offers too little.
But these unwieldy concerns are better managed by way of a narrower intersection. In a 1984 interview Emmanuel Levinas, arguably the most important ethical philosopher of the late twentieth century, invokes a cultural stereotype that is pervasive in modern Jewish literature from Mendele Mokher Sforim and Isaac Babel to Henry Roth and Cynthia Ozick: the Jew as a creature at home more in books than in nature and history, and who discovers the world thanks to Christian authors. He explains this legacy, described by Franz Rosenzweig in the 1920s:
"Great art, that was non-Jewish art, accessible to Jews concretely by means of
their coexistence with Christians. This is neither confusion nor syncretism; it
is a symbiosis, which for Rosenzweig is profound and linked to the very structure
of truth. It is as if there was a supplementary enrichment, an increase.
The truth of Judaism would be the one which is given to a people already
"near to" the Lord, but who do not see the world. Christianity would be the
truth of the one who is on the road to the Eternal, traversing the world. But
this experience of the road and the world is also given to Judaism, thanks to
this neighborliness. A heretical theology? Or rather a possible understanding
of destinies that are incontestably and essentially intertwined . . . And
these are concrete things, because the state of Israel must cohabit with the
Christian world, read Christian authors . . . all of Europe, which is irrecusable
and which is Christian."2
This cultural symbiosis can be narrowed still further. Levinas recounts an anecdote about an Israeli academic, born in Eastern Europe, who paid him a visit in Paris. "Upon entering my house, he noticed that I had the complete works of Pushkin on the bookshelves: 'You can see right away,' he said, 'that this is a Jewish home.' "3
The investment in Russian authors by Jews of East European origin has always been especially striking. Beyond the historical circumstances of such an investment, the Russian and Jewish traditions share certain preoccupations. I believe these shared preoccupations are meaningful in ways that go beyond historical contingency. Both traditions, after all, are driven by ethical concerns, or, as Levinas puts it, the "philosophical problem understood as the meaning of the human, as the search for the famous 'meaning of life'-- about which the Russian novelists ceaselessly wonder."4 Furthermore, one finds in both a distinct trepidation about the ethics of aesthetic activity-- from the biblical prohibition against graven images and the Jewish modernist critique of representational art, to Gogol and Tolstoy's repudiation of their own fiction (and indeed of any art unmoored from moral education) and Dostoevsky's anxiety about negative beauty (Dmitri Karamazov's talk of the "beauty of Sodom" and Ivan's of the "artistic cruelty" of Turkish soldiers in the Balkans). Given such correlations, it seems surprising that, until recently, the topic of Judaism and Jews in Russian literature has been preoccupied with a fairly primitive test: Is this Russian author Judeophobic or Judeophilic? Or how did the author really feel about Jews? This book reflects the emergence of a relatively new effort to examine more deeply the interconnections between Russian and Jewish culture and thought, while avoiding the distortions of apologetics.5 Unlike many of the scholars involved in this effort, I am less concerned with the construction of Jewish or Russian identity, per se, than I am with what these interconnections can teach us about ethics and aesthetics--two broad and tensely intertwined terms for how we make value and meaning as we engage with the world. More specifically, I argue here that such Russian writers as Fyodor Dostoevsky, Isaac Babel, and Osip Mandelstam are profoundly involved with an ethical vision central to Jewish thought. I focus this argument by selecting Levinas, the Lithuanian born Franco-Jewish phenomenologist, as a philosophical evocation of this vision, not only because of his roots in Russian culture, but also because his idea of ethical nonreciprocity can claim partial Russian descent.6 At the same time, an examination of Levinas alongside Russian literature seeks to address and see beyond the current revisionism in Levinas studies, in which scholars have been disappointed in their attempts to extrapolate a coherent politics from his ethics.7 This book suggests that such incoherence may be understood in the context of the fundamental bipolarity in Russian culture--a tension between reality and utopia that is compellingly expressed in the authors considered here. Is it possible that Levinas's volatile mixture of philosophical messianism and Judaic moral realism, as Leora Batnitzky has described it, finds coherence not as theology, politics, or even philosophy but as literature--and particularly Russian literature, as a space in which the ethical and the aesthetic are so inextricably intertwined? If, according to Levinas, only the "I" (not institutions) can see "the tears that a civil servant cannot see: the tears of the Other,"8 then we must consider literature's role in the construction of this kind of ethical subjectivity.9 I wish to discover how the encounter with the other invokes responsibilities ethical and aesthetic: indeed, without aesthetic vision, ethics is blind and inert; without ethics, aesthetic activity reduces the other to an object of my pleasure or contemplation.

From the Back Cover:

"'You can see right away that this is a Jewish him,' Emmanuel Levinas once remarked about the presence of volumes by Russian writers in his library in Paris. It is Val Vinokur's splendid achievement to have surveyed this 'Jewish home' by locating it within the neighborhood of late-nineteenth century Russian literature. In so doing, he crafts an ingenious face-to-face not only between Jewish-philosophical and Russian-literary moments but also certain ethical and aesthetic crosscurrents connecting Levinas's thought to unexpected resonances in the writings of Dostoevsky, Babel, and Mandelstam. The readings in this book are thus reciprocally 'contaminating' in the best sense: they introduce an arresting 'tic' in the Levinasian face which is the trace of Russian Others, at the same time as they stage a needful conversation about 'the traces of Judaism' with some of the ethical philosopher's most uncanny novelistic and lyrical interlocutors." -- Adam Zachary Newton
"The author's three subjects are mediated by the concerned compassion of Levinas... Vinokur's two studies of [Dostoevsky], 'a person who was all inner conflict' (in Tolstoy's view), set the stage for illuminating essays on Babel and Mandelstam. Richly innovative work. -- James L. Rice

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