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