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Faculty View | Friendship Beyond Dialogue

by Dr. Jiewon Baek, Assistant Professor of Foreign Language

 

Jiewon Baek

In his 1967 text, entitled “Par-delà le dialogue” [Beyond Dialogue], Emmanuel Levinas writes about the Ten Points of Seelisberg (1947) and the friendship between Jews and Christians that undergirds the organization Amitié judéo-chrétienne de France. The Seelisberg conference takes place in the aftermath of the Holocaust, and Levinas writes the essay in the aftermath of the Algerian War. History weighs heavily on the philosopher’s writing on ethics: how can people possibly get along, with all the suffering in the world? The essay ends with an invitation to readers to think like the Little Prince, which is also an invitation to imagine. The Little Prince’s reaction upon seeing a picture of a parallelogram invites us readers to imagine an “unconditional friendship” that lasts even when dialogue falls short of answering exceedingly difficult questions. Here is the conclusion to Levinas’s text:

 

“Beyond dialogue, a new maturity and earnestness, a new gravity and a new patience, and, if I may express it so, maturity and patience for insoluble problems...[T]hat attitude before insoluble problems, what can it be, and what can it contribute? ...[L]et us think, like one of my young students, of Saint-Exupery’s little prince, who asks the pilot stranded in the desert, who only knows how to draw a boa constrictor digesting the elephant, to draw a sheep. And I think what the little prince wants is that proverbial lamb who is as gentle as a lamb. But nothing could be more difficult. None of the sheep he draws pleases the little prince. They are either violent rams with big horns or too old. The little prince disdains the gentleness that only comes with extreme age. So the pilot draws a parallelogram, the box in which the sheep is sleeping, to the little prince’s great satisfaction. I do not know how to draw the solution to insoluble problems. It is still sleeping in the bottom of a box; but a box over which persons who have drawn close to each other keep watch. I have no idea other than the idea of the idea that one should have. The abstract drawing of a parallelogram—cradle of our hopes. I have the idea of a possibility in which the impossible may be sleeping.”

 

“The object of our hope is not sleeping but standing.”

 

Our efforts at tackling difficult problems are like that of a pilot stranded in the desert, who tries to draw a sheep. None of the solutions the pilot has to offer quite cut it, until he sketches a box that does not logically resemble a sheep. The pilot’s encounter with the Little Prince generates a friendship that Levinas characterizes as a new maturity, earnestness, gravity, and patience.

 

An academic community gives a small but important example of such encounters; indeed, Levinas credits one of his students for having taught him to think like the Little Prince. Simone Weil writes in her 1942 essay, “Reflections on the Right Use of School Studies with a View to the Love of God,” that academic study’s “deep purpose should aim solely at increasing the power of attention with a view to prayer.” When knowledge falls short of solving difficult problems, the practice of a mundane or deep-thinking exercise can develop in us an attitude before history’s insoluble problems, directing our attention and affection towards God. With the earnestness, maturity, and patience developed through prayer, we learn to hold our attention and affection towards others, even in a friendship beyond dialogue. “I have no idea other than the idea of the idea that one should have.” The attitude is abstract, to be sure, yet humble. The Little Prince’s pleasure and satisfaction at the pilot’s drawing attest to a humility before the truth of something greater than any idea that our masterpieces can communicate. With humility, we in the church, as people who have been drawn near, keep watch, for the object of our hope is not sleeping but standing (Revelation 5:6-10).