Self and Other in Lewis and Levinas

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Where Lewis comes closest to Levinas is in his view that personal relationships, with God or with our fellow human beings, are the primary way in which we can transcend ourselves. The Four Loves parallels The Great Divorce in identifying damnation with self-centeredness and salvation with self-transcendence, and both books, especially The Four Loves, identify our relationships with others as the arena in which these alternatives work themselves out. Love of any kind is a potential escape from self, whereas lovelessness-as Lewis puts it, “a self-invited and self-protective lovelessness”-puts us at odds with God’s will. “To love at all is to be vulnerable. Love anything, and your heart will certainly be wrung and possibly be broken. If you want to make sure of keeping it intact, you must give your heart to no one, not even to an animal. . . . lock it up safe in the casket or coffin of your selfishness. But in that casket-safe, dark, motionless, airless-it will change. It will not be broken; it will become unbreakable, impenetrable, irredeemable”-a condition Lewis explicitly identifies with “damnation” (121-22). Lewis pursues the same theme in Till We Have Faces, where Orual overcomes her self-centeredness, her selfish, possessive love, her “craving” nature, by submitting herself so that she can be redeemed and even, like her sister, turned into a goddess.

To me the most powerful of Lewis’s meditations on self and other come in his autobiographical writing, especially A Grief Observed, where he reflects on his marriage and the profoundly redemptive effect it had on him. “The most precious gift that marriage gave me,” he wrote, “was [the] constant impact of something very close and intimate yet all the time unmistakably other, resistant-in a word, real.” He fears that, with his wife’s death, he may be “doomed to crawl back-to be sucked back-into” the shell God had forced him out of through marriage (18-19). Like Levinas, Lewis suggests here that our natural condition is self-centered but that we are called by others-by our very encounter with their otherness-to transcend ourselves.

Lewis also resembles Levinas in contrasting the genuine otherness of others with the reductive view of these others we are prone to create. Lewis records in A Grief Observed that he does not want the woman he knew to be reduced to “an image in [his] own mind” (20). “The earthly beloved, even in this life, incessantly triumphs over your mere idea of her” (66). All of reality, Lewis argues-especially as manifest in the people we truly encounter-“is iconoclastic”: that is, it shatters the images or ideas to which we try to reduce it. Levinas uses similar language: the Other-the other person-“at each instant . . . overflows the idea” to which our minds try to reduce his presence (51); “The face of the Other [or what Levinas sometimes calls, the ‘living presence’ of the Other] at each moment destroys and overflows the . . . image it leaves me (50-51). The presence of the Other thus shatters my image of the Other. To use Lewis’s language, the Other is “iconoclastic.”

What is true of marriage is true as well of our relationship with God and with our neighbor. “My idea of God,” Lewis writes, “is not a divine idea. It has to be shattered time after time. He shatters it Himself. He is the great iconoclast”-the great shatterer of images (The Great Divorce 66). Why is this so important? Because, Lewis testifies, the meaning of our lives, the transformation of our selves, depends on our relationship with others who are genuinely other, who are irreducible to concepts. “I need Christ,” he writes, “not something that resembles Him. I want [my wife], not something that is like her. . . . Not my idea of God, but God. Not my idea of [my wife], but [my wife]. Yes, and also not my idea of my neighbour, but my neighbour” (65, 67).

For those acquainted with contemporary philosophy, it is hard to read these passages from A Grief Observed without thinking of Levinas. Like Lewis, Levinas writes of the transformation that takes place as we offer ourselves to others or as we lose our self-concern in concern for them. It is “as responsible [to others that] I am brought to my final reality,” Levinas writes (Totality 178). I become most fully myself, according to Levinas, as my existence shifts from satisfying my own needs to concern for others. Being for others “places the center of gravitation of a being outside of that being” (183). But it is only as it shifts “its center outside of itself” that a being attains a genuinely meaningful existence (236). “The I [the self], which we have seen arise in enjoyment as a separated being having apart, in itself, the center around which its existence gravitates, is confirmed in its singularity by purging itself of this gravitation, purges itself interminably, and is confirmed precisely in this incessant effort to purge itself. This is termed goodness” (244-45). “This existence for the Other, this Desire of the other, this goodness liberated from the egoist gravitation, nonetheless retains a personal character”-that is, it is only an individual being separate from the Other who can achieve this kind of goodness, who can offer itself to the other (236). In short, only a self can offer itself.

At times, Levinas uses specifically religious language to describe this transcendence of self that brings a true fulfillment of self. He once explained his views as follows: “I am defined as a subjectivity, as a singular person, as an ‘I,’ precisely because I am exposed to the other. It is my inescapable and incontrovertible answerability to the other that makes me an individual ‘I.’ So that I become a responsible or ethical ‘I’ to the extent that I agree to depose or dethrone myself-to abdicate my position of centrality-in favor of the vulnerable other.” I must overcome my self-centered way of being so that the other person becomes central for me. And yet, paradoxically, it is by overcoming my self-centeredness that I become a fully individual and responsible self. Levinas, though Jewish, goes on to paraphrase the New Testament: “As the Bible says: ‘He who loses his soul gains it'” (“Dialogue” 26-27).