Beginning in the 1930s, Emmanuel Lévinas called into question the totalizing priorities of the Western metaphysical tradition and developed a dramatically original description of how subjectivity is constructed in the context of what he terms a face to face encounter with an absolute Other. This destabilizing experience is presented in terms of a summons that demands an ethical response in the form of unqualified moral responsibility for the well being of the Other, without any expectation of reciprocity. In a series of profoundly challenging works, Lévinas analyzes the different stages in the development of this relationship, expressed in masculine oriented terms, and he contrasts the nobility and generosity of ethics with the intimacy of eros and the welcome of the feminine in a protected domestic site. Lévinas insists on the impossibility of fusion and possession in both the ethical and the erotic relationships and seeks to disengage his discourse from essentialist, gender based interpretations. Nevertheless, he privileges terms associated with masculine subjects and likewise seems to endorse stereotypical interpretations of the feminine as fragile and frail, inviting either pity or tenderness. The fact that eros is based on an equivocation between need and the desire for something absolutely Other, which does not depend on any lack, prevents it from attaining the same stature as ethics. And by leaving the feminine out of his discussion of ethics, Lévinas at least downplays the possibility for feminine subjects to respond to the summons of the face to face encounter and accept the risk of living other than in the metaphysical dwelling of Being.

The questions raised in Lévinas’ works concerning eros, ethics, and the feminine assume different configurations and lead elsewhere when explored in proximity to J.M.G. Le Clézio’s emblematic saga La quarantaine. Similar in many ways to Lévinas’ philosophical trajectory, Le Clézio’s literary undertaking details the disjointed stages of a journey from the self-contained solitude of Being to an exposed elsewhere in what Lévinas calls the “au-delà de l’être.” The multi-layered text of La quarantaine fictionalizes the crisis that caused Le Clézio’s great-uncle to be erased from family history and depicts the transgenerational effects of that disappearance. The originality of Le Clézio’s work stems from the double inscription of the alterity of both eros and ethics in an Other who is gendered female. His text explores the process of rupture and exposure that Lévinas valorizes, but it does so in a way that reveals how a female subject, who both welcomes discreetly and imposes herself indiscreetly, challenges what Lévinas calls the “égoïté tragique” of the other protagonists. Le Clézio’s arrestingly beautiful prose serves as a kind of textual face that expresses concretely the complexity of Lévinas’ preoccupations and summons us as readers to exceed our capacities and live otherwise.