Wednesday, December 13, 2006


Robert Ryman, Untitled (1965)

When Levinas argues in his early essay, “On Escape”, that human desire is not a sign of lack, he seems to be making a radical break with the tradition, both theological and philosophical. The insufficiency of what we have and the need for more, something that could satisfy it, had been a crucial aspect of philosophical theology from Augustine to Maimonides to al-Farabi. We move, are driven by desire, because we want something. But Levinas is not really making as radical a break as it might seem, for what Levinas is here arguing is that humanity does not find its end in itself. When one searches within the given being of human existence one is always left unsatisfied; our natures mock us, hang about us like a weight, keeping us riveted to our own dis-satifaction. While other finite natures find their fulfillment in their own natural capacities, this is untrue of humanity. Fish gotta swim, birds gotta fly, pens gotta write, but humanity must ....nothing. It is not, then, that there is something we lack, instead we need to get out of the very thing we have, indeed we need to escape all having. The erotic drive is the unquenchable desire for transcendence. So when Levinas tells us that there is a disquiet at the heart of humanity that manifests itself naturally as the desire for escape, he is saying humanity cannot be content in its own finitude. Humanity is incapable of achieving its own happiness, and so will be content with nothing less than a breakthrough that it is incapable of bringing about on its own. Here in fact Levinas is advocating a position that can be found throughout the Platonic tradition. Desire can only be satisfied by the Good which is beyond all being and every nature. We are only truly ourselves in ecstasy, that is to say, quite literally, in going-out of ourselves.