Quote from the above article
Like many Jews over the centuries, I am fasting to commemorate the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem in 70 AD. Now that I’m in middle of the fast, I’m having a hard time distracting myself from my hunger. In the midst of being enthralled with my hunger, an academic memory came to my rescue. I remember how the Jewish philosopher Emmanuel Levinas, in apposition to the German philosopher Martin Heidegger, argued that it’s not about my death and suffering (as Heidegger would say (in translation) my “being-towards-death”), it’s about the death and the suffering of the other. Echoing this, I thought: perhaps Levinas is right, it’s not about my hunger; it’s about the hunger of the other.
Strangely enough, Levinas writes about the “hunger of the other man” in relation to Don Quixote (a comic figure which has appeared quite often in Schlemiel in Theory). In 1975 and 1976, Levinas gave a course at the Sorbonne. His course notes are included in the book God, Death, and Time (translated by Bettina Bergo). On his February 13th 1976 lecture, Levinas addresses Don Quixote and the “hunger of the other man.” This talk, to my mind, gives us at least one angle to understand Levinas’s approach to humor.
Let me sketch it out.
Before making his reading of Don Quixote, Levinas prefaces with a meditation on the relation of thought to the world. He writes: “thought contains the world or is correlative with it”(167). He notes that by “correlative” he means that it comes “prior to” the world. In this spirit, Levinas argues that thought “disqualifies” anything that would be “disproportionate to the world.” He provides two adjectives to describe things that would be disqualified: “all thought said to be ‘romantic’ or ‘theological’ in its inception.”
“Disqualified” thought, argues Levinas, is not equated with the world (which thought contains); it is equated with what is to come. It is, for this reason, equated with “a question” and “hope.” Levinas goes on to say that “God” is also included as something which is “disproportionate” with thought and the world. To be sure, God, hope, and the question are deemed to be “outside” thought and, for that reason, outside the world.
Writing of this, Levinas wonders how much we can be “affected by what is not equal to the world, how one can affected by what can be neither apprehended nor comprehended”(167). In other words, how much can we be affected by that which is disqualified by thought?
Following this question, Levinas launches into a discussion about the disenchantment of the world. He addresses this, like Martin Heidegger or the sociologist Max Weber, from the angle of technology. Unlike them, Levinas sees the disenchantment fostered by technology as good. Here, however, he notes that although it is good, technology “does not shelter us from all mystification”(168). Now “there remains the obsession with ideology, by which men delude each other and are deluded.” And, says Levinas, even “sober knowledge…is not exempt from ideology.”
Everything, even knowledge, is still threatened by mystification. Levinas finds the source in what he calls “amphibology”: “technology cannot shelter us from the amphibology that lies within all appearing, that is, from the possible appearance coiled at the bottom of all the appearing being.”
Benjamin Hutchens explains that amphibology is the “confusion between what something is and the concept that enables what it is to be known.” This, says Hutchens, leads to a “kind of ambiguity.” John Llewelyn cites Martin Heidegger’s notion of Being – in his claim that “language is the house of Being” – as an example of “amphibology.” Being is ambiguous and this ambiguity troubles Levinas as he sees it as the source of what he calls “bewitchment.” And, as Llewlyn suggests, this ambiguity goes along with the ambiguity of language. Perhaps this implies (and may even be a jab at deconstruction) that one can easily become enchanted with the play of words and language and this may distract us from the other.
What Levinas seems to be saying here is that what threatens the project of demystification most is the embrace of ambiguity as such and this kind of ambiguity is associated with how things show themselves or appear. Levinas notes that the basis of “man’s persistent fear of allowing himself to be bewitched” is “amphibology.”
And, strangely enough, the writer who best illustrates amphibology and the attending fear of being “bewitched” (and “allowing” oneself to be bewitched) is Cervantes in his book Don Quixote. In fact, Levinas says that “bewitchment” is the book’s “principle theme.” Levinas finds this to be most pronounced in chapter 46. Hinting at his own phenomenology of the face, Levinas calls Don Quixote the “Knight with a Sad Face” and points out that “he lets himself be bewitched, loses his understanding, and assures everyone that the world and he himself are the victims of bewitchment.”