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Michael Henry: Art and the Phenomenology of Life (iv)

September 28, 2008

(Part IV of my translation of the interview with Michel Henry. This takes us to about the halfway point. To read through from the beginning go here.)

The purpose of painting is to express life, as does music. For music has never sought, except for the representative music that everyone recognizes to be rather superficial, to imitate the sound of the wind or water over pebbles. It has always sought to express life, initiating early on the need for a phenomenology of life. It expresses nothing, neither the world’s horizon nor any of its objects. The first thinker to grasp the essence of music was Schopenhauer. Others erred in saying that it is a question of mathematics, while Schopenhauer—one of the greatest thinkers of all time even if he was a bad philosopher, one can be a bad philosopher and yet a very profound thinker—has explicitly stated that music expresses affectivity. One can even imagine that all art, even the most external, expresses affectivity and refers to the living body.

The body is the stunning illustration of the idea that I have followed throughout all my philosophical research on the duality of appearing, what I call the “duplicity of appearing:” visible and invisible. The body first presents itself to us in the world and it is immediately interpreted as an object of the world, something that is visible, that I can see, touch, feel. However this is only the apparent body. The real body is the living body, the body in which I am found, that I never see and which is a bundle of powers—such as: I can, I grasp with my hand, etc.—and I develop this power not from the world but from inside. This reality is metaphysically fascinating since I have two bodies: one visible, another invisible. The inner body that I am and which is my true body is the living body, and it is with this body that I walk in truth, that I grasp, embrace, and am with others.

It is this invisible body that is moreover the source of desire: in the presence of another’s body, I perceive a visible body, but I sense a subjectivity and that is what I want to touch. In a theory of eroticism one could demonstrate that actually desire—and this is why it begins again and again—strives to touch something that I cannot in the world, but that touches itself beyond the world and which is life, the invisible life of who or what I desire. In fact, all the gestures of desire are, in some way, symbolic acts in which I attempt to reach the place where I coincide for example with another’s pleasure. But it is a metaphysical problem of knowledge whether I actually have access to this place where the other experiences herself in this immediacy that is life.

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