Life after Death

Tr@nsit Online

Among the unpublished papers of Jan Patočka, edited and translated into French by Erica Abrams, there is a short and unfinished piece entitled “Fenomenologie posmrtného zivota”, in French “Phénoménologie de la vie après la mort” (“Phenomenology of life after death”), probably written in the late 1960s. Hans Ruin takes this fragment as his point of departure for a reflection on the phenomenological problem of death, history, and writing in Patočka, Heidegger, and Derrida.

Life after Death
The mummy of Hunefer, supported by the god Anubis, Hunefer’s wife and daughter mourning, and three priests performing rituals. The two priests with white sashes are carrying out the Opening of the Mouth ritual. The white building at the right is a representation of the tomb.

In his ten-page sketch, Patočka raises the question of how we can speak consistently about life after death, without presupposing the existence of some kind of “substantial carrier” and “double” of this life, as “soul” or “spirit”. How can we, as phenomenologists, with our commitment to staying with things themselves in their immediate givenness, speak of something non-existent and non-evidential, without giving in to a “metaphysical fiction”?

The first and preliminary response to this temptation would simply be to say no: This is a territory on which no meaningful discourse can legitimately take place. As phenomenologists, we speak from the viewpoint of the living, of and for the living. The dead are no longer here. They have no presence. They leave no evidence. And yet, Patočka adds, we cannot deny that the dead do not “entirely disappear, for the other continues to live in us […] it is of course only a precarious life, dependent on us, not immortality, but a simple living on that does not last longer than we live”. The life of the dead other is not an independent self-sustaining life, but still it is not nothing. Somehow the other remains in me. So far, he continues, no one has tried to give a phenomenological account of this strange phenomenon of how the dead other continues to live, and thus how, in a certain sense, there is life after death. For this phenomenon of a “life after death” indeed exists, he says, it exists “without any doubt”, sans nul doute. Therefore it also deserves to be the object of phenomenological analysis.

The reason why such an attempt has not been made before, he suggests, is that it provides “so little comfort”. But now is the time to try, using phenomenology as the unique method available for such an enterprise. Through phenomenological analysis, the continued life of the dead shall be made visible in its strange and unique presence. How, then, does Patočka go about approaching this difficult and precarious task? Let me try to recapitulate his argument.

His starting point is intersubjectivity. Human existence does not exist on its own and by itself. We are beings for ourselves, but we are also beings for the other. From the viewpoint of original temporality, we are in a strict sense “totality private”, inaccessible to the other, who reaches us from an “outside”. And yet the image we have of ourselves is mediated through the other. Indeed, it is only the other who can see us, as it were, “objectively”. In this sense, our lives are mediated from the outset, exteriorized and thus in a sense “alienated”. The formulations Patočka uses to express this enigma of the self through the other vacillate. It is both original and deferred with regard to itself. This is also true of the other, whose existence is dependent on me, through the images and representations I have of the other and vice versa. In this sense, we live through each other.
For this reason, we can also say that I continue to live through the other, in a kind of “quasi-life” in the other. When the other is dead, she continues in me, in what from her own viewpoint amounts to “non-existence”, and for me “non-originarity”, and yet somehow as being there. This somehow is the crux of the matter. In what form of being does the other continue to be? As long as the other lives, there is a reciprocity, insofar as we live and exist through each other. With death, this reciprocity is cancelled. The dead do not respond, they do not collaborate, they accomplish nothing at all, il n´effectue rien du tout...

The dead are cut off from all potentiality as seen from their own viewpoint, henceforth they live only as dependent on us. What, then, remains of the departed? Referring explicitly to the memory of his father, Patočka states that all that remains are certain “characteristics” that somehow retain the “essence of a person”, a look, a voice, a gesture, etc. The individual person is gone, and yet in this diluted form he remains in the memory of the son. Patočka even states that those who have been close to a person have the special task of “incorporating the other in some form or other in their lives”. In this phenomenon of incorporation of the dead in and by the living, we come across what Patočka refers to as an ”original conscience of life with the dead”, which guarantees that the non-existence of the other is not just a non-being but also a positive continuation of life.
This formulation of a continuation of the dead among the living through incorporation, suggested in passing rather than systematically explored, marks the speculative peak of the sketch. The rest of the unfinished article contains a discussion of Kojève and the dialectics of desire, and a critical reflection on Jean Paul Sartre and his exaggerated subjectivism. Against Sartre, Patočka states that we reach authenticity not just through ourselves, but also through each other. At the very end of the text, he returns to the experience of death of the other, but now explicitly as a problem of grief and mourning. This, he says, can induce a false consciousness of a continued reciprocity where there in fact is none, a phenomenon he likens with that of “phantom limbs”. In response to the pain of loss, human existence must ultimately regain its sense of reality and continue its life without the full reciprocity of the other.

In her editorial comment, Erica Abrams mentions an unverified “rumour” that the text was composed following the death of Patočka’s wife, which would date it to 1967. Part of the content of the text, especially the criticism of Sartre, would suggest an earlier date. A letter to Walter Biemel, however, indicates that the topic was still on his mind as late as 1976, and that he was planning to write more about it. Whatever is true, it seems clear that his thoughts are at least partly animated by a personal experience of loss. This is suggested by the references to the memory of his father, and his remarks on the need to incorporate and care for the dead other. It is also supported by the final, Freudian-sounding remarks on coming to terms with grief, and the effort not let oneself be carried away by false hopes that could induce the illusory experience of the other. Seen from this perspective, the text could be read as a philosophical work of mourning, a reflexive attempt to come to terms with personal loss and its reverberations in memory, where the dead other is internalized and somehow maintained in and through a truncated reciprocity.

As such, it anticipates Derrida’s thoughts on the workings of memory in relation to the dead, first articulated in his Mémoirs for Paul de Man from 1987, a text was written in response to the loss of his friend. There, he tries to articulate precisely the peculiar and ultimately paradoxical experience of what it means to preserve someone in memory. When we experience painful loss, he writes, we say to ourselves that the departed is not fully departed, but that somehow he or she lives on in our memory. Yet, at the same time, it is clear that memory cannot keep or preserve the other, who is irrevocably gone. Should we, then, regard this wish to preserve the dead other as a narcissistic refusal to recognize inevitable loss? No, he answers: the structure of the relation between subjectivity, memory and the dead other is more complex. The presence of the other in the self is the experience of something that is “greater” than the self, and the possibility of mourning someone is ultimately part of and co-constitutive of what it means to be a self.

”Memory” thus becomes a name for an experience of both the volatility and possibility of the subject. It is precisely in being outside itself, in a continued relation to what is other than itself, that human existence is what it is. From his own experience of the loss of his friend, and from his attempts to reflect in a phenomenological vein on this experience, Derrida comes to a formulation quite similar to that of Patočka some decades earlier. However the point is not to establish intertextual connections or routes of influence. As we know, Derrida read Patočka some years later, as documented in his comments on the Heretical Essays in Donner la Mort from 1994. What is more interesting is to see how both, starting from a reading of Husserl and Heidegger, come to this topic through different trajectories.

By the time of the publication of Spectres of Marx in 1993 it had taken on new proportions in Derrida’s work. Here he recalls how the existential imperative to live also implies an imperative to address death. Learning to live is both learning to exist between life and death, in the existential stretch constituted by one’s own life span, from not yet being born to no longer existing, as well as in relation to those no longer there. In order to describe this situation, this existential in-between, he suggests that we think of it in terms of “the phantom” (le fantôme), a concept he took over from the psychoanalytical work of Nicholas Abraham. Unlike in Patočka’s text, however, the phantomatic is here not just a negative border-concept, as the name of an illusion to be overcome by a rational work of mourning. Instead, it is presented as a positive phenomenological category in its own right, the designation of a mode of being on the threshold or middle-ground between the living and the dead.

According to Derrida, this means that to learn to live would partly amount to learning to live with and among spectres and ghosts, as well as a “politic of memory, of inheritance, and of generations”. It is a politic, but perhaps even more an ethics, since it concerns how we comport ourselves in relation to those who are no longer there. There is a peculiar kind of responsibility for and toward the deceased, which marks and constitutes the living in their self-understanding. Or perhaps we should speak of it as responsiveness, since responsibility might imply that we know what our obligations are. The point here is that there is no certainty in this area. We do not know what we owe the dead, nor what they owe us.

In several of Derrida’s later writings, the “spectral” designates this indeterminate space between the dead and the living. In a footnote to the book on Marx, he even indicates the possibility of what he calls a “phenomenology of spectrality”, that should be carried out “with good Husserlian logic, carving out a limited, relative field within a regional discipline” that would explore systematically the “original experience of visitation”. With this radicalization of the phenomenological enterprise, “the possibility of the other and of mourning” would be written into the very phenomenality of the phenomenon. In the book on Marx, all of this remained a tentative anticipation of something yet to be developed. Husserl is mentioned in the quoted remark and Heidegger is also recalled in passing. As it stands, the book leaves open the question how and to what extent it may be possible to develop the question of the spectral in phenomenological terms.

A few years after Spectres of Marx, Derrida returned to the theme in Apories, a series of mediations on death, partly motivated by a reading of Philippe Ariès monumental anthropological study of the culture of death in the West, L’homme devant la mort (1977). In Apories, Derrida offers an explicit critique of Heidegger and the existential analysis of death, concluding that “the existential analytic wants to have nothing to do with the revenant and with grief”. The remark recalls the critique of Heidegger’s analysis of death developed by Levinas in his last lecture course in the mid-1970s, published in 1993. In these lectures, Levinas criticized Heidegger precisely for subordinating the role and the meaning of the death of the other to the problem of personal finitude.

This short survey shows how both Patočka and Derrida, independently of one another, approach the problem of the dead other as a topic for phenomenological exploration. With Patočka, it remained an unfulfilled promise, a sketch for something to come that he was never permitted to carry out. In Derrida’s later writings, which were increasingly devoted to the intermediate space of the “spectral”, as the problem of survival, also in the form of “spirits” and “ghosts”, it became a central preoccupation. Patočka considered the theme to have been unexplored by previous phenomenologists. And while Derrida, in Apories, paid critical tribute to Heidegger’s analysis of finitude, he followed Levinas’s critique in relation to the specific issue of thinking mortality from the viewpoint of mourning and the spectral, and thus of thinking the afterlife. Despite the partial legitimacy of these criticisms, there are passages in Heidegger’s existential analysis in Sein und Zeit that – implicitly at least – open up a way of thinking about the category of “being-with-the-dead” that can help us situate the concerns of both Patočka and Derrida, more so than they themselves were prepared to admit. It is a reading that moves in two steps, from the problem of the death of the other, to that of history as repetition. It is to this which I now turn.

A basic premise in Sein und Zeit is that human existence tends to represent itself through alienating categories, elicited from types of non-human being. As a consequence of this self-alienating tendency, the constructive attempt to forge a more adequate existential-ontological terminology must run parallel with a “destruction” of the history of metaphysics and inherited modes of designating life. A more genuine or “authentic” grasping of human existentiality requires that Dasein is able to tear itself loose from this tendency to “fall pray” to inherited modes of discourse. Hence, Sein und Zeit, is an attempt to secure a more appropriate terminology for the exploration of the being and movement of life.

Nowhere is this challenge more acute than in the sections that explicitly try to think the nature of finitude and mortality. Having defined the essence of human Dasein in the first part of the book as “being-in-the-world” and as “care”, Heidegger poses the question as to how this presumed totality might be conceptually grasped and articulated. Existence is delimited by birth and death and thus constitutes what appears as a finite stretch of life. In order to really think its totality, however, we cannot simply rest with an understanding of existence as a life-process, delimited by death, as though death were somehow outside life, or simply its outer limit. For death belongs to life, and life is a being-toward-death, permanently open to the possibility of its non-possibility. What could a proper and supposedly authentic conceptual mastery of death amount to?

We think that we know death, simply because we experience it all around us. But what we experience is really the death of the other, not death as our death, or as my death. We should not take the medical, biological and social “fact of death” as our source of knowledge and reflection for understanding mortality. For death, says Heidegger, is ultimately a phenomenon of “Dasein as possibility”. Somehow, death must be grasped and conceptualized as a phenomenon of life, from the viewpoint of the living, as the very “possibility of im-possibility”, in his formulation. In order for the analysis of authentic being-toward-death to be carried through, it needs to address the experience of the dying and dead other as its phenomenal contrast. This happens in chapter forty-seven, the only place in Heidegger’s work that actually does provide a rudimentary phenomenology of the being of the “dead other”, or of the other as dead.

The argument goes as follows: when it has reached its “completion” (its Gänze), the other Dasein becomes a “no-longer-being-in-the-world”. This is the first phenomenal aspect of its being as dead. How should we understand this phenomenon of leaving the world? In one sense, the other is no longer here; but in another sense it is here, though now as the apparent thing of a being no-longer-alive. In the dying of others, Heidegger writes, a “remarkable” phenomenon occurs: the sudden transition or reversal (Umschlag) of Dasein – or, as he adds in a parenthesis, of life – to a “no-longer” Dasein. It is as if the end of Dasein were suddenly the beginning of another type of being or entity, but now in the order of a purely present entity: as corpse. But this conventional description of what takes place at the moment of death does not capture the phenomenal character of the event. More precisely, it fails to capture the sense in which this being, as Heidegger says, “still remains” (nochverbleibende), and as such is not represented by the purely corporeal. It is not just lifeless, leblos, it is “unliving” (unlebendig). As such, it can be the object of multiple concerns, as in funeral rites and cults. The mourners are still with the other, in the mode of a care that is characteristic of being-with others, and not the kind of care we devote to objects. A dead body is not taken care of in the same way that we take care of artefacts. We continue to be with them, in a world that continues to give meaning and significance to our peculiar mode of being with those no longer there, even though they have, as it were, “left that world behind” (zurückgelassen).

These reflections basically sum up what Heidegger has to say concerning the dead other. As already stated, the primary purpose of the analysis is not to provide a separate phenomenology of the “being of” and the “being with” the dead – as in the case of Patočka or Derrida – but rather to serve as a negative contrast to the question of the nature of a supposedly more authentic being-toward-death. Still, the sheer force of its phenomenality leads Heidegger up against the irreducible problem of afterlife or spectral existence. The dead are not only possible objects of concern; they also have a peculiar mode of being, as “still-remaining” and “un-living”.

Heidegger even mentions, if yet in passing, the existentiale of “being-with-the-dead” (Mitsein-mit-dem-Toten) as a subdivision of the general existentiale of “being-with” (Mitsein), for which there is a special form of concern or Sorge, namely that of Fürsorge, caring-for. Thus he recognizes the legitimacy of such a phenomenological category, beyond Levinas’s and Derrida’s negative assessments and Patočka’s disparaging comment on previous phenomenological attempts. But is there also a way to continue this analysis within the horizon of Sein und Zeit? In no other part of the book does he explicitly mention the dead other. In order to retrieve the further implications of this problematic, we need to read between the lines and be prepared to move from the apparent to less apparent.

As a lead to this further exploration, we may initially recall another remark of Patočka, jotted down in passing: in fact, the very last line of his sketch on the afterlife. Here he writes: “L’historiographie comme explication avec les morts” – “historiography as an explication with the dead”, or perhaps even as a way of coming to terms with the dead. This truncated sentence is all we have. But it could be read as a cipher, pointing us in the direction of a theme where the question of the dead other is at the heart of it all; namely the existential ground of history, precisely as a being-with-and-coming-to-terms-with-the-dead. Let me try to explain.

In chapter five of the second part of Sein und Zeit, Heidegger turns to the existential problem of history as a problem of how to understand the stretch or interconnectedness of life, as played out between birth and death. The phenomenological task is to understand the possibility of this dynamic in-between, as an origin and foundation for historical being and awareness – what he refers to as its occurrence or way of happening – its Geschehen – as another word for its “historicity” or Geschichtlichkeit.

How, then, does history happen? How does the historical emerge from within the happening of human Dasein? A specific artefact is historical, he writes, by virtue of its being seen as belonging to a world once lived, a world that is no longer. But what is the nature of this world that is no longer? Should we say that it is simply past? Then it too would be taken to be just an objectified entity, among other entities situated in an already defined chronological sequence of things. From where does this meaning of “past-ness” emerge? It comes from the no-longer-being of human existence, that is designated as “having-been-there” (da-gewesen), the perfective version of Da-sein. Heidegger does not say so, but another term for this phenomenon could be: Da-sein as un-living. The dead – as those having-been-there – are the source of the meaning of the historical, precisely by not being simply past, but by somehow lingering on in that ghostlike region of perfective being.

The very meaning of pastness invites the pastness of the other, not as an entity from a presumed objective past preserved in the present, but as a strange pastness in the present, of which we are somehow part, and in and through which we are united in acts of understanding, repetition and action. Human existence is a temporally finite and thrown projection that finds its authenticity in so called existential “resolve” (Entschlossenheit). Yet its own death – or finitude – does not provide it with specific possibilities. In other words, realizing our mortality does not necessarily teach us how to live. Heidegger recognizes this when he concludes that authentic historicity is when Dasein discloses its own possibilities in terms of a “heritage” or “inheritance” (Erbe) that it assumes.
In the constitution of historical time, we are open to the future through the enactment of a “past” that makes its appearance in the form of an inheritance. It is in and through this that our thoughts and actions are enacted in relation to the dead, not as a mere repetition, but as response, Wiederholung as Erwiderung. Dasein lives its historicity in this openness toward an address that has always already reached it from Dasein that has already been, or from having-been-ness as such.

The historical in Dasein appears as an ambiguous middle ground where it first emerges as an inner opening in the direction of the demand of the dead other. It is not properly a “dialogue”, for the situation lacks genuine reciprocity. Historical Dasein relates to an address that reaches it both from the outside and from inside itself, in relation to which it is called to respond and to take responsibility, and which thereby contributes to constituting it in its own sense of continuity and identity. Before and beyond history as the presumed existence of an objective past, we need to explore the different ways in which the human being comports itself in response to those who are no longer here, and yet who are here, the ghosts and the spectres that rely on us to remember them, and which come back to haunt us when we believe that we have laid them to rest.

Was this what Patočka had in mind? Was this what he had sensed when he jotted down the last lines of his sketch? We do not know. But from Ivan Chvatik’s summary of his philosophy of history, I borrow the formulation that Patočka’s fundamental problem was always of how to understand history in terms of the struggle of a free situated existence “formed by the development and conflicts of these creative energies, of these powers which we deliberately render our life tributary to”. History would then be the permanent attempt to orient oneself not just within an abstract temporal stretch, but in an existential space constituted by a being-with-the-dead.

Before I end, let me add one more thought, one that emerged directly from my reading of Patočka’s text. In Heidegger’s account of historicity as a form of struggling communication with the dead, there is no reflection on the means of this communication. It is as if the inherited possibilities simply manifest themselves within the existential space of resolute Dasein. In Patočka’s reflections on the possible ways of keeping the dead alive, the lacuna is even greater. He restricts this problem to the workings of memory, the personal interiority in which we try in vain to hold on to the other in the face of his or her irrevocable disappearance. In his melancholy reflection on loss and his own existential responsibility to care for the survival of the other, Patočka seems unaware of the activity in which he himself is involved: namely caring for his own survival beyond the threshold of death through writing. As we read this text today (in my case in French translation), a curious phenomenological situation appears. The voice that emerges from the printed pages, and with which I enter into a “dialogue”, the voice of learning and polemic, the living voice that speaks from its own horizon of the difficulty of holding onto the dead, is the voice of someone who himself is dead. And it is I, and we, who now, through our act of responsive retrieval, make this voice happen, so that it can bear witness again to its lonely sense of responsibility vis-à-vis the dead. Thus Patočka himself accomplishes, through the very act of writing, what he claims to be impossible.

Patočka both sees and does not see this problem of the mediality of afterlife. In the essay, he speaks of “incorporation” as the means and vehicle of afterlife. Yet, when he asks how a dead person can still remain, and whether he can do so in the present, or only through a technical means from the past, he refers to the possibility of existing only as “recorded on a record or a magnetic tape”. The negative comparison, referring to the technically preserved voice, betrays his inability to fully assess the workings of the most powerful form of incorporated spirituality that we have, namely writing. In the very moment of writing, he commits himself to a survival, by letting his thoughts become precisely incorporated. Not in the fragile memory of a living being, nor as the sonic quality of a recorded voice, but in its very meaning and intention, through the medium of the written language.

Still, it was he himself, who in the Heretical essays wrote – if only in passing – that “Writing too is a precondition for this higher stage, where life relates explicitly, in memory, to others, to life among them and in them, beyond the limits of one’s own generative continuum.”
More than any other medium or activity, writing could rightly be called the vehicle of spectral or spiritual survival, or the foremost technology of afterlife. When we read these lines by Patočka, signed and consigned by him, we hear the voice of that distant other, who is nowhere present, and yet ever so present, and in this very moment, here.

Hans Ruin is Professor of Philosophy at Södertörn University (Stockholm) and Director of the research program “Time, Memory and Representation”.

This article is based on a paper given at the conference Human Existence as Movement. Patočka’s existential phenomenology and its political dimension, organized by the IWM on June 3-5, 2014.