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Diacritics 31.2 (2001) 49-69
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The Communication of the Impossible
Death is the death of other people, contrary to the tendency of contemporary philosophy, which is focussed on one's own solitary death. Only the former is central to the search for lost time. But the daily death—and the death of every instant—of other persons, as they withdraw into themselves, does not belong to an incommunicable solitude: that is precisely what nurtures love. That is Eros in all its ontological purity, which does not require participation in a third term (tastes, common interests, a connaturality of souls)—but direct relationship with what gives itself in withholding itself, with the other qua other, with mystery.
—Emmanuel Levinas, "The Other in Proust"
Desire, pure impure desire, is the call to bridge the distance, to die in common through separation.
—Maurice Blanchot, L'écriture du désastre
Of the many challenges to the Heideggerian analytic of mortality that emerged throughout the twentieth century, none has been more groundbreaking than that of Maurice Blanchot. 1 The originality and singularity of this confrontation consists in its accent on the social character of mortality: the "experience" of death appears, in this body of discourse, as a relation to the autrui.
Death is, for Heidegger, an individual engagement. 2 Heidegger absolutely excludes from his existential analytic of mortality any consideration of the Other's dying as a possible object of experience. 3 Although Sein und Zeit (1927) posits cobeing (Mitsein) as a structure essential to the constitution of selfhood, 4 death belongs exclusively to the solitary Dasein. 5 The problematic of sacrifice is irrelevant to the existential analytic, since the representative function of sacrifice does not correspond to the unrepresentable [End Page 49] character of death. 6 This is because, as Heidegger points out, even if one dies for the Other, one does not take away the Other's death. 7 As Heidegger remarks, Dasein may never experience the Other's arrival at the end (Zuendegekommensein) [SZ 239] (the true object of thanato-ontology), but only its transition into something unliving (Unlebendiges) [SZ 238]. 8 For this reason, no ontological study of death could take the death of the Other as an object of formal research.
Although the "fate" of Dasein is communal (occurring within the shared context of a community), Dasein takes no part in the Other's relation to its most proper possibility: the anticipation of death, which discloses every other possibility and which makes possibility itself possible. Individuals in the community relate to their respective fates as a series of disconnected possibilities of impossibility. There is, at most, a "holding-in-common" of deaths that are infinitely separated from each other. In destiny (Geschick), individual Daseins share nothing more than the mutual impossibility of experiencing each other's deaths: there is an infinite distance between the death of the self and the death of the Other, an impossible articulation or interlacing of incommensurable nonexperiences. Every death is a parallel death—and nothing else besides.
There is, then, for Heidegger, essentially no rapport between the death of the self and the death of the Other. Dasein is beside the Other in its dying without ever dying in the place of the Other. As Heidegger puts it in paragraph forty-seven of Sein und Zeit, "Wir erfahren nicht im genuinen Sinne das Sterben der Anderen, sondern sind höchstens immer nur 'dabei'" [We do not experience the dying of others in a genuine sense, but are, at the very most, always just 'there'] [SZ 239]. Holding death in common is what holds the members of the relation together in their mutual separation. Despite the methodological sleight of hand that Heidegger terms "destiny," Dasein's relation to its own death is constitutively dissociated from that of the Other.
In contrast to this tendency, Blanchot conceives of the self's relation to its own death as an exposure that opens onto the death of the other person. Such is Blanchot's most important contribution to the thought of death, as well as what distinguishes his position most radically from...