‘… theory is good but it doesn’t prevent things from existing.’
Anne Carson, The Albertine Workout
I would like to learn to live. But really, now, from head to toe. Where to begin, with the head? 2014 was the year I received both a fellowship for PhD research, and a diagnosis of an incurable illness—incurable except for the deus ex machina of a pair of matching donor lungs, offered at the right time, sometime in the future, not too early, not too late. When this right time would arrive—if it would—no one could tell. Perhaps, it was difficult to conceive this, these were the last years of my life. Why scholarship, I asked myself, if life was giving me the hardest lessons for free? I felt as if I had to make a choice between philosophy or life. To learn / to live.
I WANT TO EXIST. More than a desire this is the instinct speaking, in screaming survival mode. Something is dying, dying to release something true in me—words to live by. Daniela Cascella writes, in her editorial foreword to this series, that ‘[a] heartbeat would never be called timely, or topical: it is vital, it is.’ It is something already learned, instinctively. In the decline of health this is what needed every day attending to: the thump-thump of the heart; the laboured breathing, in ever shallower cycles of inhalation and exhalation; the symptomatic sounds of oxygen deficiency, like the receding of waves, inside the ear; the blackening or yellowing of vision. The need for sleep. But also, the smell of rain hitting the pavement, the asphalt, the trees, the soil, a whole array of fragrances, and the way the light falls into the room, illuminating each single and singular speck of dust floating in the air. I live, I LIVE! But really. The is-ness of things, rather than the about-ness.
I would like to learn to live. In ill being, the wish to learn to live, under challenging and often self-undermining circumstances amounts to the mental and physical effort to endure, sometimes minute to minute. Maintaining now, a present. A sick person who does not want to die is often first and foremost sustaining life, placing all bets on tomorrow, with his or her whole being towards the will have been of another day. The speculative as if expelled by what must be. I dreamed a lot in that time. Jacques Derrida appeared to me once in a dream, he had his nose painted black, like a raccoon, probably with the felt-tip permanent marker, a Sharpie, that he had used to sign our digital kitchen scale, in very uncertain handwriting. ‘Derrida, for M and M’, I read out loud. He stood beside me. ‘Tomorrow’, he said, ‘we talk about signification.’
And what does it mean to know, I wondered, to think about the meaning of life, to guess at the nature of existence, when as a result of declining health you can no longer walk up to your third-floor home, and stairs become meaningless? What, where is the meaning of life? Looking at the diagnostic X-ray with the pulmonologist, I learned to read the fog inside my lungs that signified the illness. There it was, the illness that, I also learned, was an acronym of something non-specific. NSIP, non-specific interstitial pneumonitis, an undecidable form of autoimmunity unambiguously destroying my lungs; deconstruction came to life to me inside various examination rooms. There was nothing inside books that could compete with this knowledge.
‘To philosophise is to learn to die’, Michel de Montaigne wrote. Was I too much in place perhaps to read philosophy, not quite the eager student in the classroom but the one who always had to absent herself? In my edition of Montaigne’s Essays, a footnote suggests that Cicero misread Plato who passed on Socrates’ ideas. In Cicero’s Latin text, to philosophise is to prepare for dying—not to practice it, as Socrates had said it. Socrates practices death; Cicero forms an idea of death. Socrates pays his principles with his life. Cicero will think about it…
To die in theory is always something else—something which dying is absolutely not. Why this secret at the heart of philosophy? Why does it not have the heart not to know, the courage to be frightened of something so overpowering to thought? In his writing, Jacques Derrida was obsessed with death. Now he lies buried in a French cemetery under a marble slab inscribed with his birth name, Jackie Derrida: the name he was given by his parents. The first and last sign of life. What does it mean to keep on following you, ghost? To practice, to prepare. How to sustain the interest in learning, in philosophy, under this pressure, this strong demand of life wanting to be lived?
I received a bilateral lung transplant in early spring 2017. Learning, now, to live with the decision of the other inside me, to borrow Derrida’s words. But really. We are now a co-existence, an embodied intermingling of life and death continued, beyond life beyond death. Two lives wanting to live and learn from each other. Philosophy, meanwhile, has gained some weight. She has become fleshier, a little plump, and bloody. Her temperature is measured and pills are administered. This is how we keep learning, from now on.
A new horizon, then. Same life same difference. Specters of Marx. I open the book again to the page with the sentence: ‘What does it mean to follow a ghost?’. What does it mean, what could it mean? What does this text want to tell me? Which words does it regret and take back, which do I cross out perhaps, in a future moment? Which words speak differently to me, now that I have become a different person, someone (some two) else? Who is that person reading, learning, wanting to learn; always wanting to learn to live and maintain life? Those have been my questions for more than a decade of time passing, reading and re-reading these pages while aging, changing: living, in the footsteps yet to make.
Moosje M Goosen lives and works in Rotterdam, the Netherlands. Reader, writer, and so on.
Anne Carson, The Albertine Workout. New Directions, 2014.
Hélène Cixous, Three Steps on the Ladder of Writing. Translated by Susan Sellers. Columbia University Press, 1994.
Jacques Derrida, Specters of Marx. The State of the Debt, the Work of Mourning and the New International. Translated by Peggy Kamuf. Routledge, 1993.
Michel de Montaigne, The Complete Essays. Translated by M. Screech. Penguin Modern Classics, 1993.