Tom McCarthy and Simon Critchley in conversation: Beckett, Adorno, Blanchot, Comedy, Death, and so on….
Posted by voidmanufacturing on December 9, 2008
Interview with Simon Critchley, Senior Lecturer in Philosophy, University of Essex
Conducted by: Tom McCarthy (General Secretary, INS) Venue: Office of Anti-Matter, Austrian Cultural Institute, London Date: 29/03/01 Present: Tom McCarthy, Simon Critchley, Corin Sworn, Anthony Auerbach, Penny McCarthy, Victoria Scott, Paul Perry, Alexander Hamilton, Jen wu, Others
Tom McCarthy: You write in your book Very Little… Almost Nothing: Death, Philosophy, Literature that the task of philosophical modernity is the thinking through of the first death, the über death, which is the death of God. So my first question is: what is the meaning of this death?
Simon Critchley: It’s a big question. Nietzsche said ‘God is dead’, and that’s written on toilet walls all over the world. But he then went on to say: ‘And we have killed him.’ So modernity, by which I mean that social, economic and intellectual process that begins in the early seventeenth century, culminates in the fact that we no longer require God as a metaphysical underpinning for our beliefs. So the death of God is part of a historical process. And philosophy, at a certain point – it’s arguable when that starts – also shifts its emphasis. In mediaeval philosophy, human beings were creatures, and all creatures were dependent on a creator who was himself uncreated, the self-caused cause of everything, a causa sui. So God was at the centre of the web, holding the universe together. With the advent of the modern world that focus moves to the human subject – so that for someone like Descartes, the first point of certainty in a philosophical system is no longer the existence of God but the existence of the self. Now, the problem with that is that the nice thing about God and religion is that it provides an answer to the question of the meaning of life. It does this by positing something outside of earthly life, the divine order. So the death of God in a sense is unimportant; what’s important is that it raises the question of the meaning of life. What is the meaning of life if there can be no religious basis to the meaning of life? There are various responses to that. One obvious one is that if religion is no longer the realm in which the question of the meaning of life is to be thought through, then what other realm is? One obvious candidate is art. Art becomes the way in which questions of the meaning and value of life are articulated; and the aesthetic movement associated with that is Romanticism. In Romanticism, the energy of religion gets transformed into an artwork: an artwork that would reveal God, or something like God, in nature – but what that actually means is an artwork that would provide meaning for a human self. For the German Romantics such as Schlegel, the aesthetic form capable of bearing that question of meaning is the novel, and the task becomes writing the great novel of the modern world. And then different spheres take up that same challenge over the next two hundred years. If you’re a Marxist you believe that realm of meaning is fundamentally socio-economic, for example.
TMcC: There’s something that confuses me, and perhaps confuses Nietzsche as well. The madman who announces the death of God in that passage from The Gay Science paints a horrific picture of skies decomposing and it getting darker and darker all the time. It’s not a great joyous liberation; there’s an absolute terror there. But then elsewhere in Nietzsche there is a sense of joy, albeit an ambiguous one: we must go forwards in joyous terror and terrible joy and so on. So is Nietzsche ultimately happy or sad that God is dead? Or is he just stating a fact?
SC: What makes Nietzsche interesting as a thinker is that he’s full of a religious passion. Nietzsche’s real twin intellectually is someone like St. Paul. He’s much closer to him than to John Locke or David Hume. Nietzsche is traumatised by the death of God, because he realises that it’s a collapse of the basis of meaning. You find a similar line of thought in Dovstoesky. Dostoyevsky says that the only thing that keeps humans above the level of cattle is the belief in the immortality of the soul. The name for this problem is nihilism. In my work I’ve tried to place the question of nihilism at the centre of philosophical concerns. Nihilism is the situation where, as Nietzsche says, the highest values devalue themselves: Daß die obersten Werte sich entwerten. The death of God is part of that process: God has become empty, nothing. The philosopher who most represents that position, for Nietzsche, is Schopenhauer – what he calls ‘European Buddhism’. In fact we could think about the whole contemporary interest in Buddhism as a way of thinking about the nihilism problem: nothing has any meaning, therefore I’ll affirm the void, and I’ll engage in practises of the self – yoga, tantric sex…
TMcC: Is that where devaluation slips over into transvaluation?
SC: In one sense, yes: nothing has any value, so I’ll affirm the nothing; nothing is the guarantor of meaning. But Nietzsche refuses that: that’s just exoticism. So the task facing the philosopher, and also the artist, is one of responding to nihilism. What people always get wrong with Nietzsche is calling him a nihilist. Nietzsche is diagnosing nihilism in modern culture. It’s that question, the question of nihilism, that I want to put at the centre of my agenda. It’s not a question which is a central one for much philosophy in the English-speaking world. It’s a question that’s been deemed to be almost indecent, because in a sense we can ironise our way out of it.
Victoria Scott: Can you explain the difference between passive and active nihilism?
SC: Nietzsche’s like the bible, in that it’s a question of interpretation, and there are various ones. Nihilism as a theme is explored in The Will to Power, which is put together by his nasty fascist sister, so it’s a miscellany, a collection of fragments. Books One and Two deal with nihilism, and early on in Book One there’s a discussion of passive nihilism and active nihilism. My interpretation is that passive nihilism is the European Buddhism I outlined a moment ago. Another version of passive nihilism would be to say: Nothing is of any value, but hey, so what, we can just get along without any of this anxious metaphysical stuff. That would be pragmatism, as typified by Richard Rorty’s response: he just shrugs his shoulders and says: Nihilism was something that preoccupied certain highly-strung European intellectuals in the nineteenth century; we’ve got beyond that. Then there’s active nihilism. Some people identify Nietzsche’s position with active nihilism. Now, they’re not wrong, but I think what Nietzsche means by active nihilism is what would have been reported in the press of his time as Russian nihilism. Terrorism. Nietzsche picks up the idea of nihilism from the Russian novelist Turgenev. In Turgenev’s Fathers and Sons there’s a conflict between the nihilist Bazarof and those who defend the status quo. So nihilism for Nietzsche was about a conflict within Russian culture between a pro-Europe, liberal, reformist view of Russia on the one hand, and on the other people who believed in the creative power of destruction through acts of violent insurrection to overthrow the stale liberal order. These people called themselves nihilists; and they had an implicit belief in science. So Bazarov in Turgenev’s book is very into science -
TMcC: Just like the anarchists Kropotkin or Bakunin -
SC: Yes. So that’s what Nietzsche means by active nihilism. Which was then part of the drama of Turgenev’s fiction, and also Dostoyevsky’s. And there’s a whole story about how that version of active nihilism moves through to Chinchevsky and Bakunin and Lenin. In many ways Bolshevism could be seen as active nihilism, the violent overthrow of the established order. There’s a link as well between a scientific, positivist conception of the world and insurrection. Now, Nietzsche doesn’t endorse that position at all. Essentially he’s neither a passive nor an active nihilist. He comes up with a third option which he calls eternal return or eternal recurrence. Again, what that means is debatable. I’ve got an interpretation – do you want me to go into it?
TMcC: Does it involve Vico?
SC: No. Well, it could do.
TMcC: Go ahead.
SC: Nietzsche’s response to nihilism is the doctrine of eternal return. You could read that in a cosmological way, as a belief that the universe is cyclical and is going to recur. Or, as you hinted, Vico’s notion of cycles of history could be seen as signalled. I think that’s all window dressing, though; I don’t think that’s what Nietzsche means. For him, eternal return is much more of a moral doctrine. There’s a story told by the poet Heine about Kant walking on the heath with his servant just after writing the first Critique, the Critique of Pure Reason, in which he takes God away. He looks at his servant and suddenly feels so sorry for him because he’s taken God away from him that he writes a second Critique, just to give God back. The essential thesis of the Critique of Pure Reason is that traditional metaphysics, God, freedom and immortality, is cognitively meaningless. We cannot know whether God exists, whether the soul is immortal and so on. That’s the First Critique. Then in the Second Kant says: But we can still maintain the idea of God, or immortality of the soul as a postulate, a postulate of practical reason. So although I cannot know whether God exists, I can still act as if he did, and that can orientate my ethical activity. Nietzsche ups the ante and takes it a stage further. He says: Well, this is ridiculous. What would it be to fully affirm the fact that God doesn’t exist? To fully affirm the complete meaninglessness of the universe? And to be able to do that again and again and again. If you’re capable of that thought, of affirming that this universe is not for us, that we’re just here by sheer chance, and you can do that again and again, then you’re equal to the force of eternal return. It’s a sort of moral test.
TMcC: There seems to be not just an aesthetics of recurrence going on in Nietzsche’s thought, but also one of transformation. Transfiguration is a meme that he throws up again and again.
SC: Yes. It’s an almost physical practise: to be able to physically withstand that vertigo of meaninglessness and then transfigure oneself in relationship to that. I’ve got my doubts about that, but that’s what Nietzsche says.
TMcC: Now, the other giant of philosophical modernity is Hegel; and death in his work seems to me to be even more central and instrumental than it is in Nietzsche. How would you characterise the way in which death, for Hegel, is bound up with knowledge?
SC: Death for Hegel is a conceptual process. But that’s deceptive, because everything’s a conceptual process for Hegel. But Hegel’s notion of death would be that to conceptualise something is to kill it. So if I name this thing, this orange, that’s on the table here in front of us ‘an orange’, in so far as I name it and it becomes separate I deaden it. So in that sense Adam in the Garden of Eden was a serial killer.
TMcC: That’s Kojeve’s take on it, too, isn’t it?
SC: Yes. Language is murder. Language, as conceptuality, is the murder of things by making them approximate to us. Then it becomes a question of: If language is murder, if creation is murder, then what does one then do, aesthetically? Blanchot talks about the two slopes of literature: there’s one slope where the human subject comprehends everything by murdering it – which Blanchot would identify with the Marquis de Sade. He puts Hegel and Sade together. So sadist literature and sadist art would be the art which kills its objects by conceptualising them. So pornography would be that. The way pornography captures its objects is by killing them. I think that’s true: it’s not just an objectification of people; it’s a killing of them too.
TMcC: Within that Blanchodian schema pornography would be the model for all cognition…
SC: Yes. But then for him the other slope of literature would be a form of art which leaves things to themselves in some way. So I would write a poem about the orange which let the orange be the orange and would put the reader in the position of letting the orange orange. Letting things thing.
TMcC: So someone like Francis Ponge -
SC: Ponge would be the -
Penny McCarthy: Or Wallace Stevens -
SC: Stevens would be the greatest philosophical poet of the twentieth century in the English language, full stop – in my humble opinion. And Ponge, who writes these lovely poems about oysters…
TMcC: He writes about oranges too.
SC: I think maybe he does. And Rilke, Rilke’s Duino Elegies. What do you say to the angel? What you say to the angel is not ‘I’ve discovered the secret of the universe!’ because they’ll know that already because they’re an angel. What you say to the angel is: ‘bridge, bottle, orange, jug, pen’. Wim Wenders understands this in Wings of Desire: what appeals to angels is the ordinary. So art can be about the condition of ordinary things, and let those things thing.
TMcC: There’s a wonderful moment somewhere in Derrida, which I think you cite in one of your books, where he talks about engaging with the world as being like a dredger that goes through and engages with the sand beneath the sea but ultimately lets most of it slip back and ‘sand’.
SC: Yes. There are different ways of being a philosopher or an artist. One is by eating everything: this would be the model of Hegel. It’s a caricature of Hegel, and Hegel’s obviously better than a caricature. But Adorno has that nice phrase: ‘Idealism is the rage of the belly turned mind.’ So the idealist philosopher is like a ravenous belly that eats up the entire universe. The idealist philosopher or artist gorges themselves on reality and shits it out as works which declare the meaning of reality – whether that’s the great novel of the modern world or a system of science. The other, contrary model would be to attend to things in their particularity and let them be. Blanchot’s point is that we can do neither. So most art is characterised by an ambiguity. By the way, Derrida’s thinking specifically of a place on the South coast of France – I’ve actually been there -
TMcC: Les Saintes Maries -
SC: Yes: Les Saintes Maries de la Mer in the Camargue, which is full of mud. There’s a lot of dredging that goes on, as indeed there is where I live on the Essex coast. The task is dredging that mud. One version of philosophy would be to ingest all that mud and turn it into conceptual water, or bowls. Another version would be for the philosopher or artist to filter through that material and let that matter be. And in that second version there’s an acknowledgement of the impotence, or at least the limits, of creativity.
TMcC: You mention Blanchot. My organisation, the INS, is massively indebted to Blanchot, obviously. Not only does his work elaborate the irreducible, impossible paradox you’ve been describing, but it also conceives of death as a space and literature as a space. But I wonder if one could say that the two spaces are equivalent for Blanchot, or do they have a relation like two bits of acetate that slide over one another?
SC: Well, for Blanchot in ‘Literature and the Right to Death’ (he changes a bit later on) there are these two slopes to literature: there’s literature as sadism and there’s literature as letting things thing. The first slope is a form of murder – so that’s one conceptual death. The second, trying to let things be, is another death-like condition. What Blanchot is trying to attend to in his work as I see it is a relationship to a space of dying which can’t be controlled or appropriated by the human self. And so literature, for him, is the exemplary way in which that space is to be attended to. There might be other ways of attending to it – visually, whatever – but for Blanchot literature has this overwhelming privilege.
TMcC: I love that expression ‘attend to’. Blanchot uses these avatars that attend to it, most notably Orpheus. Blanchot’s interpretation of the Orpheus myth is different from the popular one – in fact, it’s interestingly the same one that Cocteau uses in the film we’re screening later this week -
SC: Oh yes. There might be a relation. What Cocteau knew of Blanchot I don’t know. What year was the Cocteau film made in?
TMcC: Fifty-something. It’s post-war, because the landscapes are unmistakably post-war. But Blanchot’s Orpheus, in going to the underworld, has not gone there to get Eurydice back: what he really wants is the night at the heart of the night, the other night, the night whose face is eternally turned away. He wants death itself in its full absence and deathness. And another trope crops up at this point: sacrifice. That seems an enormously loaded figure, or motif. How do you understand it?
SC: It’s not a term I’ve used. I’m very hesitant about that, mostly because of the question of the holocaust. ‘Holocaust’ is the Greek term for sacrifice, and is, as many Jewish historians have pointed out, a rather questionable way of naming that event of mass death. Sacrifice of what to whom?
TMcC: Sacrifice takes place within a proscribed system of exchange…
SC: Yes, exactly: sacrifice has a meaning that’s recuperable.
Anthony Auerbach: If modernity arises from the death of God to some extent – and then there’s an investment in Romanticism and post-Romanticism, in which death is the space of meaning – so in Blanchot literature and death are kind of equivalent spaces because they’re spaces of meaning, which somehow can’t be found in life any more – so is it then possible that the holocaust, historically, is the death of death? And that this is why the question is so stressed in our age: because up till that moment death could be that site of meaning, but the holocaust proved that it’s not what we expected, or what we hoped?
SC: Yes. Firstly, Blanchot is a child of Romanticism. There’s a wonderful essay of his called ‘The Athenaeum’ from The Infinite Conversation, where he puts his finger on the central problem of Romanticism: that it was about producing the great ‘novel’ of the modern world (be that an actual novel or, say, Wordsworth’s Prelude) and it failed to do so. So a feature of Romanticism is both its aspiration to a work and the fact of failure. Blanchot’s ‘Literature and the Right to Death’ sees in Hegel and Sade literature as work, which would be death; and then the other slope takes on in another direction with the recognition of failure. It’s very tempting to see the holocaust in that historical perspective: it would be a work of death.
There’s a lot of discussion about the uniqueness of the holocaust, or the Shoah, or whatever we call it; but it seems to me that that uniqueness could only consist of one thing: the application of technology to mass death. The curious thing about the holocaust in comparison to other forms of mass death – in war, or what was going on in Rwanda or Kosovo – is its dispassionate relationship to death. The Nazis didn’t really hate the Jews with a passion; they thought they were vermin that had to be exterminated, which is different. They didn’t hate them the way a Kosovo Serb hates a Kosovo Albanian; other forms of genocide seem to be premised upon that passion. What’s unique about the holocaust is the attempt to depersonalise and take the passion out of death, and turn it into this industrial process.
Now, we could see that in some sort of weird continuity with the ambitions of the modern world. This is how Zigmund Baumann sees it in Modernity and the Holocaust. Basically, there are two views on the holocaust: it’s either the outcome of modernity or it’s a novum, something new in history. I think both are true. It’s an outcome of modernity: as Adorno says, it’s a consequence of rationalisation -
Anthony Auerbach: A consequence, or a flip side of…
SC: Yes, the dialectical underbelly of rationalisation processes that we associate with the Enlightenment. Or it’s what someone like Fackenheim sees as a novum, a new event in history. I think it’s both. Now, that completely reorganises, and should reorganise, the way we consider philosophical and artistic creation.
AA: And reconsider cherished notions about death?
SC: Also, yes. If I could go back to what I was saying about Nietzsche: what people get excited about in his work is this notion of affirmation: an affirmation in relation to death. I can affirm the meaninglessness of the universe and the ultimate meaninglessness of my own life, and heroically assume that. There’s something almost disgusting about that thought after the holocaust, it seems to me. Adorno puts his finger on this quite well in the final part of Negative Dialectic. He’s concerned with after Auschwitz. He says that a new categorical imperative has imposed itself on humankind: not to let Auschwitz repeat itself, and not to hand Hitler posthumous victories. He goes on to say that the situation of the death camps is best described not by descriptions of them, but by, for example, the work of Beckett. Why? Because it doesn’t say anything about them; it doesn’t attempt to represent what took place.
So then there’s this question of death and representation: What would be the least disgusting aesthetic response to this situation? At one end of the scale we’ve got Spielberg and Schindler’s List, which for all its sincerity is a disgusting film. At the other end we’ve got, say, Remains of the Day, which is all about processes that are bound up with what becomes the holocaust, but it’s much more oblique. Or, in the French context, Landsman’s Shoah -
TMcC: That’s the eight-hour epic…
SC: Right. Landsman’s aesthetic, which is organised by lots of these concerns I’ve been talking about, is that he’s not going to represent what happened and he’s not going to judge what happened. He has interviews with, for example, an SS officer who was at one of the camps, and he’s got a semi-hidden camera; and the SS officer wants to either say he’s sorry or exculpate himself from guilt – and Landsman’s saying: ‘No, I’ve got no interest in that; I don’t care about what you feel. Just tell me what happened. What happened when the trains arrived? Who opened the doors? How did people get from there to there? How did they get into the rooms? Who put the Zyclon B in? What happened to the bodies? Who dug the ditches? How deep were they? How many?’ – these things. So there’s a sense in which that attention to factual description without representing the event would be adequate to that event. So to go back to the question: the way in which we’d be able to approach death is by not representing it, having an oblique relationship to it. So some cherished philosophical ideas of death, heroic ideas, would be gone. Beckett is interesting because he’s the anti-heroic figure.
TMcC: We were talking about Beckett at lunch. Paul Perry’s formulation of it was that Beckett puts all the markers in and then takes them away at the last minute. In the first draft of Happy Days, for example, the play started with a nuclear blast and a radio voice saying ‘Nuclear War has been declared; London’s gone, New York’s gone etc’ – and then Beckett just cut that but left the post-apocalyptic landscape intact. You get that throughout Beckett’s oeuvre. There are points where he almost spells it out, like where Vladimir says to Estragon towards the end of Waiting for Godot: ‘Can’t you see the bodies piled up in mounds? Can’t you smell the decomposition?’ He could almost be talking about Auschwitz. Come to think of it, it’s almost like Nietzsche’s madman in the market place.
SC: Or the farmers in Cumbria!
TMcC: Ah, well, this all opens up to another term I want to bring in, not least because I know you’re writing a book about it at the moment -
SC: Yes, it brings us neatly to humour.
TMcC: Yes. Beckett is also incredibly funny. It’s not a separate thing: his deep ethical engagement with this whole problematic and his humour are completely bound together. I mean, how do you see comedy and death as fitting together?
SC: They’re in an intimate relationship. Comedy is much more tragic than tragedy, I always think, and much more about death. Tragedy is about making death meaningful – with some exceptions: you could say that in Sophocles’s Oedipus at Colonus there’s a different relationship to death. But conventionally the tragic hero takes death into him- or herself and it becomes meaningful; we experience catharsis in relation to that and we all go away happily. Comedy is about the inability to achieve that catharsis. So either you can’t die in comedy, which is why Waiting for Godot’s a tragi-comedy: nobody can hang themselves and it’s funny. Or if they do die they pop back up to life, like in Tom and Jerry cartoons. Now what’s the more tragic thought: life coming to an end or life going on forever? The latter’s much more tragic. Swift explores this in Book Three of Gulliver’s Travels: there are the Immortals, the Struldbrugs, who are marked with a red circle in the middle of their foreheads, and lie around in corners having lost all interest in life and not even speaking the language they grew up with. They’re tragic figures. The worst thing would be not death but life carrying on forever, and comedy’s about that. It’s also linked to depression and all sorts of things like that.
Anthony Auerbach: But is the repetition in Beckett the joke? Or is that the real tragedy? This theatre of the absurd that just starts again exactly the same once it’s finished. Does that have something to do with Nietzsche’s doctrine of recurrence?
SC: What’s great about Beckett is that you’re given the high drama of European culture through a strangely comical Anglo-Irish lens which is much more pragmatic and down to earth. Beckett’s ridiculing to some extent. He would be interested by the idea of eternal return but Nietzsche’s laughter is a laughter of affirmation and ecstasy, whereas Beckett’s laughter is a laughter of derision, a sardonic laughter, which is actually much more tragic. Jokes leave you in that position. The philosophically most nuanced discussion of Beckett is Adorno’s by several kilometres. But what Adorno will not see in Beckett is the laughter. Adorno will say things like ‘Laughter is the fraud practised on happiness’, ‘Laughter is complicity with domination’. I think that’s a mistake. Blanchot also misses the humour in Beckett. The humour in Beckett is at the level of idiom, in the fine grain of detail. There’s all sorts of stuff that we might want to call ‘Irish’ – although that would be too easy, but something like that – and it’s that that philosophy misses.
TMcC: I see the humour in Beckett as being slapstick, too. That’s the element he’s getting from Buster Keaton. It’s sort of like Bataille’s reading of Hegel. Hegel is all about an elimination of matter, turning it into golden shit as you say; but with Bataille matter becomes ‘that non-logical difference which represents in relation to the economy of the universe what crime represents in relation to the economy of the law’. It’s something that gets in the way of the perfect Aufhebung, or synthesis, resolution. And I think that lots of the slapstick in Beckett is about that failure: the failure of tragedy, the failure of matter to get aufgehobt, to go up there and be sublime. We want to go to the heavens as heroes but we trip over our own shoelaces and piss ourselves.
SC: Exactly: we’re human.
Paul Perry: I’m thinking of Hemingway’s Death in the Afternoon. It’s a study of a bullfight. He talks about the suppressed humour of the horses which have been disgorged and drag their entrails round the stadium, a kind of slapstick humour. Then there’s legislation, because of the North’s opprobrium, which makes them put these leather things around so the audience can’t see – but the horses still die. But he talks about the act of seeing, and the audience laughing in this grim moment of the horses’ disembowelling. He’s basically also discussing death and humour.
TMcC: But Hemingway never leaves that heroic mode that Beckett’s left way behind. Even Hemingway’s clowns are Homeric figures. Now, there’s something that you, Simon, said about tragedy and comedy and immortality that broaches the whole field of time. We haven’t really discussed this yet. Heidegger’s work is all about time: for him, time is the horizon of being, and time is facilitated by death – decay and death is what makes time possible. And there’s an emphasis on travel – which is something that interests this organisation, the INS, as well. Heidegger has this expression Holzwege – and didn’t he actually compose his work as he strode in manly fashion through these black German forests?
SC: So he would like us to believe.
TMcC: Is it not true, then?
SC: Oh, he walked a lot. He was a great walker.
TMcC: But do you see him as relevant to the discussions we’ve been having?
SC: Oh, very much so. I teach Heidegger a lot; it’s a big part of my job. It’s always a complicated pleasure, because he’s the sort of bête noir of twentieth-century European philosophy. So in relation to death and time: the first section of Being and Time ends up with the idea that we have to get the whole of human existence into our grasp. He calls that ‘care’. Care works through a three-fold structure at the head of which is Being-already-in-the-world as fallen. But that needn’t occupy us. What he then goes on to talk about is that in order to get existence into our grasp as a whole we have to have an idea of the end of existence; and as the end of existence is death, we must get death into our grasp. So the logic of Heidegger’s position is that death has to be something we comprehend. So it’s a logical point on the one hand. On the other, it’s also a hugely pathetic point. Heidegger’s discourse on death owes much more to the Christian tradition, particularly Augustine and Paul, than to other philosophers. Nietzsche says that to be authentic, to become what I am, I have to shatter myself against death and appropriate that within me, and affirm it like a tragic hero: that’s what Nietzsche calls fate. By the time we get to Heidegger, the choice for him in Being and Time is either to choose oneself as a hero or to choose the ‘they’, the ordinary mass, as one’s hero. Heidegger says you should choose yourself as a hero: Werde, was du bist – Become what you are. Now I just don’t think that’s possible. I think that death is something that always slips from view as you appropriate it. I’ve tried in other work I’ve done to unpick Being and Time along the faultline of the question of death. But death is something that I cannot appropriate. Heidegger says: ‘Death is the possibility of impossibility’. Death is a human possibility – it has to be; but it is also the point at which I can be no more. It’s death. But I can assume that as a possibility, and it can become the basis for becoming an authentic human being. Blanchot and Levinas invert that phrase and talk about death as the impossibility of possibility: so death is what halts my power of projection, my power to do things. But Heidegger is still very much taken with this heroic idea of death. If you look at his speech from 1933 on the death of the allemanic patriot Schlagete, who was shot by the French in 1919 for refusing the treaty of Versailles and then picked up by the National Socialists as a German hero: Heidegger, who’d just become rector of the university and embraced National Socialism, talks about Schlagete facing the French rifles and feeling death great within himself, with the allemanic hills in front of his eyes. It’s a heroic death. Beckett’s work would be an undermining of that – which would also have a political corollary. You can see Beckett as a stoic or a resigned pessimist, but there’s a link in his work between this impotence, this inability to do anything, and resistance. In terms of his life, Beckett was heroic.
TMcC: He was in the résistance…
SC: He received the Croix de Guerre from Charles de Gaulle…
TMcC: But then he would refuse to discuss it. He said it was all childish japes: ‘I was just being silly’. And Blanchot, I found out recently – I was reviewing a book on him for the Times Literary Supplement – faced a firing squad: he was put against a wall, and somehow…
SC: It’s a wonderful story. There’s a pamphlet that came out in French in ’95; it’s just come out in English, with Derrida’s comments on it. It’s called l’Instant de ma Mort – The Moment of my Death. It’s the last thing Blanchot’s written. There’s an memoir of his political involvement in the vaults at Gallimard which will come out when he dies, so there will be more. Anyhow, in l’Instant de ma Mort he recounts how in ’42 or ’43 he was living in the French countryside, and for complicated reasons got hooked up with a bunch of people who were occupying a French chateau and were taken out by German guards and lined up to be shot. And they thought that Blanchot, because he spoke a more elevated French, was the proprietor of the chateau, and some sort of landed gentry; so he was allowed to leave. So others died while he got away with it; and one aspect of the story is his unendurable guilt at this; the other aspect is that when he felt the rifles aimed at him, he felt a ‘légereté de l’être’, a lightness of being, which was almost joyous. And that, too, is an intolerable thought for him. So Blanchot, the great writer of infinite dying, harbours this desire for extinction, which is weird.
TMcC: Again and again in this discussion we’ve come back to the thirties, the forties, the period around the war. It drives home how the links between these thinkers are not just conceptual ones: didn’t Blanchot, who had himself dabbled in right wing politics, harbour Levinas, or Levinas’s wife, a Jew, during the war?
TMcC: For me, it all crystallises way later when Derrida, in the late sixties, early seventies, in The Post Card, is transcribing a sentence from his notes in which he mentions Heidegger, a former Nazi but someone to whom Derrida is hugely indebted as a philosopher, and Levinas, and himself, both Jews. And he has a footnote saying: ‘I want it to be known that at this point the telephone rang and I had the American operator saying: ‘Will you take a collect call, a reverse charge intercontinental call from a Martini Heidegger?’ – who’s been dead for six or seven years at this point.’ And Derrida says: ‘No. It’s a joke. I refuse.’ But then in an even longer footnote to the footnote he writes: ‘I do accept that there is a link – a telephonic, or telepathic, or tele-something, link between me and Heidegger’s ghost.’ It seems an incredibly overdetermined moment – and one that needs serious annotation in any history of necronautism.
SC: And completely humourless as well…
TMcC: What, him not taking the call?
TMcC: But if he had then he’d have worked out in two minutes which PhD student it was playing a joke on him, and it would have closed the whole thing down.
SC: But it was a joke!
TMcC: What would you have done?
SC: I’d have taken the call and we would have had a laugh. I wouldn’t have written a footnote about it in an already overlong book.
TMcC: It was probably you, wasn’t it?
SC: It’s a good joke. If you compare the French and English texts of Beckett, one thing that stands out is the jokes. The ones he writes in French are pretty abstract. There are gags in there – but he’ll amplify the gags when he’s translating himself into English…
TMcC: By adding Anglo-Irish idiom?
SC: Exactly. Christopher Ricks, in Beckett’s Dying Words – which is a good book, even if Ricks has pretty reactionary views about literature – makes that point very well: what Beckett adds when he’s translating himself is a layer of idiom and humour. Which then raises the question of humour and context and translatability and all that. ‘Humour’ is an English word. There is the French ‘humeur’ -
TMcC: But that means something entirely different.
SC: Yes, it means the medical doctrine of the humours. The first recorded use of ‘humour’ meaning something jocular, according to the OED (which should never be trusted), is 1682. The first real theory of humour is by Shaftesbury in 1709, in a book called Sensus Communus: an Essay on the Freedom of Wit and Humour. For him, humour is about how one shares common sense, social wit. And it’s a specifically English language invention. If you look at Diderot’s Encyclopaedia, there’s an unattributed article in it, perhaps by Diderot or perhaps not, that begins: ‘L’humeur est quelque-chose qui appartient particulièrement à l’esprit Anglais‘ – something which belongs particularly to the English mind; and he goes on to give a summary of A Modest Proposal by Swift. Now the irony is -
TMcC: – that Swift was imprisoned for writing that!
SC: Well, that and that he was hardly English. At the heart of this English humour you’ve got an Irishness. Sterne was Irish too. So, anyway, there’s something recalcitrantly idiomatic about humour which resists translation. And humour is a practise by which we give meaning to all sorts of stuff, which I don’t think is fully colonised by, say, capitalism or any of that shit. It’s still something remarkable, and we engage in it on a day-to-day basis. We can’t render it – we just do it.
Anthony Auerbach: But is humour possible for Beckett? Because in a sense his characters are already dead. Is Beckett a clue to Adorno’s impatience about existence?
SC: Yes, in a sense his characters have already died. But within the endless pessimism of his prose, the imperative that comes back and back is ‘On, on…’
TMcC: I can’t go on; I must go on…
SC: Yes: fail again, try again, fail again better. There’s this sheer courage that defines Beckett’s work; this relentless determination to push.
AA: Without heroism…
SC: It’s sort of anti-heroic heroism. It’s a heroism that knows we can’t have heroes anymore.
AA: But there’s this kind of wretched monotony about Beckett. Is that a posthumous thing? Not being-towards-death but being-after-death.
SC: I see his characters as all being very much alive, in a useless way – which is how I see us being alive.
AA: But in Endgame…
SC: Yes, in Endgame, as Adorno says, they might all be dead.
TMcC: The danger in that play is that life might begin again. That’s why they’re terrified of the pubic louse and have to stamp it out.
SC: I’ve always thought that Endgame has attracted too much attention. If I were looking for a piece that summarises Beckett I’d go for Krapp’s Last Tape, which is both completely black and very funny and full of this Romantic pathos: at the centre of Krapp you’ve got this image of love.
TMcC: Floating on the punt with the girl…
SC: This impossible moment: ‘She is in my arms, my head in her lap, floating gently up and down in the boat…’
TMcC: ‘Beneath us, all moved…’
SC: So Beckett, for all his logical monotony (he uses logical forms in the prose to produce monotony), has these moments of real pathos.
TMcC: And pastoral. And to do with memory. That’s the ‘out’ in Krapp’s Last Tape: he doesn’t make a new tape; he just listens to the old ones again and again and again.
AA: Do you think that Adorno’s more sensitive to humour in Kafka than in Beckett?
SC: What does he say about humour in Kafka?
AA: The thing that stands out most from Adorno’s writing about Kafka is his interpretation of jokes. He doesn’t say that Kafka’s hilarious, but he still sees those as very important. Do you think there’s a connection between Beckett and Kafka in that sense?
SC: Well, Kafka is the man. For Blanchot, too, Beckett was nearly, but not quite, Kafka. The measure of anybody has to be to be Kafka. I think you can read Kafka in different ways. As a naïve eighteen year old I read the novels in English and got filled with existential angst; but then when my German got good enough I read the Erzählungen and thought: ‘How did I ever take this seriously?’ I mean, a man wakes up to be turned into a giant beetle!
TMcC: But it seems to me that in Kafka, often, redemption happens. It’s quite Christian. Josef K realises ‘Oh yes, I am guilty’, and reconciles himself to his death. It’s almost a heroic death.
SC: ‘Like a dog’. What’s heroic about that?
TMcC: Well, the deaths in the Iliad are pretty gruesome too. Look: Vladimir and Estragon sit around saying: ‘If Godot comes, we’ll be saved.’ But he doesn’t come – whereas for Josef K, there is a kind of martyrdom.
SC: I’d want to get much more Hebraic than Christian at that point. I think it’s about unexpungeable guilt. But here’s a good story: Georg Lukacs was not a fan of Kafka, because Kafka was a modernist and his fiction couldn’t be said to coincide with the ambitions of socialist realism. Lukacs was in the Hungarian government in ’56; he was the Minister of Culture when the Soviets rolled in and came in the middle of the night for him and the other ministers. So he’s taken from his bed into a truck which went out into the country; and he turns to one of his colleagues and says: ‘Kafka war doch ein Realist!’ – ‘Kafka was a realist’. So Kafka’s fault – that he wasn’t a realist – was made up for by the fact that reality confirmed him.
AA: It’s like Benjamin’s proclamation that the ideas of Kafka will only become known to the masses at the point of their annihilation.
SC: Yes… Philosophy is like Flaubert’s Temptations of Saint Anthony, in which Saint Anthony is prey to various temptations, the last of which is the Spinozist God appearing. Philosophy’s like that: there are are problems with, say, Kant’s philosophy – maybe thirty or forty which we could identify straight off. But what interests me is the way in which that system can represent a temptation, one that you can take on board. When you’re teaching philosophy you want people to be tempted by forms of thought which are not their own, and then to come to a position from which they can reject them. The idea of philosophy being wrong doesn’t interest me, though.
AA: So are you teaching temptation or aestheticism?
SC: Both. You want people to be tempted, and you want them to sublimate. If you’re going to do philosophy you’re going to have to spend eight hours a day reading books, which is the most bizarre way to spend one’s time; it’s a type of renunciaciation. But at the back of that there’s something else. Every great philosophical system constituts a temptation which is neither true nor false; it’s open to a variety of interpretations. A great text is like a machine capable of producing multiple interpretations.
AA: So what of this anxiety about truth? What’s the difference between knowledge and truth? Is it all just a game?
SC: No, not a game. Philosophy is about the truth. I don’t want to diminish that. Teaching the history of philosophy, though: is that the history of truth or the history of falsehood? It’s both. Plato was wrong about all sorts of things, but there’s a truth there in that it led to certain things that came after it. So teaching is about using philosophical texts to break down people’s convictions about truth in the name of truth. Students usually know what the truth is early on; you have to break that down, by saying: ‘Look, try to imagine inhabiting the world that Descartes inhabited; take that on board as a possibility, even if that conflicts with your intuitions.’
AA: I’m interested in Benjamin’s historical philosophy. It’s about an arrest of time: truth for him is instantaneous.
SC: Truth unfolds historically. We can have more truth by having different histories.
AA: Benjamin’s against that. He thinks history should cut into the present in a way that’s politically or messianically charged, and that philosophy shouldn’t be discursive, but rather an aspiration towards doctrine.
SC: Benjamin would see history as the history of the victors: Every document is a document of barbarism. That’s his response to a Hegelian accumulative notion of history. If I were teaching Benjamin, I’d try to show the plausibility of both systems. The notion of messianic time that shatters the present is interesting: Benjamin has this wonderful image of revolutionaries in Paris shattering the clocks – the first revolutionary act is to arrest time. It’s wonderful – but I’m not completely persuaded by it.
TMcC: I wonder if we could rehouse the whole question of truth, and of approaching truth, by taking it out of philosophy and rehousing it in literature. In tragedy, for example: Aeschulus has this formulation, in Agamemnon -
SC: Suffering to truth.
TMcC: Yes: the gods love us, and so they make us suffer – and the reason they make us suffer is so that we may learn the truth. It’s very straight-forward. That’s the formula of tragedy. It takes place in time, and time is the horizon of decay, whether this be in Faulkner or Beckett or Aeschulus -
SC: And in the past.
TMcC: In what sense?
SC: A mythical past.
TMcC: Okay. But it’s always this movement towards truth. And then in other types of literature – say in Kafka: the court of the emperor in The Great Wall of China is like the angels in Rilke or the gods in Aeschulus, the place where truth is. There’s that same impossible gap: I want to be in the court of the emperor, to be taken up by and clasped into its breast, so that I may behold it and join with it; and yet I’m not. It’s the same movement, the same thrust. So I wonder: is that rapprochement you get in literature parallel to the movement towards truth in philosophy, or is it one and the same?
SC: Yes. Philosophy doesn’t begin with people falling into ditches and looking at the stars. The pre-Socratics are interesting; but philosophy really begins in drama; it’s a competitor discourse to tragedy. Which is why Plato’s Republic excludes the poets: they’re the competition; gotta get rid of them.
TMcC: He says: ‘We’ll deck them in flowers and give them the best wine…’
SC: Yes: and then kick the bastards out!