Master And Mistress

Mastery (maîtrise) has a masculine ring to it. Biological and grammatical masculinity and femininity define the species of genus called gender. But Levinas draws upon the vocabulary deriving from that of gender, sexuality and family relationships in order to create room for relations alternative to those by which distinctive features are compared from a third-person lateral point of view in order to be granted membership of this or that class. Sexuality and, in the most concrete sense of the expression, sexual relations have a dimension of depth that is not captured by reflective comparison of the sexes. In all its versions it retains a frontality that no sexless self would experience. And so too does mastery or maîtrise. This last, be it noted in passing, is a feminine noun that may be derived no less, if less directly, from maîtresse than from maître. It covers as much the dominance of a woman as the dominance of a man. And dominance in its neutrality may include domina as much as dominus in its genealogy, while both of these may be included within the genealogy of domus ('dwelling', home). Notwithstanding the neutrality shared too by the conception of sexuality—and by the sexuality of the conception of the concept—sexuality is, as Levinas says, accomplished non-reflectively. Although when he says this he makes no explicit mention of homosexuality, which might be thought to weaken his case, he could have cited it to strengthen the case he makes out for the claim that a radical asymmetry inflects one's experience of sexual alterity. It is arguable that whatever biological symmetry or asymmetry obtains, the personal experience of a homosexual sexual relationship is asymmetrical. In a non-biological sense it remains heterosexual.

Asymmetry and heterologicality are also of the essence of the experience par excellence of 'emphasized' mastery, the magisteriality of the Other without which the experience of sexual relationship is not a fully personal relationship. This mastery is teaching (enseignement), that intervenes between slavery and the seigniory of the master, disturbing the order of the totality of projective assignments—the Verweisungsganzheit of Being and Time—in the context of which I point ahead, by pointing the finger at me and interjecting the ensignment that I should take care not to kill. Levinas employs the masculine pronoun il, he, for the Other (Autrui), who utters this first commandment of proto-ethics. But the word Autrui is indeterminate as to gender. Indeed the first presence of the Other is announced in a feminine voice whose first word is a word of welcome, welcome home. Whereas the voice of him who says 'Heed' comes from above, not from outside, not from the exteriority from which I take the other, other things, l'autre, into my mouth or my home, the voice of her who says 'Come' comes from inside, from the interiority of the home.

It cannot be too often repeated that the language of gender and family relations is being produced and emphasized by Levinas and that provided it is not reduced to the biological discourse in which it may appear to have its natural home, certain avoidable difficulties, though by no means all difficulties, will be circumvented. He himself would probably challenge this notion of the natural home. He elsewhere mentions with approval Bruno Snell's thesis that instead of thinking of the extended or metaphorical as opposed to the literal or natural we should think of each use as an extension or 'metaphor' of the other.2

In a study of Homeric comparisons M. Snell (as quoted by Karl Lowith) points out that when in the Iliad the resistance to an attack by an enemy phalanx is compared to the resistance of a rock to the waves that assail it, it is not necessarily a matter of extending to the rock, through anthropomorphism, a human behaviour, but of interpreting human resistance petromorphically. Resistance is neither a human privilege, nor a rock's, just as radiance does not characterize a day of the month of May more authentically than the face of a woman. The meaning precedes the data and illuminates them.2

The very home where we are inclined to think that the word 'home' is most at home is extended beyond its walls. It is extended through the manner in which the feminine welcome extends toward the masculine demand. Both of these are addressed to the ego, so they both already divert the ego's centrifugal intentionality. Their centripetality crosses the ego's centrifugality in a manner that dislocates both centrality and the great out-of-doors, resiting or rather desiting them at the threshold that is neither unambiguously out nor unambiguously in, but metaphorico-literally both at one and the same time. Except that sameness of time will turn out to be just as altered as sameness of place. For the same is othered, whether the same be a what or a who. And the other as autre is othered by the Other as Autrui. As follows.

Was this article helpful?

0 0

Post a comment