Working on the work of mourning

‘Failure succeeds’ when we fail to completely interiorize the other


Last time I was on the library I was in a hurry – in an effort not to make a friend wait too long. I was looking for books in philosophy of science, when I bumped on a book called ‘The work of mourning’ by Derrida. I didn’t have time to check it out, but I decided to take it. ‘Death and Derrida…how bad can this combination be?’ The book was orderly placed on my table, along with a dozen more, all uncomplainingly waiting for me to find time. A month later, on a rather hot Saturday noon, I was getting ready to hit the beach. I was hastily going through the book pile for something that would fit well with sand, and there it showed up. Hmm…I had forgotten about it. I sat on the couch to leaf through it. Four hours later, I got up. Ah, the unspeakable joy of discovering a treasure when not expected..

The book is a collection of texts written by Derrida for friends of him when each passed away. The great introduction by Brault and Naas analyzes how Derrida struggles to be responsible towards his dead friend (or more accurately, towards his dead friend still existing in him) and towards the living (the receivers of his words), while at the same time copying with his loss, copying with the effects of this death on himself. Even with the best of intentions, even when one has no agenda of political calculations, of serving his own purposes when speaking of the dead, still, there is always the risk of being narcissist, the risk

“of saying ‘we’, or worse, ‘me’” (Derrida, Lyotard and Us).

But how can we ever avoid that? Especially since it is only in us that the dead may speak? As Brault and Nass point out:

“Fidelity thus consists in mourning, and mourning –at least in a first moment- consists in interiorizing the other and recognizing that if we were to give the dead anything it can be only in us, the living. [..] According to Derrida, interiorization cannot – must not – be denied; the other is indeed reduced to images ‘in us’. And yet, the very notion of interiorization is limited in its assumption of a topology with limits between inside and out, what is ours and what is the other”.

Therefore the key to avoid egotism perhaps is this:

“It is within us, but is not ours” (Derrida, The Deaths of Rolland Barthes)

As goosebumbs-ly put by Derrida:

Αποτέλεσμα εικόνας για constantine manos
Constantine Manos, Mother At Funeral Of Her Son Killed In Vietnam

“Upon the death of the other we are given to memory, and thus, to interiorization, since the other, outside of us, is now nothing. And with the dark light of this nothing, we learn that the other resists the closure of our interiorizing memory…death constitutes and makes manifest the limits of a me or an us who are obliged to harbor something that is greater and other than them; something outside of them within them

So ‘failure succeeds’ when we fail to completely interiorize the other, thus we acknowledge that the other will always remain ‘other’, in his unique alterity, in a space above and beyond us.

(— is it just me, or this seems to make perfect sense in relationships between any two living persons as well? But this is another story…—)

And it is in these challenges that struggling only begins. For to cope with a single death do we need to cope with all deaths, with death as a phenomenon intrinsic in life, in our relationships? Is there only one death, the ‘first death’, after which all the deaths are repetitions of this first experience, in which we have to focus? Isn’t it infidelity to the friend when we transform coping with his unique loss into coping general concept of loss? The friend, the lover, the relative, whose single death, as a unique event of a unique person, whose “true photograph” is “destined to be lost and never be repeated again” (Elytis, Things Public and Private).

And here come the questions… However, I am going to pause the questions at this point, in an effort not to make yet another friend wait too long.

So the blog starts at the end, starts with death. Sheer coincidence or not, I, we, cannot afford to lose sight of the end.




On intellectual sympathy – or a blog’s raison d’être

Mina Mimbu. New Zealand.

Intellectual sympathy is one – among many – of Henri Bergson’s attempts to explain what he meant by the methodological approach of intuition (not to be confused with the common meaning of intuition). For Bergson, there are two ways of knowing: the relative, partial knowledge and the absolute, complete knowledge. When we follow the method of analysis, we approach the object in question from outside, we move around it, and observe it from specific position(s). We are bound therefore to see only a part of it, and degrade the object to the aspects accessible to us. Intuition, on the contrary, is ‘entering’ the object itself, participating in it, sympathizing with all its aspects, without separating them, but in their unity. The analysis gives us only relative knowledge, while intuition provides us with absolute knowledge of the object in question:

It follows that an absolute can only be given in an intuition, while all the rest has to do with analysis. We call intuition here the sympathy by which one is transported into the interior of an object in order to coincide with what there is unique and consequently inexpressible in it. Analysis, on the  contrary,  is  the  operation  which  reduces  the  object  to  elements already known, that is, common to that object and to others. [H. Bergson, The Creative Mind: An introduction to metaphysics]

It is not within my intentions (and competence) to provide an accurate description of Mr. Bergson’s philosophy. Nor to defend it as the source of absolute truth – although I have to admit my positive predisposition. Rather, it serves me, in a quite remarkable coincidence with its content, as a point of unity. For I see in this notion an intersection of my wanderings, interests and questionings that have troubled my mind – severely – during the last years. Let me give you a brief idea on these wanderings.

First, there is anthropology. Anthropology is the one mostly to be blamed for the birth of this blog. I came across it by chance, while, unsatisfied by the natural sciences, I was looking for answers elsewhere, and fell in love. For those unfamiliar with it, what differentiates Anthropology from other fields like sociology is the methodological approach of participatory observation. For an anthropologist to study a group of people must, by and large, live with them for a considerable amount of time. He must participate in their lives as one of them, do the things they do, try to see the world as they see it. Not insignificant problems arise when actually trying to accomplish that, but for the moment let’s stick to the intention of ‘entering’ into the insides of the study object. Does that ring a Bergsonian bell?

Now I would like to dig a little deeper on the aforementioned un-satisfaction with the natural sciences. To set the record straight, I need to state this: science is among the greatest achievements of human intellect. Science has given us a valuable way of understanding things.  However, as many before, from the Romanticists to the postmodernists, I have grown a skepticism for the limits of knowledge, especially in relation to the dominant place that science has in our lives.  Is our intellect alone capable of providing the meaning of life? If phenomenologists are right, and there is no meaning a priori to find out there, then isn’t it concluded that science, in the sense of trying to discover the truth, is merely one of many ways to signify our lives? And here come the questions on the limitations of intellect..and again, Bergson*.

Intellectual sympathy, however, in the context of this blog, stands also for sympathy for intellectuals. Not in the elitist sense of an Illuminati class, rather in the struggle of human spirit to understand, and make sense of its existence. With that, with them, I sympathize.

And then, as always, love and death and our internal struggle to understand them, incorporate them, live with them. I find Bergson’s intuition again relative in many ways, but I will just draw on a brief remark by Mr. Derrida on love and the difference between a person as a singularity and its qualities:

Does my heart move because I love someone who is an absolute singularity, or because I love the way that someone is? Often love starts with some type of seduction. One is attracted because the other is like this or like that. Inversely, love is disappointed and dies when one comes to realize the other person doesn’t merit our love. The other person isn’t like this or that. So at the death of love, it appears that one stops loving another not because of who they are but because they are such and such. That is to say, the history of love, the heart of love, is divided between the who and what. The question of being, to return to philosophy, because the first question of philosophy is: What is it to be? What is “being”? The question of being is itself always already divided between who and what. Is “Being” someone or something? I speak of it abstractly, but I think that whoever starts to love, is in love or stops loving, is caught between this division of the who and the what. One wants to be true to someone—singularly, irreplaceably—and one perceives that this someone isn’t x or y. They didn’t have the properties, the images that I thought I’d loved. So fidelity is threatened by the difference between the who and the what. [extract from interview]

So, there you have it. The unity and the part. The intellect and something beyond intellect. If you didn’t find any answers in this introduction, you got it right. If you keep reading this blog, I cannot guarantee you’ll find any answers, but questions, this I can promise.

* Although criticized by Russel and others as irrational and anti-intellectualist, Bergson’s intuition does not necessarily contradict intellect. See a well-presented view on this by Mr. M.D. Bolsover.