Thursday, 26 February 2015

Ways of dying with Jacques Derrida

Full title: Learning to Live Finally. The Last Interview
Author: Jacques Derrida, translated by Pascal-Anne Brault
Genre: Fiction, Novel
Attributes: 100 pages, paperback
Publisher: Palgrave Macmillan (2007)
Between 0 and 1Zero (i.e. borrowed from local library)

This last interview took place when Derrida was sick, already accustomed to the idea of dying, already an expert in mourning and the delivery of funeral orations, but also prepared, as it seemed, for his own final withdrawal. Ominously published one year before his death in 2004, the short conversation opens the gates to a deluge of answers to the essential question, What is it to be dying?
Derrida, who didn’t shy away from mixing poetry with philosophy, has many things to say about death, and in many ways. The immediate effect of this thanatological eloquence is that the subject matter is no longer frightening; it no longer appears as a terror of the living subject.
Death, at the same time amorphous (almost like glass) and metamorphic (like a text or like a rock), flays the skin of a philosopher's mind-body to reveal the joints where life appears more clearly as a foreshadowing of the inevitable, possibly repetitive, coming into non-existence. In writing, we are told, there are traces of a death-to-come. With words and sentences published in a book, a part of the writer's life goes by, a part of him disappears. And with this, a host of thoughts, a multitude of anxieties: what’s going to happen after this death? How is this death of the writer going to be taken by the world? What will this death engender? What will it kill? These questions allow Derrida to revisit one of his most famous theories: the theory of the trace – of the thing that remains once everything has disappeared. In other words, the theory of the consequences of death.
"At the moment I leave 'my' book (to be published) – after all, no one forces me to do it – I become, appearing-disappearing, like that uneducable spectre who will have never learned how to live. The trace I leave signifies to me at once my death, either to come or already come upon me, and the hope that this trace survives me. This is not a striving for immortality; it's something structural. I leave a piece of paper behind, I go away, I die: it is impossible to escape this structure, it is the unchanging form of my life. Each time I let something go, each time some trace leaves me, 'proceeds' from me, unable to be reappropriated, I live my death in writing. It's the ultimate test: one expropriates oneself without knowing exactly who is being entrusted with what is left behind. Who is going to inherit, and how? Will there even be any heirs?"
But there’s another form of dying that Derrida needs to address, and which is more subtle and more effective than all the other forms of dying-while-alive: the death by progression. As living means going on through life, moving towards the moment when the biological ultimatum of the body becomes reality, every step ahead means further separation from everything that has already been lived. Put into fewer words: by living we are constantly dying. Or, in Derrida’s own words:
"[L]earning to live is always narcissistic [...]: one wants to live as much as possible, to save oneself, to persevere, and to cultivate all these things which, though infinitely greater and more powerful than oneself, nonetheless form a part of this little 'me' that they exceed on all sides. To ask me to renounce what formed me, what I've loved so much, what has been my law, is to ask me to die."
As above, Derrida is quotable every step of the way. Clipping off small bits of his responses feels very much like helping the creation of his aphorisms. A form of death, no doubt: a form of flaying the skin of his work. But that, of course, will not seem odd to the passionate reader of the father of Deconstruction. This reader will recognize the style of 'putting the problem,' so as to generate a moment of discontent wherein questions can be asked in the most impertinent ways.

Jacques Derrida (1930-2004) in the year of his death. Source: O Globo
Vestiges of this impertinent questioning are to be found, for instance, in his dealing with language: a very specific version of language (let’s call it French) which Derrida challenged and deformed, paradoxically, out of pure love.
“You don't just go and do anything with language; it preexists us and it survives us. When you introduce something into language, you have to do it in a refined manner, by respecting through disrespect its secret law. That's what might be called unfaithful fidelity: when I do violence to the French language, I do so with the refined respect of what I believe to be an injunction of this language, in its life and in its evolution.”
With language, as with life, one needs to sacrifice something in order to prolong existence. In other words, one needs to kill a specimen in order for the species to endure. Life lives through renunciations, insofar as what is renounced turns into an offering to that which is being sacrificed. It’s the very way Derrida himself has sur-vived (i.e. lived above and beyond his death).
To a certain extent, his last interview is his first manifestation of survival through another happy paradox: having survived while still alive.