Academic journal article Mosaic (Winnipeg)

Love, Life, Death, and Survival

Academic journal article Mosaic (Winnipeg)

Love, Life, Death, and Survival

Article excerpt

You are living in symbiosis with the disease. Go away and continue to do so.

--Gillian Rose, Love's Work

In the course of a long period of reflection on the death of a love, I read, simultaneously, two extraordinary texts by philosophers dying of cancer: Gillian Rose's memoir, Love's Work, and Jacques Derrida's last interview, Learning to Live Finally. These texts could only come from the dying; more manifesto than meditation, they rail against what Derrida calls the rapidly shrinking period of deferral. There is a raw urgency to their pronouncements, and a refusal of what Rose calls "repose." Life is lived in the theatre of the agon, in revel, on the edge, as love is also lived. For neither life nor love are exceptional, Rose writes; "To live, to love, is to be failed" and, she adds, "If I am to stay alive, I am bound to continue to get love wrong, all the time, but not to cease wooing, for that is my life affair, love's work" (105-06, emph. Rose's). We find Derrida's version of the agon in his famous line: "I am at war with myself" (Derrida and Birnbaum 46). And so Rose remains faithful to the epigraph of her bold memoir--"Keep your mind in hell, and despair not"--and Derrida follows close behind--"I have never learned [...] to accept death" (24).

I have returned to these protests against limits again and again while thinking of my own experience of dying love, at war with myself and with the embattled psyche of another. I both acknowledged and denied that this death was approaching and that I would have to survive it. It was a period of the most intense loving and living that I had ever known, as I anticipated this ending with apprehension, fearing, above all, the abyss of loneliness and loss, of the absence I knew I would feel keenly. I will reflect here on survival, in the doubled meaning that the German terms fortleben and uberleben provide: as living-on and living-through. That is, living-on in what remains, consoled by life beyond death (or life over-life, as sur-vie implies), as opposed to living-through or enduring. Survival as endurance (uberleben) essentially refuses the consolation of survival as living beyond (fortleben), as Rose and Derrida will show us. (1)

Derrida's last interview was printed in Le monde on August 19, 2004, some two months before he died of cancer. In answer to his interviewer's question he emphatically states that no, he has not learned how to live, for learning how to live means learning how to die--to acknowledge and accept absolute mortality without resurrection or redemption. "I have never learned [...] to accept death" (Derrida and Birnbaum 24), Derrida protests, and "I remain uneducable when it comes to [...] knowing-how-to-die" (25). He believes in the truth of this relation between taking death into account and learning to live, but he cannot resign himself to it because it would mean rejecting what he loves (24).

It is common to think that we can only live our lives well in the full awareness of death, that we must be resigned to it. Derrida's persistent attention to the difference that interrupts all absolutes--like life, or death--to the fact that each concept is tainted by its other might lend itself to this viewpoint. There is no life without death; there is no conceivable understanding of life that excludes death. We could call it lifedeath, or living-death, for death intrudes on life at every moment, through dying skin cells and aging organs, the prospect of disease or disaster, and the painful encroachment of a sense of finality. But the acceptance of life's absolute limit does not allow us to live at peace with ourselves or perfect our lives. Derrida as a dying man refuses this interpretation, affirming the idea of life as survival (sur-vie or fortleben), as living after death--over or beyond death, in excess of death. Survival "is not derived from either living or dying"--no more than "a mourning that does not wait for the so-called 'actual' death" (Derrida and Birnbaum 26). …

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