Thursday, September 05, 2013

Death as Radical Discontinuity

TLS August 2 2013

from Marci Shore's Commentary piece "Out of the desert: A Heidegger for Poland":

[Krzysztof] Michalski's childhood had coincided with Stalinism in Poland; his adolescence with attempts to purify the Communist system of its Stalinist deviation without abandoning Marxism. At the core of Marxism remained Hegel's claim that "the truth is the whole". "Does the understanding of something suppose finding a unity in that which one wants to understand? Is it only then--when we are able in each fragment see a part of some whole--that we can discover some meaningin the multifariousness of the experienced world?" These questions, Michalski said in an interview, had kept him awake at night since his first years of university. They were at the heart of his book on Heidegger, published in 1978, and at the heart of his book on Nietzsche, published some thirty years later. Coud there be meaning--the kind of meaning that imbues life with value--without wholeness?

My own questions, exactly, but phrased with a precision beyond me.


"Life and history," Michalski wrote, "do not go on independently of our participation, like a carousel you can ride or jump off of at will." For Michalski the imperative was to resign from the illusory conviction that there is some point of view from outside time on which we can look at our "now" sub specie aeternitatis and in this way relativize it. No, the time in which we are living possesses its own finality. We are the co-creators of meaning in this time. And so all meanings are fragile, temporary, open to change--but for all that no less deep and binding and real. These meanings are the only ones we have and the ones we must use. 

Yes, that's the paradox: fragile, temporary and changeable, but also deep and binding and real.


In an essay of 1974 that Michalski translated for Znak, Potocka described how for Heidegger, responsibility is not a relationship to something that is, to some kind of being, but rather an ontological trait of Dasein--that is, of our own being. ("Patocka used to say," Vaclav Havel wrote in "The Power of the Powerless", that the most interesting thing about responsibility is that we carry it with us everywhere.") This flowed from Heidegger's philosophical project, described by Potocka as "the first radical-to-the-depths attempt to build philosophy on the ground of finitude". This was a fundamental idea that Michalski, too, absorbed from Heidegger: that the condition of possibility for freedom, responsibility and meaning is human finitude--that is, death. Death is always hanging over us, defining our being, for being-in-the-world means being-towards-death. Angst for Heidegger is an anxiety that, unlike fear, has no tangible object. Angst is rather our feeling of not-being-at-home-in-the-world in the face of the nothingness we move towards; it is our confrontation with death. In our daily behavior we flee from that confrontation. In moments of angst our true condition is disclosed to us. In Michalski's reading of Heidegger, human finitude--death as a possibility "not to be outstripped"--is not negative, but is rather the condition of any meaning at all. This finitude is not a prison of the soul, but rather than which reveals the authentic meaning of human existence as freedom.

Angst is not adolescent but adolescents get it. "Heidegger was for me," Michalski wrote, "the philosopher who was able to disclose the weight of each step of my life or of yours."


Michalski read Nietzsche similarly, as conceiving of history as "yet another name for the world in which we live: the world of becoming, the world of constant change and irreducible diversity. Attempts  at discovering a goal, a totality, a 'truth' beyond it, attempts at discoverin the 'transcendent meaning' of the world in which we live, or else at understanding in reference to some 'external' system of eference--all these end . . .  in utter failure". For Nietzsche, the attempt to impose some kind of rational whole was life-negating. It was, in essence, nihilism. How can nihilism be overcome? Ultimately, through the confrontation with death, the most radical discontinuity. Death discloses instability, the suspension of meaning. "Death is not a 'something,'" Michalski wrote in The Flame of Eternity: An Interpretation of Nietzsche's Thought, "it is not an object that we need to incorporate into a greater whole. The integreation of life and death disturbs the identity of the former; it shows us that there is no 'whole' to be made of it."

That flips the usual meaning of nihilism: a negation of life by imposing on life a rational system. It sounds right, however, death as a radical discontinuity.

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