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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.

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