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Discourse 24.1 (2002) 63-73
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Existence and Death
Translated by Nina Power and Alberto Toscano
1. Being and Existence, Life and Death
"Thus speaks the Lord God: I exist!" Is it not indeed a privilege of the divinity to be able, in all creative certainty, to utter his own existence? That Descartes links the "I think" to an "I am," indiscernible in Latin from an "I exist," probably has the sole effect, as has been noted for some time, of transferring the attributes of transcendence to Man. The ontological kinship is striking between the God who proffers "ego sum qui sum," which Gilson interpreted as the identity, in God, of pure existence and essence, and the "cogito, existo" by which a point-subject comes to support, by the evidence of his act alone, the entire reconstruction of certainties. This is because Descartes endows the subject, prior to any substantiality, with this interior transcendence that is called freedom. This is why the existentialist Sartre, for whom, as one knows, existing is originary, ante-predicative, and preliminary to any identity that one may ascribe to it, recognized in Descartes one of his most determinate predecessors. He found proof of this in the Cartesian assertion according to which freedom, as pure power of affirmation or negation, is just as infinite in man as it is in God. Freedom, this subjective name of existence.
But if existence as freedom is the infinite power of negation, then one must indeed come to declare that its "essence" is nothingness, a statement that in effect is the cornerstone of the Sartrean edifice. For [End Page 63] in being "nothing" but the power of nihilation (néantisation) of every given of being, freedom, or existence—ek-sistence, that which holds itself outside all of the identities that a consciousness confers upon itself—cannot be anything but the being of this nothing, or, nothingness as the generic name of every particular "nothing." It is this "Cartesian" motif of the subject as infinite-existence in and by freedom that supports the famous Sartrean definition of consciousness, that is to say of existence: "a being that is in its being the question of its being, insofar as this being implies a being other than itself." A definition about which a humorist once remarked that it used the word "being" five times only to designate nothingness. The immediate consequence of this definition is indeed that consciousness is not what it is, and is what it is not. If existence is infinite freedom, it is the constant putting back into question of its being, never identifying itself with the forms of being that it takes on, and holding itself beyond these forms which are nothing but its singular outside, or its transitory objectifications. Another of Sartre's formulas: existence transcends its own being. As if to say that it is pure negativity, and that, were one to attempt to inscribe it within an ontological set-up, one would need to admit that existence is what objects to any being which one would presume to be "its own," that it is its "surpassing," and that therefore it is not this being; and of any being which one presumes is not "its own," one would need to recognise that existence can be its conscious aim, in the free spoliation of its own being, and that therefore existence is this being. Now, the only appropriate name of that which is not being, and is what no being can be, is assuredly nothingness.
Existence, in a Sartrean or Cartesian sense, and moreover in a Lacanian, as well as in a Hegelian sense, distinguishes itself from being to the exact degree that it is nothingness. To exist is to be free, and therefore indeterminate with regard to being, prey to the work of nothingness. Existence gnaws at being or makes a hole in the real. The only being of existence is the lack-of-being (manque-à-être).
But isn't then death to life exactly what existence is to being? For death is no more exterior to life...