Michaël de Saint Cheron’s Conversations with Emmanuel Levinas, 1983-1994 (hereafter Conversations), is a somewhat misleadingly titled new publication from Duquesne University Press. The book’s title makes it sound as though it is a collection of interviews between Levinas and Saint Cheron, a scholar who has published works on Augustin Malroux and Elie Wiesel and who participated in Levinas’s lessons at the École normal israélite orientale from 1983 onward. However, Saint Cheron’s interviews compose only a small part of the book, which also contains four essays on Levinas and an extended essay on Yom Kippur, atonement, and forgiveness. The fact that these interviews constitute a small part of the book will be a disappointment for some. However, Conversations has several qualities to recommend it, both as a study of Levinas’s philosophy as well as a work of Jewish philosophy in its own right.
Let me get my main criticism of this book out of the way. My main concern has less to do with its content — with any of Saint Cheron’s arguments or interpretive theses about Levinas’s philosophy — and more with how its content is presented. The book’s title makes it sound as though it is a collection of interviews, one akin to Jennifer Robbins’s Is It Righteous to Be?, with a special focus on interviews conducted in the last decade of Levinas’s life. In fact, Saint Cheron’s interviews make up only a small part of the book, roughly its first twenty-five pages, starting on page thirteen and ending on page thirty-eight.This will disappoint some readers. It has become a cliché to call attention to the obscurity of Levinas’s prose, but the fact remains that his writings are extremely challenging. He was often more direct in interviews, and they have become an invaluable tool for disambiguating claims he makes in works such as Totality and Infinity and Otherwise than Being.