Nicolas de Warren: Original Forgiveness

Fiona Utley

Original Forgiveness Book Cover Original Forgiveness
Studies in Phenomenology and Existential Philosophy
Nicolas de Warren
Northwestern University Press
Paperback $28.00

Reviewed by: Fiona Utley (University of New England, Australia)


As Nicolas de Warren’s title—Original Forgiveness—indicates, this text, working across philosophy and literature, maps out a depth of forgiveness understood through its relation to trust as a fundamental condition for human existence. The terrain explored, in what is a rich and complex book, aims to “motivate” and “explore” a way of thinking about forgiveness that goes beyond forgiveness as encounter and its basis in our sense of singular being and the freedom, autonomy, and personal interests that such framing evokes.

“We begin and end in trust” is a foundational theme throughout a meditation that ultimately finds its way to Levinas’s provocative ethics and its displacement of an ‘original freedom’ by an ‘original responsibility’ for the Other. De Warren argues that:

In this original binding of responsibility, trust is not given to the Other from my freedom, nor do I receive trust from the Other in my freedom, but rather am already entrusted with a responsibility for the Other and thus am already bound to be oneself available for the Other… (202)

The precise nature of this “original binding of responsibility” and the significance of Levinas’s ethics for thinking about forgiveness is the focus of de Warren’s final two chapters, and thus the fullness of de Warren’s argument for an original forgiveness is grounded in the context of what is often seen as a puzzling and challenging philosophy.

Recognising the challenge of the Levinasian argument, de Warren’s text begins with a focus on how we understand our experience of trust, trust’s failures, and the question of forgiveness, developing this over the first six chapters to reveal how our understandings presume an experience of binding through an originary entrustment. We are not born as individual subjects, rather, it is through our being entrusted to the care of others that we become the subjectivity that we are. The Other is, de Warren argues, a lining of our self, as we are the lining of others.

Here, we find that trust as foundational is to be understood through our being entrusted “with a responsibility for the Other” that we did not choose; rather, we find ourselves responsible. Moreover, it is through such binding that we come to be who we are as, in Levinasian terms, creaturely beings rather than the being of ontology. The issue of forgiveness is therefore unable to be conceived outside of this originary opening on to the world.

I have already committed myself down the path of forgiveness. Even if we never arrive (and we never fully arrive or arrive fully) at forgiveness, I am always walking along this path with you. In belonging to the Other in trust, we are from the beginning already, and, in this sense, ‘originally’, on the path toward—available for—forgiveness. (179)

Availability towards forgiveness is thus a structural feature of a foundational trust as entrustment. In the understanding that de Warren is building, such availability is the necessary precondition for our encounters with forgiveness. Importantly, whilst being a precondition for encounters of forgiveness, de Warren is not suggesting that our original availability forgives ‘in advance’. Rather, and in accordance with the trust that is its ground, availability “resurrects the unforgiveable one, raising them, as it were, to the standing of a person who could be forgiven or not forgiven, allowing them, as well as myself, to enter into the encounter of forgiveness” (179, my italics).

Yet, in understanding our availability to Others, we have still not arrived at the full significance of original forgiveness that de Warren is working towards. De Warren is not mounting an argument for a concept of original forgiveness that could be claimed as a “’new’ principle of forgiveness … (as duty, demand, imperative, charity, etc.)”, nor is original forgiveness “inscribable within any dialectic or dialogue of question and answer” (214). Through Levinas’s philosophy of original responsibility, de Warren is unfolding its significance as:

a forgiveness that I am, as marking the stigmata of here I am, without which, pursuant of Levinas’s thinking the significance of what it is to be a creature, beholden to an original responsibility for the Other, could not be thought to its necessary extreme: the transcendence of the Good. (214)

Our individual need to be redeemed and restored to the “ethical standing of the person” through availability to forgiveness is, thus, de Warren argues, to be returned “home to the life-world” (79). Our journey through de Warren’s discussion brings to clarity how it is an understanding of a self who is displaced “from its own self-conceited and self-regarding freedom” (204) that can make this so. Significantly, through de Warren’s exploration of Jean Amery’s account of his “catastrophic loss of trust in the world” through an “existential abandonment” (209)—the betrayal of an original entrustment as the responsibility of others—de Warren demonstrates that even in this binding of trust desecration can occur.

Thus, the understanding of original forgiveness generated here is significant for the socio-political realm, and for the question of the nature of “evil” more generally. The fundamental question of our being together in a mutual vulnerability and availability to forgiveness does not, and must not indulge others in their trespasses, but can, however, allow both individual life and human society to continue anew; an essential aspect of politics if we are to respect each other’s freedom. De Warren identifies how the trustworthiness of the world, emerging through our early infant experience, and giving our skin as border and containment a special significance (referring here to the work of Didier Anzieu), must be generated, maintained, and regenerated anew through the development of multi-perspectival narratives of the truth of our experience (referring here to Arendt).

Drawing on an impressive range of resources, de Warren’s work is a significant contribution to philosophical reflection on the nature and experience of trust and forgiveness, and an insightful and welcome reading of Levinas’s radical ethic, teasing out the implications of original responsibility through its inevitable failures and the unavoidable question of forgiveness. The overall arc of de Warren’s thought is structured to facilitate an ever-deepening reflection on what I read as its dual aims. Firstly, this is to develop an account of original forgiveness that exceeds and is the condition of possibility for forgiveness as encounter, and, secondly, in this undertaking, to take up some of the unfinished suggestive aspects of Levinas’s radical ethic, specifically his claim that “to be myself is not to be definitive being, but being myself is to be pardoned” (245).

Our investments in thinking forgiveness as anchored in a specific encounter are strong, reflecting, and supported by, conceptions of the self as a singular, self-made individual, who has autonomy and rights. In many ways this is rightly so—understanding the significance of trust relations and the trustworthiness of others is crucial to adult life and a fundamental lesson that we teach our children, in order, not only that they may go safely into the world, but also to open them to the possibilities from having rich trusting relationships in life.  Our bonds of trust that begin in primordial existence sink to phenomenological invisibility and are not only forgotten, but difficult to bring into view, working as they do to constitute our sense of being in the world. Thus, the confrontational mode of Levinas’s ethic—the essential de-centering of the self—if we are to glimpse our original responsibility for the Other.

De Warren has developed a structure that is pertinent to the difficulty of thinking about trust and its primordial operation as an original binding through which subjectivity emerges, aiming to motivate the reader towards interrupting and disrupting our egoistic subjectivity, such that we can explore a deeper dimension of human relationality that he identifies as foundational, and thus the condition of possibility for forgiveness as encounter. While de Warren’s conception of original forgiveness is ultimately grounded in Levinas’s thinking, rather than positing the challenging idea of an original binding of responsibility, and going on to demonstrate how this opens us to insights around an original forgiveness, at the outset, the organisation of de Warren’s meditations, across eight chapters and an afterword, begin with reflections on the nature of trusting experience, individually, socially and politically.

Referring to Levinas’s own cautionary reflection, de Warren is clear about the difficulty of taking our thoughts into Levinas’s radical ethic: “[such] ethical thinking runs against the grain of commonplace intuitions and entrenched concepts” (210). Here he admits that our current conceptual frames around the singular individual, the will, individual agency and accountability, make an argument for an original responsibility (and thus for an original forgiveness) “less intuitive,” “less ‘natural’” (202), and that the significance of a responsibility that precedes one’s own standing in the world, is “not easily fathomed” (202).

Thus, the intended effect of de Warren’s chapter structure is for the text to build on itself, with each discussion and close reading of a range of resources opening reflection on what is implied, assumed or simply overlooked. We are directed to look at the more liminal aspects of experience, aspects that we are perhaps not immediately aware of if we rush to identify forgiveness as an encounter, warranted or not, in response to wrongdoing.

Interestingly, along with directly addressing the challenge of Levinas’s thinking, De Warren also identifies how the work of Hannah Arendt and Gabriel Marcel, philosophers whose work is central to the development of his reflections, utilised exploratory structures in order to open thinking to hitherto unthought aspects of moral and ethical existence. Arendt, for example, in “The Human Condition, does not provide a ‘theory’ of forgiveness but sketches instead ‘trains of thought’ from which a more elaborated account might find inspiration and orientation” (47-48), and Marcel identifies that his reflections on availability (disponibilité) have “’circuitous and perhaps perplexing’ character, styled as a défrichage, “meaning both ‘clearing’, as in clearing the ground in agriculture, and ‘groundwork’, as in laying the groundwork for construction” (146).[1]

In de Warren’s text we are skilfully guided through an extensive and multi-layered study of both philosophy and literature. De Warren shadows in the first pages of the text that we, as readers, are, in general, tacitly asked to trust the journey as we are taken on by an author. De Warren’s meditations, traversing a broad range of philosophical thinking and literary texts, all powerful in themselves, and here part of a larger philosophical terrain, require a profound attention from the reader, with the final two chapters stretching this thinking beyond what might feel ‘natural’ (202) or comfortable. De Warren re-visits familiar and classic philosophical texts dealing, in some way, with issues of trust and forgiveness. Through close and exacting readings of Annette Baier, Hannah Arendt, Martin Heidegger, Jean Améry, Mikhail Bahktin, Gabriel Marcel, and Emmanuel Levinas, de Warren gradually teases out, in sensitive and complex investigations that interpolate with literary readings, the more primordial aspects of trust and forgiveness—it is the depth of experience that he seeks to address. The richness and density of insight that develops through de Warren’s discussion is achieved through this dual textual examination. De Warren’s investigations of literary texts portraying the paradoxes and complexities of human justice, hospitality, and forgiveness, cover William Shakespeare, Heinrich von Kleist, Herman Melville, Simon Wiesenthal, Maurice Sendak, and, of particular note, in his presentation of a close reading of Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov, his bringing to our attention Levinas’s own debt to literature.

Alongside, and in response to the text, the reader is nudged and provoked to examine their own experiences of betrayal and availability for forgiveness and to go beyond the concerns and interests of themselves as ‘sovereign subject.’ The motivation de Warren aims for is, and must be, powerful, if we are to open ourselves to the full sense of what is meant by our original relationship of responsibility for others. As exemplified by Dostoyevsky’s character, Ivan, too often we find the

transformation of forgiveness into a transactional power of sovereignty that obscures and perverts the humility and majesty of an original availability to forgiveness, not as the waiting for forgiveness in the aftermath of injury but of that waiting before any encounter with the possibility or impossibility of forgiveness. (193)

It is the intensity of our investment in forgiveness as encounter that makes de Warren’s pathway necessary if we are to come close to understanding the depth and emotional complexity of being situated in an original forgiveness. Through de Warren’s philosophical and literary explorations, we are, rather, “led into the intricate weave” of thinking about trust and forgiveness (an approach that echoes Levinas’s own style), working between different but resonating registers of discourse that lead our thinking to a “different scene” (186).

Reading the chapters in order rewards the reader; the explorations build and bend, each “taking the time to find its own course” (7), all the while inducing us to look, again and again, at the manifold experiences of trust, betrayal and forgiveness, what links these, and, in doing so, gradually shifting our attention from a more well-known understanding of forgiveness to one that asks perhaps more of us than we at first might want to concede.

Thinking trust and forgiveness as originary: the first six chapters

Tracing the trajectory of de Warren’s reflections on trust, its undoings, and forgiveness, we find that de Warren is not focused on developing a comprehensive coverage of the philosophical work on trust, nor on distinguishing distinctive categories of understanding, such as separating trust from dependence, or trust from faith. Rather, drawing on the insights of Husserl, Heidegger, Baier, Løgstrup and Bakhtin, the overview of trust presented aims to draw out the ways that trust is a primordial, foundational binding, functioning as a condition of possibility for self and life-world. Trust is presented as an “elemental form of participation or involvement”, leading to de Warren concluding that “we do not simply live with others: we live with others in us much as we live in others” (30) such that we experience “trusting [as] an assured capacity of coupling”, through which we “[apprehend] the Other as known to me, as known in me, within the arc of my own self-knowledge (34). It is precisely because the other exists as a sort of edging or lining of myself, and that relations of trust require our nurturing that trusting involves me in a responsibility to this relationship and to the Other that is a responsibility of some intimacy, to self and other.

The existence and function of trust as constitutive ground, however, disappears from view. Our bonds of care and responsibilities are submerged, and we retreat into a sense of ourselves as sovereign agents. Insights familiar to scholars of trust are presented here: for example, trust as intimately intertwined with our sense of self-assuredness, with betrayals of trust leading to a feeling of not knowing who we were to have trusted, nor who it was whom I once trusted. Such betrayals not only remind us of the constitutional significance of trust, but this nature of trust as foundational necessarily has us open to ruptures and failures of trust.

It is particularly pleasing to see de Warren develop a view of trust that brings together and substantially explores the relations between trust in the world, trust in others, and self-trust. The examination of these three existential forms of trust throughout the text is a significant contribution of de Warren’s work. De Warren uses this structuring to develop our thinking about the ways that these domains of trust participate in each other, thus reminding us that while separated out for exploration, they always operate as differing registers of our constitutive experience.

Importantly, also, we are introduced to the point that when we trust we are entering a commitment and responsibility where we do not know what this will entail. Thus, he says, “trusting gains its meaning from this responsibility for our trusts without yet understanding the rules, meanings, and expectations of our trust” (7). This point—that we trust because we do not know, and we do not know at multiple levels—is often overlooked in accounts that consider warranted trust or the obligations of trust. De Warren unfolds the significance of our openness to a future that remains unknown, and how our availability for the Other is an availability through a self that will be demanded without rehearsal; that is, we do not yet know who or what we might need to be in order to remain in such availability to the Other.

The development of thinking about trust, its undoings, and hence the question of forgiveness, is presented as intertwined. An examination of Hannah Arendt’s “exemplary account” of forgiveness as encounter, which de Warren endorses (presented in Chapter 2), draws out how this tacitly presupposes an abiding availability to forgiveness. Interrogated through the lens of the redemptive significance of a dialogical approach to forgiveness as narrative, and its requirement for social renewal, de Warren identifies an assumption of availability to forgiveness in order to keep our responsibility towards nurturing trust relations—in the world, self and others—as grounding our sociality.

The way forward for de Warren is to scrutinise the pivotal aspects of Arendt’s account that signify a redemptive significance of forgiveness, and we see that our responsibility towards nurturing and nourishing trusting relations includes availability as a listening in openness to the perspective of the other, understanding that forgiveness is not to erase the event of betrayal, but to allow both parties to move on, to not be tied to this one event as representative of future trustworthiness: “Forgiveness recovers—and, in this sense, redeems—who the person can (still) become from (just) being what the person has done (64).

De Warren’s expanding and deepening examination of literary narratives throughout the text works at multiple levels, including here, as an amplification of one of Arendt’s central arguments. Arendt’s work argues for the being-at-home with oneself as thinking that welcomes alterity “within oneself” (59). This welcoming of alterity in our thinking reflects our ‘perceptual faith’ or certainty that our perceptions have a basis in ‘reality’, that is, others see what we see, with this seeing acknowledged and shared (see fn 32, cited at p.57).

The weight of our actions is by way of their having ‘narrative incarnation’, that is, through the multi-perspectival rendering of human action, its meaning, consequence and significance is articulated, contested and thus shaped as action meaningful in a public human sphere. As de Warren says, for Arendt, “[w]hat is profoundly human about the appearance of unpredictability and irreversibility in our world is that both predicaments incite us to speech and, more generally, storytelling” (60-61) and that “[a]cting finds fulfilment in narratives, not in the sense of finality but as openness to accountability, responsibility, and truthfulness” (60). While the events of the past are irreversible, forgiveness releases its hold on the present and the future. Both the betrayer and the betrayed are released, but this can only come about if there is “the joint authoring of a truthful narrative of what has been done, to whom, and by whom, which, as with any author function, essentially invokes the attestation of plurality” (65). It is in this way that “forgiveness lays the past (wrongdoing) to rest in giving it a proper, truthful place in narrative (and public) remembrance” with this being a “restoration of the world to truth” (65). Here, “the past is neither literally or figuratively erased; rather it is given place and meaning, laid to rest” (67).

Through de Warren’s close reading we begin to identify how such an account of forgiveness as encounter necessarily rests in a depth of originary experience, experience whereby we are already, and irredeemably connected with others. He emphasises how “this form of thinking about forgiveness tacitly presupposes an unbroken trust in the world, in others, and in oneself, and hence an abiding availability to forgiveness” (8).

We are now well on the way to having a clearer insight into how original forgiveness is in our availability towards the other in forgiveness and is an original forgiveness that is always already in place and being the place where the particularities of encounters of responsive forgiveness will come to reside. This meditation on Arendt is not however sufficient to ground the fullness of what such thinking of forgiveness entails. De Warren’s next steps in unfolding this meditation take us back to our fundamental embodiment, grounding us in our bodies through which we transform our world as a meaningful world, our openness onto loving relations that transform our sense of meaningfulness, and which remain our vulnerability to suffering.

It is in Chapter 3, “The unforgiveable and forgiving without forgiveness”, that de Warren outlines the significance of our being open to the encounter of forgiveness, doing so via the short account of “Simon Wiesenthal’s narrative of his encounter with the request for forgiveness from a dying SS soldier during WWII in The Sunflower” (76-92). In undertaking this request, the listening soldier models a not unforgiving availability to forgiveness, which he subsequently withholds. Significant here for the development of de Warren’s argument is the listening soldier’s availability for forgiveness—his listening—and what this means for the dying soldier/wrongdoer, who seeks to have themselves restored to the world of trust, that is, to know themselves as not in the final instance condemned and excluded for their ‘insufficiency’. Increasingly, De Warren’s text challenges us to think about our capacity to reflect without a condemnation which excludes the wrongdoer from human acceptance, and to re-examine what devastates and what is devastated by violence.

In sharp and painful contrast to this, is Jean Améry’s response to Wiesenthal. De Warren straight away challenges us with the possibility that, not only might forgiveness not be offered, but that there are circumstances where such availability cannot be offered. It is Amery’s response to Wiesenthal and his identification that the issue of forgiving or not forgiving has both psychological and political aspects: he dismisses the psychological aspect on the grounds of its non-relevance (he sees that here forgiveness is a matter of temperament and hence self-serving (85)), and his verbal rejection of the question of forgiveness—“Politically, I don’t want to hear anything of forgiveness” (85), “testifies … to an abjection of human condition, or better: an inhuman condition” (85-86).

Having presented the idea that there are experiences of catastrophic loss of trust in the world where the very question of forgiveness becomes “destitute” (86), and thus there is a boundary to the human capacity to be available to forgiveness, de Warren goes on to undertake a closer critical examination of Améry’s argument (Chapter 4).  Here we encounter torture as the manifestation of the unforgivable, where “the truth of torture becomes existentially inscribed within the being tortured of human abjection” (98).  Améry’s memoir on ressentiment and the position where availability for forgiveness is no longer meaningful after the experience of violence that devastates, shows us that what has been devastated is the world as trustworthy.

The significance of this account includes what de Warren here teases out as the suffering of the body and the violation of the skin “as the border that sets the world at a distance but also sets the terms for the encounter with the world” (10). De Warren, citing the work of psychoanalyst Didier Anzieu, says that “the formation of the ‘true self’ occurs … through the mother’s care (or parental care), which structures the child’s sense of identity as contained and bordered” (111). De Warren is building a thought-frame around the emergence of ourselves as available to the world as well as to myself (111) and the significant grounding that this has for our sense of self-trust: “I am available to the world as well as for myself, and available precisely in terms of self-trust, trust in others, and trust in the world” (111).

Understanding the significance of our fundamental embodiment to trust, betrayal and forgiveness means confronting those times when human cruelty destroys this trust in the world. Not only is this significant for individual accounts such as that of Jean Améry, but this individual case reflects a social breakdown such that, in, for example, state-sanctioned sadism, “inhuman sovereignty constitutes itself through absolute negation so as to realise the fiction of ‘god’” (119). This is in stark contrast to Arendt’s notion of the self-regenerating collective human narrative that can witness and encompass the full range of citizen perspectives, thus allowing the past to rest and a future of renewal to move forward. De Warren says,

In Arendtian terms, the necessity of this absolutization of violence becomes more pronounced and deemed more urgent the less any political system is based on trust, deliberation and consensus…. The event of torture is thus, not limited to an individual suffering body but implicates (as with Améry’s subtle shift to the inclusive pronoun man) the social body as such: das Man. (120-121)

Amery’s “ressentiment gives voice to the imperative of giving witness to the trust of evil—its corrupting presentness in the world—and absoluteness in the absence of any meaningful ethical response of forgiveness and restitution of trust in the world” (124). Importantly, de Warren is developing a meditation that includes how we think about forgiveness as reflecting on our relation to others understood in both their precariousness and insufficiency, and thus in terms of our responsibility towards them.

We go on to confront the issue of trust’s silent operation, as invisible, foundational, and generative, and the significance of trust as dialogical relationship. The nature of trust, for it to be trust, means our getting on with things, and in doing so, living this trust that is integral to our getting on with things. De Warren, in Chapter 5, rightly argues that to demand proof or explication of one’s trust itself breaches trust’s condition—it is an action of distrust, “[betraying] any sustaining trust in the other’s love” (134).

De Warren’s focus unfolds an understanding of the significance of the somewhat paradoxical thought that trust relationships must be both ‘taken for granted’ and nurtured and honored. This continues to develop his account of trust relationships as not simply constitutive of the self, but ontologically prior to any distinction between subject and object and the intentionality of such a distinction. Importantly for the developing argument, throughout this chapter, de Warren reflects on how this is a bond that we are entrusted with, and, in this, “the Other participates in my existence, much as I stand in, and so participate in, the life of the Other” (137).

Immersing the reader in Shakespeare’s King Lear, de Warren explores Cordelia’s silence in response to her father’s unforgivable demand of proof of trust, as faithful and truthful to her love, testament to how “the presentness of trust can sustain itself only when taken for granted and hence, in this regard, ‘understood’ as self-evident”, and that her silence explicitly expresses “that love is absolutely nothing other than itself” (134). Lear’s request for proof of trust, however, effectively reduces the “bottomless mystery” of love and trust to a banal story of pandering and selfishness. De Warren identifies Cordelia’s silence as preserving the binding of love, as she remains grounded in this place of ‘in-betweenness’, attesting to its “unknowingness/unknowness” silence— a bond that is “ontologically primitive, or ‘original’ in its dialogical and temporal disclosure of myself, others and the world” (140). These bonds are generative and constitutive, underlying our perception of the world, the real, and our potential within it.  These bonds are both expressive and creative.

Importantly for de Warren’s developing argument, this reading of King Lear introduces the insight that, as subjectivity emerging through the bond of trust, this entails that that “I am as much your keeper as we are together the guardians of our trust” (141), and that while each serves as the Other’s keeper, we must at the same time “[serve] as keepers of the our trusting relationship (143).” As much as trust relationships are to be understood as self-evident and the ground for an assuredness, they require nurturing that involves a self-valuing as well as valuing of the Other, and a monitoring of the relationship that honors “the future of our respective and reciprocal development in interdependent freedom” (144). Through Mikhail Bakhtin’s notion of the dialogical relationship as triadic, de Warren explores how this structure honors not only the presence of “I” and “Thou”, but allows the “self-understanding of the relationship itself, its meaningfulness, between us” (144) to be present as an unclaimed and unoccupied position that is available as an autonomy of the relationship of trust.

This autonomy of the relation of trust does not imply that none of the entrusted persons cannot speak for and from the position of the third but that each speaks in turn on behalf of the third without claiming to speak exclusively for the third—that is, the self-understanding of our trust. (145)

Such a relationship is thus founded on a “creative self-prescribing element and initiative concerning its own meaningfulness and possibilization of itself” (144). The trust relationship which is not pre-ordained ahead of time, nor functions to set of prescribed rules, “empowers potentialities of our being” that “depend on sustaining an openness to who we are to become together in trust” (144).

Central to de Warren’s unfolding explorations on trust and its undoing “as unmaking of the world, the self, and relations to others” (146), is his presentation to us of our vulnerability to, and availability for the other as experienced together, inextricably intertwined. Through both King Lear and Gabriel Marcel’s notions of disposibilité and fidélité créatrice, in Chapter 6 de Warren takes up the philosophical challenge of exploring the question of how we participate in the lives of other people through trust, and the complexity of what participation and belonging in trust means.

To this point, de Warren has demonstrated how our experience and thinking about trust are structured by its primordial operation, with this entailing a form of commitment to interdependency and thus to a responsibility towards the Other, such that when trust turns against me, I am in the position of being betrayed through a relationship to which I have a responsibility; to its “continuous and sustaining dialogue about how we are to trust each other, measure and adjust and expand trust’s limits, and when betrayed, how to respond  in trust to its breakages, ruptures, and aftermaths” (144).

It is through the work of Gabriel Marcel that we are now propelled towards the final framing of original forgiveness. De Warren says that Marcel’s thinking around defrichage “can be harnessed to motivate and delineate more emphatically a distinction between ‘availability to forgiveness’ and encounter in forgiveness” and in this regard, consolidate a view of ‘original availability’ (159).

De Warren’s three forms of existential trust—trust in Others, self-trust, and trust in the world—are here “matched” with three forms of availability, as per Marcel and Buber, identifying that “what is entailed in trusting and being trusted is our availability for each other in the dialogue of trust” but perhaps more importantly, that “I must trust in myself to become—‘create’—the kind of person I need to be in order to do what would seem to be impossible beforehand: to remain available to forgiveness when the Other has committed the unforgivable in betraying my trust” (11).

It is through Marcel’s notion of disposibilité that de Warren is able to unpack how to belong to another in trust, attests to my being available to you, to stand by you, thus bringing to our attention the dimension of trust generally overlooked in understanding forgiveness as encounter: that of “giving myself to you in making myself available for you in the charge of my trust” (147).

There is a significant movement in thinking here: in giving you discretionary power and entrusting myself to you, I at the same time “become responsible for you in being available, if and when you turn away from me” (148). This is perhaps the most challenging turn of thought in these explorations. This is to say that, should you fail me, I am to turn to you and ask: ‘what has happened with you that you have failed our bond of trust? Tell me of yourself in these actions, that I might keep faith in our trust’. This reflects the mutual role of keepers of our trust, the role of nourishing and nurturing our trust that nurtures and nourishes our individual but intertwined lives—this mutual role does not stop because one person has momentarily failed.

It is important to note the significance of de Warren’s meditative style here, where the commonplace analytical conventions of distinguishing between reliance, trust and faith are not in play. As is evident in Marcel’s thinking, de Warren points out, when we are called upon to remain available to the Other, this asks that the “sustainability and meaningfulness” of our trust be underwritten by a constitutive dimension of faith—an “empowering faith” in the Other, that

requires a nourishing draw of creativity regarding the ways in which I am able to remain available in times when the Other fails, betrays, or abandons me, when my faith in the Other—in their trustworthiness, in their judgement, and so forth—is put to the test. (148-149)

De Warren identifies that what is needed here is a ‘metatrust’ in the other’s trust and trustworthiness, and a faith in the “unimaginable otherness of the Other” (152) and the relationship of trust—the betweenness—that we have both nourished. We are asked, and are asking for, the trust relationship to prevail as a commitment, rather than be abandoned in seeking punishment for our betrayal, or simply reverting to tolerating the otherness of the Other.  It is our faith in the Other that allows us to be open to navigating and negotiating the futural complexity of the trust relationship: “I am open (embrace and invite) to the complexity of the Other and thus good-naturedly participate in her (entangled and invested) complexity, standing within its presence rather than outside or against it” (149-150, my italics). This shift in thinking about trust is pivotal to the whole thesis of original forgiveness.

Understandings of forgiveness as encounter often turn on our negotiating the potential for forgiveness from the position of being thrown outside the relationship of trust, that is, that the relationship of trust has at this point of betrayal broken down, no longer recognisable as the relationship we had, potentially already abandoned. The understanding that de Warren is building here, through his exploration of Marcel, is how a betrayal, while incurring pain and damage, is not yet a breaking of the trust relationship. The keeping of the trust relationship is still asked for at this point, with its dialogue continuing as an openness to the future, as now, perhaps more than ever, the reality of our trusted other being both friend and stranger—there being a gap in our knowledge of them and their unfolding lives—is apparent. What is required, is what Marcel refers to as “the ‘essentially mysterious act’ of keeping faith with the Other” (153). Such creative faithfulness, de Warren argues, is not a virtuous disposition, nor is it something that is prescribed by norms or duties (154) but requires a faith in myself to rise to what is required, even if I don’t know what this is, and I do this for your sake, for my sake, and for the sake of our trust relationship. This faith in myself, de Warren says, is “underwrites the modus vivendi of sustaining trust in the Other and retaining faith in myself” (155).

What is at stake in this demand of trust at this point, is that in withdrawing from the sustaining dialogue of trust, we refuse the strangeness, complexity and freedom of the other, reducing them to an object for me, tied to their actions in the past. Such withdrawal reflects both the gap in our knowledge of ourselves—that is, of what will be required of my “ethical openness” to the Other—and the need for self-trust. When the Other deceives, betrays, or abandons me, I cannot have ahead of time anticipated the “otherness of myself in having to become other than the person I thought or imagined I could ever be” (153).

The issue that de Warren must confront at this point in his reflections is how, for Marcel, such faith and availability is underwritten by God who remains available beyond all human reckoning. De Warren, while seeing that such availability “allows for a recasting of forgiveness beyond its established framing as encounter”, is wanting to go beyond a need to bring faith as faith in God into the very human picture of trust and betrayal.

Significantly, de Warren’s reading of King Lear reveals the play as offering something beyond a Christian reading; indeed, de Warren’s reading allows us to grasp the originality of Cordelia’s forgiveness (166). Shakespeare performs an inversion, de Warren argues, whereby Cordelia (daughter) forgives Lear (father) with there being no biblical basis for this directionality. De Warren says:

It is not the figure of Christ, who interrupts the mimetic rivalry of human beings, but Cordelia’s dechristening of forgiveness, as the daughter who forgives in her name, rather than the father-become-son who forgives in the name of the father to become the forgiveness of all sons…the daughter becomes herself a mother to the father who in turn has become a child … in this sense, if Cordelia’s forgiveness of Lear offers a striking example of natality, in another sense her forgiveness significantly restores Lear to the world while ambiguously reconciling the world with itself… (167)

Cordelia effectively demonstrates what de Warren identifies as the modus vivendi of faith in the Other: that is, as operating “through patience and postponement: patience with the Other’s mis-steps, miscues, and miscommunications within the dialogue of our trust along with the postponement of any final reckoning or accounting of my faith in the other” (157).

This necessarily raises many questions for a philosophy of trust, as it has historically been undertaken. The questions are pertinent, and de Warren’s work opens the field to a deeper examination about what unites trust, faith and reliance in human experience, rather than having the analysis of what are the distinctive characteristics of trust overtake what appears to be evident in human experience—that we move fluidly between these states, that we make errors of judgement and have faith when we need a more tempered trust, and that our reliance on others can inadvertently strip them of their subjectivity and otherness.

Original forgiveness as forgiving and beseeching forgiveness: the final two chapters

Original forgiveness is not an ‘action’ or ‘act’ of the subject but the subjectivity of the subject in its inspiration toward the Other—its openness—and investiture of the Good in the being in the world. (231)

It is in Chapters 7 and 8 that de Warren takes up Levinas’s “fleeting evocation” of forgiveness, that is, his broaching ‘pardon’ “as the most radical rupture of the categories of the I, for it is for me to be somewhere else than myself … it is to be pardoned, not to be definitive existence” (Levinas, cited at 245).

De Warren presents a reading of Levinas’s “radical rupturing” of the “I”, a rupturing such that “to be me” is understood as something other than my assumed definitive, and singular existence; rather, to be me is to be pardoned—forgiven. De Warren issues a tentative apology with regard to his reading and interpretation of Levinas, while also identifying the difficulty that might confront readers in the final two chapters. However, the reader is now, de Warren hopes, fully motivated to engage with clearly going beyond what is argued in the previous six chapters.

We are now asked to do much more than understand forgiveness as emerging through an availability that nourishes and allows the ‘in-between’ of trust, and those whose ‘in-between’ this is, to start anew. Rather, de Warren’s investigations, directly taking up a Levinasian context, now take us through how an original forgiveness is an infinite postponement of my rage against my responsibility for the Other, “in patience, and hence trust, for the Other in my entrusted responsibility for them” (245).

Through his reading of Levinas and his account of ethical substitution, de Warren develops an understanding whereby he argues that “It is through the condition of being hostage [i.e., expiation or original forgiveness] that there can be in the world pity, compassion, forgiveness [pardon] and proximity…” (234).

De Warren, over the course of the text, has teased out how the understanding that we are not self-created beings, but begin our subjectivity through pre-cognitive dimensions that are inherently intersubjectively conditioned, functions as underpinning the philosophical works that he has presented so far. Now he takes this thinking through Levinas’s direct engagement with describing the encounter of the Other at the primordial or pre-cognitive level—that is, in terms of the Other’s entrustment to me. Such entrustment is understood as proximity, whereby our embodied experience, prior to all reflexive and practical activity is fundamentally haunted by others—this is the lining of oneself by the Other, and myself forming a lining of the Other, that de Warren has shown to be assumed in intersubjective philosophy. In proximity, this entrustment that binds me to you and you to me, is a binding that is forgotten in the natural attitude. It is only through a powerful de-centring of the subject that this “creaturely” existence that I am, through which I am beholden to others in my responsibility for them, can be glimpsed.

This pre-intentional experience of spontaneous responsibility, not chosen by me but elicited by the approach of the Other, ‘agitates’, and produces ‘affective unease’, as we are provoked out of egoistic being into an awakening of oneself as for the Other (223). This awakening is resisted, understandably, as egoistic being struggles with being faced with guilt not for anything that I have done or not done, but for “that-I-am”.

Such an original entrustment of the Other, and thus that I am the Other’s keeper, is not given to me, and hence cannot be received, but forms a binding that, at the same time, unbinds me from being too tightly wrapped, or involved in myself, with my own being” (207). We are beholden to the disruptive realignment that comes with finding ourselves “begotten and begetting in an ethically primordial sense” (201).

In an existential awakening at the approach of the Other, my outrage, indignation and exasperation at being commanded to a responsibility that is impossible and unbearable, we are involved in what de Warren identifies as a “prophetic trust”—that is, neither trust in the Other or trust in the self. We must make room for the Other as existence outside, alongside and inside my own existence, and I must exert my freedom towards this impossible responsibility without knowing in advance what this will entail. My outrage and exasperation must be overcome, and the drama of my suffering in shame for “that I am” must be transformed into a welcoming of the Other. It is this transformation, or ‘transfer’ as Levinas says, that is “subjectivity itself”—this transfer accomplishes the “salient meaning” of substitution (230). In this subjectivity as substitution, we expiate for the Other’s persecution.  In what de Warren outlines as the “trial of subjectivity” we must, he argues, forgive the Other for their assignment of impossible responsibility: we must expiate or atone for the Other’s persecution. This is not something “I” “do”, rather, we are forgiving in substitution:

I am beseeching forgiveness for my accusation, my unjustified existence … in this breath of expiation I am atoning for the unforgiving and persecuting commandment to which I am subject, hostage. (231)

For Levinas then, de Warren argues, “original forgiveness for the Other, on the condition of which the Other’s persecution becomes welcomed and in this specific sense, ‘commanded’ in the form of hospitality” (231-232). Importantly, in this configuration of original forgiveness, the command of the Other is to relinquish sovereignty to an openness under the “aegis of Goodness and the height of the Other” (232). We are guided through understanding how for Levinas, in such hospitality, reciprocity and hierarchy become neutralized (232), there being in the command, “a command to be commanded in turn” (232).

Final remarks and reflections on the Afterword

De Warren closes the text with a close reading of what he understands to be an exemplary text of the existential situation of bearing responsibility for all others: Maurice Sendak’s Outside Over There. It is the story, he says, “of the passage of the subjectivity of the subject as substitution in outrage and expiation, or, in other words, original forgiveness” (247). The child in this story, Ida, in the absence of her parents, is “[e]lected and entrusted”, bearing sole responsibility for her sister. As the story unfolds, we find Ida undergoing resistance to her responsibility and rage at her entrustment, a rage that turns love to murderous hate. While Ida ultimately “expiates her shame for her rage against the entrustment of her sister to her responsibility” (250), I think it important to pause, longer than de Warren does, on the way that Ida’s rage is one at having this responsibility “in the absence of the father and mother” and that her transformation from rage to expiation is enabled through her hearing “her sailor Papa’s song” (249). The significance of our early life and the ‘teaching’ of our entrustments and our belonging to a life-world, that is our mutual availability to and responsibility for Others, from our parents or caregivers is significant.

All the while I have been reflecting on de Warren’s text, and in particular while reading this Afterword, I have thought of Lisa Guenther’s drawing attention to Levinas’s words that to be responsible as such, we must become like a maternal body, that is, to bear responsibility for another as if she were my child.[2] This is not a remark that de Warren takes up throughout his investigation, yet, given the reflections on our coming into the world as entrusted to the Other, the significance of the development of the skin-self, and the learning of trust and trustworthiness in childhood—that is, the significance of the parent/caregiver, whose presence comes in and out of focus in de Warren’s reflections—warrants more attention. Linked to such reflections on my part, is that De Warren includes footnote reference to a psychoanalytic take on our failures of responsibility, citing the work of Simone Drichel.[3] Drichel, identifying that while Levinas “was no friend of psychoanalysis”,[4] argues that his ‘ethic of ethics’ needs a psychology, outlined as it is without reference to the experiential life of the infant. Understandably, de Warren’s text is already rich and complex, and cannot, of course, pursue all that is relevant and interesting, however, the implications here need careful attention; for women in particular, given the ongoing inclination towards oppression and political control of women’s bodies, but also anyone in the role of carer, a role undervalued in our heavily transactional socio-political context.

[1] While not noted by de Warren, but a point that only adds weight to the acuity of de Warren’s approach, is that Annette Baier, who he presents as a significant philosophical voice on trust, also used an open exploratory structure—what she referred to as a “mosaic” method: one where a coherent account (for her, of trust) could be built through assembling a lot of small-scale reflections that together develop a resonance around what is central and compelling (see Annette Baier, 1985, “What Do Women Want in a Moral Theory?” Nous, 19:1, pp.54-55).

[2] Guenther, L., 2006. “Like a maternal body”: Emmanuel Levinas and the motherhood of Moses. Hypatia21(1), p.120.

[3] Drichel, S. 2018. “’A forgiveness that remakes the world’: Trauma, Vulnerability, and Forgiveness in the work of Emmanuel Levinas,” in Phenomenology and Forgiveness, ed. M. La Caze (London: Rowman and Littlefield), pp.43-63. See also, Drichel, S., 2019. “Emmanuel Levinas and the “specter of masochism”: A Cross-Disciplinary Confusion of Tongues.” Psychoanalysis, Self and Context14(1), pp.3-22; Drichel, S., 2019. Refusals of Responsibility: A Response to Donna Orange and Robert Bernasconi. Psychoanalysis, Self and Context14(1), pp.36-52.

[4] Drichel, S., 2019. Refusals of Responsibility: A Response to Donna Orange and Robert Bernasconi. Psychoanalysis, Self and Context, 14(1), p.37.

Leave a Reply