40. The Third Man


“Look down there. Would you really feel any pity if one of those dots stop moving – forever? If I offered you twenty thousand for every dot that stops, would you really, old man, tell me to keep my money or would you calculate how many dots you could afford to spare?”1
Harry Lime in The Third Man

Two-thirds of the way into The Third Man, Orson Welles makes his screen entrance as the very much alive, but presumed dead, Harry Lime and with Graham Greene’s blessing adds a powerful cultural summation to his character’s amoral outlook on life.

“In Italy, for thirty years, under the Borgia’s they had warfare, terror, murder, bloodshed, but they produced Michelangelo, Leonardo Da Vinci and the Renaissance. In Switzerland, they had brotherly love. They had five hundred years of democracy and peace and what did that produce? The cuckoo clock. So long, Holly.”2

Harry Lime.fw

Immediately prior, a tight, tense scene is played out between Orson Welles’ character, Harry Lime, and Joseph Cotton’s, Holly (or Rollo in Greene’s text) Martins on the surreal Ferris wheel in the Prater amusement park in the Russian zone amidst a war raged Vienna in 1949. Carol Reed, the Director, and his cinematographer, Robert Krasker, deliver the backdrop of height to add the required visuals to Greene’s packed and threatening dialogue between Martins and Lime as they size each other up after Martins’ has discovered the faked death of Lime and that his old friend is a Penicillin racketeer effectively preying on the lives of the innocent. The possibility of Martins exposing his fake death, whilst he hides in the Russian zone continuing to run his black market activity, motivates Lime as he attempts to turn Martins into his collaborator. Martins, though, wants to accuse Lime of what he increasingly understands is a pattern of shoddy, self-interested behaviour coursing through the history of their friendship; Lime’s relationship with Anna Schmidt, whom Martins believes has been left to fend for herself; and the hospital wards filled with Lime’s “victims”. Lime, though, tries to play on the friendship they once had.

“Victims? Don’t be melodramatic. Look down there. Would you really feel any pity if one of those dots stop moving – forever? If I offered you twenty thousand for every dot that stops, would you really, old man, tell me to keep my money or would you calculate how many dots you could afford to spare? Free of income tax, old man. Free of income tax. The only way you can save money nowadays.”3

Ferris Wheel Ants.fw

Martins, who earns his living by writing Westerns, throws Lime’s words back, “A lot of good money will do you when you’re in jail”. To which Lime responds with a caustic statement of fact, delivered with a challengingly raised eyebrow and knowing smile, displaying that he is more than a match for Martins’ argument, “There’s no proof against me, besides you.”4

The dialogue continues with Martins taking swipes at Lime and Lime showing that he has the upper hand, courtesy of a gun, whilst trying to ingratiate his friend of old by sharing his new world vision with him.

“Holly. What fools we are talking to each other this way. As though I’d do anything to you, or you to me. You’re just a little mixed up about things in general. Nobody thinks in terms of human beings. Governments don’t, why should we? They talk about the people and the proletariat, and I talk about the suckers and the mugs. It’s the same thing. They have their five-year plans and so have I.”5

Harry and Holly.fw

Lime’s stance is obviously at odds with Martins, due to the latter witnessing for himself the children’s hospital, courtesy of Major Calloway wanting Martins to see the extent of diluted penicillin. Martins, with a sense of melancholy, tries a different tack in the face of Lime’s apparent casting aside of humanity: “You used to believe in God.” To which Lime replies:

“Oh, I still do believe in God, old man. I believe in God and mercy and all that, but the dead are happier dead. They don’t miss much here poor devils.”6

Then with a particularly malevolent half-opened eye, Lime asks, “What do you believe in?”7 only to follow with an instruction regarding the treatment of Anna if Martins is ever able to get her out of the mess that she is in with the Russian police investigating her papers.

Alida Valli.fw

These five minutes of electrifying dialogue from Orson Welles and Joseph Cotten, light up the film to give a sense of urgency to the remaining twenty, which build into a Western-esque showdown in the sewers of Vienna. The motif is acted out though the gun slinging ‘sheriff’, Calloway, shooting but only wounding ‘his man’ after Lime shoots his ‘deputy’, Sergeant Paine. There is also a non-verbal exchange of looks between Lime and Martins that culminates in Lime nodding in resignation for Martins to end his life. His time has come, he is wounded, trapped and knows that his fate will be capital punishment for the shooting of Sergeant Paine, let alone his other nefarious deeds. A shot is fired and we see Martins walking back along the sewer out of Robert Krasker’s atmospheric and beautifully lit sewer mist. This time Harry Lime is, indeed, dead.

In the text, Greene writes a slightly different ending, which has Martins recounting the scene between Lime and him afterwards to Calloway. Martins follows the wounded Lime who, incidentally, had been shot by Martins not Calloway and finds his old friend whimpering on an iron staircase leading up to street level. Lime is too hurt to move and can only say “Bloody fool”8 when Martins bends down to hear him. It’s plain to Martins that Lime will not live: “Then he began to whimper again. I couldn’t bear it any more and I put a bullet through him.”9 Calloway remarks, “We’ll forget that bit”10 and Martins responds “I never shall.”11 The difference is subtle and in the text Greene seems to have Martins putting Lime out of his misery like killing a wounded animal. Indeed, Greene even alludes to this by having Martins reference that Lime’s “Bloody fool” last gasp might have been intended as a final swipe at the writer of cattle-rustlers “who couldn’t even shoot a rabbit clean.”12 The difference being that in Greene’s text Martins is given some volition of his own to respond to Lime whereas in the film, Carol Reed has Orson Welles nod towards Martins to shoot him as if it is Lime’s choice not Martins. In the film the control rests with Lime whereas in the novella, as always, it’s a bit more complicated than that.

Harry shot.fw

Placing the Western and text versus film references aside, the ethically interesting element in The Third Man is in Lime’s behaviour and thoughts. The short and reaching attempt at profundity given in response to Martins question as to whether he still believes in God, reveals an internal processing by Lime as to how he justifies his abhorrent actions regarding Penicillin racketeering. Alongside the statement he made about “suckers and the mugs” there is a coherent narrative that he has constructed to enable him to sleep at night. He has built a belief system, which one presumes all con men do in regard to “suckers and the mugs”, in that everyone is free to take advantage of the other and that it is a battle of wits that will win in the end, with the victor being the non-sucker or non-mug. The premise being that they each have the freedom to act in whatever way they see fit and that society’s rules don’t apply. Lime takes such thinking to a new level.

The carnage wrought in Vienna by WWII, with the resultant chaos of zones policed by four different countries, each with their own rules and systems, and an interlinking sewer network that allows easy passage from one to the other, albeit illegally, appears to be the perfect set-up for a black market to thrive.

Sewer entrance.fw

Lime, presumably, witnesses this state of affairs emerging and, being a wheeler and dealer of old, works out how to maximise his advantage. The problem being that he is edged ever onwards by the circumstances and his own greed to make choices that he then has to live with. Faking one’s own death and then continuing to live and run one’s black market business in the same city is not a usual occurrence. The reason for faking the death being that the British police, in particular, in the guise of Calloway, played by Trevor Howard, were ‘on to him’ so that Lime could effectively feel Calloway’s men breathing down his neck and their hands posed to ‘collar’ him around every street corner. The choices Lime had must have considered were to hand himself over, fake his own death, leave the city, or stop all activity. The allure of making ‘easy’ money must have prevented him from leaving or stopping, likewise giving up and owning up would not have sat well within his mind-set. A mind-set that would have rationalised that everyone else is on the ‘make’ so why shouldn’t he, especially if the money was easy to make. This train of thinking, though, has a major obstacle to overcome. People are getting sick and dying due to his ‘trade activities’. Now, Lime isn’t stupid and knows that he can’t simply shrug off such consequences. Instead, he has to rationalise, as he always would have done.

As we have seen, to Lime the lives of his fellow Viennese citizens become reducible to ‘dots’ when seen from far away and endless suffering when regarded close up, which leads him to state “the dead are happier dead. They don’t miss much here poor devils”, when confronted by Martins. Interestingly in this scene, there is a slight difference in the novella text by Greene, as opposed to the film scrip. In the text, Lime has the line “I’m not hurting anybody’s soul by what I do” in-between “Oh, I still believe, old man. In God and mercy and all that” and “The dead are happier dead…”13

Holly and Harry.fw

Such thinking demonstrates a belief system that has sought to work through the implications of his actions. However, to take the line that one isn’t hurting their souls when one is in fact bringing about their death is belief system that dictators, serial killers, ancient crusaders, past generals and modern jihadists take. The ‘righteous’ beliefs of anyone should never involve the justification of murder, collateral damage, pogroms, ethnic cleansing, a give-me-enough-men attitude or blithely thinking that their souls will be fine. Other people’s lives are not for anyone else to decide upon. To think otherwise is to be ethically bankrupt, a position that Lime has found himself in and that Calloway wants to imprison him for, whilst Martins is coming to terms with it and Anna is possibly ignoring it.

There is a Sartrean issue here, because it could be argued that Lime accepts his situation as being “condemned to be free”14 and pursues “existence precedes essence.”15 He does this by creating his own essence rather than letting anyone else, or doctrine, impose an alternative essence upon him. Lime, it could be argued, can be seen as the perfect existential antihero, a moral nihilist operating in an amoral environment.

The sewer.fw

This is how Lime could be seen and if we take that line of thinking he then acts to highlight the Sartrean issue that freedom doesn’t necessitate ethics.

As we saw in the last post, freedom, that hard fought for treasure, pursued by Sartre through the quagmires of ontology and phenomenology, has no natural or logical partner in ethics. That one might be free does not mean that one might be ethical. Lime’s behaviour epitomises one who seems to embrace everything about Sartrean thought regarding being condemned to be free, so therefore act accordingly and do whatever you want. And, if we push Sartrean thought a little further, in Lime’s case, we can see that Lime could be the ultimate Sartean antihero. By adopting a belief system, Lime ensures that he can come into the bracket of Being-for-itself because he is positively proving that his consciousness is infinite rather than finite. The sheer infinity of what we might be able to believe in demonstrates our status as Beings-for-themselves as opposed to the brute Being-in-itself which has no consciousness and is thereby finite.


Lime, then, scores pretty highly on the Sartrean model of antihero-ness. The problem is, of course, that by being infinite and free, in a way that Harry Lime appeared to think and behave, ethics becomes lost. And, contrary to simplistic readings of Sartre this is a problem to Sartre. There just is no way on earth that Sartre would have been happy and content with the epitome of his philosophy culminating in a character like Harry Lime. The truth of the matter, though, is that many people have assimilated Sartre’s thoughts in this manner and have been content themselves to arrest their thinking on Sartre at this point of moral nihilism. The difficulty is in finding a way beyond Sartre and his exemplar Harry Lime to catch a glimpse of the promise of ethics that Sartre suggested would be the focus of his work after Being and Nothingness.

The glimpse.fw


  1. Greene, G. ‘The Third Man’ included in The Third Man and Other Stories, Collector’s Library, 1963, 119.
  2. Orson Welles attributed addition to Graham Greene’s film script for The Third Man. Directed by Carol Reed. UK: British Lion Film Corporation, 1949.
  3. Greene, G. ‘The Third Man’ included in The Third Man and Other Stories, Collector’s Library, 1963, 119.
  4. Additions to Graham Greene’s film script for The Third Man. Directed by Carol Reed. UK: British Lion Film Corporation, 1949.
  5. Greene, G. ‘The Third Man’ included in The Third Man and Other Stories, Collector’s Library, 1963, p. 121, with slight additions from the film script for The Third Man. Directed by Carol Reed. UK: British Lion Film Corporation, 1949.
  6. Greene, G. ‘The Third Man’ included in The Third Man and Other Stories, Collector’s Library, 1963, p.121, with slight additions from the film script for The Third Man. Directed by Carol Reed. UK: British Lion Film Corporation, 1949.
  7. Addition to Graham Greene’s film script for The Third Man. Directed by Carol Reed. UK: British Lion Film Corporation, 1949.
  8. Greene, G. ‘The Third Man’ included in The Third Man and Other Stories, Collector’s Library, 1963, 132.
  9. Ibid.
  10. Ibid.
  11. Ibid.
  12. Ibid.
  13. Ibid., 121.
  14. Sartre, J-P. Existentialism and Humanism. Translated by Philip Mairet, Methuen, 2007, 34.
  15. Ibid.

39. Sartre’s Ethics?


“… to catch a glimpse of what sort of ethics will assume its responsibilities when confronted with a human reality in situation.”1
Jean-Paul Sartre

Jean-Paul Sartre’s famous statement that “man is condemned to be free”2 is predicated upon his insistence that “existence precedes essence,”3 which means freedom arrives instantaneously.

In turn, Emmanuel Levinas’ freedom related position is that responsibility is antecedent to freedom,4 which differs considerably by awarding freedom second place.

Therefore, Levinas, at first sight, surely locks horns with Sartre’s existential situating of freedom?

The question is one of precedence. What comes first, freedom or responsibility? Presumably only one of these philosophers can be right, because at first glance there doesn’t appear to be a natural synthesis to these contrasting viewpoints. Whether it is freedom that comes first, or responsibility that gains ‘poll-position’, there is definite worth in trying to understand why this contrast arose between these two philosophers plying their trade in the same city at the same time. Maybe we’ll find a winner? Or, better yet, maybe we’ll find something more worthwhile.


Sartre’s stance, of course, was a reaction to philosophies such as Christianity’s that prescribe pre-destined ‘journeys,’ which effectively place individuals in a sub-ordinate roles as chattels to the service of a higher or greater good, society, or Being. Such paradigms, where one’s essence and hence life was thought to be programmed from birth, Sartre found intolerable and fundamentally flawed. Instead, he argued from an ontological position, which begun with a conception of being that included a clear presentation of subject-hood, and culminated in the assertion that individuals arrive before any role that they might have: existence precedes essence.

Now, there are two ways to engage with Sartre: The simplistic scampering over the neighbouring fields of ontology, phenomenology, consciousness and nothingness to get to the lush fields of freedom, bad faith, responsibility and ethics or the way we are going to do it. So, roll up your sleeves, stick on your wellies, we’re going to get muddy!


It’s going to be difficult, messy, but also thrilling, rewarding and satisfying, because just like gorge walking one needs to let go and submit to the flow of the gorge/philosophy otherwise you might get sucked into the abyss. I’m playing partly, but there is a serious side here because Sartre is not normally known for his contribution to ethics and I greatly believe that he has much to say if one can follow his, at times, torrential and whirlwind-like thought progressions.

The philosophic extraction of Sartre’s thinking is clearly allied to, and borrows from, the writings of Husserl and Heidegger: two pioneers who carved out new territories in the post-Kantian and post-Hegelian philosophical landscape. Indeed, because Sartre constructed his own system somewhat over the foundations of other such thinkers, the confidence he had in building on solid ground would have been fairly safe to assume. However, whilst building, with his predecessors’ phenomenological and ontological principles, Sartre arguably, also desired to breathe an air less turgid and had ambitions to soar beyond the realm of their rather dense but hard-wearing theories.


Consequently, when working with Heidegger’s intense ontological study of being, Sartre radically positioned ‘freedom’ as his chosen priority in the flourish of ontological irony that is his epiphany, ‘existence precedes essence.’ Ironic because, even though he followed the same ontological priorities that Heidegger set down, he came to realise that freedom comes before matters of ontology, essence or being, where humans are concerned. By daring to make such a bold development within the construct of ontology, Sartre additionally enabled himself to present, to those that would listen, the key that could unlock the mental chains of oppression caused by centuries of dogmatic and pernicious thinking: An oppression which enabled those who were ethically and socially corrupt to grind and wear down their fellow brethren. By proclaiming that “man is condemned to be free,” and breathing the resulting heady air that he now found himself inhaling, Sartre would have believed that he was giving humanity a realisation of enormous benefit. As far as he was concerned, as a consequence of his work, each one of us could be in a position to embrace our freedom and liberate ourselves from any chains of oppression. The bounds of dogmatic tyranny, whether imposed by others or oneself, could now be broken by Sartre’s revelation.

Breaking chains.fw

For Sartre though, the colossal and triumphant declaring of one’s freedom was never to be the end goal of his thinking. Leading humanity out of the dark ages of manipulation and vice into a more promising new dawn was only part of the task. Empowering individuals to realise their freedom and take hold of it with both hands was not enough for Sartre. He understood that each individual, in their state of realisation as regards their freedom, should also attain the next stage in the Sartrean self-improvement course: ethics.

When one reaches and attains the level of freedom one should then progress to the next stage in order to prevent anarchy and atrocity from taking place. Giving individuals their freedom was not enough for Sartre because he knew he also had to give them the tempering qualities of responsibility and ethics, because we live in communities rather than in isolation. Having complete autonomy to act out one’s desires, when embracing one’s freedom, on an island with no other inhabitants is one thing, but doing so in a housing estate on the outskirts of a city centre is a completely different matter. Consequently, Sartre realised that we have to embrace others as well as our freedom. However, his challenge was to demonstrate why that should naturally be the case from the philosophical principles he had already laid down, and this challenge, if I am to be brutally honest, was unfortunately never achieved within the oeuvre that Sartre left. Nevertheless, it is important to realise that even though the challenge of presenting a clearly articulated route-map from ontological founding principles to ethics eluded Sartre, the demand of the task never did and it was always one that Sartre felt the presence of as unfinished business.

Unfinished business.fw

The latent ethical driving force that I find in Sartre, I realise is founded, some might say, thinly within Sartre’s own works. However, because my interest lies in the ethical, my reading of Sartre deliberately extends to the piecing together of fragments which I believe form a frustrated aspiration on his part to find an ethical goal and end-point to his thinking. The weight and authority for this being given in such items as his promise, right at the last of Being and Nothingness, that he will write on ethics in a “future work” and indeed “devote”5 that text to ethics, and of course his unfinished writings on ethics, published posthumously by his adopted daughter, Arlette Elkaim-Sartre, in a planned pact upon his passing.

Revealingly though, within such items as his non-delivered promise and unfinished notes, as well as evidence of a philosopher deeply concerned with ethics there also evidence of one who had thought himself into a cul-de-sac, from which the preceding foundations and premises of his thoughts would not let him escape to reach for the ambition of an ethical telos. Sartre’s own, and somewhat borrowed, philosophical pathways had led him away from ethics to his eternal consternation.


David Pellauer, in his ‘Translator’s Introduction’ to the English version of Notebooks for an Ethics attributes the nub of Sartre’s difficulty to his formulation of consciousness within ontologically based principles:

“Consciousness as for-itself, where the for-itself is ontologically independent of being-for-others, is an ontological fact at the most fundamental level of human existence.”6

Or, to explain it another way, within Sartre’s ontological system, consciousness arises without the need for anyone else. Consciousness, as described by Sartre, could surface in a vacuum or on an island; other people aren’t required for its presence to manifest. Consequently, under such a system, as Pellauer observes, “There are others, other for-itselves, but they are not necessary for the existence of my consciousness as for-itself.”7

So, Sartre, rather frustratingly, gives us freedom, but he can’t give us each other.

Freedom but not others.fw

Pellauer neatly sums up this Sartrean ontological cul-de-sac: “while oppression can be overcome, alienation cannot.”8

Under Sartre’s ontologically rooted thinking one is given the power to liberate oneself, but also destined to be forever alienated from one’s fellows without ethics. This is due to there being an effective ‘glass ceiling’ to ontologically based philosophy where ethics cannot be reached. There simply is no provision for the necessity of others within ontology, which in turn ultimately means that others do not matter. This is not a good starting point for ethics!

Sartre, of course, understood the limitations of ontology and when writing Being and Nothingness he demonstrated this awareness:

“Ontology itself can not formulate ethical precepts. It is concerned solely with what is, and we can not possibly derive imperatives from ontology’s indicatives.”9

Indeed, this matter is well known within philosophy and is sometimes referred to as trying to derive an ‘ought’ from an ‘is.’ However, even though Sartre understood the limitations of ontology he was still enchanted by its power and revealed this quite openly in Being and Nothingness when he stated that ontology “does, however, allow us to catch a glimpse of what sort of ethics will assume its responsibilities when confronted with a human reality in situation.”10


The task for us, therefore, becomes to re-examine Sartrean ontology to try and catch this “glimpse” of ethics and to understand quite where Sartre got to in regard to our relationships with one another and perhaps, just as importantly, ourselves.

Sartre’s ontological starting point actually began with phenomenology. Following Husserl’s work, Sartrean phenomenology, as was traditional within the phenomenological discipline, rejected the dualism of past philosophies that found their basis in a ‘real’ world hidden behind a world of appearances. For all those studying phenomenology, the so-called ‘world of appearances’ was where their interest lay and their focus conducted. The perceived object or perceptual experience was all that mattered to their philosophy; anything else was forever bracketed and excluded from their study. Consequently, Sartre set about his task by examining perceived objects and perceptual experiences and came to the conclusion that he had to turn inward and perform a thorough inspection of his own conscious processes to understand the perceptions he experienced.


The subject of Sartre’s enquiry started to shift at this point and peel away from phenomenology, because he had become fascinated by what phenomenology had led to: consciousness. Such was his fascination, that Sartre essentially developed an initial founding premise for his new approach to philosophy: “The first procedure of a philosophy ought to be to expel things from consciousness and re-establish its true connection with the world.”11 Consciousness, or to make it clear within Sartrean thought, one’s own consciousness, was Sartre’s starting position. A position that gave him so much but also, as we know, eventually led to a hampering of his ethical ambitions.

In contrast to a psychological approach, which could have tended towards a more intimate study of the internal workings of one’s consciousness, Sartre’s new phenomenological framework focused on the matter of separating what was one’s consciousness and what was not: The distinction of ‘that which is conscious’ and ‘that which is not conscious’ had arrived within Sartre’s philosophy. However, Sartre doesn’t leave this distinction within a discussion solely fixated upon consciousness. For him, this distinction also takes on an ontological bearing.

Man and apple.fw

In some ways this was entirely predictable given that Sartre’s acknowledged starting point was a phenomenological rejection of what Nietzsche called “the illusion of worlds behind-the-scene.”12 The hint being, from the first, that Sartre’s desire was to philosophically understand what there was in the world that he inhabited and that this, however one comes to it, is fundamentally the discipline of ontology. Consequently, within Being and Nothingness, Sartre wore his colours on his sleeve and gave his introduction the title ‘The Pursuit of Being’, which, by such heavy referencing to the word ‘Being’, was an open declaration of serious ontological intent. In retrospect therefore, it is of no real surprise that Sartre cast the results of his separation of ‘what is conscious’ from ‘what is not conscious’ in terms directly representative of his ontological leaning and utilised the magic touchstone and ontological signifier that is the word ‘Being’.

So, almost predictively, within the sixth component of ‘The Pursuit of Being’ sub-titled ‘Being-In-Itself’, Sartre formulated his ontological separation of a phenomenological derived understanding of consciousness:

“Since the being of consciousness is radically different, its meaning will necessitate a particular elucidation,.. being-for-itself (l’être-pour-soi)… which is opposed to the being-in-itself (l’être-en-soi) of the phenomenon.”13

Being for itself and being in itself.fw

The particular elucidation Sartre gave to his description for the “being of consciousness” finds its definition therefore grounded whole-heartedly within an ontological setting as the signifier “being-for-itself.” Such grounding though, goes beyond the level of signification because, for Sartre, the real understanding and ontological relevance of being-for-itself only occurs when it is juxtaposed to its phenomenological other: being-in-itself. To that end Being and Nothingness in some ways becomes an exposition based on that juxtaposition, with the content and relationship of being-for-itself and being-in-itself encompassing the remainder of his text.

To begin the process of understanding their relationship, Sartre, in ‘Part Two’ of Being and Nothingness, opened ‘Chapter One: Immediate Structures of the For-Itself’ utilising the strictly logical understanding for the concept for identity, where ‘A’ equals ‘A’. So, when he examined Being-in-itself he stated: “being is what it is” and went on to explain, “in the in-itself there is not a particle of being which is not wholly within itself.”14 For Sartre, the identity of Being-in-itself is completely self-contained, there is nothing else going on: “of this table I can say only that it is purely and simply this table.”15


The cleverly worked juxtaposition that Sartre wanted us to understand, of course, is that one cannot state the same about a conscious process: “I can not limit myself to saying that my belief is belief; my belief is the consciousness (of) belief.”16 Unlike the table, one’s belief cannot be limited and is more than a mere thing defined as ‘belief’ because it is formed from consciousness and not from physical brute matter. The difference being that consciousness has latent within it the power of the infinite, whereas physical objects are wholly finite.

Interestingly, there is a peculiarly Sartrean problem with the simplicity of my description. Sartre, after following the thoughts of Spinoza and Hegel, rejected their “appeal to infinity,”17 which explained the difference of consciousness from brute matter. Instead, he determined that any such “appeal to infinity” acts counter to its intention and actually fixes or reduces the “being of consciousness to that of the in-itself.”18 In place of infinity therefore Sartre placed his own concept, if we can call it that for the moment: “Nothingness.”19

I warned that Sartre is an intellectual whirlwind at times.


The simplest way to express his dissatisfaction with the “appeal to infinity”, popular in Spinoza and Hegel, is that by using a phrase such as “appeal to infinity” one actually removes the required capacity of infinity because it has effectively been contained and tamed to fit neatly within such a phrase. The idea being that infinity by its nature should not be able to be contained because of its inherent quality of being infinite and not finite. Setting a phrase to something places that something within the confines of the finite and removes possibilities of infinity. Consequently, Sartre opts out of the problem of reduction by introducing “Nothingness”. Now, quite what he does with “nothingness” we shall have to wait and see.


Possibly no “glimpses” of ethics as yet, but patience my friends, patience.


  1. Sartre, J-P. Being and Nothingness: An Essay on Phenomenological Ontology. Translated by Hazel E. Barnes, Routledge, 1995, 625.
  2. Sartre, J-P. Existentialism and Humanism. Translated by Philip Mairet, Methuen, 2007, 34.
  3. Ibid., 28.
  4. See Levinas, E. Otherwise Than Being: Or Beyond Essence. Translated by Alphonso Lingis, Duquesne University Press, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, 1999, 122.
  5. Sartre, J-P. Being and Nothingness: An Essay on Phenomenological Ontology. Translated by Hazel E. Barnes, Routledge, 1995, 628.
  6. Pellauer, D. ‘Translator’s Introduction’ included in Jean-Paul Sartre, Notebooks For An Ethics. Translated by David Pellauer, The University of Chicago Press, London, 1992, xvii.
  7. Ibid.
  8. Ibid.
  9. Sartre, J-P. Being and Nothingness: An Essay on Phenomenological Ontology. Translated by Hazel E. Barnes, Routledge, 1995, 625.
  10. Ibid.
  11. Sartre, J-P. Being and Nothingness: An Essay on Phenomenological Ontology. Translated by Hazel E. Barnes, Routledge, 1995, xxvii.
  12. Ibid., xxii.
  13. Ibid., xxxix.
  14. Ibid., 74.
  15. Ibid.
  16. Ibid.
  17. Ibid., 76.
  18. Ibid.
  19. Ibid., 78.

38. The Death of Ivan Ilyich


“What if I really have been wrong in the way I’ve lived my whole life?”1
Ivan Ilyich in The Death of Ivan Ilyich

In the last post we saw how disruptive we, as individuals, can be to the possibility of ethics arising. If we follow a course of action throughout life, or even just for a few seconds, that can’t see past our own agenda then we effectively place ourselves behind a mirror where no one can affect us. Sometimes, it could be argued, this might be necessary to protect ourselves from threats. However, what we can all agree on is that such locking ourselves away is certainly not ethical and that we take the road of the solitary individual who cannot or will not take other people’s needs or lives into account, let alone their hopes, dreams or aspirations. An exemplary display of such isolating behaviour is found in Leo Tolstoy’s novella The Death of Ivan Ilyich.

Written in 1882 when Tolstoy was fifty-four, and had literary success firmly in his grasp with such works as War and Peace and Anna Karenina, The Death of Ivan Ilyich is striking in its plot construction and concision. As Anthony Briggs comments “The title of the tale announces its ending,”2 which means that we are not going to be treated to a thriller that keeps us on the edge of our seats waiting to see if the protagonist can survive. We know that Ivan Ilyich Golovin is going to die no matter what and this puts sharply the authorial energy, and readers’ focus, onto how rather than if that death will come. The denouement declaration is matched by a shift in gears from the epic novelist to the writer of “relentless compression”3 according to Briggs, as Tolstoys pares down his prose to present a tight and urgent parable of the mis-spent life and inevitable death of a member of the Russian bourgeoisie.

19th Century Russian Noble

The tale is also a literary masterpiece in the uncomfortably close observation of someone facing death. Tolstoy doesn’t spare the reader as he delves into the torment of Ivan Ilyich, who realises before the halfway point of the seventy page story that he is going to die. As Briggs states “there is no doubt about the devastating power of this harrowing narrative. Its literary quality, founded on grim descriptive realism and remarkable psychological insight, stands beyond dispute.”4 Ours, though, is a different focus.

From the outset we are met with ‘solitary’ characters who each pursue life solely with their own ends in mind and everyone else is a means to those ends. Ivan Ilyich’s friends and colleagues at the law court building, where he was a “Member of the Court of Justice”5 read of his passing in the local Gazette and we are told instantly who will succeed Ivan Ilyich’s position and the subsequent chain reaction that will shuffle the colleagues into new roles. As Tolstoy wrote:

“So, the first thought that occurred to each of the assembled gentleman on hearing the news of his death was how this death might affect his own prospects, and those of their acquaintances, for transfer or promotion.”6


Plus, if we think about it, the supposed friends/colleagues found about about Ivan Ilyich’s death not through each other or from the Ivan Ilyich’s family but from the faceless organ of an impersonal newspaper. This is not the way most of us hear news of someone we cherish. Tolstoy mines the vein of self-interest further:

“’I must apply to have my brother-in-law transferred from Kaluga’, thought Pyotr Ivanovich. ‘My wife will be delighted. She wont be able to tell me I never do anything for her people’.”7

Ivan Ilyich’s demise can therefore be put to good use for Pyotr Ivanovich and his equally self-invested wife. Well, isn’t that just dandy for them. Nothing like having one’s first thought being how might I profit for someone else’s misery, suffering or death.


To ensure that we don’t feel that these are somehow minor characters, in their own little universe looking in at the main events from a detached perspective, Tolstoy announces that Pyotr Ivanovich was one of Ivan Ilyich’s closest and oldest friends; law school buddies no less. Tolstoy then gives Pyotr Ivanovich centre stage by delivering him to Ivan Ilyich’s house and widow, after he filled his belly with dinner, to give his condolences.

When approaching the room where the body was laid for people to pay their last respects, Pyotr Ivanovich was at a loss as to what to do or what was expected of him in this situation. He had an ace up his sleeve though: “The only thing he was certain of was that in this situation you couldn’t go wrong if you made the sign of the cross.”8


His respectability intact Pyotr Ivanovich continued into the room but was startled by the face of his friend and colleague because it seemed that “the expression contained a reproach, or at least a reminder, to the living.”9 Tolstoy draws this incident out to show both the humanity of Pyotr Ivanovich and also the swift determination to cover it up nervously:

“The reminder seemed out of place to Pyotr Ivanovich, or at least he felt it didn’t apply to him personally. But an unpleasant feeling came over him, and he crossed himself again, hurriedly – too hurriedly, he thought, the haste was almost indecent – before turning and heading for the door.”10

Human feelings in the face of death are suppressed with the respectable tropes of orthodox religion that prevent any undignified behaviour. A friend, waiting in the next room, who exuded self-control and a marked air of being unperturbed by the whole affair, further assists Pyotr Ivanovich:

“One glance at his mischievous, immaculately elegant figure and Pyotr Ivanovich felt restored. He could see that Schwartz was above all this, and would be impervious to anything that might have been depressing.”11

nikolai dress uniform.fw

Lucky old Pyotr Ivanovich, eh? We wouldn’t want him to let his guard down and actually allow a real emotion to overwhelm him would we? Fortunately, for Pyotr Ivanovich, Schwartz further supports him as they very briefly arrange to play whist at Ivan Ilyich’s other ‘close’ friend’s house later that night. Whist is the group’s collective and respectable entertainment that befits their position in society as they see it.

At this point, Ivan Ilyich’s widow, Praskoya Fyodorovna, makes her first appearance to converse in private with Pyotr Ivanovich. She and he make a play of grieving under Tolstoy’s deft and precise hand that shows the hypocrisy of each through their words, actions and Pyotr Ivanovich’s thoughts. She relates, “He screamed for three solid days without stopping for breathe. It was unbearable. I don’t know how I got through it.”12 To which we see his self-involved response which appears to ignore any possible sympathy for his friend and colleague:

“’… Just think, it could happen to me any time, now,’ he thought, and he felt that momentary pang of fear. But immediately he was saved, without knowing how, by the old familiar idea that this had happened to Ivan Ilyich, not him, and it could not and would not happen to him, and that kind of thinking would not happen to him, and that kind of thinking would put him in a gloomy mood, for which there was no need, as Schwartz’s face had clearly demonstrated.”13

Praskoya Fyodorovna then proceeds to the real business of grilling Pyotr Ivanovich for his knowledge of how to use the death of her husband to get money out of the Treasury. His lack of knowledge, however, allows her to dispense with him and for him to escape her company. He has finished being useful to her and he desires the front door and his game of whist.


But what of Ivan Ilyich himself? Was he any better than this coven of respectable parasites?

The middle son of a Privy Councillor in Petersberg after working in various ministries, Ivan Ilyich emulated his father, but not as successfully as his older brother. Magistrates’ courts in a few towns found themselves occupied by his presence for a time until his early death at forty-five following a fall from a step-ladder and injuring his side on a window-frame knob. Throughout his mature years he became fixated on demonstrating that he had achieved the trappings of success and lived with Praskoya Fyodorovna and their two children in their perfect homes that were actually devoid of any warmth, affection or love save from their son Vladimir Ivanich – Vasya – who still retained his childish innocence.

The slow decline of Ivan Ilyich’s health over a period of months is duly catalogued by Tolstoy, with the interactions of family members becoming more and more distant, grating and painful to all as they all try to ignore Ivan Ilyich’s terminal status. Bleakly, though, Ivan Ilyich has started staring into the abyss and morosely feeling sorry for himself: “Ivan Ilyich could see that he was dying, and he was in constant despair.”14 A parade of doctors attends to monitor, assess, discuss ‘blind-gut’ and ‘floating kidney’ symptoms whilst Praskoya Fyodorovna steadfastly sticks to her developed mantra “He just won’t do as he’s told!”15


By the mid-point of doctors’ visits, though, Ivan Ilyich has changed. His annoyance with his wife has turned to hatred, but most of all he settled upon a single focus for his frustration, pain and distress:

“Ivan Ilyich’s worst torment was the lying – the lie, which was somehow maintained by them all, that he wasn’t dying, he was only ill, and all he had to do was keep calm and follow doctor’s orders and then something good would emerge. Whereas he knew that, whatever was done to him, nothing would emerge but more agony, suffering and death.”16


Finally, Ivan Ilyich begins to gain a humane perspective on his situation. He is dying, but the others around him, and even he himself at times, are acting in denial of this unpleasant truth.

“He could see that the awful, terrible act of his dying had been reduced by those around him to the level of an unpleasant incident, something rather indecent (as if they were dealing with someone who had come into the drawing-room and let off a bad smell), and this was done by exploiting the very sense of ‘decency’ that he had been observing all his life.”17

The ‘decencies’ of social parties with their close circle of friends, once they had “shrugged off and discarded all the shabby friends and relatives who flocked around,”18 the routine of work where “the trick was to eliminate the element of crude everyday life that always disrupts the smooth flow of official business,”19 and the success of life that enabled him to buy an apartment with “spacious, high-ceilinged reception rooms with their old-fashioned décor, the gracefully appointed and comfortable study, the rooms for his wife and daughter, the classroom for his son.”20 All of it had become cast into shadow. The realisation that his life had been spent in a mind-set of superficial and self-serving activities, that he positively encouraged and instilled in those around him, was becoming apparent as the others continued to uphold these ‘virtues’ of decency and respectability. Tolstoy has brought Ivan Ilyich’s life to the point of tragic realisation as the dying man realises the full extent of what he has brought upon himself in his hour of need, the cultivation of denial, disinterest and detachment in the behaviour of others towards him combined with the hammer-blow thought that “Maybe I didn’t live as I should have done?”21


The hammer, however, only managed a glancing blow. When “wanting to weep, wanting to be cuddled and have tears shed over him,”22 a colleague, Shebek, appears in his room:

“And, instead of weeping and getting some tenderness, Ivan Ilyich puts on a solemn and serious face, looks thoughtful and from sheer habit not only comments on the significance of a decision handed down by the Court of Cassation, but goes on to defend it strongly.”23

The lack of ethical behaviour in all the characters in the Death of Ivan Ilyich is palpable throughout, save for Vasya and Gerasim. Also, the bulk of the family and friends exhibit none of the manifestations to allow for otherness, which Silvia Benso ascribes such as touch, attention, tenderness or a sense of festival. They are all caught up in their selves too much to allow anyone else to impact in the slightest. Even loved ones, let alone friends are held at arms length at all times. To let down one’s guard and genuinely open up to meet with another person in the world of Ivan Ilyich is to run the gauntlet of social disgrace and risk being banished from sight just as Ivan Ilyich banished so many in his working life when all he believed he was making judgement upon were “petitions” or “enquiries” of “official business,”24 not actual people’s lives. The scope for human interaction beyond “official business” is squashed harder than a persistent fly buzzing around a champion fly-swat Louisiana grandmother rocking gently on her porch with over a thousand kills to her name.

Fly Swat.fw

Ethics and otherness do not fit into the tightly wound ‘decent’ society of Ivan Ilyich. A situation that only becomes apparent to Ivan Ilyich when he is sliding down death’s skewer to oblivion. The only person to ease his pain in the last few days of his life is the “peasant servant”25 Gerasim who has made it clear to Ivan Ilyich that he knows he is gravely ill and that he wants to try and make Ivan Ilyich as comfortable as he can: “It’d be different if you weren’t ill, but with things the way they are why shouldn’t I help you out?”26 And it is whilst looking at Gerasim’s sleeping face at the foot of his bed, in the middle of the night, that the hammer-blow thought comes again this time though to an Ivan Ilyich who can accept it rather than running from it:

“’What if I really have been wrong in the way I’ve lived my whole life, my conscious life?’
It occurred to him that what had once seemed a total impossibility – that he had not lived his life as he should have done – might actually be true… His career, the ordering of his life, his family, the things that preoccupied people in society and at work – all of this might have been wrong. He made an attempt at defending these things for himself. And suddenly he sensed the feebleness of what he was defending. There was nothing to defend.”27

Nothing left to defend.fw

Possibly Gerasim’s innocence acted as a catalyst to Ivan Ilyich’s acceptance although this, of course and as it should be, is unverifiable. However, from this epiphany the descent into death proper came rapidly. Communion, at the instance of Praskoya Fyodorovna, was followed by a terse embittered “Yes” to her question “You really do feel better, don’t you?”28 Then came three unbroken days and nights of screaming torment, which only came to a halt when Vasya caught his flailing father’s arm, kissed his hand and burst into tears. Ivan Ilyich managed to express brokenly that he was sorry to Vasya and Praskoya Fyodorovna, although “Forgive me” came out as “For goodness…”29 Clarity then gripped him in its light and he realised that he must “set them free, and free himself from all this suffering.”30 The last gasps came and then death.

Ivan Ilyich the perfect example of the ‘solitary’ individual who at every turn blocked the Levinasian face of the other and all but nearly died by the hand he thrust into the world without touch, tenderness or attention. Only at the brink of death, once death is absolutely certain, did Tolstoy allow his tragically blighted eponymous anti-hero some compassion, and to realise it was compassion, from those two saving graces, Gerasim and Vasya, in this tale of torment and example of how not to live.



  1. Tolstoy, L. ‘The Death of Ivan Ilyich’ included in The Death of Ivan Ilyich and Other Stories. Translated by Anthony Briggs, Penguin, 2006, 213.
  2. Briggs, A. ‘Introduction’ included in The Death of Ivan Ilyich and Other Stories. Translated by Anthony Briggs, Penguin, 2006, xix.
  3. Ibid., xxiii.
  4. Ibid., xxii.
  5. Tolstoy, L. ‘The Death of Ivan Ilyich’ included in The Death of Ivan Ilyich and Other Stories. Translated by Anthony Briggs, Penguin, 2006, 157.
  6. Ibid., 158.
  7. Ibid.
  8. Ibid,. 159.
  9. Ibid., 160.
  10. Ibid., 160-161.
  11. Ibid., 161.
  12. Ibid., 163.
  13. Ibid., 164.
  14. Ibid., 193.
  15. Ibid., 204.
  16. Ibid., 199.
  17. Ibid.
  18. Ibid., 181.
  19. Ibid., 179.
  20. Ibid., 176.
  21. Ibid., 210.
  22. Ibid., 200.
  23. Ibid.
  24. Ibid., 179.
  25. Ibid., 196.
  26. Ibid., 199.
  27. Ibid., 213.
  28. Ibid., 215.
  29. Ibid., 216.
  30. Ibid., 217.

37. We Have To Do Some Work!


Only when the mirror is broken from both sides do ethics and otherness rush forward to greet each other.

Let us reflect for a moment on Silvia Benso’s work, but in conjunction with Levinas’.

I think it’s safe to say that Benso offers a sympathetic postulation of Levinas’ thoughts on the il y a. However, instead of images of night, insomnia, and the persecution of existence, a lighter side is developed that articulates a wakefulness filled with potential, where things become animated, vibrant, and present to us. Her innovations of touch, attention, tenderness, and festival can be seen as paths into this lighter, and more positive side to the il y a. Just as Derrida realised that Levinas couldn’t resist the ‘expectation of an expectation’, which ultimately determined the neutrality of the il y a into the form of an other as human and took him away from Blanchot, then so too does Benso have an ‘expectation of an expectation.’ But this time we are taken back towards Blanchot, albeit a lighter and more joyful version.

Benso’s expectation is that otherness does not have to be solely determined in one form: the human. By addressing and identifying the alterity (otherness) within things, as we have seen in post 33, as well as implicitly considering Levinas’ work on human ethics as descriptive rather than prescriptive, Benso actually aids the maintenance of neutrality that Blanchot sought for the il y a, which we observed in post 23. In no way, however, is Benso’s shift one that rejects Levinas’ work. The multiplicity of the otherness given by Benso’s work is still grounded in the potential for an ethical relation, a relation that is first made manifest by Levinas. So Levinas, as far as ethics are concerned, remains king of the hill and the undisputed heavyweight champion of the world. Or, does he?


Simon Critchley takes a friendly but critical look at Levinas and asks, “Why should the discovery of alterity necessitate ethics?”1 Going deeper into the vein of his criticism Critchley sets forth a concern that pulls at the fabric of Levinas’ logic:

“I can see why there has to be a radical alterity in the relation to the other and at the heart of the subject in order to avoid philosophies of totality, but to play devil’s advocate, I do not see why such alterity then receives the predicate ‘goodness’. Why does radical otherness have to be determined as good or evil in an absolute metaphysical sense? Could one – and this is the question motivating critique – accept Levinas’s quasi-phenomenological description of radical alterity whilst suspending or bracketing out their ethico – metaphysical consequences?”2

Levinas is up against the ropes here. Has Critchley just delivered a knockout punch that has the potential to cripple Levinas’ entire philosophy? If we are to help second Levinas, steady his nerves, and focus his concentration we need to do some work ourselves.


The answer to Critchley’s questions, whilst comprehending that there might be no apparent reason for a connection between alterity and ethics, ultimately rests in whether we can state that where there is alterity there is also ethics. This is our task, because referring back to Critchley; it does appear that Levinas is trying “to smuggle a metaphysical presupposition into a quasi-phenomenological description.”3

Fortunately, we have Benso in our corner. By looking at Benso’s work as well as Levinas’ it should be evident that a synthesis can be said to exist between the thing/face and the subject that conditions the manifestation of alterity. Let me explain. Alterity arises from the il y a as described by Levinas and Blanchot in terms of night etc. But it can also arise from touch, attention, tenderness, and festival where the subject (me or you) is shown to be positively at work and involved, in such a way as to present ourselves as receptive to alterity, rather than just overwhelmed by it. In making ourselves receptive to alterity, we relinquish our totalising vision and ontological rationale. Now this is important, because it is in this relinquishing that we discover the arrival of alterity and ethics in unison. The synthesis of thing/face with us occurs, yes, because of the alterity of the thing/face, however it also requires our openness in the manner Benso outlined with touch, attention, tenderness and festival. Without our openness there is no alterity. Another term for openness, of course, is ethical, and that is the Benso-Levinas ‘killer-blow’ to Critchley’s devil’s advocate position.

killer blow.fw

Another way to think about the Benso-Levinas pairing is that when we regard something, or someone, as merely an object we dismiss both any possible alterity and, at the same moment any possible ethical relation. The dead-eyed stare of the cold, calculating political candidate allows no room for otherness or ethics when they assess our worth in terms of ‘voter potential’. To the candidate our existence is rendered purely as an object. Our individual personality, thoughts, hopes, dreams and aspirations are all ignored or used as they further their own ends with our being. We become voter 345929 rather than anything approximating to the full complexity of the person we know ourselves to be: our alterity is obliterated by their totalizing gaze just as surely as any possible ethical behaviour emanating from them. In their objectifying/totalising of us alterity and ethics are equally eviscerated. Conversely, when something, or someone, can be said to have alterity we should realise that an ethical relation also exists at that moment. All of which, I hope to have made clear, means that we can state when there is otherness there is also ethics. The two come hand in hand, but let us not forget that it took Benso’s work to help Levinas out of this sticky position and us to see the coupling of otherness and ethics.

Hand in Hand.fw

In some ways we could pause here and reflect solely on what we have understood so far. However, as you can probably guess from the text flowing onwards this is not going to be the case. Instead, I want to spend a bit of time trying to understand why Levinas stuck to his guns and manoeuvred himself so dangerously into Critchley’s friendly but almost game ending critique.

What we have to remember is that Levinas’ philosophy was predicated upon a hard-nosed version of individual responsibility. In fact it could be argued that the necessity of having responsibility as ‘first philosophy’ seemed to guide Levinas’ thoughts through the realisation of the il y a directly into the face of another human. So what was going on then for Levinas? Why, in Derrida’s phrase, did he have ‘expectation of an expectation’ – the drive to give the il y a an anthropocentric base?

To answer this we have to understand what Levinas lived through. If one gives even the least cursory glance at his biography it becomes obvious that his defining moment was World War II. He was a Lithuanian Jewish philosopher living in France, conscripted to military service, who became a prisoner of war upon the German invasion of France. In addition, his family in Lithuania were also killed in the Holocaust. Consequently, it is no great leap to imagine that Levinas was very probably motivated by both personal and professional desperation to realign humanity.

Europe union.fw

The answer lay in replacing the guilty philosophy of ontology which led to the atrocities of war and genocide, for Levinas, with a purer form of philosophy. And, any such new philosophy had to be capable of yielding an unquestionable presence that could pump the blood back into the collapsed and distended arteries of horrified and mutilated nations. Consequently, only an ethics of responsibility for the other, prior to all other philosophies, could provide such a transfusion for Levinas. Hence the ‘expectation of an expectation’ became the one true ‘life source’, and effectively eliminated all other contenders for alterity and determined the Other as human because, the path to the human other necessitated no deviation or distraction to ensure that the ultimate objective was met: a sound philosophy that would not lead us again into the collapse of humanity and to genocide.

Quite whether this objective had been met, taken for granted, or forgotten by the time that Benso enters the scene is beyond the current task of our research. However, what is certain is that Benso’s work broadens Levinas’ objective to encompass a wider range of alterity so that otherness can be discovered outside the human face. Moreover, at the same time, her work continues Levinas’ marriage of ethics and otherness by revealing their unification in all the latter’s forms (such as touch, attention, tenderness and festival). Such unification only becomes evident, and Critchley’s reservations as to Levinas’ ‘smuggling’ answered, after Benso’s work introduces such other forms, because only then can we see how the subject’s questioning of the mode of being of things impacts upon the presence of otherness in the first place. This is not to dismiss Levinas’ work on the face as erroneous, in that he insisted that the face and hence responsibility came from outside of the subject, but to recognise that this was the exemplary but not necessarily definitive model, and that the subject can have a role in the manifestation of alterity.

Sad Girl and Monkey.fw

Again, this is important because strict Levinasian scholars would possibly seek to argue here and insist that one of the key tenets of Levinas’ philosophy has been ruptured. Personally, I like to see Benso’s work complementing Levinas and helping him out of such sticky corners as laid on by the likes of Critchley and possibly others. However, the strict scholars would probably like to say that the whole drive of Levinas’ thoughts is based upon otherness presenting itself to the subject no matter whether the subject is open to such otherness or not. Such strictness of course gives Levinas power in one sense in that a subject can never avoid responsibility for the other by claiming to be unaware or not noticing the otherness of the other. In another sense, though, as Critchley makes clear, it feels somewhat as if Levinas has conjured ethics from a “quasi-phenomenological description of radical alterity”. The first sense, we can see now, had to be present for Levinas because he wanted to shore up any possibility of a future holocaust where people ignore their own humanity by treating others as objects and ultimately killing them. So, on his own against such as critiques as Critchley’s, Levinas can be found wanting in terms of philosophical rigour. However, as we can see Benso steps in to aid him in his hour of need. Maybe, though, we need to reflect on her assistance further to see a little deeper into how she rescued Levinas from Crtichley’s critique?

To look that bit deeper we need to view the matter from a different perspective. The problem, which I believe, Benso ultimately helps Levinas to overcome can perhaps be held more firmly in our grasp when we bring back F. Mai Owens ‘solitary’ individual in a state of self-absorption, within their mirror-lined globe, as first seen in post 25. Can it be conceived, even within Levinas’ strict system, that a human face can be presented to this ‘solitary’ individual and that, because of the way that individual questions the mode of being of things, a Levinasian ‘face’ might not actually appear? Instead an object could appear which has eyes, a nose, rouged checks and a red lipstick smile.

Manniquin face.fw

At this point, it should be noted that the force which Levinas wished to bestow upon the notion of the ‘face,’ as that before which we encounter an unavoidable responsibility, is not diminished by the example of the ‘solitary’ individual because the Levinasian ‘face’ has as yet not appeared. And, the reason it has not appeared is because the ‘solitary’ individual objectified what they saw and effectively blocked the Levinasian ‘face’. A Levinasian ‘face’ within that encounter does not yet exist; instead, an object does and will continue to do so until something shifts in the questioning of the mode of being of things within the subject, the individual themselves.

Woman's face.fw

In addition, before any such ‘shift’, the ‘solitary’ individual as well as blindly passing by otherness also blindly passes by ethics. If one is locked in one’s own ‘mirror-lined’ world then one cannot be said to be ethical, if by being ethical we take action to be based on needs that aren’t one’s own.

Only when the mirror is broken from both sides do ethics and otherness rush forward to greet each other.

Ethics and otherness alt 4.fw

Effectively, then, by introducing ways in which the subject can be open, by breaking the mirror from the subject’s side through touch, tenderness, attention and festival, Benso’s work demonstrates not only the unity of otherness and ethics, but also the difficulty in realistically separating the action of the subject from the ‘face’ of the other when moments of otherness and ethics can be said to be made manifest. The manifestation appears to require both the subject and the ‘face,’ contrary to Levinas and an indecisive Heidegger on this issue. Through relinquishing the totalising gaze – the mirror lined perspective – and by adopting the open approaches touch, tenderness, attention and festival we become ethical. In our openness, as described by Benso, we become ethical.

So, rather than possibly undermining Levinas, a possible accusation from the strict Levinasian scholars, Benso, I believe, strengthens his project by giving a strong ethical stance through the addition of touch, tenderness, attention and festival and taking his thoughts past the limits of their original ‘humanitarian’ or anthropocentric objective towards a more encompassing vision. Of course, it can be said that within Existence and Existents, when Levinas first discovered alterity, he did seem to have a broader view of alterity. However, as we know, in his later texts he narrowed his field of vision in order to reveal a purely ‘humanitarian’ ethics. One point being, that such ‘narrowing’ overshadowed other potential questions or options for alterity within Existence and Existents: alterity within abstract art being one such option, as we saw in post 31. The second point being that his postulation of ethics needed beefing up by Benso to avoid being flattened entirely by the likes of Critchley’s sound devil’s advocate critique.

Devils advocate.fw

Well, maybe we should stop here for the moment. After all we have boxed with Critchley, thought about philosophy’s impact on the Holocaust, examined Benso’s strengthening of Levinasian thought and not even paused to look at any art! So, it’s fair to say that we have done some work. However, the real point is that we need to do more work with each other, a la Benso’s ideas, in order to not block the ‘face’ of the other person in revealing their otherness and our ethical responsibility. So, work on, people, work on!

At work mulitiples x 15 colour


  1. Critchley, S. Very Little… Almost Nothing: Death, Philosophy, Literature, Routledge, London, 1997, 82.
  2. Ibid.
  3. Ibid., 81.

36. Harris or Hemingway?


“Festivals also suspend that everyday, non-festive attitude which is prone to a consideration of things in terms of objects… therefore opening up a different space: the space of what is meaningful in itself, without reference and insertion into a previously constituted system.”1
Silvia Benso

In her dazzling polemic Pip Pip: A Sideways Look at Time, Jay Griffiths bemoans a palpable shift in modern culture away from festivals and towards more banal, isolated and staged consumptions of time away from work.

“People today take nuclear-holidays, one family, a couple, at the most a small group of friends, who go away for a special time-off, a playtime of their own. In one way, these holidays replace festival-time in being non-work happy-days, but there is a crucial difference. Traditional festivals meant a whole village or community taking time off together, furthering a sense of community.”2

A Village Fair by Pieter Brueghel the younger c.1616 - 1635.fw
A Village Fair by Pieter Brueghel the younger c.1616 – 1635

Just as we saw with Silvia Benso’s thoughts in the last post, another threat to festivals are those events that “become ceremonies, parades, masquerades at the service of regimes,”3 which Griffiths gives illustration through the medium of the Great British royal ceremony, such as seen in the annual Queen’s Opening of Parliament:

“But this ain’t no festival; no one’s drunk for starters. This is pageantry, the enemy of carnival-time and festival. Festival wants people’s participation; pageantry wants the people’s partition.”4

Griffiths also adroitly brings in that third member of the UK’s power triumvirate, Religion, to be held accountable alongside the Government and Monarchy:

“Festivals are ahistoric, pageantry keeps its history alive and the historicist Christian church sticks like glue to pageantry – each reflects the other, hierarchical, male-dominated and anti-erotic.”5


So, if festivals aren’t holidays or pageants, what else besides a lack of male-dominance and prudishness are they in Griffiths’ eyes? Or as she puts it, “How could you characterize festival-time?”6 Obviously, she has the answers:

“First, they are almost always tied to nature’s time. Second, they have an ahistoric quality, not tied to specific events in a recorded past. Third, they transform work-time to play and have a quality of reversal, turning the tables on ordinary social relations, or expected behaviour. Fourth, they are characterised by an earthy vulgarity, deeply sexual in their traditions and symbols. And lastly, they emphasize a community of people and a locality of land.”7

Before segueing into natural literary fits for Griffiths’ list of festival qualities, we should also remember Gadamer’s thoughts in that festivals provide a space for “true participation” and “being outside oneself” to allow for “the positive possibility of being wholly with something else.”8 And, to be thoroughly comprehensive Benso’s thoughts should also be recalled:

“Festivals also suspend that everyday, non-festive attitude which is prone to a consideration of things in terms of objects… therefore opening up a different space: the space of what is meaningful in itself, without reference and insertion into a previously constituted system.”9

Ticker tape

Armed with a burgeoning list of festival attributes we can now descend into the merry-making worlds of Harris and Hemingway.

The Sun Also Rises, or Fiesta, was written by Ernest Hemingway in 1924 and in it’s sparse narrative style it ushers in a new era of writing. The Iceberg Theory, attributed to Hemingway, sees his work as only presenting what is on the surface. No unnecessary context, description or interpretation is given which creates both a terse, hard, and always-to-the-point focus to the prose but also a distance between the characters and the reader. Although we know clearly and bluntly what happens in a Hemingway novel we are never given an inside track on the thoughts of the protagonists or secondary characters.


From the off we are made a vicarious consort to Jake Barnes and his hedonistic journalistic life amongst a claustrophobic circle of decadent, lost and empty friends. The sense of disillusionment following the First World War pervades the narrative as we witness scene after scene of ostensible sociability fuelled by alcohol and dissatisfaction, with minimal expression given by Hemingway save to keep the action and dialogue flowing. A brief hiatus appears at the beginning of chapter five where Hemingway breaks slightly from the modernist furrow, that allows no unnecessary description, to present a momentary break in the clouds as Barnes walks out in the morning to do as the Parisians do and breakfast in a café with a coffee and brioche. The style is still scant though in its approach:

“There was the pleasant early-morning feeling of a hot day. I read the papers with the coffee and then smoked a cigarette. The flower-women were coming up from the market and arranging their daily stock. Students went by going up to the law school or down to the Sorbonne. The Boulevard was busy with trams and people going to work. I got on a S bus and rode down to the Madeleine, standing on the back platform. From the Madeleine I walked along the Boulevard des Capucines to the Opéra, and up to my office. I passed the man with the jumping frogs and the man with the boxer toys.”10

Coffee Croissant.fw

Hiatus aside, the plot steadfastly traces a few weeks of Barnes’ life and follows him as he travels across the border into Spain and to Pamplona for the annual running of the bulls and festival of San Fermin with two friends, Robert Cohn and Bill Gorten. At Pamplona they are joined by the thirty-four year old Lady Brett Ashley and her companion, Mike Campbell. All stay at the Hotel Montoya for the duration of the seven-day long festival. At the hotel the owner, minimalistically referred to as ‘Montoya’, meets his old client Barnes and they exchange views as to which of Barnes friends are aficionados of bull-fights. Hemingway allows himself space for clarificatory exposition:

“Aficion means passion. An aficionado is one who is passionate about the bull-fights. All the good bull-fighters stayed at Montoya’s hotel; that is, those with aficion stayed there. The commercial bull-fighters stayed once, perhaps, and then did not come back.”11

The play Hemingway makes at this point is to distinguish between those bull-fighters and spectators who authentically immerse themselves in the activity at hand and those who cynically partake of it to make a living – it’s work – or those who regard it as a mere spectacle with no difference in attitude as when they regard a pageant. In the story, Barnes and his friends, Bill Gorten and Brett Ashley, get swept up in the passion and authentic spirit of the festival, whereas Robert Cohn and Mike Campbell become consumed with jealousy and obsession for their love of Brett. The love triangle becomes complex though as we are increasingly made aware of Barnes’ love for Brett as well, although both she and he agree that they can never be due to a war injury to Barnes that has rendered him impotent. Both resign themselves, however, to what cannot be unlike Campbell and Cohn. Not stopping at a quadrangle, Hemingway ramps up the earthy and erotic nature of the story, if one follows Griffiths fourth festival time requirement, because Brett begins a liaison with the much admired, for his bull-fighting skill and good looks, Pedro Romano, the nineteen year old matador.


Throughout their whole time at the festival the circle of friends seem to drink their way from breakfast onwards throughout the course of each day in a dissolute attempt at Bacchanalian revelry that sees them joining together in joyous community with the other festival participants at times and at others observes their pathetic and wretched torturing of themselves and each other.

“The fiesta was really started. It kept up day and night for seven days. The dancing kept up, the drinking kept up, the noise went on. The things that happened could only have happened during a fiesta. Everything became unreal finally and it seemed as though nothing could have any consequences. It seemed out of place to think of consequences during the fiesta.”12

Hemingway’s bitter expression of his characters exploits during the festival bites hard at Gertrude Stein’s encapsulation of the ‘lost generation’ and is wrought with pathos on their collective human condition. However his, albeit slight, descriptions of Barnes et al during the fiesta do exemplify Griffiths’ thoughts on festival time with Lady Brett Ashley’s fling with a young matador upsetting her traditional norms of repressed social behaviour to the nth degree.

1920s woman.fw

As well, the overall experience of a timeless festival embedded in the land and community comes over in wafts of dust, fifes, drums, and flowing wine, with the locals rallying to give their all across the seven days. The circle of friends, of course, are desperate to authentically partake and absorb themselves into this culture as a means to escape the rootless nihilism of their own existences. Benso’s suspension of the everyday and Gadamer’s self-forgetting to be “wholly with something else” are giving dramatic form in the frantic abandonment of the friends as they hurl themselves into situations beyond the everyday and beyond themselves so that, presumably, they might feel something rather than the numb futility of their own lives.

So, although Hemingway presents certain key attributes of festival as espoused by Gadamer, Benso and Griffiths, one might sense that I’m not wholly convinced as to the beneficial utility of Fiesta in drawing out the positives. With fingers crossed let’s look at Joanne Harris’ equally successful novel, Chocolat.


It is quite easy to regard the whole of Chocolat as a rich and always scented festival-like immersion. Unlike Hemingway, Harris delights in description and conjuring the reader’s senses to leave them salivating whilst also moving the plot forward and providing the inner workings of two narrators. The charismatic, gentle, culinary-gifted and psychological-insightful Vianne Rocher vies with the guilty, repressed, self-serving and embittered Father Reynaud. In both, though, Harris cannot contain her delight in mouth-watering descriptions that take the reader deep into an exotic fairy-tale toned festival of sensuous images of food:

“I like these people. I like their small and introverted concerns. I can read their eyes, their mouths, so easily: this one with its hint of bitterness will relish my zesty orange twists; this sweet-smiling one the soft-centred apricot hearts; this girl with the windblown hair will love the mendicants; this brisk, cheery woman the chocolate brazils.”13

“The air is hot and rich with the scent of chocolate. Quite unlike the light powdery chocolate I knew as a boy, this has a throaty richness like the perfumed beans from the coffee-stall on the market, a redolence of amaretto and tiramisu, a smoky, burnt flavour which enters my mouth somehow and makes it water. There is a silver jug of the stuff on the counter, from which a vapour rises. I recall that I have not breakfasted this morning.”14

Silver jug with steam.fw

Harris plays on her twin protagonists with alternating narration and rivalry building as the events unfold towards the climatic “Grand Festival Du Chocolat”15 on Easter Sunday, staged by Vianne, as far as Father Reynaud believes, in direct opposition to the values of the church. The puritanical church is set against the pagan seductions of gluttony and a battle ensues to win the hearts and minds of the two hundred villagers of Lansquenet. A few of Reynaud’s more loyal, or sycophantic, parishioners such as Caroline Clairmont even distribute flyers to every household declaring boldly “CHURCH, not CHOCOLATE, is the TRUE MESSAGE of EASTER!”16

Against this plot-line, Harris weaves a more intricate story that shows a variety of characters exemplifying a version of Gadamerian self-forgetfulness that allows for “the positive possibility of being wholly with something else.” Armande Voizin’s overly mothered and closeted grandson, Luc Clairmont, breaks free of Caroline’s debilitating and emotionally twisted shackles to meet in secret with the ‘problematic’ Armande and gets to know her in her last few weeks of life. Josephine Muscat finds the courage to leave her abusive husband, the charmless café owner Serge Muscat, to live and work temporarily with Vianne but more importantly to regain her inner confidence.

Amidst the catalogue of character developments is, perhaps, the most pertinent example of being “wholly with” someone else: the relationship between Armande and Vianne. Without speaking directly each recognises themselves in the other and knows that the other is identically different from everyone else just as they are. Their difference unites the two as they reject the ‘civilising’ norms of the church under Reynaud’s guiding hand. However, as the story develops their lives are drawn tighter together with the real festival occurring not at the Easter Sunday chocolate festival but rather two days earlier at Armande’s eighty-first birthday meal.


Harris’ portrayal of the two women at the celebratory party weaves a vignette of decadent sensuality, abandonment and sensitivity:

“Armande, in high spirits, supplies much of the conversation. I hear Luc’s low, pleasant accents, talking about some book he has read. Caro’s voice sharpens a little – I suspect Armande has poured herself another glass of St. Raphaël”17

After a brief interlude recalling her mother’s views on her delight in all things culinary, Vianne turns her focus on her own presence as the master-chef and equal participant of the party:

“I catch Caro watching Armande with a look of disapproval. I eat a little. Steeped in the scents of the cooking food for most of the day I feel lightheaded this evening, keyed-up and unusually sensitive, so that when Josephine’s hand brushes against my leg during the meal I start and almost cry out. The Chablis is cool and tart, and I drink more of it than I should.”18


Griffiths distinction between sober pageantry and the festive over-quenching of thirsts with alcohol has been resolved by Harris with both Armande and Vianne enjoying this particular aspect of the birthday bash. However, more than this, in Vianne’s noting of her light-headedness and being “unusually sensitive” we get signals from Harris that this scene is very different from previous ones. Vianne, for all her sensuous enjoyment of life, has up until this moment been in cool, calm, control of her emotions and physicality. With Armande’s carousing setting the tone, Vianne finds herself letting go as well as she starts to become in Gadamer’s words “wholly with something else”:

“Colours begin to seem brighter, sounds take on a cut-glass crispness… The glasses and silverware glitter in the light of the lanterns hanging from the trellis above our heads. The night smells of flowers and the river.”19


The freely flowing Chablis and the spirit of Armande influences all the guests and makes the party a wonderful occasion, with even Caroline becoming slightly drunk, but for Vianne it is more than just a party. There is a suspension of the everyday as described by Benso and an “opening up of a different space: the space of what is meaningful in itself, without reference and insertion into a previously constituted system.”20 The night of Armande’s eight-first birthday is lining up for Vianne to become a unique moment that stands outside of everything we have witnessed in the first few weeks. To seal the festive deal, Harris brings in Griffiths’ earthiness, community and “locality of land”21 by having Michel Roux, one of Reynaud’s ostracised travellers make love with Vianne in the garden of Armande when everyone else has wandered back to their homes or fallen asleep:

“For the moment, the simple wonder; at myself lying naked in the grass, at the silent man beside me, at the immensity above and the immensity within. We lay for a long time,…”22

To show that the scene is a unique episode in Vianne’s time at Lansquenet, Harris writes a closure sentence at the end: “When I awoke, Roux was gone, and the wind had changed again.”23 The plot gets driven forward in the next chapter. However, the night of Armande’s birthday is definitely the example of festival, in the midst of a festive novel, because not only are Benso’s Gadamer’s and Griffiths’ thoughts on festival reflected in the evocative thirteen pages, but also we can see Vianne allows herself to be open to the alterity of the other people within this chapter to experience new things that she has before closed herself off from.


Possibly, I have made my own choice a little too transparent as to whether Harris or Hemingway present the better illustration of festival. However, I don’t feel too bad about this because as Benso makes clear in the next post there is much work to be done and now is not the time for misunderstandings.


  1. Benso, S. The Face of Things: A Different Side of Ethics, SUNY Press, Albany, 2000, 191.
  2. Griffiths, J. Pip Pip: A Sideways Look at Time, HarperPress, 1999, 80.
  3. Benso, S. The Face of Things: A Different Side of Ethics, SUNY Press, Albany, 2000, 196.
  4. Griffiths, J. Pip Pip: A Sideways Look at Time, HarperPress, 1999, 81.
  5. Ibid.
  6. Ibid, 72.
  7. Ibid.
  8. Gadamer, H-G. Truth and Method, second edition. Translated by Joel Weinsheimer and Donald G. Marshall, Sheed and Ward, London, 2001, 124-126.
  9. Benso, S. The Face of Things: A Different Side of Ethics, SUNY Press, Albany, 2000, 191.
  10. Hemingway, E. Fiesta, Pan Books Ltd., 1949, 19.
  11. Ibid., 101.
  12. Ibid., 118-119.
  13. Harris, J. Chocolat, Black Swan, 1999, 61.
  14. Ibid., 154.
  15. Ibid., 153.
  16. Ibid., 294.
  17. Ibid., 336-337.
  18. Ibid., 338.
  19. Ibid., 339.
  20. Benso, S. The Face of Things: A Different Side of Ethics, SUNY Press, Albany, 2000, 191.
  21. Griffiths, J. Pip Pip: A Sideways Look at Time, HarperPress, 1999, 72.
  22. Harris, J. Chocolat, Black Swan, 1999, 346.
  23. Ibid.

35. Festival


The exemplarity of human ethics lies not in its being the prescriptive origin, but the descriptive model of ethics.”1
Silvia Benso

In the last but one post, we had a gander at Silvia Benso’s work on touch, attention and tenderness when thinking about ethical encounters and there was the promise of more of such thinking in the form of festivals. However, before we resume our ‘gandering’ with Benso I want us to ‘goose’ with Gadamer. Accepting that I have quite possibly overstretched the early 1900s idiom for looking, in my uses and abuses of ‘gander’, let us proceed, or waddle, undaunted.

When re-considering play in The Relevance of the Beautiful, Gadamer isolated the change within the spectator, from onlooker to participant, to draw out his new aesthetic perspective:

“We need only think of the theory of epic theatre in Brecht, who specifically fought against our being absorbed in a theatrical dream-world… He deliberately destroyed scenic realism, the normal requirements of characterization, in short, the identity of everything usually expected of a play.”2

the Classic Stage Company's staging of Bertolt Brecht's “Galileo.” Credit Sara Krulwich - The New York Times.fw
The Classic Stage Company’s staging of Bertolt Brecht’s ‘Galileo’. Credit Sara Krulwich – The New York Times

The spectator can no longer sit back and allow the play to unfold before them and escape from themselves throughout its duration, instead they are forced to look at themselves as well as the play and in effect participate with the art that they are with. They are present just as much as the art they see. Because of the connection, of spectator to work, Gadamer believed that “it is quite wrong to think that the unity of the work implies that the work is closed off from the person who turns to it or is affected by it.”3 The mediating construct of this participation and connection, of course, is the concept of play, which applies itself to every form of art:

“All art of whatever kind, whether the art of substantial tradition with which we are familiar or the contemporary art that is unfamiliar because it has no tradition, always demands constructive activity on our part.”4


To elaborate his idea and ensure that it had no possible connection to aesthetic consciousness Gadamer delved back into ancient history and recalled the Greek concept of theoria and articulated the particular meaning of theoros as “someone who takes part in a delegation to a festival.”5 As he explained, this person “has no other distinction or function than to be there.”6 The theoros is not there to interpret, record, or understand, but solely to participate and experience what is before them:

Theoria is a true participation, not as something active but something passive (pathos), namely being totally involved in and carried away by what one sees.” 7

As if to complete the separation from aesthetic consciousness, Gadamer wrote the following:

“Being present has the character of being outside oneself… In fact, being outside oneself is the positive possibility of being wholly with something else.”8

Mardi Gras.fw

The subjective prioritisation of aesthetic consciousness (which, if we remember, was Kant’s position as given by Gadamer and discussed in post eleven) is replaced, not by an annihilation of the self but by an opening of the self to possibilities beyond one’s limits. This occurs by allowing the other to fully present themselves without one’s self-consciousness or consciousness manipulating the potential possibilities of experience. Gadamer described this using the term “self-forgetfulness”, whereby being a spectator means to give “oneself in self-forgetfulness to what one is watching… it arises from devoting one’s full attention to the matter at hand, and this is the spectator’s own positive accomplishment.”9 If we dwell on this statement for a moment it is possible to see the full sense of Gadamer’s meaning because giving one’s full attention to something should actually mean forgetting one’s self. One’s pre-occupations, regrets, desires, insecurities and presumptions should be cast from the forefront of one’s mind when attending as a spectator. Perhaps an easy example is provided by the phrase ‘lost in the music’ whereby we allow ourselves to be taken on a journey. This never happens when cynicism, interpretation, blunt ignorance, or lack of openness acts as our guide.

Lost in Music.fw

There is a striking point to be made here regarding cynicism. In the throes of a party or festival how many times has your enjoyment of the proceedings been interrupted by the ‘witty comment’ of a friend who has your ear at a vital moment to remark upon the ‘obvious agenda’ behind a certain person’s behaviour/dress-sense/participation. At those moments one has the sense of being brought crashing back to reality and joy being killed. The reason being that the cynic has just slammed the door of openness that you were innocently holding open to imbibe the view. Cynics, witty commentators and killjoys never leave the comfort of their own misanthropy and internal musings to experience real life. Life’s rich pageant is purely something to be witnessed from behind their reinforced glass observation pane. My suggestion in order to actually live, therefore, is for you to slip from their side and dare to step into the refreshing breeze of life with the spirit of Gadamer’s self-forgetfulness to keep you aloft. Cut the cynical mooring ropes that bind you to the misery of cynical existence and drift into the wonderment of engaging, participation and living. It won’t always be pleasant, however it will be authentic – a subject for a future time when we travel with Jean-Paul Sartre. For now though, back to Gadamer.

Gadamer’s next point in The Relevance of the Beautiful is again a re-thinking of a concept in Truth and Method. Rather than approaching the idea of festival from the framework of theoros and self-forgetting, Gadamer focused on the inclusive aspect of the spectator:

“If there is one thing that pertains to all festival experiences then it is surely the fact that they allow no separation between one person and another. A festival is an experience of community and represents community in its most perfect form.”10


The self-forgetting of theoros through experience now becomes a self-forgetting through community. A connection is brought about, through the festival, of one with another so that a genuine experience is lived through where one feels, rather than thinks, the connectedness of those around them. Gadamer related this concept back to art when he wrote:

“I am thinking of the national Museum in Athens, where it seems that every ten years they rescue some miraculous new bronze from the depths of the Aegean and set it up again. On entering the room for the first time, one is overcome by an all-embracing festive quiet and one senses how everyone is gathered together before what they encounter. The celebration of a festival is, in technical terms, an intentional activity… It is not simply the fact that we are in the same place, but rather the intention that unites us and prevents us as individuals from falling into private conversations and private, subjective experiences.”11

 NAMA_Poséidon and crowd.fw

Such an experience is a community experience of art, but Gadamer also brought it back to a personal experience of art:

“It is characteristic of festive celebration that it is meaningful only for those actually taking part. As such, it represents a unique kind of presence that must be fully appreciated.”12

Whether it is to twist Gadamer’s words at this juncture, or merely to play out the two lines of his thought, I believe that we can see in his work a distillation point where one can achieve a sense of community with the art work itself. The “unique kind of presence” or ‘community’ could also be felt with the work and is not necessarily tied to the attendance of other people. We can be open to the unique presence of an artwork, as we can be open to the unique presence of the other, could we not?

Perhaps, at this point, though, we need Benso rather than Gadamer. As we saw in a previous post, with her synthesis of Levinas and Heidegger that aimed to bring about a ‘love of things’, Benso has much that can be offered on the matter.

Knuckles 2.fw

In The Face of Things: A Different Side of Ethics, Benso tries to give context and provide a known example of where an ethical encounter of tenderness can take place. To that end she investigates what it is to be in a festival.

As a starting point, time is taken as a medium to present the difference between the festival and the everyday. In the latter, Benso states, time is ‘unidimesional’ because it has a “unilinear directionality corresponding to the advancement of progress in its different variations (reason, the Idea, the victory of the proletarians), thus instituting the modality of time as continuity.”13 So, according to Benso, ‘everyday’ time is linked directly to the idea of progress, rationality, and by association totalisation. Just as vision totalises by assimilating into understanding, so to does time by providing a framework for that assimilation to happen: we progress and understand through time. The resonances with knowledge gaining as opposed to wisdom seeking start to make themselves felt in Benso’s descriptions of everyday time.


In contrast, festival time, Benso reflects, operates by calendars and exhibits “the notion of an interrupted temporality, in which each moment presents the possibility of multiple, innumerable, and therefore immemorial inscriptions the trace of which is, nevertheless, maintained in the citation of the date.”14 By celebrating a particular calendar day, for example Christmas day, other previous Christmas days and future ones all become present on that day outside of linear time, in a rich and satisfying blend of memories, current events, and aspirations. The “discontinuous and nonhomogeneous”15 aspect to festival time interrupts and gives respite from the constant pressure and flow of everyday time and existence. The necessity of a pause comes into play when we experience a festival and at these moments the pressure of linear time gets re-directed around us so we can step outside of ourselves and begin to really look at our world:

Festival Time.fw

“It is [festivals] interruptive character that renders them the most appropriate situation through which the ethics of things can be fulfilled. In their being a suspension of the banality of the everydayness, festivals also suspend that everyday, nonfestive attitude which is prone to a consideration of things in terms of objects… therefore opening up a different space: the space of what is meaningful in itself, without reference and insertion into a previously constituted system.”16

However, a danger that Benso recognises comes from potential similarity between the festival attitude and a “Kierkegaardian aesthetic individual,”17 because the two appear to culminate in the same end: Gratification and the search for pleasure. The difference is that the latter is interested in the “exploitation of objects” for “their own enjoyment,”18 whilst the former expresses “a love for things which maintains them in the separateness of their alterity.”19 (Let us remember that the term ‘alterity’ can roughly be translated as ‘otherness’.) In addition, she writes, “it is only where alterities are allowed to reveal themselves and flourish that festivity can be found.”20 Things, therefore, cannot be regarded as objects if alterity, or otherness, is to be preserved, and festivity, by providing a suitable environment, assists in this preservation. Kierkegaard’s aesthetic individual is consequently warded off by Benso’s appreciation of a ‘Levin-egger’ fusion that can allow for a space whereby otherness can be present in things. That space, of course, is a festive space.

Festive Space.fw

Another danger, considered by Benso, was the potential for festivals to metamorphose into the products of necessity, and become a means to an end:

“When festivals search for a foundation of their own origin within themselves, they betray their own character of response to the call of the events and become ceremonies, parades, masquerades at the service of regimes. That is, festivals lose their ethical component and turn into political ideologies, mythological creations of an ontological rationality rather than responses of an ethical subjectivity, exaltation of the orgy of feelings rather than celebration of the modesty of alterity.”21

A festival is not a ceremony designed to achieve a certain end, it is not meant to serve a higher purpose or give a required result; it is purely a celebration and nothing more. The celebration of a festival allows a unique separateness to occur where neither the subject nor the thing subsumes the other into its world and, further, it is where the conditions for an ethical meeting between the two can be potentially obtained.

Subject and Object.fw

Hence, by preserving alterity within a festival, as it was when Benso investigated touch, attention and tenderness, we find an environment that can be added to a catalogue of ethically conducive requirements. So that with the negation of a totalising vision by touch, the humility of attention, the ‘way of being’ of tenderness, and the environment of festival we can become equipped to encounter a thing ethically.

Benso’s synthesis of Heidegger and Levinas, with her introduction of touch, attention, tenderness, and festival, shows how a love of things can be possible, and that Levinas’ categorical statement that “things have no face,”22 potentially, can be overcome without the integrity of his work being destroyed. The “face” of things is given by the possibility of the ethical encounter and is made realisable by Benso’s working with Levinasian and Heideggerian ideas rather than against them. However, all her technical innovations and persuasiveness find themselves overshadowed by the very simple belief that was stated in the prelude to her synthesis: “The exemplarity of human ethics lies not in its being the prescriptive origin, but the descriptive model of ethics.”23 That this belief was shown to be worthy is a credit to Benso’s work and it enables her to state justly:

“The ethical authority of the Other…, should not obliterate another form of alterity, which is different from the otherness of the other person, and whose presence is less apparent, less evident, less loud: the alterity of what Levinas’s ethics neglects, things.”24

Respect for things.fw

In reference to our second reading of Levinas and art (see post thirty-one), we can now see how the environment or abstract art – each being a ‘thing’ – can be encountered ethically. At the same time, we can also realise that their alterity might not have the enormity of a human other, as Levinas described, but nevertheless they do have an alterity that we can relate to, participate in, and ultimately treat ethically.


  1. Benso, S. The Face of Things: A Different Side of Ethics, SUNY Press, Albany, 2000, 139.
  2. Gadamer, H-G., ‘The Relevance of the Beautiful’ included in The Relevance of the Beautiful and Other Essays. Edited by Robert Bernasconi. Translated by Nicholas Walker, Cambridge University Press, 1994, 24.
  3. Ibid., 25.
  4. Ibid., 37.
  5. Gadamer, H-G. Truth and Method, second edition. Translated by Joel Weinsheimer and Donald G. Marshall, Sheed and Ward, London, 2001, 124.
  6. Ibid.
  7. Ibid., 124-5.
  8. Ibid., 125-6.
  9. Ibid., 126.
  10. Gadamer, H-G. ‘The Relevance of the Beautiful’ included in The Relevance of the Beautiful and Other Essays. Edited by Robert Bernasconi. Translated by Nicholas Walker, Cambridge University Press, 1994, 39.
  11. Ibid., 40.
  12. Ibid., 49.
  13. Benso, S. The Face of Things: A Different Side of Ethics, SUNY Press, Albany, 2000, 185.
  14. Ibid.
  15. Ibid., 186.
  16. Ibid., 191.
  17. Ibid., 192.
  18. Ibid.
  19. Ibid.
  20. Ibid.
  21. Ibid., 196.
  22. Levinas, E. Totality and Infinity: An Essay on Exteriority. Translated by Alphonso Lingis, Duquesne University Press, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, 1998, 140.
  23. Benso, S. The Face of Things: A Different Side of Ethics, SUNY Press, Albany, 2000, 139.
  24. Ibid.

34. Rothko and Sensitive Observers


“When a crowd of people looks at a painting, I think of blasphemy… I believe that a painting can only communicate directly to a rare individual who happens to be in tune with it and the artist.”1
Mark Rothko

On Sunday, June 13, 1943 in The New York Times, under the title ‘Globalism’ Pops Into View, Edward Alden Jewell allowed Adolph Gottlieb and Mark Rothko space to respond to his previous weeks criticism of their works, The Rape of Persephone and The Syrian Bull, about which Jewell had expressed “befuddlement.”2 The artists wrote:

“We refuse to defend them not because we cannot… No possible set of notes can explain our paintings. Their explanation must come out of a consummated experience between picture and onlooker.”3

Such an extreme denial of any attempt to criticise, or explain, their work appears at first glance to apply far more to Rothko’s later classic works than to The Syrian Bull and its contemporaries.

The Rape of Persephone by Adolph Gottlieb, 1943.fw
The Rape of Persephone by Adolph Gottlieb, 1943
The Syrian Bull by Mark Rothko, 1943.fw
The Syrian Bull by Mark Rothko, 1943

By his classic works I mean the paintings in his later career, such as No. 203 (Red, Orange, Tan and Purple) 1954 or No. 14 1960.

No. 203 (Red, Orange, Tan and Purple) 1954 by Mark Rothko, 1954.fw
No. 203 (Red, Orange, Tan and Purple) 1954 by Mark Rothko, 1954
No. 14 1960 by Mark Rothko, 1960.fw
No. 14 1960 by Mark Rothko, 1960

So, let us cast forward from 1943 into Rothko’s prime years.

On October 27, 1958, Rothko, according to Dore Ashton and James E. B. Breslin, gave his last public statement. Speaking without notes at the Pratt Institute in Brooklyn, his lecture ranged across many issues to do with his work, such as: self-expression; Nietzsche; communication; artistic ‘ingredients’; Kierkegaard’s Fear and Trembling; his work as a façade; and human values. It is within this last issue that we can find an initial topic for reflection courtesy of Breslin’s retrieval of a transcription from this lecture:

“I belong to a generation that was preoccupied with the human figure and I studied it. It was with utmost reluctance that I found that it did not meet my needs. Whoever used it mutilated it. No one could paint the figure as it was and feel that he could produce something that could express the world. I refuse to mutilate and had to find another way of expression. I used mythology for a while substituting various creatures who were able to make intense gestures without embarrassment. I began to use morphological forms in order to paint gestures that I could not make people do. But this was unsatisfactory.”4

Slow Swirl at the edge of the sea by Mark Rothko, 1945.fw
Slow Swirl at the edge of the sea by Mark Rothko, 1945

Rothko concluded his lecture, before questions, by stating that his current paintings were “involved with the scale of human feelings, the human drama, as much of it as I can express.”5 Quite evidently, then, Rothko gave the version of his artistic progress as one that throughout all of its manifestations was preoccupied with the ‘human.’ Whilst being a succinct overview from the man himself, we are still left with many questions about his progression: What was ‘unsatisfactory’ about his morphological forms? How did he get to his last format, his classic works? What was it about this last format that made Rothko believe it was the best way he could express the “scale of human feelings”? This final question is, for us, the most relevant because it is concerned purely with Rothko’s mature, or classic, work.

The change to the last format, arguably, started to ferment in 1949 when Rothko began to simplify his work into multiforms, such as No. 20, 1949.

No. 20 1949 by Mark Rothko, 1949.fw
No. 20 1949 by Mark Rothko, 1949

In this transition year he also published a statement in Tiger’s Eye, a quarterly journal run by Ruth and John Stephen, in which he outlined what he saw as a painter’s teleology – their goal:

“The progression of a painter’s work, as it travels in time from point to point, will be toward clarity: toward the elimination of all obstacles between the painter and the idea, and between the idea and the observer. As examples of such obstacles, I give (among others) memory, history or geometry, which are swamps of generalization from which one might pull out parodies of ideas (which are ghosts) but never an idea in itself. To achieve this clarity is, inevitably, to be understood.”6

No. 4 - No. 32 1949 by Mark Rothko, 1949.fw
No. 4 / No. 32 1949 by Mark Rothko, 1949

Ashton describes this statement in conjunction with the actual works themselves as a “purging”7 of allegories, in order to facilitate what Breslin calls a more “immediate communication”8 between work and viewer. Anna C. Chave reworks Rothko’s statement to try and give a more exact description:

“As he developed the format of his classic pictures, Rothko stopped formulating arrangements of cryptograms that look as if they could or ought to be deciphered (perhaps yielding messages from history or memory) but which frustrated efforts at doing so. He became determined not to mystify viewers with such obfuscatory ghosts of ideas but to paint something clear instead.”9

Untitled 1953-54 by Mark Rothko, 1953-54_0001.fw
Untitled 1953-54 by Mark Rothko, 1953-54

So, whilst realising the danger of comparing two artists and categorising them as following the same course, we can see a similarity between Pollock and Rothko, because Rothko’s elimination of ‘obstacles’ resembles Pollock’s removal of imagery, object, and form. There is also another affinity between the two, this time in terms of how their works were critically received. Pollock’s work, if we remember, was devoid of any impermeable, or otherwise, inner core of meaning and as such necessitated a radical re-evaluation of criticism that gave rise to such innovative descriptions as David Novros’ ‘total resolution’ (see post 32). With Rothko, a similar gauntlet was thrown down, and Stephen Polcari in Abstract Expressionism and the Modern Experience rose to the challenge by providing three descriptions of Rothko’s mature work, with the latter two pursuing more radical lines of critique. The first, however dealt purely with what a ‘Rothko’ visually presents:

“Rothko’s mature paintings consist of several parallel rectangles, often similar in value but different in hue and width, extended to the edges of the canvas. The shapes lack distinctive textural effect, seeming to be veils of thin color applied with sponges, rags, and cloths as well as brushes. Line has been eliminated altogether.”10

Untitled (Lavender and Green) 1952 by Mark Rothko, 1952.fw
Untitled (Lavender and Green) 1952 by Mark Rothko, 1952

Such a description, whilst being visually accurate, remains merely a description and, as such, has little value beyond stating the obvious. With his second attempt, though, Polcari identifies an aspect of Rothko’s own agenda for his art: “The challenge facing Rothko in the 1950s was to transform his ideas into new pictorial form and into immediate emotional experience.”11 Finally, within Polcari’s last description real value begins to be added as he situates Rothko within his contemporary intellectual climate:

“The existentialism and emotionalism in cultural circles of the late 1940s and early 1950s undoubtedly also played a role in Rothko’s new directness of expression…. It was part of a major shift toward involvement in the individual life as opposed to the deep concern with cultures and civilizations that had characterized intellectual life in the 1930s and 1940s. In the 1950s American culture turned from an emphasis on grand historical questions to a more Kierkegaardian concern with the individual’s own struggles for life and preservation of integrity.”12

No. 12 1951 by Mark Rothko, 1951.fw
No. 12 1951 by Mark Rothko, 1951

With such a shift towards the problems facing an individual, as opposed to dealing with wider social issues, Polcari coolly highlights Rothko’s concern with what it is to be a human. With his second description, focusing on the ‘emotional experience’ and the last concerning itself with the individual’s life, Polcari helps to sway criticism away from such misunderstandings endured by Rothko at the hands of some of his contemporaries. Margaret Breuning in Art Digest decided that Rothko’s apparent lack of compositional expertise in his 1949 Betty Parson’s exhibit warranted admonishment: “The unfortunate aspect of the whole showing is that these paintings contain no suggestions of form or design.”13 In 1955 Emily Genauer of The Herald Times remarked upon Rothko’s one-man show at Sidney Janis’: “Rothko’s pictures get bigger and bigger and say less and less.”14 Instead, Polcari, writing some twenty years after Rothko’s suicide in 1970, appears to be addressing some of these critical wrongs and assisting a new line of criticism which focuses not on how or what is painted on the canvas, but rather on what the artist was trying to express and how that was to be imparted. The distinction that Polcari brings to bear on Rothko’s work can be viewed as that which revolves around experience as opposed to interpretation.

No. 14 1963 by Mark Rothko, 1963.fw
No. 14 1963 by Mark Rothko, 1963

By removing the “obstacles” and also refraining from naming his works, Rothko created paintings that enable viewers to approach his art, according to Chave, in the spirit of “a pure and unique experience, for which [they] should not be prepared.”15 Such ‘non-preparation’ by Rothko was an implicit rejection of any criticism by art historians or critics. Indeed, Chave succinctly links these two aspects: “Like many abstract artists, [Rothko] tried not only to eradicate narrative or text in his art but, by the same stroke, to render superfluous the interpretative texts of critics.”16 Interestingly, Nicholas Serota, in his Experience or Interpretation: The Dilemma of Museums of Modern Art, touches on this theme when he argues that museums of modern art have become less like “curatorial interpretation[s] of history” or extensions of the classroom, to be more like arena’s for experiential contemplation of a particular artist within a space that has been controlled more by “the maker than the curator.”17 The importance of the experience of Rothko’s work, however, goes beyond curatorial concepts.

No. 118 1961 by Mark Rothko, 1961.fw
No. 118 1961 by Mark Rothko, 1961

Polcari’s second description which suggested the importance of “immediate emotional experience” contains a vast amount of potential discussion within its simple annunciation. Irving Sandler opens our exploration into this area of interiority by recognising the essential quality of the viewer to Rothko’s work:

“Rothko allows the viewer a certain freedom of response by his self-effacement and reticence. Hence his canvases are protean to the degree that they invite the viewer to complete their tragic message; his monologue turns into a dialogue.”18

The reaction of the viewer was always foremost in Rothko’s mind whilst painting. Indeed Breslin, in his biography of the artist, cites numerous occasions where Rothko would invite friends to preview his latest work and then watch them for the slightest indication of any kind of response to the work. Such viewings became notoriously trying encounters for all concerned. Rothko would be anxious as to the reaction to his work, whilst the viewer would be nervous as to the possibility of giving what the artist considered an inappropriate response. Even so, such was the importance of the viewer to Rothko that in correspondence to Katherine Kuh in 1954 he wrote:

“If I must place my trust somewhere, I would invest it in the psyche of sensitive observers who are free of the conventions of understanding.”19

Tan and Black on Red 1957 by Mark Rothko, 1957.fw
Tan and Black on Red 1957 by Mark Rothko, 1957

This statement Ashton juxtaposes to a comment Rothko made to William Seitz in 1950 where he had expressed “that writing on art should never be comparative, historical, or analytical, but should record direct responses ‘in terms of human need’.”20 The intimacy of the viewer’s response, then, was evidently Rothko’s desire, which is beyond mere technical appreciation and must be conducted within certain parameters that allow for such an intimacy to occur. Indeed, Breslin recalls Rothko remarking the following:

“When a crowd of people looks at a painting, I think of blasphemy… I believe that a painting can only communicate directly to a rare individual who happens to be in tune with it and the artist.”21

Such an experience Arthur Danto rightly states “cannot be an ordinary experience, like that of witnessing a scaffolding against the sky or a spectacular sunset on the night flight to Iceland.”22

No. 20 (Deep Red and Black) (Brown, Black on Maroon) 1957 by Mark Rothko, 1957.fw
No. 20 (Deep Red and Black) (Brown, Black on Maroon) 1957 by Mark Rothko, 1957

The experiences are emotional, Polcari asserts, but what emotions did Rothko believe he initiated? Such, a question presents difficulties because as David Anfam reminds us Rothko deliberately cultivated an air of mystery around his work:

“Some artists want to tell all like at a confessional. I as a craftsman prefer to tell little. My pictures are indeed façades (as they have been called) … I do this only through shrewdness. There is more power in telling little than in telling all. Two things that painting is involved with: the uniqueness and clarity of the image and how much does one have to tell.”23

Blue, Orange, Red 1961 by Mark Rothko, 1961.fw
Blue, Orange, Red 1961 by Mark Rothko, 1961

Rothko’s elusiveness as to his painting was always undermined however by his statements, until the summer of 1950 when he was asked to write statements for two art journals. Finally, after making his turn towards his classic format, Rothko realised the necessity of integrity and as a consequence remarked to Barnett Newman:

“I have nothing to say in words which I would stand for. I am heartily ashamed of the things I have written in the past. This self-statement business has become a fad this season.”24

Untitled (Yellow, Red and Blue) 1953 by Mark Rothko, 1953.fw
Untitled (Yellow, Red and Blue) 1953 by Mark Rothko, 1953.

Such an assertive declaration of intent was subsequently only overridden by his lecture at the Pratt Institute in 1958, and by memoirs of his friends with whom he conversed or corresponded. Breslin gives colour and adds weight through his illustration of this particular dilemma for Rothko.

“For Rothko, talking publicly about his art involved not just the issue of translating a visual into a verbal expression, or even the issue of explaining a visual expression that was abstract and vacant. The real issue was that Rothko’s paintings pull us back into a state of consciousness that is preverbal; they communicate through silence. Yet he wanted so intensely for them to communicate on these terms that it was hard not to discuss them, help them along in an alien world, anxiously control their reception.”25

Rather ironically, then, Rothko found himself utilising the very thing, language, which he was trying to claim was inadequate. Such an irony, of course, was known to Rothko due to his retraction of public statement making in 1950 combined with the one exception to this retraction, the 1958 Pratt Institute lecture, where he expounded upon Kierkegaard’s rendition of Abraham’s dilemma and declared “silence is so accurate.”26

833 Untitled 1970 by Mark Rothko, 1970.fw
833 Untitled 1970 by Mark Rothko, 1970

The issue of silence, whether it is a method of ‘communication’ or ‘so accurate,’ has to be handled carefully. Silence is enigmatic. It creates a metaphysical interlude, akin to religious awe, whereby words fail in the presence of that deemed to be more highly evolved or out of the ordinary. At these moments, a gap occurs within the pattern of day-to-day life. Menial thought stops and critical interpretation is cast adrift whilst the silent air is filled with what is regarded as a metaphysical presence. The presence is only felt because of the silence.

One immediately thinks of Levinas and Blanchot and their thoughts regarding the il y a, that haunting impersonal space that has Being but without beings: existence without existents. However, I want to recall the thoughts of Silvia Benso, which we saw in the last post, where she identified touch, attention and tenderness as actions that can help bring about an ethical encounter, because I think that silence can be added.

Rothko’s realisation that silence is the aspect with which to approach his classic works, because in silence a form of non-verbal communication can be created, doesn’t have to be restricted to his works. Silence, in the sense that Rothko understands it, conjures thoughts of respect as well, as previously stated, religious awe which result in enabling the viewer to adopt an attitude of hiatus from their normal life. To be able to pause, to dwell, reflect and absorb in silence when in front of a classic work of Rothko’s, such as Orange, Red, Yellow 1961, is a transferable attitude just as much as touch, attention and tenderness. All four are approaches that can be embraced by those wishing to connect with something or someone outside of themselves.

Orange, Red, Yellow 1961 by Mark Rothko, 1961.fw
Orange, Red, Yellow 1961 by Mark Rothko, 1961

The big question, of course, is can we adopt such attitudes. A question around which we have been circling through all the posts so far and around which we shall continue to do so with Sartre wading in on the action, but only after we have one more look at Silvia Benso. So, hover my beautiful ethical butterflies, hover.


  1. Breslin, J. E. B. Mark Rothko: A Biography, The University of Chicago Press, Chicago, 1993, 290.
  2. Jewell, E. A. ‘The Realm of Art: A New Platform and Other Matters: “Globalism” Pops Into View, in The New York Times, 13th June 1943, 9.
  3. Gottlieb, A. and Rothko, M. quoted by Edward Alden Jewell, “Globalism” Pops Into View, in The New York Times, 13th June 1943, 9.
  4. Breslin, J. E. B. Mark Rothko: A Biography, The University of Chicago Press, Chicago, 1993, 394-395.
  5. Ibid., 395.
  6. Rothko, M. ‘Statement’, Tiger’s Eye, vol. 1, no. 2, December 1947, p.44, reprinted in Dorothy C. Miller, 15 Americans, The Museum of Modern Art, 1952, 18.
  7. Ashton, D. About Rothko, Da Capo Press, 2003, 100.
  8. Breslin, J. E. B. Mark Rothko: A Biography, The University of Chicago Press, Chicago, 1993, 247.
  9. Chave, A. C. Mark Rothko: Subjects in Abstraction, Yale University Press: New Haven and London, 1989, 110.
  10. Polcari, S. Abstract Expressionism and the Modern Experience, Cambridge University Press, 1999, 140.
  11. Ibid., 144.
  12. Ibid., 145.
  13. Breuning, M. quoted by James E. B. Breslin in Mark Rothko: A Biography, The University of Chicago Press, Chicago, 1993, 247.
  14. Genauer, E. quoted by James E. B. Breslin in Mark Rothko: A Biography, The University of Chicago Press, Chicago, 1993, 355.
  15. Chave, A. C., Mark Rothko: Subjects in Abstraction, Yale University Press: New Haven and London, 1989, 35. (Chave herself quotes this from an apparently anonymous author, writing for Time, in an article titled ‘A Certain Spell’, 3rd March, 1961, 75).
  16. Ibid.
  17. Serota, N. Experience or Interpretation: The Dilemma of Museums of Modern Art, Thames and Hudson, 1996, 10.
  18. Sandler, I. The Triumph of American Painting: A history of Abstract Expressionism, Harper and Row, New York, 1970, 183.
  19. Rothko, M. quoted by Dore Ashton in About Rothko, Da Capo Press, 2003, 163.
  20. Ibid.
  21. Breslin, J. E. B. Mark Rothko: A Biography, The University of Chicago Press, Chicago, 1993, 290.
  22. Danto, A. C. The Madonna of the Future: Essays in a Pluralistic Art World, University of California Press, 2001, 338-339.
  23. Rothko, M. quoted by David Anfam in Mark Rothko: The Works on Canvas: Catalogue Raisonné, National Gallery of Art, Washington, 1998, 75.
  24. Rothko, M. quoted by James E. B. Breslin in Mark Rothko: A Biography, The University of Chicago Press, Chicago, 1993, 241.
  25. Breslin, J. E. B. Mark Rothko: A Biography, The University of Chicago Press, Chicago, 1993, 307.
  26. Rothko, M. quoted by James E. B. Breslin in Mark Rothko: A Biography, The University of Chicago Press, Chicago, 1993, 392.

33. Touch, Attention & Tenderness


“Whereas force, power, and strength impose, and weakness succumbs, tenderness welcomes… tenderness is not a quietism serving nihilism, but rather an affirmation of life, in its very power of differentiation.”1
Silvia Benso

So, let’s recap.

In the last post we saw that Pollock single-handedly dispensed with the services of art critics, due to his classic work replacing their words with a confrontation that can only be attained in person. Such a confrontation delivers, as Levinas might have said, a “social relationship”2 between the work of art and the person standing before it. In addition, a “social relationship” means that the spectator can no longer be a subject but rather something more like a friend.

As with a lot of the posts that have gone before, we are circling above a terrain, examining it from fresh perspectives rather than laying out a straight line of tarmac that slices through it. The philosophy I’m interested in seeks not to drive via the shortest route from A to B, dismissing the scenery as it goes in order to get there first and be proclaimed the victor. Instead, the philosophy that I’m interested in seeks to stop, breathe, and take in the environment that surrounds the topic under discussion and then move on to a different viewing point upon the same issue. Hopefully then a three-dimensional picture, or understanding, will take place. It won’t be the simplest to explain. However, perhaps more like a novel that one gently allows to seep into one’s thoughts, the perspectives start to work together to push softly at one’s thoughts and ideas to maybe realign them. Or, possibly better yet, to send ripples through what Willard Van Orman Quine described as our ‘web of belief’ so that after we have concluded the thorough examination our ideas, our ‘web of belief’, will be altered and maybe, just maybe, that will be for the better.

Web of Belief.fw

The process I’m describing, of course, is a type of wisdom and clearly my terrain analogy contrasts such exercises in wisdom-seeking to those of knowledge-seeking. Knowledge gaining is an acquisition, much like the winning of a trophy, whereas wisdom gaining is more like the physical growth of a child into a teenager. Wisdom alters and changes who you are. Trophies aren’t you. Plus, trophies can get broken, lost or forgotten about.

Broken Trophy.fw

So, remembering Pollock’s statement “it confronts you”3 and this leading to Levinasian thoughts upon social relationships, with the spectator becoming more like a friend. We would be wise (reference intended) to recall Silvia Benso’s views in the post prior to the one on Pollock, before moving on.

In her attempt to push Levinas and Heidegger towards each other, to generate a ‘love of things’, Silvia Benso tentatively nudges them as follows:

“So that the appeal may be heard, a questioning of the mode of being of things is required which lets them be as things.”4

Briefly, this means that although there is a Heideggerian priority regarding things, there is still an ethical encounter, with its requirement for ‘a Levinasian subject’ to do some work in allowing the thing to be as a thing. This is because an ethical encounter cannot occur in conjunction with a totalising vision, because that vision will obliterate any ethical possibility.

Totalising gaze.fw

Moving on, then, with our previous perspectives in mind we are left with Benso’s words, wondering how we are to let things “be as things” and also how we might actually enter into a “social relationship” with them. I’m delighted to say that Benso does not leave us hanging.

Benso attempts such “a questioning of the mode of being of things” by employing new mediums of touch, attention, tenderness, and festival. We shall have to wait for ideas on festival until a later post, however her thoughts on touch, attention and tenderness most certainly won’t leave us facedown on the keyboard with boredom.


For her own beginning, Benso went back to the Heidegger of Being and Time and his own influence:

“The Greeks had an appropriate term for ‘Things’: πράγματα [pragmata] – that is to say, that which one has to do with in one’s concernful dealings (πραξις [praxis]).”5

Benso’s interpretation of Heidegger’s reading of “The Greeks” is that touch is the “privileged mode of coming into a relation with things” and that “when it comes to the possibility of entering an ethical relation with things, touch retains a primacy unparalleled by any other sensory organ.”6 Although acknowledging Heidegger’s subsequent reflections on touch as ambiguous, Benso continues to explore this mode of being of things, by turning directly to a Greek source:

“What is most puzzling to Aristotle, and hence most remarkable about touch, is the fact that touch alone, among all other senses, perceives by immediate contact. Whereas all the other senses necessitate a medium… direct proximity happens not through vision, smelling, or hearing, but only through touch.”7


The “immediate contact” and “direct proximity” given by touch are instructive to Benso, because there is no intermediary:

“The presence of a mediator amounts to the presence of a third perspective from which the relation between the I and the other can be overviewed from a common standpoint, and therefore bridged and totalized in the commonality of an encompassing embrace… Where mediation is present, the other of the Other disappears.”8

I understand Benso’s new combination of Levinas with Aristotle as providing a focus for when we touch something, because in that touch we experience it directly as it is and not as we expect to experience it. Such an experience is pure, unsullied, and can’t be interfered with or manipulated by the filter of our memories or desires. The totalising gaze of our eyes casting their sweeping, judgemental, glare upon the world is removed and discarded when we touch the thing we are looking upon, because our consciousness can’t apply any preconceived layers of interpretation to that touch. The touch is instant, raw and precise and, crucially for Benso, unmediated. They are no lies or deceptions we can tell ourselves about the experience of touching something. The touch just is as it is. As such, we get direct contact with the absolute otherness of the thing we are touching. The sensation of touch is not something that we can concoct and conjure as if it came from within our own mind. This means that, as far as Benso is concerned, alterity is preserved by touch. Which is in contrast to vision where, because mediation is involved, alterity can be dissolved. The raking eye destroys the otherness of the other whilst the caress of a touch allows that otherness to just simply be. Heidegger would surely have approved.


Possibly to gain Levinas’ hypothetical approval, Benso introduces another facet to touch: the focussed property of encountering “its intentional objects always one at a time, in their individuality and particularity and never in the abstractness of their universality.”9 Such “individuality” when touching ensures that the person touching is focused on the thing itself and does not amalgamate several objects into a blurred, easily dismissed mess or into an abstract conception based upon a universal idea of the thing in question. The thing being touched retains its presence as it is through touch, when vision, for example, might threaten to overwrite that presence in any number of ways. Again alterity is kept intact because, as we experience one thing at a time, we have to be focused upon that one thing. If we were looking at it our gaze could drift off it onto something else or we could start to zoom in on a particular physical quality about the thing rather than leaving the thing in its wholeness and otherness.

Touch, then, according to Benso, provides for a connection between the subject and the thing that maintains the alterity of the latter by avoiding any possible mediation or universalization. The problem of a totalising vision is hence overcome, but this doesn’t mean that we now automatically have an ethical encounter with the thing just because we touch it rather than look at it. Touch, for Benso, was just the beginning.

Touch is the begining.fw

Having shown one way in which the “mode of being of things” may be questioned, outside of the totalising gaze of vision, Benso introduces another non-totalising approach to things, but this time concerning the attitude, rather than the physicality, of the subject.

For Benso, attention “becomes an essential component of the human side of the ethics of things.”10 For her, attention is rooted in ad-tending, the moving toward; the concentrating upon an object which at the same time is active and also passive:

“Tenaciously and persistently, attention tends toward something. And yet, in such a fervor of activity, attention can be successful, can avoid falling into invasiveness only if it lets itself be directed by that toward which it tends.”11


What I think Benso means here is that a form of passivity is required that can guide the activity of attention to ensure we attend with both patience and humility. This is of course in stark contrast to the totalising vision that blinds the objects of its enquiry so that no shadow can remain under its blazing light. Benso is quick to assert, though, that such passive attention does not mean that “servility.”12 Instead, there is

“the dignity of a deference that wishes to welcome and assert differences and otherness… What is deferred in this movement of humility is, primarily the power of a will that wants to modify, rather than being modified by things.”13

This is great and should not be easily passed over. What is deferred is the will that wants to modify. That is a fantastic way of articulating how we should be in our attention. The enemy that was, for Levinas, the totalising vision is now, for Benso, the will that wants to modify. Hark, yea Nietzscheans, place to one side your hammers and your wills. Rise up you Zen Masters who can sit and breathe next to an object without feeling the need to dominate it, own it or crush it. One needs to be humble before things if an ethical encounter is to occur. One also needs to be secure in oneself if any kind of modification is to arise in oneself via that encounter. An insecure bullish assertion “of a will that wants to modify” will never achieve an ethical encounter or, by relation, a modification in themselves, because nothing can penetrate the hard outer crust of such a wilful subject. Even if on the inside there is a curious infant yearning for comfort.

Inner Child.fw

The pendulum of active and passive, though, must not swing too far toward the passive because the danger of “servility”, as Benso prompts, is equally present. If one is servile then it will not be a modification that takes place but rather an infatuation with overtones of obsequiousness and pandering that reduce the subject to the mental equivalent of one of Elvis’ ‘Yes-men’; at best a mirror and at worst an narcissist’s enabler.

Again, as with the illustration of ‘touch’, alterity is preserved in the thing when attention is given to it. However, it is vital that with such attention the subject is considered in terms of its activity and passivity so that a balance can be sought. If such a balance is achieved then alterity will remain because the subject will not become “extinguished” by “disappear[ing] into the things it encounters,”14 and nor will the object be driven over remorselessly by the subject-cum-juggernaut. Otherness is only to be found in that delicate middle ground betwixt vapidity and juggernauts.


Benso continues her pursuit of attention by turning to tenderness, as “attentive touch”15 which she reveals is inspired by, and indebted to, Levinas’ use of the concept in connection to the feminine in Totality and Infinity.16 Taking the theme of balance between activity and passivity further she writes:

“Whereas force, power, and strength impose, and weakness succumbs, tenderness welcomes… tenderness is not a quietism serving nihilism, but rather an affirmation of life, in its very power of differentiation.”17

Tenderness is the welcome that waits “for the other to make the first move,” and then “caresses by a light touch.”18 It is also “a way of being”, “a metaphysical horizon”, “a sentiment but not a psychological feeling” and is “aroused by the appeal of things.”19 Because of these “feminine”20 qualities tenderness makes for an ethical encounter when placed in direct proximity with a thing. Tenderness becomes an attitude, through which a new mode of being can arise, that could otherwise turn everything to stone in its Medusa-like stare.

Medusa alt.fw

Benso thoughts on tenderness consequently aim towards “a way of being” that deals solely in the here and now:

“Analogous to attention, tenderness is always tending to the particular thing which inspires it with the movement of its presencing. Therefore, tenderness is always in the present, occupied by the temporality of the instant in which it unfolds itself.” 21

Tenderness gives a direct, and instant, connection to a thing that allows for a two-way encounter, an ethical encounter, to take place.


To try and give context and provide a known example of where an ethical encounter of tenderness can take place Benso next turns her attention towards what it is to be in a festival. But that, my tender and patient friends, will have to wait until another time. Actually, a very different time, as will become clear…

But in the meanwhile, as Otis said, why not ‘Try a little tenderness’?


  1. Benso, S. The Face of Things: A Different Side of Ethics, SUNY Press, Albany, 2000, xxxvii.
  2. Levinas, E. Ethics and Infinity: Conversations with Philippe Nemo. Translated by Richard A. Cohen, Duquesne University Press, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, 1998, 85.
  3. Pollock. J. quoted in Berton Roueché, ‘Unframed Space’ included in Jackson Pollock: Interviews, Articles, and Reviews, The Museum of Modern Art, New York, 1999, 19.
  4. Benso, S. The Face of Things: A Different Side of Ethics, SUNY Press, Albany, 2000, 66.
  5. Heidegger, M., Being and Time.Translated by John Macquarrie and Edward Robinson, Blackwell, Oxford, 1996, 96-97.
  6. Benso, S. The Face of Things: A Different Side of Ethics, SUNY Press, Albany, 2000, 159.
  7. Ibid., 160-161.
  8. Ibid., 161.
  9. Ibid., 162.
  10. Ibid., 164.
  11. Ibid.
  12. Ibid., 165.
  13. Ibid.
  14. Ibid., 166.
  15. Ibid.
  16. See Ibid., 227, fn. 10.
  17. Ibid., xxxvii.
  18. Ibid.
  19. Ibid., 166-167.
  20. See Ibid., 227, fn. 10.
  21. Ibid., 169.

32. Not Looking at Pollock


“When I am in my painting, I’m not aware of what I’m doing. It is only after a sort of ‘get acquainted’ period that I see what I have been about. I have no fears about making changes, destroying this image, etc., because the painting has a life of its own. I try to let it come through.”1
Jackson Pollock

In January 1948, at the Betty Parsons gallery in New York, Jackson Pollock unveiled seventeen of what are now regarded as his classic works; among them was Lucifer, a work of oil, enamel, and aluminium paint. It stood three feet five inches high by eight feet nine and a half inches wide, and was named partly out of convenience, in order to distinguish it from other works, but also to help thematise the works of that year. 

Lucifer by Jackson Pollock, 1947.fw
Lucifer by Jackson Pollock, 1947

Lucifer at face value presents something of an enigma because it is an abstract work with no apparent formal content or clue to its meaning. However, we are we drawn to it even though it appears devoid of all potential rationalisation and leave us no hooks upon which to exert our cognitive interpretation. Representational, symbolic, and conceptual art all allow discussion upon their content so that a sense of satisfaction can be gained, By contrast, works like Lucifer seem to positively shun the possibility of satisfaction, or even meaning. So, what is it about Lucifer that holds our gaze, keeps us interested, or even answers to something deep within us? The answer to this question whilst appearing deceptively inviting actually requires very careful consideration if one is not to plummet into meaningless platitudes.

On the 15th of January 1948 Alonzo Lansford reviewed what we now regard as Pollock’s ground-breaking exhibition in The Art Digest. However, Lansford, the journalist, derided both Pollock’s technique and results:

“Pollock’s current method seems to be a sort of automatism; apparently, while staring steadily up into the sky, he lets go a loaded brush on the canvas, rapidly swirling and looping and wriggling till the paint runs out. Then he repeats the procedure with another color, and another, till the canvas is covered. This, with much use of aluminium paint, results in a colourful and exciting panel. Probably it also results in the severest pain in the neck since Michelangelo painted the Sistine Ceiling.”2

Full Fathom Five by Jackson Pollock, 1947.fw
Full Fathom Five by Jackson Pollock, 1947

Such obstinate resistance to his work must surely remind us, and possibly even reminded Pollock himself, of James Johnson Sweeney’s tone-setting inaugural appraisal of Pollock in which he called for courage in painters to “risk spoiling a canvas to say something in their own way,” and for them to paint “from inner impulsion without an ear to what the critic or spectator may feel.”Pollock in his classic work definitely seemed to adopt this sentiment, although public opinion did weigh heavily upon him. For now, though, it might be more useful to examine one of Pollock’s own descriptions of his work:

“When I am in my painting, I’m not aware of what I’m doing. It is only after a sort of ‘get acquainted’ period that I see what I have been about. I have no fears about making changes, destroying this image, etc., because the painting has a life of its own. I try to let it come through. It is only when I lose contact with this painting that the result is a mess. Otherwise there is pure harmony, an easy give and take, and the painting comes out well.”4

Phosphorescence by Jackson Pollock, 1947.fw
Phosphorescence by Jackson Pollock, 1947

The emphasis is clear, once a relationship has been established between the painter and the work, then harmony can ensue, this is obviously in contrast to Lansford’s suggestion of haphazardness. Bryan Robertson, in his effusive account of Blue Poles, a work from slightly later in Pollock’s career but still arguably in the same format, picks up the pace by analysing Pollock’s rigour in this new direction:

“The degree of control is prodigious in Pollock’s handling of pigment in this new way. The same split-second precision determines the degree of accuracy in the way that a cow-hand handles a lariat. Control is of the essence.”5

Such praise, though, only came after Pollock’s death.

Number 11, 1952 (Blue Poles) by Jackson Pollock, 1952.fw
Number 11, 1952 (Blue Poles) by Jackson Pollock, 1952

During Pollock’s life much of the criticism surrounding his work and even himself, especially after that first show at Betty Parsons was in the same sniping vein as Lansford’s. Robert Coates writing for The New Yorker said that the exhibition’s major works were “mere unorganised explosions of random energy, and therefore meaningless.”6 Pollock, predictably enough, felt attacked by such damning accusations of his work as random or haphazardly automatic, from which Robertson all too late, four years after his death, would rescue him.

Two months before Pollock’s first solo exhibition in November 1943, when he unveiled Guardians of the Secret, Norman Schwab was born in Chicago, Illinois. In 1992, Schwab prepared to exhibit his work at The Yamasa Institute’s, Aichi Center for Japanese Studies, Nob Gallery in Okazaki. The reason for my remarking upon such an apparently unrelated artist lies in Michael Laurence’s opening comments for the catalogue of Schwab’s exhibition:

“Art which is enigmatic compels us back to experience it again and again. It yields its visual and emotional meaning in layers by repeated viewings. Yet, enigmatic art never wholly explains its complete meaning, core of secrecy, because it’s ‘narrative’ shifts and constantly changes with each successive viewing. The root of the word enigma comes from the act of telling fables, from talking in riddles where meaning is caught or glimpsed at a slant.”7

Guardians of the Secret by Jackson Pollock, 1943.fw
Guardians of the Secret by Jackson Pollock, 1943

Such a description of Schwab’s work could almost be used to describe Guardians of the Secret, painted in 1943, which belongs to an earlier phase in Pollock’s career that I feel is rather more provocative and evocative than enigmatic.

Obviously, then, I am suggesting that there is a difference between my use of enigmatic and Laurence’s, even though similarities are also present. The compelling quality of a work such as Lucifer, in its demand for repeated viewings, is definitely a facet of its enigma for me, yet the frustrating search for meaning I find misplaced and more applicable, as I have suggested, to Pollock’s earlier work. Meaning can only be sought for under certain conditions. Perhaps this is where Laurence and I diverge over our use of the word ‘enigmatic’? For Laurence, it appears that for something to be enigmatic it must have an impermeable core of meaning which is more tangible than it’s having meaning by being just significant or important. Laurence’s meaning indicates that something could be unveiled and understood if it were not enveloped in its impermeable membrane. In my use of the term enigmatic there is no apparent impermeable core of meaning given. This sense of meaning has been removed, and the enigmatic dimension only surfaces due to the work somehow still possessing significance and importance to us. To properly grasp this idea of meaning being removed we have go back to Pollock himself.

Alchemy by Jackson Pollock, 1947.fw
Alchemy by Jackson Pollock, 1947

In 1946, at an artists’ colony in Provincetown, Massachusetts, Pollock renewed his volatile relationship Hans Hofmann. After goading Hofmann into an argument, Pollock made his famous declaration “I am nature”8 when Hofmann tried to suggest that Pollock should work from nature. Although this declaration took place before the establishment of his more mature abstract works, I believe, it acts as a statement of intent as to where Pollock was venturing artistically.

Clearly any sense of attempting to duplicate, represent, or symbolize nature was something that Pollock wanted to remove from his work. However, “I am nature”, as a statement, has ambiguities. By removing ‘traditional elements’ from one’s art, one leaves open the question of what one is actually doing or, in Pollock’s case, painting.

Reflection of the Big Dipper by Jackson Pollock, 1947.fw
Reflection of the Big Dipper by Jackson Pollock, 1947

In the catalogue statement for his exhibition entitled The Intrasubjectives, shown in late autumn 1949, where many contemporary American artists were brought together under the fraternity of the mind, Sam Kootz stated:

“Only now has there been a concerted effort to abandon the tyranny of the object and the sickness of naturalism and to enter within consciousness…. The intrasubjective artist invents from personal experience, creates from an internal world rather than an external one.”9

Comet by Jackson Pollock, 1947.fw
Comet by Jackson Pollock, 1947

Harold Rosenberg, in the same catalogue, veers away from the, by now, all too familiar topic of consciousness within art criticism and muses upon the new toy of existentialism:

“The modern painter… begins with nothingness. That is the only thing he copies. The rest he invents….. Instead of mountains, copses, nudes, etc., it is his space that speaks to him, quivers, turns green or yellow with bile, gives him a sense of sport, of sign language, of the absolute… Naturally, under the circumstances, there is no use looking for silos or madonnas. They have all melted into the void. But, as I said, the void itself, you have that, just as surely as your grandfather had a sun-speckled lawn.”10

Summertime- Number 9A, 1948 by Jackson Pollock, 1948.fw
Summertime: Number 9A, 1948 by Jackson Pollock, 1948

John Golding, in some small way, continues Rosenberg’s metaphysical thoughts when he discusses Pollock’s work between 1947 and 1951: “There is even a sense in which Pollock was, in them, representing the unrepresentable.”11 Quite whether Pollock meant his declaration, or even his work, to be read in any of these ways is, in my mind only perhaps, open to question. Could it really be that easy to categorise, summarise, and then potentially dismiss Pollock in this way? Anyway, surely, there is an inherent contradiction in these critical summations in conjunction with his declaration. Both Rosenberg’s and Golding’s metaphysics seem at odds with Pollock’s succinctly grounded hylicist position of “I am Nature” which also doesn’t favour Kootz’s last seasons fashion of woven consciousness.

Cathedral by Jackson Pollock, 1947.fw
Cathedral by Jackson Pollock, 1947

The simplicity and purity of Pollock’s classic work, as seen in Lucifer, clearly acts as an entreaty for the art critic or complex theoretician to include his work into their theses. However, Pollock’s own declaration puts up considerable resistance to such complexity and appears to defy theoretical manipulation of any kind. David Lee in An Artists’ Symposium, organised by Art News in 1967, suggested that Pollock was painting with his physical being rather than some form of consciousness or ideologue: “For this new confidence in his senses, it is right to say that Pollock broke significantly with the classic history of painting.”12 Perhaps this physical attunement was what Pollock was referring to with his declaration to Hofmann? To gain a more rounded insight it is perhaps prudent to step back and see how other simpler observations about his new format reflect my description of this work as somehow removing the traditional ‘meaning’ constituents from a work of art.

Autumn Rhythm, Number 30, 1950 by Jackson Pollock, 1950.fw
Autumn Rhythm, Number 30, 1950 by Jackson Pollock, 1950

Pepe Karmel uses two of Pollock’s contemporary reviews to discuss my notion of removal in his article A Sum of Destructions.

“As Seiberling wrote in Life, ‘Once in a while a lifelike image appears in the painting by mistake. But Pollock cheerfully rubs it out because the picture must retain a “life of its own.”’ Similarly, the text accompanying Namuth’s photographs of Pollock on their first publication, in 1951, stated, ‘The conscious part of the mind, he says, plays no part in the creation of his work. It is relegated to the duties of a watchdog; when the unconscious sinfully produces a representational image, the conscience cries alarm and Pollock wrenches himself back to reality and obliterates the offending form’.”13

Quite whether we should, or Karmel does, entertain the ‘watchdog’ description of Pollock’s consciousness, or even Seiberling’s claim of figurative erasure, is subject matter for such work by James Coddington and Carol Mancusi-Ungaro who employed various scientific ‘x-ray’ procedures to discover how Pollock built up his classic format images. The importance for our present investigation lies in what Pollock presented as a finished painting. The finished paintings of the classic period, such as Lavender Mist, have no figuration or representational image, these have been removed. Whether deliberately avoided, scrubbed out, deleted, or painted over, any recognisable image, object, or form is absent from Pollock’s work in this format, as Karmel states: “The effect of the finished paintings is unquestionably abstract.”14 Karmel also highlights that this was what “Pollock himself insisted.”15

Lavender Mist- Number 1, 1950 by Jackson Pollock, 1950 .fw
Lavender Mist: Number 1, 1950 by Jackson Pollock, 1950

Now, this is important, because Karmel is making reference here to Pollock’s radio interview for WERI, Westerley, Rhode Island radio, where over the course of two questions concerning how someone should approach his work he gave the following insightful statement:

“I think they should not look for, but look passively – and try to receive what the painting has to offer and not bring a subject matter or preconceived idea of what they are to be looking for…. I think it [his painting] should be enjoyed just as music is enjoyed – after a while you may like it or you may not.”16

One, Number 31, 1950 by Jackson Pollock, 1950.fw
One, Number 31, 1950 by Jackson Pollock, 1950

So, in wanting his viewers to “not look for” Pollock must have deliberately wanted his paintings to be completely devoid of any particular imagery, object, or form. However, how similar do Pollock’s words on how one should approach his art sound to Levinas’ thoughts on how when should approach the face of the other? Remember, in post 25, that Levinas said the following:

“The best way of encountering the Other is not even to notice the colour of his eyes! When one observes the colour of his eyes one is not in a social relationship with the other.”17

The Deep by Jackson Pollock, 1953.fw
The Deep by Jackson Pollock, 1953

So, Pollock, through his art-enabled way of ‘not looking’ presents us with a remarkable parallel to Levinas. The key being that the spectator or subject should not examine what is before them, but rather allow that which they are with, whether The Deep in this instance or another person, to be free to present themselves without interference, examination or speculation from the subject. Of course, this is tremendously hard, however, as Levinas states, to do otherwise is not to be in a “social relationship with the other”. Pursuing that line of thought, Pollock’s classic works determined to elicit a social relationship from their spectators, something which hitherto was to all intents and purposes unheard of in the history of art.

Getting back to Pollock, per se, David Novros tackles the theme of Pollock’s work removing all particular focus points in order to preserve a uniform vision, which he juxtaposes with the, then, inherent problem of their explanation. How does one ‘explain’ Blue Poles; Number 1, 1950, Lavender Mist, Autumn Rhythm or Number 32, 1950? Novros writes:

Number 32, 1950 by Jackson Pollock, 1950.fw
Number 32, 1950 by Jackson Pollock, 1950

“If I say that these paintings are ‘totally resolved’ – what do I mean? I mean that in my describing my appreciation of Blue Poles I cannot separate colors, color drawing, composition, space, shape and describe the ways in which these elements are independently deployed in the painting. If I write about the ‘colors’ in the painting (ultramarine, black, white, orange, yellow, aluminium) and how they are juxtaposed then I will be writing about the ‘drawing’ which at the same time will describe the ‘space’ which will describe the ‘composition’ which will describe the ‘scale’ which will describe the ‘total color quality’… Is this confusing? When written, yes, but when standing in front of Blue Poles, there are no contradictions, the painting transcends all paradox – it is a unified object – a Painting – and that is something I know, but can’t explain.”18

Whether we have the “total resolution” of an enthusiastic Novros in these works, or the “negligible content”19 of Howard Devree’s disparaging December 3, 1950 article in The New York Times, what is certain is that Pollock’s classic format caused a major disruption. Or, as Willem de Kooning remarked: “Every so often a painter has to destroy painting. Cézanne did it. Picasso did it with cubism. Then Pollock did it. He busted our idea of a picture all to hell.”20

Number 3, 1949- Tiger by Jackson Pollock, 1949.fw
Number 3, 1949: Tiger by Jackson Pollock, 1949

Pollock’s removal of imagery, object, and form broke through to a new art which created not only a painting but also an ‘environment,’ which was devoid of any impermeable, or otherwise, inner core of meaning and necessitated a radical re-evaluation of our critical capacities and gave rise to such innovative descriptions as Novros’ “total resolution.” Pollock himself understood the necessity of critical innovation and famously said of his work that “it confronts you,”21 thus turning on its head our preconceived notions of how to look at a painting. Such a drastic overturning of aesthetic theory confirms de Kooning’s remarks and gives license to John Golding’s comparative encapsulation of Pollock’s progression to his classic works: “The Guardians’ who had stood over the jealously kept secret are no longer required because the secret is revealed as painting itself.”22 Art critics are made redundant. Pollock has single-handedly dispensed with their services and replaced their words with a confrontation that can only be attained in person or, as Levinas would say, in a “social relationship” between the work of art and the person standing before it, who can no longer be a subject nor a spectator, but rather something more like a friend, perhaps?

Number 13A, 1948- Arabesque by Jackson Pollock, 1948.fw
Number 13A, 1948: Arabesque by Jackson Pollock, 1948

Don’t worry, Benso has something to say on this.


  1. Pollock. J. ‘My Painting’, Possibilities, vol. 1, Winter 1947-48, pp.78-83, reprinted in Pepe Karmel (Editor) Jackson Pollock: Interviews, Articles, and Reviews, The Museum of Modern Art, New York, 1999, 18.
  2. Lansford, A. ‘Fifty-Seventh Street in Review: Automatic Pollock’ The Art Digest, vol. 22, no. 8 (January 15, 1948), p. 19, reprinted in Pepe Karmel (Editor) Jackson Pollock: Interviews, Articles, and Reviews, The Museum of Modern Art, New York, 1999, 58.
  3. Sweeney, J. J. quoted in B. H. Friedman, Jackson Pollock: Energy Made Visible, Da Capo Press, 1995, 59.
  4. Pollock. J. ‘My Painting’, Possibilities, vol. 1, Winter 1947-48, pp.78-83, reprinted in Pepe Karmel (Editor) Jackson Pollock: Interviews, Articles, and Reviews, The Museum of Modern Art, New York, 1999, 18.
  5. Robertson, B. Jackson Pollock, Harry N. Abrams, 1960, 35.
  6. Coates, R. M. quoted in Stephen Naifeh and Gregory White, Jackson Pollock: An American Saga, Clarkson N. Potter, Inc., 1989, 555.
  7. Laurence, M. ‘Art Criticism for Exhibition and Catalogue of Norman Schwab’ Nob Gallery, Okazaki, 1992, [viewed 15 February 2001]. Available from http://www2.gol.com/users/nobg/artists/norman/Norman-Critics-E.html
  8. Naifeh, S. and White, G. Jackson Pollock: An American Saga, Clarkson N. Potter, Inc., 1989, 486.
  9. Kootz, S. quoted in B. H. Friedman, Jackson Pollock: Energy Made Visible, Da Capo Press, 1995, 135.
  10. Rosenberg, H. quoted in B. H. Friedman, Jackson Pollock: Energy Made Visible, Da Capo Press, 1995, 136.
  11. Golding, J. Paths to the Absolute: Mondrian, Malevich, Kandinsky, Pollock, Newman, Rothko and Still. Thames and Hudson, 2000, 139.
  12. Lee, D. ‘Jackson Pollock: An Artists’ Symposium, Part 2’, Art News, vol. 66, no. 3 May 1967, 27.
  13. Karmel, P. ‘A Sum of Destructions’ included in Kirk Varnedoe and Pepe Karmel, (Editors), Jackson Pollock: New Approaches, The Museum of Modern Art, New York, 1999, 88.
  14. Ibid., 89
  15. Ibid.
  16. Pollock, J. ‘Interview with Jackson Pollock’, broadcast on radio station WERI, Westerley, Rhode Island 1951, included in Jackson Pollock: Interviews, Articles, and Reviews,  The Museum of Modern Art, New York, 1999, 20-21.
  17. Levinas, E. Ethics and Infinity: Conversations with Philippe Nemo. Translated by Richard A. Cohen, Duquesne University Press, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, 1998, 85.
  18. Novros, D. ‘Jackson Pollock: An Artists’ Symposium, Part 2’, Art News, vol. 66, no. 3 May 1967, 29.
  19. Devree, H. quoted in B. H. Friedman, Jackson Pollock: Energy Made Visible, Da Capo Press, 1995, 167.
  20. De Kooning, W. quoted in Deborah Solomon, Jackson Pollock: A Biography, Simon and Schuster, 1987, 178.
  21. Pollock. J. quoted in Berton Roueché, ‘Unframed Space’ included in Jackson Pollock: Interviews, Articles, and Reviews, The Museum of Modern Art, New York, 1999, 19.
  22. Golding, J. Paths to the Absolute: Mondrian, Malevich, Kandinsky, Pollock, Newman, Rothko and Still. Thames and Hudson, 2000, 134.

31. Two Readings of Art


“An ethics of things, where ethics cannot be traditional ethics in any of its formulations (utilitarian, deontological, virtue-orientated), and things cannot be traditional things (objects as opposed to a subject). At the intersection between ethics and things, Levinas and Heidegger meet.”1
Silvia Benso

Throughout his life Levinas was intrigued by art and sought to understand whether it was ‘useful’ to his philosophy. Interestingly, his view on this altered around the time that he encountered such abstract art as Picasso’s cubist works.

So, our progress in this area will be guided by the notion that there are two distinct readings of Levinas regarding art. Within the first, Levinas detailed art as evasive and irresponsible, and then in the second it becomes complicated and lively, with the potential of informing his project as a whole.

The first reading begins with Levinas’ most renowned work on art, Reality and its Shadow, in which his early aesthetic theories took shape. As a starting point, he stated, “art, essentially disengaged, constitutes, in a world of initiative and responsibility, a dimension of evasion.”2 Art occupies the role of distraction from the task in hand, which for Levinas was responsibility to the other, and this is obviously makes art useless as far as Levinas was concerned:

700 Rubbish bin of art.fw

“Art… especially brings the irresponsibility that charms as a lightness and grace. It frees. To make or to appreciate a novel and a picture is to no longer have to conceive, is to renounce the effort of science, philosophy, and action. Do not speak, do not reflect, admire in silence and in peace – such are the counsels of wisdom satisfied before the beautiful”3

However, more than that:

“There is something wicked and egoist and cowardly in artistic enjoyment. There are times when one can be ashamed of it, as of feasting during a plague.”4

Appreciating art, then as far as the early Levinas was concerned, leads to the equivalent of an irresponsible attitude, in which one’s relation to the real world has become suspended, forgotten, and overlooked in a fit of self-gratification.

Ultimately Levinas, in the first reading, attributed the term ‘shadow’ to art and decided that it neither reveals nor creates. For him, the ontological world of knowledge revealed, and the ethical world of the Other created. Art merely provided the distraction of shadows and, therefore, had no reality. Art, therefore, under the early Levinas, is reduced to the realm of shadows, an underworld that has no bearing upon the real world. It may tantalise and distract, but we are always left right back where we started. Art is ontologically and ethically insignificant.

Art in the underworld.fw

Having seen what early Levinas thought of art, it is surely pertinent to ask why he saw it as he did. Interestingly, because it impacts upon the second reading, the answer is in the completeness of the work. The article that the artist presents to the world is complete, it is finished, without the requirement for anything external to be added, it is its own totality. In Reality and its Shadow Levinas wrote:

“The artist stops because the work refuses to accept anything more, appears saturated. The work is completed in spite of the social or material causes that interrupt it. It does not give itself out as the beginning of a dialogue.”5

F. Mai Owens introduces a parallel to this early Levinasian completeness of art because, for her, such completeness echoes “the self-contained unity of the Solitary subject,”6 which we have encountered before (see post number 25). Just as the “Solitary subject,” that Owens spoke of, is sealed in their own world so too is the art-work and neither can influence the other or hope to interact in any ethical way. They are just two blind brute entities occupying the lowest level of their possible existence.

2 Brute entities.fw

Attempting to try and out-manoeuvre Levinas’ thoughts on the ‘completeness’ of art, Owens cunningly employs Anish Kapoor. In Kapoor’s oeuvre she finds “works which do not assert themselves as completions,”7 which gives hope to any quest that wants to lead art out of the shadow-world into which Levinas placed it.

Anish Kapoor Cloud Gate.fw
Cloud Gate, Chicago by Anish Kapoor

However, just such a manoeuvre can be found closer to home and lies within Levinas’ own thoughts on art; we just have to initiate the second reading of art in his writings.

The second reading again compares art to what is in the ‘real’ world. This time though art is not a shadow in contrast to reality, instead it becomes that which cannot be totalised by a subject. A volte face, n’est pas?

In the second reading, reality is not that which we evade by appreciating art, it is instead that which the subject subsumes within itself and hence has mastery over. Art is no longer a mere meaningless distraction it is now something that has alterity, and as a consequence meaning. In order for us to follow this second reading Peter Schmiedgen reminds us how we, as solitary Levinasian beings, approach the world around us:

“In general we only thematize the ‘useful’, or ‘relevant’, aspects of things at hand. The ways in which they transcend our immediate interests are put out of mind and perhaps even asserted to be inessential properties. We distinguish between primary (real) and secondary (apparent) qualities… the inclusion of objects, or indeed even experiences in the visual ‘world’, or perhaps more to the point, ‘my world’ (whether it be of practice or theory, use or representation) is also always an exclusion of other aspects of the objects in question.”8

Primary ways of seeing.fw

The passing over of such ‘secondary’ qualities when regarding objects alters significantly when we approach certain art objects according to Schmiedgen’s reading of Levinas:

“Abstract artistic representation, by contrast, extracts things from the unity of an interested subjectivity and makes us see objects (insofar as they can still be named ‘objects’ at all) in all their independence from our projects and intentions. It forces us to confront the apparently useless, obstructive and a-typical, not as a negative excess to be excluded, but as a significant part of experience.”9

Art, therefore, gives presence to generally ignored ‘secondary’ qualities, encouraging us to confront that which we take for granted, overlook, or disregard. The important distinction being made here between the two readings that Levinas instigated is the difference between traditional representational art and its bastard child, abstract, modern, or avant-garde art.

Factory, Horta de Ebbo', Pablo Picasso, 1909.fw
Factory, Horta de Ebbo’, by Pablo Picasso, 1909

That abstract art doesn’t bring ‘forth a world’ means that it doesn’t totalise itself or allow the subject to totalise it in turn. Rather than a closed and sealed off world, either in the work or subject, an opening appears when one views a piece of abstract art, an opening that is not reducible to a world, i.e., not reducible to ontology. The abstract image allows the opportunity for us to step outside of the ontological constraints imposed by the work, or ourselves, and discover new non-epistemologically founded meanings. A coherent, rational, visual universal order has been disrupted to leave fragments, or shards, of material which populate the canvas rejecting comprehension, inviting only unworldly experience. Levinas continued:

“From a space without horizon, things break away and are cast toward us like chunks that have weight in themselves, blocks, cubes, planes, triangles, without transitions between them. They are naked elements, simple and absolute, swellings or abcesses of being. In this falling of things down on us, objects attest their power as material objects, even reach a paroxysm of materiality.”10

Pablo Picasso 1910 Girl with a Mandolin
Girl with a Mandolin by Pablo Picasso, 1910

With the onset of abstract art, representation disappears leaving pure material which thrusts itself upon the spectator with a brute presence that no longer has clothes to dignify, or define an image, symbol, or sign. The pure nakedness of paint impacts viscerally rather than rationally, leaving an inarticulate experience, but nevertheless an imprinted experience within the subject who gazes upon it, and hence “the work is no longer visible in the way the world is.”11

Our old friend, Gerald Bruns, believes that such an experience therefore “constitutes a kind of transcendence” which is “continuous with the experience of the il y a”, which Levinas described in Existence and Existents as “a world emptied of objects.”12 The importance being, of course, that a connection exists for Levinas between abstract art and the il y a: both have an indeterminable, yet irrefutable, presence, both present us with alterity – otherness.

Clyfford Still, 1944-N No.1 (PH-235), 1944
1944-N No.1 (PH-235) by Clyfford Still, 1944

Indeed, just as the Other arises from the depths of the il y a as an ‘expectation of an expectation’, as noted by Derrida for Levinas, then so too does abstract art relate to the il y a; only rather than coming from it, the nakedness of art, in its materiality, gestures toward the il y a. Schmiedgen untangles:

“Although the social other cannot appear at the level of the visual for Levinas, otherness as un-synthesizability and a-typicality can and it is just this that we experience via artistic representation, or at least some (specifically abstractionist) forms of artistic representation, in any case.”13

The gesture that abstract art makes is towards the il y a and by relation otherness, and this can be seen visually because of the “un-synthesizability and a-typicality” of the work: Otherness is before us visually but it remains other because our attempts to co-opt the visual into ourselves are frustrated. Consequently, abstract art, because of its “un-synthesizability” and “a-typicality” can allow for otherness to be present before us. So, if we have otherness, then do we also have responsibility, ethics, or ‘face?’ In his 1961 tome, Totality and Infinity, Levinas answered this question categorically in the negative, “things have no face.”14

Faceless things.fw

As a quick reminder of the ‘otherness’ of a face, in Beyond: The Philosophy of Emmanuel Levinas, Adriaan Peperzak summarised his understanding of what a ‘face’ was for Levinas: “The Other who looks at me is not a phenomenon; a face is invisible, because it cannot be identified as a theme.”15 With this positioning of the ‘face’ that “cannot be identified as a theme” we can start to see a parallel emerging with Schmiedgen’s description of abstract art having “un-synthesizability and a-typicality”: neither ‘face’ nor abstract art can be thematized, synthesized, or contained by us because they have the quality of otherness. Interestingly, Levinas alluded to this parallel in his 1951 work Is Ontology Fundamental, which actually introduced the idea of the ‘face.’ At that time, Levinas was developing his thoughts about this new notion of the ‘face’ and allowed himself to ask:

“Can things take on a face? Isn’t art an activity that gives things a face? Isn’t the façade of a house a house that is looking at us? The analysis conducted thus far is not enough to give the answer.”16

Rather disappointingly, ten years later, he stated that analysis of the matter has provided the answer: “things have no face.” Consequently, leaves us with a problem, then in drawing our parallel: ultimately Levinas wouldn’t have liked it.

Marilyn Diptych by Andy Warhol, 1962.fw
Marilyn Diptych by Andy Warhol, 1962

Don’t worry, though, Silvia Benso takes on this problem and gives Levinas a nudge to see if she can make him like it.

In The Face of Things Benso calls into question Levinas’ anthropocentric vision of ethics by arguing for the inclusion of things into the realm of the ‘face.’

“The face of the Other is always the human face. Ethically, that is all that matters. This determination implies that the entire realm of nature, animate and inanimate, is deprived of any notion of otherness… Levinas’s answer is resolute. If animals have a face, it is not an ethical face, but a biological one.”17

Rather eloquently, with the argument of including things in the realm of the ‘face’, Benso seeks to bring together the ideas of both Levinas and Heidegger. And with wonderfully simple sub-titles she represents Levinas as ‘Love Without Things’ and Heidegger as ‘Things Without Love’, which she then unites to achieve a love of things.

Love fist.fw

A slightly more complex description of this unification is given in her preface:

“Heidegger offers a thematization of things in terms that are amenable to the recognition of their own alterity. Therefore, Heidegger’s thought proves itself capable of resetting in movement Levinas’s philosophy at the point where it had arrested itself: on the threshold of the alterity of things.”18

Thus, Benso saw Heidegger’s work on things as comparable with Levinas’ work on ethics because both attempted to articulate an alterity that they found in the world. Remarkably, even while surfing the terrain of alterity as free agents, they each kept a respectful distance from the other’s domain, as if a mutually agreed contract had been drawn up between the two.

Two islands.fw

Their approaches to their predecessors are also comparable; just as Levinas had rejected traditional philosophy so too had Heidegger rejected traditional ideas in ontology, and yet, as Benso makes evident, despite such similarities each remained faithful to their ‘contract’:

“In a move that turns around the entire tradition in its relation to things, Heidegger grounds the fact of being a human being on the ability to listen, and correspond, to the inner appeal of things. The possibility for an ethics of things is opened up, although never explicitly thematized by Heidegger, who arrests himself on the threshold of ethics.”19

So, in a move that defies each of their wishes, Benso pushes both over the other’s threshold to present a synthesis of their ideas. This “path of affirmation,”20 as Benso describes, leads to

“An ethics of things, where ethics cannot be traditional ethics in any of its formulations (utilitarian, deontological, virtue-orientated), and things cannot be traditional things (objects as opposed to a subject). At the intersection between ethics and things, Levinas and Heidegger meet.”21

Two Victiran chaps meeting

One has to admire Benso for her clarity and work at this point. But perhaps we are getting ahead of ourselves and we need to know a little more of Heidegger’s thoughts?

Heidegger’s later work on things achieved its worth, for Benso, around the broad encapsulation ‘letting being be’, with its necessary attendant anthropocentric task of allowing ourselves to be open in order to facilitate that very ‘letting be’ of beings:

“Thinking is to keep open – that is, to question. To question is ‘the resolve to be able to stand in the openness of the essent’, that is to let be. And letting be already implies a relation to things which does not cover them up with utilitarian rationalizations. To do so, though, a change of comportment (an existential ‘effect’) is required in the one who does the thinking… the question of things invokes a task, and not simply an answer. The task, accomplishing through the ever-new posing of the questioning, is that of keeping open a space able ‘to preserve things in their inexhaustibility, i.e., without distortion’.”22

And it is at this juncture that Benso finds Heidegger’s desire “to preserve” things “without distortion” equates to Levinas’ desire not to totalise everything in a gaze for easy incorporation into our understanding. Hence, for Benso the opening up of a “possibility for an ethics of things” becomes viable. By keeping ‘open’ and ‘letting be’ an identical situation as at the start of a second reading of Levinas comes into effect.

Open sign.fw

The difference, however, between the second reading of Levinas on art and Heidegger’s ‘letting being be’ is in what manifests the outcome. In Levinas, the artwork, because of its abstract nature, appears to manifest its own freedom, whereas in ‘letting being be’ that which does the ‘letting’ is us, the “one who does the thinking.” The importance for us in identifying the cause of this change lies in Levinas’ insistence that ethics is predicated upon the other: It is not my freedom that leads to responsibility; it is my responsibility for the other that leads to my freedom.

Almost as if to address this Levinasian requirement for ethics, Benso examines Heidegger’s Letter on Humanism and quotes him asserting that “thinking… lets itself be claimed by being,”23 after which she writes: “In other words, the thinker is not at the origin of thinking. Questioning comes from beyond the questioner, from that about which is being questioned.”24 By a change of comportment the priority of the subject in “keeping open a space to ‘preserve things in their inexhaustibility’” is replaced by the priority of being, of that “about which is being questioned.”


So, the instigation of listening comes from the thing, just as in our second reading of Levinas it comes from the work of art. This, Benso is quick to state, gives license to a reading of Heidegger where “the possibility of an ethics – is, if not thematized, at least suggested,” if there is “the possibility that things may send out an appeal, to which human beings are obliged to correspond.”25 But, as Benso adds in caution, “so that the appeal may be heard, a questioning of the mode of being of things is required which lets them be as things.”26 So, although the priority has shifted onto things, rather than the subject, to instigate a potential ethical encounter, the subject is still required to do some work in allowing the thing to be as a thing. An ethical encounter cannot occur in conjunction with a totalising vision, because that vision will obliterate any ethical possibility.

The link between how we regard art – possibly just of an abstract nature for the time being – and how the Levinasian ‘face’ acts upon us is one that, with Levinas’ second reading of art and Benso’s finely argued for Heideggerian inclusion, really seems possible. The importance being, of course, that this means genuine lessons can be learned from how we look at art when thinking ethically about our regard for other people. To gaze upon Number 1, 1948 by Jackson Pollock and allow it to speak, unfettered by our pre-determined thoughts, is to look into the eyes of the stranger we bump into in the street: both demand an ethical response that allows them to be.

Number 1, 1948 by Jackson Pollock, 1948.fw
Number 1, 1948 by Jackson Pollock, 1948

Speaking of Pollock…


  1. Benso, S. The Face of Things: A Different Side of Ethics, SUNY Press, Albany, 2000, 128.
  2. Levinas, E. ‘Reality and its Shadow’ included in The Continental Aesthetics Reader. Edited by Clive Cazeaux, Routledge, London, 2000, 126.
  3. Ibid.
  4. Ibid.
  5. Ibid., 118.
  6. Owens, F. M. Encountering the Other: Levinas, Kapoor, Time and the Other, Masters thesis, Department of Art History and Theory, University of Essex, 1998, 16.
  7. Ibid., 41.
  8. Schmiedgen, P. ‘Art and Idolatry: Aesthetics in Levinas’ included in Contretemps 3, July 2002, vol. 3, 150.
  9. Ibid.
  10. Levinas, E. Existence and Existents. Translated by Alphonso Lingis, Duquesne University Press, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, 2001, 51.
  11. Bruns, G. ‘The concept of art and poetry in Emmanuel Levinas’ writings’ included in The Cambridge Companion to Levinas. Edited by Simon Critchley and Robert Bernasconi, Cambridge University Press, 2003, 212.
  12. Ibid., and 213.
  13. Schmiedgen, P. ‘Art and Idolatry: Aesthetics in Levinas’ included in Contretemps 3, July 2002, vol. 3, 150.
  14. Levinas, E. Totality and Infinity: An Essay on Exteriority. Translated by Alphonso Lingis, Duquesne University Press, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, 1998, 140.
  15. Peperzak, A., Beyond: The Philosophy of Emmanuel Levinas, 66.
  16. Levinas, E. ‘Is Ontology Fundamental?’ included in Entre Nous: On Thinking-of-the-Other. Translated by Michael B. Smith and Barbara Harshaw, Columbia University Press, 1998, 10.
  17. Benso, S. The Face of Things: A Different Side of Ethics, SUNY Press, Albany, 2000, 42.
  18. Ibid., xxxv.
  19. Ibid., xxxvi.
  20. Ibid., 128.
  21. Ibid.
  22. Ibid., 65.
  23. Ibid., 66.
  24. Ibid.
  25. Ibid.
  26. Ibid.