Wednesday, October 18, 2006

Phenomenology of Eros

Levinas always resonates with me, but tonight as I was finishing Totality and Infinity, I kept coming back to these passages:

"Alongside of the night as anonymous rustling of the there is extends the night of the erotic, behind the night of insomnia the night of the hidden, the clandestine, the mysterious, land of the virgin, simultaneously uncovered by Eros and refusing Eros -- another way of saying: profanation" (258).

"The caress aims at neither a person nor a thing. It loses itself in a being that dissipates as though into an impersonal dream without will and even without resistance, a passivity, an already animal or infantile anonymity, already entirely at death" (259).

"Love is not reducible to a knowledge mixed with affective elements which would open to it an unforeseen plane of being. It grasps nothing, issues in no concept, does not issue, has neither the subject-object structure nor the I-thou structure. Eros is not accomplished as a subject that fixes an object, nor as a pro-jection, toward a possible. Its movement consists in going beyond the possible" (261).

What am I most struck by? The idea of love as profanation. I suppose it feels like that sometimes, does it not? But Levinas does not really, that I can see, propose an alternative to this profanation. This is where I wish I knew more Kierkegaard. And I have another thought: you can only love the person whose face you can see. I think this is the difference between love for another person, and obsession with that same person.

This is so depressing and dark. Looks like I'm back to my old ways of looking at the world.


Bill Cooper said...

This may sound rather dumb, but do you mean physically 'see'? There are many people I love , I can 'see' their face in my mind but we rarely meet face to face.

Monica said...

It's actually a good question, bill. Sometimes I take for granted that everybody knows what I'm talking about. Emmanuel Levinas talks about the "face" as something that has nothing to do with the physical face. Levinas even goes so far as to say that the best way to encounter the Other is not even to notice the color of his or her eyes! Similarly, the idea is that if you are really "seeing" someone's "face," you can't do him or her harm, and you especially cannot kill him or her. So, it's not about the literal "face-to-face" necessarily.

nedric said...


I agree about the face being a necessary condition for love.

I think his distinction between friendship and love near the end of that chapter is helpful:

Friendship goes unto the Other; love seeks what does not have the structure of an existent, the infinitely future, what is to be engendered.

Later he seems to suggest that it is through the profanation of love that we return to ourselves in the form of a child born out of the love. It seems to me that his use of "profane" is not entirely negative - it denotes the (re)productive.

I don't know if Kierkegaard would be of much help (since I am not really sure in which direction you would like to be helped), but in Works of Love he claims that to love another entails getting out of the way of their relationship with God. In another place in the same text he describes how love is to presuppose love in another. Add that together, and...

I wonder if Kierkegaard and Levinas are really talking about the same thing?

Bill Cooper said...

I'll try to get a copy and see if if makes sense to me.

Casey said...

Mon--I always remember that passage where Levinas suggests that, ideally, we ought not notice the color of the Other's eyes...

Convert that to the color of the other's skin. It sounds like the color-blindness ideal that many of my friends (I'm not sure where you stand) write-off as "naive" or "ill-informed" or "culturally insensitive." In the contemporary world, isn't it problematic not to see the color of the Other's eyes (or skin)?

I ask this like Socrates might ask a purely rhetorical question, though... in fact, I think I agree with E.L.

Monica said...

Good luck, bill. If you're new to Levinas, a good place to start might be Ethics and Infinity, which kind of outlines all his major ideas, including the notion of the face-to-face.

Nedric, I think you're probably right -- I'm always trying to push Levinas and Kierkegaard together for some reason. It does sound, though, like Levinas is saying that love is only possible if procreation is the end? Am I reading that right?

Monica said...


Hmmm...I think I agree that it's problematic to discount race, or to be "color-blind" so to speak. But I also think that in Levinasian terms, truly seeing someone's "face" means understanding who they are as a person, and I think that includes race/ethnicity/etc. So, perhaps it is possible to be aware of a person's cultural background, but still look past their physical characteristics. Maybe?

nedric said...


I find that section of the text rather confusing, calling for closer study or dismissal(!). I think you are right in suggesting procreation is an essential part of love for Levinas. I am hesitant to take it too literally. This is calling to mind for me how Isaac represents Abraham's future as much as Isaac is his own person. So maybe we could say that love provides our lives with a future?

Monica said...

An interesting thought, Nedric. I think I can live with that!

John said...

Hi, Im from Melbourne in the land of Oz. Please check out these related essays on love and emotional-sexual understanding.