In order to understand the difference between the existentialisms of Nietzsche and Levinas, we have to take into account the differences between their conceptions of time, or the temporality of our being-here.
The temporarily of my being-here is, according to both Nietzsche and Levinas, my relating to what is other than “me”. Time can be thought of as my approach towards what is other than “I”. To exist in time is to have the “I” put in question. Both Nietzsche and Levinas understand time on the basis of our being-towards-death. Death is the hierophant of the not-I, of the “otherwise than living”, or “otherwise than being”.1 It is as beings aware of our being-towards-death, that we have a sense of the lonely, silent Nothing that “waits impatiently behind all the noise”.
Time, as Levinas says, “is a way of enduring the Infinite.”2 This endurance is, for Levinas, patience3; while for Nietzsche it is the will to power. The temporarily of my being-here, as expressed by Nietzsche and Levinas, can be thought of as the facing, or awakening to, the non-phenomenological. However, as demonstrated by the difference between the existentialisms of Nietzsche and Levinas, one can awaken to the beyond in one of two ways– and the way one awakens to the beyond will determine the way one endures it. Nietzsche’s “beyond”, as understood from a Levinasian perspective, is not non-phenomenological enough.
The beyond that calls into question the “I” is otherworldly. The infinity Levinas names as “the teleology of time”4 faces me as nothingness; and nothingness defies though5. Levinas’ conception of time as an enduring of the infinite is grounded in our being-towards-death. For what we are presented with, with the prospect of our own death, is a mystery– something beyond thought, beyond being. The nothingness death delivers us unto is not a nothingness to be made sense of in terms of the structure of the world. It is not the opposite of our being-here; rather, it is the very surplus of being itself. Death is, as Levinas puts it, both “the phenomenon of the end […and…] the end of the phenomenon6.” Death presents us with that which is impossible to think. The movement of death is a movement towards an absolute future. This future is a question for us, for which there can be no answer. “The question that the nothingness of death raises,” Levinas writes, “is a pure question mark.”7 Death is “a movement opposed to phenomenology.”8
Nietzsche, as I see it, following Levinas, makes the mistake of reducing the other to the same. Death, as Levinas argues, presents us with something wholly other, something that cannot be made sense of in terms of being and nothingness (“nothingness” here understood superficailly as being’s opposite). Our being-towards-death presents us with the prospect of the end of the “I”– and therefore an absolute, or impossible, future. Thus, it would be wrong to reduce the “nothingness” of death to the categories of the “I”. The nothingness that Nietzsche’s übermensch endures is a nothingness that contests the “I” only superficially. For it is a nothingness made sense of according to the logic of being. The nothingness Nietzsche awakens to, in imagining the death that will come with the cooling and congealing of our star9, is not Levinas’ Infinity. Death brings Nietzsche not to “total nothingness”, as Levinas calls it10. Nietzsche acknowledges the limits of the phenomenological without ever fully acknowledging the non-phenomenological. He challenges the static world of enduring objects; and time does indeed become, for him, a relation with the otherworldly. But the “other” here is the other-than-the-static-world, not the wholly other.
Time, for Nietzsche, goes no further than the flowing time that is opposed to a static one. And the “nothingness” conceived of within the framework of this time– which Nietzsche imagines we will be delivered unto with the cooling and congealing of our star– is not, like Levinas’ “total nothingness”, a nothingness impossible to think. Nietzsche’s nothingness is a nothingness bound to being.
The nothingness Nietzsche’s übermensch awakens to is not truly irreducible to the same. It remains ego-centric; and thus the response to, or way of enduring it, is likewise selfish. The will to power is self-serving, whereas the patience Levinas gives expression to is not. That Levinas awakens not to a nothingness reducible to the same, but a “total nothingness”, or Infinity, results in a different sort of endurance. Levinas calls time the endurance of, or relation with, the Infinite; and the difference between Nietzsche and Levinas, it seems then, has to do with each of them relating to, or enduring a different sort of “beyond”. Nietzsche’s overman, when faced with the prospect of his own or the other’s death– as will inevitably happen with the cooling and congealing of our star– wills power. Levinas’ response is different; for what he faces when faced with the nothingness of death is a mystery.
1Levinas, God, Death, and Time, p. 65
2Ibid. p. 116
4Ibid. p. 111
5Ibid. p. 70
6Ibid. p. 50
7Ibid. p. 113
8Ibid. p. 50
9Nietzsche, “On Truth and Lie in an Extra-Moral Sense”
10Levinas, God, Death, and Time, p. 78