The Most Crucial Gesture for a Living Being

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When I wrote L’oubli de l’air, my first book on Heidegger, published in 1983–translated as The Forgetting of Air in 1999–the problem of breathing was almost ignored, strange, even inappropriate. As it was for the figure of Antigone, which is connected to it, in Speculum in 1974, to speak of air seemed to be irrelevant, not to say suspicious. In our Western tradition, life as such was not a subject that could be culturally approached. It was too trivial and not worthy of Culture. We are just beginning to understand where that has led us. Indeed, breathing is the most crucial key component of our relation to ourselves, to the other(s) and to the world. And it is a pity that we only discover that because our breathing is now more than ever put in danger.

Breathing in relating to ourselves

Coming into the world requires us to breathe by ourselves. We were conceived by two different beings and, in the womb of our mother, we received oxygen through her blood. Being born means assuming the fact that we are each only one(s), alone, and we must take charge of our own being to live. This, at first, happens naturally. Our body breathes to survive. But no one and nothing, at least in the West, teaches us how to develop this breathing–except, sometimes, by singing… And yet, our breath is that which allows us to reach our full humanity.

Breathing is necessary not only to survive but also to transform a mere natural existence into a human and spiritual existence that remains fleshly. In our tradition, the spiritual, and more generally the cultural, is considered to be something abstract, which is imposed on us to master and dominate our natural belonging. Such a way of conceiving of our becoming human splits us into two irreconcilable parts, of which one rests uncultivated in the family home, or at least at the level of the so-called private life, and the other is dependent on authorities who are presumed to know the path we must follow to become cultured and spiritual. Thus, the development of our existence evades our responsibility and our shaping. We are torn between a subjection to nature and a subjection to culture, without reaching our unity and the possibility of a real being in charge of our existence and of a becoming of our own. Besides, the latter is paralyzed by the split between our body and our mind, each needing the other to evolve as a human being.

It could be otherwise, if our upbringing and our school and academic education would include how to cultivate our breathing. As is the case in the beginning of our life, breathing by ourselves is the condition of our autonomous and personal development. A living being must grow to remain alive and it must grow in faithfulness to its own origin. In fact, few people continue growing beyond a natural development. This means that they then begin to die and never become really human–which requires a becoming other than merely natural. They are sort of automata, resulting from a certain time and place determined by history and the environment. They do not live and behave according to a dynamism and an identity of their own. They are products of a socio-cultural milieu, pieces of a constructed world, without bringing to the world the unique and irreducible presence of a living being.

To be capable of a true faithfulness to ourselves, we must cultivate our breathing, which permits us to continuously pass from our bodily belonging to a personal, cultured belonging by transforming the properties of our own breath. Indeed, this can evolve from a more material and undifferentiated to a more subtle, individual and spiritual nature and consistency. It is so much so that our Judeo-Christian tradition asserts that we were born of the breath of God. After doing yoga for more than forty years, I would like to suggest that we can be born again by making our breathing spiritual. What is more, we then make our whole being spiritual, while it remains fleshly, because we transform both our body and our mind, the former becoming more spiritual and the latter more carnal, the two acquiring the status of a sensitive transcendence in comparison with a mere natural and material existence.

In the framework of our Western tradition, this would ask us to return to a way of conceiving of our soul as made of breath and touch, as Aristotle implies, and cultivating it as a place of mediation between our body and our mind, but also between us as physical and spiritual beings.

Breathing in relating to the other(s)

To really relate to the other, we must relate to ourselves. If it is not the case, we compose a unity with the other(s) without a relationship between us being possible. This happens too often. That way each ends in being a piece of a whole, a link in a chain, without preserving the autonomy of a living being. A living being must be capable of combining faithfulness to its singularity with being in relationship with the outside of itself. It needs both to develop. Breathing can secure the passage between the two.

Few people, at least in the West, worry about cultivating this double stage of their becoming and about joining them. They let culture and environment care about that. But what we receive from Western culture is generally already elaborated regardless of a living breath, and it uses our life to subsist and to seem valid more than it contributes towards a culture of life and its sharing. Then we survive, half-fossilized and exchanging data and pieces of information that, perhaps, stimulate our brain but do not serve our whole being as living and its live and sensitive relationships with the other(s). We are led to be united in abstract values that are imposed on us from an authoritative outside and that stick us together without our being able to get our own breath back. We are then hoping for another life to breathe a new air, either thanks to a divine breath or to the advent of another era of history. Anyway, we cannot share our living breath here and now. And yet it is this breath that can unify us and unite us with one another with respect to our material and spiritual belongings.

In fact, we spend our life out of breath and hanging on predetermined supra-sensitive values, which aim at ruling our current existence without letting our flesh blossom. Then, desire and love between us are considered to be of lower value than abstract requirements that are intended to master them. Now they represent the fulfillment of our whole being(s), the gesture through which we make our natural and physical belonging transcendental by assuming the difference between us. Desire for the other as other means longing for transcendence, a transcendence that does not amount to an ‘object,’ a mere ‘being,’ or an abstract ideal but as a means to transcend, to transform and, in a way, to transubstantiate ourselves so that we could achieve a human incarnated becoming.

Breathing in relating to the world

If breathing by ourselves allows us to reach our autonomy, if it individualizes each of us, it is also that which links us with all living beings. Breathing both singularizes and universalizes. But this universality is no longer the result of whatever theory, it is a concrete and living process that takes place already naturally. I cannot breathe if the vegetal world does not purify the air. We can observe today how the functioning, and even the subsistence, of the world is dependent on the quality of the air–without a breathable air, the living beings can no longer survive and they are necessary for the existence and even the governance of the world. Obviously, this governance cannot amount to a domination but must correspond with the way of ensuring the best interdependence among all the elements that form the world.

The importance of air in the organization of a living world has been ignored or misjudged. And if the presumed materialists have been very much concerned by our need to eat, they have neglected that our preliminary need is to breathe. The substance of air was probably too subtle to be recognized by them as matter. But it is precisely this subtlety that grants air its universal potential and its ability to act as a mediation, not only between the different parts of us, but also between the different living beings. Beyond the fact that air could not be assimilated to a matter by the materialists because it was too subtle and fluid, the subject-object logic prevented them from perceiving it because it was not reducible to an object. What is more, they envisioned materiality at the level of having and not at that of being. They were, they still are, not very much concerned by our own materiality as living beings and by how we can enter into relationship with one another as beings that are both physical and spiritual. There is no doubt that those who claim to be materialists have to rethink their way of conceiving of matter and of dealing with it. It is really urgent given the state of our present world and the danger in which our planet and all the living beings are today.

Those who care about spirituality have also to think, or think again, about the importance of breathing in our becoming spiritual. To maintain that we were born of the breath of God without encouraging us to cultivate our own breath before obeying more or less abstract commandments defined by humans is a little incoherent! It could also bear witness to a will to exercise a power over the ‘believers’ instead of inviting them to discover by themselves what it could mean to spiritualize one’s whole being by cultivating one’s breathing. It is a completely different path and it is within everyone’s reach: of child or adult, poor or rich, educated or uneducated. Furthermore, it relativizes the need for belief, which is already quite mental, because experience can in great part substitute for it.

As for the philosophers, it would be desirable that they develop and teach a thinking about life and sensitivity more than about death and abstractions. To become, human beings need thinking, but a thinking that helps them to take their natural belonging into account and to raise it to a human level, notably by discovering how to ensure a growth that is not only somatic but can take over from it by cultivating our breath and our desire. To become human is not to be capable of assuming one’s death and longing for a life beyond our current terrestrial existence. Rather, it is to live differently one’s natural belonging as a living being among other living beings. The matter is not of governing the world by dominating everything, but of being able to coexist in difference, especially by taking on the negative of a partiality, which contributes to restraining the impulses of our instincts or drives and to delaying them in order to render them suitable for sharing with other living beings. Our brain must not be used to exercise an abstract power over our own life and that of other living beings, but to enable us to behave and to take appropriate action in order to make life blossom and flower in each of us and between all living beings.

To conclude

These few considerations have no other intention than suggesting some elements to get off to a new start in our human becoming and our way of relating to the other(s) and to the world. We are at a critical point regarding the future of humanity, that of our planet and of all the beings which inhabit it. Criticizing and despairing are not appropriate solutions. Rather, we can devote our human abilities to detect where we have failed in our past cultural constructions and to take a new departure point. Besides, the fact that we have henceforth to think and behave on a global scale–be it a question of climate, of culture, of politics, of economy, or even of epidemic–constrains us to do that. To be ‘at home’ must adopt another meaning and concern, above all our way of being and becoming a human on a global scale as a living being among others. Each event, each problem or hardship must bring us back to this question. And the fact that we have now to deal with many cultures must compel us to envision how each of them has broached it.

As far as I am concerned, I found in Eastern cultures, in particular those which relate to yoga, some help to perceive how to save and cultivate my own life and behave in a different way towards the other(s) and towards the world. That is not to say that I have merely adopted these cultures as mine, the matter is more complex. For example, we have developed, in the West, a subjectivity that I must question but also preserve and make evolve from my doing yoga and my becoming familiar with cultures that take it into account.

But I have been trained to pay attention and cultivate my breathing by doing yoga. At first, this helped me to recover mobility and strength after a car accident. After a few years, I felt that I was changing physically and psychically. This change was intimate but also had an impact on my daily existence. Then, I began to do yoga every day and alone, meeting my yoga teacher from time to time to check the results of my previous practice and consider its possible change into one that was more appropriate given my evolution and my commitments.

All that does not happen without effort and perseverance. But becoming a human is not an easy task. It requires us to be faithful to our own nature and our previous being while agreeing to question it, to become other, and to evolve. Cultivating our own breathing is crucial to succeed in that. It allows us to take into consideration the way in which we came into the world, our being born, and to be able to be creative while respecting it. Before we become creators, we must acknowledge that we have been conceived by two human beings. For us, as humans, creation cannot surpass or substitute for generation, but we must serve it. A culture of breath can act as a suitable bridge between the two.

Works Cited

  • Irigaray, Luce. Entre Orient et Occident. Grasset, 1999. Translated by Stephen Pluhàcek as Between East and West. Columbia University Press, 2001.
  • —. L’oubli de l’air: Chez Martin Heidegger. Editions de Minuit, 1983. Translated by Mary Beth Mader as The Forgetting of Air: In Martin Heidegger, University of Texas Press-Continuum, 1999.
  • —. Le temps du soufflé. Cristel Göttart Verlag, 1999. Translated by Katja van de Rack, Staci von Boeckman and Luce Irigaray as The Age of the Breath in Luce Irigaray: Key Writings, Continuum, 2004.
  • —. A New Culture of Energy. Columbia University Press, 2021. Translated by Stephen Seely, Luce Irigaray, and Antonia Pont from an unpublished French version.
  • —. “To Begin with Breathing Anew.” Breathing with Luce Irigaray, edited by Lenart Skof and Emily A. Holmes, Bloomsbury Academic, 2013, pp.217-226.
  • Irigaray, Luce, and Michael Marder. Through Vegetal Being: Two Philosophical Perspectives. Columbia University Press, 2016.
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