Johns Hopkins University Press
  • Nearing Death:Anticipation and Survival in Gorz, Derrida, and Ricœur

"La mort est maintenant si effacée de nos mœurs que nous avons peine à l'imaginer et à la comprendre."1

I WANT TO BEGIN THIS ARTICLE by referring to a four-minute clip from Xavier Beauvois's film Des hommes et des dieux.2 The film tells the story of an order of Trappist monks living within a Muslim population in Algeria during the civil war in the 1990s. Relations between the two communities deteriorate as a result of an upsurge in fundamentalist terrorism. The monks have to decide whether they should leave the community whose residents they have nurtured and supported or stay in the knowledge that they will inevitably be killed. In this particular scene (their Last Supper), they toast their decision to stay in Algeria and accept their imminent death. The scene is accompanied by the "Swan Theme" from Tchaikovsky's ballet Swan Lake, the final act of which sees Odette and Siegfried accepting their fate by drowning together rather than face, in Odette's case life forever as a swan (and the ensuing loss of love, freedom, and happiness), and for Siegfried a life consumed by guilt over his unwitting betrayal of Odette. The ballet's final apotheosis has the lovers ascend united and deified into the heavens. In both film and ballet, death is anticipated, accepted, embraced, and overcome. I will return to the significance of this scene later.

Drawing on an understanding of thanatology as a practice in writing death and dying,3 I want to explore the reflections on death—or more precisely on nearing death—of three French thinkers who composed their final works on this theme. For André Gorz, Jacques Derrida, and Paul Ricœur, death was an experience that they captured in their last writings: death by suicide for Gorz three years after his love letter to his wife in Lettre à D.: Histoire d'un amour;4 death from pancreatic cancer in the case of Derrida a year after his last publication, Apprendre à vivre enfin;5 and death from old age two months after the publication of Ricœur's unfinished work Vivant jusqu'à la mort, suivi de fragments.6 These texts reveal how each writer 'imagined' (thought, forethought, anticipated) their deaths as memento mori. Central to this practice of reflection is its focus on the anticipation of death and how this anticipation reshapes their respective thinking on life and the desire to survive. I want to show how these memento mori can be thought of as memento vivere. [End Page 26]

Theory and context

This article first came to life as a keynote address at a conference on the theme of the medical and religious imaginary in French literature.7 At the time the focus of my paper was on anticipatory grief. We usually think of grief as that which follows rather than that which awaits. I wanted to explore this understanding of grief further and demonstrate how in the future temporality that is anticipation there exists a continuous present, ethical and religious, that is an imminence and an immanence. In addition, one of the aims of that paper, to be developed further in this article, is that in defining the axis of the medicoreligious imaginary it was helpful for me to think in terms of texts of reparation and a very specific type of reparation in Lazarean textuality where the dying writer is reborn through language. Nearing death invites these writers to question the role of writing: why write, whom to write for, and where lies the value in the act of writing.

I also aim to link the experience of anticipation to immanence. Immanence comes from the Latin immanens meaning to "remain in." It is the quality of being contained within or remaining within the boundaries of a person or the mind. This meaning is common within Christian and monotheist theologies. In his Ethics, Spinoza's immanent God was the creator of the world in the same way that an essence creates its own properties.8 The history of immanence is also linked to Christology, the field within Christian theology that deals with the ministry of Jesus Christ as person and his trinitarian role in salvation. It is a field that gained considerable prominence in the twentieth century, notably in the work of the German theologian Rudolf Bultmann who claimed that all that mattered in Christology was the 'thatness' of Christ and not the 'whatness' or 'whyness.'9 Immanence has also gained purchase within twentieth-century continental French philosophy, notably in the phenomenology of Michel Henry's "radically immanent self."10 Alain Badiou uses the word too to describe the death and resurrection of Christ and the equivalence these two assume in the construction of the spirit: "La mort du Christ est le montage d'une immanentisation de l'esprit."11 The word is also closely associated with Gilles Deleuze and his "plans d'immanence"; immanence for Deleuze means immersion in relation to a plane of immanence that already includes both life and death. In his last work before his suicide, entitled Immanence et une vie, Deleuze writes that it is when immanence is no longer "immanent à autre chose que soi qu'on peut parler d'un plan d'immanence."12 This article reinforces how the immanence of life (living life) as death nears is an existentialist, structural, and transcendent experience that has emerged as integral to the recent French philosophical imaginary of thanatology. I proceed [End Page 27] therefore using three inter-related ideas: Lazarean textuality in Gorz's Lettre à D.; structural/anticipatory immanence in Derrida's Apprendre à vivre enfin; and the immanence of "le regard" in Ricœur's Vivant jusqu'à la mort, suivi de fragments.

Gorz's Lazarean textuality

Lettre à D.: Histoire d'un amour is an open letter of love written by André Gorz to his British-born wife, Doreen. The work became an overnight bestseller in France after the couple were found dead in their home in Vosnons, east of Paris. At the time, President Nicolas Sarkozy led public tributes to Gorz as a major intellectual figure of the French and European left. Few however had ever before heard of the woman Gorz met by chance at a card game in Switzerland some sixty years earlier and who became his wife and professional partner. It was her tragic illness that led both to their deaths. Doreen was afflicted by a progressive condition caused by the side effects of lipiodol, a contrast agent used for X-rays before a back operation in 1965. Particles of the material lodged in her cranium and formed cysts in the cervix. Her nerves became compressed, causing attacks of excruciating pain. At the time of their suicide, a single sheet of paper, pinned to the door of their apartment for the cleaner, read simply, "Avertissez la police. Ne montez pas l'escalier." In the bedroom, lying side by side were the two bodies. They had killed themselves with a lethal drug overdose. He was eighty-four, she was eighty-three. On the bedside table lay some letters and matter-of-fact instructions for their joint cremation.

It was in autumn 2006, when his wife was becoming overwhelmed by ill health, that Gorz first published his letter, which begins thus:

Tu vas avoir quatre-vingt-deux ans. Tu as rapetissé de six centimètres, tu ne pèses que quarante-cinq kilos et tu es toujours belle, gracieuse et désirable. Cela fait cinquante-huit ans que nous vivons ensemble et je t'aime plus que jamais. Je porte de nouveau au creux de ma poitrine un vide dévorant que seule comble la chaleur de ton corps contre le mien.

(Gorz 9

We can read Lettre à D. in different ways. It is a reparative text in the way it seeks to make amends or atone for a writer's failings and misrepresentations of a woman he only now realizes (in her dying state) that he loves deeply. He seeks to make amends for being absent from her, refusing to commit to marrying her, and criticizing her in his works. This reparative reading is justified on a number of grounds, notably through writing as a reparative response to his atonement: "Magie de la littérature; elle me faisait accéder à l'existence en tant mȇme que je m'étais décrit, écrit dans mon refus d'exister" (Gorz 47). Love is one of the channels through which this reparation takes place; despite [End Page 28] old age, illness and imminent death, love and life are intensified. The longer quotation above that opens the text comes back as a variation on a theme to 'end it' (of which I will say more in due course). But love is also the central movement in the text; it is the retrospective realization of its centrality—as "pacte" (18), as "projet commun" (22), as "union" (23), as "filtre" (44), and as "résonance avec l'autre" (30)—that sustains the reparative reading and the belief in their enduring survival.

Psychotherapy places significant emphasis on the process of working through trauma mainly in order to prevent the dangers of acting out / identification with a past trauma and the implicit inability to recover from it.13 Writing is often a vital instrument in the therapeutic toolkit of working through trauma (which Gorz readily acknowledges). However, Lettre à D. is a text in which the writer has chosen deliberately to bypass medical and psychotherapeutic interventions and come face to face with the man/writer that he was (acting out, if you will), which he does by using the second part of this text to reengage with his previous work Le traître, suivi du Vieillissement,14 a title and text he now comes to admit was a confession of his own betrayal of himself and his scathing treatment of his wife:

Je n'ai pas réalisé vraiment l'exploration en profondeur que je me proposais en écrivant Le traître. Il me reste à comprendre, à clarifier beaucoup de questions. J'ai besoin de reconstituer l'histoire de notre amour pour en saisir tout le sens. C'est elle qui nous a permis de devenir qui nous sommes, l'un par l'autre et l'un pour l'autre. Je t'écris pour comprendre ce que j'ai vécu, ce que nous avons vécu ensemble.

(Gorz 10, my italics)

I have italicized a portion of this quotation not only for its echoes of existentialism (en-soi and pour-soi) but also because rewriting a love that he had overlooked existed is an opportunity to recapture it as a new defining presence and immanence. Stretching back to his first meeting with Doreen in 1947, years of courting, and years of struggle to find work, Gorz tells of the difficulties he had coping with the real world. His experiences during these years are as much symptoms of his depression and his sense of alienation as an Austrian Jew in the post-war period as they are of his existential angst. There is also a tacit acknowledgement that D. was his unspoken imagination and his escape from never wanting to 'exist' as an existentialist. As this letter unfolds, there is a gradual acceptance that he could not continue living in this state of non-existence (ironically a magical state as he refers to it) and that reality is a finite space that he must confront. He quotes himself from his story Le vieillissement: "Il faut accepeter d'ȇtre fini; d'ȇtre ici et nulle part ailleurs, de faire ça et pas autre chose, maintenant et pas jamais ou toujours; ici seulement, [End Page 29] ça seulement, maintenant seulement—d'avoir cette vie seulement" (Gorz 197).

Le vieillissement is an existentialist tale of a man who feels he is old before his time, who is unable to extract the maximum pleasure from life in the present, for whom the spontaneity of life has been extinguished and who cannot escape his "destin préfabriqué" (164). Gorz's return to existentialism in Lettre à D. after years of ecological activism is prophetic. It not only reestablishes existentialism at the heart of Gorz's life-vision, but it is written at a time when death nears, and is powered by the conviction that death was not going to take him or Doreen, and that instead they would expropriate death. In taking control of their own deaths via the synchronicity of their suicide, they are reconciled to life and its immanence. Writing, embodied in Gorz's Lazarean textuality, is the means by which they are raised up as existentialist heroes who exalt in the immanence of life.

For Gorz, this immanence is linguistic, textual, and philosophical (in fact "au-delà de la philosophie" (Gorz, Lettre à D. 39). Linguistically, it takes the form of his revisiting the text Le traître and rediscovering that, while a strongly existentialist text that had two imaginary characters, in reality it was a story about himself and his relationship with his wife (of whom he gives a withering account). Revisiting this text as a reparative text reveals key reparative features: a reincorporation of the pronouns "toi" and "moi"; an acknowledgement in vocative form of "toi" (now D.) and its relation to "moi"; the inextricable nature of this new relationality; and a commitment, hitherto nonexistent, and sealed in the form of a vow never to be parted from her. "La blessure originale" that brought them together as young lovers, and which Le traître suppresses, returns as a wound of communion central to their formative experience and future life. Gorz has arrived at a point of reunification between a self that made itself absent from life (an existentialist in denial) and a self now firmly rooted in the present and in the life of the dying.

Two interrelated points surface at this juncture: reinvention of life in later life (notably in the face of death), which is sourced in a Lazarean textuality; and the inseparability of two selves mirrored in the inseparability of two lovers (one of whom is dying). The 'miracle' of Lazarus (Gorz talks of a "miracle" in the last line of his letter) is redeployed by Gorz as a haunting, much in the same way that Jean Cayrol uses the word in his "art lazaréen."15 Lazarus is marked by death, condemned to haunt the living and for whom life is void of meaning. The imminent death of Gorz's wife, who is the paradoxical inspiration for his letter and the subject of the painful final pages of the text, bears witness to his new present, which is now haunted by death and regret. Gorz [End Page 30] too is haunted by his former self, and the letter serves a dual purpose in this regard. It is the filter for this haunting via the ghost of Le traître, but equally the imminent death of his wife offers a new perspective on the original text and an opportunity for Gorz to be 'raised up.'

I referred earlier to two episodes in the letter where this variation on the Lazarean is most marked. The first is when Gorz tells us of a meeting with Ivan Illich, the author of Medical Nemesis: The Expropriation of Health.16 During this meeting, Illich speaks with Gorz's wife (who is now in a grave physical state) and says to Gorz, "Ce regard! Je comprends maintenant ce qu'elle représente pour toi" (Gorz, Lettre à D. 70). At first reading this statement demonstrates sincerity and pathos. It is an exchange however that Gorz develops. Illich speaks to D., "Vous avez vu l'autre côté" (71). Gorz follows this up by addressing D. directly, "Tu avais vu l'autre côté; tu étais revenue du pays d'où on ne revient pas" (71). The tense shift from passé composé to plus-que-parfait confirms D.'s status as revenant and survivor. The second example picks up on this theme of survival. At the end of his letter Gorz describes a dream he had in which he is walking alone behind D.'s hearse. He confirms he will not be present at her cremation or hold on to her urn, but suggests that, if a miracle is possible, he would like to spend his life after death with her. The miracle comes true in their survival in a joint suicide.

The Lazarean trope in this sequence of exchanges enacts a subversion of its traditional Christian narrative where resurrection is reserved for the Resurrection of the Dead after the Last Judgment. D's 'return from the dead' in life as revenant is not framed by Lazarean aimless wandering (Cayrol) or a spiritual rebirth, but by a desire to survive (to continue to exist). It is a desire sustained by an ecological commitment to live life simply, coupled with an ecopoetic turn in the writing of Gorz (from écrivain on ecology to écriveur on life). By the end of the letter we find out that Gorz and D. have both retreated to the forest, are building their own home in a U shape, and lead an ascetic lifestyle that bears witness to what Gorz calls "l'essentiel."17 The Lazarean trope as evidenced here is not completely negative in meaning or cast in haunted form, as miracle and tense would imply. In part, the real significance of this Lazarus story resides in the symbolic death of Gorz as the man behind the author of Le traître. In Lettre à D., Gorz purges his own mauvaise foi through a reworking of Le traître's existentialist vision. We witness the resurrection of Gorz, the elderly ecologist who has rediscovered the value of "l'essentiel" and the transcendence that comes from a confrontation with the material immanence of life.

I add one final thought on survival. D., we are told, gives up on treatment for her aggressive cancer and continues to live indefinitely. She actively [End Page 31] resists bodily expropriation by the medical profession by not hanging on involuntarily to life. Her survival rather is a willful maximization of life's intensity in the face of death's encroaching imminence. Life is lived up to its end. It conquers death, not through culmination in a Christian resurrection but in a resurrection that reduces life to its essential needs. Significantly, neither of them survives the other; neither outlives the other. From the funeral pyre of joint cremation to the liquefaction of Odette and Siegfried, this unicity of bodies and selves defines the experience of immanence. We think of unicity as the state of being whole (a united entity). Oneness is also a form of immanence—the quality of being contained within, remaining within, and dying within. Revisiting Le traître via this letter is a salutary reminder for Gorz of what love means for him: living "l'un par l'autre et l'un pour l'autre" (10). It is a giving that calls for the gift of self in the other. This porosity of transmission is manifested in a series of textual and hors-textual coalitions: bodies joined in cremation; a conjoining of selves; Gorz's past and present coming together; literary metastasis (traitor and testament); linguistic and conjugal reconciliation in "toi" and "moi"; and ultimately life and death uniting in the act of suicide. Their suicide is not a response to the absurdity of life. Rather, it is an act of willful expropriation of the body at the height of life's intensity and an embrace of death. At the end of Gorz's letter he repeats in reduced form the opening lines of the letter. It is a textual, structural, and cyclical movement towards unicity that itself inheres in the physical pressing of one living body on another dying body—head on chest, soul on soul, breath on breath, and a nightingale answering a nightingale in song:

Tu viens juste d'avoir quatre-vingt-deux ans. Tu es toujours belle, gracieuse et désirable. Cela fait cinquante-huit ans que nous vivons ensemble et je t'aime plus que jamais. Récemment je suis retombé amoureux de toi une nouvelle fois et je porte de nouveau en moi un vide dévorant que ne comble que ton corps serré contre le mien.

(Gorz 74–75)

Derrida and structural immanence

Jacques Derrida and André Gorz share some common concerns: fear of the impact of techno-culture and digitalization on temporality, writing, what it means to belong to a generation or to leave a legacy. But it is in their respective conceptualizations of life and death and an afterlife where, what appear to be significant divergences, are interrelated through the idea of survival. Starting from the point of being as infinite, actual death for Derrida, including his own imminent death, is subsumed by its trace, and this trace survives and is revitalized both textually and at the point of reading or by the act of naming of the departed: [End Page 32]

Dans chaque situation, il faut créer un monde d'exposition approprié, inventer la loi de l'événement singulier, tenir compte du destinataire supposé ou désiré, et, en même temps, prétendre que cette écriture déterminera le lecteur, lequel apprendra à lire (à «vivre») cela, qu'il n'était pas habitué à recevoir d'ailleurs. On espère qu'il en renaîtra autrement déterminé.

(Derrida 31–32)

We are reminded here of two key notions. For Derrida, death, in its futurity (as that which we anticipate will happen), is always anterior. Death is therefore originary and structural. Surviving death ("survivance") as text, trace or name exercises authority over death, and this is the real significance of death for Derrida. One is delivered from death to the livingness of a survivor, and within this weave of survival the meaning of death takes on a learning, formative, and mourning function and, I would suggest, an immanence in the act of writing and reading.

A few weeks before his death on October 9, 2004, Jacques Derrida gave an interview to Le Monde. The journalist who interviewed him and wrote the preface to Derrida's last publication was Jean Birnbaum. It is a conundrum of a text (an aporia in the Derridean sense) because the title Apprendre à vivre enfin suggests a maturity and an education in finally accepting learning how to live before death comes. But Derrida dispels any such "savoir-vivre" implied in the title of the interview. Instead, Derrida offers us the absence of mature reflection and propels us from the first line to the end line—to the immediacy of life at its end—because for Derrida not only is life not learned as a transitive experience but life is lived only in the face of death's structural originariness. Hence full speed ahead to the end: "Hâtons-nous de commencer par la fin" (9). Derrida establishes a cogito of survival founded not in Cartesian rationality but in its absence, and the replacement of transitive learning over time by survival as our point of origin (that which we are born with and which proceeds to structure our lives). So right from the start of this interview, Derrida lays down a key principle: "Apprendre à vivre, cela devrait signifier apprendre à mourir, à prendre compte, pour l'accepter, la mortalité absolue (sans salut, ni résurrection, ni rédemption—ni pour soi ni pour l'autre" (Derrida 24). Derrida's imminent death is not the direct subject matter of the interview. His own death is recast temporally, structurally, and textually within the trace of survival. For Gorz, survival as lover and écriveur came late in life and culminated in the discovery of a new intensity of life resurrected right up to death and in death. For Derrida, survival is outside actual life and death. Survival is the immanence left by the trace of life and death. Survival operates before and after his imminent death. It is not the add-on to actual life implied by the prefix "sur"; it is what has already been and what is yet to come. [End Page 33]

What does the trace tell us about Derrida, death, and survival? In this interview, Derrida is already talking and writing about his death's trace and its legacy rather than about the death that awaits him. This is because Derrida is of the view that nothing belongs to us, neither language nor life nor death, and certainly not religion: prayers are neither true nor false. They are, literally, prayers (40). The trace's immanence—the present in which the text survives, outlives, and outlasts the writer, reader, time, and history—is not as Derrida claims a striving for immortality through the creation of a legacy, but the acknowledgement of a structural immanence that preexists and is already contained within the trace. The trace of life (which incidentally is the phrase used by readers and scholars to describe this interview, as opposed to Derrida's own use of "nécrologie" before he was even dead), preexists, survives, and anticipates all death. The following quotation from the interview is often used to characterize Derrida's relationship to this trace and writing:

Ce n'est pas une ambition d'immortalité, c'est structural. Je laisse là un bout de papier, je pars, je meurs, impossible de sortir de cette structure. Chaque fois que je laisse partir quelque chose, que telle trace part de moi, en "procède," de façon irréappropriable, je vis ma mort dans l'écriture. Épreuve extrême: on s'exproprie sans savoir à qui proprement la chose qu'on laisse est conféré. Qui va hériter, et comment? Y aura-t-il même des héritiers?


Critical to our understanding of Derrida's philosophy of the trace is that its immanence resides in its constant state of tension (the state of being "perfectible"—never quite finished or complete, always in a state of straining). Lazarean textuality is thus not an inappropriate way of describing Derrida's relationship to the trace. Like Lazarus, the text navigates between life and death, between living and the dead, between this text as the trace of life and the text as Derrida's last, between testament and obituary. The trace's structural immanence is a haunting not just of what has happened but of what is to happen. Haunting is thus anticipatory; the survivor is the ghost that pre-haunts the text:

Je ne suis jamais autant hanté par la nécessite de mourir que dans les moments de bonheur et de jouissance. Jouir et pleurer la mort qui guette, pour moi, c'est la même chose. Quand je me rappelle ma vie, j'ai tendance à penser que j'ai eu cette chance d'aimer même les moments malheureux de ma vie, et de les bénir […]. Quand je me rappelle les moments heureux, je les bénis aussi, bien sûr, en même temps ils me précipitent vers la pensée de la mort, vers la mort, parce que c'est passé, fini.

(55, my italics)

Echoing Gorz, who ends his text with the ironic hope of a miracle, Derrida ends his with a 'blessing' (of sorts). There is a touch of irony in this blessing too, but in my view its real significance resides in Derrida's Jewishness. In the [End Page 34] preface, Jean Birnbaum references a play that was running at a local Parisian theatre at the time and to which he was invited after this interview with Derrida. Titled after Imre Kertész's novel Kaddish pour l'enfant qui ne naîtra pas, adapted and directed by Joël Jouanneau, the play is a recitation of a Jew nearly in his grave. Birnbaum refers to the play in the context of inheritance (a key theme for Derrida). The play gestures to Derrida's self-doubt over his Jewishness, a religious identity he would never deny but with which he did not feel much personal or political affinity. I raise this reference in the context of blessing. The Kaddish is a prayer of sanctification and is recited during the period of mourning in the Jewish tradition. The Kaddish prayer praises God in spite of loss and death. To conclude his last publication in the knowledge of his own death, with not just one blessing but two, is noteworthy. By way of emphasis, Derrida deliberately invests in writerly (and not divine) license to confer his own blessings on his own life—and what legacy that may entail. The happy and unhappy moments are blessed too—in equal measure—because they form part of that structural originariness of life and death over which he has no control. As Derrida claims, death and life are "équiprimordial" (57) in this structure. The play, which continued to run for months after Derrida's death, haunts this interview and these blessings before, during, and after. Mourning, like death, is a structural blessing that begins before birth. For Kertész and for Derrida, to know how to live is to learn first how to mourn.

Ricœur's regard

In this final section, I want to turn my focus to Paul Ricœur's text Vivant jusqu'à la mort, suivi de fragments, an unfinished work and published two months before his death in 2007. By way of entry into this dense text, it may be helpful to begin with one of the fragments called "Jacques Derrida," which opens with the following quotation taken from Apprendre à vivre enfin: "Je suis en guerre contre moi-même" (Ricœur 47), and which Ricœur alludes to with some sarcasm in his own "bataille" with and against a death soon to come. The war of words highlights a significant difference in their directions of travel.

The fragment captures the distance between Ricœur and Derrida on the issue of survival and signals one of the key images Ricœur uses to describe this difference. Echoing Levinas's use of the concept of the face as the ethical barometer by which we measure our relationship to otherness (for Levinas the human face orders and ordains and calls the subject in giving and serving), Ricœur distances himself from Derrida's 'look' to his generation (his philosophical contemporaries) as the measure of survival. For Ricœur, Derrida's 'look' comes from a position of narcissism and self-regard (what he calls the [End Page 35] "clôture de l'œuvre" (53). Ricœur challenges Derrida's ethical and linguistic narcissism by entrusting to the trace of others (rather than his own trace) the hope of his survival. Hope (Christian hope) is what Ricœur claims he offers to those outside the exclusivity of the written trace.18

Vivant jusqu'à la mort lives up to what its title suggests: living life right up to the point of death. For Ricœur, this living ("vivencia") is a philosophical, theological, and ethical position. The philosophical dimension, which defines Ricœur's vision of life, death, and afterlife, is founded in the transmission of life's intensity from the dying (not the dead) to the survivors of the dying. Death is not death per se (a finitude) but is pierced through by the transmissibility of livingness. For Ricœur, we don't die. We are forever remembered. The dead are dead beings ("êtres") who pass on life's intensity to those who survive beyond death. And by passing on life's intensity, death is not just bypassed but conquered. Passing on is also imagined in terms of a Bergsonian vitalism ("élan vital") that sustains this transmission. This is what Ricœur means by surviving: passing on this vitalism to survivors. It is also the meaning that underpins his phrase "résurrection horizontale" (59) in which life's energy is transmitted via acts, words, and deeds.

The transmission of life's intensity is immanent in the way it is lodged in living and indiscernible from living. It is always and already anticipated: "En somme, je ne possède rien d'autre que ma mort pour exprimer ma vie" (65). Anticipation captures the "transcendence immanente" (75) of life's capacity to be renewed. We see this in Ricœur's prose grammatically and poetically. Anticipation means to interiorize one's death before it happens ("me voir déjà mort avant que d'être mort" (73), but critically, anticipation takes Ricœur beyond death to think of how others will see his death and remember him ("m'appliquer à moi-même par anticipation une question de survivant" [76]). In this sense, anticipation is a haunting of what will have happened: "la hantise du futur antérieur" (38). Ricœur shares this grammatology of haunting with Derrida. To anticipate one's death is to imagine how others will see it. This is part of the meaning of survival for Ricœur and also part of his philosophical imaginary of death. Where Ricœur would appear to part from Derrida is on the ethics of this imaginary. The immanent transcendence of Ricœur's ethics enables him to imagine what impact his dying will have on those who survive him. It is an act of compassion and solicitude that differs in time, history, and religious hope from Derrida's anticipation of his own death within the parameters of his writer's generation, its legacy, and its surviving trace.

Ricœur develops his discussion of anticipatory death as an ars moriendi in the context of Jorge Semprún, Primo Levi, Charles Baudelaire, and Paul [End Page 36] Celan. Specifically, he identifies anticipation's immanence in "le regard" including the many "regards" that address the dying: the look of the "agonisant"; the look of the "moribund"; the look of the doctor; the look of the carer; but in particular the look of one who does not see death in the dying but sees the transmissive intensity of life. It is in this context that I return to the clip I highlighted from Des hommes et des dieux at the outset of this article. In contrast to philosophies that seek to dismantle the face as an over-determination of identity,19 Ricœur locates a transcendent immanence in the dying face which he describes as a poetic that is closer to what he calls "l'essentiel" or a "religieux commun." Assuming Tchaikovsky's Swan Lake and its significance are not lost on the monks in their compound (we have to assume it is not otherwise that they choose this particular piece of music), it seems plausible that Xavier Beauvois is trying to connect the suicide of Odette and Siegfried and their ascension into the heavens with the imminent extinction of this Trappist order. Furthermore, Xavier Beauvois uses the face and different faces and facial expressions as the register of their anticipatory death. In these faces, it is hard not to see a transmission of sorts—what Ricœur has called a "transcendence immanente." In this supper scene where wine is shared, the transmission of life is conveyed through the presence of wine (in both body and bouquet) and through its transsubstantive symbolism. Like the wine they drink together, death tastes good for the monks and is not as bad as they had anticipated. In fact, it is surprisingly palatable. Transmission of life in this sharing of wine is an act of solidarity (the "religieux commun"), which is not a religious experience in an exclusive or confessional sense but a collective acceptance that comes from a knowledge that "mourir est transculturel, transconfessionnel, transreligieux" (45). "Le regard souriant" that traces itself across these faces transmits the immanence of a "grâce intérieure" that serves to light up these faces in this darkest of moments. At times in this clip, the expressions on these faces change. They show anxiety, doubt, and fear, but then the power of the music (art) to affect and transform renews hope. It is also worth noting that while this experience takes place within a Trappist order, what happens to these faces is not the preserve of the religious orders. It is a universal, human experience. What the power of Tchaikovsky's music does is take the glacial stare of death and transfigure it into something living.


Gorz, Derrida, and Ricœur approach nearing death as an opportunity to map survival through a process of immanence—ontological, structural, and transcendent—and therefore offer ways of looking at and beyond death's imminence. [End Page 37] In Lettre à D., survival comes about in a series of 'comings together' (immanences) that are temporal, textual, and ontological. On the one hand, in nearing death Gorz and his wife make up for lost time by extracting the most out of life by reducing it to its most essential, frugal living. On the other, their survival means taking control of their death by joining forces in suicide. For Derrida, death as a finality has already structured from birth how life is lived and how it ends. Survival therefore has meaning only in what is left behind and what 'survivors' find in what it is left behind. Death, by contrast, is not a finality for Ricœur; as an end (in thought and in word), death is replaced by dying as a vitality. In resisting closure, the human face of the dying persists in its transcendence to life in the here and now.

Enda McCaffrey
Nottingham Trent University


1. Philippe Ariès, L'homme devant la mort (Paris: Seuil, 1985), 36.

2. Xavier Beauvois, Des hommes et des dieux (France: 2010).

3. I take inspiration from one of the key thanatalogical texts of the twentieth century (Ariès, L'homme devant la mort) which sought to shift death and dying away from medical contexts to the socio-cultural spaces of the home and community.

4. André Gorz, Lettre à D.: Histoire d'un amour (Paris: Galilée, 2006).

5. Jacques Derrida, Apprendre à vivre enfin (Paris: Galilée, 2005).

6. Paul Ricœur, Vivant jusqu'à la mort, suivi de fragments (Paris: Seuil, 2007).

7. Conference called L'imaginaire médico-religieux: French Literary Perspectives, Queen's University Belfast (October 2018).

8. Baruch Spinoza, Ethics (London: Penguin Classics, 1996).

9. Robert Bultmann, Theology of the New Testament (Waco: Baylor U P, 2007).

10. Michel Henry, C'est moi la vérité (Paris: Seuil, 1996), 109.

11. Alain Badiou, Saint Paul: La fondation de l'universalisme (Paris: PUF, 1998), 198.

12. Gilles Deleuze, Immanence et vie (Paris: PUF, 2006), 149.

13. The works of Mireille Rosello and Dominic LaCapra investigate these respective theories of working through and acting out trauma.

14. André Gorz, Le traître, suivi du Vieillissement (Paris: Folio, 2005).

15. In the French tradition, Émile Zola makes particular use of Lazarus in his one-act lyric drama Lazarus (1894), noteworthy because of Lazarus's wish to be returned to the tomb from where he was raised, a wish that Zola grants. More recently, the poet and publisher Jean Cayrol has researched the figure of Lazarus extensively in his work Les corps étrangers: Pour un romanesque lazaréen, suivi de La rature par Roland Barthes (Paris: Points, 1987). A survivor of the concentration camps, Cayrol used his experience in the camps to develop his "art lazaréen" (203). This was art marked by the experience of the camps and depicted characters who, as a consequence of their experiences, were unable to return to 'normal' life again. (We might include a number of intertexts here including W.G. Sebald's The Emigrants (1992), Austerlitz (2001), but also most notably the film Nuit et brouillard [1956] written by Cayrol and directed by Alain Resnais.)

16. Ivan Illich, Medical Nemesis: The Expropriation of Health (London: Pantheon Books, 1976). This is one of the early thanatological texts that changed thinking about death as a medical encounter (and a text that Gorz reviewed in draft form and contributed passages to).

17. "L'essentiel" is a word charged with Marcusian, political, ethical, philosophical, and religious associations. It is a word used in similar circumstances by Derrida and Ricœur.

18. This is not the time or place to call into question Ricœur's wider critique of Derrida; suffice to say for now that there is a case that it is ungenerous to speak of narcissism in Derrida's trace when what is ethical in that trace is the way Derrida gives hope and hospitality to the survivor (all survivors), albeit a hope that is founded in the structural immanence of death and mourning.

19. I refer here to Deleuze and Guattari's critique of the ethical turn symbolized by the face in Mille plateaux (Paris: Minuit, 1998) and Catherine Malabou's concept of destructive plasticity and the creation of post-traumatic subjectivity in which the face plays a significant role (Les nouveaux blessés [Paris: PUF, 2017]).

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