A quiet force in French philosophy, Jean-Luc Nancy is no more
4 September 2021
At HFBK Hamburg, 2015. Image Credit: Pia Schmikl, Aesthetiken des Virtuellen
If the importance of a thought was measured by its discretion, Jean-Luc Nancy would be a champion. Jean-Luc Nancy was one of those who go about their work without worrying about fashions and who do not shout about their victories. He once recounted his experience as a teacher with his customary clarity, before becoming, somewhat in spite of himself, a beacon of university life in Strasbourg. One of the greatest representatives of French philosophy, a paragon of European thought, a monument of world knowledge has just passed away. Discreetly. These reflections were first published in Marianne on 25 August 2021.
He was a king. A very discreet king, but a straightforward king for the community of the faithful who prayed to his publications throughout the world. This court is that of the readers. As these lines are painfully being written, an autographed, illegible copy, preserved for the beauty of the gesture and the signs, of The Literary Absolute: Theory of the Literature of German Romanticism, co-authored with his theoretical partner Philippe Lacoue-Labarthe and translated into Korean, is sitting above our heads. The book is next to a thick row of writings that sum up better than any tribute who he was: a great reader, an immense philosopher, a marvellously curious person. Loosely stacked above our heads always: The Experience of Freedom (1988), Being Singular Plural (1996), The Intruder (2000), The Meaning of the World (2001), Listening (2002), Dis-enclosure (2005), Adoration (2010), The Disavowed Community (2014), Demand (2015), Banality of Heidegger (2015), Doing (2016), Sexistence (2017)...
Most of his work is available from his long-time publisher, Galilée, whose covers, recognisable by their sober, elegant appearance, are ready to age like old books. Classic from the start, as classic as the status our author had begun to achieve in his lifetime. By the sheer force of the ideas, transmitted with a pen so precise, chiselled, sparing, that it recalls a radiance, that of the Enlightenment which served ideas with language. Like a child chasing a ball in the playground, he played joyfully with alliteration.
Jean-Luc Nancy was one of those who go about their work without worrying about fashions and who do not shout about their victories. He rather claimed the right to remain silent. For him, silence was golden. Noise? Mud! Philosophical silence, media abstinence. He was unknown on television but famous in bookshops. The time wasted by "philosophers" in serving their image rather than feeding the concepts, he spent in his library, searching, (re)reading, questioning himself, disproving himself if necessary. He was a true philosopher, practising doubt, abusing prejudices, sharpening an idea. His digressions were exciting, brilliant, confusing but positive: he always took an intuition as far as possible, to the common limits of thought and language. He put every idea through the mill of contradictions, put it through the wringer of history, and met reality.
Fascinated by yesterday, shaped by today
For although he came from the sky of ideas and populated that sky magnificently, Jean-Luc Nancy touched the ground in his mastery of metaphor. He was demanding and could meander, like the conscience, but he always brought back the ordinary, life, man in his sentences. Invited to react in Marianne on the publication of The Fragile Skin of the World (Galilée), one of his latest books, he commented on the vertigo and violence of the present we are living through:
The present is what happens and what leaves. It's our whole life: it's always coming and going. We can remember the past, we can hope for this or that future, but memories and expectations are themselves part of the present. Of its fleeting, unstable fragility. The most beautiful moment of love or aesthetic emotion passes. The ardour of revolt or sporting effort arrives, flares up and passes. We are familiar with this. But our bad habits of thinking in terms of "progress", "growth", "acceleration" - on the one hand - and on the other hand "regrets", "losses", "golden ages", etc., blur the taste of the present. Yet it is this flavour that we experience even in very simple joys - a meeting, a smile, a phrase, a light. This can indeed be cultivated. It is even what a culture exists for: forms, signs, flavours or resonances - the "sharing of the sensible" according to Rancière's expression.
Like many scholars, Nancy was both fascinated by yesterday, whose letter he methodically mastered, and shaped by today, whose spirit he grasped with rare lucidity. In the last interview he gave us, he was able to say in the same interview: "I am propelled by my time". And further on:
Whoever wants to be deprived or whoever has lost the thread is deprived! Marx, Heidegger, Freud are always just as present for me and from them to me, these formidable relays called Derrida, Deleuze, Lacan. Not to mention what is always new to pick up from Kant, Hegel, Nietzsche....
For him, the fate of philosophy, which made its late entry into schooling but whose disguise never waits, was as much linked to the possibility of its teaching as to its development outside it. He recounted his experience as a teacher with his customary clarity, before becoming, somewhat in spite of himself, a beacon of university life in Strasbourg. In 1964, he recalled,
I started teaching at the lycée. I announced that we would be reading Plato's Phaedo and that it dealt with the soul. A student intervened: "What do we have to do with this old stuff? He was a very good student. And it was really good for me because I had to explain what "soul" could mean. But that was over 50 years ago. Today, there would be no intervention because I would not have been listened to. But if you are not listened to, it means that you are not heard. It is up to society to find out what it wants to be heard.
Thinker of the body
An exemplary paradox, or a perfect fit, the man who fought so hard against his body and with it, has become one of the most decisive thinkers on this object that literally carries us: the body. He summarises in Marquage manquant (Venterniers, 2017):
It is strictly impossible to imagine an emotion without a physical anchor. The body is where you let go and where you have your feet. We let go insofar as we have the representation of a sort of pure presence to ourselves, whereas on the contrary, when we are in emotion (there are emotions that can be considered light: nervousness, agitation, paralysis... in the face of love, hatred, passions), we are all the time in there, except perhaps when we are sleeping. And even then! When we sleep, dreams are entirely emotion. The body is by itself the motricity and mobility by which we relate to something other than ourselves.
Speaking about his heart transplant, which had not failed to trouble him regularly, he testified to its concrete and contrasting effects:
My body does not cheat, indeed. I don't even see how my body could cheat. If it hurts, it hurts. If it is well, it is well. The youthfulness of the body that is suggested here brings me to transplant. There are two aspects to the grafting of the body: the technical aspect on the one hand, a grafted life is a medicated life, it transforms an organism a lot, and on the other hand, the graft brought me a second youth. I have often said that I was transplanted at 51 and that it made me skip the stage between 50 and 60, which is the age of the bad slope. At 51, I felt like I was starting again. Things were very mixed: at the same time I was exhausted and everything was working.
In an insert, his friend Jacques Derrida had already spotted a motif, or at least a refrain, in his work:
the best and most economical way to start reading Nancy again today, both diachronically and synchronically, would be, it seems to me, to follow his question of touch. It unfolds to the point of invading, parasitizing, overdetermining everything, over the years. It touches everything.
As for Eros, according to Jean-Luc Nancy in L'Humanité, "it came back to the forefront when God died", it is "the last god, the last divine power before the coming of the unique god, who is an Idea rather than a power".
Literature and poetry
He thought about the body, and saying so, he could stand on the edge of literature. The border is sometimes thin, the door narrow between literature and philosophy. "Bodies are immediately in the light of dawn, and everything is clear," he writes poetically in Corpus (Métailié, 1992), a phrase that this film lover confided to us reminded him of a sequence, a graceful morning ritornello in Jim Jarmusch's Paterson. On several occasions, we have joked about his literary repression. "When philosophers are on the verge of literature, they are often on the verge of literature through poetry rather than through narrative," admitted the man who refused to refuse poetry. When he was not asking questions – political questions if ever there were any - about community, communism, the common... he was one of the few to reflect on the way literature and philosophy respectively demand truth.
While "truth is the active agent of philosophy and its line of flight", he specified, "literature does not question truth: it can be said that it is within it, or that it makes it". A memorable example:
Proust opens the Recherche with the sentence: 'For a long time I went to bed early'. As information, this sentence is poor and of no interest to anyone. But I don't read for information; besides, I don't know who this "I" who speaks is. I don't even know why he writes in the first person. On the other hand, I am caught up in the sentence, in its pace: it begins with "long". This adverb sets a slow pace that leaves the long time suspended in a manifest imprecision, just as "early" remains unclear. Who is speaking here? Why is he saying this? Am I not immediately sent back to the bedtimes of my childhood or youth? But also, this narrator speaks in the past tense, speaks of the past: Which one? Why?
Faced with the devouring challenges of tomorrow and the obsessive preoccupations of the day, he concluded in a final exchange:
In fact, we are probably only beginning a period which we can least predict what it will bring. This is perhaps the most impressive thing for people used to a more or less programmed relative continuity. Local confinement is not much compared to this temporal confinement: the future is now clearly uncertain and obscure. We had forgotten that this is its essence.
Only one thing is certain: the future of Jean-Luc Nancy's work is more certain than the natural uncertainty that is ours. The philosopher has entered his night. He will continue to make daylight in his books. We have everything. I look for your felt hat in my memories, I see your clothes too big for your puny body. I see above all your greatness. At this moment, all we have left are these words, ritually expressed at the end of the emails we used to exchange, heart breaking this time: "Good night master. And thank you."