Photograph by TheGiantVermin.
August 25, 2015
Emmanuel Levinas spent the years 1940-1945 as a prisoner of war in a German camp. There, he developed the ideas that made their way into Existence and Existents (1947), the cornerstone of his entire philosophical project.
Whilst in the camp, Levinas meticulously made notes in what will have become his Prison Notebooks (Carnets de captivité), still unavailable in the English translation. The fragments that comprise these texts are quite austere, written largely in a telegraphic style, with the greatest economy of space and expression. They lack rhetorical flourishes and only occasionally engage with parts of the organic world, including plants.
One exceptional passage reads: “Tree — the most insolent verticality of living nature. Its majesty — the majesty of verticality.”[i] Perhaps, Levinas had in mind Paul Claudel’s poetic lines on the verticality of humans and trees, when he jotted down the note I have just cited. Or, perhaps, this reflection was triggered by another one, featured on the previous page of the notebook, where the prisoner bemoans “the fatigue of the position,” the physical weight that both posits and deposes the subject, and “the necessity of changing positions.”[ii] The tree in its verticality is, by contrast, not burdened by its upright stance, but ingeniously supports itself with the byproducts of its life-process, converted into the outer layers of the trunk. What draws my attention to the praise of vegetal verticality is that, later on in his writings, Levinas will strip it of its physical, biological, and indeed spatial connotations, spiritualizing it into a form of the ethical relation of the I to the other. Simply put, he will uproot it.
If the Levinasian ethical face-to-face encounter never happens on equal terms or on an equal footing, that is because the other is immeasurably higher than (transcendent to) the I; her destitution is her height, from which I receive my obligation, calling, and call. Thanks to her embodied transcendence, the other is absolutely exterior to me, irreducible to the same, such that neither this height nor this exteriority belongs to the spatial context, wherein they are immediately meaningful, but rather to the order or the disorder of time. In the matrix of Prison Notebooks, verticality is indexed to a plant, whereas exteriority is assigned to an inorganic natural element, light (“Exteriority—light”[iii]). And this begs the question: Is ethics imbued with a commanding force only to the extent that it renders metaphysical the very physical and material supports that survive in it at least at the level of language? In order to assert the unconditional right of the other, does it need to uproot the plant and its growing height? To refract light and harness its brilliance?
Verticality and exteriority, the plant and light: these combinations are hardly random. Levinas seems to be oblivious to the fact that the ethical relation “without relation,” as he construes it, is presaged in the plant’s striving to the sun. Infinite approach to the other, in the course of which the I will never hit its target nor reach its goal, is a modified version of vegetal growth. The I receives its individuality and uniqueness from the summons of the other, and so does the plant that leaves the abstract potentiality of the seed thanks to the warmth and light it obtains from the sun. And yet, when it comes to the botanical prototype of ethics, Levinas is hardly satisfied; to the contrary, he deems the plant to be unethical! In a little known essay on “Place and Utopia,” he asks: “What is an individual, a solitary individual, if not a tree that grows without regard for everything it suppresses and breaks, grabbing all the nourishment, air and sun, a being that is fully justified in its nature and its being? What is an individual if not a usurper?”[iv] One cannot begin to fathom the violence and injustice of these lines. Far from a solitary being, a tree is a community of growths and a point of intersection for different forms of life. It does not grab air, but gives us the chance to breathe, purifying carbon dioxide into oxygen. It does not suppress, break, and usurp, but lets flourish, enriches, and liberates many other beings to their being.
It follows that Levinas fetishistically disavows plant life, debasing its immediate expression and glorifying its transformed, ethical appropriation. With this, he toes the line of the very metaphysical tradition he so vigorously opposes in the rest of his work. As for St. Augustine before him, for Levinas, vegetal processes can serve as no more than an allegory for spiritual existence. Allegorization ought to twist and modify their original meaning; adopted literally, transposed directly onto human realities, plants are pernicious, anti-spiritual, or unethical.
A blatant example of such hermeneutical tendency crops up on the pages of “Place and Utopia.” The actual rootedness of plants shores up a “horribly conservative” ideology (Heidegger goes unmentioned here, even if the stab is directed at him), which praises “the virtues of being warrior-like and putting down roots, of being a man-plant, humanity-forest whose gnarled joints of root and trunk are magnified by the rugged life of a countryman.”[v] “[B]eing a man-plant” is, according to Levinas’s judgment, a parochial mode of being, one that not only revels in particularism but also furnishes an ontological foundation for anti-Semitism, seeing that the Jewish people are not rooted in the soil, do not organically belong to any given country. (Heidegger uncritically emphasized this same point throughout his Black Notebooks and other writings).
In reaction to the conservative predicament, the temptation is to embrace an abstract utopia, a universalism equally indifferent to the singularities of places, which are always the places of vegetal growth. Now, Levinas resists the vacuously universalist temptation, precisely with reference to roots, that is, by condemning the act of uprooting it instantiates. “To be without being a murderer,” he writes. “One can uproot oneself from this responsibility, deny the place where it is incumbent on me to do something, to look for an anchorite’s salvation. One can choose utopia.”[vi] The choice of utopia is unethical insofar as it neglects our rootedness in responsibility, in the possibility and necessity of an ever-deficient response to the needs and demands of the other, the response embedded in unique places and times. Twisted and tangled, the roots linger on in Levinas’s thought under the weight of a double erasure: first, they are no longer the roots of plants but of human beings tethered, by ethical obligation, to the other; and, second, the focus shifts from positive rootedness to being uprooted from one’s responsibility and taking flight in utopian fancies.
On the one hand, Levinas does not want to be lost in a “humanity-forest”, which grows from an overly literal reading of our vegetal heritage and is attached to the values of the countryside. On the other hand, he does not wish to wander in the desert of utopia, void of finite, irreplaceable beings and, hence, free of rootedness in the relation to the other. To calibrate the difference between the two extremes, he turns to Judaism with its “difficult freedom” that combines singular responsibility with universality. All this is, nonetheless, achieved at the expense of vegetal life, relegated to a philosophical blind spot and abused as a repository of allegorical figures that feed straight into ethical discourse. The hidden roots of Levinasian ethics may be found there — in the simultaneous uprooting from and dependence on the world of plants.
[i] Emmanuel Levinas, Carnets de captivité et autres inédits. Oeuvres d’Emmanuel Levinas, Volume 1 (Paris: Bernard Grasset / IMEC, 2009), p. 125. (This and the subsequent quotes from this book have been translated by me.)
[ii] Levinas, Carnets de captivité, p. 124.
[iii] Levinas, Carnets de captivité, p. 125
[iv] Emmanuel Levinas, Difficult Freedom: Essays on Judaism, translated by Sean Hand (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1997), p. 100.
[v] Levinas, Difficult Freedom, p. 100.
[vi] Levinas, Difficult Freedom, p. 100.