Magazine article Artforum International

Sickness Unto Life

Magazine article Artforum International

Sickness Unto Life

Article excerpt

I

THE SUICIDE OF PHILOSOPHER Gilles Deleuze at the beginning of November, after he had spent many years suffering from a terrible respiratory illness, was a gesture that struck many in France dumb. Deleuze's thought, however resistant to summary, was above all an affirmation of the life force, of the will to life: "One's always writing," as he put it in Pourparler (1990 [Negotiations, 1995]), "to bring something to life, to free life from where it's trapped." While there is something tragically unbearable about the willful death of a philosopher who always, in the final instance, exalted and summoned the forces of life, it would be a mistake to see a contradiction between Deleuze's philosophy and his final, parting gesture.

One should not forget that for Deleuze life was in fact synonymous with weakness and fragility. "In life," he declared in Dialogues (1977 [Dialogues, 1987]), "there is a sort of awkwardness, a delicacy of health, a frailty of constitution, a vital stammering which is someone's charm." It is perhaps in this same fragility, this "frailty" and stammering," that the possibility of innovation, invention, and creation is anchored. In Dialogues, he stated: "It is strange how great thinkers have a fragile personal life, an uncertain health, at the same time as they carry life to the state of absolute power or of 'Great Health."' The fragile health that pushed Deleuze to suicide was no doubt the very force that allowed him to produce a body of work whose importance we have only begun to gauge.

II

One must think of Deleuze in the plural. "There are always several selves in each of us," he repeatedly maintained. "It is never the same person who writes. The creator is a shadow," the shadow of all those different selves that emerge like so many echoes of the encounters, emotions, and affects experienced by the artist, writer, or philosopher. But above all one must speak of "Deleuzes" simply because Deleuze never stopped changing and transforming himself, trying to escape definitions, categories, and what he described as territories" - that is, in the end, agencies of power. In the early part of his career, in the '50s and '60s, he was a rather traditional historian of philosophy (he liked to say he belonged to "the last generation ... more or less bludgeoned to death with the history of philosophy"). But he had already chosen to work on authors like Hume, Lucretius, Spinoza, and Henri Bergson, figures who, although belonging to the history of philosophy, actually 'escaped" it in various ways. In addition to his important 1966 reevaluation of Bergson Le Bergsonisme [Bergsonism, 1988]), several noteworthy works were produced during this period: his 1953 book on Hume (Empirisme et subjectivit ite [Empiricism and Subjectivity, 1991]), a shorter 1963 work on Kant (La philosophie critique de Kant [Kant's Critical Philosophy, 1984]), a 1968 study of Spinoza (Spinoza et le probleme de 1expression [Expressionism in Philosophy. Spinoza, 1990]). Above all, though, his philosophical target was Nietzsche. Nietzsche et la philosophie (Nietzsche and Philosophy, 1983), published in 1962, was to have enormous importance and influence among French thinkers over the next few years, as many of them attempted, under the sign of Nietzsche, to renew the work of thought, keeping their distance from the dogmatic and rigid Marxism that, along with Maristentialism, had come to dominate the French intellectual scene. It was around the same time that Deleuze became friendly with Michel Foucault, who, a year earlier, had published his Madness and Civilization, a work written, as Foucault put it in his preface to the original French edition, "in the sun of the great Nietzschean research." We later came to realize the importance this friendship, and the intellectual exchange indissociable from it, was to have for the two philosophers.

III

As was the case for so many others (including Foucault), the events of May 1968 brought about a deep rupture in Deleuze's life and work. …

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