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October 1, 2007 | by  | in Books |
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Learning to Live Finally: The Last Interview

Albert Camus once wrote that the only philosophical question is whether life is worth living or not. If life is not worth living then plans and doings are meaningless. Everything is acceptable, given that we have no meaning to defend against others’ actions, yet nothing is acceptable since we can have no defence for our own. Things fall apart and the centre fails to hold.

In Learning to Live Finally: The Last Interview, Jacques Derrida chews over this question (in light of his terminal cancer), and suggests that he has never really learned to live, since “learning to live should mean learning to die, learning to take into account, so as to accept, absolute mortality.” That statement, like so much in Learning to Live Finally, is a fairly lucid but standard restatement of Heidegger’s Dasein: learning to genuinely be the creatures that we are means accepting our mortality. Otherwise we condemn ourselves to constant anxiety of death, forever living after-ourselves at the moment of dreaded end instead of embracing the life that runs through our fingertips.

Derrida’s career has been built up around the straw man fallacy: he was most successful when he was pointing out other thinkers’ committal of the fallacy, least successful when committing it himself – as in de la Grammatologie, where he made out that the phonocentric ‘conspiracy’ of philosophers favouring spoken/heard thought over written/read thought was all-pervasive in the Western tradition. His stylistic trick of altering conjugations to shift meaning around did, in a roundabout way, express a valid observation of the way language plays with truth. But once the reader ‘gets’ this trick and wants Derrida to go on and add something, his style just gets in the way. So his legacy is mixed – besides, the mortal ontology tradition that Derrida took from Heidegger was ultimately just one more footnote to Nietzsche’s second Dance Song – the affirmation of life discovered in its woe and denial. Life as perpetual revolution, overcoming itself again and again.

Perhaps the most surprising facet of this final interview, conducted under the knowledge of Derrida’s terminal cancer, is that, aged and finally speaking in clear, short statements, he reveals that underneath all that subversive linguistic play that he is really quite attached to conservative Western Reason after all. He searches for “a Europe that would be able to sow the seeds of a new alter-globalist politics … having at its disposal a genuine armed force, independent of NATO and the United States, a military power that is neither offensive nor defensive nor even preventative and that would be able to intervene without delay in support of a new United Nations whose resolutions are finally respected.”

He accepts reason in phrases such as “human rights, which date back two centuries and are constantly being redefined, but first of all the right to a life worthy of being lived.” Fortunately, he reveals that his reason is not some arrogant claim to knowledge of true structures which will always escape us, but rather reasonableness in making practical decisions. What keeps the above statement from being a mere platitude is that, although he resigns himself to reason, he reduces that reason to what really matters at the end of every mortal day – relaxing, enjoying life and the company of friends. Smiling.

BY JACQUES DERRIDA IN INTERVIEW WITH JEAN BIRNBAUM
TRANSLATED BY PASCALE-ANN BRAULT AND MICHAEL NAAS

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About the Author ()

Tristan Egarr edited in 2008. He threw a chair once.

Comments (10)

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  1. Ken Slugg says:

    Now I don’t know much about publishing, but sometimes I just darn wish that you students would give us some information on these reviews such as page count, publisher, RRP. And for a second thing, I’m not one of you philosophers, but I can say that Mr Derrida has had published interviews for nary a year and they’ve always been more accessible because he is speaking and does not have much of a chance to reflect on what he is saying.

    “His style gets in the way”!

    Now I’m not much of a man for mortal ontology, but I do have a heart and that heart tells me that there is a place in philosophy for writing and thought that does not immediately reveal itself for no cost. Hail Derrida.

  2. Tristan Egarr says:

    58 pages, published by Allen and Unwin.
    I wholly agree that there is a place in philosophy for stylish writing, in fact philosophy written in a completely dry manner kills the thoughts it tries to present.
    Which is why people like Nietzsche, Plato, Camus, Fouacult will always be more
    thought-invoking than, say, Russel.

    However, the problem with Derrida is that he is Intentionally obscure.
    Muddying the water to appear deep, and although it does prove a point about language,
    it is also, well… mud.

  3. Ken Slugg says:

    58 pages! Now I don’t know much about muddied waters, radical desedimentation or critiques borrowed from Wikipedia, but I’m often suspicious when I’m down on the farm and some cobber tells me that Bessie is intentionally being a nuisance while we try to milk her. You see, mate, often the person has a point but the young farmhands don’t bother to take a second or third look. And at the end of the day Bessie probably just has an inflamed teat. The point is: try reading this Derrida character’s more obscure writings more than twice – it’s not FHM.

    Right- time for the afternoon milking.

  4. AMSelector says:

    Well mate, excuse me for reading about your cow more than twice – but are you saying that Derrida has an inflamed teat and that is why he can’t express his ideas clearly enough? I thought, mate, that the job of philosophy was to clarify issues – and peel back the layers of reality? Waving your hands about and saying “Ooh, it’s very mysterious..wooaah!” doesn’t qualify you as any more articulate than…well, a cow.

  5. Mario Lanza says:

    Has anyone every considered the fact that Bessie may be suffering from accute vaginismus? No…thought not

  6. Ken Slugg says:

    “The job of philosophy” core blimey! “Clarify issues!” By crikey! Now I don’t know much about peeling back the layers of reality, but I can say that just cos you don’t understand it , doesn’t mean that it is unintelligible. And just because Noam Chomsky doesn’t understand it, doesn’t mean there isn’t something there – Noam just has an essentialist view of language which precludes him from any sort of non-reductionist reading. Now I’m not saying I’ve ever read any of this Derrida fella’s guff, but ya might hope that a slightly sympathetic reviewer might be had.

  7. Tristan says:

    Defending an author you have never read… that is So Cute! I hope your cows are well.

  8. James Marr says:

    Instead of slagging off someone who seems to be a good, honest, hard working man of the land, perhaps you would do better to answer Mr K. Slugg’s earlier question as to the RRP of the book.
    How else is a man of his ilk expected to make a proper and informed decision on the value of this writing – muddied or not.
    It would appear that you are skirting around the issue, which leads me to question what do you have to hide? I have on good authority that this book does not actually exist and in fact this whole review is but a cover behind which various sections of the student media are attempting to undermine and deride Derrida as a cornerstone of philosophical thought. Something which seems to be echoed in your treatment and attitude towards the dairying industry of this nation.

  9. Tristan Egarr says:

    sigh,,, you have, alas, revealed our true motive.

    Darn, drat and damn.

    You see, Salient is secretly backed by a secret cabal of Cartesian rationalists who desire to force the good dairy farmers of Aotearoa from their land, in order to develop large property complexes. These complexes should of course represent the most logical standard of behaviour-towards-the-world.

    All that stands in our way is postmodern philosophy, with its gewgaws of subjectivism and its baubles of uncertainty. If meaning may be shifted then the bills with which we will evict Mr Slugg and his ilk will lose their certainty of final decision. We will fail to adjudicate and all will be lost.

    – that said, i thought the review was largely pro-Derrida anyhu,,,, *shrug*

  10. Ken Slugg says:

    Now I’m a man of the land and wouldn’t normally post before a church service, but I’ll tell you something right now: I’ve not read any of this Derrida fella’s ‘guff’ but I have read a number of his articles and books, and used him extensively in the methodology section of my thesis. That being said, the thesis was on ‘The rise of Artificial Insemination in South Canterbury Dairy co-operatives and the corresponding rise or fall in milk solid yields’. Now I’m not the kind of fella to trawl the net to censure anti-Derrida remarks and form a group around that idea (The Derriders) but I can say that anyone referring to Derrida as a postmodernist is most certainly not for -or at all interesting in- his project. Loafers. When I’m feeling particularly dejected about the anti-intellectualism down in the cowshed (the farm hands don’t even consider Foucault’s History of Sexuality as a discourse to analyse milking time with) I tend to read some of Derrida’s responses to his nay-saying newspaper flunkies.

    I shall now self-medicate with a roophie and hope to sleep in a state of contented, insoluble bliss. Allah Akbar.

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