Central and East European
Society for Phenomenology

Conference | Paper

Faustian Hope for Alterity. Bataille, Adorno, and Levinas

Gintautas Mažeikis

Thursday 2 December 2021

16:20 - 17:00

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I view the phenomenon of ascending and descending transgression as violence against limits, as a struggle with the hegemonic norms, as the decline of the one-dimensional universality, and as a radical personal choice. Metaphorically, the phenomenon of ascending and descending transgression was represented in the image of the Jacob’s ladder, along which angels descended and ascended.

G. Bataille considers sacred transgressivity, which overcomes all social certainty and reveals the abyss of perversion or mental pathology in the book The Trial of Gilles de Rais. The philosopher analyzes the case of the French marshal Gilles de Rais, an associate of Joan of Arc, the national hero and at the same time the mad pervert who perversely sacrifices children to the devil. Gilles de Rais plunges into the twilight of “Faust” before Goethe, into the world symbolized by the image of Bluebeard. It crosses all the boundaries allowed by society and the church and, in the end, does not expand the legitimate space, but narrows it, causing public fear and horror. There, we need to understand the radical difference, the alterity, between the traditions of Christopher Marlowe and Goethe as mutually exclusive: in the first case, Mephistopheles appears in the image of Satan of fall and perversion, and in the other case, Mephistopheles appears to us as a thinker, a cynic, a companion of Faust. Bataille’s hero, Gilles de Rais, presents the case of Faustus in Marlow’s sense: Satan opens an abyss for Bluebeard.

Adorno, in an extensive correspondence with Th. Mann, analyzes the musical part, and therefore the essence of the novel Doctor Faustus. Adorno read not only Doctor Faustus, but also the novel Mephisto by Klaus Mann, which depicts that the Nazi totalitarianism rises as an image of Mephistopheles, the daemon of great, sublime seduction and fall. What is the greatness of the fall, the greatness of the abyss? In fact, Nazism repeats the transgression of Gilles de Rais, only on the mass scale of the Holocaust.

Levinas understands dangers of both the radical perversion and the rational totality that turn everything into a faceless one-dimensionality. He denies both possibilities: the Nazi sadistic transgression and the rational demolishing of differences and otherness. The philosopher is concerned with questions: how is the sacred possible as a deep transgression, and how is the sacred compatible with the acquisition of a face, that is, the otherness, and a place? In Beyond the Verse. Talmudic Readings and Lectures Levinas wrote that Jacob’s struggle with the Angel means “to overcome in the existence of Israel the angelism of pure interiority.” Levinas presents Israel as a power higher than the intelligence of angels. The image of Jacob’s ladder reveals the fire of the Cherubs and the gift of love of the Seraphim by the upward movement of transgression. Nevertheless, the movement is not territorial. To overcome the Seraphim means to acquire the Promised Land. In this case, we have a double negation. The first utterance negates the concrete being in the world, the das Man, and the second negates the non-territorial utopia and maintains a new concrete philotopia, which is, in the case of Levinas, Israel.

Adorno notes that great art is transgressive in the sublime sense. We can interpret the artistic sublimation that overcomes the limits of empirical reality either as an ascending or a descending or the representing of the given, or as a cultural industry. In a similar manner as Levinas, Adorno negates both the Nazis’ mythic transgression and the rational banality of cultural industries. However, the question is how can we know the direction of the Jacob’s ladder, which side is ascending and which descending, if we have to break the facelessness of one-dimensionality? Adorno insists on the absence of a method of identification or of a strong rule how to recognize the direction of the Being. No one has any guarantees and everyone is responsible for their personal choice. The philosophical question of the role of transgression in the human Being does not allow neither an answer nor a method, nor a rule, but only phenomenological analysis of experiences, the critique of the forms of praxis.