Living Together Dying Alone

The only truly universal human community is the community of all of us who die alone together.


The first time the expression “being alone together” caught my ear, or at least my attention, was when I heard it used to characterize the experience of sharing silence with others as part of a meditation group.  By that time, I had a few years of my own group meditation practice behind me.  The characterization stuck me then, and has continued to strike me ever since, as richly apt and illuminating.  There is, in fact, nothing like the sharing of such charged silence as that of intent, wordless meditation or silent prayer to bring people together, including most especially people who, in the ordinary sense, know nothing whatever about one another, even one another’s names–and perhaps never will.  The practice of being alone together builds genuine community.

In fact, it is only in being alone together that we can build any genuine community at all, whether of meditators or of anyone else—assuming, at least, that genuine community is a matter of sharing things with one another, and not just a matter of having some common feature, such as skin pigmentation, say, or national allegiance.  Only what is not reducible to being a part of some whole, but is, instead, something by itself alone, apart from any such appertaining (literally, any “belonging to,” that is, any “being a part of”), can share with other apart non-parts, as it were, rather than just being shares of some one thing, like the market shares of a corporation.

In turn, genuine community is what first and foremost lets each one of its “members” truly be oneself, all alone, apart from any being-a-part-of something else.  Indeed, we might well define community, in the richest sense of the term, as just that:  the being together that lets each and every one of us be all by ourselves alone.    

Community is what lets us all be “alone” in the most etymologically original sense of the word, which is a condensation from “all one.”    The deeper the community, the deeper the all-one-ness, the alone-ness, the solitude (from Latin solus, “alone”)—and, indeed, the deeper the solipsism (Latin solus, “alone,” and ipse, “itself”) in an unexpected, entirely positive sense of that term:  “being itself alone,” as “it” is, apart from whatever “it” may be a part of.

In that sense, the only genuine community is the community of pure solipsists.


If we are not allowed to die alone, we are not allowed to live together, no matter how tightly we may be packed.  Robbed of mortality, we are robbed of community.  The capacity for the one is the capacity for the other.

In the 1970s the American anthropologist Ernest Becker and the French historian Philippe Ariès each wrote texts addressing “the denial of death,” to borrow the title of Becker’s book, which won the Pulitzer Prize in 1974, shortly after his own early death to colon cancer.  However it may stand with observation (originally made by Goya) that “the sleep of reason brings forth monsters,” it is certain that the denial of death does, as Becker extensively documents.  The greater the effort to ward off death, in the sense of our very mortality as such, the worse grow the resulting horrors.

In the 20th century, that century of unparalleled mass carnage that is arguably not yet over, the name Auschwitz became emblematic of the abyss of such horrors.  As Becker saw, Auschwitz was not built on death; it was built on its denial.

It is no accident that there was no community at Auschwitz.  How could there be community, where—strange as it may sound to say it of that particular place–death itself was not permitted?

Let me try to explain.


It is incumbent upon us to let one another die.  We are called upon to permit death to one another.

Almost twenty years ago now, my own father died.  I was at his bedside—at the head of his bed, actually, since my mother was sitting at his side.  He was dying in the part of our shared house where he and my mother lived for their last few years, with my wife and me and our daughter (our son was already grown) occupying the rest of the place.  Though he appeared unconscious, the hospice worker who was also there at the moment of his death assured my mother than at some level he was aware of what was going on; and she told my mother that she needed to give my father permission to let go, and to die.  She did, and he did, just like that.


Even without my mother’s permission, my father could not have held on much longer than he did.  Yet in the full, rich sense of the expression we so often use more thoughtlessly, without my mother’s permission he would not have been able to “pass on.”  Even without that permission he would have been passed on, we might put it, but he would not himself have done the passing.  Despite himself and his still strong endeavor to cling to life in order not to abandon my mother, he would have been killed by the processes at work in and upon him.   But he would not himself have died, which required his act, even if “only” the act of acquiescence in the running to their end of those same processes—the prayerful act of giving his consent—his “amen,” his “so be it”–to what was to be.  My mother’s permission was required, to free my father to die.

Each of us is in the world all alone–note the redundancy of that expression:  “all all one”–in the face of our ever-pending deaths.  However, in that aloneness we are all together, depending on one another to be allowed permission to be all alone.  To permit is to send or let go (Latin mittere) through (Latin per), and death is the something we can only go through when we are sent or let so to go.  Allow comes from Middle English , where it is has the sense of “commend, sanction.”  We must be commended to death, which is to say turned over into its hands (in accord with the etymology of the word commend), and sanctioned to die, in the positive sense whereby to sanction is to authorize or empower someone to do something, if we are not just to perish—not just to be pushed over our border despite ourselves, instead of acquiescing in the passage, which means in our own coming to term, like a baby in the womb.   If, instead, we are ourselves to die, to make our own dying truly be our own, as my father was finally able to do, then we must first be permitted or allowed to do so, as my mother gave my father such permission to do, allowing him his own death.


A friend of mine used to like to quote a line that says “the avalanche rumbles despite our prayers.”  It does.  But there is a sense worth noting in which even the avalanche depends upon us in order truly to rumble, as it were.  That is a sense that Heidegger, above all, struggled to illuminate throughout his works.  It is the sense in which whatever is awaits the letting-be that comes to it only in language, whose thrall is the human being, itself called forth to be only in such service.  In that way, even the avalanche needs our prayer—our “permission,” our “So be it!”—if it is ever fully to come into its own rumble, which it always and only still does altogether “despite us,” which is to say without regard to our desires, wishes, and whims.

But in the case of that which literally delimits the human being—above all, death itself– the need for permission, for being sent or let through, is even greater, assuming that such comparatives even make any sense at all any longer here.  What is more, the nature of being human is such that we can never grant ourselves our own permission to be who and what we are delimited (that is, determined by our limits) to be.

Heidegger’s work can cast light upon these connections too, though I will not pursue that here.  At any rate, what is at issue is exemplified for me personally in my experience of my own father’s dying, as I have just recounted.  My father’s death waited upon his own final prayer of acquiescence, his own “So be it!” to his own passing, to become truly his death.  For that in turn, however, my father’s death also waited upon my mother, with whom he shared his life, to set him free to enact that final acquiescence of his own, and thereby actively to die his own death.   My father’s dying required two prayers, as it were–one from my mother, clearing the way for the other, from my father.

As in my father’s case, the commendation to death can come through some one person, one close and dear to the one who dies, and who, by very reason of the closeness and dearness, must loose the bonds that bind the dying one to life, letting that one go, to let go of life in turn.  Or the sanction may be extended anonymously, perhaps occasioned by no more than the recollection in peace of all those who have preceded one in dying.  In any case, permission must be both given and received, if one is to make one’s death one’s own.

This sanctioning of death entails an annulment of all sanctions against it—a cancellation of all debts marked to be paid before release is granted.  If such debts remain un-cancelled, those pushed over the border into death have no other option than to go on haunting the living.  The visitation will go on until release is finally granted.  The dead can be bound to death only by being released from the bonds that bind them from it.


Our life together with one another is always mediated by social institutions–or not so much mediated by as constituted by and consisting of them.  The institutions whereby we face, or attempt to surround, death are particularly important on that score.  It is how we are with one another in the face of death that first and last decides whether and, if so, how we are together at all—that is, decides whether and, if so, how we are as a community.

Our contemporary institutions for what Becker calls the denial, and what we might more tellingly call the dis-allowal, of death, are as such also institutions that deny or dis-allow community.  They are, then, really a sort of anti-institution:  they demolish community, rather than institute it.

In The Hour of Our Death Philippe Ariés gives us strikingly contrasting examples throughout, especially, the European Middle Ages of a vary different way of being alone together facing death.  A prime example is that of entire families gathered around deathbeds, accompanying solitary dying family members to the very border of their solitude, and then, by and in the very fact of their presence all around the bed, even if no word of permission is uttered, granting the dying opportunity to cross over that border and altogether out of that solitude—and the singularity of themselves defined by it.   Such practices find echoes, if not recoveries, in experiences made possible by the modern hospice movement, such as mine at my father’s death.


All the countless dead and still dying who have been denied or disallowed their own deaths continue to haunt us—all of us, each and every one—reminding us that only all together can we all die alone.  All the denied dead and still disallowed dying call out to us to grant them peace at last, by sanctioning them to die and commending them to the grave.*

May we heed their call, lest otherwise we only perish ourselves.

* Just what forms granting others permission to die can take towards those already dead—that is, just how the still living can release the already disallowed dead from their haunting—is a difficult matter I may eventually take up in some later post.

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Lifton and “Superpower Syndrome” Continued


This is the second post on Robert J. Lifton’s Super Power Syndrome–and the last of a series of eight consecutive posts overall about his thought.


Friday, November 21, 2008

Lifton, p. 152, on Bush’s response right after 9/11: 

The debt to the dead, and to the immediate survivors representing them, was instantly transformed into a strong impulse toward retaliative action.  Such a sequence is hardly unusual, and could be the experience of any national leader.  The danger a leader faces is that of equating a sense of debt to the dead with fierce, amorphous retribution.”

P. 175:  The Bush vision of spreading “freedom” and “democracy” across the globe is, in Lifton’s analysis, one of “fluid world control, . . . nothing less than an inclusive claim to the ownership of history.”  “Yet,” as he observes a few pages later (p. 178),

a sense of megalomania and omnipotence,  whether in an individual or a superpower, must sooner or later lead not to glory but collapse.  The ownership of history is a fantasy in the extreme.  Infinite power and control is a temptation that is as self-destructive as  it is dazzling–still another  version of the ownership  of death.

And, as he importantly notes later on that same page, such dreams/assertions of (fantastic) power tend to be underlain by “profound feelings of powerlessness and emptiness.”  He even more powerfully concludes that paragraph as follows:  “Fear of being out of control can lead to  the most aggressive efforts at total control of everyone else.”

Robert J. Lifton on “Superpower Syndrome”


Following up on the series of my six preceding posts on Robert J. Lifton’s The Nazi Doctors, this is the first of two posts on a later work of the same author, written after 9/11–Super Power Syndrome:  America’s Apocalyptic Confrontation with the World (New York:  Thunder’s Mouth Press/Nation Books, 2003).  I first wrote the entry below in my philosophical journal on the date indicated.


Thursday, November 20, 2008

Lifton, Super Power Syndrome, p. 19:  “The image of apocalypse has been so much with us because we are meaning-hungry creatures who know that we die, and we fervently seek a place for our deaths in the cosmic order.  Individual deaths, when associated with the death and rebirth of the world, can take on special significance and high nobility.”

Against that, the acknowledgement that all death is in vaincould help.  [That is my observation, not Lifton’s.]

P. 22–When apocalyptic ideas take on an interventionist activism:

The evil being confronted is viewed as something like an enemy army, which must not only be defeated but, since ever ready to regroup, annihilated.  For that task one requires what the writer James Carroll calls “god-sponsored violence”–violence that is both unlimited and holy.  As individuals and as a group, then, apocalyptics merge with God in the claim to ownership of death.  That is, they claim the right not only to murderous purification but to make all judgments concerning who is to die and who is to be permitted to survive.  This ownership of death comes to include ownership of meaning and of all aspects of life.

Perhaps all claims to ownership finally involve, as their inner sense, the claim to such ownership of death.


Pp. 140-141, on “what I call death guilt (frequently termed ‘survivor guilt’)”: 

Death guilt has to do with others dying and not oneself, or with remaining alive when one  has been close to death (and was “supposed” to die).  It has to do with what I would call failed enactment:  one’s inability at the moment of the disaster to act in the way one would have expected of oneself (saving people, resisting the  perpetrators), or even to have experienced the expectable and appropriate emotions (strong compassion for victims, rage toward perpetrators).  Death guilt begins with, and is sustained by, this “failure”; the memory can be endlessly repeated psychologically, and although somewhat ameliorated over time, is never completely erased.

As this passage indicates (and as Lifton suggests even more strongly in a note at the bottom of the same page, where he writes:  “There has been much confusion over ‘survivor guilt’ and related terms because they can be erroneously understood to suggest actual  wrongdoing, as opposed to guilt feelings, which are psychological manifestations of self-condemnation, however undeserved”), in this recent work, Lifton drops what I take to be fruitful indications in his earlier book Broken Connections that “survivor guilt” is a non-pathological form–or at least can be–of guilt, rather than involving a split between experienced and “real” guilt.

Here, then, he falls back on an equation of guilt with “wrongdoing.”  Thus, in the very next line on p. 141 he writes, “Guilt feelings [of “death guilt”] are closely bound up with a sense of debt to the dead, a debt that can never quite be repaid.”  So, here, he splits “guilt” and “debt,” which he connected, on the basis of their common etymological German root [the common root of Schuld (guilt) and Schulden (debts)], in Broken Connections.

Final Remarks on Jean-Luc Nancy


This is the third consecutive post I have devoted to French philosopher Jean-Luc Nancy’s ongoing project of rereading Christianity–rereading it in a way I find very suggestive for the study of trauma.  Today’s post contains my philosophical journal entries, first written on the dates indicated below, on Nancy’s Dis-Enclosure:  The Deconstruction of Christianity, translated by Bettina Bergo, Gabriel Malenfant, and Michael B. Smith (New York:  Fordham University Press, 2008).

 One of the reasons for the strong appeal Nancy’s effort at recovering Christianity (largely from itself) has for me, lies in his consistent, insistent rejection of any sort of cheap and easy “redemption” or “salvation.”  So, for example, on page 20 of Dis-Enclosure he writes:  “If I am undertaking, at present, a meditation on monotheism, it is not to seek in it some way out, some remedy or salvation.  ‘Salvation’ represents, on the contrary [to what he is attempting], the confirmation of the world of nihilism by the necessity of the redemption that it asserts.”  In Dis-Enclosure and elsewhere, Nancy is careful repeatedly to reject any redemption or salvation so conceived.  Accordingly, his thought makes room for, and thereby respects, the lesson that the Holocaust, the definitive “historical trauma,” and, indeed, that trauma in general, teaches–the lesson that there is no such “redemption” possible, as I have explored in some of my earlier posts at this site.

A little later in the book, in a critical reading of Heidegger in and as a chapter called “On a Divine Wink [German for “hint”],” Nancy also provides grounds for thought on the connection between the Wink or hint, translation (which winkt or hints when it makes an exception for an “untranslatable” word, such as “Wink” itself, just as it functions in the title of Nancy’s essay–and as he perfectly well knows), and sovereignty, which especially today attempts to establish itself on the declaration of “exceptions” to the presumed rule of law, exceptions necessitated by such public or historical traumas as the attacks of September 11, 2001.  (To cite Carl Schmitt’s famous definition, “Sovereign is he who decides the exception.”) 

Thus, Nancy writes on page 106:  “The exception of the untranslatable constitutes the law of translation. . . . Where there is exception, there is sovereignty.  What is sovereign is the idiom that declares itself to be untranslatable.”  Then, in the very next paragraph (on page 107), he goes on to write:  “Sovereign is the translator who decides to suspend the translation, leaving instead the word in the original.”  Then he proceeds to express a double connection between the Wink and sovereignty: 

Thus we can establish, on the one hand, that the Wink is sovereign, and on the other, correlatively, that the sovereign winkt. . . . Nothing is more specifically characteristic of sovereign majesty than the frown, the wink, the expression said to be ‘imperceptible,’ the reply to which is called a ‘sign of complicity,’ in the sense that, in that complicity, connivance precedes and exceeds understanding, in the sense that complicity has already understood whatever it is that has not been openly offered up to the understanding, but is expected.  The Wink opens an expectation at the same time as an impatience to which the decision to understand without waiting, in the twinkling of an eye, responds.

In his essay on the Wink Nancy connects Heidegger’s notion of “the last God” as the God who winkt, with  Derrida’s différance (the ordinary spelling of which, in French as in English, uses an e where Derrida writes, instead, an a)–noting in the process that the a in différance is itself a Wink (the very difference to which it calls attention can only be indicated in writing, since as pronounced in French there is no difference between the word written with an a and written with an e)–and with the idea of what passes by, as Heidegger says “the last god” passes by and is the last god only in so passing.  In that connection (of connections) itself, Nancy sees a Wink that opens upon “another sense”–a sense other than that of sovereignty, including, especially and essentially (since, as Derrida taught in Speech and Phenomena, there can be no “meaning” without “indication,” which is to say without any winken that opens the space for “signification”) the sovereignty of “meaning” itself (of that very sense of sense).

On page 113, Nancy writes, on this “other sense”: 

It is not the sense of the other or of an other [as in, say, Levinas], but the other of sense and an other sense, an always other sense that begins freelyif freedom consists in the beginning, and not in the completion, of a new series of events, a new sending back and forth of sense.  This inaugural and never terminal freedom accedes to that excess of sense–which is its sense, which is to say also the sense of being–as if to a climax, a supreme or a sublime that we cannot (and this is precisely the point) call “supreme being,” and that corresponds rather to the suspension of the supreme or of the foundation by which sovereignty declares itself.

This other sense is–to use the title of the next chapter from Nancy’s book, which reflects on a notion of Roland Barthes’, as the preceding essay does on a notion of Heidegger’s–“an exempting from sense.”  Nancy observes (pages 125-126) that to “exempt” is “to relieve of an obligation, to free, to exonerate from a duty or debt.”  Thus, “an exempting from sense” requires (to make sense) that “first sense must have been posited at the level of an obligation, an injunction of some sort . . . an imperative. . . . We have to make sense and produce sense, or else produce ourselves as sense.”  Later (still on page 126) he adds that “the formally sublime dignity of the ‘person’ and anonymous monetary circulation [which defines global market capitalism, of course]” are but the two sides of the single coin of what sets (itself) up (as) the sovereign–and together, as globalization of market economics, constitute the process to which “the other sense” of the preceding chapter on the Wink would be “other.”  Nancy then goes on, still on the same page: 

The wanting-to-say [that is, the “meaning”:  vouloir dire, in French, which literally means “to want to say”] commanded by sense always consists, in sum, in a wanting-to-have-said (“I have said” is the word of the master).  An exempting from  sense, by contrast, designates a wanting-to-say [a “meaning”] in which the wanting melts into the saying and gives up wanting, so that sense is absent and makes sense beyond sense.

“There is no sense that is not shared,” Nancy has said already, at the start of his essay on an exemption from sense.  Returning to that observation on the last page of the same essay he writes:

Sense is shared or it does not exist.  The contrasting couple of the exclusive ineffable and the general equivalent, or, if you prefer, of negative theology and monetary ontology, is the result of the disintegration of sharing itself, in which each of the two senses falls to a single side.  Unique sense, in sum, is always unilateral, and no longer has any sense for that very reason.  Nor is it a question of juxtaposing multiple senses.  Here’s the point:  What makes sense is one person speaking to another, just as what makes love is someone making love to someone else.  And one being the other by turns or simultaneously, without there being an end to these comings and goings.  The goal–if we must speak of a goal–is not to be one with sense.  It is not even mutual understanding:  it is to speak anew.

 Then, at the bottom of the same page, he ends the chapter with this:  “And there we have, if I still dare use this word, an ethics for our time–and more than an ethics.”

Nancy then follows with a third excellent chapter, on “Prayer Demythified,” at the end of which (pages 137-138) he writes the following reflections, which illuminate fanaticism as the most destructive form of the endeavor to avoid or deny trauma–though he does not himself use that term.  What he says applies not only to contemporary religious fanaticism of whatever sort, whether Hindu, Muslim, Buddhist, Jewish, or Christian–as in the murder in Kansas just a few days ago of Dr. George Tiller, in the name of the protection of the “rights of the as yet unborn,” as it has sometimes been put.  It also applies to Nazi and fascist fanaticism, as Nancy’s own remarks make clear, and to all other forms of political fanaticism, “religious” in professed motivation or not.  Above all, Nancy’s analysis casts light on the connections between distortions of language and the fanatical avoidance of trauma, just as his earlier discussion of the Wink casts light on the connections between translation and sovereignty.  Nancy writes:  “Fanaticism is nothing but the abolition of the intractable distance of the real [the traumatic structure of “reality” as such, in effect], and consequently also the extinction of prayer and all speech, in favor of effusive outpouring, eructation, and vociferation.” 

In contrast to all such denial and distortion, prayer as such, as he has been arguing in the essay on prayer that precedes that comment on fanaticism, is nothing but the lifting up, the elevation, of the saying that is prayer itself.  Hence, he goes on: 

In the elevation of prayer, a supplication also, albeit “accessory,” cannot fail to intervene, for in it [that is, in prayer] is revealed the “poverty” [of all human speech itself].  The fact is “poor humanity” may have nothing else to pray.  Prayer thus conceived does not enrich, does not remunerate the “poor humanity” that we today have just as many reasons to bemoan [as ever].  It carries poverty over to saying–and it isn’t poverty but saying that is obliterated in this prayer.  Does not the same apply (isn’t it the same thing) to the  saying of love, the saying of mourning, and the saying of speech itself?

However that may be–and clearly his questions function rhetorically here–Nancy concludes that to

concern ourselves with this empty remnant [Note that term!] of prayer, remain faithful to this obligation . . . , [f]or us . . . has the force of a categorical imperative, for nothing today is more important than this:  to empty and let be emptied out all prayers that negotiate a sense, an issue, or a repatriation of the real within the narrow confines of our faded humanisms and clenched religiosities, in order that we may merely open speech once again to its most proper possibility of address, which also makes up all its sense and all its truth.

Trauma calls for just and only such prayer as response–a prayer that lifts up trauma and the traumatized themselves, and, in raising them up, obliterates not trauma and the traumatized but the praying voice itself, vanishing behind what it exhausts itself in lifting up.  Such a remnant prayer, which expropriates those who pray–dis-appropriating them of all their own property, in order that they may at last pray properly–is the only proper prayer, indeed, the only proper speech, of those remnant communities, as I have called them, that are the only real communities, in any world of trauma such as ours.


What follows are my entries on Nancy’s Dis-Enclosure in my philosophical journal from last fall.



Monday, November 24, 2008

Nancy, Dis-Enclosure.  The second essay, “Atheism and Monotheism,” from page 25 to the end of the essay on page 28, is excellent.  In general, he is good indeed on the belonging together of atheism and theism, and on the identity (in Heidgger’s sense [of just such belonging-together, as contrasted to identity taken as mere belonging-together]) of the two as defining the West, but in these last few pages of the piece he is even better than usual.  Just to hit some of the highlights:

P. 25: 

Faith is not weak, hypothetical, or subjective knowledge.  [It’s not knowledge at all.] . . . On the contrary, it is the act of the reason that relates, itself, to that which, in it, passes it infinitely:  faith stands precisely at the point where atheism [as the casting loose, one way or another,  of God, if “God” names the principle of totality, as he’s arguing it does]. . . . This is the point Kant already recognized formally [see his critique of reason to make room for faith] when he spoke, for example, of “the incapacity in which reason finds itself, to satisfy by itself its own needs.”  Reason does not suffice unto itself:  for itself it is not a sufficient reason.

P. 26:  However,

the name “God” . . . in [an] atheological [sense, rather than the principle/God of theism/atheism] . . . refers to “something,” to “someone,” or to “a nothing” . . . of which faith is itself the birthplace or the creative event.  That “God” himself may be the fruit of faith, which at the same time depends only on his grace (that is, exempts itself from necessity and obligation), is a thought profoundly foreign–perhaps it is the most foreign–to the theism/atheism pair. . . . Yet this thinking is not foreign to Christian reflection–no more so than to reflection in Judaism or Islam.  Let us cite only Makarios of Magnesia [4th century].  “This one who does the will of my Father gives birth to me [Christ] by participating in this act, and he is born with me.  He who believes that I am the Son of God engenders me in some sense through his faith.”

Bottom of p. 26 he cites “the word that was in a sense Heidegger’s last:  ‘Only a god can save us now.’ ”  Then, top of p. 27:

It is not politically correct to treat his sentence without contempt.  Yet it is philosophically necessary. . . . Now, to “save” is not “to heal.”  It is not a process, and it is not measured against some ultimate “health” (salus and sanus are not the same terms).  It is a unique and instantaneous act [note:  a Heideggerian Event!], through which one who is already in the abyss is held back or recovered.  “To save” does not annul the abyss; it takes place in it.  (Perhaps buddhist “awakening” takes place in a comparable fashion, if it takes place,  right in the middle of the world and not outside it).

A little later on p. 27:

And the “god” of which he [Heidegger in the article in Der Spiegel he gave 10 years before he died, with the proviso that it only be published posthumously] is speaking designates . . . the “nothing other” for which philosophy is neither the site nor the regime.  That god, that “last god” as he puts it elsewhere–that “god,” insofar as every god is the “last one,” which is to say that every god dissipates and dissolves the every essence of the divine–is a god that beckons [winkt].  That means, it makes a sign without sense, a sign of approach, of invitation, and of departure.  That god has its essence in winken.  And that sign-making, that blink of an eye comes to pass, starting from and in the direction of the Ereignis–the appropriating event through which man, appropriated to or by being, may be disappropriated (ent-eignet) of an identity closed in on its humanity.  Man may thus “propriate” himself, address himself and dedicate himself (zu-eignet) to what is infinitely more than him-“self” [lui-“même”].


Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Nancy, Dis-Enclosure, “Opening” (first piece), p. 10:  “Christianity designates nothing other, essentially (that is to say simply, infinitely simply:  through an inaccessible simplicity), than the demand to open in this world an alterity or an unconditional alienation.”  Then, a bit later:  “Christianity can be summed up, as Nietzsche, for one, knew well, in the precept of living in this world as outside of it–in the sense that this ‘outside’ is not, not an entity.  It does not exist, but it (or again, since it) defines and mobilizes ex-istence:  the opening of the world to inaccessible alterity.”

Thus does Christianity itself become de-constructive.

Following up further (pp. 11-12):  “. . . the true scope of the ‘dis-enclosure’ can only be measured by this question:  Are we capable, yes or no, of grasping anew–beyond all mastery–the demand that carries thought out of itself without confusing this demand, in its absolute irreducibility with some construction of ideas or with some sloppy assembly of phantasms?”

Later on p. 12:  “. . . it is a question . . . of wondering whether faith has ever, in truth, been confused with belief.”  Indeed!  Then, as he correctly and importantly adds:  “In effect, it is enough to observe that belief is in no way proper [that is, here, “exclusive”] to religion.  There are many profane beliefs”; there are even beliefs among scholars and philosophers.


P. 36 (in third essay, “A Deconstruction of Monotheism”):

With the figure of Christ comes the renunciation of divine power and presence, such that this renunciation becomes the proper act of God, which makes this act into God’s becoming-man. . . . In its principle, monotheism undoes theism, that is to say, the presence of the power that assembles the world and assures this sense.  It thus renders absolutely problematic the name god–it renders it nonsignifying–and above all, it withdraws all power of assurance from it.


Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Nancy, Dis-Enclosure, “The Judeo-Christian (on Faith),” p. 53, parenthetically notes that in the sense of “faith” at issue in the letter of James “there is at the heart of faith a decision of faith that precedes itself and exceeds itself,” then writes:  “If belief must be understood as a weak form of an analogy of knowledge, then faith is not of the  order of belief.”  But first (right after the parentheses) he writes that, as such a “decision,” “faith cannot be an adherence to some contents of belief.”  At the end of the same paragraph he writes: 

Taking a step further, even a short step, we could extrapolate from James a declaration like the  following:  “It is false to the point of absurdity to see in a ‘belief,’ for example, in the belief in redemption by the Christ, that which characterizes the Christian:  only Christian practice is Christian, a life like that lived by him who died on the cross”–a declaration that we cold read in Nietzsche.

Perhaps there is, in that last remark, an indication of a genuine difference between Nancy’s articulations and those of [Gianni] Vattimo on the relevant point of faith:  Vattimo does indeed continue to think  in terms of what in the broad sense may be called the “contents” of belief–taking the latter still as a “holding for true” in some sense.  In contrast, Faulkner, say, in Requiem for a Nun is clearly no longer thinking that way at all, and his use of “belief” is such as to make it the same, I’d say, as Nancys “faith.”  More importantly, I think the reading of Vattimo on the basis, in effect, of Nancy’s understanding of “faith” would help articulate a less rigid distinction between “contents” of belief and “practice” of faith.

For example, to “believe” in the power of prayer could surely be taken to be “holding for true” that prayer is effective.  Thus, the latter could be called the “content” of such a belief.  However, to hold that “content” for true is to act in a certain way.  So one might say something such as this to an “uncertain” believer of a certain sort (a certain sort of “uncertainty”):  “If you believe in the power of prayer, why don’t you act like it?”  That is, genuine belief itself must manifest as and in “works.”

Similarly, to use Nancy’s own example, to believe “in redemption by the Christ” is to be empowered and sent underway into redeemed life, a life lived as redemption and [therefore] lived redemptively.  And that “belief” is as much a gift and a grace as Nancy recognizes [what he calls] “faith” to be.

The happening of truth!

On p. 53 Nancy writes:

In a certain sense, James’ Abraham believes nothing, does not even hope. . . . James’ Abraham is not in the economy of assurances or substitutes for assurance . . . . The reasons that this faith has “to believe” are not reasons.  Thus it has nothing, in sum, with which to convince itself.  This faith is but the “conviction” that gives itself over in act–not even to something “incomprehensible” . . . , but to that which is another act:  a commandment. . . . Faith resides in inadequation to itself as a content of meaning.  And it is in this precisely that it is truth qua truth of faith or faith as truth and verification.  This is not sacri-fication [making-sacred] but veri-fication [making-true].

Then, on the next page (54):  “The work of Abraham is the acting or doing of this inadequation:  a praxis [acting] whose poiesis [making] is the incommensurability of an action (to offer Isaac up) and of its representation or its meaning (to immolate his son).”

Yet “to offer up” is no less a “representation,” finally, that “to immolate.”  So I don’t see that he has succeeded in isolating two opposed ideas here.  Despite his parenthetical remark to the contrary [at least as I read its suggestion above], Kierkegaard and Vattimo are pointing toward the same thing he, Nancy, is himself pointing to.  Those are three different ways, terminologically, of pointing to the same thing, I’d say–though none of the three quite succeeds as an articulation, in my judgment.


Something in all this has just occasioned this reflection, linking the interpretation of Abraham and Isaac with the idea I recently wrote of, that giving birth to a child is giving the child over to death:  Perhaps we could read the story of Abraham and Isaac as a parable of birth.  Perhaps all parents are Abraham, and all their children Isaacs who are “offered up” by those parents themselves to “God” = to no-thing = death.  Giving birth is offering up the born to God = death.


Later on p.  54:  “. . . what James . . . calls . . . ‘justification’:  that which makes just, that which creates a just one. . . . would be tied first to faith in the other. . . . The just one or justified one would be he who lets himself be attested, borne witness to, in the other.”

Gerard Manley Hopkins [in the untitled poem that begins, “When kingfishers catch fire”]:  “The just man justices.”


Thursday, November 27, 2008–Thanksgiving Day

Nancy, Dis-Enclosure, the end of the reflection on James (“The Judeo-Christian (on Faith)”), p. 59:

What is changing, in the instituting configuration of the West, is that man is no longer the mortal who stands before the immortal.  He is becoming the dying one in a dying that doubles or lives the whole time of his life.  The divine withdraws from its dwelling sites–whether these be the peaks of Mount Olympus or of Sinai–and from every type of temple. It becomes, in so withdrawing, the perpetual imminence of dying.  Death, as the natural end of a mode of existence, is itself finite:  dying becomes the theme of existence according to the always suspended imminence of parousia.

Next paragraph, on [the sacrament of] anointing the sick, especially the dying: 

. . . unction signs not what will later be called life eternal beyond death but the entry into death as into a finite parousia that is infinitely differed or deferred.  This is the entry into incommensurable inadequation.  In this sense, every dying one is a messiah, and every messiah is a dying one.  The dying one is no longer a mortal as distinct from the immortal.  The dying one is the living one in the act of a presence that is incommensurable. . . . Death is tied to sin:  that is, tied to the deficiency of a life that does not practice faith–that cannot practice it without failing or fainting–at the incommensurable height of dying.  Yet despite this, faith gives; it gives dying precisely in its incommensurability (to give death, “the gift of death,” he [that other “James,” namely, Jacques–French for James–Derrida] says):  a gift that is not a matter of receiving in order to keep, any more than is love or poverty, or even veridicity (which are, ultimately, the same thing as dying).


Sunday, November 30, 2008

Nancy, Dis-Enclosure, in “The Name God in Blanchot,” p. 76: 

Blanchot. . . neither asks nor authorizes any “question of God,” but he additionally posits and says that that question is not to be asked.  This means that it is not a question. . . . God is not within the jurisdiction of a question.  This does not mean that he falls within an affirmation that would answer the question in advance.  Nor does he fall within a negation.  It is not that there is or is not a God.  It is, quite differently, that there is the name God, or rather that the name God is spoken. . . . If all questions intend a “what,” a something, the name God corresponds to the order, the register, or the modality of what is not, or has not, any thing.

He goes on to write that Blanchot also uses words

such as being (as taken from Heidegger) . . . . For them as well,  the question is not to be asked, for it is already deposited within them.  But they are words (concepts), whereas God is a name (without content [any more than any name, properly speaking, has “content”]).  The name God must, then, represent something other than a concept here, more precisely, it must bear and bring to a head a trait common to names as such:  to be at the extremity and the extenuation of sense.


Next essay, “Blanchot’s Resurrection,” p. 89 (first paragraph of the essay):

The resurrection in question [in Blanchot] does not escape death, nor recover from it, nor dialectize it.  On the contrary, it constitutes the extremity and the truth of the phenomenon of dying.  It goes into death not to pass through it but, sinking irreversably into it, to resuscitate death itself.  To resuscitate death is entirely different from resuscitating the dead.  To resuscitate the dead is to bring them back to life, to bring life back where death had destroyed it. . . . Resuscitating death is a completely different operation. . .

The point is, indeed, to let the dead be dead:  thus to resurrect or resuscitate death, and the dead as [still] dead.


Next essay, “Consolation, Desolation,” is a reply to Derrida on Nancy’s deconstruction (in Noli me tangere) of the notion of resurrection.  P. 101:  “Faith never consists–and this, no doubt, in any religious form–in making oneself believe something in the way that one might convince oneself that tomorrow one will be happy.  Faith can only consist, by definition, in addressing what comes to pass, and it annihilates every belief, every reckoning, every economy, and any salvation.”


Monday, December 1, 2008

Nancy, Dis-Enclosure, “On a Divine Wink” [Wink is German for “hint,” and the English “wink,” as in “wink of an eye,” is derived from it], p. 119:  “Such is the divine truth of the Wink:  it stems from the fact that there is no wink of god, but that god is the wink.  He does not do it, he winks himself there, just as he states his name in it, properly common and commonly proper–the name, in sum, of every person.”


Wednesday, December 3, 2008

Nancy, Dis-Enclosure, “The Deconstruction of Christianity”–relevant to my own thoughts on “survivor guilt”–pp. 155-156, arguing that sin is not a “misdeed,” but a “condition,” the very condition of the human in need of redemption (or salvation), and that there is a radical “indebtedness of existence itself”: 

Temptation is essentially the temptation of self, it is the self as temptation, as tempter, as self-tempter.  It is not in the least a question of the expiation of a misdeed, but of redemption or salvation, and salvation cannot come from the self itself, but from its opening . . . and as such it comes to it as the grace of its Creator. . . . Through salvation, God remits to man the debt he incurred in sinning, a debt that is none other than the debt of the self itself.  What man appropriated, for which he is in debt to God, is the self that he has turned in upon itself.  It must be returned to God and not to itself.  Sin is an indebtedness of existence as such.

     In other words, while Heidegger tends to detach existential Schuldigkeit [guilt] from the category of “transgression” or of “debt” (in the ontic sense of the term), I wonder, rather, whether that Schuldigkeit does not realize the essence of sin as the indebtedness of existence–“indebtedness of existence” meaning, at one and the same time, that existence itself is in debt, and that which it is in debt for is precisely for itself, for itself, for the ipseity of existence.

I don’t read Heidegger quite the same way he does.  More importantly, I’m not sure he is not still leaving less than sufficiently clarified the difference-in-interconnection of guilt as simple “indebtedness” and guilt in a negative sense.  Yet his remarks point, perhaps, to the nexus of that interconnection-in-disconnection.  Maybe it is something like this:  the basic “indebtedness of existence” grounds in, and manifests in, the closure toward “self,” which then and as such is the refusal of the debt.

The Devil at Noon: Care and Carelessness


At the end of the entry from my philosophical journal contained in my immediately preceding post, I cited journalist-columnist Michael Greenberg’s account of how the medications his daughter Sally was eventually given to stabilize her diagnosed condition of bipolar II disorder actually worked to “release her not from her cares, but from caring itself.”  My own closing remark after that was that what Greenberg was saying bore comparison to “acedia , the noonday devil.”  Today’s post picks up that reference, in the form of reflections in my journal about poet and best-selling spiritual writer Kathleen Norris’s most recent book, Acedia and Me:  A Marriage, Monks, and a Writer’s Life (New York:  Riverhead Books, 2008). 

In the writings of the Christian monastics and anchorites of the first centuries of Christianity, acedia was commonly listed as one of what eventually came to be most frequently known as “the Seven Deadly Sins”:  pride, anger, greed, envy, gluttony, lust, and “acedia,” which came to be translated most often as “sloth.”  If Norris and a variety of other  contemporary writers are right, as my own experience of the particular “sin” at issue certainly confirms they are, then that is not a felicitous translation, suggesting, as it does, laziness and an inclination toward inactivity, as opposed to busy industriousness.  However, one of the most powerful ways in which the temptation the early Christian writers called acedia often strikes is precisely as a temptation to “industriousness”–to getting up off one’s lazy duff and getting busy doing something!  The oft-cited monastic antidote to the temptation of acedia was precisely not to “do” anything, throwing oneself into business and activity, but was, instead, to “remain in your cell,” which cell, according to  the ancient anchorites, “would teach you everything.” 

Accordingly, as Norris discusses, various suggestions for translations of acedia by terms other than “sloth” have been suggested, among which are “boredom,” “sadness,” and even “depression” (from which, however, acedia, understood as any sort of sin or moral failing, should be kept clearly distinct, at least in any modern, medically inclined understanding of depression).   At any rate, as Norris’s analysis makes clear, what is at issue in acedia is just the sort of thing that Greenberg captures excellently in his remark about losing not so much one’s “cares,” that is, one’s sufferings and sorrows and onerous burdens, but one’s very “caring” itself.  Greenberg’s daughter suffers such a loss through no fault of her own, of course, but as the result of the medications she has been prescribed.  In contrast, acedia is an invitation to distraction to which one may yield or against which one may steel oneself.  What in the one case is a misfortune from which one suffers is in the other case an exercize in voluntary self-indulgence.  

Because in the monastic tradition the temptation to give up on the ascetic journey–to abandon the “discipline” (which is the original meaning of ascesis) of the ongoing, recurrent routines that make up the actual practice of the spiritual life–most often comes to monastics in the middle of their daily round of prayer, meditation, and simple manual labor, acedia was identified with the image of “the noonday devil,” or “the devil that strikes at noon,” mentioned in the Hebrew Psalms at one point.  But the temptation or devil of acedia can, in fact, strike one at any time of the day or night.  It strikes whenever one is tempted, often and especially with the very best of motives (or so, at least, are we tempted to try to convince ourselves,under the sway of acedia), to escape the day and the all too daily chores that continuing to care requires of us, seeking diversion from the necessities of care by throwing ourselves into activity.

Below I am posting two different days’ entries pertaining to Norris’s book from my philosophical journal, with the dates I originally wrote them, as usual.  As I note in one of the citations below, in her book Norris opposes acedia, traditionally (mis-)translated by “sloth,” not to industriousness or efficacious activity, but to love.  By fortuitous accident, the entry in my journal for the day just before I turned my attention to Norris’s book happened to be given over to some reflections of my own on that same topic, of love–especially in terms of love’s connections to forgiveness.  Accordingly, I begin with my entry for that day, followed by the entries for the two succeeding days, both of which focus on Norris.


Tuesday, October 7, 2008

As we can love only because we first are loved (John [in his first letter in Christian Scripture]:  “We love, because he–God–first loved us”; but the point can also be made in terms of developmental psychology and the importance of parental love for the healthy development of a child), so can we forgive–or ask genuinely for forgiveness from others–only because we are forgiven.  In that sense, the line from the [definitively Christian prayer] “Our Father” that prays to be forgiven as “we” forgive others, is a prayer that is already answered even before it is asked.  the very asking for forgiveness becomes possible only in, and from out of, being already forgiven, and functions as a sign confirming that very being forgiven.  Augustine says that our search for God itself demonstrates that God is already with us and has graced us.  Just so, even being able to ask for forgiveness demonstrates that what is thereby being asked for has indeed already been given.  “Before you ask, I will answer, Here I am.”

But if we are not to forget that we are already forgiven, we must enact, as sacraments [in the broad sense] (that is, signs that are themselves, in their actual signing or marking or making, “effective” of what they signify), the asking for forgiveness from and of those to whom we have come to be in debt.  We must, for our being forgiven itself to become “effective”–in the double sense of “go into effect,” as a warranty on an appliance may “go into effect”only once the original purchase is properly recorded, and [in the sense ]of itself “having effect” (“going to work”)–we must, to make our being forgiven “effective,” enact it, then, always by asking forgiveness from”God” and the dead, and also, whenever we have harmed others, directly of those we have harmed, thereby incurring debts with them.


Wednesday, October 8, 2008

Norris, Acedia, p. 230, cites a line from Graham Green’s “tragicomic novel of acedia, A Burnt-Out Case” in which Green speaks of “the grace of aridity.”  The character whose story is the novel burns out as both architect and womanizer, and ends up going to Africa and helping out in a leper colony run by a religious order.  He denies any spiritual motivation, yet the monks and Africans regard him as (p. 231) “divinely inspired,” and “admire his humility.”  In one scene “a priest says to him, ‘Don’t you see that perhaps you’ve been given the gift of aridity?  Perhaps even now you are walking in the footsteps of St. John of the Cross.’ ”  Then, a couple of pages later (p. 233) she cites “the Carmelite Constance Fitzgerald” [as Norris calls her on p. 232]:  “Finally I am forced to admit that the new venture will come to fruition only if, as Fitzgerald says, I can ‘make the passage from loving [and] serving . . . because of the pleasure and joy it gives . . . to loving and serving regardless of the cost.”  Then, a few lines later in the same paragraph, Norris writes:  “Commitment always costs, and there is a particular burden in loving another person, if for no other reason than the fact that this beloved will one day die.”  She is thinking, perhaps, about all adult beloveds, like her own husband, who died at 57 in 2003.  But what she says also applies to the love whereby parents choose to have a child.  As she herself observes (same p.–233), “this is the true strength of a woman willing to  give birth, despite the odds.”


Thursday, October 9, 2008

Norris, p. 265, commenting on the death of a spouse, but surely also applicable to the deaths of other loved ones such as children:  “Above all, I need to recall, even if the culture has forgotten it, the spiritual wisdom that correctly opposes acedia not to [business or activity] but to love.”

Yesterday morning, in our first regional oblate meeting after our summer break [like Norris, I am a Benedictine “oblate,” and in my case we have a regional oblate group that meets monthly], we were on Ch. 7 of [St. Benedict’s] Rule, on humility.  It came to me as I was sharing some troubledness about how the conversation was going, when one of us brought up the issue of how one is “humble” as an Auschwitz survivor, and we were verging, in my judgment, on some  [unintentional] derogation of those who did not survive–this [thought] came to me:  The whole issue of what is called for in the face of Auschwitz and–i.e., really–what truth it brings to us, therefore, can well be formulated this way:  What is it to be “obedient” (as I understand that:  listening, attentive to . . . ) in the face of Auschwitz?  (In Badiou’s terms,that would become:  How can one be faithful–show “fidelity” to–the truth that goes by the name of Auschwitz?)

The Lessons of Primo Levi #3


 The following entry from my philosophical journal, under the date I originally wrote it, continues my reflections on Primo Levi’s The Drowned and the Saved.   In the next post I will turn to Levi’s earlier book, Survival in Auschwitz, to complete this series of entries addressed to his work. 


Tuesday, September 9, 2008

Levi, p. 196, in one of the citations he gives from Hety S., one of his German correspondents, one for whom he has great respect, on Hety’s visit to  Albert Speer after that later’s release from Spandau:

 He says, and I believe him, that for him the Auschwitz slaughter is a trauma.  He’s obsessed by the question of how he could ‘not want to see or know,’ in short, block everything out.  I do not think he’s trying to find justification; he would like to understand what, for him, too, it is impossible to understand.

It seems to me that Auschwitz being a trauma for Speer too–someone who was never subjected to life in the camps, and who even exploited those who were sent there–is worth reflection.  What does “being a trauma” mean, if even “for him” too Auschwitz “is” a trauma?  Isn’t it only insofar as we can free the notion of trauma from the trappings of what [historian Dominick] LaCapra calls “historical trauma,” and realize that trauma is a structural and structuring or “transcendental” matter [as literary theorist Paul Eisenstein might put it], that we can understand how, even for Speer, it could  be, and indeed was, “a trauma”?

Interestingly, on the next page, ending his discussion of Hety (and all his “letters from Germans,” as his chapter is titled), Levi observes that “among all my German readers she was the only one ‘with clean credentials’ [because of her Social Democratic background and her own biography] and therefore not entangled in guilt feelings.”  Yet it seems to me that, understood as I am currently trying to understand “guilt,” she is the only one who displays a clear and lucid–“authentic,” if one will–sense of guilt.  It is guilt in one way like Speer’s-namely, a refusing to seek to  justify oneself in the face of one’s guilt, but, rather, struggling on and on to assume it, to live it out.


A thought that just came, as I continued for a few moments to read more in Levi:  Auschwitz is non-negotiable.

Also:  There is only one trauma, but the names it bears differ (Auschwitz, World War I, “my broken leg,” etc.).


In the conclusion to his book, Levi begins by noting that, as the years since the Nazis pass by, the message that he and other survivors of the death camps try to carry becomes harder and harder to deliver, as new issues and problems come along (he mentions, p. 198, “the nuclear threat, unemployment, the depletions of resources, the demographic explosion, frenetically innovative technologies to which [the young] must adjust”:  the new names of trauma, as it were).  Nevertheless–indeed, all the more!–he and others continue to speak and to bear witness.

“We must be listened to,” he writes (p. 199).  “We must be listened to:  above and beyond our personal experience, we have collectively witnessed a fundamental unexpected event, fundamental precisely because unexpected  [Indeed so!], not foreseen by anyone.  [An impossible possibility!]. . . . It happened,  therefore it can happen again:  this is the core of what we have to say.”

It can happen, and it can happen everywhere.  (How like Camus in The Plague!)

Trauma is ever present.

Lest what he says be taken to support the likes of Bush and Cheney, who would make of that an opportunity to inflict more of the same–as would John McCain, for whom 9/11 was seen as an “opportunity,” namely, for doing exactly what he supported Bush in doing:  going to war wherever he wanted, under the banner of the “war on terrorism,” even if those attacked had nothing to do with 9/11–Levi goes on (p. 200) to write:  “It has obscenely been said that there is a need for conflict:  that mankind cannot do without it,” and, “Satan is not necessary:  there is no need for wars or violence, under any circumstances,” and, finally, “Nor is the theory of preventive violence [as in Bush-Cheney’s invasion of Iraq] acceptable:  from violence only violence is born. . . . In actuality, many signs lead us to think of a genealogy of today’s violence that branches out precisely from the violence that was dominant in Hitler’s Germany.”  The litany of consequent ills he gives on p. 201 then even pointedly includes the founding of Israel:  “Desperate, the Jewish survivors in flight from Europe after the great shipwreck have created in the bosom of the  Arab world an island of Western civilization, a portentous palingenesis of Judaism, and the pretext for renewed hatred.”

All those ills, including the Nazis themselves, arise from the refusal, in effect, to hear the message that Levi and other survivors have to say, of  the ubiquity of “it,” of trauma.

Here is the ringing last sentence of the book: 

Let it be clear that to a greater or lesser degree all [of the SS and the other perpetrators of various degrees] were responsible, but it must be just as clear that behind their responsibility stands that great majority of Germans who accepted in the beginning out of metal laziness, myopic calculation, stupidity, and national pride the ‘beautiful words’ [as another German correspondent, not Hety, called them in a letter to Levi] of Corporal Hitler, followed him as long as luck and the lack of  scruples favored him, were swept away by his ruin, afflicted by deaths, misery, and remorse, and rehabilitated a few years later as the result of an unprincipled political game.

That last remark shows how the accumulation of guilt does not stop even with the Germans, or with the end of the camps, but continues to be deepened to this day.  Here, the guilt at issue–our universal, transcendental guiltiness itself–is indeed a matter of blame, not just of debt.

Our Relationships to the Dead: Some Remarks on Heidegger, Sartre, and Psychoanalysis


Today’s post contain entries, written earlier in my philosophical journal, occasioned by my reading of Colin Davis, Haunted Subjects:  Psychoanalysis and the Return of the Dead (New York:  Pallgrave Macmillan, 2007).  


Friday, May 30, 2008

Davis, p. 34:  “By projecting the violence of society onto an identifiable group of criminals, the forces of order can assure the intelligibility of evil, deny their own responsibility for it, and indulge their inclination to violence in eradicating it.”

That fits to a tee the approach/lack of approach of Bush and his administration to 9/11.


Sunday, June 1, 2008

[He misunderstands both Heidegger and Sartre] on p. 52, on death and the dead, when Davis writes that in Heidegger death is, by Sartre’s critique [which Davis misstates, in my judgment], “too much the property of the individual,” [since] in Heidegger death would never in any sense be said to be any such “property.”  Later on the same page Davis goes on:  “Sartre differs from Heidegger in maintaining that a relation with the other persists beyond death.”  Davis bases that remark on a misunderstanding of Heidegger’s noting that the dead are no longer there “in the world” with the Dasein that remains alive and in the world.  Davis puts that, a few lines earlier, this way:  “For Heidegger, the dead are no longer part of our world.”  So far, okay–but only when properly understood, whereas Davis shows he does not understand it properly by going on:  “For Sartre, on the other hand, the dead are all around us . . .”  That sets up his already cited remark that the issue is whether one can still relate to the dead, once they’re dead.  Well, of course the dead are no longer “part of our world,” but for neither Sartre nor Heidegger does that entail we do not continue to be “in relation” to the dead.


Tuesday, June 3, 2008

Davis (p. 77) on Nicolas Abraham and Maria Torok (of The Shell and the Kernel):  “In their study of the Wolf Man and their treatment of their own patients they came across what appeared to be signs of traumatized behavior which could not be traced back to any event in the life of the patient.  This lead to their most radical contribution to psychoanalytic theory:  the claim that the patient may be the bearer of someone else’s trauma.”

What if those “signs” are read differently, however, as pointing to the “structural” root of all trauma, whether it can be correlated to an “event,” in the relevant sense (i.e., some datable occurrence), or not?  What if trauma is thought as, say, the surfacing of the truth of the lie on which the entire edifice of Lacan’s Symbolic, and all that goes with it, including “sovereignty,” has to build itself?


P. 80, still concerning Abraham  and Torok:  “The dead do not return; what haunts us is the actively known injunction not to know what the dead bequeath us.   What we suffer from are the symptoms left behind by the secrets of others.”  P. 82:  “It is not the repressed which returns to wreck our lives, but the shame of others.”  What this forgets, however, us Heidegger’s lesson that I am myself, at least in my “everydayness,” one of those “others.”  And the model of repression here is still based on tracing repression to  some datable “event,” not to a structural fault.


Wednesday, June 4, 2008

Davis, P. 89:  “To put it schematically, deconstruction is about learning to live with ghosts, psychoanalysis is about learning to live without them.”  Yet, as his own discussion goes on to indicate, that does not hold of Lacan; so at most it does for Abraham and Torok:  “The Lacanian analysand has to  learn that the ‘subject supposed to know’ in fact knows nothing, the Big Other’s most closely kept secret is that he does not exits.”

I do think, however, his critique of Derrida’s hauntology does have [some] weight.  P. 91:  “Derrida’s reluctance to cancel the debt [to the dead] and to lay the spectre can be traced back to a fear endemic in the post-postmodern world.  More terrifying than the return of ghosts may be the prospect that there is nothing to return, no survival, no resurrection, and no commanding voice from beyond the grave.”  Though the tenor is significantly different, this reminds me of my own refrain, in last fall’s trauma seminar [a seminar I taught at the University of Denver in fall quarter 2007 under the title “Philosophy and 9/11:  Sovereignty in Traumatic Times”], that “the trauma is that there is no trauma.”  His conclusion is good, on p. 92:  “Derrida is the philosophical  equivalent of the Big Brother contestant [on the TV program so named], willing to obey the ghosts’ commands even if he cannot yet quite discern what they might be.  And what returns, with the ghost, is the Big Other, the spectre of authority which we perhaps do not wish to learn to live without.”

A note, though:  the problem is not the idea of a debt to the dead that can never be paid.  Rather, it is the reduction of such indebetedness [to one] still calling to be paid, even if it can never be.  What needs to be abandoned is not the idea of an unpayable debt, but, rather, the idea that one should keep on trying to pay it anyway.

Items Concerning LaCapra’s Works #2


The following entry from my philosophical journal continues with what the entry from my last post started:  presentation of some separate, though still interrelated, musings on some of Dominick LaCapra’s works.


Sunday, March 23, 2008–Easter

(1)  At various places in History and Memory After Auschwitz, LaCapra writes of “secularization” as “a process of displacement involving at times a return of the repressed,” with what gets repressed–and, therefore, compulsively re-enacted time after time–being “religious” in nature.  Most especially, he sees such repression as is at play in, for example, the Nazi projection of and upon “the Jew” in terms of the return of religious sacrifice and scape-goating, with the victimization at play in the religious yoking of those two, the sacrifice and the scapegoat.

Yet might one not think secularization not as the repression of religion but rather as its liberation–releasing it into its truth, precisely by stripping religious notions such as “sacrifice” from their idolatrous formations?

Bonheoffer, Vattimo, and Girard?

Religion as the repression of trauma (see, e.g., Freud’s story of the primal horde and the murder of the father) and secularization as the sublimation of that trauma?  The “sacrifice” of the Christian mass read, a la Girard, as itself a milestone on the road of such sublimation–in that the Eucharist transforms the exclusion of scape-goating to the inclusion of the sharing of the body and blood of Christ as transformed (“trans-substantiated”) into bread and wine?


(2)  At more than one place (e.g., p. 69, pp. 204-205) in History and Memory After Auschwitz LaCapra argues that “not everyone deserves” (p. 69) to be mourned, “not everyone is deserving” (p. 204) of the “gift”of mourning–or, accordingly, even “a proper burial” (!).


The wisdom of AA, for one example, is that to mourn or grieve something [or someone] does not entail one is not glad to be rid of what [or even who] one mourns or grieves.  Even when an addict wants, embraces, and luxuriates in letting “the habit” go, there can be a grief and mourning to go through for that very “habit,” and for oneself as addict.

LaCapra might be able to learn something here from AA.

Survivor Guilt and Our Debt to the Dead

One of my current works is progress is an essay to which I have given the working title, “American Survivor Guilt After 9/11.”  In its current version, the first line of that essay is:  “America is deficient in survivor guilt for 9/11.”  To explain and justify such an apparently counter-intuitive assertion, I use remarks from psychiatrist Robet J. Lifton’s discussion of survivor guilt in The Broken Connection: On Death and the Continuity of Life (Simon and Schuster, 1979).  Lifton’s remarks are carefully considered and reflect insights won through his long, entensive, and widely influential work with such trauma survivors as Japanese who lived through the dropping of the atomic bomb on Hiroshima and American combat veterans of the war in Vietnam.  My goal in the essay is to use the basis provided by Lifton’s analysis, conjoined with Heidegger’s analysis of the inescapable guilt of human existence in Being and Time, to give a positive interpretation of so called survivor guilt.  A crucial step in that enterprise is to argue that all of us who are among the living have a debt to the dead that, in principle, can never be paid–and to explore the implications of that idea.

I hope eventually to make that essay available at this website and/or elsewhere.  Meanwhile, the following entry from my philosophical journal contains the germ of what I am trying to say in that essay in progress.

The entry was occasioned by my rereading a book by Alain Badiou:  St. Paul:  The Foundations of Universalism (translated by Ray Brassier,   University of Chicago Press, 2003).  In the entry I also mention a story by M. Scott Peck, famous author of the best-seller, The Road Less Traveled.  In What Return Can I Make?  The Dimensions of the Christian Experience, with Patricia Kay and Marilyn Von Waldner (Simon and Schuster, 1985), Peck tells how once in a restaraunt in the South he was served grits on the side.  He remarked to the waitress that he had not ordered grits, to which she replied, according to Peck, “You don’t order grits.  They just comes.”  Peck uses that anecdote to say that God’s grace is like grits:  It just comes.  

The entry from my journal is very brief:

Sunday, March 2, 2008

Badiou, Saint Paul, p. 77, on Paul on grace as gift:  “Dōrean [the Greek word Paul uses] is a powerful word; it means ‘as a pure gift,’ ‘without cause,’ and even ‘in vain.'”

Our debt to the dead is unpayable, precisely because their death is a pure gift to us.  Not something owed us, not our due.  The debt is unpayable because the gift by the (involuntary) receiving of  which (“involuntary,” because it “just comes,” like the grits in M. Scott Peck’s story) we are placed in debt to the dead, is always without  cause, always “in vain.”

All death is always in vain.  That is why we can never pay off our debt to the dead.