Escape

Levinas tells his readers that although the word used in his title is borrowed from literary criticism the escape in question is not that of so-called escapist literature or of literature as such regarded as escape. In these latter contexts the need to escape is the need to escape 'harsh reality', 'bourgeois conventions', 'boredom' and suchlike. It is a need to escape a certain style of existence. What the title of Levinas's essay refers to is the need to escape existence as such, to escape the elementary and, as he also describes it, brutal truth that there is being, il y a de l'être. That the momentum of the élan vital will offer no chance of exit from sheer existence is already plain. That urge, however allegedly creative, however deconstructive of inherited frames, leaves one state of being only to enter another. It does not achieve the issue from being as such that would be the only remedy for what we might call ontological, as distinct from ontic, claustrophobia. Although it may, to employ Bergson's word, clear (franchir) death, depriving it of its sense, as in his paraphrase Levinas says (MT 62, DMT 67), this is transcendence to a new estate of existence. It is not the excendence that would be the exit from existence, turning the senselessness of death into sense.

We have still not read further than the first of the eight parts of Of Evasion. Yet it has already raised questions that will be of primary importance in the interpretation of Levinas's entire future work. For example, his recourse to this word excendence may be compared with his use of the word 'need', words that occur together in his phrase besoin d'excendance'. Levinas introduces this neologism apologetically, as though he might have preferred to stay with words in common currency. This will not be his last coinage, but we shall find that he generally prefers not to invent or to change words, but to bring out in old words an overlooked, overheard sense. The word besoin ('need'), is a case in point. Of

Evasion employs this word in a dual capacity. On the one hand it is used, as it is usually used, in the sense of that which implies an expectation that would be met by something that is missing. But such ontic need is not the need for excendence. No satisfaction of a lack can meet that. Although in later writings Levinas will tend to restrict his use of the word 'need' to the ontic dimension and the difference between the ontic and the excendent will be marked by the difference between lower-case and upper-case initials for the word 'desire', a certain dramatic force is carried by the dual role given to the word 'need' in this early work. Its duality answers to the duality Levinas attributes here already to the self-identity of the human being, a certain duality that will turn out to be other than that of self-reference traditionally attributed to the identity of the self since Descartes at least, though in Descartes himself that duality of self-reference is no more than the beginning of the story he tells about the duality of human identity. The full story, as Levinas continues to tell it, will reveal that this duality takes on a forme dramatique.

Existence is an absolute that affirms itself without referring itself to anything other. It is identity. But in this reference to himself man distinguishes a kind of duality. His identity with himself loses the character of a logical or tautological form; it takes on, as we shall go on to show, a dramatic form. In the identity of the ego [moi], the identity of being reveals its nature as enchainment because it appears in the form of suffering and it is an invitation to evasion. So evasion is the need of going out of itself [or the need to go out from itself (le besoin de sortir de soi-même)], that is to say, to break the most radical, most irremissible enchainment, the fact that the ego is itself. (DE 73)

Will Levinas go on to tell us that the tautologicality of self-identity gives way to heterologicality? All we have been told up to this point about heterologicality is that it is—otherwise than being. Why should this be a reason for saying that identity with oneself takes on a dramatic form? Are we to expect, in the words with which one dictionary defines 'drama', a 'set of events having the unity and progress of a play and leading to catastrophe or consummation'? Does his 'dramatic' have the force it has when used of utterances that are, as the same dictionary says, 'not to be taken as one's own', when instead of being attributed to an authorial 'I' the words are put in the mouth of a dramatis persona, whether a she or a he, an il—or an Il? We can perhaps expect at the very least that the word 'dramatic' here is being used with its root meaning, from draô ('to do, be doing, accomplish or fulfil'). If this is so, however, the doing in question cannot be the activity (activité) of creation that Bergson ascribes to the élan vital. It cannot be that of Bergsonian creative becoming because Levinas has just been arguing that however successfully that becoming escapes the prison of the present by immediately making it past, the creative activity itself is still in the service of being.

Yet, if this dramatic deed or accomplishment is not activity or creation in Bergson's sense, in what sense can it be suffering? How can the dramatic form be a form of suffering? How is this duality to be understood? One clue to be followed is the statement that the identity of the self's being reveals itself as imprisonment because it appears as suffering. Being is suffered as imprisonment, as being riveted, enchained. Experienced as suffering, being is already an invitation to escape. The 'and' of 'and it is an invitation to escape' seems to be an implication of rather than an addition to the suffering, just as the first word of the sentence immediately following this clause seems to introduce not simply independently but as a consequence the idea that the escape to which the suffering of being invites the self is the need of going out of itself. This is an idea that calls for a closer scrutiny of the 'is', of being itself. Could it be that being is not itself? Could we say that where there is being, where il y a de l'être, there is evasion, il y a de l'évasion, so that just as books entitled De la grammatologie and De l'esprit might help their readers understand what they are about by giving them a helping of grammatology and spirit or wit, the De of De l'evasion might be not simply a preposition, but also a partitive pronoun, so that while the title announces an essay about or concerning evasion, it could at the same time announce an essay that is in some way a performance, a dramatic performance of evasion?

But of what sort is that other interesting 'of in the assertion that evasion is the need of going out of oneself? The logic of this would be odd if evasion or escape here meant the same as going out of oneself (and how could the Latin root evadere not mean 'to go out'?), for in that case the assertion would be that going out of oneself is the need of going out of oneself. In the light of our analysis of the sentence immediately preceding it it looks as though we are being given to understand that the very identity of the oneself incorporates the need of being quit of oneself, and that the second de of the phrase le besoin de sortir de soi-même admits translation both as 'from' and as 'of'. One's self is from the start the need to leave oneself. The unity of the self labours in the pain of a need to be outside itself. Its unity is a disunity. Oneself is a twoself.

Is its labour labour lost? Is its pain pain in vain? If the tie I need to break is strictly irremissible, the need to break it can never be met. Levinas says however that the need in question is to break 'the most irremissible' enchainment. His admission of degrees means that whether the need can be met or not remains to be shown. The paragraph is avowedly proleptic.

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