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It is as if the existent appeared in an existence that precedes it, as though existence were independent of the existent, and the existent that finds itself thrown there could never become master of existence. It is precisely because of this that there is desertion and abandonment. Thus dawns the idea of an existing that occurs without us, without subject, an existing without existents.6 The fantastic enters into play at the precise point of this paradoxical dissociation between existing and existents, between Being and beings—a dissociation that does not appear in Heidegger. There where existing cannot exist without existents, it still cuts itself away from them and it is this cut that is fantastic. Lévinas thus seeks to show how difference is susceptible to becoming ontological separation and then ontological indifference.
106 Penumbra When existing shows that it is separated from existents, the frightful and the horrible make their appearance. The philosopher asks: “How can we approach this existing without existents?” And his response is, for my argument, extremely interesting: “by an act of the imagination.” Let us imagine all things, beings and persons, returning to nothingness.
What remains after this imaginary destruction of everything is not something, but the fact that there is. 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 ‘field of forces’ of existing.
There is something that is neither subject nor substantive. The fact of existing imposes itself when there is no longer anything. And it is anonymous: there is neither anyone nor anything that takes this existence upon itself. It is impersonal like ‘it is raining’ or ‘it is hot.’ Existing returns no matter with what negation one dismisses it. There is, as the irremissibility of pure existing.7 “Let us imagine all things returning to nothingness.” But what imagination is capable of this feat? Such an imagination must be capable of nothing less than imagining being, imagining existing, which does not exist. One thinks immediately of the Heideggerian interpretation of productive imagination in Kant. Imagination, Heidegger says, is not creative within the ontic order, but rather within the ontological.8 Has one ever reflected on the vertigo opened up by the idea of a creative imagination within the ontological order—an imagination that no longer operates within the register of beings or non-beings, but rather of Being, and that even gives the expression ‘that does not exist’ a sense entirely other than the ontic sense?
For Heidegger, as we know, the imagination’s ontological power of “creation” is the schematism, still called originary temporalization. The schemas are pure images—that is, determinations of time. Being’s manner of being is time. But Lévinas, who recognizes that the anonymity of existing reveals time as such, the “soldering” that holds the temporal exstases together (as he says in the same text), insists at the same time upon the hallucinatory effect produced by the very possibility of an image of Being. What Lévinas seeks to describe here is the reverberation of the schema in the real, the fantastic image that appears like an atmosphere, a hypervigilance, an insomnia without limit, an incessant murmur—other names, the author says, for the “basis of beings.” Everything happens as if the schema itself was right there.
Radicalizing and profoundly transforming the Heideggerian analysis of anxiety, and thus displacing its problematic, Lévinas devotes himself to describing the shockwave provoked by what he calls “the return of absence within presence,” the ontic mirage of the ontological image, which is, in a sense, one being’s response to the annihilating solicitation of its own image. It is the phenomenon of this response that is “fantastic.” The ontological image becomes real—like a profound night or darkness, something that becomes possible to Pierre Loves Horranges Lévinas-Sartre-Nancy describe. In Existence and Existents, Lévinas says: “Nocturnal space delivers us to Being.” And, he continues, it is from darkness that things “acquire their fantastic character.” Darkness does not only modify their contours for vision; it reduces them to undetermined, anonymous being, which they exude.
One can also speak of different forms of night that occur right in daytime.
Illuminated objects can appear to us as though in twilight shapes. Like the unreal, inverted city we find after an exhausting trip, things and beings strike us as though they no longer composed a world, and were swimming in the chaos of their existence. Such is also the case with the ‘fantastic,’ ‘hallucinatory’ reality in poets like Rimbaud, even when they name the most familiar things and the most accustomed beings. The misunderstood art of certain realistic and naturalistic novelists, their prefaces and professions of faith notwithstanding, produces the same effect: beings and things that collapse into their ‘materiality,’ are terrifyingly present in their destiny, weight and shape. Certain passages of Huysmans or Zola, the calm and smiling horror of de Maupassant’s tales do not only give, as is sometimes thought, a representation ‘faithful to’ or exceeding reality, but penetrate behind the form which light reveals into the materiality which, far from responding to the philosophical materialism of the authors, constitutes the dark background of existence. It makes things appear to us in a night, like the monotonous presence that bears down on us in insomnia.
The rustling of the there is… is horror.9 The unreal, the hallucinatory, horror: such are the ontic responses to the paradoxical appeal of ontological indifference.
Ontological indifference, in Lévinas, primarily designates the mode of being of Being, of existing without beings or without existents. It is the indifference of Being with regard to beings, which find themselves abandoned.
But ontological indifference also characterizes the mode of Being of the beings or of the existents thereby deserted; it characterizes the existent itself insofar as it has become an intruder in relation to its own existence. This effect of mutual foreignness produced between Being and beings thereby opens another dimension of indifference, that of indistinction or non-difference. Even as the difference between existing and existents is stretched to the limit, to the point of separation, existing and existents become paradoxically confused with one another; they become impossible to distinguish. Existing and existents become foreign to one another; and they curiously allow the community of this very foreignness to appear in one flesh, one matter, one basis, one real image, one schema. This matter, other than matter, ontico-ontological matter, is the very consistency of difference: “this materiality that… constitutes the obscure basis of existence.” 108 Penumbra On the one hand, the fantastic inheres in the hallucinatory dimension of apprehending such a materiality—neither ontic nor ontological, but both at the same time; and this hallucinatory dimension becomes the necessary dimension of philosophical thought. On the other hand, it inheres in the mode of being of this materiality or reality, whose stuff, this strange flesh, Heidegger never thought. This reality thus appears at once as a materialization of Being insofar as it is different from beings and as the effect of the suspension of the beingness of beings or existents, which thereby become unreal or really unreal. The fantastic (whence its name) can thus appear as an image supplement—or a phantasm, if one likes—whereby the ontological image is embodied; whereby the schema and time make their non-existence exist.
In the same movement, beings vanish and being is embodied—which is to say, along with Sartre, that it is “qualified.” With this analysis in mind, one should read the magnificent chapter from Being and Nothingness entitled “Of quality as a revelation of being.” One should also reread Nausea and, this time around, accuse Lévinas of a contrasense when he declares: “‘Nausea,’ as a feeling for existence, is not yet a depersonalization; but horror turns the subjectivity of the subject, its particularity qua entity, inside out.”10 Because nausea is only the way in which the there is ever rises into the mouth.
The chapter, “Of quality as a revelation of being,” begins—once again, and this point is particularly interesting for my argument—with an analysis of the imagination that emerges from a critique of “Bachelard’s material imagination.” According to Sartre, this imagination, material as it may be, remains a property of the psyche; it remains subjective and thus lacks the “ontological reality” to which any true “psychoanalysis of things” must return. What is this psychoanalysis? Psychoanalysis makes it possible, Sartre says, “to establish the way in which each thing is the objective symbol of being and of the relation of human reality to this being.”11 “Each thing is the objective symbol of being.” This phrase, without playing on words, is fantastic. It transforms the meaning of the symbol. If all things are symbols, then it is not because they are sensible representations, metaphors, the images of states of the soul, or an intelligible reality that would transcend them. Referring to being, these symbol-things do not refer to anything, to anything other than themselves. Insofar as they exist, things let what does not exist, being or existence, appear in them, materially and objectively.
This strange appearance is once again a sort of real image, existence brushing up against what is there. This is to say that things are not symbols, if one understands a symbol—according to the traditional definition of the term—to be an image detached from the thing of which it is the image; an image that one can grasp in itself, in the psyche, which can do without its body. Insofar as it is objective, however, forming a single body with what it symbolizes—in some sense, with itself—the symbol is no longer a symbol, but the real—if Pierre Loves Horranges Lévinas-Sartre-Nancy one understands the real, following Lacan’s elaboration of it during the same period, as something that resists symbolization or idealization. According to what only seems to be a paradox, the “objective symbol,” in Sartre, designates the incoercible resistance of the real, and thus of existence, to the symbol. It is precisely this resistance of existence to the symbol that Sartre calls “the existential symbolism of things,” thereby affirming that the symbol exists—which is to say that it is not a symbol. Or that the symbol is what is.12 The task of the “psychoanalysis of things” is thus to “establish the manner in which each thing is the objective symbol of being and of the relation of human reality to this being.” This psychoanalysis must take the psyche into account—whence its name; but it must do so in a very particular manner.
Sartre immediately gives an example: “take… the particular quality which we call viscous.”13 “The viscous,” he will say later, “does not symbolize a psychic attitude a priori; it manifests a certain relation of being with itself and this relation has an originally psychic quality [et cette relation est originellement psychisée].”14 In fact, Sartre is in the process of redefining the schema: “this relation has an originally psychic quality” signifies that the viscous is a schema originarily given to the mind, inscribed within it a priori as a pure image: “I am enriched,” Sartre writes, “by a valid ontological schema… which will interpret the meaning of being of all the existents of a certain category,”15 that is, all viscous existents. But, much as in Lévinas, this schema enters into presence within what it schematizes; that is, the viscous, as schema, is itself viscous, and it is in this sense that it shows itself as the relation of being to itself—this phenomenon going beyond imagination properly speaking: “a phenomenon of constant hysteresis in relation to itself.” The being of the viscous and the viscous entity thus exist in a relation that resembles the relation between the honey in
my spoon and the honey in the pot upon which I pour it: