The Face of the Other
Min Fr Mario Attard OFMcap
Some days ago I have had the privilege of attending a lecture at the Augustinian Institute. It dealt with religion and philosophy.
As ideas started flowing like a refreshing stream from a lecturer very well prepared both academically and also in the communication skills he possesses a name was mentioned during his exposition. This name stirred in me so much interest that I have decided to surf about him in order to enter into his fascinating thought. His name is Immanuel Levinas (1906-1995). But why this Lithuanian-born Jewish French philosopher who studied first under Husserl and then Heiddeger, was to influence a whole generation of major 20th century continental philosophers? While I leave the answer to that question to competent philosophy scholars I humbly say that I was deeply struck by his captivating phrase: “The Face of the Other”.
Who is the “Other” for Levinas? The “Other” (which in French is autrui) is the “other person”. Or, simply put, “someone else”. Hence this phrase exhorts us to realize that the subject matter we are talking about by autrui is the other person. Whoever that person may be. That person which you and me encounter every single day. Naturally we come across different kinds of people. Yet this great philosopher helps us to focus on the singularity of the other. This must be so since we meet others one by one and face to face.
Another reflection concerning the phrase “the Face of the Other” concerns the word “face” itself. What Levinas has in mind by “face” is the human face. The French word he uses for face, visage, is not about the physical or aesthetic face. The face is none other than the living presence of another person. Therefore, for Levinas, when we come “face to face” with another person, that particular experience has necessarily a social and ethical consequence. Thus “living presence” according to Levinas entails that the other person is disclosed to me. Yes! That very person is vulnerably present to me as s/he expresses himself/herself simply by being there before me. The person cannot be reduced neither to images nor to cute ideas. The very fact that I cannot close in a box the other person conceptually suggests the other person’s “infinity”. The unrepeatable face of the other is the most disclosed, most vulnerable as well as most expressive aspect of the other person’s presence.
But why Levinas seems to make such a big fuss on the face? In his book Ethics and Infinity conversations with Philippe Nemo, Levinas writes: “There is first the very uprightness of the face, its upright exposure, without defense. The skin of the face is that which stays most naked, most destitute. It is the most naked, though with a decent nudity…. The face is meaning all by itself…it leads you beyond”.
In his famous book Totality and Infinity, Levinas notes: “The face is a living presence; it is expression. . . . The face speaks… The face speaks to me and thereby invites me to a relation”. What about if that face is the face of the “the sojourner, the fatherless, and the widow” (Deut 26:13)? In other words, the face of those who suffer? To this key question Levinas clearly replies: “The face opens the primordial discourse whose first word is obligation”. But what kind of obligation is Levinas referring to? Again this Jewish philosopher replies: “the face presents itself, and demands justice”. And what kind of justice? That justice which enters into a relationship with the Other. Humans, whoever they may be, are called from the depths of their humanity to enter into dialogue with one another. Because they are all exposed, vulnerable and mortal.
But from where we humans have this power to seek “the Face of the Other” if not from God himself, The Face of the Other? What terrible anguish would be for us if we think that God has hidden his face from us (see Psalm 13:1)!
Lord, show me your face. Help me see your face in those who suffer all sorts of injustice. Enlighten me to serve them with love because any good I can do to them I am certainly do it to you. Amen.