Ethics of Reading Faces

Greater Kashmir

What do we owe to victims? Everything, Levinas would say.

Today many flood victims are crying for help and few are left to care or speak for them. Who can say that we care as we should?  Our tradition records that those who could and didn’t care would be thrown into a similar situation and tasted want and lack. The first question is: Are we in any way responsible or guilty for miseries of flood victims? Yes, argue Dostovesky and Levinas. What do we owe to victims? Everything, Levinas would say. Nothing breaks one’s back more than reading Levinas as he shows how little we really care about God in the Other, in neighbours, in strangers. He shows that we can’t even claim to be beginners in the science and practice of ethics. For him, philosophy is ethics and this is where ancient philosophers and world religions meet – philosophy is fundamentally a practice of virtue and not ratiocination or speculation and that explains the notion of prophets as teachers of wisdom (hikmah).
We choose not to see the other face to face. We talk to people including our parents but don’t see in their faces. If we can really encounter a face, we get dissolved in the Infinite the other opens up, the infinite demand on our ego the other calls forth. We can’t look down upon, or curse or kill the other if we could read faces – God staring on us from the face of the other. We know hangman and the person to be hanged have to be denied this encounter by covering the face. We often say his face made me dumb and surrender.  For Levinas, “in the human face is found the original ethical code. From a look into the face of the Other we become aware of basic human responsibility and meaning.” Levinas questions our society in which people are depersonalized, in which they move around side by side rather than meet face to face. During our travels, our dealings with others in official capacity, with students, with others we call customers, we don’t really encounter faces. Our eyes don’t really meet; we fail to read the infinite demand made by the face of the other. According to Levinas – and great mystics would agree – ethics is first philosophy, ethics is philosophy and we need not be given sermons to be ethical but just see the face of the other with all humility and openness. The other calls us and one has to respond. “In the access to the face there is certainly also an access to the idea of God…. To my mind the Infinite comes in the signifyingness of the face. The face signifies the Infinite…. When in the presence of the Other, I say, “Here I am!”, this “Here I am!” is the place through which the Infinite enters into language…. The subject who says “Here I am!” testifies to the Infinite.” Labiaka Allahuma Labeika is a cry we have to repeat every time we see any face. In Totality and Infinity, Levinas puts it this way: “The dimension of the divine opens forth from the human face.”  “The sentence in which God comes to be involved in words is not ‘I believe in God’… It is the ‘here I am’ said to the neighbor to whom I am given over, and in which I announce peace, that is, my responsibility for the other.”“The relation with the other will always be offering and gift, never an approach with ‘empty hands’.”
 Levinas, one of the greatest philosophers of  the modern western world, is a must read for those who want to understand why the Prophet of Islam (SAW) identified his mission with perfection of ethics and those who want to understand why God is described in Sufism as the Other or non-self – in our neighbor, friend, parent and stranger. One understands why exchanging a smiling look at the face of the parents earns huge reward in Islam. He also convincingly shows the truth of Dostovesky’s  Zossima’s reply to an inquirer:  “There is only one means of salvation…take yourself and make yourself responsible for all men’s lives” Dostovesky explains that no sin is isolated, making everyone responsible for their neighbor’s sins ( we keep counting the sins of flood victims!). Levinas helps us to understand better the sacred tradition stating God comes to us in the form of a neighbor or beggar etc. implying any person with any want..
I owe today’s piece on Levinas to the gift of calendars from JKYF in which the question has been asked on every page  after highlighting key social and economic problems, especially after floods, that we face and calling for action from you and me: “If not you and me, then who?” I was delighted to see creative appropriation of our traditional moral and spiritual resources in J & K Bank calendar. But I was simply moved by that of JK Yateem Foundation. It speaks to our hearts, minds and souls. It asks some hard questions to all of us. The bell tolls for you and me, it makes clear.
The Calendar 2015 sensitizes all the sons about their old parents’ unheard sighs and silent tears from countless occasions of denied love and gratitude and reminds of our obligations towards unammaried girls, widows, orphans and of flood victims.Although the Calendar can’t compare, in creativity and artistic finish, with the one from J & K Bank, but it complements the latter and reminds all of us of our guilt in social ills of our society. It helps us better respond to the call of the other – orphan, widow, flood victim and everyone who needs us word, smile or purse.
Tail Piece I wonder why calendars can’t be used  to promote awareness about cultural heritage –Why can’t cultural academy prepare calendars and publish selections from the best poetry of the year on its leaves to encourage new poets? Why the Cultural Wing of Directorate can’t choose best poetry for recitation in morning prayers  in schools and every year change this to introduce great poetry local and international to new generation? Why can’t all government departments be required to issue calendars highlighting their work, schemes and message for interested people? We don’t know even names of some departments. Had the Flood and Irrigation Department done this people would have been better prepared for floods or kept middlemen selling land in more vulnerable areas out of business. We have a great heritage to showcase, plethora of problems to highlight, some well meaning NGOs, trusts to better know about, writers who needs better introduction, immense pain to broadcast to world community, local heroes of rescue and rehabilitation work to garland. Calendars creatively prepared can be of help in all these endeavors.