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Levinas Studies

Volume 2, 2007

Peter Atterton
Pages 105-132

Art, Religion, and Ethics Post Mortem Dei
Levinas and Dostoyevsky

Discussions of the sources for Levinas’s philosophy have tended to focus on Greece and the Bible to the neglect of his Russo-Lithuanian cultural heritage. Almost no work has been done examining the impact of Russian literature on Levinas’s thinking. The present essay seeks to overcome this neglect by examining the influence that Dostoyevsky in particular exerted on the development of Levinas’s philosophy. I am aware that the notion of “influence” is philosophically vague, and not something whose truth can easily be ascertained. Might there be nothing more than simply a confluence between the thinking of Dostoyevsky and that of Levinas? Could it be that Levinas was attracted to the work of Dostoyevsky because he found there what he was already looking for? Although Levinas credits Dostoyevsky with introducing him to philosophy, it would be facile to draw the conclusion that St. Petersburg occupies as important a place in Levinas’s intellectual itinerary as Athens or Jerusalem. Dostoyevsky provided neither an ontology nor any of the “pre-philosophical experiences” (EI 24) on which, according to Levinas, all philosophical thought rests. But he did give Levinas a way to think about art, religion, and, most importantly of all, ethics after the Holocaust, an event that more than any other, according to Levinas, demonstrated the absolute failure of philosophical theodicy. It was Dostoyevsky, I submit, rather than the Bible, the Greeks, or Kant who taught Levinas that the moral imperative, addressed to the singular existing individual, supersedes the religious imperative, whose validity is placed in question by the suffering of innocents and the absence of the all-powerful and providential God of theism.

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