Central and East European
Society for Phenomenology

Conference | Paper

Inhuman Ethics. Dancing in the Strange Beauty of Life with Clarice Lispector and Michel Henry

Max Schaefer

Thursday 2 December 2021

15:40 - 16:20

Zoom 1-2

This paper investigates the nature of life and what a robust understanding of it means for the field of ethics. Through a critical study of Jewish-Brazilian-Ukrainian writer Clarice Lispector and French phenomenologist Michel Henry, I argue that life is at heart inhuman, affective, and worldly in nature, and that a proper understanding of inhuman life can undo sharp distinctions between human and other, beauty and ugliness, good and evil. In light of this, I suggest that the work of these two figures paves a way towards an ethical cosmopolitanism of flourishing, which involves hope and love for life as a whole.

In drawing out the insights into life that may be gleaned from these two thinkers, I find that Lispector’s work challenges and helps correct what numerous commentators have correctly regarded as Henry’s limited or otherwise problematic understanding of life as essentially first-personal and non-worldly in nature. That is, Henry insists, for one, that life is always the life of someone, and, as commentators have pointed out, he does not address whether life might function in an impersonal third-person manner, or whether his conception of life also applies to non-human entities. By construing life as a radical immanence that does not admit any distance or relate to anything other than itself, Henry also endeavors to separate life from the transcendence of the world. In conceiving of immanent life as the foundation of the transcendence of the world, though, Henry’s own analyses do not support this conclusion, and in fact call for a re-conception of life as open to the transcendence of the world. By analyzing Lispector’s account of G.H.’s encounter with a cockroach in the servant’s quarters in her apartment in The Passion According to G.H., I show how this experience reveals to G.H. and us the underlying impersonal character and essentially worldly nature of life.

Following this, I lay out how G.H.’s experience of the inhuman through her encounter with the cockroach forces her to rethink her relation to the world and living beings. By compelling her to leave her world and enter what Lispector refers to as the “primary world,” the incident with the cockroach alleviates the sharp, hierarchal divisions between human and other, beauty and ugliness, good and evil, and enables G.H. to see that life exceeds such trappings of human thought. In so doing, G.H. comes to understand that, at heart, there is a strange beauty to all life, one which cannot be captured in human conceptions of beauty and ugliness, and good and evil.

That being said, I maintain that Lispector does not describe how one comes to experience and understand this strange beauty in sufficient detail. In my view, Henry’s work can supplement Lispector’s account of this matter. For Henry finds that the contents of the world, such as forms and colors, do not merely function as aspects of an object, which appear to perceptual consciousness as objective forms and colors and which, as a result, are known in terms of what they mean or signify within the individual’s worldly context of significance. According to Henry, the sensible elements of the world also appear in an immediate and non-representational manner as an affective tonality that is produced within the flesh of the individual. Rather than being restricted to the meanings that appear to contain them within the individual’s objective world, Henry observes that the contents of the world can exceed these parameters and be experienced and known in terms of the affective tonalities they arouse within one’s flesh. In my view, these findings account for how G.H. comes to experience and know the cockroach, not as a cockroach, but as a strangely beautiful living being.

Together, I maintain that the works of Lispector and Henry point toward an ethical cosmopolitanism of flourishing. In analyzing the accounts of strange beauty that are provided by these two figures, I argue that what comes forward is that a part of what is enjoyed in this experience is the sense of mystery and uncertainty it arouses in us, and, by extension, the hopeful feeling that the matter at hand may offer something of value, though we cannot grasp what that is, or whether this feeling will be confirmed. The hopefulness that strange beauty inspires is, thus, one that, far from convincing the living being that she can overcome or correct the horrors of life (as Nietzsche argues), attunes her to its terrible truth (i.e., the possibility of suffering, meaninglessness, death) and to its possibilities for flourishing. In both Lispector and Henry, I maintain that these possibilities for flourishing are communal in nature. By focusing on the account of community that emerges in these two writers, I demonstrate that the experience of strange beauty gives birth to a hope in life’s communal possibilities for flourishing, and to a desire to pursue those possibilities. In so doing, I maintain that the hope strange beauty inspires can give rise to an ethical cosmopolitanism of flourishing, in that it motivates love, understood as participation in ongoing processes of becoming-in-relation, wherein living beings desire to create new possibilities for flourishing by supporting and learning from one another in their respective pursuits.