levinas all alone

Levinas tells us (p. 42) that:

It is banal to say that we never exist in the singular. We are surrounded by beings and things with which we maintain relationships. Through sight, touch, sympathy and cooperative work, we are with others. All these relationships are transitive: I touch an object, I see the other. But I am not the other. I am all alone. It is thus the being in me, the fact that I exist, my existing, that constitutes the absolutely intransitive element, something without intentionality or relationship. One can exchange everything between beings except existing. In this sense, to be is to be isolated by existing. Inasmuch as I am, I am a monad.

Someone once related to me the following experience:

As a child I looked at my outstretched hand, and thought to myself that 'it is mine and no-one else's'. I then realised that, in a profound sense, I was truly all alone.

The two thoughts seem similar to me. They are both of them profound yet nonsensical. Can we specify the nonsense, and rescue the profundity from it?

The conceptually strange passage is that from 'I am not the other' (or 'this hand is mine alone') to 'I am all alone'. In the normal sense of the phrase, to 'be all alone' is but one possibility of human life, and the phrase gains its meaning through its contrast with the alternative possibility of 'being with others'. It certainly doesn't gain its meaning through semantic opposition to being others! 'I am only ever myself; I am not you' is but a non-informative tautology, a vacuous rehearsal of the meaning of 'I' and 'you'. 

That I cannot be (what Straus called) Allon is, I suggest, (what Wittgenstein called) but a 'grammatical' truism. Left cannot be right, here cannot be there, before cannot be after. We may of course switch the designata of these essential indexicals: I and you change place; now I am speaking, I am the one to use 'I', and I designate you 'you'. I move over there; what was left is now right; we change the time frame. Yet the concepts do not thereby lose their essential exclusivity, which in fact is still entirely presupposed by the descriptions of the new situations. But this exclusivity hardly makes for something we should want to call an essential solitude of left, here, now, or I. If anything - and I propose that perhaps it's really nothing rather than anything, nothing but a shadow of a shadow - what this grammatical exclusivity shows is just how very deeply I and you belong together.

And yet. And yet. ... There is, I believe, something profound to Levinas's, or the child-looking-at-her-hand's, thought, something which my deflationary analysis ignores. The profundity reminds me a little of what I suspect lies behind the answer to a common thought experiment: do you ever wish you could actually be someone else? Most everyone says that they'd rather be themselves, even though they freely acknowledge that certain others have more of what they wish they had for themselves. And it also reminds me a little, in a different way, of Ian McEwan's little girl Briony who sits (p. 35) looking at her hands in her lap which:
appeared unusually large and at the same time remote, as though viewed across an immense distance. She raised one hand and flexed its fingers and wondered, as she had sometimes before, how this thing, this machine for gripping, this fleshy spider on the end of her arm, came to be hers, entirely at her command. Or did it have some little life of its own? She bent her finger and straightened it. The mystery was in the instant before it moved, the dividing moment between not moving and moving, when her intention took effect. It was like a wave breaking. If she could only find herself at the crest, she thought, she might find the secret of herself, that part of her that was really in charge.

Such thoughts are profound, but are not, I believe, profound because they offer us a descriptive revelation of the human condition. Instead they offer us a powerful evocation of a passing state of deep alienation. (That we may fall into this state is essentially important to being human, but this of course is not to say that what we say in such states are truthful pronouncements about what really must, underneath it all, always be the case.) Thus Briony, caught up in inner reflection, has become alienated from her hand which now appears external to her, appears as a fleshy spider. Briony has, as it were, become some inwardly retreated faculty of pure will - and not a living agent. Someone who thinks that her body is aptly described as her property is in a similarly alienated state: she mistakes what she fundamentally is for something that she merely owns. So too is someone who starts to think of 'existence' as a predicate - so that even the being of a thing starts to be considered merely an attribute of an 'it', which 'it' now recedes into an extensionless and empty point.

Levinas, looking lonely
What Levinas' thought - that our very being, our un-interchangeable existence itself, renders each of us 'all alone' - voices by expressing is, I believe, a truly important state of mind. What he gives voice to is the kind of thing we are disposed to say when (to borrow Wittgenstein's pictorial metaphor) certain of the cogs have already become disconnected from the mechanism. That the cogs may thus disconnect (I'll spell out the metaphor further in a moment) is an essential feature of our humanity - that we are beings who lose ourselves, who are always (in the Biblical metaphor) 'falling', prone to deploying alienating defences which preserve-whilst-yet-uprooting our going-on-being. Yet it seems to me that Levinas' thought hardly describes the fundamental and universal feature of human life - as if, underneath it all, in the roots themselves, we are all alone. (I'm reminded of people who say things like 'You are born alone and die alone'. ... 'Well...', the deflationary me always wants to retort, '...I bet that, at least in the first part of the story, your mum was there as well'.)

Notice your countertransference to Levinas' writing: I'd guess that it's one of abjection or pessimism. Doesn't this point to the fact that it - the writing - takes something which we can feel within our life (i.e. loneliness) and expands it incoherently to the frame of life itself? Isn't this the kind of hypostatisation which makes for metaphysical thought in general - thought, that is, which has tacitly disrespected its own conditions of possibility? 'Ontotheological' thought, as Derrida has it, which attempts to expand half of a dichotomy into an ur category and then, with a knowingness which betrays - whilst also attempting to shore up - a fundamental insecurity, to derive the other half from this putatively originally primary ur phenomenon? (Thought which lacks humility, which wants to derive life from thought rather than have thought arise within a life that is always larger than it.) Don't we also encounter such a countertransference when we read other authors who have attempted to contend with death/separation anxieties by biting into death itself whilst alive - I'm thinking particularly of Lacan's deathliness or Schopenhauer's miserabilism? (We may also think of the writings of such novelistic flâneurs as W G Sebald and Teju Cole who carry with them the loneliness of the isolate photographer, alienated from life through their observational stances.)

Yet isn't just such a state of mind, and just such a thought (that we are, fundamentally, because of what it is to exist as such, 'all alone'), an essentially important part of the human condition? The fact is that we are beings who are prone to existential despair. Those who are not thus prone are experienced by us as shallow; the abyss is the dearest friend that reflective thought knows. So, sure, I'm with Heidegger, and against Levinas, in thinking that mitsein is the condition of possibility for both friendship and solitude. Yet that we are prone to feel the terrors of aloneness (i.e. fundamental attachment anxieties, which I take to be equivalent to death anxieties), and to contend with these by trying to think ourselves as essentially solitary, in a hopeless attempt at auto-vaccination is, it seems to me, itself a fundamental feature of the human condition, of our ineluctable terrors and the narcissistic defences we deploy against them.

Wittgenstein, also lonely
From an alienated, abject, standpoint - a standpoint in which, say, 'being' becomes framed as a predicate, a standpoint in which the body becomes framed as a possession - various questions which are not intelligible yet beset us and become pressing. From this standpoint their unintelligibility is heavily disguised from us. If (like some philosophers) you feel that the fact that something seems to make sense to you is enough of a guarantee of its meaningfulness, then you'll probably miss the music here. (But let's leave such irredeemably narcissistic folk to spin their own endless fairytales.) Such questions include the one about 'would you become someone else if you had the chance?'. We tend (incoherently) to say 'no!' rather than (as we ought) 'shut up!' both because we intuit the loss of life/being within the question, but also because we, retreated as we sometimes are even behind our own being, struggle because of this to acknowledge the rampant unintelligibility of the question.

As Wittgenstein says (p. 56):

Don't for heaven's sake be afraid of talking nonsense! But you must pay attention to your nonsense.

What we have here is a possible meaning for the controversial concept of 'important nonsense': not nonsense which points beyond itself to some ineffable truth, but rather nonsense the speaking (if not the (in-any-case-non-existent) content) of which conveys something important about the human condition: that we are essentially prone to a radically dirempting alienation which disintegrates selfhood (Dasein) itself. Without our feet on the ground, without the cogs connected up to the rest of the mechanism, what we say will be language that has 'gone on holiday', language that only appears to express intelligible truths. That we are motivated to talk thus tells us something important about ourselves, even if what we say does not.

Levinas, I assume, was lonely. (Just think: he wrote the notes that eventually became these lectures whilst living as a prisoner of war manual labourer, his father and brothers killed by the SS, cut off from fellow intellectuals.) And, taking my assumption as right, I propose that (his) loneliness gets inscribed into the very fabric of (his) thought in something like the following way: We all need recognition and love. We need the recognition that is love. Or, to render the thought with more finesse: we need to be able to feel the pain of the unavailability of love and also to know the balm that can come from possible love. We need to be able to think of ourselves as the possible object of love, even when this is not forthcoming. This capacity to experience ourselves as lovable, even if we are not currently loved (and hence more vulnerable to loneliness), is essential both to true joy and to true sadness. Yet there are times when we fail to stay open to this possibility. We call these times 'losing hope'. This hope is not best thought of as a wish; it is rather the remaining thinkable for oneself of a possibility. The possibility of love. And then we lose touch with the possibility of love and of not being loved by becoming one with the latter, living in a world which now is framed by solitude. We give ourselves over to it. Lose our self-possession. Possibility becomes inevitability. What ought to show up in the lichtung instead becomes part of its very fabric. Loneliness becomes unconcealment rather than unconcealed. Fatalism takes over as a deathly salve for the terrors of abandonment. The world itself becomes hopeless, loveless.

Levinas famously wrote 'If one could possess, grasp and know the other, it would not be other.' But why would anyone want to do that? (Well, we do want to know and be known, but I take it that we are supposed to read Levinas here as offering a hyperbolic sense of 'know' as 'know everything about'.)  Well, he would want to do that if he was what we call insecurely attached. To enjoy that state of being we call 'secure attachment' is to be able to enjoy the company, love, friendship, of the other; it is to be able to be with her; it is to not be vulnerable to panic and trema. It is to trust that she will go away and come back. Only the terrified person wishes to 'be' the other  - this is the primary defensive yet experience-emptying use of identification: 'if you can't meet them, become them'. Yet as Levinas phrases it, our very being is, he alleges, a fundamental isolation. But we know this isn't a coherent thought - our being is the condition of possibility both of isolation and of its actual antithesis: friendship. The religious person can defend against the terrors of the loss of love by imagining it ever-present. The irreligious person can defend against the terrors of life (including the death of God) through a kind of Schopenhauerian pessimism which inscribes loneliness into the heart of Dasein. As Nietzsche had it (quoting roughly), 'great philosophies are but the confessions of their originators, and species of involuntary and unconscious autobiography'. Only such a piece of driven unconscious autobiography could render invisible, I believe, the glaring logical fallacies of:

Through sight, touch, sympathy and cooperative work, we are with others. All these relationships are transitive: I touch an object, I see the other. But I am not the other. I am all alone. It is thus the being in me, the fact that I exist, my existing, that constitutes the absolutely intransitive element, something without intentionality or relationship. One can exchange everything between beings except existing. In this sense, to be is to be isolated by existing. Inasmuch as I am, I am a monad.

Levinas mistakes the 'cannot' in 'you cannot exchange existing between individuals' as the impossibility of something yet thinkable. He says that being is intransitive and lacks intentionality, as if he were thereby saying something about the nature of being, rather than merely noting that we have no use for talk of a 'transfer of being'. To say that being is intransitive is akin to saying that numbers have no mass. It's confusing because it makes it look as if we are saying that numbers are weightless, whereas really we ought to say that numbers neither have a weight nor are weightless. Their weightlessness is not like, say, the weightlessness of air, for something could (I think?) count as the weight of air, whereas nothing does count as a transfer of being. 'Being' is not a predicate and thus, while in some or other very thin sense a verb, is not helpfully described as either transitive or intransitive, as referring to what has or lacks relationship, or to what enjoys or doesn't enjoy intentionality. What we really encounter here is just a disguised remark on the grammar of 'existence' and 'I'. To cite Wittgenstein once more, here we meet with a whole 'cloud of philosophy condensed into a drop of grammar'.


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