A celebration of existence: my 150th blog post
It has been more than a week since I have posted anything decent; as I have said before, however, I have been terribly busy as of late because I am trying to excel in class now and not simply while my time away playing video games or doing nothing. Since this write-up commemorates my 150th post in this site, I have thought of something to write that would reflect the gravity of this blog. Sadly, since I have not watched any anime except for the occasional Kimikiss episode, I am unable, as of yet, to write something totally about anime. But because time is ephemeral, and I may never be able to think like this in the future, I believed that I have to post these thoughts of mine at the soonest time possible.
The celebration of my 150th post is a juxtaposition of Emmanuel Levinas and ‘There’s No Forgetting’ by Pablo Neruda. As early as now I would have to admit that this post only tangentially deals with anime, and I mean this in the sense that we are all tangentially dealt with existence and simply being. Since for about two weeks I have not read of any literature except that of Levinas, I hope that I am able, through this blog-post, to deliver his message as well as to posit an escape, not escapism, from violence.
I feel that the insertion of pictures compromises my (hopefully) thoughtful post: please bear with the walls of text you will encounter in the following paragraphs. Also, please note that this post is unlike my other posts: I am very sure that this will very much exceed 2000 words, so if you are one of those people who love writing tl;dr’s, kindly avoid from doing so. I have warned you beforehand. What will follow will seem heavy-handed at times: a certain knowledge of Levinas is recommended, but not required.
I. Levinasian thought
Before one even can attempt on answering this question, one must first be familiar with what Levinasian thought encompasses. However, because Levinas’s whole body of work spans volumes, one is left with a meretricious if not impossible task of elucidating the crux of Levinas’s philosophy. In addition, I am not qualified to do so even if I was given the chance and all the time in the world: the exegesis of Levinas’s text takes more than a basic student of introductory philosophy. From what I have read and understood from the class discussions as well as from the readings, however, I think his philosophy is distilled by ‘There’s No Forgetting,’ a poem by the Chilean Pablo Neruda. Even then, this interpretation and assumed relation stems from my understanding of both authors.
The poem begins, ‘If you ask me where I’ve been all this time / I have to say “things happen”‘. I believe that the inability of the poet’s persona to name or to describe occurrences, or merely his inability to describe the enormity of what has happened, can be attributed to the Levinasian other. The other resists definition: ‘it is what cannot become a content, which your though would embrace; it is uncontainable, it leads you beyond,’ as Levinas said. The persona seems like a man who has embarked on a journey for a protracted amount of time, who just recently saw a familiar face and talked to him or her. This is another idiosyncrasy of Levinasian thought: Levinas himself quips that ‘it is difficult to be silent in someone’s presence.’ One has the exigency of response. It is also suggested that he has not come back with the following stanzas full of lamentations: his journey is the Abrahamic journey, to which he has not returned from where he has come from.
It is followed by, ‘I have to dwell on stones darkening the earth / on the river ruined in its own duration:’. As stated in the previous paragraph, it is impossible to define the other, for in doing so it has already become part of the self; instead of a noumenon, it is degraded into a concept that is analyzable – it is reduced to the self. For one not to be able to do so, one can merely but dwell on other things which he can define, which are instruments of the self.
‘I know nothing save things the birds have lost, the sea I left behind, or my sister crying.’ Just like in the class discussions, guilt and innocence occur together. As was exemplified by Kafka’s The Trial, it was only when Josef K. was charged guilty that he knew of his innocence. Conversely, it is also when we think that we are innocent do we know we are also guilty. The lines in the poem suggest this duality: it is only when one has lost something does one realize how valuable whatsoever he has lost are. This is also akin to Levinas’s thought that indeed, we are free but we also have infinite responsibility for the other. We can do whatever we like, so long as we recognize the other and also act for him, and for his own good.
‘Why this abundance of places? Why does day lock with day? Why the dark night swilling around in our mouths? / And why the dead?’ One is reminded by Levinas’s image regarding the ‘rumbling silence’ a child experiences whenever he is alone at night while the adults continue life. The dark night swills in their mouths. Even in the emptiness of night there still seems to be something; in this poem, the night floods and enters their mouths, a fluid that one feels but is never there. Levinas also places doubt on abundance with regard to being, although not with a why, but with statements disproving this abundance. Finally, the second line is a question that has not only affected Levinas as a person, but also Levinas in his philosophy: why the dead?
Levinas was a victim to the Holocaust, and he has lost a lot of his family members to either torture, starvation, or murder. In fact, his philosophy of ethics revolving around escaping violence, which is the reduction of the other to the self, was highly affected by the events that have occurred to him. Why the dead? Why did they die? How does one escape this violence?
The whole stanza succeeding ‘Why the dead?’ is a continuation of the horror and the trauma that pervades the discovery of the other: ‘Should you ask me where I come from, I must talk / with broken things / with fairly painful utensils, / with great beasts turned to dust as often as not / and my afflicted heart.’ The other is not something pleasant: in the appearance of the other one is ruptured from our autonomy; one discovers that one is not alone, and in addition, one realizes that one is violent. Its arrival, also, is something that one cannot be prepared for. It afflicts the heart, or the self: I must talk to the other. Silence is difficult in his presence; no matter what is spoken of, it is necessary to speak and to answer for him.
The next stanza remains a call for the self to respond: ‘ These are not memories that have passed each other / nor the yellowing pigeon in our forgetting; / these are tearful faces / and fingers down our throats / and whatever among leaves may fall to the ground: / the dark of a day gone by / grown fat on our grieving blood.’
The other is not merely memories etched for us to forget. The other are fellow human beings: ‘tearful faces and fingers down our throats.’ They are ‘traumas’ to our world of self and autonomy; indeed, they are the dark of a day gone by, grown fat on our grieving blood. They are outsiders to us. They are external to us. Yet they call for us to respond and for us to be responsible.
‘Here are violets, and here swallows / all things we love and which inform / sweet messages seriatim / through which time passes and sweetness passes. // We don’t get far, though, beyond these teeth:’
The teeth is merely a part of the face. But even then, to perceive and to envisage the teeth is to be unable to see the face at all. The face is beyond all vision, all sense, and all definition: the face is not a concept. Enjoyment of the self is but an incomplete path to escape violence, because in the end it returns to the self. It is merely ‘illusory and [a] purely apparent character of this escape from the self.’ Even knowledge, according to Levinas, does not allow the self to escape itself: ‘Knowledge has always been interpreted as assimilation. Even the most surprising discoveries end by being absorbed comprehended, with all that there is of “prehending” (grasping) in “comprehending. […] It is still and always is a solitude.’
‘Why waste time gnawing at the husks of silence? / I know not what to answer: / There are so many dead, / and so many dikes the red sun breached, / and so many heads battering hulls / and so many hands that have closed over kisses / and so many things that I want to forget.’
Ironically, it was the very last line of this poem that made me think of the poem as a presentation of Levinasian thought. The face only has a single command: thou shalt not kill. Stated in a positive manner, the command is infinite responsibility for the other. Neruda asks,’Why waste time gnawing at the husks of silence?’ And Levinas agrees: as what has been previously mentioned, it is necessary, important, to speak of something to the other because one already answers for him when one speaks.
In the end, the persona does not know what to answer as much as he does not know how to answer for the other: he has seen that there ‘have been so many dead, so many dikes the red sun breached, and so many heads battering hulls […]’ Ultimately, ‘there are so many things that I want to forget,’ says the persona.
Edmund Burke said, ‘The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing.’ He was never more right: the Holocaust came to be because most of the world did not act: most of the world stayed silent at the moment when the Jews needed help the most. There have been so many dead; there have been so many heads battering hulls.
Yet the final line delivers a sheen to the poem that truly reminded me of Levinas: whenever the other arrives, one has no choice with regard to the other’s appearance: one becomes conscious of his own violence and of the other’s existence. There is no forgetting, even if there are so many things that one wants to forget. The choice has to be made beforehand: should one be conscious of one’s own violence, or should he be in a naivete?
II. Escape from violence
Levinas often uses strong words to convey his philosophy, but among his cardinal ideas are of one’s escape from violence. He defines violence to be having the self as the center, which pervades in Heideggerian ontology or Husserlian phenomenology: I give meaning, and I am given meaning to. Fundamentally, however, violence is the reduction of the very alterity of the other to I or my self. Violence is not merely the physical murder or the termination of the other, although it is part of it.
Levinas attempts to escape and evade the ‘there is,’ his interpretation of being, through hypostasis. Hypostasis is the refastening of existence to the existents. Existence, or being, is not a given but something that he has to accomplish. The subject ‘gives birth’ to himself. One emerges as an individual, not merely as an impersonal entity. This is not the total solution, however, in escaping violence. In hypostasis, in one’s emergence as self one also absorbs and imbibes the very violence of ‘there is.’ In a personal manner, one realizes that he himself is violent. The selfishness of the self is revealed to us: hypostasis is not the final answer.
To become further aware, however, of one’s own existence as violent, one only needs to look at his own work, possession, enjoyment, and knowledge. I have to some degree explicated on the violence of knowledge: that it is merely a grasping and an appropriation as well as an absorption to the self. It is merely an adequation.
Possession, the enjoyment of the self as in dining, and work, are all founded on utilizing what is important to the user without taking into account of the individuality of what is being used: in possession, one connects and calls what is owned to be ‘mine,’ even if it isn’t so; in enjoyment, the partaking of food to flourish is coupled with the killing of animals or of plants: I live on the death of the other. As for work, I only have favor to those who are of use to me: when a ballpen runs out of ink, I throw it away. I crumple paper whenever I make a mistake. I do not mind of the individuality of these things that are used and used up to benefit me.
There may be an escape, but it is only temporary. This is because one is in front of the other. The other is that which resists definition, enjoyment, and perception. In the uprightness of the face one realizes that one must not kill. In his nakedness and destitution lie his strength. One can no longer accuse, only accept: one must accept the command of the other; in fact, everything comes from the other, even the escape from violence. Once one answers the appeal of the other, once one recognizes his command to not kill, one is quitting and escaping the violence of the self.
Is Levinasian thought, then, able to escape violence? I would think, from Levinas’s own words, that the answer is no. ‘I am responsible for the persecutions I undergo. But only me! My “close relations” or “my people” are already others, and, for them, I demand justice.‘
This is because that there exists someone else next to the other. One has to make a choice, because it is an impossibility for there only to be a self and an Other. ‘There is someone else. […] It is consequently necessary to weigh, to think, to judge, in comparing the incomparable. The interpersonal relation I establish with the Other, I must also establish with other men; there is thus a necessity to moderate this privilege of the Other; from whence comes justice.’ Justice must always be held in check by the initial interpersonal relation – and even in this, there is violence.
Justice is often pictured or portrayed in myth or in allusion to be someone who is blind. This blindness allows her or him to treat everyone equally before the law. Within this comparison and choice among the incomparable there exists a reduction: everyone is treated equally, no matter how individual and unique each person is.
Questions and comments are highly welcome. I have not written something like this for quite an amount of time; I hope that this celebrates my persistence and my existence in this world of anime blogging.