Levinas, trauma, and God: Does Emmanuel Levinas idealize trauma?

IMG_1140,colorcurve,autocolor,crop2Emmanuel Levinas was an unlikely combination of Talmudic scholar and postmodern philosopher. Or at least he was adopted by postmoderns, such as Jacques Derrida, who wrote a book about him, Adieu to Emmanuel Levinas.

Levinas struggled with what a modern experience of God might actually be like. He ended up describing the experience in terms of trauma. The idea that an encounter with God is traumatic has a venerable history, going back to Moses, from whom God concealed His face, lest Moses be struck dead (Exodus 33.22). But Levinas is dealing with a postmodern God, whom we experience through an encounter with Infinity.

Cathy Caruth and trauma

An encounter with infinity is traumatic enough, and the terms in which Levinas describes this trauma come remarkably close to Cathy Caruth’s account of trauma. Caruth is probably the most influential figure in literary trauma theory today. For Caruth, the traumatic experience cannot be represented because it occurred before its recipient was prepared to know it. Or as Caruth puts it, deeply traumatic experiences are events without witnesses, experienced a moment too late, before the self was there to mediate it. As a result, the trauma remains unsymbolized, unintegrated into normal memory.

Unlike Freud, Caruth’s is not a developmental claim but a temporal one. Extreme trauma is inscribed upon an otherwise-mature subject who was not there, because the experience was so far beyond the normal it could not be prepared for, categorized, or shared. The traumatized, says Caruth,

carry an impossible history within them, or they become themselves the symptom of a history that they cannot entirely possess (p. 5).

In a sense, the traumatized are their trauma until they are able to integrate it, almost always with the help of another who hears what the traumatized are unable know.


Levinas sounds remarkably like Caruth. For Levinas, the experience of the Infinite is traumatic because it slips into me before I am ready, “despite the taut weave of consciousness.” The experience of the infinite is “a trauma (traumatisme) that surprises me absolutely, always already passed in a past that was never present.” (1987, p. 75) The past was never present because it remains stuck in traumatic time, the past that occupies the present without being subject to it. If the past were subject to the present, it could be repressed.

Trapped in being

Levinas says that most of us are trapped in our own little worlds, the world of everyday life with its pleasures, cares, and concerns. Levinas fears being trapped in being, as he calls it, more than he fears trauma. On the contrary, trauma is an exit from being. That’s good.

Only occasionally does Levinas indulge in psychological reflection, as when he tries to explain the origin of the experience of being trapped in being, what he calls the il y a, which literally means “there is.”

My reflection on this subject starts with childhood memories. One sleeps alone, the adults continue life; the child feels the silence of his bedroom as ‘rumbling.’ It is something resembling what one hears when one puts an empty shell close to the ear, as if the emptiness were full, as if the silence were a noise. . . . Existence and Existents tries to describe this horrible thing, and moreover describes it as horror and panic. (1985, p. 48)

As it turns out, the horror and panic is at being trapped inside oneself. “It is not,” says Levinas, “a matter of escaping from solitude, but rather of escaping from being.” (1985, p. 59)

Trauma is the exit, which Levinas refers to as “the passivity of a trauma through which the idea of God would have been placed in us.” (1987, p. 64) By this he means that the experience of the Infinite is already in us, we just don’t know it. The experience of the Infinite is beyond “scientific” time, belonging to what the medieval scholastics called the Nunc Stans, the everlasting and eternal now.

This actually reflects a central element of traumatic experience: that it is never over. The past is never past; it is always laying claim to the present, so that under the influence of trauma it becomes impossible to say “a terrible thing happened once.” Terrible things keep happening forever. That is the definition of trauma; it is what the flashbacks, the nightmares, and the hypervigilance, are all about, and these are only the most dramatic symptoms.

The trauma of awakening

For Levinas there are two stages to the traumatic encounter with the Infinite. In the first the Infinite intrudes itself into me before I know that it is there, before I can symbolically register and make sense of the experience. Before I can defend against it. The second stage is when the Infinite stands between me and my ego, so that I know or rather feel the truth: that I no longer belong to myself.

All who have been traumatized are familiar with the second stage, in which the voices and visions of the past live a life of their own within oneself. In Levinas’ account, this second stage of trauma, what he calls the “trauma of a fission of oneself,” is represented by the other who inhabits me (who come between me and my ego), while remaining totally other (1987, p. 78). I think it sounds like an alien intrusion. For Levinas it is a welcome one.

What makes this experience traumatic, what keeps it traumatic, is that my relationship to the other remains a “relationship without relation.” An encounter with another person takes place, but it is “without relation,” as the other remains absolutely other (Levinas, 1969, p. 80). Otherwise the relationship is likely to become personal, something that makes me feel good. The traumatic quality of the encounter with the other person guarantees its generality, its impartiality. It also guarantees a terrible loneliness, as I can take no personal satisfaction in helping another.

Levinas would defend his account by saying that he is describing part of an experience, not its totality. It is as though two experiences take place at the same time: one in which I am an agent of the Infinite, another in which I am involved with and care for real people with real faces.

The face, as it turns out, represents an encounter with the face of God, experienced in the faces of other people in their need. However, the encounter that frees me from the burden of my being, Levinas’ real goal, is with a face (visage) without features. Personal identity is dangerous, for it attaches us to particular others. I think it sounds a little creepy, but perhaps I am taking this too literally.

Is this a misuse of trauma?

I don’t think it’s a misuse of trauma to use it to express religious experience. Transcendent experience has long been connected with trauma-like experiences. Saul was blind for three days after hearing the voice of God (Acts 9.1-9).

The misuse of trauma is in turning trauma into an escape from being, as though trauma is the crack that lets the light in. What really traumatizes Levinas is the experience of just being himself, as though to be is equivalent to being trapped within oneself, an autistic prison, what he calls the il y a. It’s an odd trauma when considered in the abstract, for it lacks a key characteristic of trauma, intrusion.

Nevertheless, entrapment, imprisonment, being held hostage, have long been associated with severe trauma. Levinas seeks out this trauma too, which he characterizes in terms of being held hostage to the other’s needs, a condition in which I exist solely to serve the other, what he calls the “trauma of accusation.” (Levinas, 1988, p. 15) Once again, trauma is a good thing, but only because it traps us outside ourselves without letting us be free, and without letting us back in. Those who have experienced real mundane trauma may wonder about its goodness.

Is this weird?

To anyone unfamiliar with Levinas, probably most of the readers of this blog, Levinas must sounds seriously weird. The reader would be right. Idealizing trauma as though it were a religious experience, while troubling to some of us who know the horribleness of the trauma of this world, has a long history. The problem with Levinas is the way he would solve the trauma of being by enslaving us to others with featureless faces. That is, to people with whom it is impossible to have real and satisfying relationships. To me that is the most traumatic experience of all. One could argue that I am taking Levinas too literally. I think I’m taking him seriously.


Cathy Caruth, Introduction, Unclaimed Experience. Johns Hopkins University Press, 1996.

Emmanuel Levinas, Totality and Infinity. Duquesne University Press, 1969.

Emmanuel Levinas, Ethics and Infinity. Duquesne University Press, 1985.

Emmanuel Levinas, God and philosophy, in Collected Philosophical Papers, ed. A. Lingis. Martinus Nijhoff, 1987.

Emmanuel Levinas, Otherwise than Being. Duquesne University Press, 1998


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