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Fools of Nature

2014/04/06 3 comments

Emerson’s loftiest prose appears when he is in the throes of skepticism. Emerson’s opti­mism is but the palliative for his pessimism. Emerson’s hope is most insistent when he most clearly sees the grounds that rule out hope. Should I browse, then, the final page of Emerson’s “Nature” (1844) and find that, “The reality is more excellent than the report. Here is no ruin, no discontinuity, no spent ball. The divine circulations never rest nor linger” (555)—should I find this, then I know, or may reasonably infer, that what precedes such a height is Emerson plumbing the depths.

The essay begins with an image of immortal, eternal, impartial nature, nature the judge who sees humanity and finds it wanting. Such nature is ahistorical, memoryless, a never-ending “tyranny of the present.” (542) “Here no history… is interpolated on the divine sky and the immortal year.” (541) Yet there is something mocking about this landscape, the mockery of its judgment. “If there were good men, there would never be this rapture in nature. If the king is in the palace, nobody looks at the walls.” (545) This nature seems to serve as illumination of the absence of any satisfactory humans. Humanity is too condemned by its own partiality. Emerson is quite clear that he turns to this image of majestic nature for “relief” (545), for something erect to counteract fallen man. But this nature is mocking, and unsatisfying. “But it is very easy to outrun the sympathy of readers on this topic, which schoolmen called natura naturata, or nature passive. One can hardly speak directly of it without excess.” (545)

Moreover, while this image of nature is supposed to provide relief from the endlessly disappointing partiality of the world, it is not clear it can even do this, for Emerson denies any division between the natural social. “We talk of deviations from natural life, as if artificial life were not also natural.” (548) The fate of nature is tied to our own fate: if we are disappointments, so is nature. So it is: “There is in woods and waters a certain enticement and flattery, together with a failure to yield a present satisfaction. This disappointment is felt in every landscape.” (553) The language Emerson uses here, that of the failure of satisfaction, is not accidental. Rather, it highlights the joint fortunes of nature and humanity, for humanity too fails to satisfy: “Our music, our poetry, our language itself are not satisfactions, but suggestions.” (542)

This doleful vision lacks only one final twisting of the knife. It comes in the relation between the knowledge of this vision and our ability to act. “A man can only speak, so long as he does not feel his speech to be partial and inadequate.” (551) To recognize this world for what it is is to sap the ability to act. If there is a villain in Emerson’s essay, it is the “sad, sharp-eyed man, who sees how paltry a game is played, and refuses to play, but blabs the secret.” (549) But what has Emerson been in this essay if not precisely this character? Has he not been stressing to us, again and again, not just here but in every essay, our inevitable partiality? What does he have to say for himself?

Emerson has a solution to the problem he has made so vivid. It is what Nietzsche would later call the “Wille zur Dummheit”—the will to stupidity (Beyond Good and Evil, §107). I was selective in my quotation just above; let me now be more just:

And when now and then comes along some sad, sharp-eyed man, who sees how paltry a game is played, and refuses to play, but blabs the secret;—how then? is the bird flown? O no, the wary Nature sends a new troop of fairer forms, of lordlier youths, with a little more excess of direction to hold them fast to their several aim; makes them a little wrongheaded in that direction in which they are rightest, and on goes the game again with a new whirl, for a generation or two more. (549)

Or, more bluntly: “Every act hath some falsehood of exaggeration in it.” (549) Life is, in short, founded on error. To act is to err, for without error, we could not act. A clear sight of the paltriness of what we do would kill any justification for doing it. We can speak only when we do not see our speech to be partial, yet, “It is partial, but he does not see it to be so, whilst he utters it.” (551)

What this essay details is the battle in Emerson between his sharp-eyed and error-ridden moods. Dewey liked to mock the correspondence theory of truth as the “spectator theory of knowledge”—yet Emerson has more right to apply the epithet to his sharp-eyed man, for that man truly cannot act, and must be a spectator. Dewey wanted a pragmatic theory of knowledge, one that linked knowledge ineliminably to action. Emerson, by contrast, is tied to the spectator theory of knowledge, and thus what might be called the error theory of action. It is the curse of the human—so I believe Emerson shows us—to be forever caught between the knowledge that reduces us to spectation, and the error that allows us to act. We oscillate between the two, without escape. Such is our partiality. We cannot flee from this partiality into nature, for nature too can only provide suggestions. In the end, all that remains is to act, but to act is to make the error of taking up a suggestion with the belief that so taking it up will, finally, bring satisfaction. Well then, “are we tickled trout, and fools of nature?” (553) We are. There is no way around it.

I confess that I find more of value in Emerson’s skeptical moods than in his optimistic moods. The problem of life I face, vanquishing sometimes, but never permanently, is the problem of acting when I feel so unshakably that all there is to life is paltry. I have looked long enough for a solution to this problem that would tell me that life is not paltry to retain any hope of a satisfactory answer—or even a suggestive one. Better to hear that the world is so, and to be taught the value of error, that I might bring myself to the point where the error within me is as strong as the knowledge, and their struggle in turn bring me some few lofty moments.

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Poetry and Prudence III: Emerson as messenger

2014/01/12 4 comments

Christianity, Kierkegaard is careful to tell us, is not a doctrine but a message. What does this entail? A message is to be lived, much more than believed. The individual task, for one who hears the message, is “living in it, expressing Christianity in one’s life.” (§141) Because of this, a message is addressed differently than a doctrine. A doctrine is given to a crowd that is asked to believe it. It is impersonal: it does not matter who said it, but only that it is true, and it speaks to all at once, regardless of who they are. A message, by contrast, is individually expressed, even when written—it does, that is, respond differently to different readers, contra Socrates in the Phaedrus. A message looks past the crowd to the individual. It is Socrates’ ability to do just this that makes him, in Kierkegaard’s eyes, more Christian than most self-professed Christians. “The great thing about Socrates was that even when he was accused and faced the People’s Assembly, his eyes did not see the crowd, but only the individual.” (§127)

The Bible, as the text carrying God’s message for humanity, is thus to be read in a very individual, personal manner. Kierkegaard laments that “no one any longer reads the Bible merely as an individual human being.” (§135) What is the danger of reading it as doctrine? It is that one attempts to sort out the precise way of characterizing the doctrine before one lives it—“always this sham that one must make sure the doctrine is in perfect shape before one can begin to live in accordance with it—which means that one never gets around to it.” (§135) But understanding can never precede living—as Kierkegaard insists, “temporal existence never becomes quite intelligible.” (§136)

Because the Bible contains a message and not a doctrine, there is a perpetuity to the Christian task: each individual and each generation must renew it. “The accumulated erudition of preceding generations is essentially superfluous.” (§141) Thus, the messenger’s task is not to draw firm, settled conclusions. That only encourages doctrine. Instead, one should “incite the listener to independent thinking”—it is for this reason that Plato, following Socrates, “does not draw any conclusions, but leaves a sting.” (§146) It is a sting that cannot be turned into doctrine, but can only yield further thought, further stings. (Things will be different regarding the message as it is presented in the Bible—which carries a special sort of authority—and as it is presented in Kierkegaard, who speaks without authority. But I don’t feel competent to discuss this in any depth.)

The problem of treating Christianity as a doctrine leads Kierkegaard to or past the brink of heresy: “Christianity has long been in need of a religious hero who, in fear and trembling before God, had the courage to forbid people to read the Bible.” (§135) I am only half-facetious—if that—when I suggest that Emerson may be the figure Kierkegaard desired.

Emerson is a messenger. He addresses individuals, and would spark them to change. What is his message? He is uncertain about the prospect of putting it into words: he thinks the influx of the divine is something ineffable, of which his essays are mere shadows. Yet there are themes. In “Circles”, he insists on the impermanence of all things. “There is no virtue which is final; all are initial.” (411) There is the appearance of permanence, but it is just appearance: “Every thing looks permanent until its secret is known.” (404)

The thinker, insofar as the thinker is a lover and follower of truth, must thus forego any hope of stability. The thinker must be prepared for reform, must be ready to “cast away our virtues […] into the same pit that has consumed our grosser vices.” (411) The valor of the thinker lies in “his preferring truth to his past apprehension of truth; and his alert acceptance of it, from whatever quarter.” (407) All may be superseded, the past, the force of habit be damned. The Emersonian thinker or scholar fundamentally unsettles: “Beware when the great God lets loose a thinker on this planet. Then all things are at risk.” (407)

Because the thinker can only unsettle, the thinker must disclaim all authority. Kierkegaard did this too, quite explicitly—he spoke with no authority; all authority lay with God. So too with Emerson, for all their differences. “But lest I should mislead any when I have my own head and obey my whims, let me remind the reader that I am only an experimenter. Do not set the least value on what I do, or the least discredit on what I do not, as if I pretended to settle any thing as true or false. I unsettle all things. No facts are to me sacred; none are profane; I simply experiment, an endless seeker, with no Past at my back.” (412)

Take at least five minutes to feel those words before returning to mine, I beg you.

……………………………………………

Emerson’s task must be understood with this renouncing of authority in mind. He does not write to persuade, but to provoke. Emerson attributes this task to the poet, but that is false modesty: any task Emerson lays on the poet he lays on himself. “He smites and arouses me with his shrill tones, breaks up my whole chain of habits, and I open my eye on my own possibilities.” (409) Emerson’s work is a sting, and it can only bear two offspring: the lives of those stung, and the stings to which those lives give rise. Sting begets sting, and nothing ever settles.

So there is an instability inherent in the Emersonian view, an endless succession of unsettlings, without resolution. In Kierkegaard, the Bible may provide some stability: as God’s message, it can serve as an anchor. But with Emerson, the Bible is only one more sting, one more provocation, and not the message itself. This is what we see in his Divinity School Address. For Emerson, the message is ever unwritten. All that exists is sting upon sting, sting giving rise to sting.

My title promises some discussion of prudence, so I had better deliver, lest I be besmirched as a man not of his word. Emerson is direct about prudence: “The great man will not be prudent in the popular sense; all his prudence will be so much deduction from his grandeur.” (410) And Emerson speaks specifically of the sacrifice of prudence to some god—not the god of ease and pleasure, for then “he had better be prudent still”, but “to a great trust.” It is a trust in his virtue, whatever that may be, and a trust that external circumstance will not impede him from living his virtue, that marks the great man. What makes this trust possible? The answer lies at the beginning of Emerson’s essay, when he alludes to two consequences of the circular principle. One is the non-finality of all virtues. The other is what he traced in an earlier essay: the principle of compensation.

This principle gives Emerson a source of security. While it is impersonal, his principle of compensation gives him confidence in experimenting at the expense of prudence. In this way, it functions similarly to the way God functions for Kierkegaard, who in his diary often thanks God for gracing him with circumstances that helped him to remain devoted to his task. For both, there is a layer of safety.

But what if one cannot accept either God or compensation? What if one is resolutely atheist? Kierkegaard suggests the possibility of being a Christian without worrying if it is true: “What a great help it would be already in Christendom if someone said, and acted accordingly: I don’t know if Christianity is true, but I will order my whole life as if it were, stake my life thereon—then if it proves not to be true, eh bien, I don’t regret my choice, for it is the only matter I am concerned about.” (§157) But this, I think, requires suspension of judgment, which I lack. I actively believe otherwise, so this road is closed to me, even if I wished to take it.

So here is my question: is such a sacrifice of prudence to the god of a great trust possible for me if I believe that there is nothing in which to place my trust, but only a cold, inanimate universe, a mass of atoms swirling in the void? But here I must break off. I have asked a question words cannot answer. Only my life can answer that.

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Addendum

This will be my final post in the Poetry and Prudence sequence, I believe. The first two may be found here and here. Many months ago I started planning a sequence of posts on this theme, mulling over them, gathering sources—and above all never putting any words onto any pages. After reading Emerson’s essay on “Prudence”, I decided to rescue the project from its neglect, mostly scrapping the original plan. When I began writing this post, I had no intention of its being—or not being—the last, but I think I pushed the question as far as it can go, or at least as far as I can now take it. So, I suppose, it is over.

Sources

I have looked at the following texts:

Søren Kierkegaard. The Diary of Søren Kierkegaard. Ed. Peter Rohde.
Ralph Waldo Emerson. Essays & Lectures. Library of America.

Nietzsche at Sea

2013/11/10 1 comment

Mindful of this situation in which youth finds itself I cry Land! Land! Enough and more than enough of the wild and erring voyage over strange dark seas! At last a coast appears in sight: we must land on it whatever it may be like, and the worst of harbours is better than to go reeling back into a hopeless infinity of skepticism. Let us only make land; later on we shall find good harbours right enough, and make the landfall easier for those who come after us. (UD 116)

What is it that could bring Nietzsche to cry “Land! Land!”? From what skepticism is he running? Above all, what is the mood of this passage, and of the essay that contains it? Might there be a situation in which Nietzsche could celebrate the sea and skepticism? (Citations to On the Uses and Disadvantages of History for Life, designated UD, are from the Cambridge edition of Untimely Meditations, edited by Daniel Breazeale. Citations to On Truth and Lying in a Nonmoral Sense, designated TL, are to the Cambridge edition of The Birth of Tragedy and Other Writings, edited by Raymond Geuss and Ronald Speirs.)

In both On the Uses and Disadvantages of History for Life and On Truth and Lying in a Nonmoral Sense, Nietzsche attempts to characterize the liberated intellect, which is to be contrasted with the enslaved intellect. To achieve this, he plays with the theme of the human/animal boundary, using it now for one purpose, now another. A brief summary of these uses will then be helpful.

The opening paragraph of On Truth and Lying in a Nonmoral Sense could not be clearer: humans are animals; we achieve nothing that extends beyond human life, which is just a sort of animal life; all we get from cognition, which supposedly separates us from the animals, is an ungainly and bloated pride. At the same time, Nietzsche does allow our intellect to separate us from the animals: we turn our metaphors into concepts—or, in other words, we let our metaphors die. In all of this, we are characterized by forgetting: we forget how language originates in dissimulation and metaphor, and from this we get our drive to truth; we forget ourselves as artistically creative subjects, and so we become slaves to the facts—facts that amount to little more than conventions we’ve established. Our truths capture little more than the relations of things to humans. The enslaved intellect erects these inventions into a life raft to which we can cling as we move through life. The liberated intellect, by contrast, smashes up concepts, brings unlike things together, and proceeds via intuition rather than concept. The liberated intellect is, in this way, quite animal.

Things are less straightforward in On the Uses and Disadvantages of History for Life. Nietzsche characterizes animal life as fundamentally unhistorical, characterized by forgetting, whereas human life involves memory and thus history. The contrast between the liberated and enslaved intellect arises again: the enslaved intellect treats history as a science, and overwhelms life with history. The enslaved intellect is chained to memory, and will not allow itself to forget even the slightest detail. The liberated intellect, by contrast, uses history in the service of life. Sometimes, as in the case of critical history, this involves remembering details and faithfulness to the facts, but in the case of monumental history, a great deal of falsification and forgetting is required. When the intellect is in chains, Nietzsche claims, we are permitted Descartes’ cogito, ergo sum, but not vivo, ergo cogito. We do not live. Instead, “the feeling that tells me I exist warrants to me only that I am a thinking creature, not that I am a living one, not that I am an animal but at most a cogital” (UD 119). Here the animal is placed above the cogital. Yet Nietzsche earlier says of the great man that his body does not contain his life, and when his body dies all that is left behind is “the dross, refuse, vanity, animality that had always weighed them down” (UD 69) and which was an object of his contempt. Nietzsche here seems caught between two tendencies: the one to lower the human to a place below the animal, the other to suggest something more than animal that the human can achieve. Some sense is made of this by Nietzsche’s later admission of “the lack of any cardinal distinction between man and animal – doctrines which I consider true but deadly” (UD 112). Nietzsche thinks the animality of the human is a truth that must be handled delicately, in a way that preserves and engenders rather than destroys life. Nietzsche’s oscillation reflects his attempt to do just that.

The desire to suggest something higher than the animal in Nietzsche’s essay on history is the key to understand his cry of “Land! Land!” In the finest passage of On Truth and Lying in a Nonmoral Sense, there is no such desire for land.

That vast assembly of beams and boards to which needy man clings, thereby saving himself on his journey through life, is used by the liberated intellect as a mere climbing frame and plaything on which to perform its most reckless tricks; and when it smashes this framework, jumbles it up and ironically re-assembles it, pairing the most unlike things and dividing those things which are closest to one another, it reveals the fact that it does not require those makeshift aids of neediness, and that it is now guided, not by concepts but by intuitions. No regular way leads from these intuitions into the land of the ghostly schemata and abstractions; words are not made for them; man is struck dumb when he sees them, or he will speak only in forbidden metaphors and unheard-of combinations of concepts so that, by at least demolishing and deriding the old conceptual barriers, he may do creative justice to the impression made on him by the mighty, present intuition. (TL 152)

I take the “vast assembly of beams and boards” to be a boat, for Nietzsche earlier describes it as erected on “flowing water” (TL 147). I confess also that I cannot help but reading this passage anachronistically, in light of Neurath’s boat. Neurath’s boat metaphor runs as follows:

We are like sailors who on the open sea must reconstruct their ship but are never able to start afresh from the bottom. Where a beam is taken away a new one must at once be put there, and for this the rest of the ship is used as support. In this way, by using the old beams and driftwood the ship can be shaped entirely anew, but only by gradual reconstruction. (I took it from here)

Nietzsche’s account of the liberated intellect is that of one who, instead of clinging to this boat, uses it as the springboard for acrobatic leaps—perhaps at the cost of destroying and sinking the boat. What is absent is any sense of reaching land. Neither Neurath’s nor Nietzsche’s boat ever reaches land: there is no indication that it reaches any destination, or even that there are any destinations it could reach. In this way it is like animal life: it serves no purpose, has no end goal. There is simply play, then death.

Nietzsche’s cry for “Land! Land!” is a cry for some solid resting ground after a voyage through the sea of skepticism. How do we end up in this sea? “The madly thoughtless shattering and dismantling of all foundations, their dissolution into a continual evolving that flows ceaselessly away, the tireless unspinning and historicizing of all there has ever been by modern man, the great cross-spider at the node of the cosmic web…” (UD 108). Nietzsche is clear: this skepticism is the result of the “concept-quake caused by science” that “robs man of the foundation of all his rest and security, his belief in the enduring and eternal” (UD 120-121). In so robbing us of all foundations, Nietzsche thinks that science may tyrannize over life, and life enslaved to science is weak and fearful. The liberated intellect and life should reverse this relationship and dominate science, using it to its own ends. And what is life? In great individuals, at least, the purpose of life is to “form a kind of bridge across the turbulent stream of becoming” (UD 111) and so to be a foundation for those with whom they live contemporaneously—i.e. the great individuals of other ages.

This is something stable, permanent, and eternal—or at least untimely. The vision of On Truth and Lying in a Nonmoral Sense is a lonesome, animal vision of the individual playing at sea, for no audience, present or future. That of On the Uses and Disadvantages of History for Life is more social and more human, if not more cogital and not less animal. The historicity of humanity, set against their forgetful animality, leads to the extinguishing of life. But when unified with that animality, when yoked to the service of life, it makes possible something above the animal, something that ignores, perhaps willfully, the dangerous truth that humans are just another sort of animal, no more.

An impossible argument in Nietzsche’s Untimely Meditations

I am recently coming to suspect that Nietzsche, that most naturalist of philosophers, was a vitalist. This leads him into trouble, but not the usual troubles. When I call Nie­tzsche a vitalist, I do not mean that he thought an additional, non-physical law or princi­ple was needed to account for the phenomenon of life. (Perhaps that is what his will to power is. I don’t know. In any event I am focusing on the younger Nietzsche.) Rather, I mean that he viewed life as something special, something that perhaps not all living organisms possess. [All citations will be to the Cambridge editions of Untimely Meditations, translated by R.J. Hollingdale and edited by Daniel Breazeale.]

This comes out when Nietzsche says, in On the Uses and Disadvantages of History for Life, that history should serve life rather than life serve history. What Nietzsche means by “life” is only a subset of what there is to living beings. Consider the following passage, in which Nietzsche asks of possessors of life (in the vitalistic sense):

What was left of them to bury! Only the dross, refuse, vanity, animality that had always weighed them down and that was now consigned to oblivion after having for long been the object of their contempt. But one thing will live, the monogram of their most essential being, a work, an act, a piece of rare enlightenment, a creation: it will live because posterity cannot do without it. (69)

Here life is not our living bodies, but our “essential being”, which may be found in a work or an act, and which remains even when our bodies are decayed. Nietzsche at one point (I haven’t been able to track it down) suggests a pruning metaphor: the great individual prunes himself, shedding that which is not life or not in service of life, preserving only what is or serves life. Life is only a small part of the living organism, if any.

It is this life that history is supposed to serve. We can well imagine utilitarianism or Christianity has been useful for the preservation of the species, yet Nietzsche could still adamantly respond: yes, but they have not served life! The same is true for history: its application could preserve the human race, perhaps, but not human life.

Nietzsche, later in the essay, gives an argument for why history must serve life—for its own sake!

As cities collapse and grow desolate when there is an earthquake and man erects his house on volcanic land only in fear and trembling and only briefly, so life itself caves in and grows weak and fearful when the concept-quake caused by science robs man of the foundation of all his rest and security, his belief in the enduring and eternal. Is life to dominate knowledge and science, or is knowledge to dominate life? Which of these two forces is the higher and more decisive? There can be no doubt: life is the higher, the dominating force, for knowledge which annihilated life would have annihilated itself with it. Knowledge presupposes life and thus has in the preservation of life the same interest as any creature has in its own continued existence. (121)

(Note: Nietzsche in the essay considers whether or not history should be a science or an art. So when Nietzsche considers science and life, history is included under science, I believe.)

There is an uncontroversial sense in which knowledge presupposes life: it requires living beings to carry it out. But what I have been suggesting is precisely that Nietzsche has been developing a sense of ‘life’ that is distinct from that of living beings: life may be found even after the death of the living being (think how often in his later philosophy Nietzsche praises the life that squanders itself—or even think of the very idea of untimeliness and posthumous birth), and the living being can exist without life, if those living parts have been pruned away, leaving only the dross and vanity.

Nietzsche’s argument turns on an equivocation: history presupposes living beings, and Nietzsche slides from this uncontroversial claim to the much more interesting view that history presupposes life. Nietzsche’s argument is impossible: his peculiar definition of ‘life’ makes it so.

I don’t wish to speculate why Nietzsche fell into this mistake. Carelessness, perhaps, or maybe it was deliberate. It is an interesting mistake, in my view, since so much of Nietzsche’s work is premised on the idea that something might be incredibly harmful to life, to health, without having the slightest negative consequences for the preservation of the species. Nietzsche confronts, again and again, the possibility and even reality of what is non-life in humans dominating what is life in them. Yet here he would rule out that possibility a priori. A defensive maneuver, perhaps? A retreat from a terrible truth he was not yet ready to face?

I do not know.

Death within Life: Beckett and Montaigne

2013/09/29 1 comment

Samuel Beckett once wrote, “The sun shone, having no alternative, on the nothing new” (Murphy). The nothing new glistening in the sunlight includes, of course, Samuel Beckett’s own oeuvre, which is no more novel than anything else, despite including several. I want here to suggest a few parallels between Beckett’s Three Novels, which I discussed extensively in an earlier series of posts, and Montaigne’s essay on philosophizing as learning to die. The upshot is that we may understand Samuel Beckett’s work as pure philosophy by this criterion.

Naturally, there being nothing new under the sun, the ideas that I am attributing to Montaigne need not have originated there. The essay, number 20 in book I of his Essays, contains a long section in which Montaigne imagines personified Nature chastising her human inhabitants for their fear of death. My copy of the work (in the Everyman’s Library edition of Montaigne’s Complete Works, pp. 67-82) suggests this speech is largely a paraphrase of Seneca and Lucretius (fn5, p. 77). And certainly the notion of philosophy as preparation for death can be traced back to that venerable lineage.

A few intriguing themes arise in Montaigne’s essay. One is the impossibility of newness that we have already seen in Beckett. “And if you have lived a day, you have seen everything. One day is equal to all days.” (78) What good is it to fear death, if remaining alive will bring you only more of the same? Indeed, the tedium might even make one desire death—which occurs in Beckett’s novels.

Even more interesting than this, however, are Montaigne’s reflections on the relationship of death to life. Montaigne brings up the classic theme that death is not a harm, since after your death there is no one left to be harmed by it, and while you are alive you are not yet dead and so not harmed by death—except insofar as you fear it. “It [death] does not concern you dead or alive: alive, because you are; dead, because you are no more.” (80) And related to this is the correct remark that death cannot be experienced, for you must be alive to have experiences; death ends all experiences and so stands as the unexperienceable limit of experience. This is grounds for condemning those who condemn death: “How simple-minded it is to condemn a thing that you have not experienced yourself or through anyone else.” (80)

This impossibility of experiencing death is hugely important in Beckett’s work. In my earlier posts I discussed at great length the ways in which Beckett word and object are mixed up in his work. Retelling is reliving, so what is said to occur and what actually occur come to exist in a zone of indiscernibility (to use Deleuze’s phrase) in which it is inherently impossible to tell one from the other. And what this means is that death never actually enters into Beckett’s work. It always exists at the limit, outside of it. For if retelling is reliving, then death is the end of retelling. But the retelling itself cannot contain its own end; the end is its limit. Thus Molloy, Malone, and the unnamable narrator of The Unnamable all approach infinitesimally close to death, but their deaths never enter the text. The inexperienceability of death is thus an essential portion of the structure of Beckett’s work.

Montaigne, earlier in his reflections, bluntly states, “The goal of our career is death” (69). Life itself is no more than a long march toward death. Every step forward (in time or space) is a step forward to death. In Nature’s speech, this becomes, “The constant work of your life is to build death. You are in death while you are in life; for you are after death when you are no longer in life. Or, if you prefer it this way, you are dead after life; but during life you are dying; and death affects the dying much more roughly than the dead, and more keenly and essentially.” (78)

What I take Montaigne to suggest here is that life, at least human life, since humans are conscious of their ineluctable end, is inevitably structured by its end, death. Life is best conceived as the process of dying. And this more than anything else I have mentioned is crucial to Beckett’s Three Novels. That dying is a process is established on the first page of Molloy: “For example my mother’s death. Was she already dead when I came? Or did she only die later? I mean enough to bury.” (4) Dying here is an extended process: one may die more or less (and as the rest of the novel makes clear, Molloy is progressively dying more and more). Eventually one reaches a threshold past which one is dead “enough to bury.” Beckett’s novels are about the process of dying, as it is structured by death, which exists at their limit but is not contained within them. In short, Beckett’s novels are about life itself, in its essence.

Montaigne’s Essays are the record of a man rigorously at work on himself, diagnosing himself that he might cure himself. In so doing he prepares himself for death—that is to say, he philosophizes. On this mountainous model, such work is precisely the work of philosophy. What I hope I have compellingly defended here is that Beckett’s Three Novels constitute just this same sort of work, and that we should not let a superficial difference of genre obscure the fact that the Three Novels are, fundamentally, philosophy.