Dilatoriness

So when Levinas speaks of the accomplishment of the beginning it is to the beginning as itself accomplishment that he refers, not to something that succeeds the beginning, of which the beginning falls short. In his phrase 'the accomplishment of the beginning' the genitive is subjective. The words denote beginning as accomplishment, and accomplishment as at once realization and revelation. The ambiguity that the preface to Totality and Infinity will discern in production is discerned in accomplishment when Existence and Existents suggests that the reluctance to begin of dilatoriness is 'the revelation of the beginning that every instant accomplishes through its virtue as instant [par sa vertu d'instant_]' (DEE 34, EE 26). Is it fanciful to see this noun vertu as an anticipation of the verb s'évertue in the definition of production provided in Totality and Infinity? In both places what is being proposed is a notion of effort prior to the notion of effort that figures in accounts of action based on the mechanistic idea of a subject's resistance to external forces, an idea that remains operative in Maine de Biran's anti-mechanism, though in Levinas's mind here too are Scheler and Dilthey's defense of this idea in an article referred to in

Being and Time (SZ 205, 209).4 As already suggested, Levinas's notion of a primary effort exerted in the subject's being with itself has a precursor, despite major divergencies, in Fichte's s doctrine of primary Anstoss, a check unposited by the positing self yet a condition of the I-am-I. And it may not be premature to recall the primacy that Fichte ascribes to the ethical.5 It is probably premature to recall on the other hand that vertu shares a virile genealogy with the word virtù that plays so significant a role in Nietzsche's On the Genealogy of Morals.

S'évertuer is to strive, streben, another Fichtean word. It is to exert power. But power is rarely pouvoir as possibility in the exposition of the positive side of Levinas's existantial analysis. When these words or their cognates occur in Levinas's text they can very easily mislead. For example, what are we to make of the sentence 'Dilatoriness is an impossibility of beginning or, if you prefer, it is the accomplishment of beginning' (DEE 34, EE 26)? If the beginning is accomplished how can it also be, if one likes, an impossibility of being? The most plausible explanation is that when Levinas writes of this impossibility of beginning he means that it is not a possibility in the sense of the Seinkönnen or Möglichkeit of Being and Time which are Dasein's temporally prejective-projective ecstasis. Dilatoriness is, to employ a phrase Levinas will employ frequently in his later writings, a manière d'être (mode or modality of being). This phrase parodies Heidegger's word Seinsweise in order to suggest that more primordial than his temporal existentials are the modes of being of beginning, adverbial modes of the action by which the subject accomplishes the substantivity of a stance in the sun. Note that when thus understood in the context of a rejection of the claim to primordiality Heidegger makes on behalf of his modes of being, Levinas's reference to impossible beginning and impossible refusal cannot be made consistent with his reference to the accomplishment of beginning by a softening to 'almost impossible' on analogy with the phrase 'almost contradictory' used in connection with fatigue.

Before attention is turned to some of the other details of what Levinas writes in connection with fatigue rigour requires that attention be returned to a difficult detail in what he writes about dilatoriness in a paragraph of which a part has been previously reproduced. The difficulty becomes visible when other parts of that paragraph are also reproduced:

Dilatoriness is related to the beginning as if existence did not accede to it straight off [n 'y accédait pas d'emblée], but had a life previous to it [la prévivait] in inhibition. There is more here than a space of duration flowing insensibly between two instants; unless [a moins que] the inhibition in [de la] dilatoriness is also the revelation of the beginning that every instant accomplishes through its virtue as instant.

The only feminine nouns earlier in the sentence where the text says la prévivait are existence and paresse. If what Levinas intended to say was either that existence or that dilatoriness precedes itself, he would have used the reflexive se prévivait. Therefore, either he means that it is as if existence precedes the dilatoriness or the la is a slip for le and by this is meant the beginning. The Lingis translation takes the second of these options. If this is judged to be rash, while taking y to refer to the beginning and la to refer to dilatoriness, prévivait could be taken as a transitive verb to yield the idea that it is as if existence with its insistent il y a holds up (perhaps both in the sense of sustains and in the sense of detains), does not accede to (perhaps both in the sense of assent to and in the sense of attain) the instance of the existant and the existance (sic) of the instant by transitively living or existing dilatoriness and its inhibition.

Lingis's translation also renders à moins que as 'or perhaps'. This 'or' must be non-exclusive if the 'also' (aussi) is meant to indicate a junction with the preceding clause. In view of the positioning of 'also' late in its clause it is more natural to suppose that it is meant to indicate the junction within its own clause of 'the inhibition in dilatoriness' with 'the revelation of beginning'. Translating à moins que as 'unless' sets up a disjunction and introduces second thoughts that qualify the idea of a space of duration flowing smoothly between two instants and specify, contrary to the first thoughts, that there need be no more than this durational stretch if the instants between which time flows are understood as initiative positings that are paradoxically revealed—and realized, that is, ambiguously 'produced'—as inhibitory postpositing or deferral inherent to the very performance of an act. It is dilatoriness essential and intrinsic to action that Levinas is describing, not deliberative dithering. In the terms of William James's often-cited paradigm, this existantial shrinking is posterior to the resolution to rise from one's bed and interior to the action of placing one's feet on the floor.

The paradoxicality of this analysis would be alleviated if Levinas's phrase l'inhibition de la paresse were translated 'the inhibition of dilatoriness'. For it is not difficult to equate the inhibition and ending of dilatoriness with the beginning of the act. But the subjective rather than objective genitive is what seems to be implied by Levinas's statement that it is dilatoriness, not the inhibition of it, that is the accomplishment of the beginning. Furthermore, 'dilatoriness', the first word of the first sentence of the passage, is equated with the last word in that sentence, 'inhibition'.

Despite these difficulties of interpretation, it is fairly clear that the aim of the sentences in question is to challenge the adequacy of Bergsonian continuist and Heideggerian ecstasist accounts of temporality. By implication Aristotelian and other theories of chronology are impugned. The main point being made in these sentences is that without excluding flow from instant to instant the beginning of each instant suffers a delay. Perhaps 'suffers' is a dangerous word to use here in the light of Levinas's denial that the generic term douleur conveys the specific nature of the trouble, peine, of the effort to begin. This is why Lingis's 'indolence' (from dolere, like douleur) is also a risky word to translate paresse. Yet this word could come to be seen as the most appropriate one when 'emphasized' and when we have come to understand better what for Levinas a word's being emphasized means. 'Laziness' would be the first English equivalent of which one would think, but that does little to bring out the force of which the French word is capable thanks to its derivation from parare, to prepare. The essential laziness and lethargy with which Levinas is here concerned is a precedence essential to the accedence to a start. Just as lassitude is refusal, so paresse is a prevaricatory preparation that constitutes or accomplishes the effortfulness of the beginning of the instant. As through heaviness and labour the human existant is born. And as though in Rodin's The Creation of Man' the hand presses and is oppressed by the very clay out of which it is made.

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