Separation, Death and Remaining the Other

AN ETHICS OF LOVE

Part 3

The extent of inspiration from the Jewish tradition is particularly visible throughout Levinas’s œuvre. Some of his later works are, precisely, Talmudic commentaries. But the ‘metaphysics’, or the ‘flavour’ of the Semitic is already perceptible, even in his more ‘secular’ works of phenomenology. Teleology, for instance, is a trope that we find regularly present along the themes that Levinas explores. There is a solemn tone in his discussion of the possible relation of the self with the Other, which invites to believe in an ultimate, final residence in peace and serenity. His plea for the familial format, also, is perhaps particularly classical, not to say antique, because Levinas follows the age-old belief of the family as the only possible heart for a healthy human society. This is why love, expressed through eros or the experience of sex, can only culminate, in Levinas’s vision, in procreation and the inception of a new family. But there is another possible telos of love, and it is one that is absent from Levinas’s presentation of love as a phenomenological experience: separation. This absence of mention is even more surprising, as some of the contemporary authors, and even, influences of Levinas, addressed this question either directly or through the themes of solitude, loss, memory, etc. In this section, we shall try to suggest the possibility of a phenomenological interpretation of separation from a loved One. Separation is a phenomenon, and, moreover, one with potentially vast implications in the future existence of the subject. The hypothesis of Levinas on love, where the loved One remains always, irremediably an Other, gives us a terrain to initiate this reflection.

There is a discussion of separation in Levinas. It is found in Totality and Infinity, where certain intuitions first presented in Existence and Existents, 1 are further discussed. But when Levinas uses the term separation, he only refers to the by default, general state of the subject. It designates the constitution of the subject as subject through a realization of one’s relative independence from others. The subject is separated from its immediate surrounding. There is a sense of unity and coherence within the subject, and within the matrix of its attributes, which is absent in its relation with objects outside of itself. There is, somewhere, a bordering space, and therefore, an individuation of the self, separated and distinguished from the rest, and in particular, from other subjects. Separation is thus the term Levinas chooses to designate the impression, perhaps universal, of the fundamental difference I may feel between myself and all other selves. There is separation inasmuch I see the destiny of my self as separated from the conditions of the other subjects who inhabit the world. The self, according to Levinas, is therefore not initially oriented towards the Other, but rather deaf to her, and it is this deafness that permits the very construction of an ego, as inward focus and self-definition of the self.

Separation, therefore, is understood by Levinas as a fundamental state of the human being, or, more precisely, as a background on which the experience of the face-to-face, and the encounter of the Other, can later occur. It seems, thus, that Levinas’s discussion of separation is all but related to the notion of separation as breakup, as the rupture of two individuals who entertained a relationship of love. As we said, Levinas, if and when he talks of love, restrains his discourse to a very normative program. There is apparently no mention of separation in the context of love, or even a mention of a love that could come to an end. Are we talking of two different types of separations? Or is there something of Levinas’s discussion of separation, which could also fit the separation of two lovers? Or, even, could love separation be only a sub-category of the larger concept of separation as presented by Levinas? What makes a breakup, and how is it conceptually different from the larger existential state of separation?

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It is because the loved Other is an Other, that she can decide to ‘break’ a relationship based on the hope or wait which I was entertaining. It is because the Other is Other that she can surprise me, and, often, the ‘announcement’ of breakup is definitely such a surprise. But is it even an announcement? What kind of event is a breakup? Do we announce the end of a relationship, in a sort of performative act? Or do we request the end of a love story? Or is a breakup the description of a new state of affairs?

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One can look at a love breakup through the existential category presented by Levinas. Beakup, or the intention of the loved Other to interrupt the relationship of love, is, first, a confirmation of her Otherness. It is because the loved Other is an Other, that she can decide to ‘break’ a relationship based on the hope or wait which I was entertaining. It is because the Other is Other that she can surprise me, and, often, the ‘announcement’ of breakup is definitely such a surprise. But is it even an announcement? What kind of event is a breakup? Do we announce the end of a relationship, in a sort of performative act? Or do we request the end of a love story? Or is a breakup the description of a new state of affairs? But, if yes, where and when can the beginning of this new state of affairs be traced back to? The lack of rigidity, of ‘objectivity’, not to say, of ‘materiality’ of a breakup is only one more illustration of the informality of love. Fundamentally, as a phenomenon, a relationship of love is nothing but a relationship of two beings. Just like it is nearly impossible to date the exact moment when a love relationship starts, it is equally difficult to set in stone the ‘event’ of its end. Physical contacts can hardly play this role: number of love relationships start before the first kiss, and certain individuals continue to have sexual intercourses after the relationship, as love relationship, is over. No, it seems that the decision of breakup would, first, follow a mental event. There is a growing sense of discomfort, of distance, which precedes an individual’s decision of interrupting a love relationship. The announcement of the separation, to the loved Other, is only the formalization of the actual separation that has occurred on the part of the deciding subject. Previous to the verbalization of the breakup, there had undeniably already occurred a sense of separation from the bonding that love was, or that love was supposed to remain. Love as bonding, love as association, love as merging, as discussed in the image of the point de fuite is thus further reinforced with the possibility of separation. If a separation is possible, it is that the Other is, and still remained, truly Other, undoubtedly exterior and external to me. Separation is only possible with another: the only thing from which I cannot separate myself is my self. I cannot escape myself.

The announcement of the breakup is, thus, possibly only the formalization, the ‘public’ declaration of the deciding subject’s inner feeling of separation. But it is, nonetheless, undoubtedly an event for the partner who hears the announcement. The progressive feeling of distantiation, which the deciding subject had felt, appears as radically instantaneous, timeless, sudden for the partner who receives the news. And it is so because, while love is the name of a series of periods of one’s life, of which the borders are hardly fixed; non-love, or the opposite of these moments of love, are precisely much less unclear in their definition and extent. A breakup is an event, a major fact, because it is the announcement of the absence of the Other – an absence to come. In a way, a breakup is not, is never of importance in the present, because all relationships are, of course, already made of moments when the Other is not present around me. But the breakup is the conscious, intentional decision of this new state of things, possibly for the rest of both of the ex-lovers’ lives. If, through hope, wait or promise, love is time, as we discussed in the previous section, then the rupture of a love relationship is nothing but the intentional rupture of this hope, of this promise. A rupture is the announcement of a future that will not happen. A breakup is the death certificate of a future.

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If, through hope, wait or promise, love is time, then the rupture of a love relationship is nothing but the intentional rupture of this hope, of this promise. A rupture is the announcement of a future that will not happen. A breakup is the death certificate of a future.

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A rupture, therefore, is an interruption of time. As announcement of the future-that-will-not-happen, it is the end of my hope, it is the treason of my promise. But it is precisely because the planned future collapses, that we can say, from a phenomenological perspective, and in all seriousness, that, in general, it also brings a rupture of time. Time comes to an end. The rupture of time after hearing the announcement of the breakup, is analogous to the rupture of breath after one receives a punch in the thorax. There is exhalation only inasmuch there is the promise of an inhalation to come. Without it, breath as such is ruptured, interrupted. Similarly, there is a future only inasmuch there is a promise of the next moment of this future. Out of breath, out of future.

But if a love separation is a rupture of time, it must also be connected to the true, unique, authentic and final rupture of time: death. A breakup is analogous to death inasmuch it is the announcement of a threshold towards a space void of a future – or at least, of the future that was expected. It is also analogous to death in the ontological implications of a rupture: the deciding subject who announces the separation is saying: ‘I am fine if you are absent tomorrow’. In fact, a rupture is much more; it says: ‘I want you to be absent tomorrow’. The rupture, when it is an intentional, conscious, decided choice, is one analogous to the event of death: announcing a rupture, it is announcing that we would rather not be with the Other, that he or she could just as well disappear, and that it would not be a traumatic event anymore. A rupture is a sort of murder, inasmuch it imposes on the partner its disappearance from the life of the deciding subject. But, more profoundly, it is more than a murder. There is a part of intentionality in the breakup, but it is, as we mentioned, only the expression, the formalization of a feeling of separation that is already pre-existing, and which had been slowly growing in the deciding subject. Therefore, rupture is not murder, but death, and, more precisely, natural death. The deciding subject does not, perhaps, ‘kill’ her ex-partner through the rupture, but she accepts his death, as partner. The deciding subject says: ‘my partner is no more’. It means: ‘my partner is no more as partner’. It is not murder, and it is rather ‘natural death’, inasmuch nature itself does not ‘kill’ an old person, but let her die. It accepts her finitude. The deciding subject can only announce a rupture if he believes that he has reached a knowledge of the finitude of his partner: it is because he or she is like such-and-such, and because he or she will never change, that the rupture is necessary. A rupture is the success of the self over the Other. A rupture is the product of the tragic realization of a self who remains the same self even after the experience of love. It is saying: ‘I am, finally, still, only myself. Therefore, I cannot let you hope that you can be, through me, more than yourself’. Love was an impression, a dream, a future, a promise, but it was a drunkenness, a fantasy, a tale. The plan of a last, real, final escape. For good. For ever. Away from the self. Away from time. Away, in the Other.

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References

Image courtesy: Kanye To The

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Footnotes

  1. Emmanuel Levinas, Existence and Existents, trans. A. Lingis (Dordrecht, Kluwer Academic, 1978).