Rosa Spagnuolo Vigorita: Di eredità husserliane: chair, corps, dinamiche del desiderio

Di eredità husserliane: chair, corps, dinamiche del desiderio. Emmanuel Lévinas, Jean-Paul Sartre, Michel Henry Book Cover Di eredità husserliane: chair, corps, dinamiche del desiderio. Emmanuel Lévinas, Jean-Paul Sartre, Michel Henry
Percorsi
Rosa Spagnuolo Vigorita
Meltemi
2021
Paperback $31.95
384

Reviewed by: Bruno Cassara (Fordham University)

The title of the book reviewed here can be rendered in English as On Husserlian Legacies; Chair, Body, Dynamics of Desire: Emmanuel Lévinas, Jean-Paul Sartre, Michel Henry. The book traces a philosophical genealogy seen seldom, if ever, in Anglophone scholarship. It is customary to read English-language works about Husserl’s influence on Heidegger or Derrida, or others on Husserl and one of the thinkers named in the title, or again on the significance of Heidegger’s thought for Lévinas or Sartre. But this book stands out in that it follows the fate of some of Husserl’s most significant but problematic ideas as they were translated, inherited, and transformed by Lévinas, Sartre, and Henry—an unusual yet fascinating mélange.

In this sense, the book complements its philosophical finesse with accurate historical work and (sometimes daring) philological speculation. Perhaps the most impressive aspect of the book is that its three chapters do not simply discuss the Husserlian legacy to be found in each of the three French thinkers in turn, but rather treats the three themes put forth in the title—chair (flesh or Leib), corps (body or Leib/Körper depending on the context) and the dynamics of desire.[1] This thematic approach allows Spagnuolo Vigorita to uncover not only the way in which Husserl is received in the thought of these French authors, but also how they received, reinterpreted, and even rejected each other’s work.

On Husserlian Legacies will be of interest to phenomenologists working on Husserl, as well as those whose scholarship concerns any or all three French philosophers. But it provides crucial material also for historians of philosophy interested in Husserl’s impact at the international level, as well as in the genesis of French phenomenology. Finally, scholars who work on the philosophies of embodiment, affect, or desire are sure to find valuable insights in Spagnuolo Vigorita’s penetrating book.

Before I proceed to summarize the book, however, it should be known that the contents of the book rest on a fundamental assumption of which the reader should be aware for a full appreciation of the book’s accomplishments and shortcomings. The assumption is that

“the publication of Husserl’s unpublished materials does not keep us from continuing to consider the Méditations Cartesiennes not only the most complete formulation of transcendental phenomenology, but also—and this is the more relevant aspect for this work—the privileged and most detailed instance [luogo nevralgico] of the dialectical tension between own-body and object-body” (136).

In other words, the Méditations would remain the most complete account of the tension between Körper and Leib, as it was for Lévinas, Sartre, and Henry, even if Husserl’s unpublished materials are taken into consideration. But when made in the context of a work that mainly offers a historical and philological account of Husserl’s reception among these French thinkers, this statement becomes ambiguous. It has been thoroughly established that the first generation of French phenomenologists based their interpretations mostly on Ideen I and Méditations, as Spagnuolo Vigorita herself mentions. But the statement above appears in the context of a comparison between Merleau-Ponty, who visited the Husserl Archives in 1939 to study Husserl’s unpublished manuscripts (especially Ideen II) precisely to investigate the role of the body in the process of constitution, and our three thinkers, who limited their reading to Husserl’s published works and give rise, with respect to Merleau-Ponty, to “an alternative history of the body” (153). In this context, the comments on this divergence risk sounding apologetic rather than historical, especially when the author quotes an article that claims that “Husserl’s unpublished materials do not contain significant deviations from or explicit contradictions of his published works, but rather present a source of indications, developments, and insights into the themes already dealt with in his publications” (135). Thus, as much as the reading of Ideen II contributed to a broader understanding of the phenomena of embodiment and intersubjectivity, it would nevertheless be legitimate to treat the Méditations as Husserl’s definitive account of these phenomena. While the reader should defer to the author on the point that Lévinas, Sartre, and Henry believed this, from a theoretical perspective this position remains more than debatable. At the same time, this theoretical disagreement does not make the history of the body analyzed in the book any less relevant or legitimate.

The book is divided into three chapters. The first treats the transition, pioneered by our three thinkers, from epistemology to life as the central theme of phenomenology. The second gives an account of the “alternative history of the body” mentioned above; and the third chapter is devoted to the dynamics of desire. The first chapter opens with a prefatory section on Lévinas’ role in the reception of Husserl in France. This is not simply a historical account, however. The tacit argument here is that, although others before Lévinas had taken up Husserl in France (the author mentions Jean Hering and I would add Gabrielle Peiffer), the Lithuanian-born philosopher was the one who brought an epochal change to the French philosophy of that time: “Emmanuel Lévinas, translator and interpreter of Husserl: this is the philosophical shock that, in the 1930’s, marked the genesis of the receptive process of phenomenology in France” (26). This receptive moment begins, on one hand, with the publication of Lévinas’ doctoral dissertation (La théorie de l’intuition dans la phénomenologie de Husserl), and on the other, with his re-elaboration and translation of Husserl’s Paris Lectures of 1929, which were published under the title Méditations Cartesiennes. These publications would leave an indelible mark on French philosophy, as the phenomenologies of Sartre (especially in his La transcendence de l’ego) and Henry (in particular his Phénomenologie materielle). Spagnuolo Vigorita does not shy away from the complexity of the genealogy she traces, rightly acknowledging that Lévinas’ interpretation of Husserl is deeply influenced by Heidegger’s factico-existential phenomenology. Still, Lévinas’ anti-intellectualistic interpretation of phenomenology is not only to Heidegger’s credit, but depends just as much on Lévinas’ encounter with Husserl’s Paris Lectures, lectures that emphasized the lived body, intersubjectivity, and the lifeworld.

  Lévinas’ mediation of Husserl’s philosophy thus begins from concepts that allow him to recast the phenomenological enterprise as one that must be thoroughly embodied, affective, and relational. As such, phenomenology in France cannot but move away from the Bergsonism that tacitly reigned at that time. And yet, Bergson’s intuitionism presented “not only a method that contained a certain proximity to the thematic nucleus of Husserlian speculation, but also, in a certain sense, a disposition of thought that had already sensitized the French spirit to a philosophy hostile to all abstract structures and purely rational deductions” (41). In this sense, Lévinas’ interpretation of Husserl is ambiguous in that, on one hand, it heralds phenomenology as an authentic return to the things themselves, but, on the other, it rejects the centrality of representation that Husserl—at least in Lévinas’ reading—confers to the intentional relation. This does not allow a true follower of Husserl to account for the situation of the living, worldly, historical human being during the process of reduction. In this sense, Théorie de l’intuition is just as much an enthusiastic introduction of phenomenology as it is a rejection of some of Husserl’s most central themes. Intentionality “in the strong sense of the term” (66) means making explicit the point of convergence of thought and life, and in this way to understand intentionality more properly as transcendence toward and into the world. While Lévinas never forsakes his critique of Husserl’s reduction of lived experience to what is present for consciousness, he does find in the German philosopher’s unpublished writings the resources to push phenomenology away from representationalism and toward an account of transcendent life as first and foremost embodied and affective: “Reduction, intentionality, embodiment, [pre-predicative] perception: new themes [which], from now on, offer themselves as the fundamental concepts of phenomenology (81).

Sartre’s first works of phenomenology are also critical of Husserl’s intellectualism even as they praise the notion of intentionality. For Sartre as for Lévinas, it is a matter of actualizing the possibilities that the phenomenological revolution brought to French philosophy, and of thus being, as the saying goes, more Husserlian than Husserl himself. And the affinity between the French thinkers is no mistake, the author claims, as the determining moment for the Sartrean appropriation of phenomenology is his reading of Levinas’ Théorie de l’intuition. This is a daring moment of philological speculation, since there are hardly any references to Lévinas in Sartre’s entire oeuvre, but Spagnuolo Vigorita argues convincingly for it. The main themes of Lévinas’ interpretation—the emphasis on contingence, the historical situatedness of the subject, the importance of the reduction, and most of all the understanding of intentionality as a veritable explosion toward the world—all find a home in Sartre’s phenomenological work. And here, too, one cannot but notice that Husserl’s philosophy is filtered through Heidegger’s. For Sartre, phenomenology offers a third way that would evade both (subjective) idealism and scientific naturalism, and can even prepare the way for a new philosophy of emotion and passivity. “What seems to me indubitable,” the author writes, “is that the identification of affect as the privileged means of self-transcendence toward the world…became Sartre’s weapon against the false myths of the ‘interior life’” (85). It is not a matter of denying the cogito as much as it is a matter of scaling down its constitutive-representational powers in favor of the spontaneous self-revelation of the worldly phenomenon and the subject’s living praxis. Yet Sartre goes further than Lévinas. Where the latter sees in intentionality the possibility of thinking the primordial “how” of the relation to the world, Sartre appropriates the concept in order to sweep away any “thingly” aspect of consciousness that takes away from its absolute spontaneity. This, for Sartre, is the true sense of the reduction: the elimination of the ego as the last psychical remainder that characterizes consciousness as self-positing. After all, if the ego is absolutely self-transcendent, then it is a worldly thing posited along with the rest and, as such, it must be excluded.

A particularly brilliant part of the author’s analysis of Sartre shows that “his pre-reflective remodulation of phenomenology that begins with his works…seems to be inextricably tied to bodily experience” (97) even as the early Sartre seeks to expel all transcendent objects from the field of consciousness, even the ego. The body, as the most transcendent part of egoic experience, should be the first aspect of the ego to be reduced away, and yet there necessarily must be an “implicit body” (98) that plays a tacit but crucial role in Sartre’s early phenomenology. In La Transcendence de l’Ego, the body would thus be given as a visible and tangible sign of the ego understood not as the result of reflective thinking—the “I myself”—but as the unreflective pole of spontaneous praxis. After all, “it is evident that the support for…the motor functions [implied in praxis]…cannot but be the body” (101). Spagnuolo Vigorita’s argument for this implicit body is well grounded in the text and convincing.

The section on Henry is shorter than the previous two for two reasons. First, Henry himself is much more critical of Husserlian phenomenology than the others. If Lévinas and Sartre find in intentionality the conceptual resources for a philosophical revolution despite their disagreements with Husserl, “for Henry it is precisely in this concept that the forgetfulness of a more originary kind of manifestation, i.e., that of life, is accomplished” (110). In other words, there is less negotiation to be found in Henry’s engagement of Husserl because, for him, the intentional relation is what obscures life’s phenomenality. In this sense, Henry’s Phénomenologie Materielle and many of his subsequent works seek to unbind the conditions of phenomenality from the “outside” (dehors) or externality of the world. The title of this first chapter, “From Epistemology to Life,” fits Henry’s trajectory perfectly.

Nevertheless, the author gives an informative account of how Henry argues for his phenomenological rebellion and how Husserl’s thought informs it. As with Sartre and Lévinas, Henry certainly rejects the primacy that Husserl bestows upon representative and predicative thinking. Furthermore, he follows the two in recasting the process of phenomenological reduction, so that, for Henry, “the radicalization of the reduction coincides with the suspension of the ecstatic dimension of visibility” (115). A more radical reinterpretation of the reduction and its uses, since Henry does not seek to suspend only the representative powers of consciousness, but the very equivalence, always taken for granted, of visibility and manifestation. In other words, it is not only a matter of helping consciousness in making the phenomenon of sense visible through a sinngebenden Akt, but rather of letting manifest what most originarily self-manifests of its own accord—and this is life. As much as this might seem a complete rejection of Husserl’s thinking, it is through Husserl that the phenomenology of life becomes possible at all. In fact, Henry takes up Husserl’s account of hyletic givenness to argue that there is an intelligibility in the immanent passivity of hyletic affection that precedes and founds all active sense-giving. This precedence of affection over activity shows that the visibility of all objects appearing in the world necessarily depend on the invisible, immanent, and self-affecting life. As soon as consciousness “reduces the hyletic impression to the mere content of a noetic act…the material stratum becomes nothing but an opaque dimension subordinated to the higher functions of intentional apperception” (118, 119). The absolute scission between immanent life (with its material self-affection) and transcendent world (with its sense-receiving objects) is not an oppositional dualism, but a relation of founding and founded strata.

For all three philosophers, then, it is a matter of bracketing predicative, sense-giving activity, which Husserl is seen as privileging, in order to make manifest the living, practical, and carnal dimensions of experience that make manifest the more authentic themes of phenomenology.

The second chapter, titled “Between Ownness and Alterity: With and beyond Husserl,” takes up Husserl’s well-known account of the experience of other subjects in the fifth Cartesian Meditation and shows how Lévinas, Sartre, and Henry modify it in their own accounts of alterity. It is here that the author traces the “alternative history of the body” that, in her view, is not as widely recognized as Merleau-Ponty’s accounts of embodiment and intersubjective.

“To dispel the danger of the solipsism that the transcendental path of the pure ego necessitates,” Spagnuolo Vigorita states, “the fifth Méditation begins by  asking whether, in a gnoseological sense, the experiences of self-identity and alterity are reconcilable” (140). Husserl’s reduction to the sphere of ownness is here interpreted as a methodologically necessary step—one that excludes all traces of other subjects—that paves a via negativa to the experience of the other as someone who is not myself. In this sense, it is necessary to start from what belongs purely to the ego if the experience of the alter-ego is to be possible. The experience of one’s own body is the basis of all possible action, most crucially of actions aimed upon oneself. In touching my hand with my other hand, I discover the interchangeability of agent and patient that is unique to my Leib, and thus that the experience of my own body is constituted as an inescapable commixture of ownness and alterity, Leib and Körper. My body is not only available to me as the organ of my action, but always and also in the way that another subject would experience it, i.e., as extraneous. The alterity that my own body can always present me with is just as foundational as its ownness. Thus, there is no essential difference between my experience of an alter-ego, who manifests primarily through its physical body as Körper, and my experience of my own body as Körper. The similarity between my body and the other’s makes possible my recognition of it as always also the Leib of another subject and not merely a Körper indistinguishable from all other worldly objects.

The problem with such a “proof” of the alterity of the alter-ego, as Lévinas, Sartre, and Henry recognize, is that it makes this alterity depend on my experience of ownness: If Husserl can conclude that the alter-ego is not simply a duplicate of myself, it is because their objective body reproduces the mode of appearance that my own body would have if it were “there” rather than “here.” In other words, the existence of the alter-ego is always mediated by the objective experience of two Körpern. For this reason, Lévinas proclaims himself “très embarrassé” (171) by Husserl’s fifth Meditation. The alter is not truly alter if their very possibility is deduced through an analogy with myself. On the contrary, it is my ownness that is jeopardized by the experience of the Other, an experience that precedes all possible self-reflection. Material, embodied experience constitutively contains a degree of passivity in which alterity (and not just that of the alter-ego) is always active. Otherness affects the self so intimately that the very status of the “mineness” of my body is no longer a certainty, “because the existent, in the very moment in which it comes to itself, is already confronted with the internal sundering that constitutes it” (166). In this way, Lévinas rejects the Husserlian dictum that the “I-can” is the most distinctive characteristic of Leib, thus substituting for the principle of praxis a more original bodily ambiguity. Furthermore, Lévinas’ later reflections on the Face of the Other must be read against this phenomenological critique of Husserl, lest we take his mature philosophy to reject all lived experience in favor of an ethics that precedes all manifestation. That the Face precedes me is not simply an abstract ethical starting point, but most properly names the original vulnerability of the self to alterity in general and to the Other most of all.

As with Lévinas, so for Sartre the phenomenological experience of embodiment is most properly understood as a being vulnerable to others. When Sartre writes of the visage, he is referring to the way in which the corps vécu differs from the massiveness of worldly objects: “before any gnoseological definition, each movement of the body, that is, of the face, is first of all a gesture with a specific orientation and temporality that escape universality” (178). However, Sartre parts ways with Lévinas in that the former’s account of intersubjectivity revolves around sight and the visual. My own face shows its liveliness only when another looks at me and thus offers me his own face. The reverse is also true: when I see the other, I immediately recognize the excess of the human over the world of things, because the voracious eyes of the other betray their transcendence toward the in-itself. As far as Sartre is concerned, then, Husserl’s error would be in ascribing an extended, material body to the ego when, in fact, these objective attributes are only apparent to the gaze of another.

In the transition from Husserl’s idealism to Sartre’s existential phenomenology, the separation of Körper and Leib becomes sharper. This is true of Henry as well, for whom “the praxis of the body, an event that takes place in phenomenological silence, is accomplished in its pathos” (187). It is only when I take up a representational attitude that I can grasp my body as an object, for the lived body has nothing to do with the physical body composed of cells, molecules, and atoms. For both authors, the lived body has absolute precedence over the known body, but each will resolve the Leib/Körper aporia differently: where Sartre holds that bodily sensations, e.g., touch, only reveal something about the transcendent world of the in-itself, Henry sees in sensation the absolutely immanent self-sensation of Life. In both cases, the sensing body as liminal space between the immanent and the transcendent, is directed only one way, be this outward or inward, but never both at once—sensation is not double sensation. It is on this question of double-sensation that the path of French phenomenology splits. The “alternative” history of the body that the author sketches is an alternative to Merleau-Ponty’s account of embodiment and its influence in the French phenomenological scene. The sections on Merleau-Ponty close with remarks on the critiques that our three thinkers develop in response to his ideas of chiasmus and chair du mond.

If Sartre and Lévinas agree that bodily experience is the dimension in which all possible self-identity is always already contaminated, Henry’s position is significantly different. This discrepancy of views stems from Henry’s peculiar understanding of subjectivity. For where Lévinas and Sartre both conceive this contamination as a challenge to the ego’s self-coincidence, Henry holds that all difference and separation can only yield a false account of the subject, who is uniformly compact in its absolute immanence. The possibility of self-transcendence toward the world and toward others is not constitutive of subjectivity, but rather a modification of it insofar as it entails separation. Henry’s subject begins to resemble Sartre’s in-itself in that his affirmation, “je suis mon corp,” does not require any further analysis: to say “I am” is to say “I feel myself in my self-coinciding immanence.” Sartre cannot but appear, in Henry’s philosophy, as its foe. In this diametrical opposition between the two philosophers of transcendence (Lévinas, Sartre) and the philosopher of immanence (Henry), we can observe just how fruitful it is to trace the effects of the French reception of the Méditations Cartesiennes.

And yet, while radical transcendence and absolute immanence cannot coexist in one and the same phenomenology, Husserl’s account of the intersubjective relation provides a foil that brings the three French authors closer together. In all three, in fact, we find instances “that coincide with the common preoccupation of safeguarding the threads of pluralistic life against objective and objectifying knowledge” (258). For Sartre, this can be seen in the experience of shame where the separation between eyes and gaze is most evident; for Lévinas, the Face is the ungraspable mystery of the Other that nullifies and reverses the directionality of intentional consciousness; and for Henry, the experience of alterity is, paradoxically, an experience that takes place purely within myself, i.e., the ultimate test of his doctrine of absolute immanence. Perhaps, in rejecting all transcendence even in the experience of alterity, Henry necessarily misses the most captivating dimension of otherness (259), but his phenomenology of life does not fail to transform the Husserlian account of intersubjectivity into a philosophy that overcomes the paradigm of objectivity.

The third and final chapter discusses the “dynamics of desire” in our three thinkers, though the phrase “vicissitudes of desire” is just as appropriate a title. While the first two chapters contained detailed historical and philological research, along with relevant comparisons between the father of phenomenology and his French interpreters, this chapter is somewhat less admirable on these points. There is no discussion here on the fate of Husserl’s account of desire in the works of the three French authors, which would have been the most original analysis in the book and would keep to the promise of its title. Indeed, the only mention of Husserl that appears at all in this chapter is in reference to the French phenomenologists who saw fit to investigate the erotic phenomenon “as a privileged starting point for denouncing the ineffectiveness of the visual and cognitive relation, [which is] the presupposition of the classical notion of intentionality” (268). Nevertheless, this section is not limited to a simple exegesis of the texts where Lévinas, Sartre, and Henry discuss desire and its dynamics. It also offers fruitful comparisons between these three and shows how Lévinas’ account of eros succeeds in mediating between the carnal and transcendent aspects of desire where Sartre and Henry can only fail. The Lévinasian position is the successful culmination of the analyses of life and embodiment that the author carried out in the previous chapters.

This chapter begins with Sartre’s lengthy account of désir as it is discussed in L’Être et le Néant. In Sartre’s view, and as the reader might expect, desire fails to accomplish what the for-itself hopes it would do, because the carnal aspect of existence can only ever be constituted as an objectification of myself on the part of the other. The author warns us here not to reduce this account to a Sartrean version of Hegel’s master-bondsman dialectic, where two self-consciousnesses seek to achieve the desired recognition by reducing one another to material, servile existence. While Sartre certainly draws from Hegel here, he goes beyond the Phenomenology of Spirit by capturing the drama that carnal, specifically sexual desire implies for both the lover and the beloved. This drama is best understood as a cloudiness that contaminates water that would otherwise be limpid and transparent. In this sense, desire threatens the freedom of the for-itself by affecting it and thereby rendering it passive to its own carnality. The relation to the other is thereby already compromised and destined to fail. Nevertheless, through desire I attempt to objectify the other by possessing their body, and the other does the same with me. However, the use of my own carnality (read: facticity) as the means by which the other is objectified inevitably places my own freedom in peril: “the for-itself chooses its being-there on the basis of a process in which passivity does not mean a pure undergoing of affection and in which, at the same time, self-projection does not completely overcome the inertia [of the other’s facticity]” (282).

Desire, for Sartre, carves out a liminal space wherein carnal encounters are not immediately objectifying, though they will eventually result in objectification. The example of the caresse shows this well. Inasmuch as it is an expression of the will to subjugate the other, the caress remains an instance of carnal contact. However, the caress is not only this because it also signifies a will to express one’s own carnality, i.e., one’s vulnerability. Erotic desire thus represents the unique possibility of reciprocally abdicating one’s freedom in order to feel, through one’s own flesh, the flesh of the other. The “magic” of the caress inevitably fails, but “between the genesis and end of desire, something out of the ordinary takes place and it has to do neither with possession nor with the instrumentalization of the other. Rather, the space of a reciprocal desire is the possibility to make oneself and one another present as chair and to discover the event of incarnation” (296).

The dynamics of désir in Sartre’s works thus have an inevitable fate—not because of a pre-established teleology, but because in Sartre’s hands, desire must be a contradictory endeavor in the same way that the for-itself seeks to become like a god (a for-itself-in-itself) but can never accomplish this because of the opposition between the two structures. But Lévinas offers an alternative analysis in which desire, understood as eros, has a happier fate. Already in his Carnets de Captivité, he makes observations about the relation between eros and caresse that contradict Sartre’s erotic fatalism. The caress is the concrete form of the hope for the present. It does not say that things will get better (nor would anyone expect it to do so, given the context in which the Carnets were written), but it redeems from within the present.

In fact, the whole dynamics of eros promises, for Lévinas, to be the first gesture toward a true intersubjectivity, toward a communal existence. The Carnets offer a glimpse into the tormented reflections that would become the foundation of an ethics beyond ontology, and as sketches of living thought rather than crystallized publications, they sometimes go beyond what Lévinas restated for all to read. A particularly pregnant phrase, for instance, states “sexuality as the origin of the social,” a phrase that contains the aspiration to found communal being on desire, the body, the carnal relation with another: “because there is such a thing as sexual ‘intimacy,’ there is the phenomenon of the social as something more than the sum of individuals” (301). Far from being doomed from the start, bodily desire is for Lévinas the possibility of a relation that overcomes the fundamental ontology of the Daseinsanalyse. This is not limited to sexual desire or eros, but bodily needs [besoins] in general are the first step toward happiness. “If, in the case of bodily needs, satisfaction leads to an absorption of the object on the part of the subject…the peculiarity of the erotic relation lies in the impossibility of overcoming the separation [of subject from subject]” (302). But unlike in L’Etre et le Néant, this impossibility must be read positively in the sense that it always refers to something beyond simple fulfillment.

Where does Henry fit in here? The author compares three texts side by side, one from each philosopher, to show that Lévinas acts as mediator between the extreme positions of Sartre and Henry: “From the being-there of chair that Sartre’s caresse aspires to, to the secret of a sexuality hors du monde, through Lévinas and the violation that does not unveil” (329). It is difficult for Henry to account for the sexual relation, since a relation that is outside of the world-horizon and understood as something subjective and immanent, then it is hard to see how it is a relation at all. Henry is aware of this difficulty, but the author again proposes that the Life-World distinction must be read not oppositionally but foundationally: the non-appearing Life is what makes the appearing world and its objects possible. On the basis of autoaffective Life, all human gestures and not only the sexual relation must be rethought, according to Henry. The body of the other is a transcendent and objective body, but within its finitude I cannot help but glimpse something more. “This is the unspoken presupposition of sexual intentionality,” writes Spagnuolo Vigorita. “To seek, by means of something objective, what could never be touched nor seen because it is something essentially transcendent” (333). Here the reader cannot but intuit a certain closeness between Henry and Sartre, for in the works of both authors the essence of desiring consciousness is to seek the absolute beyond, or within, the contingent. But while Sartre thinks a consciousness so transcendent that its relation to others is part of its facticity, Henry seems unable to respond to the urgency of a phenomenological account of the carnal relation.

And yet, the phenomenology of Life does answer the question of inter-carnality, if only in an almost mystical, almost unintelligible manner: “Even when we go into the world, when we cross a space, we move—this is Henry’s conclusion—toward something that already exists in each living: the instinctual, impulsive community [comunità pulsionale] of which Life is the essence. We might assume that, if all relations obey the laws of originary autoaffection, the erotic community is no exception” (335). Pleasure would be the limit-experience that clarifies this conclusion. It is the same Life that pulses within each of us and that affects itself in perfect immanence, but a desiring consciousness that comes out of itself and into the world in order to feel the pleasure, the Life of the other, cannot but fail because it is precisely in the gesture of self-transcendence that Life is no longer given. In this sense, Sartre and Henry reach the same conclusion while standing at opposite extremes of the intentional spectrum.

On Husserlian Legacies is a work that has a lot to offer to scholars of phenomenology, for it has something to say on many issues surrounding questions of embodiment, affectivity, desire, and the phenomenological possibility of an authentic intersubjectivity. While its comments on Husserl serve more as a background for the investigation of points of contact between Lévinas, Sartre, and Henry, the study proposed by Rosa Spagnuolo Vigorita fills several lacunae in Anglophone research in phenomenology. Its historical acuity, philological depth, and theoretical grasp of the three French figures analyzed therein, will no doubt renew phenomenological research on the themes of embodiment, intersubjectivity, and affect, and will have Anglophone scholars reaching once again for the works of Lévinas, Sartre, and Henry.


[1] It should be noted that the English term “desire” is not perfectly equivalent to the French désir or to the Italian desiderio. The latter two are broader than the former and include connotations of yearning, longing for, aspiring to, or wishing, as well as connotations of craving, needing, lusting for, feeling an urge for, or coveting. The English “desire,” on the other hand, strikes me as more restricted in its extension, leaning more toward the appetitive than the aspirational.

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