On the 5th March 2017, my cat Whiskey died. He was 17 years old, suffering from diabetes. I am still mourning him, but today I want to remember my mortal companion with this blog.
This blog is dedicated to him, to his trace, to his memory. The blog is also on how Whiskey’s death, his continuous absent presence in my memory changed and it is still changing my approach to my PhD.
I am writing a PhD on the French writer Maurice Blanchot and I want to briefly discuss and remember Whiskey, through Maurice Blanchot’s short story The Instant of My Death.
Jacques Derrida wrote a powerful literary commentary on The Instant of My Death: Demeure.
The Instant of My Death narrates the ‘unexperienced experience of death’ of Maurice Blanchot during the Nazi occupation of France in late 1944. Maurice Blanchot was captured by the occupying forces and, as he describes, he ‘almost experienced death’. However, at the end of his ‘unexperienced experience’, he escaped from the firing squad.
The Instant of My Death is not only on this ‘unexperienced experience of death’, but also on Blanchot’s meditations on the ‘instant’ of death and his compassion for suffering humanity. How, was my beloved cat feeling at the very instant of his death? How could he understand that he was leaving his earthly life? What did he see in the instant of his death? Why are we still avoiding any discussion on these fundamental questions in literature, ethics, philosophy or religion?
These unanswerable questions are forming this blog.
One cannot know what happens when one dies because when one dies he/she surpasses life, and thus cannot communicate to the living others the authentic state of being dead. And so we find at a limit (a border) that literature, philosophy, religion, ethics can only combat through the infinite powers of our imagination, by envisioning the infinity that exists beyond our mortal and limited comprehension. Thus death remains impossible to comprehend by any text that claims to be a source of the truth, such as autobiography, or that is, testimony, for, as Jacques Derrida points out in Demeure, “[i]n essence a testimony is always autobiographical: it tells, in the first person, the shareable and unshareable secret of what happened to me, to me alone.”(2) Death can only be discussed in terms of the impossibility that it is at once the most shareable of experiences, we all die, and at the same time, the most entirely personal of experiences because it is our own personal death, the moment that we can never translate and narrate through ordinary language. We can witness another’s death as Maurice Blanchot tells us in another text, but to say “I am dead” is impossible.
I hoped that my cat could have been able to tell me: I am dying or I am dead and the sense of infinite powerlessness in helping him on that day is still haunting me. The sense of infinite powerlessness which I felt on the 5th March, is becoming a stimulus for my writing and it is able to give me inspiration, serenity and more focus in my PhD.
Let us now return to The Instant of My Death.
Furthermore, the death that the narrator almost experiences in The Instant of My Death is not a physical demise, but an ‘internal division from life’: “As if the death outside of him could only henceforth collide with the death in him.”(3) It is as if, Derrida says, “the death that came at him […] waits for Blanchot […] what remains for him of existence […] is this race for death in view of death in order not to see death coming.”(4) It is extremely problematical to understand the significance of this internal fragmentation and Derrida’s challenging reference, because common sense tells us that our mortal existence is also founded on a continuous fight for death, that is, a journey towards death as the intrinsic part of life. However, this is Derrida’s inspiring comment on human experience, but, what about cats, dogs and other animals? What about my cat when he began to feel seriously ill? How do animals experience their fight for death? More unanswerable questions that we are refusing to examine.
If ‘my death’ is impossible to narrate and write upon (as it looks in The Instant of my Death), there is a death–-in Blanchot’s work – that we can experience. In The Unavowable Community (1988), Blanchot argues that the call of or from a community reveals itself in “my presence for another who absents himself by dying.”(5) It is the experience and the mystery of the ‘dying other’ as an experience of unemployed negativity upon which Blanchot focuses in his essay on his dead friend Georges Bataille. As Blanchot affirms:
To remain present in the proximity of another who by dying removes himself/herself definitively, to take upon myself another’s death as the only death that concerns me, this is what puts me beside myself, this is the only separation that can open me, in its very impossibility, to the Openness of a community.(6)
It is when I am ‘proximate and close’ to the other as that person (or animal) dies, when I take on the other’s death, concerning myself with it before anyone else’s death, including my own, that I (in my ipseity) am questioned, contested and refused most extremely. In my ‘proximity’ to this dying other, I am contested in such a way that I am fully exposed to what Blanchot calls the ‘Openness of a community.’ I do not choose to open myself to this encounter, but I am, instead, exposed to this encounter with death, and, in this exposure, opened to what Blanchot calls a community. It is this exposure that opened to me a new horizon of greater understanding of my innermost limits and weaknesses and a new horizon of authentic peace. Therefore, I can call myself –paraphrasing Derrida: the animal who therefore I am.
The death of my cat still overwhelms me and forces me to redesign my concerns on my own mortality and on my own subjectivity. However, it also forces me to finish my work entirely dedicated to my beloved companion.
On the 5th March to be before my cat as he died was to be affected by that death in such a way that my own self-relation has now changed and Whiskey’s eternal and infinite trace will help me to say: Whiskey, this is my PhD dedicated to you!
However, as Blanchot affirms, I am not merely distracted from my own problems when I confront the dying other, nor does his/her plight move me to the extent that I take it upon myself to do all that is in my powers to alleviate his/her suffering. Rather, to be affected by his/her dying concerns – implicates – me before I might have the chance to assume any relation to my death.
In what sense do these meditations matter if the dying other is our cat or dog? I am afraid, but this is another unanswerable question.
I tried to narrate the experience which happened to me on the 5th March through these references to Maurice Blanchot’s meditations on death.
What does dying authentically mean for animals? Can they perceive that they are leaving us? Can they understand their dissociation from their ego? Can an animal experience the word ‘end’?
Who is this I in me who is still mourning and remembering my beloved companion?
As I said, these questions are unanswerable and it was not my intention to offer any religious, philosophical or ethical solution to them. I only wanted to create a space of discussion and re-examination of their sufferings and their deaths (their instants of deaths) using my personal experience.
What is the ‘instant of their deaths’ for animals?
Whiskey’s grace and trace will remain as a light from afar; a star to look in dark days and nights. My PhD will be his merit.
To the memory of my eternal companion, I say thank you for being my inspiration and my source of peace and infinite calm in the ‘madness of the day.’
By Mauro Di Lullo
Mauro Di Lullo is a first year PhD student in French at the School of Languages and Modern Cultures at the University of Glasgow. He studied Law at the University of Strathclyde and obtained a LLB with Honours. He later moved to the University of Glasgow where he obtained a MRes. His thesis is on Maurice Blanchot: communism and International Relations in the 21st century. The thesis is discussing Maurice Blanchot’s particularised idea of communism in its impact on International Relations. His supervisors are: Dr. Ramona Fotiade and Prof. Paul Bishop.
He is a book reviewer for the Bulletin of Latin American Studies at the University of Liverpool and for the British Sociological Association. His last review was on a text engaging with the political and economic situation in Argentina in the early 1960s.
1.) Sorry, Cat Haters, Science Isn’t On your side. Popular Science Blog, By Rafi Letzter, October 22, 2014.
2.) Maurice Blanchot and Jacques Derrida, The Instant of My Death/Demeure, trans. Elizabeth Rottenberg (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2000), p. 43.
3.) Ibid, p. 9.
4.) Ibid, pp. 94 and 95.
5.) Maurice Blanchot, The Unavowable Community, trans. By Pierre Joris (Barrytown: Station Hill Press, 1988), p. 9.
Maurice Blanchot and Jacques Derrida, The Instant of My Death/Demeure, trans. Elizabeth Rottenberg (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2000).
Maurice Blanchot, The Unavowable Community, trans. By Pierre Joris (Barrytown: Station Hill Press, 1988).