By Thomas Lay, Fordham University Press
Jean-Luc Nancy died last night at the age of 81. Until the last month or so, he’d been tremendously energetic, and even as recently as a week ago, he sent me the text of a new book that will soon appear in French. This despite living the last thirty-plus years with a heart transplant. The anti-rejection drugs gave him a range of other ailments too, including cancer, which recurred off and on for years. Despite all this, he wrote extensively, mentored many a younger philosopher, and travelled everywhere to give lectures, except the United States, simply because, at least until the ACA passed (and perhaps after), he couldn’t get health insurance in our absurd system.
For those who want to read something of Nancy’s, I can recommend his short piece “The Intruder,” which we included in Corpus (itself an extraordinary text). “The Intruder” concerns his heart transplant, and gives a very particular instantiation to his wider concerns about the ways in which being means both an evacuation and fragmenting of one’s self, but also, at the same time means being exposed to others, being in common. It also has the distinction of being the only philosophical text I know of that’s been adapted into a feature film, by none other than Claire Denis, perhaps France’s greatest living filmmaker (Beau Travail, White Material, Thirty-Five Shots of Rum).
Here’s a favorite passage I keep returning to, from Nancy’s wonderful series of talks to children, which we collected as God, Justice, Love, Beauty: Four Little Dialogues. I think of this whenever someone poses the question of whether god exists, which Nancy astutely points out is the wrong question. Because, for so many religions, god does not exist — that’s the whole point: god is precisely that which does not exist. But, for most of us, some version of the common does, however contested, however plural. Here’s Nancy, elaborating this to a group of twelve-year-olds, who may be better able to grapple with this than we grown-ups are.
When religion says that god exists, it perhaps never says exactly that. But let’s say that the religious answer more or less comes down to affirming: “Yes, god exists.” If that is the case, let me assure you that among all religious people, and not simply among theologians, that is, scholars who study various aspects of religion, but among priests, imams, or rabbis, those who are not necessarily scholars but who are concerned with what religion represents and with the relationship between religion and the people of a particular religious community, there are very few people today who would say: “Yes, god exists, and he is in fact right up there, in the seventh heaven, all you have to do is go up there and you will see him. He has a face with a long beard . . .” A Muslim especially will not say that. It is perhaps in Islam that there is the most acute sense that god looks like nothing, absolutely nothing. This is repeated throughout the Koran.
More generally, what religion says in this form can be understood, I think, even outside religion. I myself, for example, am speaking to you completely outside any religion. We can thus understand these things in a different way. Finally, in speaking of god, we are speaking of this name that is like a proper name and yet is not a proper name since it does not name someone who would be somewhere, someone who would have certain characteristics proper to him or her, like those of Célestin Dupont. But god names the possibility that there exists for us collectively, as well as for each of us singularly and individually, a relationship with this nowhere and everywhere. In other words, god, or the divine, or the celestial, would name the fact that I am in relation not with something but with the fact that I am not limited to all those relations I have with all the things of the world, or even with all the beings of the world. It suggests that there is something else, which I will here call “the opening,” something that makes me be, that makes us be as humans open to something more than being in the world, more than being able to take things up, manipulate them, eat them, get around in the world, send space probes to Mars, look at galaxies through telescopes, and so on. It suggests that there is all this but also something else.
What is this something else? We have some idea of this other thing, and perhaps more than an idea, a feeling, through the fact, for example, that we know what it is to feel great joy or great sadness, what it is to feel love or, I won’t say hate, but at least a feeling that is very far from love. When I have such feelings or moods I sense that there is something immense, infinite, which I cannot simply locate somewhere. For when I feel joy or sadness, love or hatred, force or weakness, there is in all this something that infinitely exceeds what I am, my person, my personality, my means, my location, my way of being someone in a particular place in the world. In all this there is some kind of opening. Now, the god of the three monotheistic religions, and all the other gods as well, god himself, represents nothing other than this.