Being-With, Iconoclasm, & the Other: a Reflection on Emmanuel Levinas and The Brothers Karamazov

by jdavidcharles

The other resists my attempt at investiture, not because of the extent and obscurity of the theme that it offers to my consideration but because of the refusal to enter into a theme, […] the other lays him- or herself bare to the total negation of murder but forbids it through the original language of his defenseless eyes. –Emmanuel Levinas, Transcendence and Height

To destroy is to declare oneself a destroyer, to present a certain way of being-with to the world. The destroyer of art not only removes art but also presents himself as an iconoclast. To destroy is to present oneself as one who destroys, to liturgize the self towards a certain behavior or being-in-the-world. The iconoclast destroys icons not because he sees iconography as an inherent wrong, as if representation, significance, or meaning were evil, but rather is ironically guilty of making an idol out of the icon.

The icon is a space for meaningful and authentic worship, a place for the religious to inhabit. Worship is an approach, a movement of an individual towards another precisely in that it is another—no one can be said to authentically praise that which is the same as the self, this is self-love and pride. Thus when we authentically worship, we worship a God as the ultimate Other, or the lover, or the hero for precisely that which we cannot see or grasp in the self. The iconoclast then does not see the icon as a sight of habitation or possibility, he cannot even see the trace of the other, rather all he sees is propositional or doctrinal “content.” All the iconoclast sees is an extension of himself, his ideals. The iconolast is idolater par excellence for he reduces the height and infinity of the icon, its possibility as a space of worship, to one exhaustive interpretation. To see in the icon nothing but the potential for doctrinal error and supplant the whole of the artwork’s possibility to that fear is not to see god in the icon, in the light bursting through the stained glass, but to see nothing more than the reflection of the self.

The idol is diametrically opposed to the icon; the idol is a reduction of the opaqueness of existence to an ideal or proposition, while the icon is a sacred space of inhabitation, something to experience that can always be viewed as something but never exclusively. Once the iconoclast has reduced the icon to an idol he can see nothing but his ideal negated, the inherent polarity in his conceptualization, and thus must destroy it. The iconoclast takes metaphor, ideality, as existence rather than as language or a way to speak about something—he reduces the art of Rublev to Trinitarian heresy by conceiving what it is the Trinitarian god should be presented as and thus inevitably what it should not. To destroy the icon then is to first reduce it to a negation of the self’s ideals, and secondly, in the destruction submit the self and its actions to one’s own ideals. Wherein metaphor is meant to be a commonality, a way of making available a shared world, reciprocity, the iconoclast reduces to a shutting off of the world for one’s own sake, a reduction of others to the self. Every iconoclasm is thus also a totalitarianism, a spreading out of an exhaustive metaphysics over all that one sees, a shutting off completely of being-with-others. It is here that we can see inherent in all exhaustive metaphysics the groundwork of solipsism, for any attempt to narrate the whole of the world and make it known to the self is at heart a reduction of the world to the self, the destruction of the other.

Here both the iconoclast and killer are guilty of the same crime, namely that of subsuming a unified whole to an abstracted ideal. Each person is a unique perspective on the world, and therefore live out an entirely differing set of possibilities than myself. As the stained glass window is a “filterer” of light and yet our means of experiencing the light so too the individual is our means of experiencing that which is beyond ourselves yet made available by our self and body. When we experience the other we authentically experience something entirely other than the self yet it is always experienced from somewhere, namely the self and its whole factual, historical existence. The self is here a background though, that by which the other can be presented as other and is thus a thoroughly different phenomena than seeing the other “as” a pre-existing conceptual category exclusively. It is precisely here where man as icon, the imago dei, gains relevance, for it is the other, the neighbor, who most bears the trace of deity. It is in the face of the other that one cannot help but be made responsible to it and invert the declaration of the self to a questioning of the self, for here is immediately before the self that which is just beyond any conceptualization. There are times when to utter to the lover any formulation of the relationship is to shatter the very phenomenon which binds them. The thing has already been “named” in a primordial way and any subsuming under a mental category would be a violence.

Thus to see the other “as” any one thing exclusively is a reduction of the neighbor to an enemy, it is in this way that all hatred is murder as in the gospel of St. John (3.15). For prior to any killing is the violent act of seeing the individual qua self, to deny the light and artistry of the icon. The murderer like the iconoclast subsumes the individual as a condition of meaning and sees only one meaning—as-criminal, as-enemy-of-the-state, as-race—actualizing his ideals by negating another’s existence. The murderer always claims that he is still loving however in that he has a love “for humanity,” yet this love never transcends conceptuality and can never be an authentic love of one’s neighbor. This is a love of the distant rather than the close—and it is precisely those who are close, the neighbor, we are called to love. The murderer is guilty of Ivan’s conceptualization in The Brother’s Karamozov for Ivan,

could never understand how one can love one’s neighbours. It’s just one’s neighbours, to my mind, that one can’t love, though one might love those at a distance, […] for anyone to love a man, he must be hidden, for as soon as he shows his face, love is gone.

And again,

One can love one’s neighbours in the abstract, or even at a distance, but at close quarters it’s almost impossible. (The Grand Inquisitor, prt. II)

This reduction of love to the conceptual and thus impossible in the face of the other is precisely the hatred of which St. John’s Christ speaks. Ivan rightly had no neighbors for all he could see in the face of the other was his own terrible self-loathing. Smerdyakov was right in calling Ivan the true murderer of Fyodor Karamazov. Dmitri on the other hand could not murder Fyodor, although he had the pre-murder of subsuming Fyodor to ideality, he could not bring himself to do so when he saw his face. For the face of the other makes us responsible to it, and one cannot look into it authentically and murder the other (see Levinas, Transcendence and Height). To murder then is to cut off existence from others entirely, to destroy what it means to be in a shared world with other people.

The reciprocity that is co-existence is destroyed when one can only see the other “as” something regardless what the “as” is. This is to be distinguished from the other as given to something or the other “for” something, i.e. the other for me as father is not reductive in the same way as the other as enemy of the state—for to see the other as father is to have a stance by which to see the other and opens up his being to me as possibility, a significance which opens up a meaning and allows my father, a unique other, to exist for me. To see one as a father is a non-exhaustive role, one which whenever I act upon I also acknowledge rather than deny or repress his other possibilities. If ever it becomes exhaustive however, i.e. I can no longer see my father as anything other than say the one who pays for my education or food, as Ivan had done, I have committed parricide in the utmost sense, for I have reduced another to a mere idealistic operation or function. Likewise when I look into the face of another and all I can see is an abstraction which can only follow from a co-existence which I have possessed and deny its being-given (I claim rather than my belonging to it, its belonging to me), extending myself through my Ideals, I have murdered my neighbor. This is Narcissism to the utmost, not only being able not to see or hear the other but not even being able to conceive of the pool, the shared background of metaphor and significance, but to only see reflected back the self.

As the iconoclast destroys the art because he refuses to see the art in light of the other, or trace of the other, only seeing one possibility rather than a condition for possibility, so too the killer can only see in the face of the other a possibility which the self already possesses, denying the transcendence which the face of every neighbor gives. To deny the other in this way is in short to deny being-with-others and that each of us have a unique perspective on the world, it is to conflate oneself to omniscience. And the cycle is vicious for to cut off oneself from the world is to spiral ever within the self and to only see the self, and what the self already has, in the world around us.