dinsdag 23 september 2008


This picture deserves a big format. For the photograph can elucidate certain aspects of the il-y-a, a theme which plays an important role in Levinas’s work, mainly of the early and middle periods.

Il-y-a with Levinas denotes being, but then being in its specific appearance of formless, undetermined being. He sometimes calls it a noise, a roar, but it also is allied to the perennial silence of infinite space which Pascal talks about. It evokes associations with the ‘nothing’ which other philosophers speak about, but for Levinas the il-y-a is worse, precisely because the anonymous being just goes on infinitely. It is frightening, on the one hand because of its unstoppable character: it is unlimited. But more so by the repugnant indifferent character of the il-y-a, the colossal neutrality of an apalling cosmos. The unlimited aspect evokes disgust, because of the endless continuity, the neutral aspect frightens because of its meaninglessness. Levinas encounters the il-y-a in insomnia.

Already in his book ‘On Escape’ Levinas describes the oppressing experience of being chained to the indifferent being, although he doesn’t call it il-y-a yet. He talks – before Sartre does – about the nausea and the fear which are evoked by that anonymous existence. It makes him look for an escape. Levinas observes that in the course of history all human civilizing efforts were directed to one goal: fighting the wild and depressing il-y-a. Man wants to put the il-y-a at a distance. Whenever possible he will try to procure himself a safe shelter, where he can hide for the cosmic violence. Man starts to regulate and to domesticate. This culminates in the cultivation of his habitat and, at least in the West, in devellopping a rationalistic way of thinking. Man sets out to build houses, riverdams and dikes against the sea. He starts calculating, organizes society and assures his future.

However, observes Levinas, the answer of civilization – articulating the formless being and rationalizing the world – does not suffice as an answer to the meaninglessness of the il-y-a. For, he says, there is the continuous return of the il-y-a, even in two appearances. The original il-y-a, say the primeval il-y-a, manages at times to break through our rational regulations and controls, and because of that unleashed elements like tsunami’s and hurricanes keep threatening us. But apart from that the regulated, insured world brings with it a certain dimness, alienation and loneliness. Those features appear to be inherent to reason and to the high degree of rationality of an organized society. Typical forms of repugnance and disgust belong to it, which nevertheless remind us of the – supposed to be expelled – primeval il-y-a, primarily in the experience of meaninglessness and uneasiness that are allied to a rationalized universe. One could speak of a variety of the primeval il-y-a , I call it the veiled il-y-a.

For one who is familiar with these descriptions by Levinas of the primeval il-y-a on the one hand and the veiled il-y-a on the other, the above photograph is very striking. It shows in a certain way the two spheres next to each other, separated by the Dutch IJsselmeerdam.

The primeval il-y-a, of course, is to be found above the dam, and known as Waddenzee. It radiates the wildness and infinite openness which characterize the il-y-a. The feature of formlessness, which Levinas couples to cosmic forces, does not apply so much to the Waddenzee on this picture. On the contrary, the image shows intensively lightning swipes and shades of color in the water. Because of that it rather approaches the ‘sublime’ as thematized by Romantic poets and thinkers: frightening and mighty, but horribly beautiful.

The veiled il-y-a on the other hand comes to full expression in the enclosed IJsselmeer on the photograph. Safe, domesticated and regulated. But also monotonous, opaque and greyish green, in a certain way made meaningless. Kindred to reallotted landscapes, mirroring officebuildings, strict laborhours, weariness and bureaucracy. Here becomes visible how rationality, on the photograph embodied in the IJsselmeerdam, can become the bearer of the same hurting features which characterized the primeval il-y-a: meaninglessness and indifference.

As said above, the Waddenzee on the picture leaves space for more exciting associations. But in the last resort – as far as Levinas is concerned – a horrifying indifference lies hidden underneath the sublime lightreflections of the Waddenzee and of the rest of the cosmos.

See also Escape