I will begin with the end. Marcel Hénaff’s sudden death in June 2018 opened a space of silence and surely did not prepare me to speak or write publicly about his passing. In his unexpected death, as a friend, Marcel left me with a problem. His death is now my problem. Yet, death is not a persistent question in Marcel Hénaff’s thinking. At the very least, I will start by positing here that in his last book, Violence dans la raison? Conflit et cruauté (2014), both death and cruelty are enigmas.
I will now attempt to elucidate the relationship between these two concepts by articulating two enigmas of death.
First enigma: We usually say that in death, one deserves to eternally rest in peace.1 This claim is not totally accurate. According to Aristotle, natural bodies cannot rest eternally. For a natural body, rest is provisional – not eternal. Only the unmoved mover, due to its immobility, can access absolute rest. For natural bodies, rest cannot be continuous. Rather, rest is susceptible to be moved and affected. Therefore, natural rest in life or in death is essentially an “anxious” activity (Aubenque 426). Here we have the first aporia about death either as a natural or an un-natural form of rest. The question becomes: is resting eternal or, on the contrary, is resting a naturally anxious activity?
Second enigma: I started from the hypothesis that in Hénaff, death is a blind spot – an unthought. Claiming that death cannot be conceivable would bring us to Epicurus’s position. Death is not something I can encounter as a living being. However, when the event of death arrives, the I is no longer alive. The refusal of death – that is, my own death – thus masks a phenomenological and logical impossibility. One cannot witness – that is, live – one’s own death. The event of my own death is logically and phenomenologically impossible.
In addition to this account of the impossible (lived) death we have, however, the position of the inherent possibility of death. It is within the realm of the possible that I/we could die even though I/we cannot be witness to the very consummation of the event itself. Death is a possibility emerging out of the activity of thinking. Moreover, claiming that death is about what is possible2 means that it is thought from the perspective of life. In this case, death is ontologically a practical possibility, a “relation of freedom” (Blanchot 94). This account of the possibility of death is consistent with Hénaff’s last words to me in a message he wrote three weeks before his passing: “Voilà…il me faudra faire face de plus en plus à la fragilité de la vie….” Here, the fragility of life is not Derrida’s account of death as “survival” or the most intense way of living – Nietzsche’s affirmative yes – but essentially a way of articulating the phenomenological possibility of one’s finitude, a condition that both enables and limits, operative within life itself. Simply put, the terms of the aporia are as follows: death as a lived impossibility is distinct and opposed to death as a lived possibility.
This review-essay is not a personal account of the death of my mentor and friend. Rather, it is a reflection on the political relation between death and cruelty. The initial question is, what qualifies death as a political experience? As a way to address this question, I will explore how violence, cruelty, and reason are thought in his last book, Violence dans la raison? Conflit et cruauté (2014). Thus, my question can be reformulated as follows: How can one think cruelty, violence and reason from the perspective of death?