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Michel Henry

Art and the Phenomenology of Life

(from an interview with Jean-Marie Brohm published in PrtentaineDecember 1996)

Q: Where does a work belong? The work belongs, as work, uniquely within the realm
that it itself opens up by its presence. [] Work-being thus means: to set up a world.

What are your thoughts on this statement and how would you interpret the ontological or
phenomenological status of a work of art?
MH: On the whole, I do not agree with Heidegger, in spite of the weight of his thought.
Phenomenologys great realization is the ideawhich comes from Husserlthat the
world is in no way limited to the existing world and that basically there is the constant
possibility for the installation of a new ontological dimension. Reality is thus not reduced
to things, instead there are unsuspected dimensions of being and a characteristic of
humankind is to live in these new fields. Art is one possibility among these fields, and the
artist casts beyond the world of habitual facticity this dimension of being that is an
absolutely specific domain. Art could be defined in short as an original region the source
of which is not a readymade existant, in a kind of substantial, real world, but which
returns us to much more fundamental potentialities, which moreover are not foreign to
this world, but instead something like an horizon in which this world is possible. Art
reveals a reality more profound than the world in which we think we live, something like
the possibility of this world. Basically, this would be something hidden but which is
made visible, a pure appearing that makes things visible, and that Heidegger interpreted
in the second part of Being and Time
as temporality. It is a kind of radical transcendence
beyond beings, which is like a furrow of light on the screen upon which things become
visible, and which, beyond things, returns us to their pure appearing.

Q: Does Heideggers distinction between thing, product and artwork seem
pertinent to you?
MH: To the degree in which this thesis is specifically phenomenologicalin other words
makes being depend on appearingthere is a kind of immediate givenness [donation] of
the thing that obscures its true givenness. I will give you an example by returning to
Kantand I believe that Heideggers thought is derived from this example. We perceive
bodiesthis chair, that table or even our own body. Whatever we thematically focus on
are bodies. But as Kant already noted in the transcendental aesthetic, the fabulous
analysis of which opens the Critique of Pure Reason,
I could never thematically
perceive a body if I did not understand, in relation to the bodies and to all being, the role
that space plays in relation to the material body in ordinary perception. This is a very
powerful idea, and according to this problematic, with which I initially agree, one can say
that art in effect brings us back to an original appearing. Basically art wants to make us
see, beyond things, the appearing that is hidden and in which the thing is revealed, but
that it hides at the same time: this kind of making-seen [faire-voir] that is hidden.
However, perhaps there is another idea of Heideggers that I no longer agree with.

For Heidegger the work of art installs the radical world, what he calls the ek-static
dimension of three-dimensional time, the horizon inside of which we have access to all
translation 2008 Michael Tweed
Art and the Phenomenology of Life pg. 2
things. In fact, we always wait for them in a future and retain them in a past. The coming
to the present is a passage in which we see the thing, but this passage emerges from ek-
static horizons across which it glides, and it is this horizon that allows us to see things.
This is a fundamental thesis that I disagree with. But there is another thesis that is
perhaps implied in Heideggers language, revived by modern aesthetics, according to
which there is a specific aesthetic dimension, different from real perception. We are
today familiar with the idea that the artist creates a specific artwork, an artwork that is not
comparable to a useful object since, for example, Van Goghs shoes are not worn,
while the shoemaker makes shoes that we wear. The artist creates a world apartshoes
that are not to be worn. This is an almost banal thesis of modern thought and it must be
corrected. Basically, this specific artistic dimension would not have existed when
humanitys greatest artworks were created. Most aesthetic objects that we admire, Greek
temples or the great cathedrals of the Middle Ages for example, were not created in this
way. The people who conceived of them were not focused upon the dimension of art,
which did not yet exist, but rather built edifices to the glory of God, edifices the
functionality of which was to make a cult to the divinity possible. This is not at all similar
[to creating an aesthetic object]. They had in mind the divine, the sacred, and it was only
beautiful by chance. It is we who, today in the 20
century, by projecting our concept of
art retrospectively, find these works beautiful. Moreover, we find nothing more than that
in them, since we have lost their original meaning, and no longer consider a temple as an
entrance to the sacred essence of things, but as a work of art.

Q: However there is, perhaps, a historical passage in which the artist is socially
MH: Yes, but the passageas you so aptly put itof a religious universe where the
objects of beauty, that seem to us today to be such, does not define the finality that the
creator pursued, at least consciously: they raised in effect an edifice in an act of
celebration and adoration, hence in a specifically religious act. Roman churches, for
example, that today seem so beautiful to us, were in reality built to create a harmony
between the spirit of man and that of God. They were an access way to the divinity.

For Heidegger the problem is completely obscured because in his work one must
distinguish between Being and Time, which defines a phenomenology of the world, a
thought of the world and, on the other hand, the texts influenced by Hlderlin and
Nietzsche. It can then be seen that at bottom, the world is something rather flat, a bit
banal, while the world of the gods is much more prestigious. At the same time he
introduces into his philosophy of the gods, of the sacred, a universe that was perhaps not
included in Being and Time, without which this dimension of the sacred would be
undoubtedly founded on the level of the existential analysis of Being and Time, of
Daseinin any case it is a problem that philosophers pose today. His thought then
becomes very difficult because a critical gaze is nevertheless necessary to know whether
the appearing that he conceived is justified by his phenomenological theses on the
worlds temporality. My own position in regard to his most profound thesis, namely that
the work of art brings us back to an original appearing, is this: the original appearing is
not that which Heidegger thought, it is not the World or even the Nature of the Greeks,
which prepared them for the sacred since the Greeks lived manifestly in contact with it.
translation 2008 Michael Tweed

Art and the Phenomenology of Life pg. 3
The originary appearing is of another order. It is not an ek-static appearing that casts us
outside, it is thus not an horizon, but rather what I call Life, in other words a revelation
that is not the revelation of some other thing, which does not open us to an exteriority,
but which opens us to itself.

Here is a simple example: what reveals suffering to us? It is mute, yet reveals suffering to
us. So I say that there is a pathos, a pathetic dimension that is life, which consists simply
of the fact of experiencing oneself. But to experience oneself is something absolutely
radical, abyssal, because it only happens in suffering and in joy. To give clear references,
god is notto speak Greek, since these days we speak Greek more than Christianonly
Apollo, who is basically the god of light, the god of images, of luminous forms. God is
first Dionysus. Yet, Dionysus is not of the world. This is a god of desire or of life crushed
against itself, in its joy and suffering. And this is a god who is burdened with self in a
pathos so heavy that in effect he wants to relieve himself of his self. At bottom, Dionysus
is the one who creates Apollo in order to distance himself from his self. This theme can
be found in Freud: what is the libido? What is the ego? Its a reality that is heavily
burdened with self, life is a burden so crushing that it seeks to distance itself.

Now, another explanation of art as a distancing of what first supports oneself, but as an
unbearable burden, is proposed. And the other point of departure would then be
Schopenhauer, Nietzsche, etc. There one would also find this idea that art creates, in this
distancing, a kind of luminosity, of figures in which and due to which Dionysus escapes
his suffering.

If one examines phenomenology of life, the fundamental question is that of the
transcendental Self, of what allows us to say I, Me. Yet, in the philosophies of
Heidegger and Merleau-Ponty, there is no foundation to this Self. None of these
philosophies can explain why I say I or Me. In a philosophy of life that is an auto-
affectiona fundamental term for me, in other words which is an affection not by the
world but by oneself, all perception, all imagination, all conceptual thought is a hetero-
affection. It is an affection by an alterity, by this milieu of alterity where anything other
can show itself to me, give itself to me as originarily other, there is no Ego to which it
gives itself. In order for there to be an Ego, one must speak like Kierkegaard, and say that
the Ego is something that is affected by self without distance, thus unable to disengage
itself, unable to separate itself from its self, unable to escape the burden of being. And I
would say that this new dimension of art is uniquely explained by life. It is only in
reference to this pathetic dimension, of which Dionysus is an image but in which
Christianity also unfolds,
it is in relation to this life, this life defined
phenomenologically in this way, that the work of art is possible. It is now necessary to
introduce a total rupture and provide another theory of the work of art. This was
explicitly formulated for the first time by Kandinskywhom I admire infinitelyin his
theoretical writings,
which were an attempt to produce a theory of abstract painting. But
if one reflects on the actual explanation that Kandinsky gives of abstract painting, one
sees that it is a theory valid for all painting in general.

translation 2008 Michael Tweed

Art and the Phenomenology of Life pg. 4
Q: In Material Phenomenology
you analyze the invisible phenomenological
substance that is the pathetic immediacy in which life experiences itself. If, as you
claim, life is the principle of everything, how can one envisage a phenomenology of the
invisible or more exactly of the relation between the visible and invisible from the point
of view of art? Related question, is the work of art visible or invisible, immanent or
transcendant, objective or subjective, internal or external? Here we are referring to the
phenomenological reflections of Roman Ingarden.

MH: The questions that you have posed are my questions Marx says somewhere that
Humanity only asks questions that it can answer. I would say, in all modesty, that insofar
as being a philosopher working outside of the paths followed by modern thought, I have
been in a precarious position in relation to what I have wanted to say, namely it has been
very difficult for me to find the conceptual means to express a wholly other
phenomenology. A phenomenology sure, but wholly other since my understanding of
appearing is not only the appearing of the world, but pathetic givenness, pathetic

I have taken Kandinskys writings as support because his analysis puts into play the
categories that I have distinguished in my own phenomenological analysis. I came to the
idea that there is a duplicity of appearing: a way of giving oneself in a hetero-affection,
as all that we see, and a pathetic way, what we never see. Why? Because, since there is
no separation, there is no ek-static deployment as Heidegger understands it, no seeing is
possible. In order to see, there must be some kind of distance. But there is no distance,
revelation occurs solely in the flesh of affectivity, it occurs without any distance. In this
sense, this dimension of life is invisible. In a radical sense, it can only experience itself
pathetically. But it experiences itself pathetically in an indisputable manner, for it is
absolutely impossible to dispute a suffering, the suffering of the one who is suffering. If
one focuses on the experience pure and simplebasically it is Descartes cogito
is no doubt about what was just said above. Fear, for example, if I consider, without
interpretation, what I really experience, is indubitable. So there you have the so-called
rationalism of Descartes

Q: The passions of the soul?
MH: Exactly, the passions. So, if one accepts that, then how situate the work of art? I
believe that Kandinskys argument is enlightening, because he made it in regard to
painting. Now, by all accounts, painting is a visual art, it is composed of visual elements,
from the basic elements of form and colour. That is why painting has always been
considered as an art of the visible, the flesh of which is the visible.

Lets begin with colours. Kandinsky shows how a painting is organized around a colour.
In the woods around Munich, for example, he sees a colour and paints what is around it.
He paints a canvas that is composed starting with red, with a red note, etc. But when he
reflects on his subject, he realizes that this colour seems to be a fragment of exteriority.
There is a kind of red spot, even if he no longer considers this red as the red of a blotting
paper or the red lips of a woman or her scarf: it is however something that unfurls in a
kind of first world, even if it isnt the utilitarian world. Actually, he adds, the reality of
this colour is an impression, a radically subjective impression. In his writings there are no
translation 2008 Michael Tweed

Art and the Phenomenology of Life pg. 5
philosophical references, but it is nonetheless phenomenological, I would say that it is the
thesis of Descartes, as well as that of Husserl. Because in Husserl, before the colour
would be a moment or a quality of the object, a noematic colour, it is pure impression,
a cogitatio, similar to the fear in Descartes dream. That is how colour is double, it is first
a red that I see on the palette, but at the same time I am fooled by an illusion in believing
that the red is limited to this spot that I see on the palette. Actually the reality of the red is
the impression that this red spread upon the palette created within me. And it is this
impression that is the true essence of the colour.

This can be demonstrated metaphysically. Take the example of heat. If I place my hand
on the table, I can say, Look, this plastic is cool! But thats absurd: this plastic, if it is
plastic, is not cool, it feels nothing. The coolness is purely subjective, I project it into my
hand as well as into matter. Also, when I say, the wall is warm, its absurd, its
fetishism. Descartes shrugged his shoulders before this illusion: the wall is not warm at
all, I am the one who is warm! It is the same for the colour red. There is no red in the
world. Red is a sensation, and this sensation is absolutely subjective, originarily invisible.
Originary colours are invisible, but they are spread over things through a process of

The painter makes a painting, it is a composition. That is the term that Kandinsky gives
to all his paintings from a certain period, but they were always compositions. The
composition of the painting is simply the artists decision to put a bit of red here, a bit of
yellow there. Now, why put red here and yellow there? There are two possible
explanations. The first is that the object that you are painting, for example the brick wall
of a Dutch house, is red. So you use red. Above that you have a blue-grey sky, so you put
some blue-grey. The painting has a model that is in the world that you want to recreate,
even if you do not want to photograph it. But this explanation is worthless, for most of
the great figurative paintings do not obey this law of construction. For example if you
contemplate an adoration of the magi painted in the Quattrocento, you can admire the
scene in which the magi arrive wearing marvelous robes, offering their gifts to the
humblest of beings. This theme takes place in many wonderful compositions. It has been
retained because it allows the aesthetic exploitation of a particular feeling. However, no
painter has seen the adoration of the magi. Painters have no reason to clothe Gaspard or
Balthazar in yellow robes rather than red. Nor do they have any reason to represent them
in such and such a manner. The choice that seems to correspond to the opulent robes of
that period, the choice of colours could only be found elsewhere, in another place than
that of objective representation. Where is this place? It is the emotional power of colour;
which has been an object of classical reflection since Goethe, but which became
fundamental for Kandinsky upon undertaking the study of the emotional power of each
colour. In this way he perceived that yellow is an aggressive colour that approaches the
spectator, while blue a soothing colour that moves away from you. Thus one would put
yellow here to produce the effect of the thing coming towards you, attacking you, or blue
there in order to soothe you. All colour is the object of an emotional and dynamic
analysis, and this analysis reveals the real reason why each colour is used. Now this
reason no longer resides in the exterior, in the visible, but in the emotional, impressive
capacity of colour. The laws for constructing a picture are snatched from the world to be
translation 2008 Michael Tweed

Art and the Phenomenology of Life pg. 6
placed in a radical subjectivity. One can no longer paint the world, instead peoples souls,
their emotions. But one can also show that if the painter has chosen to represent such or
such a thing, it is because that thing has, due to its colours, this impressionable effect
upon him. Even so-called figurative paintings confirm this.

If one considers forms, the argument is even more startling. A form is not actually a kind
of exterior entity, but the expression of a force. The point, straight line, broken line, etc.,
are the expression of specific forces that occur in different ways, continuous or
intermittent, in the same direction or changing direction. And the theory of forms, which
refers to forces, refers at the same time to subjectivity, because the forces inhabit our
body, our lived body, our subjective body that is our actual body. Consequently the world
of forms is, in some way, a coded universe the true meaning of which amounts to the play
of forces within us, hence to life, for the living body is a body that is made of forces: such
is the origin of painting. Further, it is an invisible element, the invisible force with which
the living body is identified, that is the principle of the composition of a painting.

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
worlds 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
Schopenhauerone 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 thinkerhas 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 finest 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 powerssuch 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 anothers
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 desireand this is why it
begins again and againstrives 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 anothers pleasure. But it is
translation 2008 Michael Tweed

Art and the Phenomenology of Life pg. 7
a metaphysical problem of knowledge whether I actually have access to this place where
the other experiences herself in this immediacy that is life.

Q: In relation to what you have said about the body, you have developed a theory of the
MH: Yes, and this is in response to the question of the bodys implication in the work of
art. Kandinsky deliberately painted life. In relation to this fabulous project the painter no
longer painted the world but expressed life, just like music. There is the idea, in fact, that
a painting is a mediation between beings, precisely because the elements of a painting,
according to its expression, are not only objective, but also subjective. Consequently, the
one looking at a form experiences the same pathos as the one who conceived it, to the
degree in which the form can only be read by reactivationin a kind of pathetic, or in the
least imaginary symbiosisof forces that are within us, which are identically the forces
of the living body of the creator or spectator. If a particular line expresses a particular
pathos, then the one looking at the line, retraces it, recreates it with subjective forces, and
find herself in the same pathetic state as the one who drew it. Paul Klees line implicitly
obliges the person who is looking at one of his drawings to relive what Paul Klee had
lived. The lines reality is a completely determined force, for example an unsettling,
trembling force that constantly changes. These are not mere metaphors. Intersubjectivity
occurs in as much as the painting is a gathering, not of forms but of forces, not of external
transcendent colours, but of impressions and emotions. At that moment there is
contemporaneity: the spectator becomes the contemporary of forces and impressions that
recreate within him an imaginary painting, bearing its external appearance. This is truly a
contemporaneity in Kierkegaards sense. For Kierkegaard, the believer is one who
becomes Christs contemporary, while many of Christs contemporaries were not! To be
contemporary means to repeat in an inner repetition, in the re-actualization of what was
previously actualized.

Within the frame of a painting, contemporaneity is this texture of forces and inner
emotions of which the painting is the expression. The expression that is not separated
from what it expresses, if it is true that at each moment the colours reality is within the
inner impression, that the forms reality is in the inner force and without this inner force
it becomes a dead thing. Paintings are dead as long as they do not bring about this re-
actualization in a subjectivity that can be both that of the spectator and of the creator.

Q: You speak of intersubjectivity as pathetic community. Can art then be considered to
be the ethical mediation of social being-together? You also stress the necessity of a
phenomenology of transcendental life.
The question now, assuming one accepts this
notion of the transcendentality of life, leads in the same direction: could it be said, and
why, that art is an ethics of the community or intersubjectivity?
MH: Yes, certainly. So, how? I will give you a purely personal reply, so you can take it
or leave it. We are living beings, but that is an extraordinarily difficult metaphysical
condition to comprehend, and I should say that my work on Christianity has allowed me a
better grasp of the issue. The decisive character of our life is that we are completely
passive: we are not the ones who bear us into this life. So, as this condition of our life is
invisible, like our life itself is, we do not pay attention to it. In fact, our life is a kind of
translation 2008 Michael Tweed

Art and the Phenomenology of Life pg. 8
history not separated from itself, a non-ek-static history, a history in which there is only a
single living present, with neither past nor future. We are constantly with ourselves. The
self cannot be cut into passing phases or phases that are yet to come, these divisions are
not real, they only appear in representation. The living self is actually a kind of self-
movement, a self-transformation, like a rolling ball that never parts from itself. Now, we
only have this condition of living in a life that is both ours and not ours. We are living
due to a life that comes into us, that becomes ours but in whose coming we take no part.
So this is an entirely radical metaphysical situation, and in my opinion, only Christianity
has explored it with the extraordinary thesis that man is the son of God. God is Life. This
means that man is a living being generated in life, in the sole and unique life that is the
absolute life, God. Man is thus a living being in life, so that his life is both himself and
more than him. This could also be put otherwisenamely in a Nietzschean mannerand
claim that this life constantly tends to expand (saccrotre), in other words life is not
something that simply continues, but exists metaphysically in a condition that is the
expansion of self (laccroisement de soi).

Lets take a specific example. Every act of sight tends to see more, every act of
understanding tends to understand more, every act of love tends to love more.
Surprisingly this is what Marx thought. Life is both the power of expansion and pathetic,
or in other words it continuously experiences itself and never ceases to, otherwise it
would die. There is either life or death, and when this reality that we are talking about no
longer experiences itself, it is nothing other than death. So the life that experiences itself
tends to continuously experience more of itself.

Now, what happens in the work of art? In it, there is a kind of awakening (mise en veil)
of my subjectivity, because the forms, colours and graphic elements arouse within me
those forces that they are the expression of. Because its colours, much more so than the
dull and indifferent colours of the world that provoke nothing more in me than weak
tonalities, will completely actualize those tonalities and give them a much greater
dynamic emotional intensity. There is then, through the mediation of the artwork, a kind
of intensification of life, in the spectator as in the creator. This is a kind of occurrence of
the most essential life that spreads in each of us. The creator is thus someone who creates
an ethical work, if it is true that ethics consists in living our bond to life in a more and
more intense manner. Here I hold ideas that proceed from my actual orientation in which
mingle Kandinskys aesthetics, the book that I am writing on Christianity [tr. I am the
Truth] and perhaps also the deepening of the phenomenological theses that I have always

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 bondwhether 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 lifea life that is ones own and more than ones 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 thatthis is Christian, but it
could also perhaps be Nietzscheanthe living being, instead of falling back into its
translation 2008 Michael Tweed

Art and the Phenomenology of Life pg. 9
limited restricted condition, senses the life within it, in a kind of experienceI would not
describe it as mystical, as this word is too imprecisebut 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 unbelieflike todaypeople
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 Hlderlin My, there are a lot of
gods there! But what is the basis of the gods in Heidegger? Lets 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 lifethere 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. Franois J acob 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.
they are constantly obliged to presuppose this life.

Q: The question now arises as to the relationship between this transcendence here and
divine transcendence. You have said that life is auto-affection of the self, thus life
recognizes itself. Yet, according to Levinas, for example, it is instead alterity that is first.
Whereas for you it appears that it would be the ipseity of life
MH: I am often asked this question and I have always evaded it. One must distinguish, in
my opinion, two radically different meanings of transcendence. First the transcendence of
translation 2008 Michael Tweed

Art and the Phenomenology of Life pg. 10
the phenomenologists that simply designates the fact that my consciousness directly
grasps things. Transcendence according to Husserl means the intentional consciousness
overflows towards an object, understood in the most humble fashion, that it immediately
grasps without passing through a representation. It grasps the thing itself. And this
object is called transcendent. Transcendence is used here in the most trivial sense. It is a
transcendent object in relation to my gaze. This becomes quite ambiguous because the
traditional meaning of the word transcendence is a religious meaning that refers to
God. It also implies something beyond the world, something that is acosmic, like the life
I have been talking about, and which, because it does not appear in the world, is invisible:
I can neither see nor touch it. So there is an enormous equivocation. It is a question of
two totally different meanings of transcendence! Now, the stroke of genius and the
ambiguity of Heidegger is to have smashed one meaning on the other. This manner of
grasping the thing in the world and of being in the world, that was Husserls
transcendent, was the transcendence of its Being to itself. Heideggers transcendent
Being is this, already ungraspable, horizon of exteriority where I grasp all things. Being
is transcendence pure and simple, he said. There is a sleight-of-hand there and a source
of confusion because people cannot recognize their gods, especially when one has
traditionally defined God as absolute Being, like in all scholastic and theological
conceptions. So, since the heideggerian Being is not the same as the Being traditionally
identified with God, Being seems to have several meanings. God, for me as well as
Christianity, is life. To say that man is the son of God is to define him according to life.
Such is not the case for the stone, which is not the son of another stone. The problematic
of beings (ltant), of the Being of beings (ltre de ltant), of their difference, appears
to be secondary and foreign to the fundamental and original problematic of the
relationship of the living to Life.

This brings us to Levinas. In Levinas, who dedicated a course at the Sorbonne to me,

there is a certain disqualification of both intentionality and the subject, because
intentionality is I think something, with a kind of domination of the subject over the
object. Levinas, I believe, inverted this relationship after reading The Essence of
For him man is not the master and possessor of the world, I am not the
originator for, basically, I am grasped by the Other. If the relationship to the Other is no
longer the relationship of the subject to the object, if the subject is effected (frapp) in
some way and even placed in its being by some other thing that puts him where he is,
everything must be rethought. But what is the phenomenological status of alterity in
Levinas? His Other is ambiguous: is it another or is it God, or is the other the way in
which God effects (frappe) me? This philosophy which sought to reverse the relationship
is grandiose, it founded an ethics, it put the subject beneath the gaze of the Other, which
Sartre had already done in a certain manner.
But, once more, what Other are we talking
about? I wonder whether the ethical question of alterity doesnt secretly lead to an even
more essential phenomenological question: that of another phenomenality, of another
mode of manifestation and revelation that is precisely Life. If one pursues a
phenomenology of life, there is also an alterity: that is what life means for all living
beings. Only this relationship can no longer be understood as an ek-static relationship,
but as a pathetic relationship.

translation 2008 Michael Tweed

Art and the Phenomenology of Life pg. 11
Q: Is this the problem of the face?
MH: Yes, but what is the phenomenological status of the face? For me life is faceless. I
believe that there is a fundamental alterity in life. Egology is now obsolete, insofar as
there is a transcendental birth of the ego. Therefore I no longer start from the ego cogito,
like Descartes, but maintain that the ego has been produced in itself. That is the theory of
ipseity: ipseity is not an egology in the least, ipseity and ego cannot be confused, because
the ego is an ego only upon the ground of an ipseity that grants it to itself and in which it
is for nothing. In other words, there is ego and individual self (moi) only through a
fundamental ipseity that is the Self, and which is the Self of life.

Lifeabsolute life, the life that self-generates, that is the life which Meister Eckhart
spoke of, the life which auto-affects itself in a radical senseby experiencing itself,
generates an ipseity in itself. In, and through, this ipseity are possibilities for multiple
individual selves (moi) and multiple egos. In my book on Christianity I have shown how
the ego is engendered from a fundamental ipseity, itself engendered from an absolute life.
There is a process of transcendental birth of the ego and the only thinker to have
perceived this, without however theorizing it, is Kierkegaard. He asserted that we are a
transcendental Self since there is no biological definition of man. If one says that man is a
rational animal one is struck by the fact that reason is impersonal and what is more it is
subject to caution for one can conceive of other reasons than ours, which is what
Descartes has done since, for him, rational truths are created; other worlds are possible,
thus other structures of apprehending things. But this is not the case for the Self, because
the Self is something that relates to itself absolutely and according to an infrangible
relation that can be no other than what it is. Relating to oneself is not an ek-static
relationship, but a pathetic relationship.

There is a transcendence in the traditional sense, but this transcendence is not at all ek-
static, it is the relation, not considered until now, of the living to life, that one can read as
the experience (lpreuve) that the living creates from life, which is, basically, the
experience that creates all mystics and that people live without knowing it. They live this
experience because they are nothing but it, yet they live it without knowing it because
they live in ignorance, in a kind of fascination in regard to the world of radical alienation,
in a state that the modern world dizzyingly intensifies with various media, those images
that are anti-art. For the art image is the resurrection of life within us.

One can try to understand this relation of the living to lifehow life generates the living
within itselflike Meister Eckhart did. There, one must place oneself squarely in God,
though we are not, to understand how in lifefor it would be lifethe first living being
was generated. Life can only be a Self. That is basically what Christianity says. This is
the only profound and intelligent thought about humankind.

Q: You have evoked the intentionality of sight or of the visible, as well as the
intentionality of hearing or the musical. Could other intentionalities also be evoked, such
as the intentionality of research, which seeks fields and objects not yet known or
translation 2008 Michael Tweed

Art and the Phenomenology of Life pg. 12
MH: While studying specific intentionalities Husserl discovered new fields of objects, of
different structures of being. In this field of intentional analysis, he discovered
ontological fields that no one had yet explored. In his Formal and Transcendental Logic,
which is a marvelous book,
he shows that intentionality is like a projector that makes
visible things that one has never seen. He even tried to do this for subjective life while
analyzing inner temporality which is totally different from objective time.
showedwhich establishes the essential relationship of the researcher to his object of
researchthat intentionality is a mental act that constitutes the field of meaning, a
meaning that does not exist in nature. Geometry for example constitutes ideal geometric
shapes, geometric idealities, that do not exist in nature. In nature, there are curves, but no
circles. The circle is an ideal shape. Humans have invented ontological dimensions that
did not previously exist: art did not exist, nor geometry, humans created them as ideal
beings. In the relationship of the researcher to his object of research this aspect of
creative ideality and a researcher who sets in motion certain presuppositions can be
completely annihilated by what he discovers

All intentionality is therefore both self-affective in that it experiences itself, insofar as
given to itself, and hetero-affective insofar as it opens itself to other things.

Q: To the imaginary?
MH: For Husserl, the imagining intentionality bases itself on a material support and
hence constitutes a universe of seen significations: but we do not see the material
constituents of a painting, we see instead the immensity of the sea at Venice for example.
Similarly, based on material signs, we see space. In the work of the early Flemish
painters there are large figures, such as the Virgin and Child, and then a window that
opens onto an infinite landscape. So starting from real elements that comprise the
paintings materiality this imagining intentionality, guided by the signs that it perceives,
creates a work of art. This is why the work of art if imaginary. Space is not in the canvas
since the canvas is flat, yet in a classical painting space is immense. In a normal painting
with three dimenstions, space is fictitious: from a flat surface, one believes they perceive
depth. But the depth is purely imaginary, there is no depth in the actual paint on canvas.
Similarly, a figures volume is a decoy. And this decoy is created by the aesthetic
imagination since there is no perception except the imagining of space. An infinite
distance can be hollowed out in a painting. This is the imaginary, this depth of pictorial
representation while its material support is flat.

For Husserl the imaginary assumes the imagining intentionality called the imagination,
but this imagination is an imagining consciousness, it must know itself as imagination. If
the imagination did not live as imagination, there wouldnt be any imagination. Thus the
imagination, before projecting the image that it imagines, auto-affects itself. The act of
imagination is a living act, it relates to itself as an act by experiencing itself immediately,
but not in the same way that it relates to the image. It relates externally, ek-statically, to
the image and pathetically to itself: this is the primordial pathetic relation that
phenomenologists commonly gloss over.

translation 2008 Michael Tweed

Art and the Phenomenology of Life pg. 13
Q: If one accepts the classic phenomenological thesis of corporeity, that is incarnation,
can it then be said that all artworks, all aesthetic perspectives, refer to one or several
corporal intentionalities?
Put otherwise, could the aesthetic dimension refer only to the major arts of sight and
hearing, or can one generalize art with all corporal intentionality, which would imply a
similar radical deconstruction of traditional aesthetics?
MH: Absolutely. A phenomenology of the body doesnt study only the five traditional
senses that are intentionalities: sight, touch, hearing, etc. We must turn to the problem of
the body to answer this question.
There are many theories of the body, but these are
almost all theories of the image of the body. It is the body such as one represents it to
oneself, with its symbolic role, etc. But the original problem of the body is not there. The
only thinker to have seen this was Maine de Biran. His writings grant extreme attention to
movement, which is the heart of his theory of the body that no other philosophy of the
body had elucidated before. The body is a movement, but this movement moves some
thing. Now, first the power that grasps or moves must possess itself. And it possesses
itself impressionally, in other words I am an I can and this I can is given to itself
affectively. According to Maine de Biran that my body is an I can of this kind is the
definition of human being. To exert oneself, this power must possess itself in the same
way as intentionality, which can only form an image if it is in possession of itself as
intentionality. For Maine de Biran movement auto-affects itself. It is one with itself, in
this immediate experience that it creates from itself. It is only because the power of
grasping is in possession of itself that I can grasp. Put otherwise, the status of the power
and the movement is the same: a cogitatio as understood by Descartes. The power is in
relation to itself, experiences itself immediately, just like fear is in relation to itself and
experiences itself immediately. The I can assumes not only an intentional corporeity,
but a pathetic corporeity as well. The body, before being what throws me towards
objectsmy body rises towards the world Merleau-Ponty saidis pathetically one
with itself.

Here the problem of the body and the soul can be recognized. It is true that this problem
constitutes an aporia that all philosophers have run into: Spinoza, Malebranche,
Descartes, etc. The problem is basically knowing how the soul can act upon the body.
Now, it is absolutely impossible to comprehend how the will of the soul can determine an
objective corporal movement. If my will is a subjective, spiritual will, how can it act
upon the objective body? It is a continual bit of magic. Maine de Birans solution is this:
in truth the originary powerI act, I canis invisible. The powers relationship to
itself is like the relationship of my fear to itself: I am in my power, my power is latent, I
experience it, I am the power and I deploy it on an invisible plane. But, due to the duality
of appearing, as a result of there being a world, I perceive this power that I deploy in the
invisible from the outside, in the world. This means that I am in possession of my power
as I am my fear: I experience it, I exercise it but, as all is dual, I also see myself from the
outside. There are two bodies just as there are two selves (deux moi): a transcendental
Self (un Moi transcendantal) that perceives itself in the world in the form of an empirical
self (moi empirique). There is a subject self and an object self (un moi subjet et un moi
objet). In other words there is a self that is not in the world and because there is a self that
is not in the world it can see the world.
translation 2008 Michael Tweed

Art and the Phenomenology of Life pg. 14

Movement is a difficult problem because the power is purely subjective, it is living, I am
this power, because I am capable of deploying it and accomplishing it but I then also
perceive it as an object in the world. Maine de Birans solution is that when real
movement unfolds in the invisible and in us, we see it from the outside. I have two
experiences of my movement: one where I do it and another where I see it. I do it by
making an effort, with the feeling of effort, thus the effort is given pathetically, and from
the outside I see it. This implies a dual appearing. There is a single body, I can see it from
the outside, but I live it from the inside.

Q: Then what is this corporal intentionality?
MH: What is originary is not intentionality, even in corporal intentionality. You want to
question me about corporal intentionality, but I resist in order to say: before corporal
intentionality, there is corporeity. In other words what grants corporal intentionality to
itself is life. For Merleau-Ponty, the body is immediately intentional. Why? Because
husserlian subjectivity was intentional. Merleau-Ponty discovered a subjective body, but
an intentional subjective body, and he did not see that this concept left in the dark a
dimension of another order that is the pathetic dimension. However, our corporeity is
fundamentally pathetic.

Q: You have evoked movement, effort, and the pure form of movement. What about dance
and the voice?
MH: Kandinsky has shown that dance does not have to be mimetic. Dance is not
figurative, it doesnt represent anything, it deals with the bodys actual movements, its
potentialities. What it expresses are the bodys motor capacities, the powers within it as I
originally live them;
whence the idea of an abstract dance in Kandinskys writings.
Dance does not tell a story, it reveals powers by offering them to be felt by the spectator
in her own body. J ust as the paintings forms cause me to feel the forces that inhabit me,
with which I am mingled.

Its the same for the voice. According to Maine de Biran there is an activity of
phonation like there is of vision, it is a question of a power situated in the actual body.
There is a subjective breathing. In this activity of phonation, which is of the same order
as the activity of grasping, I deploy a subjective power. Then I represent it to myself.
When I let out a scream or pronounce certain words it produces a phenomenon of
redoubling in the sense that I hear the scream that I have formed because I am first the
power that pronounces the sound. That is why hearing is basically only a redoubling.
There is something like a circuit that causes me to hear the sound that I have uttered.
There is a sonorous outpouring, a sound that I hear, but to know that it is me who is
speaking and not you, this primordial, dynamic, pathetic power of phonation must be
within me, the power with which I coincide. That is because I know, there where I form
the sound, that I am the one who forms it, that there is an ipseity in this power, that I can
say, I am the one who said that, and not you.

Q: So all that proceeds from the body could then be an origin of a work of art?
translation 2008 Michael Tweed

Art and the Phenomenology of Life pg. 15
MH: Yes, absolutely. Kandinskys theory of painting is valid for all the arts, it is what
allows the arts to be able to communicate among themselves and that there can be a
global art, what he calls a monumental art, namely an art that would no longer be only
painting, sculpture, dance or decoration. In opera, for example, we are in the presence of
an art in which song, colours, set design, movements, etc. all take part. The elements of
each of these arts seem different: voice for the singer, colour for the costumes and sets,
movement for the characters, text for the libretto. But these different arts, the elements of
which also seem different, can express the same thing because their subjective content is
the same. There is a common denominator that is the subjective reality of the element of
each art. Objectively, each element is different, but subjectively it is the same. One can
employ different arts to the same effect, make them express the same pathos. There is
thus a kind of subjective, absolutely fantastic, unity of objective elements.

Q: If phenomenologically the body is the source of all aesthetics, can it be said that the
bodys temporality, that is the horizon of waiting for the awakening and thus for finitude
and death, would be the ultimate referent of all art? Lastly, are not all aesthetic
ontologies based on time?
MH: My answer is quite precise: no. Why? Phenomenological time, the time that Husserl
and Heidegger studied, is still an ek-static time, i.e. a shattered time. The horizon, this
hole of light that is the world, is a horizon of distance. It is an unreal, three-dimensional
horizon, that is constituted by what Heidegger calls three ek-stacies, namely past, present
and future. In this ek-static horizon things flow from the future into the present then into
the past. Heidegger literally said: presence presents itself from three ek-stacies that cause
things to be there in their coming into the present, from the horizon of the future and in
their slipping into the past. This horizon of the future, for humankind, is limited by death.
And this is what has led us to say what we have said. However, all that only concerns ek-
static phenomenality. The temporality of life is totally different. And consequently, you
can no longer say what you have said as the temporality of life is not ek-static. Of course,
life ceaselessly projects itself towards its future and towards its past, but that is the life in
the world, which represents itself in the world, which throws itself into the world. Life in
itself however, at the place where it touches itself, is not in ek-static time. The living is
something that touches itself, with neither separation nor distance, without differing from
itself in any way whatsoever, which experiences itself in a radical sense. Our living self
(notre moi vivant), our transcendental Self never cuts itself off from itself. And so, one
must think a pathetic temporality, that is a temporality in which what transforms does not
separate from itself. That is what I have attempted to do. One must describe a temporality
without intentionality, a simple affective becoming. Life never stops being experienced,
even if the modalities of this experience never stop changing.

Q: But doesnt one then stumble onto the abutment of death?
MH: No, there is no death, really. There is no death, in which case one must use an
entirely different language, one must work with a radically different philosophy. Because
the abutment of death is before me in the world. I must think the world to think death. I
tell myself: I am old, in six months or so perhaps I will be dead. But then one is reasoning
in ek-stacy. However, there where life is, in ones inner essence, there is no longer any
ek-stacy, no past nor future. It is very difficult to understand, but some authors have
translation 2008 Michael Tweed

Art and the Phenomenology of Life pg. 16
intuited this. For example, Meister Eckhart when he said, What happened yesterday is as
far from me as what happened 15,000 years ago. This shows that there is no relationship
between the individual self and time, ek-static time, there is no degree of separation

Martin Heidegger, LOrigine de loeuvre dart in Chemins qui ne mnent nulle part, Paris, Gallimard,
1992, pp. 43-7,
Martin Heidegger, Being and Time, New York, Harper & Row, 1962
Immanuel Kant, Critique of Pure Reason,
Michel Henry, I am the Truth, Stanford, Stanford University Press, 2003
Wassily Kandinsky, Complete Writings
Michel Henry, Material Phenomenology, New York, Fordham University Press, 2008, pp. 2-3
Roman Ingarden, Quest-ce quune oeuvre musicale?, Paris, Christian Bourgois, 1989
Ren Descartes, Metaphysical Medititons
Michel Henry, Material Phenomenology, op cit. pg. 5
Maurice Merleau-Ponty, Phenomenology of Perception, London, Routledge, 1962; The Visible and the
Invisible, Evanston, Northwestern University Press, 1968
Cf. Emmanuel Levinas, God, Death and Time, Stanford, Stanford University Press, 2000, pp. 17 and 94
where Levinas cites The Essence of Manifestation and Marx
Michel Henry, The Essence of Manifestation, The Hague, Martinus Nijhoff, 1973. Concerning the
influence of this book on Levinas later thought , cf. J ad Hatem, Note sur le rapport dAutrement qutre
LEssence de la manifestation in Annales de Philosophie, vol. 16, Beyrouth, 1995
J ean-Paul Sartre, Being and Nothingness
Edmund Husserl, Formal and Transcendental Logic
Edmund Husserl, Lessons for a Phenomenology of Internal Time Consciousness,
Michel Henry, Philosophy and Phenomenology of the Body, The Hague, Martinus Nijhoff, 1975
Michel Henry, Voir, linvisible. Sur Kandinsky, Paris, Francois Bourin, 1988
translation 2008 Michael Tweed