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Michel Henry: Art and the Phenomenology of Life (vi)

September 30, 2008

(This will be the last section of the conversation that i will post. When i’ve tidied up the rest of the present draft i will post a link to the complete translation.)

Art was once religious in its essence, before a specific dimension of art arose that implies a degradation of humanity. What is religion? Religio refers to a bond—whether the etymology is true or false does not matter, this is a working schema. For me this bond is that of the living to life. It is the mysterious inner bond due to which there is no living without life—a life that is one’s own and more than one’s own. The goal of ethics is to revive this bond, in other words to bring this forgotten bond back to life. It seeks to restore us to our metaphysical condition. I.e. to see to it that—this is Christian, but it could also perhaps be Nietzschean—the living being, instead of falling back into its limited restricted condition, senses the life within it, in a kind of experience—I would not describe it as mystical, as this word is too imprecise—but finally, nonetheless, in a radical intensification of life. That is what ethics aims to arouse. Since we live this bond, the life of the living being consists in living, without knowing it, her bond to life. This bond can be forgotten. To the degree that someone is attached only to material things and their demands, they are continuously distracted from their true bond. But they can revive it, not by an intellectual reflection, but most likely in pure pathetic experiences. Ethics seeks to provoke these kinds of experiences, creating the conditions in which instead of a life lost in the cares of the world, we revive interiorly this radical bond. Another sphere that allows this is art. Art is by nature ethical. To the degree that art awakens in us the affective and dynamic powers of a life that is both itself and more than itself, it is the ethics par excellence. It is also a form of religious life. That is why the aesthetic experience is fundamentally sacred and all great works of art are sacred works that have tremendous power over us. Even during times of unbelief—like today—people indifferent to religion are in awe before sacred works. This bond of art with the sacred is thus no longer asserted gratuitously as it is in Heidgger, who has developed it through the notion of its coming from gods who…

Q: “…lead nowhere?”

MH: Gods who were Greek gods, gods that he found in Hölderlin… My, there are a lot of gods there! But what is the basis of the gods in Heidegger? Let’s set this question aside and return to the essential link that exists between intersubjectivity, ethics, aesthetics and religion. For me, aesthetics is a kind of religion in the sense that the fundamental bond, constitutive of all transcendental living, with absolute life—there is no other life than transcendental life. There is no other life since biologists themselves say that they no longer study life, they study material particles. François Jacob claims for example that we no longer question life in the laboratory. Life is but an old metaphysical entity. So, there is no life of the whole, or one should say that life is transcendental life. Transcendental life is Descartes’ cogitatio, it is sensation, affection, passion.

Q: Life is transcendence?

MH: No, not transcendence. Life is also a life in the world, but when phenomenology studies being-in-the-world, it believes it is talking about life; whereas it presupposes life without explaining it. To explain life, one must account for this dimension of auto-affection what what senses itself, experiences itself, as in all pain. Yet, this kind of interiority was rejected by all the phenomenologists who came after the founder. For Husserl, it is a much more complex reality because it comes down to the impression, whereas for Heidegger man is directly in the world. For Merleau-Ponty too. However, they are constantly obliged to presuppose this life.

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