The Eternity of Jean-Luc Nancy
3 September 2021
Amor Vincit Omnia, Caravaggio; Image credit: Wikimedia
Text written for the funeral of Jean-Luc Nancy.
One wishes never to write, never to speak certain words. There are moments where it is no consolation that words do not penetrate the obscure. I must strive to write without the pen ever touching the paper and speak without it being audible even in the mode of an inner monologue. But I must ... But why ...
It is too early to be durative for he is too close and I am too far in India to be locative. But this should not concern us, for Jean-Luc Nancy thought of time itself, not as a form for something else but as duratio numenon – The greatest philosopher of time. In 1955, when Einstein learnt of the death of his dearest friend Michele Besso he wrote to the Besso family, condensing in his words the entirety of his scientific corpus. He wrote that his friend Besso will always be, for “the separation between past, present and future has only the importance of an admittedly tenacious illusion.” (1) All times exist together, not in the order of simultaneity, but in eternity. But Einstein could not express the sense of his eternity.
What is eternity for Jean-Luc Nancy? What is time for him? He has already begun remembering us if we could know his conception of time. Time is the duratio noumenon for Jean-Luc Nancy, which is always open to the effort and play of the creation of meaning, without this meaning every “temporising”.
On an occasion, he appropriated Derrida’s différance to think the relation between sense and time; sense is “neither word nor concept” (2), he cited Derrida. By being neither the signified nor the signifier, sense is able to reach out to existence itself where making-sense is infinite, for sense does nothing to existence itself. Sense does not find time yielding to it, and hence the world at its ends necessarily remains obscure – “Differance is not a temporizing.” (3) Instead of finding itself sending the relay from the two ends of time (which as we know is impossible, for then time will have to be a species of paradox ridden space), making-sense is to approach the thickness of the line of time “which, however, has no thickness whatsoever”, of course . (4) That is, sense and sensing are not exhaustible due to the obscured difference they have with time. In this approach towards the thickness of time, sense does not find itself in “stasis” due to the unyieldingness of time; and instead the necessary “inconclusiveness” of this approach shifts it from one “‘instant’ (or … an ‘eternity’ of existence” (5) to another. Anastasis, the overcoming of stasis, and eternity must necessarily dance together. It is not an Aristotelean eternity that Nancy thought, which was secured by boundaries, distances, and walls. But rather it is an eternity that was fecund and lustful that we find in the philosophy of Jean-Luc Nancy.
Then what can we say of us who are wrought in the inexplicableness of an always purely locative existential absence now? What about the resistance one feels as one writes this text? A resistance which comes as a nameless pain, which would rather not let this writing come to the moment of signing it. As we know in times of war and in places like India, where fascism eats away everything, it is easy to think of, to be tempted by the image of, one’s own death for the sake of something else. Heidegger’s phenomenology of death is able to think such moments very well, for it is a question of an “I” being concerned with “my death” as that which is not an event for it; and as non-events all deaths then equal each other.
The sense of death is not all to be found in the death of an “I”. We are afraid of our own death, not because of the non-event character of it for ourselves, but only due to the terror of the suffering in which it can leave others. We are afraid of death only due to the love and care we have for others and this is the only sense of death. We learn of this suffering very early on, through that singular rage which possesses us when our loved ones depart. Jean-Luc carefully taught me to accept it for weeks through conversations and letters, and I refused to accept it and fought against it like a child, urging him to write another book (which we discussed), believing that another act of creation will subordinate his body to that force which thinks and writes, as it had happened so many times in the past with him. As we know, he possessed a certain Nietzschean health which produced from the middle of agonies and suffering, often meeting death at the edges of creations.
Jean-Luc Nancy and Hélène Nancy were both concerned about my ill health even last week and he began to research on its parameters. But this would not surprise any of us here, for his care was meticulous and his care was his instruction. Jean-Luc and Hélène taught through the infinite care with which they carried out the little gestures; lessons around the kitchen table, the cathedral, the shopping trips, the emails, messages. That is, Jean-Luc did not leave behind either the militarism of a school or a desiccated tradition, but a family; a family of philosophers who care for each other but also a philosophical family which cares for everyone and everything. This can be seen in his corpus which did not neglect any region of thought and action, nor of the world. His instructions were always subtle, and his lessons were mutations and spores.
It is possible to trace this family of ours from the cave drawings we find across the world. But, in an ever-shifting series of names of philosophers and concepts, we find Nietzsche, Husserl, Heidegger, Wittgenstein and Derrida as constants. A long time ago, when we were planning a conference on evil, Jean-Luc said of his relation with Bernard Stiegler, “we drank the same mother’s milk”. What then is a philosophical family, as opposed to a tradition which is a confinement within a plan, a brittle fortification, a morbid isolation? To be a philosophical family is to be in the care of one another which necessitates being open to everything and everyone. In a Kantian sense, it is to become a supple being of lust that is capable of any plan; the obscure constitution of man. It is this Nancy that I encountered as a student in the town of Trivandrum in Kerala where I felt a boredom with the “end of metaphysics” affair; and, I discovered a corpus which did not renounce philosophy. And not just that, all the essential questions which originated in philosophy, and still active in the sciences, were at home in this corpus of Jean-Luc Nancy.
Jean-Luc Nancy, he is the eternal in another sense. In 1271 (6) Thomas Aquinas was trying to save the corpus of Aristotle from “the murmurers”. The question in this matter was the creation of something eternal, that which existed forever, by God. Could the Creator have created creatures which are eternal? Aquinas was not trying to defend Aristotle alone, but rather a common, though mysterious, experience which indeed contradicted the eschatological schema of the church; the experience of the human soul as a reaching out – each soul experiences the world as that which exceeds the world’s passive potentia and it experiences the other souls which are experienced by each individual soul – a reaching out which raises itself above the passive potentia of the body. This mystery is the experience of our loved ones as eternal, of us having always existed at least passively, of a scientific discovery appearing as an eternal truth, and even a poem as something which awaited merely its writing.
One feels him to have always been here and forever here. The poet in Jean-Luc created new intuitions into the origin, the heart, and the bounds of the world in such a way that for those who knew how to read him it seemed as if everything had always been this way. He is the eternal of an eternity of his own making. And we too are eternal for we are the family of the eternals in the care of eternity, caring for eternity.
Shaj Mohan, 30 August 2021
1. Albert Einstein, “Time’s Arrow: Albert Einstein’s Letters to Michele Besso”, https://www.christies.com/features/Einstein-letters-to-Michele-Besso-8422-1.aspx
2. Jean-Luc Nancy, The Sense of the World, trans. J. S. Librett, Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1997, p 14. See also Jean-Luc Nancy, A Finite Thinking, California: Stanford University Press, 2003, p. 118.
3. Here we find Nancy’s difference with Derrida of which in a conversation he said, “but that is differance!”, which should be understood; such differences are the power of differance, including the power to come under other legislations.
4. Ibid., p. 35.
6. Thomas Aquinas, “On the Eternity of the World,” in Thomas Aquinas: Selected Writings, trans. Ralph McInerny, London: Penguin Classics, 1998.