A Philosopher in the Eye of the Storm: Monsieur Chouchani and Lévinas's “Nameless” Essay

November, 2017

Source: AJS Review 41:2 (November 2017), 315–331


This article considers the role of the individual during crises in humanism and the ethical responsibility with which the individual is charged in such times of moral calamity. In a narrow sense, the article explores Emmanuel Lévinas's “Nameless” (“Sans nom”), an essay that appears in his book Proper Names, and proposes viewing it as his personal reading in honor of his unique, unaccounted-for teacher Monsieur Chouchani. From a broader philosophical perspective, the article attempts to consider the meaning of ethics and the assumption of responsibility in times when doing so appears to offer no benefit and hold no significance whatsoever. From an educational perspective, it endeavors to better understand the ethical role of the teacher in both tranquil and tempestuous times. And finally, it also offers another profound observation of what Lévinas's article refers to as the “Jewish condition,” not in a national historical sense but as a model of crisis-oriented ethical challenge.

This article made a case, albeit conjecturally, for understanding Lévinas’s essay “Nameless” as a text devoted to a man without a name—M. Chouchani. On an ideological and philosophical level, Lévinas’s essay does not tell the story of M. Chouchani and is not intended to publicly reveal his true name, his family affiliation or ethnic origin, or the educational home in which he grew up and developed. Rather, true to philosophical form, Lévinas offers a number of essential truths that can and should be learned from a teacher as virtuous as M. Chouchani. In retrospective view, the main points of this essay have the capacity to recount the great philosophical and ethical story that Lévinas attempts to tell based on the inspiration of the image and teachings of M. Chouchani.

The first principle is the teacher’s willingness to enter into the eye of the ethical storm in the world—not to remain outside, maintaining his conduct as “a human being” and waiting for the winds of evil to pass from the world, as if “in the tempest rest resided,” according to Lermontov, as quoted by Lévinas. The second principle is the absence of eloquence, not as something that is marginal to teaching but as a central element—the choice of refraining from using the tools of rhetoric and pleasant formulations to draw a large and clear picture, out of respect for the text and the individual and in order to enable the critical questions to be asked, even if they appear unaccompanied by answers. The third principle is the willingness to bear responsibility, even in the context of great and infinite isolation; meaning, the individual’s capacity to observe that humanity has lost its way and lost its mind, and his willingness to go it alone in bearing responsibility for the entire world. The fourth principle is the journey—that is, to be forever ready to set out on a journey and to regard teaching and education as a “tent of assembly” and a place of study that, at any given moment, can be packed up and carried on our backs in order to embark on a new path. The fifth principle is memory and that which lies beyond memory. The ability to remember is not simply an attribute or a natural-born skill that people must cultivate. Rather, memory, and responsibility for that which lies beyond memory, is an ethical question of the individual whose shoulders bear the ethical significance of knowledge, thought, and the Torah. And this brings us to the sixth principle of teaching: the student’s responsibility to teach others and the reading of the obvious verse that has thus far appeared to be self-evident, as if it lacks all meaning, or, more precisely, has so many meanings—the other hundred of which, Lévinas tells us, were taken by his teacher to the grave.

This inquiry enables us to view the figure of M. Chouchani not only via the principles and the methods of instruction we stand to learn from him but as someone who reflects, in the most internal and external ways possible, what Lévinas refers to as the “Jewish condition.”

Updated: Feb. 07, 2018