A review of Emmanuel Levinas, On Escape (De L'Úvasion). Introduced and annotated by Jacques Rolland. Translated by Bettina Bergo. (Stanford University Press, 2003), 120pp. ISBN 0-804-74140-9.
Michael R. Michau
Other Voices, v.2, n.3 (January 2005)
Copyright © 2005, Other Voices/Michael R. Michau, all rights reserved.
Originally published in 1935, this English translation and publication of On Escape brings the reader closer to the early thoughts and writings of Emmanuel Levinas than previous publications. His first major original manuscript after his dissertation on Husserl"s theory of intuition, Existence and Existents, would not appear until 1947, and the lectures collected and published as Time and the Other not until 1948, so the publication of this text should prove to be indispensable to English-reading audiences who have interests in Levinas" (early) work, as well as that of twentieth century Continental European philosophy. Here traditionally accepted phenomenological and existential concepts are introduced, studied, and discussed, such as the following: ontological Being, existents (beings), the identity of the self, the lived-body, radical finitude, etc.
Jacques Rolland's introductory essay sets On Escape within the Levinasian corpus, making reference to his later work on responsibility in his later well known publications, Totality and Infinity and Otherwise than Being or Beyond Essence. Rolland rightly observes that the task of On Escape is to investigate the "signification of the word being" (5). By doing this, we are "renewing the ancient problem" (56). He then previews Levinas' comments by noting that "it is up to us to elucidate the demand for 'escape' that arises from this way of understanding the verb to be, and then to clarify the 'program' of philosophical investigation that it announces" (ibid.; original emphasis).
As the title of this short but dense writing indicates, Levinas here wishes to examine the concept of, or need for, escape (translated from the French noun "l"Úvasion") as it pertains to human existence, freedom, and Being. What does one wish to escape from? Where does one escape to? Levinas "shows us precisely that to be a need to get out, but which does not desire to go anywhere in particular...opens the path of a thought that is one and whole" (5-6). It is thus vital that we begin to think beyond being, beyond traditional conceptions of metaphysics and ontology. For being itself is this escape. Being, as Heidegger discovered, is not to be seen as a noun, a thing-in-itself, complete and total, but rather as "pure verbality" (11), an infinite "saying" that is not reducible to certain instances of "saids".
Although the body of Levinas' text consists of less than thirty pages, regular readers of his work, whether friends or foes, would concur with the observation of the concentrated and dense style of his philosophical writing. His allusions and indebtedness to other philosophies and philosophers are not always fully explicated; thus the complicated nature of this text. In what follows, I will trace out some of the major themes of On Escape's eight sections.
I. Self-sufficiency and the individual autonomy of the "I" are shown by Levinas to be the goals of the "bourgeois" philosophical (read: metaphysical) project. We are obsessed with "things," material goods, which we can manipulate and control. We defer the enjoyment of today for the sake of the tomorrow "to come." According to previous philosophies, the concepts of freedom/liberty/independence are supposed to empty out into a situation of mutual peace and collaboration.
Levinas intends to dis-cover the precondition for such a position, and thus reverse its thrust and pervasiveness. He notes that escape, or ex-cendence, is what traditional philosophers abhor, because we have not adequately described all of existence properly just yet. The escape that philosophy desires is twopronged: it is both "world-weariness" and the "disorder of our time" (52). Levinas writes, "Escape is the quest for the marvelous," the need to "transcend the limits of our finite being" (53). Perhaps predicting Sartre's conciliatory observation that "man is a useless passion" because he wishes to be like God, initself and for-itself, Levinas, in this text, will later argue that absolute escape is an impossibility. Human being is "chained" to its finitude, its destructability, such that, in the desire for escape, "the I flees itself" (55).
Levinas ends this section by noting the observation that "the need for escape...leads us into the heart of philosophy" (56). This is an original and fundamentally different discovery than those of previous philosophers. The desire to escape rekindles the "ancient problem of being qua being" (ibid.).
II. Ex-cendence, or the "getting out of being," is the reach for the infinite. Being is then not seen as a desire to escape, but Being is escape itself. The outward movement of the I challenges the original notion of the self-identical, self-sufficient ego presumed by previous philosophies. Being itself is seen as an incomplete notion, where need and lack are "intimately tied to being" (57).
III. The lack of a complete and total Being leave us with the notion of need. It appears that, in most cases, the object of need ought to satisfy, or "round out" the desire for it. To show the need to escape, Levinas here investigates the situation of malaise. Malaise is here shown to be an active situation of discomfort, and we could perhaps see it in two ways: it could mean the immediate "lack of health" that usually is symptomatic of a disease; or it could embody a vague sense of mental or moral ill-being. Either way, the situation of malaise reveals the subject her finitude, her non-completeness. Usual characterizations of the "real" define it as full or complete. The individual suffering from a malaise would then be seen as less than real in some sense, then.
Once a need is satisfied, we are temporarily pacified. This need, as all needs are wont to do, inevitably come back. Levinas remarks that "not only are needs reborn, but disappointment also follows their satisfaction" (59). Levinas notes that, in the phenomenology of malaise, the human condition is, in a sense, revealed to us. Malaise, among other conditions, "brings us closer to the situation that is the fundamental event of our being: the need for escape" (60).
IV. We read Levinas" early thoughts on pleasure, a topic that would receive much more concern in Levinas' first major work, Totality and Infinity. In the pleasurable, we see the satisfaction of our need, want, or desire. We have hunger, we feel lonely, we need to use the washroom. In such a situation, we temporarily abandon the usual plane of existence, in that oneself is lost in the moment of pleasure. Rolland's introduction notes that "pleasure is the carrier of a promise of escaping or of getting-out" (37). "This is the greatest burger in the world!" one may rightly exclaim, savoring the flavor of a double bacon cheeseburger. Quite often, we take great pleasure in re-connecting with an old friend or family member. As many males know, some of us make special room in our days for a restroom break. "Sitting down" with a good book or newspaper is one of life's simple pleasures to which one looks forward. One thus escapes, if for only a moment. But the moment feels like an eternity—time seems to slow down1—though this promise, this desire, is never completely fulfilled. We read that, not only pleasure, but also need is a liberation from Being itself. However, this satisfaction or pleasure is an escape that fails, as we feel hungry, lonely, or need to relieve ourselves once again. In Levinas' words, "Pleasure conforms to the demands of need but is incapable of equaling them" (63).
V. At the moment of discovering the failure of pleasure to escape being, one is left in a state of shame. Levinas here shifts the discussion to a brief exploration of this phenomenon. In the Garden of Gethsemane, Adam and Eve disobey God, and eat from the tree of knowledge. At this point, they discover that they are naked, and thus feel ashamed of their situation. They then choose to hide their nudity. Levinas observes, "Shame arises each time we are unable to make others forget our basic nudity" (64).
Levinas writes, "shame...depends...on the very being of our being, on its capacity to break from itself" (63). Because she is faced with herself, she has no option but to take responsibility for herself and her actions.
VI. Predating the publication of Jean-Paul Sartre's first major novel of the same title by three years, Levinas, in this section, studies the specific malaise known as nausea. Here we have a situation of a "self confronted with itself" (68), where the cause for such malaise comes from within—we are "revolted from the inside" (66). Rolland writes that "nausea is characterized by an essential indeterminacy" (17); when one is nauseated, she is ill at ease, and wishes the situation to quell itself, yet it is not in her immediate power to be rid of the condition. Moreover, the stigma of the dis-ease is often difficult to determine. Is she nervous about a pending decision? Did she eat some bad pork? Are the waves of the ocean getting to be too much? Are the scenes on the movie screen too gory to handle? Is it some of the above, all of the above, or none of the above?
Rolland neatly subdivides Levinas' reflections on nausea into three traits. He observes that "nausea is not reducible to the determinacy of the object that caused it; nausea lays bare the essential solitude of the being-there it strikes, and manifests nothingness" (19-20). In this situation, "the existent is submerged by its existence" (34). Levinas observes that "nausea reveals to us the presence of being in all its impotence" (68). Nausea itself confronts the nauseated in all of her nakedness, in her "pure being." The nature of nausea, then, "is nothing other than its presence, nothing other than our powerlessness to take leave of that presence" (ibid.).
VII. In his seventh segment, Levinas begins to summarize his findings. He remarks, "It thus appears that at the root of need there is not a lack of being, but, on the contrary, a plenitude of being" (69). Need is not intended to complete the finitude of an existent, but rather to "release" or "escape" from being itself. An adequate phenomenology of the lived experience of need would reveal the imperfection, even the "powerlessness" of the subject. The imperfect nature of our existence reveals our finitude, and here we have what I consider to be the most original, insightful and contestable claims that Levinas advances in On Escape: "Being is thus essentially finite" (ibid; emphasis mine). It is our existence itself that has limits, needs, and wishes to escape. Essentially incomplete, partial, and needing to evade, existents are fooling themselves when they think that theirs is the "be all and end all" of existence. For, as Levinas maintains, "limitation is the mark of the existence of the existent" (70).
VIII. Here Levinas concludes his reflections by revisiting the point that, throughout the history of Western philosophy, the problem of Being has yet to be either fully theorized or transcended—we are stuck in a situation of "ontologism." This position has remained stagnant, and refused to fully accept the maxim that "the affirmation of possible existence is contained in the copula," rather than the self-same individual (71). Reversing the trend of Western thought as we interpret it, Levinas here and will later more fully develop the argument that "knowledge is precisely that which remains to be done when everything is completed" (72). In his later Talmudic studies, Levinas, in good Jewish fashion, will assert that knowledge comes after the doing—"we will do and we will hear." Western philosophy, especially within the tradition of moral theory and ethical philosophy, has gotten it all wrong. From their perspective, knowledge and choice are supposed to precede activity, whereas for Levinas, wisdom is that which comes after the acceptance of responsibility (Commandment, mitzvoth) and action.
Rolland discerns that "the essence of humanity is no longer in freedom but in a kind of bondage" (31), and this reversal is one that Levinas will later take up and label the situation of being "held hostage" to the Other. Rolland later observes that "the experience of escape is one with 'the experience of pure being' insofar as it is simultaneously the imperious necessity and the rigorous impossibility of getting out" (34). The impossible task of escape, then, is to "untie the essential link between the existent and its existence" (36). The self, which is argued to be identical with itself, is thus disengaged.
The subject, which modern philosophy has argued is dual in nature, no longer wishes to escape its existence, its Being; rather it seeks to be "delivered" or "deneutralized" from the world (47). As he concludes Existence and Existents, Levinas will later seek a way out of the there is (il y a), and discovers it in the concept of the hypostasis. One must go beyond Being to actualize this point. Philosophy, traditionally accepted, has not thought through the implications of such a task. Throughout history, philosophers have been too concerned with beings. Heidegger introduced the ontological distinction, and began teaching us to think Being. Levinas now wishes to help us think through and beyond Being to get to the ethical relation to, and the infinite responsibility for, the absolute Other.
1. "Pleasure is...nothing less than a concentration in the instant" (61).
Michael Michau is a graduate student in the English and Philosophy Ph.D. program at Purdue University. His areas of research include continental philosophy, philosophy of religion, feminist philosophy and ethics. He is completing a dissertation on the phenomenology of ethical revelation, and the work of Kierkegaard, Levinas, and Husserl.