Ontological Escape

AN ETHICS OF LOVE

Part 1.4

But this escape is flexible, moving, almost plastic. Once the visual or perceptive encounter is consumed, once the interaction with a lover-to-be has become a proper relationship of love, the relationship of a couple recognizing itself as exclusive couple, for them and for the rest of their surrounding community, the dynamic changes. The subject remains, as we shall argue, in a state of escape, but not in the same sense than Hegel’s subject forgetting herself as subject, during a movement of perception and knowledge of an object, of cognition. As the encountered One becomes flirt, and boy/girlfriend, and partner, and husband/wife, the ‘content’ of the relationship changes forms. The visual or perceptive ‘medium’ of the first contact, of the first moments, goes to the background. It is because the experience of love goes behind perception, that is, surprisingly, behind the phenomenological experience, that it successfully manages to transcend Hegel. This is certainly what Levinas implied, when he wrote:

“When, with Freud, sexuality is approached on the human plane, it is reduced to the level of the search for pleasure, without the ontological signification of voluptuosity and the irreducible categories it brings into play ever being even suspected … What remains unrecognized is that … in sexuality the subject enters in relation with what is absolutely other … with what remains other in the relation and is never converted into “mine”…” 1

By reducing the encounter, and then, the relation to the loved Other as one of a simple search for pleasure, Freud repeated the radical reduction operated by Hegel, who presented love as just another instance of desire. Love is more: it is an ontological encounter. That is also, arguably, where Levinas’s thought steps away from the standard phenomenological approach, as focused exclusively on the epistemologically-mediated relationship in the present.

Thus, as love evolves, perception, or the philosophical realm of epistemology as a whole, loses prominence, in favour of that of ontology. More than my knowledge of the loved Other, arguably incomplete even after a lifetime of shared moments – the Other remaining infinitely Other – it is, perhaps, another philosophical feeling that prevails in the experience of love. It is not philosophical as an epistemological question – ‘how much do I really know my loved Other?’ – but it may, instead, take the form of a wander: ‘she is there’. That this person, so inspiring and beautiful to my eyes, simply is, is in itself more of an enigma than the parameters of my epistemological relation with her. Therefore, metaphysics arrives, and it arrives through time. The momentary experience of love, that is, love in the present, or in other words, the phenomenological love, love under the Husserlian bracketing, becomes an experience of love in time, in duration, across present moments. Accessing the Other through my sense organs or through my mental cognition is not anymore the enigma: irrespective of how she appears to me, irrespective of what I may perceive of her, the main fact is that the loved Other has been there, she is there, and she will, hopefully, be there. It is this presence across time that calls for the greatest wander.

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More than my knowledge of the loved Other, arguably incomplete even after a lifetime of shared moments – the Other remaining infinitely Other – it is, perhaps, another philosophical feeling that prevails in the experience of love. It is not philosophical as an epistemological question – ‘how much do I really know my loved Other?’ – but it may, instead, take the form of a wander: ‘she is there’. That this person, so inspiring and beautiful to my eyes, simply is, is in itself more of an enigma than the parameters of my epistemological relation with her.

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But it is also this wander-ful presence that can lead to a situation of pressure, of risk, that is, of escape. We briefly mentioned this before: if the relation of love passes from a stage of subject-to-object perception to one, more profound, of the awareness of the simultaneous presence of the being of the Other with my own being, this ontological encounter remains nonetheless affected by its root: the perceptive encounter. And it is the impression of singularity, of a sustainable and ‘trustworthy’ self, as it was left by the loved Other when I was only perceiving her, which will influence the relation of my being with hers. Levinas’ Totality and Infinity has a subtitle: Essay on Exteriority. The loved Other is the quintessential instance of my experience of exteriority: it is, of all the objects of perception exterior to me, the one that will attract my attention the most, the one object calling for all my speculations, while at the same time remaining external, that is, having an internal life to which I have no access whatsoever. My access to the loved Other is always external, reduced and subjected to the external impressions that emanates from the loved Other as an incarnated being. It is, therefore, always a possibility, a risk, a temptation, to see the loved Other only as what appears from her. Perception is fundamentally reductive. The internal turmoil of intentions, satisfactions, memories or worries of the loved Other are not, at first, accessible to me in my quality of external perceiver. From the outside, she appears certainly more unaltered, unaffected to these internal tensions than she actually is. This perception of the loved Other contrasts with the drastic nudity of my own self-perception. The latter also includes what other perceiving subjects may see of me (my physical appearance as shown to me by the mirror, a certain idea of who I am as heard from my friends, etc.), but this self-perception is primarily affected by my own internal turmoil, my own mental worries and permanent doubts regarding my own identity. There is, here, a clash between the perception of a being undoubtedly segmented and confused (me) and the perception of a being whose physical presence in the world seems largely free of any internal pressure (her). Love, even through time, even beyond the first perception, remains limited to the subject/object duality, that is, to the internal/external division. And at every moment, I may be tempted to see in the loved Other the peaceful and sustainable being that I am only too aware not to be. René Girard, in his discussion of mimetic desire, coins a name for this sort of temptation: ontological desire. 2 Girard’s discussion is not limited to love, and it is also a more radical claim, but it can be briefly mentioned in the present question. Girard suggests that this division, between an internal subject and external object, can lead to a situation where a confused subject, tired of the permanent fluctuation of his reflexive perception of himself, ‘falls’ entirely for the apparent unity of the Other’s self. Love repeats this temptation: living a relationship, it is counting on the Other, and therefore, it can also be, relying upon the apparent strength of the Other as a new reference, believed to be, unlike me, an unaltered, united self. This is an escape from my own doubts on my identity, and it represents a pressure, it contains a real risk, for the simple and evident reason that the loved Other is also another subject, that is, another experiencing being subjected to just the same fluctuations of identity as me. Two ships without captains count on each other to lead the path. Where will they go?

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References

Image courtesy: SB

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Footnotes

  1. Levinas, Totality and Infinity, 276.
  2. René Girard, Jean-Michel Oughourlian and Guy Lefort, Things Hidden since the Foundation of the World, trans. Stephen Bann and Michael Metteer (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1987), 333.