levinas on existence: “imagine all beings, things and persons, reverting to nothingness”

From Emmanuel Levinas, Existence And Existents:



Let us imagine all beings, things and persons, reverting to nothingness. One cannot put this return to nothingness outside of all events. But what of this nothingness itself? Something would happen, if only night and the silence of nothingness. The in-determinateness of this “something is happening” is not the indeterminateness of a subject and does not refer to a substantive. Like the third person pronoun in the impersonal form of a verb, it designates not the uncertainly known author of the action, but the characteristic of this action itself which somehow has no author. This impersonal, anonymous, yet inextinguishable “consummation” of being, which murmurs in the depths of nothingness itself we shall designate by the term there is. The there is, inasmuch as it resists a personal form, is “being in general.”

We have not derived this notion from exterior things or the inner world — from any “being” whatever. For there is transcends inwardness as well as exteriority; it does not even make it possible to distinguish these. The anonymous current of being invades, submerges every subject, person or thing. The subject object distinction by which we approach existents is not the starting point for a meditation which broaches being in general. 

We could say that the night is the very experience of the there is, if the term experience were not inapplicable to a situation which involves the total exclusion of light. 

When the forms of things are dissolved in the night, darkness of the night, which is neither an object nor the quality of an object, invades like a presence. In the night, where we are riven to it, we are not dealing with anything. But this nothing is not that of pure nothingness. There is no longer this or that; there is not “something.” But this universal absence is in its turn presence, an absolutely unavoidable presence. It is not the dialectical counterpart of absence, and we do not grasp it through thought. It is immediately there.

There is no discourse. Nothing responds to us, but this silence; the voice of this silence understood and frightens like the silence of those infinite spaces Pascal speaks of. There is, in general, without it mattering there is, without our being able to fix a substantive to this term. There is is an impersonal form, like in it rains, or it is warm. Its anonymity is essential. The mind does not find itself faced with an apprehended exterior. The exterior — if one insists on the term — remains uncorrelated with an interior. It is no long given. It is no longer a world. What we call the I is itself submerged by the night, invaded, depersonalized, stifled by it. The disappearance of all things and of the I leaves what cannot disappear, the sheer fact of being in which one participates whether one wants to or not, without having taken the initiative, anonymously. Being remains, like a field of forces, like a heavy atmosphere belonging to no one, universal, returning in the midst of the negation which put it aside, and in all the powers to which that negation may be multiplied.

There is a nocturnal space, but it is no longer empty space, the transparency which both separates us from things and gives access to them, by which they are given. Darkness fills it like a content; it is full, but full of the nothingness of everything. Can one speak of its continuity? It is surely uninterrupted. But points of nocturnal space do not refer to each other as illuminated space; there is no perspective, they are not situated. There is a swarming of points.

Yet this analysis does not simply illustrate Professor Mosch Turpin’s thesis, in the Tales of Hoffman, that night is the absence of day. The absence of perspective is not something purely negative. It becomes an insecurity. Not because things covered by darkness elude our foresight and that it becomes impossible to measure their approach in advance. For the insecurity does not come from the things of the day world which the night conceals; it is due just to the fact that nothing approaches, nothing comes, nothing threatens; this silence, this tranquility, this void of sensations constitutes a mute, absolutely indeterminate menace. The indeterminateness constitutes its acuteness. There is no determined being, anything can count for anything else. In this ambiguity the menace of pure and simple presence, of the there is, takes form. Before this obscure invasion it is impossible to take shelter in oneself, to withdraw into one’s shell. One is exposed. The whole is open upon us. Instead of serving as our means of access to being, nocturnal space delivers us over to being.

The things of the day world then do not in the night become the source of the “horror of darkness” because our look cannot catch them in their “unforeseeable plots”; on the contrary, they get their fantastic character from this horror. Darkness does not only modify their contours for vision; it reduces them to undetermined, anonymous being, which sweats in them.

One can also speak of different forms of night that occur right in the 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 penetrates behind the form which light reveals into that materiality which, far from corresponding 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. We have noted the way it insinuates itself in the night, as an undetermined menace of space itself disengaged from its function as receptacle for objects,as a means of access to beings. Let us look further into it.

To be conscious is to be torn away from the there is, since the existence of a consciousness constitutes a subjectivity, a subject of existence., that is, to some extent a master of being, already a name in the anonymity of the night. Horror is somehow a movement which will strip consciousness of its very “subjectivity.” Not in lulling it into unconsciousness, but in throwing it into an impersonal vigilance, a participation, in the sense that Levy-Bruhl gives to the term.

What is new in the idea of participation which Levy-Bruhl introduced to describe an existence where horror is the dominant emotion, is in the destruction of categories which had hitherto been used to describe the feelings evoked by “the sacred.” In Durkheim if the sacred breaks with profane being by the feelings it arouses, these feelings remain those of a subject facing an object. The identity of each of these terms does not seem compromised. The sensible qualities of the sacred are incommensurable with the emotional power it emits and with the very nature of this emotion, but their function as bearers of “collective representations” accounts for this disproportion and inadequateness. The situation is quite different in Levy-Bruhl. Mystical participation is completely different from the Platonic participation in a genus; in it the identity of the terms is lost. They are divested of what constituted their very substantivity. The participation of one term in another does not consist in sharing an attribute; one term is the other. The private existence of each term, mastered by a subject that is, loses this private character and returns to an undifferentiated background; the existence of one submerges the other, and is thus no longer an existence of the one. We recognize here the there is. The impersonality of the sacred in primitive religions, which for Durkheim is the “still” impersonal God from which will issue one day the God of advanced religions, on the contrary describes a world where nothing prepares for the apparition of a God. Rather than to a God, the notion of the there is leads us to the absence of God, the absence of any being. Primitive men live before all Revelation, before the light comes.

Horror is nowise an anxiety about death. According to Levy-Bruhl, primitive peoples show only indifference to death, which they take as a natural fact. In horror a subject is stripped of his subjectivity, of his power to have private existence. The subject is depersonalized. “Nausea,” as a feeling for existence, is not yet a depersonalization; but horror turns the subjectivity of the subject, his particularity qua entity, inside out. It is a participation in the there is, in the there is which returns inthe heart of every negation, in the there is that has “no exits.” It is, if we may say so, the impossibility of death, the universality of existence even in its annihilation.

To kill, like to die, is to seek an escape from being, to go where freedom and negation operate. Horror is the event of being which returns in the heart of this negation, as though nothing had happened. “And that,” says Macbeth, “is more strange than the crime itself.” In the nothingness which a crime creates a being is condensed to the point of suffication, [sic] and draws consciousness out of its “retreat.” A corpse is horrible; it already bears in itself its own phantom, it presages its return. The haunting spectre, the phantom, constitutes the very element of horror. 

The night gives a spectral allure to the objects that occupy it still. It is the “hour of crime,” “hour of vice,” which also bear the mark of a supernatural reality. Evil-doers are disturbing to themselves like phantoms. This return of presence in negation, this impossibility of escaping from an anonymous and uncorruptible existence constitutes the final depths of Shakespearean tragedy. The fatality of the tragedy of antiquity becomes the fatality of irremissible being.

Specters, ghosts, sorceresses are not only a tribute Shakespeare pays to his time, or vestiges of the original material he composed with; they allow him to move constantly toward this limit between being and nothingness where being insinuates itself even in nothingness, like bubbles of the earth (“the Earth hath bubbles”). Hamlet recoils before the “not to be” because he has a foreboding of the return of being (“to dye, to sleepe, perchance to Dreame”). In Macbeth, the apparition of Banquo’s ghost is also a decisive experience of the “no exit” from existence, its phantom return through the fissures through which one has driven it. “The times have been, that when the Brains were out, the man would dye, and there an end; But now they rise again … and push us from our stools. This is more strange than such a murther is.” “And it is over with” is impossible. The horror does not come from the danger. “What man dare, I dare … Approach thou like the rugged Russian Bear, … Take any shape but that, and my firm Nerves shall never tremble … Hence horrible Shadow, unreal mockery hence … ” It is the shadow of being that horrifies Macbeth; the profile of being takes form in nothingness. The horror of the night, as an experience of the there is, does not then reveal to us a danger of death, nor even a danger of pain. That is what is essential in this analysis. The pure nothingness revealed by anxiety in Heidegger’s analysis does not constitute the there is. There is horror of being and not anxiety over nothingness, fear of being and not fear for being; there is being prey to, delivered over to something that is not a “something.” When night is dissipated with the first rays of the sun, the horror of the night is no longer defineable. The “something” appears to be “nothing.” 

Horror carries out the condemnation to perpetual reality, to existence with “no exists.”

The sky, the whole world’s full of my forefathers.
Where may I hide? Flee to infernal night.
How? There my father holds the urn of doom …

Phaedra discovers the impossibility of death, the eternal responsibility of her being, in a full universe in which her existence is bound by an unbreakable commitment, an existence no longer in any way private.

We are opposing, then, the horror of the night, “the silence and horror of the shades,” to Heideggerian anxiety, the fear of being to the fear of nothingness. While anxiety, in Heidegger, brings about “being toward death,” grasped and somehow understood, the horror of the night “with no exits” which ” does not answer” is an irremissible existence. “Tomorrow, alas one will still have to live” — a tomorrow contained in the infinity of today.

There is horror or immortality, perpetuity of the drama of existence, necessity of forever taking on its burden.1

When, in the last chapter of Creative Evolution, Bergson shows that the concept of nothingness is equivalent to the idea of being crossed out, he seems to catch sight of a situation analogous to that which led us to the notion of the there is.

According to Bergson, negation has a positive meaning as a movement of the mind which rejects one being in order to think of another being; but, when applied to the totality of being, it no longer makes sense. To deny the totality of being is for consciousness to plunge into a kind of darkness, where it would at least remain as an operation, as the consciousness of that darkness. Total negation then would be impossible, and the concept of nothingness illusory. But Bergson’s critique of nothingness only aims at the necessity of a being, a “something” which exists. It always approaches Being as “a being,” and ends up with a residual entity. The darkness into which consciousness plunges, which has put out every glimmering of light in being, is also understood as content.

The fact that it is a content obtained through the negation of all content remains unconsidered. But this is just what is new in this situation. Darkness, as the presence of absence, is not a purely present content. There is not a “something” that remains. There is the atmosphere of presence, which can, to be sure, appear later as a content, but originally is the impersonal, non-substantive event of the night and the there is. It is like a density of the void, like a murmur of silence. There is nothing, but there is being, like a field of forces. Darkness is the very play of existence which would play itself out even if there were nothing. It is to express just  this paradoxical existence that we have introduced the term “there is.” We want to call attention to this being a density, an atmosphere, a field, which is not to be identified with an object that would have this density, or that would be taken up in the breath of existence or situated within a field of forces. We want to call attention to the existential density of the void itself, devoid of all being, empty even of void, whatever be the power of negation applied to itself. Negation does not end up with being as a structure and organization of objects; that which affirms and imposes itself in the extreme situation we have imagined, and which we approach in the night and in the tragic, is being as an impersonal field, a field without proprietor or master, where negation, annihilation and nothingness are events like affirmation, creation and subsistence, but impersonal events. A presence of absence, the there is is beyond contradiction; it embraces and dominates its contradictory. In this sense being has no outlets.

In modern philosophy the idea of death and of anxiety in face of death was opposed to the Bergsonian critique of nothingness. To “realize” the concept of nothingness is not to see nothingness but to die. As death, and an attitude taken with respect to death, the negation of being is not merely an impassive thought. But nothingness is here still conceived independently of the there is, without recognizing the universality of the there is; the dialectical character of the presence of absence is not taken note of. One starts with being, which is a content limited by nothingness. Nothingness is still envisaged as the end and limit of being, as an ocean which beats up against it on all sides. But we must ask if “nothingness,” unthinkable as a limit or negation of being, is not possible as interval and interruption; we must ask whether consciousness, with its aptitude for sleep, for suspension, for epoché, is not the locus of this nothingness-interval.2


1 Thomas l’Obscure, by Maurice Blanchot, opens with the description of the ‘here is … (Cf., in particular Chapter II, pages 13-16). The presence of absence, the night, the dissolution of the subject in the night, the horror of being, the return of being to the heart of every negative movement, the reality of irreality are there admirably expressed.

2 This whole section, preceded by one part of our introduction, was published, with slight modifications, in Deucalion I, under the title “Il y a.”

—from Emmanuel Levinas, Existence And Existents (1978). Translated By Alphonso Lingis



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