“When I become death” according to Levinas


Emmanuel Levinas’ La Mort et Le Temps (English translation in God, Death and Time) opens with a reading of Heidegger´s Sein und Zeit, a reading that evolves around the themes of the carnival, the essence of time, the nature of death, the type of questions to which answers are not the right answer, and finally – literature as a masking process (rather than a revealing one).

[But maybe I’m wrong. It could well be that Levinas says nothing of the above themes, and that it is my own philosophical delusions, the consequences of my posts here on Foucault, Lyotard, Barthes, Deleuze, and Burroughs.]

Emmanuel Levinas

The Carnival.

The carnival represents the absolute assimilation of a human being with the role assigned to him/her by the system. Yet by this assimilation the human being ceases to be a human being, for being a human is to continuously question “Being”, i.e. to be a critical being towards Being, constantly reassessing the possibilities of an always changing existence. This is when Levinas uses the term ek-sistence – existing from the outside (and it is also where the two reasons of the first Emmanuel – K. – are fully present).

The critical spectator stands behind the curtain, looking inside the theater, considering her options on stage. This cannot be done while on stage, while wearing the mask of the carnival.

And yet. “Behind the curtain there is nothing to see… nor beneath it”, says Deleuze, following Foucault. The critical being is therefore not to be imagined out of stage; s/he is not to be imagined as a passive spectator. Rather, the critical being is assimilated into the system’s role, while continuously challenging that role. Indeed, says Deleuze, behind the curtain there is nothing to see, “but it was all the more important each time to describe the curtain”. So we are in the carnival, but we don’t play wholeheartedly. We’re aware of the play, and we improvise whenever we see fit.

The Question.

The question of being is a question to which answers are not the right answer, the first trait of Being, being the mark of that Question. Barthes maintains that those questions of Being can only live within Literature, but he also maintains that Literature is a carnivalesque mask. The only way to cope with these contradictions is to follow Foucault’s advise: “We have to move beyond the outside-inside alternative; we have to be at the frontiers. Criticism indeed consists of analyzing and reflecting upon limits.” (What is Enlightenment).

Cain: marked by the Question of Abel’s death – a bookmark on Cain’s Time axis.


Time, explains Levinas, is the Other. The infinite time is the antipode of the finite human, the Other remaining necessarily out of our reach. Time, therefore, represents all possible Otherness.

Time is the Other. What a strange sentence. The Rhizome of the nomadic others is a Rhizome of Time Capsules.

Ich und Du.

The Other, through his facial movements conveys a message to the spectator, who is consequently responsible for processing the message, and of providing an answer. We can therefore say that Communication creates responsibility which, in turn, creates individuality: “I” is responsible for this and that person, because there are communication links between us.

We’ll see next that communication is a mask; like literature it does not reveal [things from behind the curtain], but rather conceals [the true essence of being]. Facial movements are answers. But Being is being a Question.

What does the nomadic Rhizome mask? What does Time mask? Is Time the Curtain?

As for Death.

When I become death

As for Death – death needs time for what it kills to grow in. Death needs the Other, just like “I” needs it. But why does Death need Time?

Think of Death as a bookmark, engraving a point on our time axis. This point, says Levinas, opens a gate to a communication-free world – the end of exchanging answers. Finally, we, the dead, can realize our human potential of being a pure question. The cover story of our life, the Literature told by our face, by our facial movements is finally completed. The End.

When we become death, death is the seed from which we grow – the seed of the pure Question.

3 Responses to ““When I become death” according to Levinas”

  1. ecko4inc Says:

    Question: for whom do we take the time to write?

    The Ek-stasy of the carnival:
    Outside time, a transport. A time for play – not work or production, incalculable activity without ends, telos, death.
    The economy of time is the first process to come under the control of capitalism. Marx, the Grundrisse.
    Every one consumes.
    “X” marks the spot.
    A paradoxical time for the other in the primary process of desiring-production.
    “Finally, we, the dead…”
    … a striving, a-desiring, unconscious of death, ends, goals – a teleological suspension of the ethical.

    That’s laughter: an uncontrollable seizure.
    The sad clown. Kafka with his wicked sense of humour, rarely allowed himself to laugh aloud and he never spoke an excessive word.
    K and the priest in the Trial. A guard stands at the door.
    Death. The door is closing now…
    all you had to do was ask the question.

    Hamlet – a play, a tragedy: to be or not to be – that is the question.
    Weighty questions of gravity, duty, existence.
    The weight of the cross on Being, pressed down by the hand with an opposable thumb that holds the pen.

    “If only I keep this little matter just lightly concealed with my hand…”

    Man looked back towards his origins for the meaning of human existence and saw that way was blocked now – by an ape.

    “Esteemed gentlemen of the academy! You have done me the honour of asking me to present a report to the academy concerning my past life as an ape. I regret to say that I find myself unable to comply with your request thus formulated…”

    Build a burrow underground.
    Transport. The end of the book. The beginning of writing.
    Writing menaces the breath, the spontaneity of communication.
    Incorporate a time capsule. Bury it in the earth.
    A prescription.
    A written formula.
    Time is the Other
    (of “space: What you damn well have to see.” Joyce)
    A strange statement

    A shibboleth…

    Tout autre est tout autre.
    Quote unquote.
    Derrida. From the Gift of Death.

  2. muli koppel Says:

    Question: for whom do we take the time to write?

    Exchange. Answers?:

    For the others? For myself? For the book?

    For the others? Time is the Other. Writing – engraving on Time; it’s on the Others that we write, and so it’s the Others that we erase by writing. We cover them up with sand and mud; we place them inside a time capsule, a parchment made of rhizomic letters, and then we stuck them deep inside an eckoing burrow… We, the time killers.

    For myself? myself – this volatile, virtual Sorge for the Other, for Time; myself: this Abel (hebrew-> nothingness) passing through the bible for two brief moments just to become death, to represent the pure question of death, the first death – I don’t think we take the time to write for Abel. probably it is Cain, the eternal nomad, marked by the question, for whom we take the time to write. We create in the memory of the first time killer.

    For the book? probably “I” wishes to become Time. But it can well be that “I” is enslaved here and now to the own desire of the book, of me-me, of Time, of the all possible Others. The revenge of the buried capsules.

    Thank you ecko, a dear other, for your questions and for your answers.

  3. ecko4inc Says:

    “IT’s time, time, time that you love
    Yes, its time, time, time.” Tom Waits, “Time” from Rain Dogs

    I am emale, willing and abel…

    “I am he who dies when he is not loved” Nijinsky

    The destination of stories, compiled into a book called the Bible, a collection of historical documents. The experts tell me Homer’s stories fulfilled a function for the ancient Greeks similar to the Bible’s use today as a source of moral and spiritual teachings. Time capsules buried and unearthed, raised beyond the death of the author, exposed to the sun, raised to a visibility in an era of Enlightenment. If Enlightenment is characterised by an attitude, rather than an epoch on a entropic time line.

    We write our own book for the present. Like Joyce’s Ulysses (re)wrote the Greeks for the Irish (a collective delirium of race – sons and daughters of Cain, bearing the mark: Finnegan’s Wake is concerned with the Fall into language), we write (hopefully IE virtually) for a people who do not yet exist. Kafka and his Mouse People.

    Writing? the miraculating body without organs. Creating something out of nothing – a quantum phenomenon wherein an object’s value is inseperable from the measuring apparatus. We humans, attribute value to things. The mind is our excellence. And men and women find no greater joy than in exchanging ideas with other men and women, giving ourselves up to language. An increase in affect(a)tions – virtue is a doingness, a becoming, infinitive present participle, a doubling.

    I am emale, willing and abel. Abel was a shepherd, the iconic figure of Arcadia, the pastoral setting. Lying in the fields all day, enjoying the sun, offerring his best lamb in a sacrifice to God and God was pleased by his sacrifice…
    Et in Arcadia ego. Poussin
    Cain took his revenge, murdered his brother after they had spoken and when God asked him where Abel was, Cain, a farmer who brought forth the fruits of the earth, replied, “Am I my brother’s keeper?”
    For the company we keep… God placed a mark upon Cain’s forehead so all people would recognise his sin. The Fall repeats itself.

    Barthes: Jamais portes. A challenge to raise ourselves above the Fall (words cannot express the feelings I have for the death of my friend), we cannot help but repeat, a will to power, willing and abel, eternal recurrence of the same, the return to language…

    “I’ve hurt the ones I love
    but I’m still raising Cain” Tom Waits

    I am emale, working through the meaning of these parabolas, drawing connections via methods and black squares, muli, my esteemed friend, to which I always return, willing and able.

    Peace and love

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