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.

16 Responses to “A celebration of existence: my 150th blog post”

  1. meganeshounen Says:

    Heh. A behemoth of a post, after a period of silence. Fine. πŸ˜€

    Escapism from violence, eh? That’s what people who are inadequately prepared mentally/physically do, perhaps…

    Though, that just reminds me of a few protagonists from everyone’s favorite(?) mecha series, Gundam. Specifically, OO’s Setsuna F. Seiei and W’s Heero Yuy. The first one was raised in a wartorn Middle Eastern country, killed his parents for his false beliefs, and forced to witness a number of horrors in war, until he saw God in the form of a flying orange mecha. You’d think that he’d be traumatized from all that fighting, but no. He got drafted into Celestial Being (his grounds being “having potential as a Meister”. Nowadays, he spends his time taking orders from CB, fragging enemy mobile suits (“armed intervention, lol”), and… lounging around in his apartment in his spare time.

    Heero was raised as a soldier from the start as well, although, he did manage to end up as a semi-pacifist(?) in the end… fighting wars to end wars.

    In the end, they seem like people who are in amidst of violence, all the while coming from a violent past themselves. Ironic, huh? Then again, aren’t all Gundam protagonists like that? ^_^;;;

    Also, about that bit of “destroy to create; kill to create life”… life and death are normal in the cycle of things in this world. Yeah, yeah, change is the only constant…

    Anyway, I rest my case/weary fingers. πŸ˜€

  2. Totali Says:

    Yay 150~ posts! :3

  3. IKnight Says:

    I normally try to grace others’ entries with comments which they are worthy of (flippant entries receive flippant comments, and so forth). Unfortunately, I think I’m unable to do that in this case.

    I will venture a few thoughts on the Self and the Other, however. I was recently introduced to this idea myself (though not as proposed by Levinas), and found it startling and powerful. It’s fun (if slightly worrying) to look out for the ways that texts themselves portray certain people as passive objects, Others to be acted upon. This can be extended to anime (one can distinguish between active and passive fanservice, for example).

  4. Michael Says:

    @IKnight

    Glad to see you back on my blog. πŸ™‚

    The other (l’autrui) is not the one merely acted upon. The other is the one who commands us, who forbids us to kill, who in its infinite weakness and destitution is also infinitely powerful. It’s not merely passive: everything comes from the other, and everything goes to the other. I’ve mentioned that Levinas’s philosophy differs from that of Husserl or Heidegger in that the self is not the center. In fact, we need not act on others; we only need to be responsible for them. It’s hard to extend it to anime, but since it has been the only thing I’ve read and pondered for the week or so of absence I made it a point to write about it because Levinas celebrates existence, not only of the self, but also of the other. The response to the other is what makes us escape our violent selves, our selfishness. πŸ˜€

  5. usagijen Says:

    congrats on 150 [meaty] and insightful posts~! xD

  6. Ronin Says:

    Happy 150 postday! XD

  7. Michael Says:

    Haha, thank you all, mga kababayan! πŸ˜€

    Totali is Filipino too … somewhat. πŸ˜€

  8. TheBigN Says:

    I wonder how much anime focuses on the self versus the other, since it’s a concept that seems like an often glossed over plot point that could stand to use more expansion. I’m suddenly reminded of Digimon Tamers all of a sudden. πŸ˜›

    Anyway, congrats on 150 posts.

  9. IKnight Says:

    Ah. I’m familiar with the Self/Other distinction from Sartre (Being and Nothingness) and de Beauvoir, and I assumed Levinas’ was working along similar lines (which then probably coloured my reading of your post). I suspect that the simple Self/Other distinction is probably easier to grasp (hence its popularity with various theorists) and less profound.

  10. Michael Says:

    @TheBigN

    Thanks for reading and trying to understand this celebratory (or incunabular) spiel of mine. I appreciate it. πŸ™‚

    @IKnight

    I haven’t read Being and Nothingness. If anything, I’d gladly wallow more in Joyce’s Ulysses or Finnegans wake (and I’m averse to those novels already, although I’m exerting great effort to start and finish Finnegans Wake). 800 pages of pure philosophical treatise isn’t exactly my cup of tea. As for Levinas, there were only a few disjoint chapters of his philosophy that I’ve read, but it was so pervasive and interesting that I was, shall we say, besotted with it.

    Levinas dislikes all other Western philosophy because they have been violent: they always relate what is other to what is the self.

    Bah, I know I seem to be speaking nonsense, but I think meaning is there. Somewhere. O_O

  11. Cameron Probert Says:

    It sounds like a lot of existential thought. Which is cool because I like existentialism. And less cool, because I’m not as big of a fan of when existentialism extends into ethics. I tend to find the idea that we can not define others actions because we do not understand their experience is true to a degree, but it does not mean we can’t pass judgment on their actions.

    And I don’t think passing judgment is neccesarily a bad thing. Believe it or not. In fact, I think it’s a very human thing. But over all it was a really good post and I’m glad to see you back πŸ™‚

  12. Michael Says:

    @Cameron Probert

    I’m glad to see you back around here as well. I’m sorry for neglecting your site, as much as others – I haven’t really got online for … umm … a long time, and I just thought a lot about different things, so… yeah, this was the result. Scary, but you get the picture. πŸ˜€

  13. Cameron Probert Says:

    Nah, I never leave. I just don’t alway comment, unless I have something to say πŸ™‚

  14. Ryan A Says:

    I’ve cut my viewing back as well. Truthfully, I gandered this post and had to gear up for a couple days just to find a clear span where I could focus and read it. Unfortunately, I didn’t grasp the entire thing; I’m not familiar with the sources.

    It was an interesting read though, violence and self. These are things I’ve not thought about, but probably will be questioned this semester as I have a required ethics course I’m taking. As for myself, I enjoy a peace within, but I still believe justification for judgment is applicable on larger scales, though I think the idea of control plays into that justification much too often; I’m from the USA, we are always in the midst of ethical justification for control, many absolutists live here.

    Violence, a struggle within. We are violent naturally, but no less naturally than the “violence” of interstellar collisions. Yet, we have the ability to structure our violence within, through mind, or relax our standards to become murderers of men, or not. It is very boggling. At some part in the reading, I felt like I should become a monk.

    Well, congrats on 150 posts! This was a good entry to be that marker. πŸ™‚

    [WP needs the read but no comment button…]

  15. anime|otaku » Blog Archive » The disparity of culture Says:

    […] most of my posts are serious ones, I do believe I am quite flexible with regard to my style. I can attempt to write philosophical disquisitions; I can write light-hearted posts; and I can also write short and long posts. I do believe that the […]

  16. Lelangir Says:

    I’m half a year late on this after having seen this link via the “disparity of culture”.

    Have you read “The House of Spirits”? I think that Pablo Neruda has a somewhat candid cameo as “the poet”.

    “most of the world stayed silent at the moment when the Jews needed help the most…” The Holocaust was not limited to the Jews – and this is kind of funny seeing how the Other is contextual; In Nazi Germany or under a like-minded dictator, the Other was not-Aryan, which could be a plethora of things.

    But this is taking the self/other binary to a whole different level than what I’m used to – than what I used in that Takemoto post. I perceive your use of “violence” to be in a very “obscure” sense – obviously not physical (and/or literal) but, rather, in a problematic sense. I would have said “the problematics of existence” – although they both have different connotations violence seemingly misled me at first.

    So in Levinasian philosophy, the self is the center (center of what? is the self contained with the body? the universe?), and has to become existent, has to achieve hypostasis – the existents become existent.

    So this existence is that violence – the reduction of the other – the birth of the self-in-existence? That is the violence of “there is”. Or rather, the violence of is-ing.

    “My Ò€œclose relationsÒ€ or Ò€œmy peopleÒ€ are already others, and, for them, I demand justice” So the Other is not in that political sense – black/white – gay/straight and so forth, but, strictly, in that self-other dichotomy.

    In that case I don’t get how there can be a “third party” a non-self, but simultaneously a non-other. It seems like the self-other binary is holistic and comprises the entirety of the universe, or so Levi-Strauss may say, but that’s different philosophy. Does this third person act as a mediator? I can’t grasp how: “The interpersonal relation I establish with the Other, I must also establish with other men.” So these “other men” are clearly distinguished from that Other, insofar as that Other is not limited to his half of the holistic binary – then the binary is not holistic. And so perhaps this is “justice”? The removal of the binary – the equal treatment of humanity – even though this treatment (inasmuch as any kind of treatment) is in itself violent or violence.

    Hard to wrap your head around, having not engaged these authors fully, to say the least.

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