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Interview with Jean-Luc Nancy

We have a confession to make: we thought it would be easy to interview Jean-Luc Nancy. We knew that he was a very experienced interviewee, more than willing to answer questions, and we thought that his work offered enough entry points for a stimulating and prolonged conversation. On the first point, we were right: we arranged to meet fairly quickly and his lifelong publisher, Galilée, sent us the proofs of his latest book, Sexistence (published in February 2017), which happens to be one of his best. It is an audacious introduction of sex into ontology (or maybe the other way around), merged with psychoanalysis and literature. Once we’d read it, we were not so sure interviewing the author would be that easy after all.

 

Of course, we were aware of the importance of Nancy, sometimes named as the most influential French thinker of the generation to come of age just after the great blooming of French Theory. His work is extremely varied. Rooted in Heideggerian thought and influenced by Derrida’s deconstructionist ideas, Nancy’s philosophy analyses a vast array of concepts: body and nudity, community and democracy, art and creation, Christianity and globalisation. He has written over a hundred books since 1973, including three books on the political idea of community (The Inoperative Community, 1983; The Confronted Community, 2001; The Disavowed Community, 2014) partly inspired by his work on Maurice Blanchot; a deeply sensitive memoir of his experience of surviving a heart transplant, (The Intruder, 2000); a contribution to the ongoing debate on Martin Heidegger’s anti-Semitism (The Banality of Heidegger, 2015); and reflections on the political transformations of our time in the aftermath of the Paris attacks of November 2015 (Que Faire?, 2016). He has also written extensively with his closest friend and intellectual soulmate, Philippe Lacoue-Labarthe.

 

On a chilly morning in January, we found ourselves in a Haussmanian building in the working-class area of Stalingrad in Paris’s 19th arrondissement – recently made famous by the evacuation of refugees that had settled there – in the apartment where a friend of Nancy, a silver-haired Lacanian psychoanalyst, hosted the interview. As the conversation started, after Nancy’s attempt to make us a good cup of coffee occasioned a little incident that proved him worthy of Thales’s philosophical tradition of clumsiness, our subject seemed a little startled by our approach, more general than he might have expected from a conversation with a philosopher. He hesitated, paused, tilted his head and breathed deeply for a while, then gave a long, rich, developed and complex answer. Then it was our turn to be startled. Perhaps this is the sign of a good conversation.

 

Q

The White Review

— In your work there is both a sustained and profound attention to the great philosophical tradition (Plato, René Descartes, Immanuel Kant, G. W. F. Hegel, Martin Heidegger, Jacques Derrida), in a way which distinguishes you from some of your contemporaries like Gilles Deleuze or Giorgio Agamben for example, and a sort of dissemination of ‘pure’ philosophy into different forms like cinema or dance. How do you make sense of this juxtaposition?

A

Jean-Luc Nancy

— I was raised in the most traditional philosophical tradition, the German one in particular. I learnt everything a philosophy student is supposed to learn about Plato in his studies, but the first time I attended a class on Hegel, taught by a Jesuit who was in the process of quitting the Company – that was a defining moment for me. I discovered Hegel with extraordinary enthusiasm and I realised much later that the Hegel I first knew about was very different from the one most people are introduced to. The Hegel I knew had little to do with a completely closed system, about which Emmanuel Levinas once said: ‘There is nothing outside the system, everything lies in the system.’ In 1960, when I was twenty years old, Michel Foucault, Louis Althusser, Deleuze and Derrida were all emerging but I was immediately attracted to the last because he was part of a similar line of thought as me, although he had read Edmund Husserl much more closely. Then Paul Ricoeur was my Master’s professor and he supervised my dissertation, which was about Hegel rather than Husserl. As for Deleuze and Agamben, they are also steeped in a tradition. Baruch Spinoza, Gottfried Leibniz and even Plato are important references for Deleuze, and Agamben has a very strong Heideggerian filiation: he attended Heidegger’s last seminar. In any case, I have invented far fewer concepts than Deleuze and Agamben.

Q

The White Review

— Would you say there was a turning point where you broke from this tradition of thought? Did your encounter with Derrida, for instance, push you towards new directions?

A

Jean-Luc Nancy

— Hegel was the first shock, meeting Derrida was the second. I had read Althusser and Deleuze’s first texts and when I read Derrida, I had for the first time the very strong feeling that I was reading a very contemporary and lively philosophy. In Speech and Phenomena, Derrida developed the idea that the subject in Husserl’s thought was not only a presence to oneself but also a distance to oneself. The subject speaks to himself inside ‘the voice that keeps silence’. When I first read this, I was immediately enthusiastic! I deliberately took a liking to Derrida and tried to meet him. We did meet, and when I met Philippe Lacoue-Labarthe in Strasbourg by chance, we discovered we had common references and attachments, although we also discovered later that we were very different. I started working on Heidegger, Descartes and Kant and then there was a very political moment, which had a political raison d’être.

 

In the 1970s, we were teaching politics and trying to think about the following question: what lies at the bottom of politics? We were looking in many different directions, we worked for example on Freud’s collective psychology and on Georges Bataille, me in particular. And then Jean-Christophe Bailly, whom we knew, asked us to work on the next issue of his review, Arléa – the theme was: ‘Community, Number’ (La communauté, le nombre). The combination of these two words and the apparition of the word ‘community’ really struck me. I then wrote The Inoperative Community (La communauté désoeuvrée, 1983), which Maurice Blanchot answered to with The Unavowable Community (La communauté inavouable, 1984), and I only answered his answer much later – but that is another story. The philosophical questions of that time crystallised in this notion of community. We thought the issue was political but we later discovered it was not only political.

Q

The White Review

— How would you define it, then?

A

Jean-Luc Nancy

— I recently took part in a seminar on the world at the Collège international de Philosophie in Paris, and I talked about the fact that for us the world is not only a deformed world without unity or cosmic consistence, but it is a world faced with the problem of great numbers. What do big data, the very big world population, the number of pieces that compose a fighter jet – 300,000! – or the numbers which make computer systems work actually mean? We know how important the role of the masses was at the beginning of the twentieth century. Everyone was focused on that issue at the time, even Heidegger was reacting to the idea of the mass. Sigmund Freud, Georg Simmel and Georges Sorel too. The communist idea swallowed up the issue and the masses became the subject of their own history and destiny. Before that, democracy, as Alexis de Tocqueville saw it, and communism, as it was seen by those who were against it, was the reign of the mass or the crowd. Yet all the attempts to refuse the masses have been defeated. One can still be part of a far-right tradition which is linked to the masses but one can hardly be of a great and beautiful aristocratic right which pretends to ignore the problem. There is something very aristocratic in this conception of great numbers and I think European culture is fundamentally aristocratic. It still considers excellence as something individual or personal, which involves not one person but a small number of people.

 

However, I am from a generation of intellectuals and artists – I was born in 1940 – which felt strongly that we were part of the movement of history until the 1980s. My generation was raised with the idea of a culture for all, with the ‘maisons de la culture’, the ‘théâtre populaire’ and the Festival d’Avignon. I now realise how closed off from other people we are. This recently struck me as a shock, a revelation. There is not only a political division but a cultural one. My relationship to newspapers, for instance, has completely changed over the last forty years. In 1975, you could read many good philosophy book reviews in newspapers. Now, a majority of critics who write in newspapers have a sort of philosophical bias, as if they were saying: ‘We are fed up with everything which goes from Deleuze to Derrida.’ Even in universities, one feels this. To take another example, a few days before Donald Trump was invested, a friend of mine sent me an article saying that we already knew the Trump administration was working on a plan to get rid of the National Endowment for the Arts and the National Endowment for the Humanities, which were created in 1965 and are directly linked to the presidency. I was not even stunned because all this is part of a much wider movement.

Q

The White Review

— When would you say this movement started?

A

Jean-Luc Nancy

— In France, in 1968, when universities decided they had to change certain attitudes and teachings. As students, we did not really see the changes because we were enjoying an incredible freedom, but meanwhile the Faure laws, which initiated a movement towards making universities more functional and more professional, were being put into place. The university system did not have the same productivity it used to have in a society in which the education of the elite was based on the humanities. This started to change. As French intellectuals or philosophers, so to speak, we continued to think we were following the path of history and that it was making progress. We thought we knew how to approach political issues, we thought that somehow a communist effort would emerge again but without any of the ideologies attached to it – the most difficult thing wasn’t getting rid of Stalinism or Maoism. Maybe Alain Badiou is the only intellectual of my generation who has not really abandoned this conception of history. We get along very well and I think he is a remarkable person, but when he defines communism as the moment when humanity appropriates its own destiny, he is defending a very self-generated vision of the subject. Last year, we had a long conversation about this in Berlin and I asked him: ‘Where do you see this great subject you call “humanity”?’ He does acknowledge, however, that we are in a time of transition. I would use another term, ‘mutation’, which is now very common. A ‘mutation’ is not quite the same thing as a ‘transition’: a ‘transition’ suggests we know in which direction we are going, but I think we have reached such extremities that it is almost impossible to measure this.

Q

The White Review

— In Que Faire? (2016), you write that political action cannot rely on an aim or a project any more. You say that when revolution is no longer possible, there are still forms that carry resolutions with them. Consequently, would you say that any political action today must take into account this loss of a historical consciousness or of a movement of history?

A

Jean-Luc Nancy

— Yes, indeed, it must and there is no alternative. Which does not mean we should think everything is fine and just go on with our daily lives. We obviously need to make political choices. For instance, it is absolutely true that France has shown itself to be narrow-minded in welcoming refugees, if you compare it with Germany, but it is also important to understand why Angela Merkel adopted such a position and what the situation is today in Germany. It is very important to organise the arrival of refugees in our country, but once you have said that, you also have to think about the origins of the problem. We could try and completely change the life conditions in the countries the refugees are coming from, but this is very complex because it involves looking at the confrontation between enormous technical and political machines of global dimensions. Russia is playing its game, so is the United States. And Europe, which could represent something different, is not happening, because there is precisely nothing it can make happen. Europe is too far from the possibility of connecting its symbolic identity to its numerical identity. Why does it not have a symbolic identity? Because it used to have a series of great symbolic identities – the Europe of cathedrals, of monks, of philosophers, of the Enlightenment, of great technicians, chemists and steelworkers – but they all merged into the connective tissue of a civilisation which has spread everywhere but only retains aspects of Europe which are at odds with our world, such as humanism. Some complain because children do not learn Ancient Greek at school any more, but that is really beside the point. Our society actually does not know what it should teach itself. It is a difficult condition, tragic in some respects, but this is what happens when tremendous changes occur. It is important to do what we can do and also to think in political terms about how we can give a real political consistency to each problem. I cannot say I know what we should do but I have observed one thing: for as long as I can remember, intellectuals around me have questioned themselves about their relationship to power. Maybe Bernard-Henri Lévy, who was discredited as a philosopher a long time ago, is the only intellectual of my generation who actually got involved with political power. But one must not forget that for a long time monarchical state devices thrived on philosophical thought: Jean Bodin, John Locke, Thomas Hobbes, Niccolò Machiavelli. The French Revolution did not happen without the thinking that preceded it. Now, however, there is a dislocation between political action and thought. When I published Que Faire?, the Fondation Jean-Jaurès Editor’s note: a think tank with close ties to the French Socialist Party] intended to invite me for a public talk but they never did because they were too busy with the electoral campaign. They wanted me to meet Emmanuel Macron, because he studied Philosophy with Paul Ricoeur and they said it could be interesting. I said: ‘Why not?’ but nothing ever came of it. These people might ask me: ‘How can you help us?’ and I will have to answer that I cannot help them. How could I have helped them to decide who is better between Benoît Hamon and Emmanuel Macron? I have no idea. But all this does question my position as an intellectual. If there was a movement comparable to Podemos in Spain, maybe I could play a role in it. One day, during the Nuit Debout movement, I met this guy on the place de la République who said that if the Spanish succeeded in bringing out Podemos, we could do it too. But we did not, and it is now clear that Podemos is struggling in the Spanish political landscape.

 

What I wanted to say and do say in Que Faire? is that we all do something. A majority of people do something with their lives, we are not only collapsing and losing our bearings. I realise our life conditions are financially, technically and emotionally difficult, but one must not forget that humanity has never been very happy. The very happy image of certain periods of history, like the middle of the eighteenth century or the Belle Époque, is that of certain privileged classes. But how did peasants live in a country like France in the middle of the eighteenth century? And what about factory workers, those who made boats for the French East India Company, for example? We are no longer in the relationship between an intellectual, artistic and spiritual elite and the rest of the population with which it obscurely communicates. This relationship enabled the French Revolution and an effective change of cultural and social life. Now, something else is happening. There are an enormous amount of people caught up in an enormous amount of information and data. And we do not know how to rationalise this.

Q

The White Review

— Similarly, you often write that criticism itself has become a consumer product.

A

Jean-Luc Nancy

— Yes, it is very striking. If you open magazines such as Elle or Le Nouvel Obs, you will find articles on all the important critical themes such as GMOs, the pharmaceutical industry, the huge gap between high and low incomes, or politics. It is everywhere. The same critical pattern unfolded with Trump. I have no sympathy for him and I did not agree with Slavoj Žižek, who wrote in an article I translated that it would be better if Trump were elected. Some of my friends were appalled when they read it. Perhaps he should not have said it in that way. Nonetheless, when I watch French television, I have the impression that its scorn for Trump is already established. Many people in France seemed ready to protest like the Americans who took to the streets after the election. There is something very European in that attitude. But it sounds as if Donald Trump was a nasty guy who came into our house without being invited, which is not true at all. He was elected. And what is the current state of the USA? What is going on in America? Those are the important issues.

 

In parallel to this consumption of criticism, there has been a call for a much stronger critical thought over the last two years, especially in Germany. However, criticism needs a reference point: one must criticise something in the name of something else. For instance, today there is no proper criticism of medicine as it is and as it is evolving. A widespread opinion is that the more medical care we have, the better. Everything must be potentially curable and life must be prolonged at any cost. The extension of life has become an industry which enables older people to live longer in conditions which are not always desirable. Before he died, an old friend of mine who was 85 years old asked me: ‘What are we going to do with all these old people? We are going to have to reinvent the coconut tree.’ He was referring to these Oceanic tribes in which elder men were forced to climb up a coconut tree when the moment of their death approached. If they were too weak, they would fall and die; if they were simply injured the tribe would finish them off. And those men knew what was awaiting them when they set out to climb the tree. In ancient Japan, there was also a tradition of leading elder people to the mountains to leave them to die on their own.

 

Anyhow, the real issue is to know what we want to do with our medicine, which is dependent on a quantity of new illnesses with technical and chemical causes – cancer in particular. The idea of ‘biopower’, which comes from Foucault, has been widely used as an answer to this issue, but I think it is sometimes used with a great naivety. Those who use it tend to argue that government and big industries are taking over our lives. In a sense, it is true because governments issue laws on tobacco or on authorising the sale of certain medicines. It is one aspect of a huge machine, but the problem does not come down to bad government. Either the notion of ‘biopower’ has not been explained well enough, or Foucault was wrong in applying it to Nazi concentration camps. In the latter, the Nazis were conscientiously exterminating people and they had the means to do so. In the pharmaceutical industry, it is quite different. Some people certainly produce substances without caring about their long-term effects over several generations, but they are not exterminating people. The technique which lies in our hands has possibilities we had never imagined and which can be extremely destructive in a number of ways. The problem is not to criticise these possibilities, it is to understand why we criticise them and in light of what. To go against technical progress can be just as dangerous.

Q

The White Review

— In The Intruder (L’Intrus, 2000), you write that ‘Man becomes what he is: the most terrifying and the most troubling technician, as Sophocles called him 25 centuries ago, who denatures and remakes nature, who recreates creation, who brings it out of nothing and, perhaps, leads it back to nothing. One capable of origin and end.’ However, you are also critical of the idea of humanism. How would you define man in a society which is driven towards transhumanism and which desperately clings on to the word ‘humanism’ to define itself?

A

Jean-Luc Nancy

— What I have written about humanism is not particularly new and can be summarised in a single sentence of Heidegger’s ‘Letter on Humanism’: ‘Humanism does not set the humanitas of the human being high enough.’ I agree with this sentence, and I would add this one by Blaise Pascal: ‘Man infinitely transcends man.’ Perhaps we can take a step further with Kant who answers the question ‘What is man?’ with ‘Man is the being of ends’. Man is the end of nature insofar as he is the being of ends: he makes the ends emerge. We are now in a world in which technique is constantly making new ends emerge, and these ends become themselves means for other ends. For instance, reaching the planet Mars is an objective now, but once we will have reached it, we will want to go further. Perhaps one can say that man appears and appears to himself more clearly as nature’s relation to oneself. Technique exceeds nature and this is what needs to be said, thought and worked on. After all, man is a natural being. It is maybe one of the most obvious consequences of the death of God. If he who becomes homo sapiens does not come from a divine intervention, he comes from nature. The word ‘nature’ is weakening but nature produces of itself something which questions it, endangers it and makes it enter a huge complexity, to such an extent that it is becoming difficult to distinguish nature from technique. Maybe certain ecological ideas take this into account, but I have to admit I was not very attentive to ecology for a long time and I am not immediately sensitive to it. Rather than preserving nature as a basic condition for life – although preserving water and air as basic elements is undeniably necessary – I think ecology could consider nature insofar as it is transforming itself, as a nature in mutation. This is a huge task which we have delegated to God or to unknown forces for a long time. It can change the way we apprehend man: man can be nature which reflects itself or nature which denatures itself.

 

A symptom of the mutation we are going through is expressed by the overwhelming existence of psychoanalysis and the fact that it is faced with new problems – the most Lacanian psychoanalysts are acknowledging the fact that many psychic problems are social ones for instance – and the fact that part of the population resorts to psychoanalysis and psychotherapy, partly because we live in a society which seems deprived of politics, philosophy and spirituality. Indeed, this use of psychoanalysis and therapy continues to widen the gap between individual and collective areas. As Marx put it, ‘religion is the spirit of a spiritless world’. One could apply that sentence to much more than religion. All our thoughts, be they psychoanalytical, political, aesthetic or moral, work as ‘the spirit of a spiritless world’. When Marx wrote that, it meant he had in mind a certain idea of the spirit which was missing. We often express the same idea in different forms, when we say: ‘We live in a world with no ideals’ or when we speak of the absence of utopias, the absence of myths. I remember very well an article by Edgar Morin on the front page of le monde which started with a sentence along the lines of: ‘We lack a modern myth.’ The ‘neurotic’s individual myth’ in Freud’s work is a model for the idea that one can only structure oneself or constitute oneself as a subject through a myth. A properly conceived psychoanalysis renders possible the pronunciation of a myth because the myth is the speech which comes from oneself and talks only of oneself. Anyone will give a mythical turn to one’s story if one is asked to tell it. We do not necessarily invent princely ancestors for ourselves, that would be a neurotic myth, but even when we do not invent anything, we invent a sort of original speech. We can say something about our parents that will constitute the fabric of our speech, of how we talk. When I told you I had a revelation earlier, I was building my own portative mythology.

Q

The White Review

— In Maurice Blanchot, Passion Politique (2011), you write that the use of myth defines right-wing political thought.

A

Jean-Luc Nancy

— The main challenge we face in politics today is that the community can no longer think of itself as anything, even as itself. The right-wing idea very easily becomes a far-right idea when it identifies with figures such as Joan of Arc or the Gauls and plays with categories such as protectionism, isolationism and authoritarianism. I think Bataille was the most perspicacious of all when he looked for something which he felt fascism entailed – an energy which makes one feel one can adhere or belong to something – without using fascist thought itself. It strikes me that all civilisations up to our own were built on fundamental, primal and constant belonging. The whole life of an individual belonged to a world and to a social, political, cosmic and religious order. Everyone’s role was defined, although it could not be defined as entirely as in an animal society or as an ant in an anthill.

I often ask myself: do we not exaggerate everything today? Imagine anyone who lived anywhere in Europe in the middle of the Hundred Years’ War or the Thirty Years’ War, I think you will find people who were lost and wondering what was going on. An adverse example would be Montaigne, who in very troubled times was capable of taking the permanent agitation and uncertainty of all human affairs as the mortar with which he built a beautiful, admirably clear-sighted and humorous wisdom. He was also involved in political affairs. We are lacking a Montaigne, nowadays.

Q

The White Review

— You have a form of reserve in common with Montaigne. Have you considered writing literature or some sort of confession?

A

Jean-Luc Nancy

— I have thought about confessions. I am faced with an almost absolute limit, however. I do not know how to approach confession or any literary text. I only tried once, a long time ago, under the pressure of a friend who was pushing me to write my memoirs. I tried but I felt entirely incapable of doing it. I was paralysed in a way I cannot explain. I did not know where to start. Maybe I should try again. I could evoke my grandparents, their parents, even the first Nancy of my family genealogy who was an abandoned child and was called Nancy by accident. It is a nice story which I like to tell but I do not know what to do with it. I think I would have to write that I cannot write anything!

Q

The White Review

— Yet in The Intruder your writing is almost autobiographical. It comes close to what Bataille called ‘naked writing’ (l’écriture nue).

A

Jean-Luc Nancy

— Perhaps, but the circumstances gave me an opportunity to write about myself. All of a sudden I needed a heart transplant. The first two pages of the book were actually the beginning of an article I wrote on the ‘Other’ for Abdelwahab Meddeb’s magazine, Dédale. First, my intention was to say that it is important that the stranger stays a stranger. I wanted to describe the intrusive character of the stranger. And then I realised a transplant is also an intruder. I did not really plan to write about the subject, although many people had encouraged me to do so before. I have written several postscripts for this book and I would be happy to write a sequel. I celebrated in 2016 the twenty-fifth anniversary of my heart transplant — I am the oldest survivor of a heart transplant in Strasbourg, along with one other woman. That implies many things about my relationship with death which are not in The Intruder.

I must confess that I feel I want to and I almost need to write something poetic. Not a story, just a poem. At the same time, the word ‘poem’ immediately frightens me. When I wrote Sexistence, I was blocked for a long time because I did not know how to approach the subject. Before I wrote it, I gave a conference under the same title in Germany and two or three seminars on sex in summer schools. By speaking about the subject, I was avoiding the obligation to fix my ideas and I could talk about how difficult it is to talk about sex and to find a middle ground between provocation and reserve. I was only delaying the time of writing. This is why I ended up using outside literary influences and inserting the sex motif in a philosophical discussion. This motif eventually led me to discuss the ‘drive’ (Freud’s concept of Trieb).

Q

The White Review

— But you have already written poetic texts, such as Ivresse (2013).

A

Jean-Luc Nancy

— Yes, although that book was inspired by my own experience of intoxication and by a vast literary and philosophical material which already existed on the subject. The following quote by Hegel was in the back of my mind: ‘The true is thus the bacchanalian whirl in which no member is not drunk’ (Preface to The Phenomenology of Mind, 1807). And in the 1970s I did drink a great deal.

 

Ivresse was originally in German. I lived in Germany from ages 5 to 10 because my father worked as an engineer there at the end of the Second World War. So German became a second mother tongue for me and I spoke very well when I came back to France. Then I lost some of it, and I am now lost in a conversation between Germans, but I did not lose the feeling for the language and its syntax. Later, I was warmly welcomed in Germany because the Germans were happy to find a French philosopher who spoke German. It was not so common. For several years, I taught philosophy in Berlin. I think I also held on to German as a reaction against the rejection of Germany and German by the French in general. When I came back to France aged 10, people were very suspicious of me when I would say I had just lived in Germany. To go back to your question, however, maybe it is necessary for me to write something different. I can always go back to the question of Being in Heidegger’s thought but it bores me to some extent. We will see.

Q

The White Review

— Would you draw a clear line between philosophy and literature? Do you think they are really of a different essence or would you say like Derrida that this line tends to be blurred?

A

Jean-Luc Nancy

— It can be blurred but it also reconstitutes itself. Look at Derrida himself. Which of his texts can be called literary? Maybe some dialogues, the texts written in the first person and some intimate extracts but none of these are fictions. I would say one enters the reality of the myth here. Circumfession (Circonfession) is perhaps his most personal text. I really struggled with it because some of it is indiscreet: he writes about his relationship with his mother and about the blood of circumcision.

Q

The White Review

— He also stages himself with his cat in ‘The Animal That Therefore I Am (More to Follow)’ (L’animal que, donc, je suis, 2006).

A

Jean-Luc Nancy

— Yes, indeed. Derrida certainly had a great mythical drive. He was both drawing a figure of himself and disfiguring it. He took great pleasure in that. He did something similar with the idea of deconstruction. When asked how to define it, he would answer: ‘Deconstruction is America’. But then what is America? In a similar way, Deleuze’s Abécédaire gives scattered information about his food tastes, for instance. They both had an auto-mythical disposition or a disposition for ‘autopoiesis’ that I do not have. There was some madness in that disposition, which they both wrote about. Lacoue-Labarthe was like that too. He had very striking thoughts about madness: for him, the great madness of Gérard de Nerval, Friedrich Nietzsche or Antonin Artaud was simulated. He did not mean they faked it like one fakes madness to avoid joining the army but he meant their madness was a construction in which they did not lose a clear consciousness of things, but would reveal themselves. Like Nietzsche saying: ‘I am dead because I am God’ when he was alive and ill. All the great intellectuals of our time battled with this issue. They were not all mad but Heidegger had something of the same order, Georges Bataille had his own form of madness, Maurice Blanchot too. As for me, I have always said that ‘I am mad for not being mad’. I know I am not normal because I am perfectly normal. Others have mentioned it. Badiou for instance once said: ‘Nancy has no enemies, it is not normal, it is suspicious.’ As if I was trying hard not to have any enemies. This has not really changed for me. That is probably why my heart transplant was an exterior source of trouble which expressed itself and found a writing space. The transplant appeared symbolically and physically very heavy to everyone, and I know people around me were startled that I survived it. In a way, it is true I am in a strange situation because I have outlived Derrida, Deleuze, Lacoue-Labarthe and Jean-François Lyotard, a whole generation. They were all older than me, but Derrida died young in 2005 and Lacoue-Labarthe as well in 2007. The latter really destroyed himself in an impressive way. Therefore I am a survivor like Rancière and Badiou, who is over 80 years old now. I have never discussed this with them but I think they can only have the same feeling as me: I have the impression the ground of our time is sliding under my feet and going somewhere else. I recently read Tristan Garcia’s book nous, and although I found it very interesting and opportune, the gap between us also struck me. He really thinks differently and is from another generation.

Q

The White Review

— In The Disavowed Community (La communauté désavouée, 2014) you compare the relationship between Blanchot and Bataille to your own relation- ship to Lacoue-Labarthe. In the same way Blanchot in the 1980s attempted to renew the friendship Bataille had offered him in the 1930s – a period in which their political views were radically different – would you say your work is to some extent a ‘communication’ of your friendship for Lacoue-Labarthe?
A

Jean-Luc Nancy

— To some extent, yes. And I would say even more and differently because I am not sure what there is to say of the friendship between Blanchot and Bataille. The former wrote about it but the latter very little. And if you ask Michel Surya, he will tell you that what Bataille wrote about Blanchot was not so nice for him. Lacoue-Labarthe and I had a strong intellectual proximity which was reinforced by the fact we both ended up in Alsace where we did not have much to do and did not know anyone. Back then Alsace was quite different; you would hear people speaking Alsatian much more than today, for example. We were like free atoms and we were quite happy to realise we had so much in common. A member of the university who is now over 90 years old understood that if he introduced us, he might succeed in making us both stay in Strasbourg. And he did! Lacoue-Labarthe did not have anywhere else to go and I was too terrified to go to Nanterre where Paul Ricoeur had promised to get me a job, because my family and the family of my wife lived in the area. So we decided it was not such a bad idea to stay in Strasbourg. This was in 1967, the prelude to 1968. These were the times of sexual liberation in which my first wife and I had already taken part. Then, Lacoue-Labarthe’s wife and I got closer and we even had a child, which we had not planned at all! Lacoue-Labarthe decided to recognise the child as his own, partly so as not to displease his own parents. Eventually we lived as a community. It was quite an indescribable mix. We were very proud of it although the birth of the community did entail its tragedies. The two couples did not want to separate but they ended up separating completely because my first wife and Lacoue-Labarthe ended up together and I had a second child with his first wife although we were not actually a couple. The decision to have this child was made by the soviet, so to speak! In the end, the community crumbled because the women in particular did not get along. It was a very complex assemblage: between Philippe and me there was an intellectual connection and this weird mix of symbolic and biological paternity. I realise it may have been a problem for the children, but I still get along very well with my Lacoue-Labarthe sons and with my grandchildren. I know the daughters I had with my first wife suffered from the situation because the community was divided between adults and children and, as adults, we were not very careful about the children. We expected them to become adults very quickly and to enter our partly ‘mythical’ world. There was also a form of defiance between Lacoue-Labarthe and I because we did not want the other to take up all the space. One day, Blanchot wrote us a letter saying: ‘I wonder how you can work and live together like this without destroying each other.’ It was a very surprising letter, because we had never met Blanchot and we did not really know him by that point. In fact, we never met him because this was the time when he did not want to see anyone.

 

On the other hand, we knew very well Roger Laporte, a friend of his, whose book Fugue had really impressed us. He told us the story of the day when he saw Blanchot on the street in Paris and he noticed him deliberately turning away. On the phone, Blanchot later explained he had decided not to see anyone any more, including his old friends. That is when he decided to go and live in Le Mesnil-Saint-Denis. Even Derrida only spoke to him on the phone. I never even talked to him on the phone but Derrida asked me to go to his funeral with him. Nonetheless, Blanchot knew about our community through Roger Laporte and his wife Jacqueline. In The Unavowable Community, there is a slightly critical sentence about those who think they have invented the community and it is very possible he had us in mind when he wrote it. Amongst the circles he knew, we were probably the closest to a community. As I was saying, this community was very complex and it became even more complicated when Philippe started having psychological problems and when his alcoholism started to destroy him. In the end, he was really ill because of emphysema. He was in a sort of fantasised and obsessive identification relationship with Hölderlin, or poetry in general, and he knew he was. That is how he wrote Phrase (2000), an incredibly strong poem, but that is also how he was hurting people around him and hurting himself. His wife Claire was desperate. So there were these very strange years in which the gap was widening between us. It had been very difficult for him to hear the news of my heart transplant because it coincided with the moment when he was diagnosed with his own illness. Even in this great gap, there remained some sort of proximity, even an intimacy, which enabled us to know exactly what the other was thinking and even joke about it even when we disagreed. This gap was also apparent in the separation between literature and philosophy. Philippe did not really want to be a philosopher anymore; at least he liked to say he was not one, although he was a very good one. It was an unsolvable problem really. And now that we come to the end of this conversation it seems there are two paths to follow: to become Montaigne or Hölderlin!

 

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ABOUT THE CONTRIBUTOR

Gwénaël Pouliquen is a freelance editor and critic based in Paris.

Pierre Testard is a writer and translator from English to French.

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