Erotic love is interesting to almost everyone. We endlessly write and talk about it, delight in it, and worry about it. But we don’t very often think seriously about what it is and what it’s for. We are driven by it and drawn to it, but close, careful analyses of the phenomenon itself are rare even among philosophers and do not come naturally or easily to the rest of us. The result is that we’re conceptually impoverished: we don’t have an analytically precise lexicon for thinking about erotic love, and so we tend toward an uneasy silence about its nature and purposes. When serious questions about eros do surface, we quickly veil them with an appeal to privacy, taste, or freedom.

Jean-Luc Marion says all this with greater eloquence at the beginning of The Erotic Phenomenon, published in French in 2003 and recently in English. The bulk of the book is devoted to the kind of analysis whose lack he identifies. What, Marion asks, does it mean to love and be loved erotically? He approaches this question not as a theologian (although he has written theology) and not as a Catholic (although he is among the most eminent Catholic philosophers at work today). He approaches it as a lover whose thoughts have been formed by the technical vocabulary and methods of phenomenology. He provides an argumentative depiction of what is proper to erotic love as it appears in human experience and action. Because he is a phenomenologist, Marion wants to depict the phenomenon he studies “as it is” and thereby to illuminate it, to take the reader to the thing itself without distraction or obscurity.

Phenomenologists approach what they study by performing what they call reductions (from re + ducere in Latin: to lead back, or, better, to take a step back), by means of which, as the American Catholic philosopher Robert Sokolow-ski has put it, we pause-take a step back-to look at what we ordinarily look through. We are constantly flooded with what phenomenologists call “appearances”: of things in the world, of the faces of other humans, of concepts and arguments, and so on, endlessly. Ordinarily, we respond to these appearances without considering how they appear-without, that is, trying to see and understand how appearances work.

The phenomenological reduction attempts to do just that, and in Marion’s hands it
yields the conclusion that all appearances are instances of donation, which is usually translated into English as “givenness.” Whenever an appearance occurs-whether of a human face to the eye, a ray of sunlight on the skin, the sharp acidity of lemon-juice on the tongue, or a finely tuned distinction before the intellect-it is, thinks Marion, always an instance of something given: something unasked, unmerited, unanticipated, arriving before us from elsewhere as a gift.

But what does this reduction to givenness have to do with the erotic phenomenon? In what particular way does erotic love show the gift? According to Marion, we humans are unavoidably faced with a dual question. The first point is “Does anybody love me?” and the second is “What good am I?” The two questions belong together because it is characteristic of humans that we are not satisfied by certainty about our mere existence, and not even by certainty about our existence as thinkers and knowers. We want more: we want to be assured that we are some good-that there is some good for us or in us. But we can get this assurance only by an affirmative answer to the first question, “Does anybody love me?” And we cannot give that answer to ourselves: it comes, if it does come, from outside ourselves, from someone else. Marion argues that any attempt to assure ourselves of our lovability without receiving love from outside is incoherent; it ends in a solipsistic self-hatred.

This presents us with a serious difficulty: it means we are radically dependent on something we cannot bring into being or control; and that is very uncomfortable for those, like most middle-class Americans (me included), who would like to be captains of their souls and masters of their fate.

We can (and we usually do) attempt to alleviate this difficulty-this agony, indeed-by offering a bargain: I’ll love you if you love me. This is the bargain of reciprocal exchange: do ut des. Marion argues that this strategy has nothing to do with love and is inevitably self-defeating. What you get by it is a contract whose particulars are more or less carefully stipulated, but it won’t provide the assurance you need because it won’t be love. What you need is to be raised from the death that comes from a negative answer to the question “What good am I?” And that resurrection can be achieved only by the gift of a love that expects nothing, a love that continues even where there is only absence. Assurance by affirmation of oneself as beloved is had not by a bargain, but by becoming a lover without expectation of return-by saying to the beloved, “Here I am, your lover.” The two questions already mentioned therefore require a third: “Can I love first?”

Answering that question affirmatively by saying “here I am” to someone is irreversible: it brings a love-affair into being which must seem to the one who makes the declaration of love a state of affairs that will not and cannot end. To say “Here I am, your lover until next Tuesday,” or “until someone better comes along” is not to offer oneself as lover, but, again, to offer a bargain. The genuine offer of love is unconditional and irreversible: it expects, or demands, no return.

The love affair becomes active only when the “here I am” is met with a welcome, and the affair is eroticized only when flesh yields to flesh. There is, in Marion’s thought, a sense in which you’re not a fully enfleshed person until another’s flesh yields to you. This is because what it means to be flesh is to feel and to know that you feel, which is a gift you can’t give yourself: you get it only by being yielded to, accepted as flesh, by someone other than yourself. Until that happens, while you are of course a body, which is to say that you take up space and provide resistance to other bodies, you are not someone who has been given the possibility of fleshly response by being accepted by another’s flesh. Bodies can be treated sexually, but this is not love: it is the instrumental use of an object. The extreme cases of such use are rape and necrophilia. Erotic love is different, and is possible only when flesh yields to flesh in a mutual exchange of yielding acceptance.

It is among the great strengths of Marion’s account of the eroticization of the flesh that he can depict the giving and taking of erotic love as having to do not only-nor even principally-with the sexual organs and orgasm, but also with the flesh more broadly construed, including the kiss given and taken (whether between spouses, parents and children, or friends), and the many other gestures of fleshly love. For Marion, there is a distinction between the specifically sexual forms of erotic love and others; and this means, among other things, that the assurance of being beloved is available even to those who are, and have always been, celibate. Erotic phenomena extend far beyond the genital connection of sexual intercourse and, as Marion understands it, even beyond the touching of one flesh to another.

Eroticization can occur verbally: in the love talk of those anticipating or already engaged in sexual contact, certainly; but also in speech shared by friends about what is between them, in the affectionate conversation of children with their parents, and so on. What makes such talk erotic is that it gives feeling flesh to the beloved by assuring her that she is indeed loved, and it does this by addressing her alone, just as she is. Eros, then, is only sometimes sexual, even if its sexual forms are its most intense.

Erotic love can go wrong by ceasing to be what it essentially is, and Marion analyzes this, too. In the specifically sexual forms of erotic love there are possibilities of corruption. Eroticized flesh can obscure the person, and Marion points out, rightly, that in sexual love this always happens to some extent. His analysis of orgasm shows this with poignancy. The perversions of sexual eros, as he sees them, generally involve forcing another person’s flesh, and one’s own, to remain eroticized at any price. This is the explanation for sadism, masochism, and gentler things, such as “make-up, disguise, masks, play-acting.” All these are a matter of “staging the other from the point of view of my gaze,” and the inevitable result is that they obscure the person who is eroticized. That person is no longer loved; instead, her body (not her flesh) becomes an object of erotic desire. When that happens, the affair ceases to be a love affair.

Marion also includes in his list of perversions erotic crossings of the borderline between species (bestiality), and same-sex eroticizations of the flesh (homosexuality). But his analysis of these corruptions and transgressions seems to me abbreviated and unsatisfying. It rests in large part on an understanding of what is natural to bodies and to their mutual eroticization that is not explained. What he says on these subjects could be defended, but I suspect that resources other than those of phenomenology would have to be drawn on to do so. Almost all human behavior is highly ritualized, part of a developed or developing habitus, and it almost always involves imaginative pretence. It would be surprising if sexual love did not, as well. It remains unclear why, for example, Marion should approve the obscene talk of lovers while he considers the use of masks and play-acting to be against nature.

This doubt may indicate a deeper problem. Marion’s avowed topic is the erotic phenomenon, and his method that of phenomenology. He is a master of that method, and the result is an analysis of erotic love of unparalleled precision and depth. The depiction he gives of the erotic phenomenon is fundamentally convincing, and readers will find their own loves illuminated and questioned. All that is rare and valuable. But Marion’s analysis, sensitive as it is to the incapacity for love that we all experience because we are finite, is perhaps not attuned enough to the special incapacity that results from our fallenness. Fallenness is not finitude: the latter belongs by definition to creatures, while the former is adventitious to them. And yet we are fallen, and our fallenness (or at least mine, and I suspect I am not alone) makes the erotic phenomenon as Marion describes it-the lover’s “here I am” rather than the mere bargain-seem quite impossible, evident only as the trace of a lost and now unattainable glory. This of course does not invalidate Marion’s analysis, but perhaps it calls for a supplement: a phenomenology of lament for the unavailability of the truly and fully erotic here below.

Paul J. Griffiths is a longtime contributor to Commonweal and the author of many books, most recently Regret: A Theology (University of Notre Dame Press) and Why Read Pascal? (Catholic University of America Press).

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Published in the 2007-03-09 issue: View Contents
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