QA 42. Notes on “Useless suffering”

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A brief reading of the essay by Emmanuel Levinas


What is the lived experience of suffering? To an extent, it’s like any other sensory experience, like seeing green or tasting sweet. What sets suffering apart is the way it is too much to bear. We can’t get on top of it or get hold of it. It’s an experience of frustrated revulsion or rejection. Levinas describes it a “quasi-contradictory structure” – suffering is given to us as a sensation that we can’t take – which is categorically ambiguous: suffering is “at once what disturbs order and this disturbance itself”. Suffering shows the profound vulnerability and passivity of our sensibility: all we can do is undergo it (and we can’t even do that). Suffering is “precisely an evil” for the way it rips into us and overwhelms our humanity. It is an impasse, an absurdity. It is utterly useless.

And yet.

“Is not the evil of suffering… also the unassumable, whence the possibility of a half opening that a moan, a cry, a groan or a sigh slips through – the original call for aid, for curative help, help from the other me whose alterity, whose exteriority promises salvation? …For pure suffering, which is intrinsically senseless and condemned to itself with no way out, a beyond appears in the form of the interhuman.”

The interhuman order is the place of ethics. It opens between those who cry out and those who hear and attend. The experience of being-called is exactly the same as suffering – it’s given to me without asking and I can neither refuse nor apprehend it – except that it takes on meaning as “a suffering for the suffering of someone else”. It’s not useless. From the interhuman perspective, suffering can thus be “meaningful in me” even as it is “useless in the Other”.

Our attention to the suffering of others elevates us. It is the “the very nexus of human subjectivity, to the point of being raised to the level of supreme ethical principle – the only one it is impossible to question”. And we are required so urgently, we can’t even wait for God without letting ourselves down.

Theodicy and The End of Theodicy

Isn’t suffering sometimes useful? Isn’t it the price we pay to get what we desire? Don’t we learn from our painful mistakes? And doesn’t the fear of punishment help to keep us in line?

Levinas calls this kind of reasoning “political teleology”, which takes one’s own wellbeing, or society’s, as the ultimate goal. When used to explain away other people’s misery, things gets nasty fast. Think of the politician or preacher who says you must suffer now for future rewards, or the moraliser who declares your suffering to be proof of past wrongdoing. Such theodicy, whether Christian, Jewish or secular, tries to vindicate the goodness of God (or nature or history) in the presence of evil. Levinas has some sympathy with this. Belief in a greater good can comfort our own suffering, and in “the harshness of exile”, even a cruel meaning may be preferred to none at all.

But the political violence of the twentieth century – “[s]uffering and evil inflicted deliberately”, without limits, beyond reason, and “detached from all ethics” – marks the end of the possibility of theodicy. For Levinas, the Holocaust is paradigmatic of this barbarism and the “disproportion between suffering and every theodicy was shown at Auschwitz with a glaring, obvious clarity”. You can’t make annihilation reasonable or explainable. You can’t say the victims got what was coming to them. It can’t be part of God’s (or nature’s) plan, unless God or nature is more monstrous than all the murderers combined. Theodicy has become unthinkable.

This refusal of theodicy, which is a refusal to justify the suffering of others – what lies behind it? It reveals an ethical subjectivity and sensibility. The “human morality of goodness” – compassion and love, “suffering for the suffering of others” – is still standing and still meaningful. But goodness now depends on our lived commitment to keeping faith with the others, with no metaphysical assurances and only our own resources of openness and responsiveness to draw upon. It’s a high calling to a difficult faith and a difficult freedom.

(Levinas, E. 1998. “Useless suffering”, in Entre Nous: On Thinking-of-the-Other, translated by Michael B Smith and Barbara Harshav. New York and Chichester: Columbia University Press, pp 91-–101)

2 thoughts on “QA 42. Notes on “Useless suffering””

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    David Glidden says:

    Zen Buddhists recognize the prevalence of suffering and the importance of empathy. But they also note that it is a needless suffering to suffer along with those whose suffering we try to relieve. There is so much needless psychological suffering, guilt, anxiety that can be so readily purged.

  2. I must have read this when you first posted it; but today I’m reading it as if for the first time. Great stuff. Prepare to be cited in a doctoral thesis.

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