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  • “Like a Virgin”Levinas’s Anti-Platonic Understanding of Love and Desire
  • Brigitta Keintzel (bio)
    Translated by Brigitta Keintzel, Benjamin McQuade, and Sophie Uitz

My article is divided into three parts. First, I outline transformations in the understanding of love through philosophical tradition from Plato to Levinas, exploring Levinas’s anti-Platonic understanding of love via the relationship between knowledge and love. This relationship is asymmetrical: knowledge functions in the name of love, but love does not function in the name of knowledge. Love is not knowledge but instead entails knowledge. As love of wisdom, knowledge serves in the name of love. The open question here is: how can Platonic love of wisdom or Levinasian ethical desire have the ability to respond to social, political, and cultural challenges — a question I will come back to in the last section.

In the second section, I discuss the relationship between love and desire. As opposed to desire, which is explicitly bound to the Desired, along with some ideal position vis-à-vis that person, love possesses a plethora of connotations that often render it vague. Love is bound not only to the self but to other persons — as well as to objects, facts, attitudes, situations, ideas, institutions, cultures, and even governments. Desire, on the other hand, is a stronger term than the timeworn and [End Page 21] much-abused word “love.” It entails a stronger orientation toward the Other with a temporal, prospective connotation: in the horizon of desire, the Other is “not yet,” the Other is future in the present. For Levinas, the delineation of “not-yet”-ness is a central feature for describing alterity and virginity.

My central question in the third section is on how sensual love and ethical desire relate to Levinas’s description of the relationship between “intimate” and “real” society. I will show that it is particularly Levinas’s introduction of the figure of the Third that makes it possible to finally overcome the Platonic dualism between individuality and generality. In both erotic love and in ethical desire, the figure of the Third is decisive for exploring Levinas’s understanding of justice. The figure of the Third is not only a witness of the truth between the subject and a desiring Other but also a precondition for establishing this truth. Therefore, it is not necessary to see but to hear the claims of the Third, as well the claims of the Desired.

The Wisdom of Love

In Plato’s interpretation, love is seen as a progression from the discrete, individual, erotic love to the general and comprehensive. The lover feels in him/herself a deficiency and strives to compensate this deficiency — accomplished through various activities of consciousness, involving desire, suffering, thought, perception, the striving toward the good and the beautiful. These are not considered equal in quality but rather form a progression from the particular to the general. Eros remains dutiful to the idea of the good. Renunciation of corporal love is seen as a precondition for attaining love of the good and the beautiful, this being equated with the attainment of immortality. This renunciation, as it has been argued in the dialogue between Alcibiades and Socrates, implies that spiritual, intellectual love is of higher value than corporal love. As opposed to spiritual love, corporal love is fraught with a deficiency that can never be completely assuaged. [End Page 22]

This model is based on the myth — related in the Symposium — of the spherical human being, comprised originally of two people in one body, with four hands, four legs, two genders, and two faces. Only the splitting of this single human into two people with two faces and two genders created the longing for a lost unity, expressed in erotic desire for the other gender or the other face. In this narrative, erotic desire is brought into semantic proximity with lost unity and with suffering. Unisexuality is seen as a deficiency, to receive a “truer and more perfect” assuagement only on a spiritual level. The implied antagonism between spiritual (“Platonic”) and corporal love constitutes a narrative motive that — in various forms — particularly marked post-Enlightenment literature of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. In examples...


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pp. 21-39
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