Love and Time

AN ETHICS OF LOVE

Part 2

The loved Other is external to me. She is what comes before me, in front of my eyes, just like my near future is before me, unveiling before my mere observation. The loved Other is the one who will call for all my hopes and expectations. Hope (espoir in French) is a wait (esperar in Spanish), that is, hope is irremediably a turn to the future. Hope is the call for a promise, it is what precedes the promise, or it is the formulation of my desire of a promise. Hope is my own ‘half’ of a promise, which becomes a ‘contract’ when accepted by the loved Other. The dimension of love is time, and its direction is the future. We started by mentioning how Levinas defines time as what is interrupted by the encounter of the Other. As we saw, the particular encounter of Love is a very special instance amongst all my encounters of Others. Here, we can speculate, after Levinas, that time is not defined anymore by an interruption, but precisely by an elongation: love is the call for a promise, that is, the hope of a future. Levinas said: time is interrupted by the Other; we say: time is prolonged by the loved Other.

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We started by mentioning how Levinas defines time as what is interrupted by the encounter of the Other. As we saw, the particular encounter of Love is a very special instance amongst all my encounters of Others. Here, we can speculate, after Levinas, that time is not defined anymore by an interruption, but precisely by an elongation: love is the call for a promise, that is, the hope of a future.

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“Beyond the Face,” the last section of Totality and Infinity, is truly surprising, and it is so on several accounts. Levinas himself may not be sufficiently explicit on this point, but it is, I believe, in this discussion, focusing on the relationship of love, that Levinas transcends and bypasses a number of criticisms that were rightly addressed to Husserlian and even Heideggerean phenomenology. This is so because Levinas’s discourse, in “Beyond the Face,” is, finally, only partly phenomenological. It would be interesting to do a close reading of this section to see how much of his method is still connected to his phenomenological baggage. Or perhaps, we could argue that with “Beyond the Face,” Levinas develops a new sort of phenomenological discourse. With love, Levinas explores the possibility of keeping a phenomenological approach to events occurring to the subject outside of the present: objects not anymore present before the subject’s eyes in the experience of perception in the present moment. Levinas’s prose still echoes what the reader would have found in Being and Time: few properly academic references; various conceptual hypotheses explored at length and through a slow progression; and a particularly free and interpretative – not to say, poetic – attempt to suggest new meanings for what are otherwise common experiences for most human beings. To this extent, Levinas writes after Husserl, and especially, after Heidegger. But the analysis of love is, for Levinas, precisely one that occurs “Beyond the Face.” There is more, in my relation to the loved Other, than the enamoured moment of the face-to-face. And this ‘more’ is not just some hidden aspect of our mutual emotion at the moment of the feeling of love. It is the ‘more’ of addition, the ‘more’ that comes after us, after the lovers, that is, after the present: it is, in other words, the future. Naturally, the future of lovers is – at least for a conservative account – their children. We encounter here one of the key-concepts of Levinas’ writings: fecundity. In fact, it is, to him, so central to the experience of love, that five of the seven sub-sections of “Beyond the Face” discuss this concept. Love is, for Levinas, fecundity.

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My child is not me (the Same) but he is not, in his very constitution, totally another person too (the Other): fecundity is not the triumph of either sameness or otherness, but precisely the connection between the two, that is, the final relief proving my visceral connection with the Otherness that makes the world around me.

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Fecundity is one of the hypotheses suggested by Levinas as possible answers to some of the instances of profound existential unrest experienced by the human subject – in Levinas’s words, a fundamental solitude. Fecundity is a major turning point in the life of an individual, because it reveals the intrinsic plurality at the heart of the person: 1 the relation between a father and his child is one of co-existence – “I am my child.” 2 Fecundity is the lived proof that there is a way out of my experience of life as fundamentally disconnected from the Other. From me, from my being, emerges another being, an Other. If the love relationship does not reduce or solve the alterity of the Other, it is its by-product as fecundity, which bridges the gap and demonstrates the continuum or the profound connection between me and the Other. I am my child because his otherness came from inside myself, inside what appeared initially as, by definition, precisely what is not other to me. My child is not me (the Same) but he is not, in his very constitution, totally another person too (the Other): fecundity is not the triumph of either sameness or otherness, but precisely the connection between the two, that is, the final relief proving my visceral connection with the Otherness that makes the world around me. Fecundity is thus what is able to “introduce multiplicity, discontinuity and transcendence in being.” 3 The filial relation is thus the most cardinal relation to the Other, and one that is by its very organic reality, set in time, that is, set in the future. The very acts of fecundity, through child bearing, is a temporal process, and the exploration of the new roles as father or mother (for the conceiver), and as son or daughter (for the newborn), is possible only through their own medium of existence: time. My relation to my child is the permanent reminder of the persisting otherness of this Other, yet, an Other whose need of a close relation with me will allow both of us to transcend the apparent hurdles left by our remaining differences. Here, the discourse of Levinas changes. The phenomenological experience of the face-to-face was still a purely subjective account, where the nudity of the Other’s face, her vulnerability, creates an imbalance of responsibility. There, I am infinitely responsible of her without any expectation of the same feeling towards me, on her part: reciprocity does not matter at all; it is my responsibility of the Other that is of importance. With the filial relation, the encountered Other adopts a position of equality; Levinas understands it as a parallel encounter of two beings both equally subjects. Through my role as father, and her or his role as child, each can explore a sense of identity, of subjectivity, in a way that is not rival with the other, but, by definition, compatible.

Through his insisted focus on fecundity, Levinas invites us to mark a moment of pause for what is undeniably a turning point in an individual’s life experience: fecundity is nothing less than the birth of ontology. Rarely are entire fields of philosophy coming to be: metaphysics is already around us; aesthetic rules precede us in nature and human culture; and ethics, especially with Levinas, is a sort of innate modality of my relation with the Other. But here, ‘something happens’ in the largest possible sense of the expression: something comes to be. It is also the birth of phenomenology: I, as father, engender the very being that will constitute the intention of my phenomenological experience henceforth. Here, Levinas is perhaps at its best. But some of the views defended by the philosopher point to very problematic conclusions, if not, ideological assumptions. We have to retrieve the ‘spirit’ of Levinas’s thought from its normative and particularist form. Spontaneously, what inevitably comes out of a reading of “Beyond the Face” is the predominance of masculine pronouns and nouns: the fecund subject is always the father, and the child is always a son. The androcentric tone of this sort of discourse is naturally reductive, and even surprising, considering Levinas’s insistence on concepts such as that of vulnerability, nudity of the other, etc., which would leave an impression, instead, of a revised discussion on masculinity. Levinas is not only committing the injustice of silencing the position of women, mothers and daughters, but he is also missing an entirely new level of phenomenological experience: if fecundity can be used for the father, as Levinas suggests, it takes an entirely new meaning for the mother. The patriarchal undertones of Levinas have been discussed at length by various commentators, and we even explore this rich topic in a separate study. 4 But there is another problem, which we can address here. By presenting fecundity as a, if not the way out of the being’s own poids d’être (‘heaviness of being’), Levinas is suggesting that fatherhood is the normal progression of the life of a man, and fecundity, that of the story of a love relationship. As we shall argue, this is far from being the only possibility.

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Following Levinas, we could say that fecundity is the biological event that allows the subject to see himself as a plural being, containing the Other within his self as Same. But there may be other ways to reach this same realization… Through teaching, the individual endorses the role of a benevolent guide that is close to the role of father… Through art, an individual attempts to explore the true possibility of creation from his own self… Finally, politics may be the third example of both a possibility of creation, and of a non-rival relation to the Other… They all share one feature also cardinal in the case of fecundity: time. It is only through time, through more or less extended durations, that a subject can undertake fruitful ways to distance itself from its own self.

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While one could mention demographic evidence to defend the view that, around the world, most couples are still able and eager to procreate and raise their children, we all know that some individuals, some couples decide not to have children. Their choice may seem unusual, or perhaps incomprehensible to some, but one cannot argue that they would be left with no possibility of ‘escape from oneself’, if fecundity is the only possibility to do so for Levinas. Through their activities, through their own social life, they could try to bridge the gap between the self and the Other. Arguably, none of their activities may contain the particular experiential and emotional depth of fecundity, but this does not suffice to reject their own life decisions. Levinas’s conservatism is, thus, not only visible with regards to certain patriarchal comments, but also with the motif of the family which he fails to question in his reflection of an individual’s attempt to disrupt the sameness of his self. Following Levinas, we could say that fecundity is the biological event that allows the subject to see himself as a plural being, containing the Other within his self as Same. But there may be other ways to reach this same realization. We will mention only three instances here; there may be more. Through teaching, the individual endorses the role of a benevolent guide that is close to the role of father. Ideally, the teacher explores the relation of Otherness that qualifies his encounter of his students, but, just like the father-child relationship, there is a hope, and a possibility, of non-rivalry in this process: teacher and student are two Other-s whose differences are compatible. Secondly, through art, an individual attempts to explore the true possibility of creation from his own self. If art is the epitome of creation, that is, of the coming to being of something that was not there previously, then the artist explores plurality in his own self through the artistic creation, just like the father does by giving birth to a child. If creation is, at all, possible, it proves that there is possibility of novelty, i.e., of non-sameness or plurality, in the very heart of the self. Finally, politics may be the third example of both a possibility of creation, and of a non-rival relation to the Other. Our knowledge of politics is rightly imbued with a heavy sense of precaution, left after all the political abuses that have marked humanity’s history. But politics is, in its conception, the project of a harmonious co-existence of beings, in its ideal, transcending the human tendencies for rivalry. While political abuses and injustices are overwhelming around everyone, one should also acknowledge that between each inequity are situations where peaceful co-existence is still occurring. This, as such, is a success, and it should not be forgotten. And politics is also a place of creation. While this is less visible on the everydayness of realpolitik, one cannot deny that throughout history, political thought has also been the place where new ways to conceive governance and the management of populations have been formulated and attempted. Politics is another field where sameness – the current status-quo of a political regime – can be overcome to bring genuinely new, that is, different, or other political organizations. In other words, through teaching, art or politics, creation and an escape of the Same towards the Other are also possible. Fecundity does not have, as Levinas seems to suggest, the exclusive control on the possibility of this existential liberation from one’s own self. But they all share one feature also cardinal in the case of fecundity: time. It is only through time, through more or less extended durations, that a subject can undertake fruitful ways to distance itself from its own self.

There is one more element that Levinas’ discussion does not mention. It is, in a way, prior to the very act of fecundity, and even to its decision, ideally mutual, from the couple. Indeed, if fecundity is the expression of love as a relationship, through time, or an expression in the medium of time, time itself is required before this decision, for the very possibility of the couple to get to this stage. In other words, even before the promise of fecundity and parenthood – two phenomena happening through long periods of time – there is already a promise of time between two lovers. Even before getting to the ontological commitment of parenthood – where the couple is eager to stay together because of the common investment in their child, seen at once as the common and respective product of their two beings – there is another commitment, this time a commitment of intersubjective nature. Before the promise: ‘I will have a child with you and be there for him, with you, as she grows’, there is the initial promise: ‘I will build the relationship with you to the point of getting to this larger promise’. This, in itself, cannot be a given. Everyone knows that many relations – perhaps most? – do not lead to child-bearing. It is always a possibility that my hope of a future with my loved Other is not requited by this Other. This represents another type of threat or pressure, and thus a risk of an escape of myself in the loved Other. In a way, by implying that love must lead to parenthood, Levinas does not account for experiences of love that do not reach this point. What is the experience of alterity through love, when it is not transcended by fecundity? What could be said of my repeated encounter of the Other, my desire to get closer to her, to spend more time with her, to ‘build’ something with her, if it is, itself, interrupted at some point of time? Is commitment in time, irrespective of fecundity, the sign of an ongoing merging of my self with that of my loved Other? Or is the interruption of a love relation yet another proof of the Levinas’s view on love, i.e. that eros “is thought not as fusion, but, on the contrary, as exemplary of the profoundly [foncièrement] non-fusional character of the relation with the Other”? 5 May I hope to overcome my reflexes of reduction through sameness, and explore a relation with the loved Other that does not deny, and on the contrary, enjoys her alterity? Is love, then, only an egotistical appreciation of an entertaining and pleasant Other, and, perhaps more importantly, of the positive image that she reflects of me? Or can subjectivity and exteriority be truly transcended through the adventure of love? And how much of this achievement can be genuinely observed if and when love gets interrupted? This is what we shall try to discuss in the last section.

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References

Image courtesy: CD Ryan

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Footnotes

  1. Rodolphe Calin and François-David Sebbah, Le vocabulaire de Levinas (Paris: Ellipses, 2011), 45.
  2. Levinas, Totality and Infinity, 254.
  3. Calin and Sebbah, Le vocabulaire de Levinas, 46.
  4. See my other essay, “Levinas: For the Feminine Other,” soon published on Samvriti. In this essay, I contend that the impressions of a misogynistic tone in Levinas’s philosophy can be transcended.
  5. Calin and Sebbah, ibid., 32-33.