Pardonne-Moi: On Vladimir Jankélévitch and the Philosophy of Forgiveness

July 22, 2021   •   By Robert Zaretsky


JUST AS MOST Americans surely know the name of Marjorie Taylor Greene, few know the name of Vladimir Jankélévitch. This may well be true even of Jankélévitch’s fellow French, given the challenges of his writing and the attention-grabbing childishness of Greene’s antics. Yet last month saw a strange convergence between their words and worlds — a convergence that reminds us that if we are careless about the former, it is curtains for the latter.


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In late May, the Speaker of the House, Nancy Pelosi, announced that mask-wearing was still mandatory on the chamber floor. Asked for her reaction by a Christian Broadcasting Network host, Greene, who represents Georgia’s 14th Congressional District, replied: “You know, we can look back in a time in history where people were told to wear a gold star and they were definitely treated as second-class citizens, so much so that they were put in trains and taken to gas chambers in Nazi Germany.” As the interviewer nodded his head, Greene added: “And this is exactly the type of abuse that Nancy Pelosi is talking about.”


As was soon pointed out, Greene got her history wrong. The people required to wear the yellow star were not treated as “second-class citizens” but instead treated as “subjects of the state.” The gas chambers built for these people, moreover, were not located in Nazi Germany, but in Nazi-occupied Eastern Europe. And — in an odd omission that mostly went unremarked — Greene never thought to mention that these people were, in fact, Jews. Not just German Jews, but Jews from across the European continent: Jews who were the “problem” for which the Nazis had a final solution.


Of course, as the great burst of bipartisan criticism and mounting support for a vote of censure underscored, Greene also got her ethics wrong. Her suggestion that the obligation to wear a facemask in the chamber of Congress during a pandemic was the moral equivalent of the obligation to wear a Star of David — another term Greene failed to use — in the streets of Berlin, Warsaw, or Paris during a genocide was, as Hannah Arendt might have said, thoughtless. This state of mind, Arendt explained, results from the individual’s inability “ever to look at anything from the other fellow’s point of view.” It is, in short, “the inability to think.”


If Greene did not have the ability to think, she nevertheless had the ability to read the signals and react accordingly. In her way, she thought furiously and found the words that would prevent her ostracization from a suddenly thoughtful GOP. On June 15, the day after her private visit to the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, DC, Greene held a press conference where she apologized: “There are words that I have said, remarks that I’ve made that I know are offensive, and for that I’d like to apologize.” She also denied that political pressure led to her visit. Instead, Greene explained that “this was just something I had thought about over time.”


Though Greene failed to address her apology to Jewish survivors and their families — in fact, she mentioned the word “Jew” just once during her 10-minute presser — it was nevertheless accepted by Bradley Schneider, the Illinois congressman who had introduced the censure motion. Describing himself as “pleasantly surprised” by Greene’s apology, Schneider dropped his censure motion. Not only had Greene, he concluded, “understood the harm of her comparison,” but Schneider hoped his decision would “inspire” his colleague to follow her words with action.


As for Greene’s refusal at the presser to retract her comparison between the Democratic Party and Hitler’s National Socialist German Workers’ Party, Schneider had no comment. When it comes to his fellow congressperson, Schneider seems determined to take it one comparison at a time.


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Enter Vladimir Jankélévitch! (One of the many surprises to reading Jankélévitch for the first time is his love of exclamation marks!) Born in fin-de-siècle France to Russian-Jewish immigrants, Jankélévitch attended the prestigious École normale supérieure, the same intellectual incubator that hatched the likes of Émile Durkheim and Henri Bergson, Raymond Aron and Simone Weil, Jean-Paul Sartre and Michel Foucault, Aimé Césaire and Thomas Piketty. Graduating at the top of his class in 1926, Jankélévitch seemed destined for the same renown as his fellow normaliéns.


Renown never quite arrived, though. In 1940, Jankélévitch put aside his career as a writer and teacher to serve as an infantry officer. Wounded in battle, he soon recovered only to receive a more lasting psychological wound. Subject to the antisemitic legislation enacted by the collaborationist Vichy regime, Jankélévitch was banned from teaching and publishing. Undaunted, he joined the Resistance and continued, though clandestinely, to teach and write. His writings, then as before and after, were inspired by the world, both dazzling and dire, in which he lived. (One of those works, Le Mensonge, or The Lie, which explored the ethical consequences of life under a regime marinated in mendacity, has a certain relevance for Americans today.)


Shortly after the war, Jankélévitch was appointed to a post at the Sorbonne, where he taught and wrote until his retirement in 1979. When he died a half-dozen years later, the countless students who took his courses — which, tellingly, they described as “événements” — mourned his passing. As for his fellow philosophers, not so much. Jankélévitch made them uneasy. It was less the penchant for exclamation marks — though they can become annoying! — that set him apart than the style and substance of his writings.


His books are wordfalls: great cascades of long sentences and even longer paragraphs spilling across several pages. And when you think you are about to reach shore, you often find that you are instead tumbling through schools of strange words that Jankélévitch loved to string together. His friend, the philosopher Emmanuel Lévinas, also used the image of a river to describe Jankélévitch’s spoken and written words: “Each word sprang up as new, […] as if, here, thought never left the flowing waters of its spontaneity, mistrusting the facile habits of language, its verbal habits and its rhetoric.”


The unusual character of Jankélévitch’s writing was matched by content that was, at the time, equally unusual. Largely indifferent to the phenomenological and existential movements then booming, Jankélévitch was preoccupied by ethics. In particular, he kept returning to the war and its moral ground zero, the Shoah. For the last half of his life, he toggled between the human need to forgive and the inhuman acts that are beyond forgiving; between the imperative to find the right words to describe our world and the impact of world-changing events that are unspeakable in every sense of the word.


These contradictory concerns course through two of his key works, Le Pardon, or Forgiveness, and L’Imprescriptible, or The Imprescriptible. The latter first appeared in 1965 as a letter published by the newspaper Le Monde, then subsequently as the essay “Pardonner?” or “Should We Pardon Them?” That same year, France was swept up in a national debate spurred by the West German government’s decision to apply the 20-year statute of limitations to all war crimes, including crimes against humanity. Two decades, it seemed, was time enough to leave the past — even this past — behind and turn toward the future.


Writing as both a Jew and résistant, Jankévélitch claimed no future was feasible if this past — a past that swallowed the lives of millions of Jews — were forgotten or forgiven. “It is incomprehensible,” he declared, “that time, a natural process without normative value, could have a diminishing effect on the unbearable horror of Auschwitz.” What took place at the death camps was “an assault against the human being as a human being, not against such and such a person, inasmuch as they are this or that.” European Jewry was annihilated not because of their ideas or ideals, but because they were declared inhuman. They were reproached simply for being; “existence itself was denied to them.”


What is one to do? In one sense, nothing: “One cannot give life back to that immense mountain of miserable ashes. One cannot punish the criminal with a punishment proportional to the crime[.] Strictly speaking, what happened is inexpiable.” But this “nothing” is not tantamount to resignation or resistlessness. Instead, it means we cannot move on from what Auschwitz bequeathed to the world: “[A]n agony that will last until the end of time.” Only the victims can do something — namely, forgive — but, of course, they cannot because they are dead. Ultimately, we can do nothing because “pardoning died in the death camps.”


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In the end, the French government suspended the statute of limitations for crimes against humanity, while the West German government, hardly needing a weatherman to see which way the wind was blowing, postponed its decision. But this was not the end for Jankélévitch. Two years after insisting upon the imperative of never forgiving in Pardonner? he published Le Pardon, where he now emphasized the imperative of, well, forgiving.


For Jankélévitch, just as there is something “supernatural” about the nature of the Nazi crimes, there is also a supernatural element to the nature of forgiveness. In Andrew Kelly’s brilliant translation of the book, Jankélévitch describes forgiveness as something that “surfaces in the extralegal, extra-juridical domain of our existence[.] It is an opening in a closed morality, a type of halo around a strict morality.” Unearned by the victimizer, it is also unmeditated by the victim. True forgiveness, he insists, is both undeserved and unprompted — a gratuitous and spontaneous gesture in response to wrongs no matter how great. Even as great, it seems, as those committed by the Nazis: “Unmotivated forgiving forgives the inexcusable; in that lies its proper function. For the inexcusable is in fact not unforgivable; and the incomprehensible is not unforgivable either!” When a crime outstrips our imagination, overwhelms our laws and outrages our humanity, where no excuse is possible and recovery is impossible, what are we left to do? There is, Jankélévitch concludes, “no longer anything else to do but to forgive.”


Jankélévitch’s conclusion is as compelling as it is dizzying. What we usually talk about when we talk about forgiveness is anything but forgiveness. It does not come from understanding — “forgiveness ceases to ‘forgive’ if it flows from intellection in the same way that the secretion of gastric juices flows from the ingestion of food” — or the desire to move on: “The philosophy of ‘forget about it’ is not a philosophy. How to be rid of something is not a moral problem[.] The philosophy of good riddance is a caricature of forgiveness.” Nor is it found in the goal of reconciliation or the hope of redemption. The reasons for these gestures are mostly laudable and always transactional. They are given in order to get.


But the true act of forgiveness is of a different magnitude, Jankélévitch affirms: “In a single, radical, and incomprehensible movement, forgiveness effaces all, sweeps all away, and forgets all.” It is beyond ethics, beyond justice, but perhaps not beyond our understanding. Were it not for the possibility of true forgiveness, there would be no possibility to truly reimagine our world and ourselves. The supernaturality of forgiveness, Jankélévitch concludes, does not mean my opinion of the guilty person has changed. But “against this immutable background it is the whole lighting of my relations with the guilty person that is modified, it is the whole orientation of our relations that finds itself inverted, overturned, and overwhelmed!”


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To be honest, the only exclamation mark that comes to my mind when I think of Marjorie Taylor Greene is the one following “WTF.” And I certainly do not feel true forgiveness welling up inside me whenever I read the transcript of her press conference. Instead, I feel for Representative Schneider, who decided to excuse Taylor’s ignorance and malevolence in the hope, probably forlorn, that she will gradually exhibit a bit less of one and the other. He accepted her apology in the expectation that she will acknowledge, if only partly, her abject thoughtlessness.


And yet, despite his attraction to the supernatural and ineffable, Jankélévitch was also wonderfully pragmatic and practical. A student of Bergson, he was fond of quoting his teacher’s frequent reminder: “Do not listen to what they say, look at what they do.” It is, Jankélévitch explained, “only the person who acts — hero, saint, or poet — makes us want to resemble them.” How wonderful, even supernatural it would be if I could one day add to this list a US representative — and even myself!


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Robert Zaretsky teaches in the Honors College at the University of Houston. His latest book is The Subversive Simone Weil: A Life in Five Ideas (2021). His new book, Victories Never Last: Reading and Caregiving in Time of Plague, will be published next spring by University of Chicago Press.




 


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Featured image: “Plaque Vladimir Jankélévitch, 1A quai aux Fleurs, Paris 4” by Mu is licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0.