The Self

Fascinated and enthralled
by our own selves,

and the meagre knowledge
we have managed to grasp.

We become lonely, empty,
and wretched,

if, with a frozen look,
we slay those we encounter.

The choice between cold
knowledge or compassion awaits.

According to Emmanuel Levinas, a loss or a death takes place if we freeze over when encountering another person and move on as if they were never there. Our chill sweeps past them and they are slain when we assess ‘I haven’t got time for this’.

We are fickle, rudderless and self-occupied creatures in the main. But why do we frustrate the potential connections with other people by chilling ourselves so much?

For Levinas, to ignore the call of another’s face demonstrates the highest level of unethical behaviour, to which he ascribed the damning classification ‘murder’. He categorically insisted, “The first word of the face is ‘Thou shalt not kill’.”[1]

When we encounter another person, even in our mode of icy self-assurance, we retain knowledge of the encounter and memories of the person. We don’t erase them from all existence. The residue of the encounter remains within us as part of our life journey. The subtler point Levinas makes with his dramatic description of our potential for ‘murder’ is not that we close our eyes or pretend not to have seen the Other. It’s not even that we destroy our memory of them. It is rather that we dismiss them as being persons in themselves. We effectively make the other person into an object, the equivalent of a pencil or a pair of calico curtains. Everything that is unique, peculiar or different, that makes them who they are to themselves, is dismissed in a split second by our sub-zero nonchalance. Dreams, hopes, ambitions, fears, regrets and shame are all ridden over and trampled roughshod by our blank and empty gaze. This is what Levinas means by ‘murder,’ because isn’t it murderous to ignore the other’s humanity? Aren’t we guilty when we don’t see someone as an individual, as a thinking, breathing, totally distinct person like us? To reduce a person to their physicality alone is to eviscerate their essence.

In our frost-coated life, where only our thoughts and memories are allowed a voice, there is only one who survives the killing spree, only one who can challenge our direction and be heard where all others fall mute to the ground. That sole spirit alone has our ear. The identity of that one is, of course, our self. A lonely, empty, and wretched person.

For Levinas, the self of Western civilisation craves intelligibility through vision: “It is concerned with ideas, it is light, it looks for clarity and evidence. It culminates in an unveiling and in the phenomenon. Everything is immanent to it.”[2] The world that vision unveils is our world, a personal world of phenomena that we understand and, through that understanding, have power over. But, it is a solitary world. Everything we see and understand is reducible to ourselves, to our knowledge. Anything else is not seen and therefore not allowed into our world. Michael Gardiner examines the matter further:

“Emmanuel Levinas suggests that ‘there is a dominance in the look, a technical dominance.’ In so far as the organization of visuality in the modern era is subordinated to a project of mastery, as defined by the intentional, knowing subject, vision is inherently destructive of ‘otherness’.”[3]

Not surprisingly, we feel ill at ease before that which contains “otherness” and defies “mastery” by its continued presence. The need to survive as a primary goal or “project of mastery” does not contain within it the allowance of “otherness” or being ethical. However, our evolved species has journeyed beyond survival and into the realm of the social. Consequently, the issue at stake, for Levinas, is that we as individuals help on a day-to-day level to further civilisation by small acts of respect towards our fellow humans. Within our toil on this planet, he felt that we should at least be ethical towards one another as opposed to being fascinated and enthralled by our own selves and the meagre knowledge we have managed to grasp.

[1] Levinas, E. Ethics and Infinity: Conversations with Philippe Nemo. Translated by Richard A. Cohen, Duquesne University Press, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, 1998. 89.

[2] Levinas, E. ‘The Transcendence of Words,’ reproduced in The Levinas Reader. Edited by Seán Hand, Blackwell, Oxford, 1992, 147.

[3] Gardiner, M. ‘Bakhtin and the Metaphorics of Perception’ included in Interpreting Visual Culture: Explorations in the Hermeneutics of Vision. Edited by Ian Heywood and Barry Sandywell, Routledge, 2001, 57.

Published by Dr Jim Walsh

CEO of Conway Hall Ethical Society and author of 'Ethics Starts With You'.

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