On “On Escape”

Beginning is made heavy by itself; it is the present of being and not of a dream. Its freedom is immediately limited by its responsibility. This is its great paradox: a free being is already no longer free, because it is responsible for itself.[1]

Levinas begins “On Escape” with the discord between human freedom and the brutal fact of being that assaults this freedom, from which originates the revolt of traditional philosophy against the idea of being. As he points out, however, “the conflict from which the revolt arises opposes man to the world, not man to himself.”[2] As the young Levinas observes, “these struggles do not break up the unity of the “I,” which—when purified of all that is not authentically human in it—is given to peace with itself, completes itself, closes on and rests upon itself. His criticism of the romanticism of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries (the individual’s assurance of the full flowering of its own identity) opens his argument for the first section of the essay.


The conception of the “I” as self sufficient is one of the essential marks 

of the bourgeois spirit and its philosophy.

This conception of the I nonetheless nourishes the audacious dreams of a restless and enterprising capitalism. This conception presides over capitalism’s work ethic, its cult of initiative and discovery, which aims less at reconciling man with himself than at securing for him the unknown of time and things. The bourgeois admits no inner division and would be ashamed to lack confidence in himself, but he is concerned about reality and the future, for they threaten to break up the uncontested equilibrium of the present where he holds sway.[3]

The bourgeois is prosaic and materialistic, “prefers the certainty of tomorrow to today’s enjoyments,” “demands guarantees in the present against the future,” carries “interest or insurance against risks, and his future, thus tamed, is integrated in this way with his past.” The bourgeois sees himself as imperfect and insufficient, and so accumulates things to make himself perfect and sufficient. And worse is that Western philosophy has never gone beyond this, but instead “struggled for a better being, for a harmony between us and the world, or for the perfection of our own being…..The insufficiency of the human condition has never been understood otherwise than as a limitation of being, without ever having envisaged the meaning of ‘finite being.’ The transcendence of these limits, communion with the infinite being, remained philosophy’s sole preoccupation…”[4]

For the young Levinas, “Being is: there is nothing to add to this assertion as long as we envision in a being only its existence.” Being is plenitude. The fact that something is is already perfection. The brutality of being is that simply: it is. It is not about becoming self-sufficient, life is not about surviving.

Il y a

What if, suddenly, we all go back to nothing?  In this situation, beings fall back into nothing, but not completely nothing. There would be no thing, but not nothing[5].  Il y a is indeterminate, impersonal, anonymous.  In the state of il y a, you are not yet an I, you have not yet come out.

What remains after this imaginary destruction of everything is not something, but the fact that there is (il y a). The absence of everything returns as a presence, as the place where the bottom has dropped out of everything, an atmospheric density, a plenitude of the void, the murmur of silence. There is, after this destruction of things and beings, the impersonal “fields of forces” of existing. There is something that is neither subject nor substantive.[6]

Levinas tries to describe subjectivity from the absence of subjectivity, to show us a new way of understanding the subject, by making us imagine the absence of the subject.  in order to become a particular being, Levinas imagined it must have taken a certain amount of effort to be in being. For Levinas, to continue to be is to fight for your space.  We have to rise up from anonymity and impersonality. We have to have a strong effort to be unique, singular, and different. Levinas makes Heidegger’s Being more dynamic by showing us that it takes great effort to truly exist.


 “The escape, in regard to which contemporary literature manifests a strange disquiet, appears like a condemnation—the most radical one—of the philosophy of being by our generation.”[7] Escape, then, which Levinas borrowed from the language of contemporary literary criticism, is the “acute feeling of being held fast [rivé]. The impossibility of getting out of the game and of giving back to things their toy-like uselessness heralds the precise instant at which infancy comes to an end, and defines the very notion of seriousness.”

Escape does not originate only from the dream of the poet who sought to evade “lower realities”; nor does it arise from the concern to break with the social conventions and constraints that falsified or annihilated our personality, as in the romantic movements of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Escaping is the quest for the marvelous, which is liable to break up the somnolence of our bourgeois existence.[8]

All the motifs by those poets are but variations on a theme whose depths they are incapable of equaling. They hold this theme within but transpose it. They command a flight in search for refuge; not only a matter of getting out, but also of a going somewhere.

“Escape is the need to get out of oneself, that is, to break that most radical and unalterably binding of chains, the fact that the I [moi] is oneself [soi-même].[9] It puts in question the alleged peace-with-self, since it aspires to break the chains of the I to the self.

Therefore, the need for escape—whether filled with chimerical hopes or not, no matter!—leads us into the heart of philosophy. It allows us to renew the ancient problem of being qua being.[10]


The Notions of the Finite and the Infinite

             Levinas anticipates the questions that up to this point may necessarily have to be cleared. The infinite being is not the ideal of self-sufficiency and the promise of eternal contentment, because that would only suppose that need is just a privation. There is in need something other than a lack. The notions of finite and infinite apply to beings but these terms lack precision when it is about being as being. Escape also is not a flight toward death or as a stepping outside of time. “Even if the ground of need were to consist in a lack, then this lack could not affect the ‘existence of the existent,’ to which one can neither add nor remove anything.”[11]


The Phenomenology of Need

            Need appears as an insufficiency in our being, habitually interpreted as a lack, the limitation of our being. Thus it seems to aspire only to its own satisfaction. And the aspiration for such satisfaction becomes the search for the object able to procure it. The psychology of need likewise quickly interprets the insufficiency of need as the insufficiency of being. It assumes a metaphysics in which need is characterized in advance as an emptiness in a world where the real is identified with the full. Thus needs becomes suffering and gets itself to be obeyed. Malaise, or disquiet, is the specific mode that characterizes the need that becomes suffering.

Malaise appears “as a refusal to remain in place, as an effort to get out of an unbearable situation.”[12] It is a movement to go out, a restlessness within us which urges us to move, a “metaphysical unease” (Marcel). But what constitutes its particular character is the indeterminacy of the goal that this departure sets for itself. “It is an attempt to get out without knowing where one is going, and this ignorance qualifies the very essence of this attempt.”[13]

There is a need to get out of Being, but that which is neither a lack nor a privation. It is also important for Levinas (1935) to distinguish between need and desire: the former is a movement which goes out, takes, and comes back (pris – grasping), and the latter a movement which goes out but not a taking that wants to go back (sur-pris – there is an other who takes me out, I am taken out).


The Phenomenology of Pleasure

            To justify his thesis that need expresses the presence of our being and not its deficiency, Levinas invites us to look at the primordial phenomenon of need’s satisfaction: pleasure.

It is certainly not to the materiality of the objects liable to satisfy need that he who feels it is oriented. Their possible use alone interests him. But there is more to this. Satisfaction is fulfilled in an atmosphere of fever and exaltation, which allows us to say that need is a search for pleasure. What does this pleasure signify?[14]

Within pleasure’s specific dynamism the satisfaction of need comes to pass. Pleasure appears as it develops. It is neither there as a whole, nor does it happen all at once, nor will be whole or integral. Progressive movement is a trait characteristic of this phenomenon. It is a “movement that does not tend toward a goal, for it has no end. It exists wholly in the enlargement of its own amplitude, which is like the rarefaction of our existence, or its swooning.”[15]

In the very depths of incipient pleasure there opens something like abysses, ever deeper, into which our existence, no longer resisting, hurls itself. There is something dizzying to pleasure’s unfolding [devenir]. There is ease or cowardice. The [human] being feels its substance somehow draining from it; it grows lighter, as if drunk, and disperses.[16]

We note in pleasure an abandonment, a loss of oneself, a getting out of oneself, an ecstasy: so many traits that describe the promise of escape contained in pleasure’s essence. And in the moment when the pleasure is broken, just when the human being believed in complete ecstasy, he is entirely disappointed, and ashamed to find himself again existing.

Pleasure is a process of departing from being. It does not take on the forms of being, but attempts to break those up. It “appears in a constant surpassing of oneself, it breaks just at the moment where it seems to get out absolutely. It develops with an increase in promises, which become richer the closer it comes to its paroxysm, but these promises are never kept.”[17] Pleasure is a deceptive escape, it is an escape that fails.

Pleasure conforms to the demands of need but is incapable of equaling them. And at the moment of its disappointment, which should have been that of its triumph, the meaning of its failure is underscored by shame.[18]


The Phenomenology of Shame

            Shame appears to be reserved for phenomena of moral order. But shame does not depend on the limitation of our being, inasmuch as it is liable to sin. It is rather on the very being of our being. “It is founded upon the solidarity of our being, which obliges us to claim responsibility for ourselves.”[19] But, again, this analysis is insufficient.

            “Shame arises each time we are unable to make others forget our basic nudity.”[20] But being naked, in this sense, is  not a question of wearing clothes. “Nakedness is shameful when it is the sheer visibility [patence] of our being, of its ultimate intimacy.”[21]

It is therefore our intimacy, that is, our presence in ourselves, that is shameful. It reveals not our nothingness but rather the totality of our existence. Nakedness is the need to excuse one’s existence. Shame is, in the last analysis, an existence that seeks excuses. What shame discovers [découvre] is the being who uncovers himself [se découvre].[22]


The Case of Nausea

            Nausea is a case in which the nature of malaise appears in all its purity, to which the term malaise applies par excellence. Nausea is the state that precedes vomiting, and from which vomiting will deliver us, encloses us on all sides. Nausea does not come from outside to confine us, but rather revolts from the inside—“our depths smother beneath ourselves; our innards ‘heave’.”[23]

There is in nausea a refusal to remain there, an effort to get out, of being riveted, enclosed in a tight circle that smothers. “We are there, and there is nothing more to be done, or anything to add to this fact that we have been entirely delivered up, that everything is consumed: this is the very experience of pure being.[24]

In the state of nausea, shame appears purified of any admixture of collective representations. Even when nausea is experienced in solitude, in isolation, the sick person, “who was taken ill” and who has no choice but to vomit, is still scandalized by himself, even instead wishing for the presence of another because then the scandal of nausea could be brought down objectively to the level of “illness”.

Nausea reveals to us the presence of being in all its impotence. It is the impotence of pure being, in all its nakedness.


Shame, Eternity, Ethics

The experience that reveals to us the presence of being as such, the pure existing of being, is an experience of its powerlessness, the source of all need. That powerlessness therefore appears neither as a limit to being nor as the expression of the finite being. The “imperfection” of being does not appear as identical to its limitation. Being is “imperfect” inasmuch as it is being, and not inasmuch as it is finite.[25]

Limitation is the mark of the existence of the existent. “The paradox of being remains intact when we free ourselves of time and grant ourselves eternity.”[26] It is not because of eternity that escape is made. Eternity is only the intensification of the fatality of that being which is riveted to itself.


Getting out of being by a new path

            Progress has not brought Western philosophy to surpass being entirely. Ontologism remained prisoner of an elementary and simple principle: one could think and feel only that which exists or is supposed to exist. Contemplative thought is at bottom the behavior of him who forever carries the mark of existence: theory is essentially subservient to the existent and, when it does not start from being, it anticipates it. The romanticism of creative activity is animated by the profound need to get out of being, but all the same it shows an attachment to its created essence and its eyes are fixed on being. The idealism of thought modifies the structure of the existent but does not tackle its existence. “Every civilization that accepts being—with the tragic despair it contains and the crimes it justifies—merits the name ‘barbarian’.”[27]

For Levinas, the only path open for us is that on which we measure without fear all the weight of being and all its universality. “It is the path where we recognize the inanity of acts and thoughts incapable of taking the place of an event that breaks up existence in the very accomplishment of its existence.”[28] It is then “a matter of getting out of being by a new path, at the risk of overturning certain notions that to common sense and the wisdom of the nations seemed the most evident.[29]

A “being”, a “something” one could point at with a finger, corresponds to a mastery over the “there is” which dreads in being. I spoke thus of the determinate being or existent as a dawn of clarity in the horror of the “there is,” a moment where the sun rises, where things appear for themselves, where they are not borne by the “there is” but dominate it. Does one not say that the table is, that things are? Then one refastens being to the existent, and already the ego there dominates the existents it possesses.[30]

In order to be, one must push down il y a (hypostasis), dominate, master it, sometimes pushing down also other beings in the struggle for survival, a clinging to being, the ego dominating the things it possesses. Levinas speaks of the “hypostasis” of existents, that is, the passage from being to a something, from the state of verb to the thing. For him, being which is posited is saved. But, he continues, this idea is only a first stage. He proposes, from whence, an entirely different movement: “to escape the ‘there is’ one must not be posed but deposed; to make an act of deposition, in the sense one speaks of deposed kings.”[31] It is not enough to be, there has to be another movement, not just escape from il y a, but also escape from being, depositioning, decentering, by becoming social, ethical.


Ivan Richard F. Deligero

January 4, 2012

[1] Levinas, E. (1979), Time and the Other, trans. Cohen, R., Pittsburgh: Duquesne University Press, p. 55.

[2] Levinas, E. (1982), On Escape/ De l’évasion, trans. Bergo, B. (2003), Stanford: Stanford University Press, p. 49.

[3] Ibid., p. 50.

[4] Levinas ends the sentence with an ellipsis to indicate that the ongoing concern of philosophy with transcendence will be interrupted, here, historically and, as it were, syntactically. The beginning of the following paragraph announces the interruption, which is none other than the possible end of discourses on infinite being, brought about by the “modern sensibility” in philosophy and elsewhere. (p. 114, Notes to Pages 51-52)

[5] Heidegger, “What is Metaphysics”: “Pure be[ing] and pure no-thing is the same.” This proposition of Hegel’s (Science of Logic) is correct. Be[ing] and no-thing belongs together, not because both of them agree in their indeterminacy and immediacy, but rather because be[ing] itself in essence finite and revealed only in the transcendence of existence enduring no-thing [in das Nichts hinausgehaltenen Daseins].

[6] Time and the Other, p. 46.

[7] Levinas interprets Heidegger’s philosophy as paganism. Cf. Rolland’s Annotation 11 on Levinas’s On Escape, wherein he reproduced the final sentences of “The Living Relevance of Maimonides,” a text contemporary with On Escape, published in 1935 in Paix et Droit: “…Paganism is a radical powerlessness to get out of the world. It consists not in denying spirits and gods but in situating them in the world….The pagan is shut up in this world, sufficient unto himself and closed upon himself. He finds it solid and firmly established. He finds it eternal. He orders his actions and destiny according to the world…”

[8] On Escape, p. 53.

[9] Ibid., p. 55.

[10] Ibid., p. 56.

[11] Ibid., p. 57.

[12] Ibid., p. 58. “Malaise is not a purely passive state, resting upon itself. The fact of being ill at ease [mal à son aise] is essentially dynamic.”

[13] Ibid., p. 59.

[14] Ibid., p. 60.

[15] Ibid., p. 61.

[16] Ibid.

[17] Ibid., p. 62.

[18] Ibid., p. 63.

[19] Ibid., p. 63.

[20] Ibid., p. 64.

[21] Ibid.

[22] Ibid., p. 65.

[23] Ibid., p. 66.

[24] Ibid., p. 66-67.

[25] Ibid., p. 69.

[26] Ibid., p. 70.

[27] Ibid., p. 73.

[28] Ibid.

[29] Ibid.

The fundamental question for Heidegger is the forgetfulness of Being, so he suggests a transcendence from being (as noun) to Being (as verb). For Levinas, however, the more fundamental question is the forgetfulness of the Other, so his proposal turns Heidegger’s the other way around: from Existence to Existents. He wanted to go beyond Heidegger without ignoring Heidegger’s insight. It is naïve to proceed without acknowledging the ontological difference, but the young Levinas wanted to go beyond Being, even though the destination has not been determined.

See also Rolland’s Annotation 12, pp. 92-94.

[30] Levinas, E., Ethics and Infinity: Conversations with Philippe Nemo, trans. Cohen, R., (2006), Pittsburgh: Duquesne University Press, p. 51.

[31] Ibid., p. 52.

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