Sending Levinas to Where the Wild Things Are

What would happen if Emmanuel Levinas sailed across an ocean to an island where ‘Wild Things’ lived? I fear Levinas’ story would turn out not much different than Max’s adventure in Spike Jonze’s cinematic adaptation of the iconic children’s classic, “Where the Wild Things Are.” Wild Things are uniquely and absolutely Other. They overflow and escape our categories of representation. As such, Wild Things solicit a spontaneous and singular response; one without prior preparation. For who could anticipate the epiphany of a Wild Thing? We might suspect that Levinas would be perfectly suited to “existing in a world of alien things” as his own rhetoric suggests, but Levinas does not travel all too well on Wild Thing tours.1

“Where the Wild Things Are” is a coming-of-age story about an eight-year-old boy named Max. Donning a wolf costume from the beginning of the narrative, Max imagines himself to be a make-believe animal in the secluded presence of his middle-class family. After a short series of unfortunate family events Max works himself up into a fantastic rage of carnal fury and consequently bites his mother. After an uncharacteristically vitriolic reaction from his mother, Max—bewildered and scared—flees home and finds a built-for-one sail boat somewhere in the neighborhood.

As the original story goes, Max sails an eternity across the deep blue sea and eventually arrives at an unusual island. Still decked out in his lupine garb, Max unexpectedly comes across a group of grotesque beasts. The Wild Things he finds are the incarnation of brimming-over, abundant life itself; a far cry from the civilized world of ready-made boundaries separating the uncouth from the urbane. In the same way, Wild Things remain ambivalent or contradictory creatures: an admixture of human and animal, a rare blend of unregenerate baseness and linguistic intelligence.

Consequently, no narrow-minded dogma or universalized ethic can coexist with the complexity of Wild Things. They simply do not fit our reductive categories. Max’s earliest encounter with the monstrous beings takes place during a fierce intervention. Among the six large creatures present, Carol—the most quixotic and severe Wild Thing of them all—is in the midst of a destructive rampage, tearing through the sphere-shaped woven nests that constitute the Wild Thing’s homes. Desiring to gain instant solidarity, Max makes an effort to bond with the outcast Carol, but soon arouses the anger of the remaining five who were seeking to calm rather than encourage Carol’s mayhem, thus becoming the target of an angry mob. Max, in an effort to escape pending doom, promises hope by claiming that if crowned king he will resolve all their communal problems through his ‘magical powers’. But, granting their unpolished character, the opening scene leaves no doubt that our thought-out principles and reasoned duties will not adequately apply to the radical alterity of the Wild Things.

It goes without saying that this situation would unquestionably create an ethical quandary for an eight-year-old boy from suburbia, but seemingly someone like Levinas would handle the given circumstances more appropriately. According to Levinas, our primary experience in a group setting is egocentric; a strong biased tendency that uses and manipulates others for one’s own advantage. But this opposition to the other is already part of a totality that measures the other relative to the self, in contrast to a relation with the “absolutely other” who “always overflows thought”: “the other [who] remains transcendent with respect to me.”2 Levinas maintains that this radical distance between the entirely other and my own reality is asserted in the epiphany of the Other’s face. For Levinas, “nothing is more direct than face to face, which is straightforwardness itself.”3 Accordingly, the notion of the face is a disorienting exteriority that exceeds every idea I have of the Other, introduces to me a dimension of the transcendent, and leads me to recognize the foreign will of the absolutely other.

A Levinasian ethic embraces the uncommon interest of looking out for the undesirable and oppressed when no one else does. Precisely because the ego is dis-interest-ed and de-center-ed in the traumatic encounter with the face of the other human—that is, the Other pulls the ego away from the self and towards the beyond—the self must respond immediately and infinitely by him- or herself. Reciprocity, in other words, cannot be demanded by the ego. The unique Other questions the privilege of the self because the face, for Levinas, expresses infinitude. The proximity of the neighbor, therefore, demands and determines the responsibility of the ego; including those deemed least significant by society.

Max, it turns out, is surprisingly Levinasian. He is attentive to the alterity of the Wild Things in their other world and, on this basis, is remarkably hospitable and vulnerable to these unsettling monsters. Max, it seems, is always open to hear the appeal from the face of the Wild Things. One-by-one, Max learns from face-to-face encounters what makes each Wild Thing—Carol, Ira, Judith, Alexander, Douglas, Bernard, and K.W.—individually distinct and different.

Ethics on the populated island of Wild Things does not happen at the level of predetermined rules, codes of conduct, or moral regulations. As Sharon Todd puts it, “it rather takes place at the level of sensibility or pre-conscious sentience.”4 An abstract set of rule-bound behaviors could not substitute for Max’s ethical response to the Wild Things. The reason being, each Other is not sufficiently totalized by the impersonal and conventional guidelines specified by metaphysical thinking that mandates what is good for others on a universal scale. That is to say, the singularity of the Other ruptures the parameters of normal ethical discourse.

This is akin to Levinas’s motivation in making ethics “the radical basis of philosophy”. In contrast to the Western philosophical tradition which tried to “describe the ultimate structure of reality”, Levinas conceived of the individual in his or her “most extreme particularity” prior to any “universal meaning of subjectivity”.5 He argues that refractory systems of universal knowledge and justice led to imperialism, genocides, and bloody struggles. And, according to history, he is mostly right. The expression of the face, on the other hand, exists prior to any underlying presuppositions regarding what is best for the Other. If Levinas had to make only one universal maxim it would be: “Respond! Respond to the sufferings of your neighbor!”

Throughout the film we witness Max responding to the needs of others who are extremely asymmetrical in relation to himself. Carol in particular takes an interest in their new king and, after revealing to Max a model city he built out of sticks, they are collectively inspired to construct a colossal castle for everyone. However, the other Wild Things begin to suspect favoritism among the group. As the tension amplifies it becomes quite apparent that Max finds it increasingly difficult to navigate the plurality of demands facing him. It should be noteworthy for Levinas, attending to multiple others ends up in a muddle of aporias.

I think Levinas ought to be sent to Where the Wild Things Are because “his political thought remains relatively neglected.”6 In the film, multiple Wild Things demand attention from Max at the same time, but it is clear that he cannot meet the demands of everyone simultaneously. The moment requires a decision to be made, but the ruse of Levinas abandons us in a situation of undecidability. In a passage we all wish to have written ourselves, Levinas himself reflects upon the aporia: “Doubtless, responsibility for the other human being is, in its immediacy, anterior to every question. But how does responsibility obligate if a third party troubles this exteriority of two where my subjection of the subject is subjection to the neighbor? The third party is other than the neighbor but also another neighbor, and also a neighbor of the other, and not simply their fellow. What am I to do?”7

To put it more generally: another Other gives rise to incommensurable options in responding; for to respond to one Other is to ignore all other Others. Responding to multiple Others means Levinas has got to get political. He must give attention to all of humanity (or to all of the Wild Things as the case may be).

Since we do not live in a world where there is but one Other we must necessarily do something Levinas never would: posit a “cosmopolitical” law—“equally relevant to all of humanity without privileging any particular religious or ethnic group’s interests”.8 Although the horizon of the Other renders my responsibility infinite, it reaches a threshold with the appearance of a third party. For this reason, ethics requires politics to distribute justice fairly. To make a sweeping claim, such a universal law would be the best hospitable conditions in response to everyone; Kant’s ethical imperative, for instance: Act only on that maxim whereby thou canst at the same time will that it should become a universal law.

Undoubtedly, the ethic of Levinas holds a strong resemblance to the Christian Bible’s repeated insistence on welcoming “the least of these”: those deemed insignificant and marginal by the rest of society. The parallel here is unsurprising. Levinas regularly turned to the prophets of his own Jewish heritage as examples of those who never considered the smallest injustice to be trivial or insignificant. However, Christian hospitality—in the fullest meaning of the word—runs against the same deadlock that Levinas had. How can you generously attend to everyone who is “least” among you without offering a diluted and impersonal response?

A somewhat humorous anecdote by Dorothy Day, passed on to us by Christine Pohl in her book Making Room, elicits this same paradox: “One theory is that when a stranger comes to the door, it’s Christ and you let him in. And the other theory is that if you’re going to let Christ in, you don’t want to have Christ sleep under the sink, and you don’t want Christ to crowd out all the other Christs that are already in there.”9 Pohl suggests that we transgress this impasse by keeping a welcoming embrace our first priority, even if we must ultimately turn some people away. At the very least, recognizing the limited character of our own capacity to respond to the Other often leads to locating our efforts in larger social projects; what we have identified as “cosmopolitical” justice.

A second limitation that I believe Levinas would confront if he were sent to “Where the Wild Things Are” would be encountering those “not fully human”; viz., K.W.’s two owl friends Bob and Terry who are seemingly uncommunicative yet enigmatically understood by everyone but Max and Carol. According to Slavoj Žižek, and transparently applicable to our situation, “What Levinas fails to include in the scope of ‘human’ is, rather, the inhuman itself, a dimension which eludes the face-to-face relationship between humans.” 10 In all his observance of Otherness Levinas neglects the inhuman side of life. He fails to include those who can no longer engage as humans; those who no longer retain a minimum of human dignity. That is, more precisely, those who are faceless. Although Max outwardly responded to all the Wild Things successfully, at least in isolation, his meeting with the nocturnal birds of prey was drastically different. Rather than a transcendent Otherness, what Max glimpsed in Bob and Terry was a “blank wall, a lack of depth.”11 Seemingly, if Levinas were sent to “Where the Wild Things Are,” he would have to broaden his definition of what is human.

As becomes clear in the closing parts of the film, politics is absolutely necessary for the sake of ethical responsibility. Indeed, political orders have often legitimized human exploitation, world wars, and terrorism but that does not amount to a total knockdown argument against the political. Political systems often justify organized crime but politics, it would appear, is strikingly Janus-faced. It can also function as a means to curb social injustice. Therefore, ethics must moderate the tyrannical possibility of the political while, at the same time, politics and justice must be done to reach the distant others who would otherwise go unnoticed. The impasse is resolved not by conflating or breaking the relationship but by oscillating between the two.

But, as it turns out, “Where the Wild Things Are” is inappropriate for both children (read Max) and phenomenologists (read Levinas). Both beat around the bush when it comes to overcoming the dualist paradigm that partitions the ethical from the political. Both have maturing to do in balancing the act.

However, by granting priority to the immediacy of the Other in his or her radical alterity Levinas significantly alters the relationship between ethical responsibility and the political. Reminiscent of the ancient prophets who disrupted business as usual, Levinas prods us from our own arrested development and forces us to recognize the smallest injustices suffered by our neighbors. The mantra “ethics as first philosophy” is not to say that politics is irrelevant or lying beyond the pale. Making ethics the radical basis of philosophy merely deconstructs pretentious and violent forms of politics.

1 Emmanuel Levinas, Totality and Infinity: An Essay on Exteriority, trans. Alphonso Lingis (Pittsburgh, PA: Duquesne University Press, 1969), 12.

2 Levinas, Totality and Infinity, 25, 52.

3 Levinas, Totality and Infinity, 78.

4 Sharon Todd, Learning From the Other: Levinas, Psychoanalysis, and Ethical Possibilities in Education (Albany, NY: State University of New York Press, 2003), 11.

5 Fabio Ciaramelli, “Levinas’s Ethical Discourse between Individuation and Universality” in Re-Reading Levinas, ed. by Robert Bernasconi and Simon Critchley (Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 1991), 85, 84, 86.

6 William Paul Simmons, The Third: Levinas’ theoretical move from an-anrchical ethics to the realm of justice and politics in “Philosophy and Social Criticism” (Volume 25, Issue 6, 1999), 83.

7 Emmanuel Levinas, “Peace and Proximity” in Basic Philosophical Writings, eds. Adriaan T. Peperzak, Simon Critchley, and Robert Bernasconi (Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 1996), 168.

8 Miriam Bankovsky, “Derrida Brings Levinas to Kant: The Welcome, Ethics, and Cosmopolitical Law” in Philosophy Today (Summer 2005; 49,2; Research Library), 159.

9 Christine D. Pohl, Making Room: Recovering Hospitality as a Christian Tradition (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1999), 134.

10 Slavoj Žižek, The Parallax View (Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, 2006), 111.

11 Žižek, Parallax View, 113.

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