Otherwise than Being

Levinassian Ethics in Victor Hugo’s “La Force des Choses”


In the opening comments of the second of his two masterworks on ethics, Autrement qu’être, ou au-delà de l’essence (Otherwise Than Being, or Beyond Essence, 1974), Emmanuel Levinas conceptualizes an ethical relationship as one of displacement between self and Other. The move beyond an individual position toward another demands that this relationship be cut loose from the empiricism of conventional thinking: “If transcendence has a meaning, it can only signify the fact that the event of being, the esse, the essence, passes over to that which is other than being... Passing over to what is other than being, otherwise than being; not being otherwise, but otherwise than being [Non pas être autrement, mais autrement qu’être]” (3).1 Neither the modernist drive for a self-determined system of values nor the postmodern disintegration of such absolutes could permit a truly ethical moment, since they regard human agency as being present and verified on the one hand and being absent and negated on the other. Challenging both essentialist and gratuitous concepts of what it means to be human, Levinas marks his essay as “a forgetting of being and non-being” (223). Reacting against an enclosed and unconditional sense of what is and what is not, Levinas focuses on a paradigm that is more open-ended and inestimable, replacing a totalized sense of being with one that was infinite, to recall his terminology.


Divine Power Ethical Relationship Romantic Subject Modernist Drive Century Literary Landscape 
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© Joseph Acquisto 2013

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