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Insatiable Desire

  • Fiona Ellis

Last night I had a desire for a glass of wine. Luckily I had a bottle in the fridge and could satisfy my desire. Earlier in the day I had a desire to run on the heath and I satisfied this desire too. And today, tired of reading yet more stuff on desire, I satisfied my desire to start writing. So desires can be satisfied. Not that they are guaranteed to be satisfied – the bottle in my fridge might have failed to materialize, and something might have prevented me from going for a run or getting down to writing – but that they can be satisfied. Witness C.S. Lewis:

Creatures are not born with desires unless satisfaction for those desires exists. A baby feels hunger: well, there is such a thing as food. A duckling wants to swim: well, there is such a thing as water. Men feel sexual desire: well, there is such a thing as sex.

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1 Mere Christianity (London: Fontana, 1960), Bk III, ch 10: ‘Hope’.

4 Surprised by Joy (London: Fontana, 1959), 137–8.

5 In any case, today's desire for wine is numerically distinct from yesterday's desire. The emergence of a similar desire today does not impair the satisfaction of yesterday's desire. There are also desires guaranteed not to recur, such as the condemned man's desire for a last cigarette.

6 Kant discusses this in Lectures on Ethics, trans., Infield, Louis, (London: Methuen, 1930).

7 Totality and Infinity, (Pittsburgh, PA: Duquesne University Press, 1969), trans., Lingis, Alphonso, 117.

8 Totality and Infinity, 114–115.

9 On Escape, trans., Bergo, Bettina (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2003) 60.

10 Totality and Infinity, 33–4.

11 This justifies Levinas's use of the term ‘metaphysical’: metaphysics pertains to that which is ‘elsewhere’ or ‘other’.

12 Philosophy and the Idea of the Infinite’, in To the Other: An Introduction to the Philosophy of Emmanuel Levinas, Adriann Peperzak (West Lafayette, Indiana: Purdue University Press, 1993) 98.

13 ‘Philosophy and the Idea of the Infinite’, 110.

15 Ibid., 109.

16 See A Religion for Adults’, in Difficult Freedom: Essays on Judaism, trans., Hand, Sean (Baltimore: John Hopkins University Press, 1990), 20, and The Thinking of Being and the Question of the Other’, in Of God Who Comes to Mind, trans., Bergo, Bettina (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1998), 121.

17 ‘Philosophy and the Idea of the Infinite’, 110.

18 Ibid., 109.

19 Ibid., 110.

20 ‘Philosophy and the Idea of the Infinite’, 107.

21 One of Levinas's bugbears, the arch-conceptualiser Hegel, would reject the charge of egoism by insisting, firstly, that it is not he personally who deploys concepts, but the reason common to all human beings and, secondly, that appropriate conceptualisation involves submission to the intrinsic objective conceptual structure of the subject-matter, not the imposition of concepts alien to it.

22 ‘Loving the Torah more than God’, in Difficult Freedom, 143.

23 ‘A Religion for Adults’, 14.

24 Compare Pope Benedict XVI who refers to a false ecstasy which involves a ‘sinking in the intoxication of happiness’ (‘Deus Caritas Est’, CTS Publications, 2006), 9.

25 ‘For a Jewish Humanism’, in Difficult Freedom, 275.

26 Collected Philosophical Papers, ed. Lingis, Alphonso (The Hague: Martinus Nijhoff, 1987), 72–3.

27 ‘A Religion for Adults’, 17.

28 ‘Philosophy and the Idea of the Infinite’, 112.

29 Totality and Infinity, 61.

30 ‘Philosophy and the Idea of the Infinite’, 113.

31 Ibid., 114.

32 Totality and Infinity, 63.

33 Ibid., 179.

34 Totality and Infinity, 179.

35 ‘Philosophy and the Idea of the Infinite’, 114.

36 Totality and Infinity, 63.

37 ‘Philosophy and the Idea of the Infinite’, 114.

39 Totality and Infinity, 103.

40 Some specifically human, i.e. non-animal, desires seem to be satiable, e.g. the desire to do a crossword or to have a philosophical conversation. Lewis and Levinas could either agree that this is the case or ague that such desires are, despite appearances, insatiable. It is beyond the scope of this paper to settle this matter.

41 Time and the Other, trans., Cohen, Richard A (Pittsburgh, PA: Duquesne University Press, 1987), 88.

42 Time and the Other, 89.

43 Totality and Infinity, 266.

44 Existence and Existents, trans., Lingis, Alphonso (Pittsburgh, PA: Duquesne University Press, 2001), 35.

45 There is a question about what Levinas is really committed to, and he certainly seems prepared to temper the force of the utopian-like vision that finds expression in many of his claims. For example, he tells us that ‘my responsibility for all can and has to manifest itself also in limiting itself. The ego can, in the name of this unlimited responsibility, be called on to concern itself with itself (Otherwise than Being, 128. Hilary Putnam expresses some Aristotelian worries about this vision in his Levinas and Judaism’, Cambridge Companion to Levinas, eds., Critchley, Simon and Bernasconi, Robert (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2002), 57. Morgan, Michael L. responds to some of these worries in his Discovering Levinas (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2007), 289299: ‘Ethics does not eliminate or seek to eliminate the rest of human life; it does, however, seek to place it in its context of the good, as our determinative and unavoidable concern’. I reserve judgement on the question of whether Morgan's interpretation can be made good, although it should be clear from what I go on to say that there is a serious tension in Levinas's position which comes out in his attitude towards erotic love.

46 Totality and Infinity, 266.

48 This is how Denis de Rougemont interprets Tristan and Isolde in Love in the Western World, trans., Belgion, Montgomery (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1956). I consider this interpretation in my Scruton's Wagner on God, Salvation, and Eros’ (British Journal of Aesthetics, vol 50, no.2, April, 2010, 169187).

49 Being and Nothingness: An Essay on Phenomenological Ontology, trans., Barnes, Hazel (London: Routledge, 1958). See also Wang, Stephen, ‘Human Incompletion, Happiness, and desire for God in Sartre's Being and Nothingness’ (Sartre Studies International, vol. 12, Issue 1, 2006).

50 ‘To be man means to reach toward being God. Or if you prefer, man fundamentally is the desire to be God’, Being and Nothingness, 566.

51 Being and Nothingness, 615.

52 Totality and Infinity, 61.

53 See Jeanrond, Werner G., A Theology of Love (New York: T & T Clark, 2010), ch. 9, for a criticism of the view that only God can love.

54 Compare Benedict XVI: ‘God is the absolute and ultimate source of all being; but this universal principle of creation – the Logos, primordial reason – is at the same time a lover with all the passion of true love’ (Deus Caritas Est, 14).

55 I am not suggesting that the love we have for others in a purely moral context is to be assimilated to the case of erotic love, although we can note that Levinas himself gestures in this direction when he tells us that the ethical relation involves being ‘possessed by the other, sick’, and cites the lover's lament in the Song of Songs: I am sick with love’, Otherwise than Being: Or Beyond Essence, trans., Lingis, Alphonso (Pittsburgh: Duquesne University Press, 1998), 142. We must surely allow that there is a distinction between eros and agape at least as far as human beings are concerned, and even if we grant with Pope Benedict XVI that ‘God's eros for man is also totally agape’ (Deus Caritas Est, 13), there is still a question of how these dimensions of love are to be related and distinguished in the human case.

56 Quoted in Casey, Michael, A Thirst for God: Spiritual Desire in Bernard of Clairvaux's Sermons on the Song of Songs, (Kalamazoo, Michigan: Western Michigan University, 1987), 228–9.

57 My thanks go to Anna Abram, Michael Barnes, Craig French, Gerry Hughes, Michael Inwood, Michael Lacewing, John McDade, Anthony O'Hear, Roger Scruton, and Gemma Simmonds.

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