The Audacity of Jean-Luc Nancy
5 September 2021
Dancers, Amadeo de Souza Cardoso, 1910
From what could be derived the certainty that he were “gone” or “lost”? I dare to say — what’s to lose — that the impossibility of such a derivation changes the work imposed by this absence of him. It makes me refuse the work of mourning — that is, the work that bestows pastness on someone. And also refuse any naming convention for the sadness and anxiety which one has about that absence of the other which is more real than his or her image, portrait, memory. Jean-Luc’s absence is inseparable from his coming. And now it is from his absence that his look keeps coming and shows me my own audacity. We exist as an audacity in the face of existence.
“If the other — that is, him or her whose image we seek — withdraws in the portrait…it is to share with those of us who look at it the strangeness that is only its own in being ours as well”
— Portrait , Nancy (2014)
Jean-Luc is not there. Only through the conventions of meaning could this be given to me to understand. There is no measure or sign of this withdrawal, no trace. Who or what could assure me the finality of this withdrawal, that his name would not pop up on some device? — as it used to until his last words to me on the telephone, “on parle après-demain.” Only a common wisdom about death and time that layers explanations upon the fact that he is not coming, not yet, not on skype, not on signal, not to the voice mailbox. This fact is an open secret that is present at every moment, secreted away from meaning, knowledge, even memory, secreted from the past tense which I shall nevertheless use when necessary, secreted away from the “yes” and the “no,” and therefore secreted from mourning and melancholia. This absence, so often called death, is with me, how could I imagine running towards or away from it?
From what could be derived the certainty that he were “gone” or “lost”? I dare to say — what’s to lose — that the impossibility of such a derivation changes the work imposed by this absence of him. It makes me refuse the work of mourning — that is, the work that bestows pastness on someone. And also refuse any naming convention for the sadness and anxiety which one has about that absence of the other which is more real than his or her image, portrait, memory, insofar as these are arrangements that deliver a past or “a life”. Whereas what really happens is that Jean-Luc’s absence is inseparable from his coming, which has nothing to do with the logics of messianic expectations. And his coming comes to me first of all, and every time, and forever, with Hélène. From the first time she opened the door, the first photograh. The conversations on Nietzsche, India, Nusrat….
Jean-Luc had sought and written about a different kind of portrait, whose possibility hovers on the surfaces of the arts of portraiture: “it throws off resemblance and recollection understood in terms of humanism, intentionality, and representation.” (1) The things, words and acts he sent to so many of us, his friends, and through which his coming arrived to any of us in any of the million ways he was capable of, are everywhere. And they are no more finite than the, sometimes, latecomings of the meanings of something one shares with each other. They include the opening whirls of friendships in which he has left us in his wake. From the nooks of these profusing encounters, where things, individuals, we, look at each other, the experience of time begins and rebegins, an unending wake. He wrote: “ S'égarer dans son regard. ” (2) Isn’t that what some of us have sometimes sought this whole past week and will continue to do ceaselessly henceforth: share with each other those looks of Jean-Luc in which we will lose ourselves again and again, finding each other in this passion of the look? Does not it now compel us perchance to breach both the conventions and the urges of both silence and speech? For, who reads his works of philosophy can see that he was transforming all the rules and tropes of subject, self, I, you, we, life, death. From whence? A compulsion whose name and origins cannot be determined under any known law, and which therefore is beyond ceremonies, decencies, and occasions, especially those that have accreted around “death.” I would respect them at any other time, but not today. No goodbye.
In this compulsion, which is only gradually revealing itself to me, in myself and in other friends today, there is emerging a terrible freedom and a dizzy responsibility. A compulsion that is not the opposite of work, and that is absolutely not Thanatos. This compulsion is a look, which looks at me from out of everything he addressed to me and through me to others, and through others to me or to anyone. All that he sent, and what is now coming through his absence, is and will be a fertile dissemination: a work, a task, even many tasks, which do not obey any genre but which take their shape according to each singular friendship of Jean-Luc’s. He himself announced such an unforseeable work when last month he finished his essay “‘The end of philosophy and the task of thinking’” (3) and said, while sending it, “il faut utiliser mes dernieres forces (it is necessary to utilise my last forces).” Here is — in the imminence of absence (which is henceforth, for us who look on and live on, the persistence of absence) an utter abandoning of shame. The nudity of an abundance, his unreserved assumption of other forces in us amidst which his forces will have radiated, augmenting and provoking our coming forces, and always on the verge henceforth of shaming them for not being unashamed enough.
Perhaps that is why he could measure his last forces because he was entrusting them to the immeasurable forces in us which he has simply taken for granted. Hasn’t he already taken these forces from us who receive his words? And henceforth there will have to be giving, and a looking for what and how to give.
Who is addressed by those words – parole originaire – whose subject gets lost in the impersonal voice, the very voice which he finds in poesie as being nothing other than an apeal?
This appeal is coming in and through his recent remark – so compelling because it had wrapped itself within the question of death, Sehnsucht, and community, and then broken through all the conventional meanings one could give to the term “nostalgie du pere” – about parole originaire :
Precedence of the collective over the individual holds as long as the appeal to “you” is simultaneous with the separation of “I”.
This appeal communicates an emotion only because the emotion itself is an appeal from the outside, and outwardly directed – an actual setting in motion of the same.
It addresses itself and as soon as it does, it changes and it identifies itself.
This is what makes it poetic. (4)
Poesie, parole originaire. But secreted in them, the impossible portrait of philosophy. He holds us henceforth with his last words for philosophy – his wager, testament, goodbye, plea.
I had grown up with his name and years ago, The Sense of the World had been an opening for my doctoral thesis. I hear the laughters of Hélène and Augustin as I talked to him last month about a coming work by him on evil. All his works now face me with an other look which they begin to draw out from me, opening an indefinite time that is coming. And now it is from his absence that his look keeps coming and shows me my own audacity: to take and give.
We exist as an audacity in the face of existence. And an audacity which, since jean-Luc Nancy, is:
the ceaselessness of look
the unashamedness of work
the beginnings of philosophy.
Divya Dwivedi, 30 August 2021
1. Jean-Luc Nancy, Portrait, translated by Sarah Clift and Simon Spraks, New York: Fordham University Press, p. 41.
3. Jean-Luc Nancy, “‘La fin de la philosophie et la tâche de la pensée’,” Philosophy World Democracy 2.7 (July 2021), https://www.philosophy-world-democracy.org/la-fin-de-la-philosophie
4. Jean-Luc Nancy, “Nostalgie du père”, European Journal of Pscyhoanalysis, April 2021: https://www.journal-psychoanalysis.eu/nostalgie-du-pere/