Defending History’s Belgian correspondent Roland Binet has translated the 21 Dec. 2021 op-ed published in Le Figaro by Michael Levinas entitled “Pourquoi je suis opposé à l’inauguration, à Kaunas, en Lituanie, d’un centre qui porte le nom d’Emmanuel Levinas”. Michael Levinas has agreed to allow Defending History to publish his Le Figaro opinion piece in full, in English, and has approved Roland Binet’s translation, which follows. Michaël Levinas is a French pianist and composer of renown. He has this year been appointed Vice-President of the French Academy of Fine Arts, has taught at the Paris National Superior Conservatory of Music and Dance and has been made Chevalier de la Légion d’Honneur.
Why am I Opposed to the Inauguration in Kaunas, Lithuania, of a Center that Bears the Name of Emmanuel Levinas
By Michaël Levinas
Following the publication on FigaroVox of Salomon Malka’s text entitled “Lithuania celebrates the philosopher Emmanuel Levinas” Michael Levinas asked us to publish his reaction to this information. Michaël Levinas, a pianist, is honorary professor at the National Superior Conservatory of Music and Dance in Paris, as well as a member of the Academy of Fine Arts. He is the son of the philosopher Emmanuel Levinas.
It was through an article signed by Salomon Malka in FigaroVox that I was informed of the inauguration of an Emmanuel Levinas center in Kaunas, which took place on December 6 within the setting of the Lithuanian University of Health Sciences. Thus, it is through the press alone that I, as the exclusive holder of the moral rights, and responsible for the use of my father’s name when it concerns his work, learned of this ceremony which honored a major French personality. A noteworthy fact: it was held only in the presence of the Embassy of Israel, and in the absence of the Embassy of France in Lithuania and the Embassy of Lithuania in France, and this, in defiance of the reservations that I had publicly expressed as a son regarding the use of my father’s name, Emmanuel Levinas, in a historically tragic context.
Let us be very clear: the international radiance of Emmanuel Levinas’s work is such that it has led to a great deal of research, which has often inspired colloquia, publications, theses and translations into the languages of the five continents. It would be perfectly superfluous to count all the events around this great French philosopher and to try to track the evolution of this work, such is its proven importance in the academic, political and multicultural world, with the exception of a use that could transgress ethical foundations of this work indelibly marked by the experience of war, totalitarianism, extermination and the Holocaust.
Pertaining more specifically to Lithuania and the city of Kaunas, one of the places of the Holocaust by bullets, during which our whole family was murdered, the use of the name Emmanuel Levinas, who — I remind you — had been naturalized as French in 1930, takes on a completely different meaning, the symbolic dimension of which cannot be reduced to a simple message of hope to which, naturally, I aspire and whose fulfillment I wish and call for.
I had been informed in 2018 of a project to create a center in Kaunas which would bear the name of Emmanuel Levinas. After many discussions and after having consulted international and French philosophical personalities, I have been led, in the name of the exercise of the moral rights over my father’s work and the resulting use of his name, to express strong reservations about the fact that my father’s name was becoming a national icon, of which the decision-makers would be considered to be the decision-makers in the name of Lithuania and their political and institutional positioning.
It is in this context — with neither dialogue nor consultation — that a square bearing his name had already been inaugurated a few meters from this future Center, and that an order for an “Emmanuel Levinas” statue from a Lithuanian artist living in Italy was, I had been assured, in progress, without my being informed or consulted. Even more disturbing, than all of this, was not taking into account the solemn vow that my father had made on several occasions, never to return to Lithuania again and to have no further contact with that country. His decision towards a country where his whole family had been murdered had been irrevocable.
My reservations are therefore motivated by abiding by the will of my father as well as by a watchfulness of the fact that the honor that Lithuania grants to Emmanuel Levinas should not be used to obfuscate the indelibility of the historical reality. Let us recall what my father wrote in a text published in 1966 in ‘Les Nouveaux Cahiers’, later taken up in ‘Noms propres’: “More than a quarter of a century ago, our life was interrupted and doubtless history itself. (…) When you have this tumor in your memory, twenty years cannot change anything. No doubt death will soon cancel the unjustified privilege of having survived six million deaths. […] nothing has been able to fill, or even cover the gaping chasm” (E. Levinas, Noms Propres, 1976, p. 142).
I myself am concerned about Europe and very attached to its future, and I am aware that Lithuania’s work of memory is in progress. My Lithuanian friends and colleagues rejoice with me at the imminence of the year 2022 when Kaunas will be crowned European Capital of Culture. Kaunas, symbol of the future, symbol of hope. What an eschatological reversal of history after Hitler and Stalin! How can one not be sensitive to this lesson dispensed by our old Europe?
However, my moral responsibility cannot ignore the enduring memory of antisemitism and the crimes against humanity. Emmanuel Levinas never returned to Germany after 1945, to say nothing of Lithuania. This is why paying this tribute to Emmanuel Levinas in his hometown in Kaunas is a particularly overloaded act, which cannot look like any other. I consider that to call this Center after the name of Emmanuel Levinas, a few steps from the apartment where Emmanuel Levinas had lived, where the whole family had been arrested, then taken to the Ninth Fort where the Nazi atrocities were committed with the proven complicity of Lithuanian forces, required decency as far as the non-ostentatious proclamation of the name Levinas in his country of birth was concerned.
I am grateful to the Embassy of France in Lithuania, to Madame Ambassador Lignieres-Counathe, for having invited us in March 2019, my wife and I, to Vilnius and Kaunas, to meet the city mayor, as well as the university institutional authorities. With the very regrettable exception of — the Rector of the Lithuanian University of Health Sciences.
During these meetings and a colloquium organized by the philosopher and friend Viktoras Bachmatjevas, I officially asked that this center not be named “Emmanuel Levinas Center”. I suggested naming it the Center for Contemporary French Philosophy within which the Levinas studies would naturally take their place. This proposal was agreed to and made public under the aegis of the French Embassy and the French Institute of Vilnius to create a Center for Contemporary French Philosophy which should be inaugurated in 2022 in the presence of the international intellectual world and French representation.
Thus, this is the meaning of my action and determination, the respect for the dead of the Holocaust would be honored in the spirit of Emmanuel Levinas’s work, and the hope for a new era expressed in reference to his thought would thus be proclaimed in Kaunas, in the new Lithuania.
However, contrary to the agreement concluded with the French Embassy, in 2021, in opposition to the relationship between the name and the work, the Rector of the Lithuanian University of Health Sciences sent me a letter, without any discussion, to tell me that he would not take into account the agreement reached in 2019 during my official visit to Lithuania and the motivations that I had stated in order to find a compromise between the imperishable past and the future of Europe and the Baltic countries.
Not to erase the imperishable: therein lies the very greatness of France. The dedication in Otherwise than Being or Beyond Essence by Emmanuel Levinas is there to remind us:
“In memory of the closest beings among the six million murdered by the National Socialists, alongside the millions and millions of humans of all faiths and all nations, victims of the same hatred of the other, of the same antisemitism.”