Editors' Introduction

Levinas Studies 16 (1):1-6 (2022)
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In lieu of an abstract, here is a brief excerpt of the content:Editors’ Introduction“Between the Bible and the Philosophers”: ShakespearePeter Atterton (bio) and Sean Lawrence (bio)It is not clear when Levinas first read Shakespeare, but we do have some clues. The first complete translation of Shakespeare’s works into Russian, Levinas’s mother tongue, appeared between 1865 and 1868. These volumes doubtless graced the shelves of his family’s bookstore in Kovno (now Kaunas), in Lithuania, then part of the Russian empire. Kovno served as capital of one of three губернии gubernias (provinces), but also as the de facto center of Lithuanian intellectual life. The family bookstore catered to the highbrow tastes of government officials and served the needs of teachers and students at the local lycée. One also imagines that it fired the literary imagination of the young Levinas, who taught himself to read Russian at a young age. However, it would have been highly unusual for one so young, even for one as precocious as Levinas, to have read Shakespeare recreationally and self-educationally during this period (1906–1915). It probably was not until he entered the lycée in Kharkov, in Tsarist Ukraine, where his family emigrated at the beginning the Great War, or after his family’s return in 1920 to Lithuania, where Levinas attended the Hebrew lycée in Kovno, that Levinas read Shakespeare for the first time. We know that Russian gymnasiums and technical schools assigned Shakespeare.1 His gymnasium education, between the ages of eleven and seventeen, is therefore the latest point by which Levinas could have read Shakespeare for the first time, though we do not know what or how much.He certainly acknowledged Shakespeare’s influence on his early thought. In an interview broadcast on Radio France Culture in February 1981, Philippe Nemo asked Levinas what were “the first great books” he encountered, “the Bible or the philosophers?” Levinas answered by saying that he read the Bible while very young but only began to read philosophy with any seriousness at university. He proceeded, however, to volunteer a third category of great books, [End Page 1]between the Bible and the philosophers, the Russian classics—Pushkin, Lermontov, Gogol, Turgenev, Dostoyevsky and Tolstoy, and also the great writers of Western Europe, notably Shakespeare, much admired in Hamlet, Macbeth and King Lear.2If we treat this as a chronology, then Levinas would have first read Shakespeare at some time “between” the age of six, when he began reading the Bible and other Hebrew texts with a private tutor, and the age of seventeen, when he enrolled at the University of Strasbourg.A polyglot, Levinas could have read Shakespeare in English as well as in Russian translation, but also in French, German, or Hebrew translation. For that matter, he could have read it in Lithuanian translation.3 We don’t know which French edition he read first or drew upon most closely.4 In Time and the Other, he follows the translation of Émile Montégut for Macbeth but for Romeo and Juliet, as noted in Sean Lawrence’s article, he does not repeat verbatim any of the major translations. When he quotes Shakespeare in English, he follows an original spelling edition. In the notebooks that he kept during imprisonment, and part of which we have translated here, Levinas appears to quote Shakespeare in English from memory, but incorrectly.This error notwithstanding, the Carnets de captivité show the imprisoned Levinas reading widely in English. Perhaps he expected a victory by the anglo-phone powers, or perhaps he practiced a sort of defiance in reading the language of his captors’ enemies, or perhaps he sought to strengthen his understanding of one of the European languages he had neglected in the precocity of his youth. Besides Shakespeare, we find him reading D. H. Lawrence’s Lady Chatterley’s Lover and Charles Morgan’s Sparkenbroke within our selection. Elsewhere in the notebooks, he refers to Arthur Conan Doyle, Charles Dickens, L. Ryder Haggard, Maurice Baring, Millen Brand, Pearl Buck, and Edgar Allan Poe.5 His references range from the cursory—in the case of Brand’s The Outward Room, it consists only of its title and author—to the surprisingly detailed and suggestive. After reading...

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