“To know that seeing the fish beneath the surface of the water was enough. That it was everything…my life, like all lives, mysterious, irrevocable and sacred. So very close, so very present, so very belonging to me…How wild it was, to let it be.” Cheryl
Nick Hornby’s movie, Wild, based on Cheryl Strayed’s book, Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail, tells the story of Cheryl’s journey, through the Pacific Crest Trail, to find herself, after having been destroyed by her mother’s death. The movie touched me; it moved me in a number of ways. When I got home, I opened a bottle of wine and began reading through the script. Such is the story behind this essay. I awoke the next morning and began writing almost immediately.
- Passivity, Sensation, and the Other
In phenomenology, one speaks of intentionality. We intend the world, as such, against a meaningful backdrop. We mean. The world appears to us, meaningfully, as bodies—each one different— with a posture, able to navigate the earth’s terrain, in certain ways, unique to us. And the forces we emerge amidst, we give form to these. We make sense of life— as bodies, capable of habit— with the stories that have been handed down to us, that we have internalized, ritualistically, for example. We move through a world that is made sense of.
But there’s something missing here. There’s something that is left unsaid, in speaking of meaning and corporeal competency. For before the ego, before our handling of things—indeed, before all making sense of the world—there is exposure, vulnerability. This is what Emmanuel Levinas saw. And it is for this reason that Levinas, like no other, has spoke to me, to my sense of what it is to be, to live a life in all “its patience and its ageing” (Levinas 2008: 51). Rather than speak first of meaning, of intelligibility, Levinas speaks of:
“The passivity of the “for-another” /…/ the living human corporeality, as a possibility of pain, a sensibility which of itself is the susceptibility to being hurt, a self uncovered, exposed and suffering in its skin. In its skin it is stuck in its skin, not having its skin to itself, a vulnerability…(ibid).”
Levinas speaks of the otherwise that is the condition for being, or what Levinas calls “the same”— that is, the world as made sense of, as grasped consciously, as moved about in bodily. My relation with reality, with the other, is older than “I”, than the ego that makes sense of it. The other marks the condition for my making sense of my “being here”, or Dasein, as Heidegger called it. Before being-in-the-world, there is being-for-another. Before self-sufficiency, before our perceptual and bodily competence— our ability to be at ease, to make ourselves at home in the world— there is grace.
Levinas reverses the order, maintained in the phenomenologies of Husserl and even Merleau-Ponty, according to which perception is privileged, at the expense of that which is other—other than the “I”, than the conscious, embodied meaning maker. Levinas “inverts” intentionality (cf. Levinas 2008: 47); and with this there is, as Levinas says, “an abandon of the sovereign and active subjectivity, of undeclined self-consciousness (ibid).” Prior to intentionality there is materiality— sensation, nourishment, or “alimentation”, as Levinas calls it in Totality and Inifnity (1969: 111). There is “grace”, there is “living from” (ibid: 111; 112). The metaphor employed by Levinas, in describing our material existence is “maternity”; for “it suggests to us,” he says, “the proper sense of the oneself. The oneself cannot form itself; it is already formed with absolute passivity (Levinas 1989: 94).”
For Husserl, a central component of phenomenology was the so called “phenomenological reduction”, whereby the outside world, other than as it appears to consciousness, was bracketed, or “parenthesized” (Husserl 1982: 60-61). Levinas offers a variant of the reduction: it “will once again let the otherwise than being be as an eon (Levinas 2008: 44).” As Bettina Bergo explains, Levinas “[takes] the reduction in a direction different from that of Husserl (Bergo 1999: 43, footnote). For whereas Husserl, in wanting to reveal what was only intentional, made being, beyond conscious grasp, a sort of nothing (ibid), Levinas’ reduction sought to reveal “an unmasterable fullness”, as Bergo (ibid) puts it, beyond intentionality. What is safeguarded, in Levinas’ reduction, is an otherwise than the world as it appears to us—a fullness that exceeds all categories. It is only through such a “reduction” that we, in our philosophizing, can “[maintain] the diachrony in which, holding its breath, the spirit hears the echo of the otherwise (ibid).”
Levinas pushes against the metaphor of light, so common in philosophy and other disciplines that prize the “light of reason”. It is for this reason that Levinas, in Existence and Existents, turns to the metaphor of the “night”, in referring to the “dark side” of existence, beyond the world as we know it. This is done so as to reinforce the point, as made later in Totality and Infinity, that “[c]onsciousness /…/ does not consist in equaling being with representation (Levinas 1969: 27).” In Existence and Existents, Levinas will develop the idea of the il y a, or “there is”. This is the night, the darkness, out of which comes the light. Beyond the world as we construe it, consciously, as grasping bodies, there is the il y a— that anonymous, formless existence, out of which things are hypostasized, and into which they may be dissolved. He writes:
“When the form of things are dissolved in the night, the darkness of the night, which is neither an object nor the quality of an object, invades like a presence. In the night, where we are riveted to it, we are not dealing with anything. But this nothing is not that of pure nothingness /…/ [T]his universal absence is in its turn a presence, an absolutely unavoidable presence (2001: 53).”
For Levinas, it is this “night”, this anonymous, rumbling existence, sensed in insomnia, for example, that contains the trace of the “wholly other”. The world— of discrete things, each appearing against a meaningful backdrop —in which we feel at home, bleeds off into the night; and this night extends into the unknown. The night, the il y a, contains the trace of that which is otherwise than “being”—otherwise than the world as illuminated by conscious grasp and bodily know-how. And the “surface” of this anonymous, formless existence, is what Levinas calls the “elemental”— the “wind, earth, sea, sky, air (Levinas 1969: 132),” in which we bathe at all times. We are sustained, materially, at all times, in a substanceless sea of qualities. Before we come to grasp individual things, or make sense of them as such, we “enjoy” them, as Levinas says (cf. 1969: 110). Before there is the object of representation, there is the sensation—of warmth, proximity, satisfaction, etc. As he explains in Totality and Infinity:
‘We live from “good soup”, air, light, spectacles, work, ideas, sleep, etc. . . These are not objects of representations. We live from them. Nor is what we live from a “means of life,” as the pen is a means with respect to the letter it permits us to write—nor a goal of life, as communication is the goal of the letter. The things we live from are not tools, nor even implements, in the Heideggerian sense of the term (ibid).’
In this way, Levinas parts ways with the phenomenology of Husserl, Heidegger, and Merleau-Ponty. Indeed, J. Aaron Simmons and Bruce Ellis Benson (2013) call Levinas’ project a “new phenomenology”. However, as they point out, there are roots to be traced back to Heidegger’s idea of an “inapparent” in presentation (Simmons & Benson 2013: Kindle Locations 802-803). Indeed, Levinas is a great commentator of Hediegger.
Graham Harman, a philosopher schooled in the phenomenological tradition, agrees with Levinas, that Husserl was wrong to surrender “in clarity and without immodesty [an object’s] whole being to thought (Levinas, quoted in Harman 2009: 409),” and draws heavily on him in articulating his own brand of “weird realism”. He also turns, however, to Heidegger’s tool analysis— where the distinction is made between objects as “present-to-hand”, or held within one’s consciousness, and those that are “ready-to-hand”, unnoticed, yet upon which we are dependent. He offers an unorthodox of reading of Heidegger’s philosophy, as entailing that there is always an aspect of reality, as “ready-to-hand”, that “withdraws” from conscious and bodily grasp.
The workings of our heart and lungs, for example, rarely occupy our minds, but instead remain “ready-to-hand”, as tools which function from a subterranean position, only to become ‘present-to-hand’ in certain circumstances, such as when we suffer a heart attack, or are diagnosed with lung cancer. As it relates to both theory and practice— whether an object is contemplated or used in such a way that it, for the most part, goes unnoticed— objects are always deeper than our thought or use of them (Harman 2011: 173). Thus, we have a “failure of both theory and praxis to exhaust the things of the world (ibid).” And it is this, “darkness”—this excess, beyond the “light”, or “clarity”, of theory and praxis— that Levinas says marks the possibility for revelation, for that which can shock, or surprise us. For clarity is, as Levinas says in Totality and Infinity, “the disappearance of what could shock (Levinas 1969: 124).” Thus, before we are at home in the world— that is, before we make sense of it, before everything becomes “clear”— we are strangers in it. And there are those instances that break apart our competency, and make us strangers once again.
I’ve had family members die of cancer. I can’t help but think of it as I go over Levinas’ ideas about vulnerability and sensation. All too often, cancer comes as an unpleasant surprise— oftentimes discovered by accident. We learn, in the movie Wild, that Cheryl’s mother died of cancer, only a month after it was discovered. Cancer can break apart our world, turn it upside down. The diagnosis highlights “the living human corporeality, as a possibility of pain, a sensibility which of itself is the susceptibility to being hurt, a self uncovered, exposed and suffering in its skin (Levinas 2008: 51).” Levinas goes on:
“The painfulness of pain, the malady or malignity of illness, and, in the pure state, the very patience of corporeality, the pain of labor and ageing, are adversity itself, the against oneself that is in the self. The good or bad pleasure of the will presupposes this patience and this adversity, and this primordial lassitude (ibid).”
“I’ve always been somebody’s daughter or mother or wife,” Cheryl’s Mom, Bobbi tells her on the way home from the hospital, having found out that her time has been cut short. “I never got to be in the driver’s seat of my own life. I thought that would come. I thought time was infinite (Hornby 2013: 58).” The outside, the other— what John Caputo says is continental philosophy’s code name for “the real” (Caputo 2013: 181)—can surprise us, shatter our dreams, and order us in new ways. And pain, Levinas tells us, “is not simply a symptom of a frustrated will, its meaning is not adventitious (Levinas 2008: 51). We are affected by the other because we are vulnerable— stuck in our own skin, susceptible to being hurt (Levinas 2008: 51). And it’s not just Bobbi. The day before she dies, Cheryl tells her: “I love you, Mom. You must know…You’re the centre of me. Everything I am (Hornby 2013: 63).” And just like that, over night, Cheryl’s centre is taken from her. And this, Cheryl recounts in another scene, destroys her (Hornby 2013: 73). Before we are at home in the world, we are for-another; and being for-another makes pain an inevitable part of life. “Life is life despite life,” Levinas says (2008: 51).
Levinas, and movies like Wild, provide us with an acute sense of our passivity, of our being for-another. The “I”, along with its joys and sorrows, come from the other. And insofar as the other is older than the “I”, the other is not exhausted by the “I”, by the embodied subject’s scheme of things. “Consciousness is always late for the rendezvous with the neighbour,” as Levinas says (1987: 119). There is always that which withdraws in the midst of contact. We can, of course, think the other solely in terms of our scheme of things, but this is to overlook our own vulnerability, our own finitude. And even then, sensation has the potential to break apart our system, to order us in new ways. The other can always “come like a thief in the night (1 Thess 5:2).” The “end of mastery,” Levinas tells us, “indicates that we have assumed existing in such a way that an event can happen to us that we no longer assume (Levinas 1989: 43).” And death is exactly such an event.
- Death, Totality, and the Other
For Levinas, death can provide us with a sense of excess, beyond the terms of “the said”. As we have seen, it can turn a world upside down. The evil we face, in death, such as when Bobbi and Cheryl are told Bobbi has little time left, can, as Levinas says, “tear [one] out of the world, as unique and ex-ceptional—as a soul (Levinas 1987: 182)”. Yet Levinas sets himself in opposition to Heidegger, with his rather European idealization of the heroic death—the idea of facing one’s death, courageously, authentically, as a free individual. For Levinas— the Jew who served at a prisoner of war camp, and whose family was murdered by the Nazis— Heidegger’s view, of the individual freed by the thought of his own death, from all relations with others, as he courageously faces his own mortality, is something to be rejected (cf. Levinas 1988: 226). Indeed, for him, it is something that “[appears] only to the beneficiaries of historical evolution and institutions (Levinas 1969: 241).” Indeed, “[e]ven he who has accepted death,” says Levinas, “is not free. The insecurity of the morrow, hunger and thirst scoff at freedom (ibid).”
We mustn’t read Bobbi’s questioning of the time she thought would come, through a Heideggerian lens. We mustn’t read her coming to terms with her cancer as something “heroic”, in the Heideggerian sense of the word. Her solitude is not, as Levinas says, “confirmed by death but broken by it (1989: 43).” And it’s not just the relation to Cheryl, and the time they share together, as she lay on her deathbed; rather, as Levinas explains: “This approach of death indicates that we are in relation with something that is absolutely other, something bearing alterity /…/ something whose very existence is made of alterity (ibid).” Or, as Levinas says in Totality and Infinity:
“Death threatens me from beyond. This unknown that frightens, the silence of the infinite spaces that terrify, comes from the other, and this alterity, precisely as absolute, strikes me /…/. The solitude of death does not make the Other vanish, but remains in a consciousness of hostility, and consequently still renders possible an appeal to the Other, to his friendship and his medication (Levinas 1969: 234).”
The notorious French psychoanalyst, Jacques Lacan, once said that “[d]eath belongs to the province of faith (Lacan, quoted in Visker 2006: 101),” thus throwing into question the common assumption, held by many, that the question hinges on whether or not there is life after death, and not the other way round. Why is it that we don’t ask, instead, “is there death after life?” as Rudi Visker (2006: 101) points out? The point here is that what faces us— what weighs down on us—when we are faced with death, as Bobbi and Cheryl were, is an unknown, “something whose very existence is made of alterity,” as Levinas says (1989: 43).
What we are talking about is, as Levinas says,“an abandon of the sovereign and active subjectivity, of undeclined self-consciousness (Levinas 2008: 47).” It is “the end of mastery” (Levinas 1989: 43). And this has methodological implications. What Levinas is taking aim at is totality—whatever form it takes. By “totality”, Levinas means any ontology, system, or frame of reference, that seeks to totalize the other, to reduce the other to one’s own scheme of things. This is why Levinas was weary of Heidegger’s philosophy, which he claims, in Totality and Infinity, “subordinated the relation with the Other to ontology (Levinas, 1969: 89).” Levinas’ point is that the other cannot be totalized, cannot be reduced to “the same” (cf. ibid: 35). In place of totality, Levinas speaks of infinity, transcendence, of an otherwise than being.
Death is, as Levinas says, “the impossibility of having a project (Levinas 1989: 43).” To face one’s own or another’s death— as Bobbi and Cheryl did— is to find the trace of the other, of an unknowable beyond. Death can darken the light of reason. We make sense of the world; we inherit, from others, the stories with which we give form to the forces of life. But death has the potential to break apart a system. Death bears witness to the “anarchy” that predates the totalizing terms of the same. Levinas offers an anarchistic account of transcendence; he sets himself in opposition to totalitarianism, to the idea of any all-encompassing, ultimate frame of reference—what, in Lacanian terms, is referred to as the “Big Other”. When talking about the wholly other, we are talking about that which “cannot enter into the present of consciousness,” that is “non-thematizable /…/ non-contemporaneous, /…/ non-present (Levinas 2008: 52).” It is this non-thematizeable, non-phenomenal otherness that takes hold of us in death, that may put to us the question: “is there death after life?”
With the event of death, something unknowable, something other, can take hold of me (ibid). “Death,” explains Bettina Bergo, “affects the ‘I’ in a way that is analogous to the il y a (Bergo 1999: 97). And insofar as we participate in a reality that ultimately exceeds our grasp, that bleeds off into a darkness, far beyond the play of lights that is consciousness, “[r]ight away this means that existence is pluralist (Levinas 1989: 43).” For it means no one frame of reference is total; there is no “Big Other” in relation to which we can secure ourselves, or by which the world may be rid of mystery. “The relationship with the other,” Levinas tells us, “is a relationship with a Mystery (ibid).”
For Levinas, the idea of transcendence should give way to:
“a foundation for a pluralist philosophy in which the plurality of being would not disappear into the unity of number nor be integrated into a totality. Totality and the embrace of being, or ontology, do not contain the final secret of being. Religion, where relationship subsists between the same and the other despite the impossibility of the Whole /…/ is the ultimate structure (Levinas 1969: 80).”
Thus we arrive at Levinas’ idea of religion— understood as the structure according to which reality, or the other, isn’t reduced to any one framework, isn’t totalized in terms that belong to the same. Such totalizing of the other, or naming of God—to speak in terms of Levinas’ own Jewish heritage— would be a sort of “idolatry”. Drawing on Levinas, I think it’s possible to reconsider the religious heritage of religious studies— a heritage which we have, as Tyler Roberts points out, tended to look at with a sense of embarrassment, “as the relic of a past we must overcome so that we can start doing what we think our colleagues in other fields are doing (Roberts 2013: 82)”.
It becomes possible, I think, to approach religious studies as a “religious” project, understood in the Levinasian sense of the word. That is, as a project whereby we operate with the sort of “reduction” according to which we remain sensitive to what Levinas refers to as “the echo of the otherwise” (Levinas 2008: 44). Religion is, as Levinas says, “the bond that is established between the same and the other without constituting a totality (1969: 40).” And it is this pluralist, religious sensibility that I argue can be found in the voyages of Alphonso Lingis—voyages which both Thomas J. Altizer (2003) and Joff Peter Norman Bradley (2014) have, in commenting on, described in somewhat “spiritual” terms. For what Lingis does, in his philosophy of “travel”, is open himself up to an otherwise—an otherwise than the world as we know it in the West. Lingis opens himself up to, makes contact with, strange worlds, beyond the ordinary, and reflects from there. He offers a philosophical anthropology, whereby philosophical reflection proceeds from the phenomenological description, from the first-person chronicling of a “traveller”— someone who has made it his priority, as a “scholar”, to open himself up to plurality, to reflect philosophically from in the midst of life.
- “Travel”: A Postsecular Methodology
Cheryl, at one point on the trail, meets a fellow hiker, Stacey. As they watch the sunset, Stacey recounts:
“I need to find something in me. I don’t know what yet but… I needed to re-gather. I guess the trail’s a good place for that. For people whose lives have emptied out.” Stacey gestures to the sunset: “I mean look! This has the power to fill you up again if you let it. I’m slowly learning to (Hornby 2013: 72A).”
Cheryl smiles, responding as follows:
‘My mom used to say this thing that drove me nuts: “Every day there’s a sunrise and a sunset and you can choose to be there for it. You can put yourself in the way of beauty (Hornby 2013: 72A).’
Cheryl had set out on the trail in order to find herself, to become the woman her mother had raised her to be (cf. Hornby 2013: 36). She decided to throw herself into the world, amidst others—other persons, animals, and landscapes. She took flight from herself, from the “self” that was destroying herself. She set off, into the world, into the unknown, in order that she could be shaped anew— otherwise than when her mother died and she began using heroin.
Like Cheryl, Lingis too is a traveller; and like her Mom, Bobbi, Lingis puts himself in the way of beauty, among other things. “I have a strong personal need to admire,” Lingis (2012) says in one interview. He is a philosopher, schooled in the phenomenological tradition, and a translator of both Merleau-Ponty and Levinas. However, whereas most philosophers tend to philosophize from within the confines the academy, Lingis throws himself into the world, across borders, beyond boundaries. He has been called an itinerant philosopher (Sparrow & George 2014), his philosophy a philosophy of “travel” (Sparrow 2007). For him, philosophy is understood in terms of having the potential to open us up to different worlds, different realities, beyond the everyday, the taken for granted. His philosophical influences come from Merleau-Ponty, Gilles Deleuze, Friedrich Nietzsche, and more. However, above all stands Levinas, especially as it relates to his reflections on alterity, the face-to-face, the elemental, and sensation.
So far, I’ve spoken of Levinas’ account of transcendence; however, of central importance to his philosophy is the ethics which he grounds in it. Ethics, for Levinas, is first philosophy. In a way, Levinas’ ethics can be understood along similar lines to the otherness that can take hold of one’s existence when faced with death. As Bergo explains, “[d]eath, the other human being, the il y a all come from no-where. As such they are all dimensions of an atropos which is transcendent with regard to being (Bergo 1999: 97).” Like death and the il y a, the other person, for Levinas, as it relates to the face-to-face, is understood in terms of a non-phenomenal force, that interrupts the complacency of the ego, weighs down on it as a sort of gravity. Levinas speaks of “the gravity of an animate body (2008: 70),” of an otherness, contained in the face of the other—an otherness that calls me out, that holds me hostage, lays a demand on me. Ethics is the other’s ability to challenge my being at home in the world, to summon me, to move me to open the door and let them in. Ethics is understood in terms of weight, gravity. It is about taking flight from being possessed by one’s self and letting the stranger in (cf. Lingis 1987: xii). The face, like death, contains the trace of the wholly other, of that which can take hold of my existence, order me in new ways. It is for this reason that Levinas, in his writings on Judaism, locates God in the face. It is in the face that we find the origin of the command “thou shalt not kill (Exod: 2013).”
……………………………….This manuscript is unfinished……………………………
But here are some more of my favourite quotes from Hornby’s script:
“Mom, I’m not crying because of you. /…/ I’m not crying because I’m happy or sad. I’m crying because I’m full. /…/ This place. Hundreds of miles. Ninety days on the trail, and all the years before that. I’m full up (Hornby 2013: 109).”
“There’s no way to know what makes one thing happen and not another. What leads to what. What destroys what. What causes what to flourish or die or take another course (Hornby 2013: 110).”
“It took me years to be the woman my mother raised. It took me four years, seven months, and three days to do it, without her. I didn’t know where I was going until I got there (Hornby 2013: 110-111).”
Harman, G. 2009 “Levinas and the Triple Critique of Heidegger”, Philosophy Today, winter
Levinas, E. 2001 Existence and Existents, trans. Lingis, A. Pittsburgh, Duquesne University Press