Totality and Infinity, Alterity, and Relation: From Levinas to Glissant

Bernadette Cailler


Totality and Infinity, the title of a well-known work by Emmanuel Levinas, takes up a word which readers of Poetic Intention and of many other texts of Édouard Glissant’s will easily recognize: a term sometimes used in a sense that is clearly positive, sometimes in a sense that is not quite as positive, such as when, for instance, he compares “totalizing Reason” to the “Montaigne’s tolerant relativism.” In his final collection of essays, Traité du tout-monde, Poétique IV, Glissant attempts one more time to clarify the sense in which the reader will have to understand his use of the word “totality,” thinking, and rightfully so, that this word might lead to some confusion: “To write is to say the world. The world as totality, which is so dangerously close to the totalitarian.” Of course, here, it will be necessary to try to ascertain whether or not Levinas’s totality and Glissant’s can peacefully coexist, or, rather, whether this word might, in Glissant, have opposite meanings. Where the second word is concerned, “infinity,” any reader of Glissant will know that he locates its source in those societies he calls atavistic, which are grounded in foundational texts that are the bearers of stories of filiation, of legitimacy, societies whose arrogance and whose errors the author never ceases to decry and whose decomposition, in the very times in which we live, he never ceases to announce (even as Glissant recognizes that there was a time when atavistic cultures undoubtedly must have experienced their own period of creolization, and that, conversely, composite cultures undoubtedly often tend to become atavistic). On this level, “totality” and “infinity,” for him, seem to belong to the same world. Thus, and still in Traité du tout-monde , he proposes that

"Hebraism, Christianity, Islam are grounded in the same spirituality of the One and to the same belief in a revealed Truth… The thought of the One that has done so much to magnify, as well as to denature. How can one consent to this thought, which transfigures while neither offending nor de-routing the Diverse?"

Moreover, it would be interesting, I think, to know how Levinas might react to these words of Glissant’s: “Totality is not that which has often been called the universal. It is the finite and realized quantity of the infinite detail of the real.” This word, “infinite,” is decidedly dangerous: what is an “infinite detail?” Does this word, “infinite,” not always lead to the unknown, to the non-totalizable, to what Levinas would call an “enigma,” to what Glissant would call an “opacity?”


Glissant; Levinas

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