Dead Philosophers Society: An Interview With Simon Critchley
Interview by Andrew Gallix.
SC: It was one of the first sparks. As so often happens in writing, it was a coincidence: a close friend sent me that quotation from Montaigne just as I was rereading the latter’s “To philosophie is to learne how to die” in Florio’s florid translation. Montaigne is really the hero of the book and I love his suspicion of suspicion, his skepticism and the deeply personal quality of his prose, which is never narcissistic. It is ourselves that we find in Montaigne, not him. But I suppose that’s a narcissistic thing to say.
3:AM: Commenting on another passage from Montaigne, you state that “The denial of death is self-hatred”. This reminded me of Dostoevsky’s Kirilov who attempts to defeat God by committing suicide. His rationale is that, in order to negate transcendence, Man must learn to love himself for what he is and must therefore embrace his own finitude — desire his own death. (One could wonder if the espousal of death isn’t a form of self-love?) Your own conclusion — “Accepting one’s mortality…means accepting one’s limitation” — isn’t that far removed from Kirilov’s way of thinking, is it?
SC: It is very similar to Kirilov and you are right to point that out. I think I wrote about Kirilov somewhere, maybe in Very Little…Almost Nothing. If the denial of death is self-hatred, as it is to deny our freedom and live in fear of death (which is to say, to live in a form of bondage), then the acceptance and affirmation of death is indeed a form of self-love. But I’d want to make a distinction between a form of self-love which is essential to what it means to be human, and a narcissism of self-regard, like Rousseau’s distinction between amour de soi and amour propre, self-love and pride.
3:AM: You remind us that Socrates’ last words “articulate the view that death is the cure for life”. This idea that life is a kind of disease to be cured through extinction is key to the likes of Schopenhauer, Leopardi, Beckett and Cioran. Do you agree that there’s a kind of lineage here?
SC: I am hugely attracted to the idea of life as a mistake, as a kind of natural error for which we try and find some metaphysical assurance or consolation. This is the core of Schopenhauer’s dark comic genius. It attracts me because it is based on the idea of life as rooted in an experience of contingency, physical contingency, which we forget and convert into various forms of necessity. I do see a lineage from forms of ancient skepticism and cynicism through Schopenhauer and into figures like Beckett and Cioran. One of the peculiar features of The Book of Dead Philosophers is that I simultaneously play on a number of different and contradictory tendencies in the history of the last few thousand years: cynicism, skepticism, Epicureanism, primitive Christianity, occasionalism, rationalism. The fragmentary form of the book allows me to move across and through a number of different philosophical registers. It is so ridiculous to limit oneself to one version of the truth.
3:AM: I’ve always felt that the rise of the writer/artist as alter deus that accompanied the secularisation of many European countries led to the spread of a kind of death wish in literature and the arts (culminating with people like Arthur Cravan and Jacques Rigaut). My theory is that many writers/artists believed the hype and were so frustrated when they realised that godlike, ex nihilo creation eluded them that they turned to destruction. Is (to paraphrase Bakunin) the urge to destroy also a creative one (or, as Larkin put it: “Beneath it all, desire of oblivion runs”)?
SC: I completely agree: one of the outcomes of Romanticism for me is the idea of the writer as imago dei without a deus where art becomes a Promethean creation ex nihilo. I think this tradition also inspired a related Promethean tendency is politics, from the ‘nihilism’ of Nechaev, through to Lenin’s Bolshevism and Marinetti’s futurism. It’s the tradition of what I call “active nihilism“. I criticize this tradition heavily in a number of places, but only because it is so compelling.
3:AM: Wouldn’t you agree that the “fantasies of infantile omnipotence” you hope will disappear through an acceptance of our “limitedness” are often at the root of great art and literature?
SC: Sure. Much of literature in what we might call its rigorously Hegeliano-Sadist development is about the dream of infantile omnipotence which is rooted in the idea that the artist is like Adam in the Garden of Eden, baptizing things into existence through nomination. I don’t think that this tradition can simply be eliminated or overcome, but it should be contrasted with what Blanchot calls “the second slope” of literature, which is concerned with allowing things to be in their irreducible materiality. This is what I think of as the Levinasiano-Stevensian (if that’s an adjective) succession. This is the sort of materialism that Tom McCarthy and I have experimented with in the writing we have done together on Joyce, Shakespeare and others.
3:AM: Some think that art and literature are predicated on what Eluard called “le dur désir de durer” (the painful desire to last) — a desire you don’t seem too keen on…
SC: No, I am perfectly happy with the idea of literature as le dur désir de durer and would want to put the virtue of endurance at the core of much that I think about. But that is not the same as denying one’s mortality. On the contrary, I think.
3:AM: The Book of Dead Philosophers has lofty ambitions. You set out to write “a history of philosophers” as opposed to “a history of philosophy” in the teleological mould. In effect, you are defending a specific conception of philosophy against another…
SC: Yes, I am against the idea of the history of philosophy as a history of systems that can be arranged in a certain logical and historical order, such as one finds in Hegel or Heidegger. It is one of the many aspects of being deluded by the idea of progress (Hegel) or even the idea of regress (Heidegger). I am opposing it with an idea of the history of philosophy as a history of philosophers, that is, a history of mortal, fragile and limited creatures like you and I. I am against the idea of clean, clearly distinct epochs in the history of philosophy or indeed in anything else. I think that history is always messy, contingent, plural and material. I am against the constant revenge of idealism in how we think about history.
3:AM: You praise the “ideal of the philosophical death”: what exactly do you mean by that?
SC: The idea of the philosophical death is the core teaching of philosophy in antiquity from Socrates and Epicurus onwards: we can go to our death freely and without fear having given up the consolation of any belief in an afterlife. As Wittgenstein says, is some problem solved by the idea of my living forever? Of course not. It is, however, difficult to fully and completely renounce any idea of the afterlife.
3:AM: You write that “Death is the last great taboo” and question the unthinking belief in ever-increasing longevity: are we turning into a race of Struldbruggs?
SC: Absolutely. I think we are turning into a world of Struldbruggs. That is all I saw last year in Los Angeles last year when writing the book: bloody botoxed suntanned Struldbruggs. To that extent, I completely agree with Swift. The flip-side of his seeming misanthropy is an affirmation of virtue.
3:AM: Your book also has a self-help quality (to “begin to enable us to face the reality of our death”) — aren’t you afraid of being accused of having done an Alain de Botton?
SC: No comment. My problem with self-help is that I don’t think there is a self to help. The self is something that we become through a series of acts.
3:AM: Don’t you think your attempt to bring philosophers closer to us (“It is in the odd details of a philosopher’s life that they become accessible to us”) runs the risk of being seen as a little reactionary — the equivalent of basing an interpretation of a novel on its author’s life?
SC: It is profoundly reactionary. Absolutely. I’ve turned into some sort of dreadful cultural conservative. No, but seriously, I am not engaging in some sort of biographical reductionism and I loathe such tendencies in relation to literature. I am reacting – and perhaps over-reacting – to an allergy to biography in relation to philosophy and philosophers. Also, much of the biographical information in the book is highly dubious and all the more interesting for that reason.
3:AM: In The Guardian you were recently described as having “found a vocation in teaching philosophy, although [your] passions still lie in music, poetry and politics”. Are you less passionate about philosophy? And how did you end up at university by “complete accident”?
SC: Yes, I don’t know where The Guardian found that stuff, but maybe I said something similar in another interview. The truth is actually much worse and would have to include sob stories about years at catering college, working in factories, a series of industrial accidents and even a year and a half as a lifeguard. I did not mean to suggest that I am less passionate about philosophy than I was. On the contrary, I have an immense childish enthusiasm for the history of philosophy and for what is going on right now and remain stupidly optimistic. The thing is that after leaving school with one ‘O’ level, I played in bands for some years, then became a poet before going to an FE college in Stevenage where someone said that I should apply to university. The thought had never previously crossed my mind. Something to do with social class, no doubt.
3:AM: On the subject of music, please tell us about the “large number of punk bands” you played in. Does that period still resonate as it does with so many of us?
SC: Punk was the crucible out of which my paltry subjectivity was formed. My years watching bands and performing in bands allowed me the imaginative space to try and conceive of a life a little different from what I was meant to do. It was a relentlessly affirmative nihilism. Of course, this was sheer luck. I was born in 1960, and so I was 16 when punk began to happen just down the road in London. Suddenly I found myself at the edge of the world’s centre. And it was because of punk that I began reading Burroughs, Bataille and the Situationists. It was also the time when I became politicized through Rock Against Racism and the Anti-Nazi League. My bands had silly names: The Social Class Five, Panic, The Fur Coughs (who became The Bleach Boys*, I thought of that name) and The Good Blokes. I still mess around with music and have done a lot of work with my oldest friend, John Simmons. I think it is somewhere on YouTube.
[* See their current website]
ABOUT THE INTERVIEWER
Andrew Gallix is 3:AM Magazine’s Editor-in-Chief. He writes fiction as well as non-fiction, teaches at the Sorbonne in Paris and lives his life like a string of beads tossed from a frilly New Orleans balcony (mainly in his dreams). He is not currently working on his debut novel.
First published in 3:AM Magazine: Thursday, June 26th, 2008.