Academic journal article Philosophy Today

Eros, Ethics, Explosion: The Loss of Deixis in Recurrence

Academic journal article Philosophy Today

Eros, Ethics, Explosion: The Loss of Deixis in Recurrence

Article excerpt

Emmanuel Lévinas is eloquent on both ethics and eros, though if we had not read him before, we might well be surprised to find the former passionate and unlimited, the latter viewed with no small measure of suspicion and restraint. We might be surprised, too, to see just how firmly the two relational realms are held distinct. In this Lévinas is at his most vigorously anti-Platonic: whereas for the Platonists the most ethical response is a deepening of the erotic appreciation of beauty and the beautiful, for Lévinas ethics must be strictly de-eroticized. The contrast is striking, even if some strands of Platonism do share Levinas's ethical suspicion of the carnal.

From the Levinasian perspective, eros has multiple ethical problems. It is, to begin with, too sensual; it can get stuck in the immanence of the body as object and fail in ethical transcendence toward an absolute and imperative subjectivity. Lévinas declares, "You turn yourself toward the Other as toward an object when you see a nose, eyes, a forehead, a chin, and you can describe them. The best way of encountering the Other is not even to notice the color of his eyes! When one observes the color of the eyes one is not in social relationship with the Other."1 Not in a social relationship, one has no chance of engaging the other ethically. Indeed, Rudolf Bernet adds in his gloss on Levinas's remarks, "Apprehending the form of the Other's body instead of responding to the infinite demand his 'face' expresses would be both a theoretical and ethical fallacy."2 Eros intensifies the very attention to the flesh that ethics must get beyond, regarding the face not as the site of inexhaustible responsibility provoked by vulnerability, but as a source - perhaps equally inexhaustible - of pleasure, a site for desire in all of its greed and specificity.3

Transcendence encountered through the face seems to imply a sort of theological incarnation, but Robert Gibbs emphasizes that it is important to Lévinas that the divine is not made incarnate, even or especially in the face of the other.4 Rather, the other manifests God's transcendence as the space "where the difference opens up."5 That unwavering insistence on difference is the source of a deeper ethical problem for eros, one that goes beyond its strictly carnal versions. Erotic engagement can blur boundaries; it is perhaps the sort of experience in which we are most likely to say that we lose ourselves, and in this we also lose the sharp distinction between other and self so essential to Levinasian ethics. It is true that eros in the flesh cannot fuse bodies altogether, but, as Plato long ago had Aristophanes point out, that doesn't mean that it wouldn't like to.6

For Edith Wyschogrod, too, remaining in the immanence of flesh can be a problem, although she's much more direct about also granting the body no small ethical importance - it may well be ethically central. But for her as for Lévinas the deeper issue with eros is ecstasy, and especially the risk of ecstatic fusion. As she emphasizes, "The proximity of eros is not the proximity of ethics. What Lévinas fears" - and what, we gather, she fears as well - "is the transfer of the intensities of eros to transcendence because the braking power of another's flesh is absent and sheer intensity is unleashed. No matter how close bodies may be, one is distinguishable from the other, but with the transcendent, boundaries disappear. As Lévinas avers, with Buber in mind, the mystic speaks to himself in the second person, as if he has entered into God."7 This is not to claim that Lévinas never acknowledges eros at all. As Wyschogrod points out, "Lévinas speaks movingly of the eros of flesh, the pleasures of the caress, which involves one with the other, the near one, but not the Other of ethics."8 Eros is all very well in its place, but that place is not an ethical one. There is eros, and there is transcendence, but for Lévinas they do not work together. Eros disrupts the ethical, but precisely by overcoming the disruption that a boundary creates. …

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