Fluxury by Sergio Benvenuto

"I'M A GHOST, BUT I JUST DON'T KNOW IT." The Indiscreet Charm of Phantoms and the Culture of Death [1]Jul/25/2016


“El hombre olvida que es un muerto que conversa con muertos.” [“One forgets that one is a dead man conversing with dead men.”]

                                  Jorge Luis Borges, “There Are More Things” (El libro de Arena)



Axel Munthe to Montanelli[2]: “Fear of death, I? No. I’m afraid of dying, which is something else”.

Montanelli, “What was the point of our being on this Earth?”, Corriere della Sera, 14-XI-2000, p. 41.



  1. 1.       Sixth Sense
  2. 2.       Halloween
  3. 3.       Children and Death
  4. 4.       Noh
  5. 5.       The Suspicion that we Are Dead
  6. 6.       Freud and the Dead Father
  7. 7.       “Death Exists Not”
  8. 8.       Living for Posterity
  9. 9.       Homage to the Real
  10. 10.   Dying for a Dead Man
  11. 11.   In Praise of Death
  12. 12.   “Death is Dead”
  13. 13.   The Desire to Be Real





1.  Sixth Sense


          M. N. Shyamalan’s The Sixth Sense (1999) is classified as a horror film

During an intimate evening between a child psychiatrist and his wife, a former patient – a desperate young man – breaks in through the window, and accuses him of having failed to help him.  He takes a gun out, shoots the psychiatrist and then kills himself.

         The scene suddenly shifts to the following Fall in the same city, Philadelphia.  The psychiatrist is wandering the streets, alone and dejected.  He has taken a strong professional interest in a child – a boy no older than eleven – who needs his specialist help.  A small, pale boy who lives alone with his divorced mother.  But contact with the child proves very difficult.  The boy tries to evade his visits as if faced with something horrific.  Little by little, however, the psychiatrist manages to establish a relationship with him.  Until finally the boy decides to reveal his terrible secret: he keeps on seeing the dead, who don’t realize they’re dead, and who insistently and sometimes even angrily beg him to help them.  At first the psychiatrist dismisses the boy as a hopeless schizophrenic. Yet he doesn’t give up on him, partly because he senses in some obscure way that the boy might be able to help him in return.  From that accursed evening onwards, the man’s life has changed, and his relationship with his wife has been reduced to something practically nonexistent.

The psychiatrist gradually becomes convinced that the child really is suffering because of his power to come into contact with the victims of violent deaths.  The deceased are irresistibly drawn to the boy to settle their scores with members of the living.  The psychiatrist consequently makes a suggestion to his young patient: rather than shun the pressing requests of these revenants, he should instead listen to them and, as far as he can, try to help them.  These “returning ones” are besieging him because they want to “say something” to a living person.  Indeed, once the boy accepts this role, his relationship with the ghosts becomes less dramatic.

At this point the psychiatrist feels that his patient is ready to be left on his own.  Halloween is approaching, and our young medium’s mother has bought the traditional pumpkins.  But before taking leave, the young boy makes a suggestion to the psychiatrist: to speak to his wife while she is asleep.

Upon his return home, the psychiatrist finds his wife in a deep sleep, and speaks to her.  In her sleep, his beautiful partner in life appears to hear him and responds.  Our psychiatrist needs to tell her something that he didn’t get a chance to say on the night that he was shot.  And now that he has said it, he suddenly understands.  His young patient had told him that the dead who assailed him were unaware that they were dead, because they only saw what they wanted to see.  He understands that he was killed that night, and, like the others who have met a violent death, he has sought out this young boy, driven by an irrepressible urgency.  He too had a score to settle with a living being before finally being able to abandon “his” home.  He sees how much the young boy has helped him, and can finally cease his miserable wanderings through the streets of Philadelphia.  (For Americans, Philadelphia, one of the American cities seen as most closely entangled with the early history of the nation, is swarming with ghosts.)

But the most perturbing effect of this film is retroactive: that psychiatrist who seemed alive was in fact dead.  What disturbs us is not so much the horror experienced in watching the film, but the horror that we did not experience.  It is not so much our identification with a dead person that unnerves us, but the fact that we shared his ignorance about his civil status and were thus unable to avoid the identification (civil statuses are four: married, unmarried, alive and dead). 

A similar format was used in Alejandro Amenábar’s film The Others (2001).  Here too the protagonist does not know that she is dead, and sees the living inhabitants of the old mansion where she died, and where she continues to “live”, as ghostly presences.   In fact, in this ignorance – this not wanting to know that we are dead – we suspect something unthinkable: that there’s a possibility that we’re dead and don’t know it.



2.  Halloween


These lugubrious films take up very ancient themes and myths from both East and West. 

Halloween in America always falls on 31 October.  And now, by virtue of the global influence of the American way of life, it is observed even in Italy.  But unlike All Souls’ Day in Italy and the Catholic world, which falls on 2 November, Halloween is simultaneously a holiday for children and for the dead.  Children wander through their neighborhoods, going from door to door collecting candy from adults.  And once upon a time these little mendicants would explicitly evoke death in their chants and rhymes, in order to obtain gifts. A pumpkin is hollowed out and holes are then carved in it to give it the appearance of a skull. There are many other festivals – in Italy too – that bring children into close association with death.[3]   In Sicily on All Saints’ Day children are given “pupe”, sugar in the form of human bones.

In the medieval Christian tradition, the twelve days between Christmas and the Epiphany were the period of the return of the dead.  And in Italy, at the end of this period the angel/witch (Befana) arrives, bearing gifts for children.

Henry James touched upon this ancient association between children and death in The Turn of the Screw (1898). A young governess in an English country house learns that the little boy and girl whom she looks after are being visited by specters, whom she can only see in occasional flashes.  The two ghosts, a man and a woman, are apparently the former governess, the precursor of the young woman, and another employee of the house; they have, it seems, had a love affair, which was all the more scandalous because they came from different social classes. Both have died some time ago under strange circumstances – perhaps connected to their relationship.  The governess becomes increasingly obsessed by the need to make the children confess that they can see these two sinners.  She perceives a complicity – perhaps a lascivious one – between the two children and the lovers.  The little girl, hounded by the aggressive insistence of the governess, is hospitalized for an epileptic attack; and the little boy dies in the governess’s arms – of a heart attack induced by fear, or perhaps suffocated by her embrace?  As the story evolves, a suspicion dawns in the reader: the suspicion that the ghosts were a hallucination of the governess, that she was insane, and maybe infanticidal.

Why this oxymoronic contiguity between children and death, with madness often added to the mix?

The evolution of Halloween over the last few decades suggests an answer: in America, it is becoming increasingly a feast for people on the fringes of society.  Today it is commonly reinterpreted as a gay and lesbian festival.  Halloween is marked by parades in which the participants – apart from skeletons and zombies – are campaigners for the ecologically and socially marginalized (animals on the verge of extinction, immigrants and so on). This reinterpretation seeks to exalt the original meaning of Halloween as a day to celebrate all those who, within a social group, are considered for some reason different, or other.  Halloween specifies itself as the party – the social event par excellence – of those who haunt society, in the sense that they come from some intermediate, uncertain place between the identical and the different: a paradoxical ceremony of socialization for those beyond the boundaries of society. 



3.  Children and death


          In traditional Christian societies, the dead try to return among the living in the Fall.  Halloween and the Day of the Dead are holidays that precede the winter festivals, Christmas and New Year.  This soliciting of presents by children (“trick or treat”), writes Claude Lévi-Strauss, goes on “during the whole critical time of autumn, when night threatens day just as the dead menace the living”.[4] The advance of night over day from September to December is interpreted as the analogon of death’s progressive overwhelming of life.


For three months the visit of the dead among the living becomes more and more persistent and tyrannical. Thus on the day of their departure [Christmas and New Year] it becomes permissible to entertain them and give them a last chance to raise hell.[5]  


For this reason, even Christmas celebrations revolve around gifts made to others –children, guests – and, implicitly, to those who are other beyond any other, the dead.  Halloween is an adumbration of Christmas when, following the Winter solstice, the day begins to prevail over the night, and the living and the dead can finally reconcile themselves.

          It is true that Father Christmas, Santa Claus, the Italian Befana, Saint Nicholas and so on are all supernatural figures – and not simple humans – who bring gifts to children and guests, and so to the living, and not vice versa.  But, in fact, the givers are living adults.  Children are made to believe that non-humans bring them their gifts, but it is the living who symbolically offer gifts to the dead.

          According to Lévi-Strauss, on holidays involving gifts to children, the social group of initiates – the adults, who do not believe in supernatural intervention –  is set in contrast to the group of non-initiates (the children), who are instead made to believe that certain supernatural figures reward good behavior.  He points out that “the relationship between initiates and non-initiates has a positive content between two groups: one representing the dead, and the other the living… And the dead are the children”.[6] The children incarnate the dead, insofar as they are naïve and mystified.  Both the dead and the children deceive themselves, because they occupy an identical symbolic place: that of not knowing something that concerns them.  In other words, death lies on the horizon of ignorance.

          In Ingmar Bergman’s Cries and Whispers (1972), the protagonist dies of cancer.  In a dream-like sequence, she does not accept her own death and asks her two dear sisters to comfort her for having crossed over the Acheron; the two indignantly refuse her request.  Even the door-to-door trick or treating of children evokes the dead who knock door-to-door asking for something that they believe is owed them.  But the living usually slam the door in the face of the dead; the living don’t want anything to do with these dead beings who will not resign themselves to dying once and for all.  But on Halloween it is different: on this occasion, the living open their doors and give to those who were once alive the little that they ask for.  For once, they will take pity on the dead, in this case brought to life by children.

But then, what do the dead ask for, and what do they ignore?

Why do adults fear the dead?  What makes them believe that the dead do not wish to die, and that the dead never cease – through the mediation of children or others – to ask us for what is owed them?  And why should we even owe them anything?  These are just superstitions, one might say.  But why are these superstitions so widespread and why are we, in our secularized disenchantment, so struck by The Turn of the Screw or The Sixth Sense?  Even when we are so sure that we do not believe in ghosts, something in these stories is convincing enough to unsettle us.


4.  Noh


Japanese Noh is a type of rarefied theatre which flourished mainly in the fifteenth century, influenced by Buddhism, but formed in the cultural context of Shinto.  The Japanese are wont to say: one is born Shintoist, one dies Buddhist.  And the Buddhist Noh deals, precisely, with the dead.

In every Noh, a traveler appears: a Buddhist monk, a holy man, impersonated by an actor known as the waki.  He is a wanderer, and somewhere along the way he runs into a local figure who at first sight would appear completely innocuous, but who later reveals himself for what he really is: a specter or demon.   The specter lives in the place where he met his (usually unjust) death; his presence in that precise location eternalizes his pain or nostalgia, to the point that the Noh often seems to encapsulate in song a certain place in a certain season rather than a story.  The waki (wayfarer-spectator) allows these figures fixed in a time and place finally to tell their story, to recount their life and what they lacked – and this narration at times exonerates them from their permanent adherence to that place.  The living are represented by the person who travels, and the dead by the person who is forever tied to a particular spot.  The dead person asks to express himself, to recount the circumstances of his death.  The task of the living person is only to linger for a while and listen, to do nothing but allow the dead one to enter the scene and speak his words.

Even in the West one thinks of the dead as fiercely attached to a place, to their home.  In Naples, household ghosts are called munacielli, because their “ectoplasmic” aura is reminiscent of Capuchin monks.  New tenants will benefit if the spirits take a liking to them, and will find money in their jacket pockets; if they don’t like them, on the other hand, the munacielli misbehave and might even pour urine over them while they sleep.  But that is “paganism”.  For Christianity, the dead distance themselves in the abyss of the Heavens, while in popular beliefs they continue to live where they have always lived; they are presences at once disoriented and homebound.

Japanese culture places this lingering of specters and demons at the core of its most refined art; European culture, on the other hand, usually relegates the return of specters to “low” folkloric beliefs and artistic forms.  This difference in ranking is due to the fact that Christian authorities, by driving the belief in the return of the dead back into a cursed, diabolic area, have always condemned attention to spirits as an illicit practice.  Eastern religions, on the other hand, usually prefer the cult of the dead to that of the Immortal.  And, today, we must add to Christian censure the yet more drastic anathema that rationalism pronounces upon spiritualism.   For the past two centuries, then, any representation of specters takes for granted the fact that they do not exist. 

Some time ago I saw an excellent production of Euripides’ Alcestis.  Alcestis is the beautiful young wife of King Admetus, who decides to die in place of her husband, because the gods have presented him with a cruel dilemma: Admetus can live beyond his predestined death only if someone offers to take his place. Alcestis alone accepts the exchange, and offers to die instead of her husband. Heracles, however, in gratitude to Admetus, and being an able wheeler-dealer, succeeds in convincing (or bribing?) the gods of the underworld to restore Alcestis, who has just died, to her husband.  A figure, who appears to be Alcestis, completely covered by a long white veil, drags herself along a wall, like a sickly body.  Admetus is happy to have her back, but “we” know that he is embracing a funereal doll, a semblance.  And in fact, with the applause at the play’s end, the veiled Alcestis is revealed to be a male actor.  Could the idea be expressed any more clearly?  The director emphatically states that “We do not believe in the Resurrection of the Dead!  The distance between Euripides and us is a vast gulf.” 

On the other hand, I wonder whether, in many ways, Euripides is not more modern than his modernist interpreters: the point is not to reiterate, in an atheistically correct way, that one can never return from Hades.  Instead, it is to show that, in a certain sense, the dead never die.   That Alcestis will never be dead for Admetus, the very man who allowed her to die.  As to Admetus’s drama, it has a disturbing rigor: “If I were dead, how could I love my beloved? Thus, it is better that she die in order for her to be loved by someone until my death”.  Unassailable reasoning.  Faced with death, all reasoning appears fallacious, but at the same time unassailable.



5.  The Suspicion that we Are Dead


In the Western tradition of haunting it is usually the living who are deceived.  In many ghost stories, it is the dead who are wise, while the living wrestle with uncertainty and illusion.  When the specters appear, however, we always perceive them from the point of view of the living beings who are visited by them. We see the ghost of Hamlet’s father through the eyes of his son, and we see Macbeth tormented by Banquo’s ghost through the eyes of the usurper king.  In the various versions of Don Juan, it is from the sinner’s point of view that we see the Guest of Stone arrive for dinner – the statue of the dead knight who vindicates himself by dragging the libertine seducer into Hell.  In theatre, we usually identify with the living, even when they are scoundrels.

The Sixth Sense instead places us in the shoes of a dead man who has deluded himself into thinking that he is alive, allowing us to see the living from his perspective. Here, the deluded ghost, beyond being a mature father figure, is a psychiatrist, a shrink – literally, a (head)-shrinker – a figure who is in American culture the object of great ambivalence: it is imagined that a shrink’s job consists in dispelling patients’ illusions and destructive passions, but in fiction it is often the shrink who reveals himself as the most deluded character, devoured by implacable passions.  Americans think that shrinks curb our idyll with our inner child, but in this film the psychiatrist clings “oxymoronically” to childlike figures. 

It is thought that psychiatrists and psychoanalysts dispel their subjects’ inner ghosts, but here, in an ironic contrast, the psychic ghost-hunter is himself a specter.  Today, the psychiatrist is an emblematic figure of modernity and, to some extent, we all perceive ourselves as psychiatrists, at least to ourselves. We assign ourselves the task of reducing ourselves to reason, of dispelling our delusions.  But here, by attributing such grand delusions and passions to a psychiatrist, we unmask our very selves.  That is, we ask ourselves: what if our progressive Enlightenment values, our self-psychiatry, were the last bastion of our delusions?



Twentieth-century cinema and literature, then, have brought us to identifying even with the dead.  The “revenant” has ceased to be a problem for the living alone and has become a problem for himself as well.  Many Hollywood films entice us by putting us in the shoes of the other, whoever they may be – physically challenged, terminally ill, transgender, mentally retarded, extraterrestrial, crazy, a robot, or dead.  In American society, a pluralist coagulation of so many religious and ethnic communities, the movie industry shoulders the mission of having us assimilate the other no matter what form that other takes.  So it is that in The Sixth Sense we think that we are seeing things from our perspective of being alive, while instead we are seeing things as the dead see them.

          But why are these dead depicted as deluded?  And, above all, why do they delude themselves into thinking that they are alive?  Once again, the not completely dead deceased, awaiting what Lacan called Second Death, incarnate something tragically vital: like us, the living, they are beings who desire, and who delude themselves.[7]  Indeed, they represent the essence of deceptive desire and of desiring delusion – the not entirely dead are a hyperbole of the condition of the living.

But why incarnate in the dead our suspicion – our vital, living suspicion – that desire is the matrix of our illusions?  Rationalism tells us that ghosts are a delusion of the living; yet ghosts are depicted today as deluding themselves into being alive.  The most plausible response, which we moderns dare not even think, is the following:  we incarnate in these dead beings, who do not want to acknowledge the fact they are dead, our own suspicion of being in some way dead.  A suspicion that in certain schizophrenics becomes an atrocious certainty: then, the subject says that he is dead, and that even the living think they are alive, but in fact, they are not.  

The philosopher Louis Althusser, himself a psychotic, wrote that he had been persecuted all his adult life by the idea that he did not exist.  With every new publication, usually well-received, he feared that an astute critic would discover a horrendous secret: that Althusser, the author, did not exist.[8]


6.       Freud and the dead father


Even Sigmund Freud wrote about a man who did not realize he was dead:


A man who had once nursed his father through a long and painful mortal illness, told me in the months following his father’s death he had repeatedly dreamt that his father was alive once more and that he was talking to him in the usual way. But he felt it exceedingly painful that his father had really died, only without knowing it. The only way of understanding this apparently nonsensical dream is by adding ‘as the dreamer wished’ or ‘in consequence of his wish’ after the words that his father had really died’, and by further adding that [?] ‘he (the dreamer) wished it’ to the last words. The dream-thought then runs: it was a painful memory for him that he had been obliged to wish for his father’s death and how terrible it would have been if his father had had any suspicion of it!  What we have here is thus the familiar case of self-reproach after the loss of someone loved, and in this instance the self-reproach went back to the infantile significance of death-wishes against the father.[9]     [As I said, this quotation seems to me to need checking – in fact, it definitely needs checking, if only to locate the missing quotation marks.]



          Freud’s interpretation expresses very well the modernist point of view, according to which the dead do not exist, and all that exists is our desire either to bring them back to life, or to make them die once and for all.

Freud’s astonishingly rapid interpretation strikes us for its minimalism: after all, every Freudian interpretation of dreams (and of many other things) is resolved by adding the clause “according to his desire” or “as a consequence of his desire.”  This is a degree-zero interpretation of the dream, it reduces to bare bones every Freudian interpretation – according to the subject’s desire – even if we are dealing here with unconscious desire.

In fact, Freudian theories and interpretations are based on a truly metaphysical assumption: that the human being is fundamentally desire and pleasure, which constitute her or his essence.  Even if we dream of something desperately painful or unpleasant, this expresses a desire on our part that we find unacceptable.  Dreams never really confront us with the other and the real, with what is outside us, but fundamentally express our desiring life.  And if through the dream we end up encountering the other and the real instead … then it is a nightmare, and we awaken.

          Now, in the case reported by Freud, the dead person who deludes himself into thinking he is alive is the father.  In The Sixth Sense, too, the tormented soul is a psychiatrist-“father” who helps his “children” rid themselves of their delusions.  It is noteworthy that in the film the shrink has no children of his own, but is killed by a “son of his” when he is about to make love to his wife.  It is as if the son stormed in during the coitus of his parents (the “primary scene” as Freud called it), and slew the father –could anything be more oedipal?  Furthermore, our child medium has no father and lives alone with his divorced mother; the unsuspecting shrink who does not know he is dead thus ceases to be a husband and becomes the “father” of the child.  In the evening, he awaits the return of his ‘patient’ at the mother’s house, sitting opposite her like a father waiting for his son to return home.   The end of the story, however, overturns this linear Oedipus: it is the son who dispels the father’s delusion, allowing him to proceed to his “second death”.  And in the end it is the oedipal desire of the son that triumphs: the psychiatrist-father really dies, leaving the field open to the son.  For psychoanalysis, the artistic work is, like a dream, always an illusion.  Even the cinema fictitiously “fulfils,” rather than denies, our fantasies.

          These analytical interpretations do not sound fake, and yet today there seems a certain intellectual laziness about them.  What shines in this film, in fact, is not the imaginary death, but its implausible reality

          The recurring dream recounted by Freud, then, can be interpreted in other plausible ways.  For example, we might think that, during the father’s illness, the dreamer had been in some way an accomplice of the delusion that the sick person might somehow survive, as often happens when we live beside a dying person.  In the dream, the father can continue to “live” on the wave of this shared delusion.  It is not enough to delude ourselves that the person is not really dead, we want the dead person himself to delude himself into thinking so.  We identify with the dead person as we did with the dying one: it is for him that we want him to keep on living, even as a spirit.  We would like him to live for himself, it is not enough that he is living only for us.



7.  “Death Exists Not”


The Freudian interpretation implies that the dead do not exist, but what does indeed exist is a strong vital need for the living to cultivate memories of the dead, and affection for them.

In fact, according to this interpretation, the spirits that infest our homes are a projection of what Freud called the “mourning process” of the living.  In legends and superstitions, phantasms appear agitated by passions that remain enduringly intense; the dead are never serene and detached, otherwise they would never appear to the living.  They are the agents of a nagging, iterative request, and more than anything else they are desiring beings.  Thus what distinguishes them from the living is not desire, but the fact that they can never enjoy: they are carriers of pure desire, but the road to satisfaction is barred to them.  In particular, they cannot enjoy life, which is why they never cease to envy the living for its pleasures.  The non-superstitious adhere to a theory that is situated entirely in the psychological register: we believe that the dead continue to exist alongside the living insofar as we project onto them our anguish as living beings no longer able to satisfy our desires. We tend to imagine death as an eternal state of desire that has reached a point where it has become impossible to satisfy – to annul through satisfaction.  The dead can never kill their desire, while we living can allow ourselves to do so.  We imagine death curiously as the continuing, eternal, painful consciousness of being nothing.

          Today’s psychological explanation is a corollary of the philosophy that prevails in the West today – in both its rationalist and, in the wake of Nietzsche, “Dionysian” forms.  This philosophy places Lebenswelt – ‘lifeworld’, or the world of life – at the foundation of everything.  From Nietzsche to Husserl, Bergson to Freud, at the source of every belief lies the world of life.  Death and the real do not exist in an absolute sense – only our perceptions and lived experiences exist, and they do so in a relative sense.  Reality is reduced to our sensations, it is ultimately the accumulation of our private perceptions, which we can compare to the sensations of others.  There is no Kantian thing-in-itself, no noumenal real at the base of phenomena, but only phenomena accessible to our perceptive and intellectual experience as sentient beings.  Insofar as death is the cessation of thoughts and perceptions, it does not exist; or rather, it is only the death of the other that exists, in the sense that we come to miss the other, but not ourselves.  My death lies always and only in the future – it is never present,[10] and since what exists for us is only what has taken place or is taking place, my death is always and only imaginary, never real.  And so, for Heidegger, my death is always and only possibility: what makes me authentic, my own self, is my “being-toward-death” as my most personal possibility; in other words, what makes me more my own is the prospect that, once dead, I will no longer be really me. [11]  

Sartre’s position is different:


Death? I don’t think about it.  It has no place in my life, it will always be outside.  One day, my life will end, but I don't want it to be burdened with death, I want that my death never enter my life, nor define it, that I always be a call to life.[12]


One can speak of nothing other than life.  Death weighs upon life, and life can free itself by thinking only about itself.  The dead, on the other hand, do not think.

          It is often stupidly questioned why the terminally ill should take the time to take care of banal practical matters, when they might do better to reflect on the mystery of death.  Proust was struck by the “incredible frivolity of the dying.”  But the dying are frivolous because their alternative would be extremely boring: thinking about no longer thinking.

          Sartre’s being-towards-life seemingly contrasts with Heidegger’s being-towards-death.  And yet both exclude the presence of death: Heidegger by making it our most personal possibility, and Sartre by excluding it from the horizon of life.

Modern man says that praises bestowed on the dead are certainly of no use to the dead, but only to the living.  If we organize a tenth-anniversary memorial service for a deceased friend, we are doing so for ourselves, so that we may enjoy our memories of him.

This explanation, however, makes something appear as functional which in fact is not.  After all, there are many other ways in which we might recall our deceased friend: for instance, simply by concentrating on our memories on him.  In fact, our funeral services are staged in such a way as to please the dead: we imagine him participating in and enjoying his service.  If he has asked us to play Chopin’s Funeral March or to cremate him, we take care to observe his wishes, as though in doing so we could give him pleasure even though he is dead.  We are careful not to say anything untoward; one should speak only well of the newly deceased.  We behave as if the dead person were fluttering about us, hearing our every word.  But whatever for, if the dead do not exist?  Enlightened, we think we are doing all this for ourselves, but in actual fact we are also celebrating a magic sacrifice – we burden ourselves with costly funeral expenses, we lavish time on organizing eulogistic liturgies, and so on.  But are we not doing so because it is the supposed pleasure of the deceased that satisfies us?

There is something secretly hallucinatory in all these public obituaries. It is actually for the dead that we indulge in memorial ceremonies; and it is only to the extent that we feel that we are satisfying them that we ourselves feel satisfied. When we say that the deceased is nothing in and of himself – that he is only a handful of memories for those whom he has left behind – we are not being sincere.

A premise of the deceased’s survival is revealed even in expressing our mourning.  In fact, any serious mourning implies an identification with the dead as dead.  Often, people close to us die towards whom, for a good part of their lives, we were quite indifferent, not to say hostile – but their demise devastates us.  We discover how important they were to us only post mortem.  Mourning is a contradiction: instead of forcing ourselves to ignore the deceased, instead of obeying our biological duty to get on with life by consigning that which we have lost to oblivion, instead of doing everything possible to forget those who have died – for the most part, we do just the opposite.  Our mind restlessly returns to the person whom we have lost, a perverse desire sets in to make us suffer, making use of the bittersweet fragments of remembrance and nostalgia. 

Perhaps we continue to mourn our loss because we assume that it is the deceased who weep for the termination of their own lives.  Not by chance do we refer to them as “poor good souls.”  Who could be poorer than the dead?  It is as if they survived their own existence as living beings just long enough to be able to “realize themselves” as dead, and thus to be able bitterly to regret the loss of their lives.  Grief is also the effect of our identification with the supposed pain of those precious people who have died, who “live” their own deaths as the loss of their own lives.  A superstitious altruism emanates from every act of mourning.


8.  Living for Posterity


It is very embarrassing for us moderns – even if we believe in the afterworld – to admit this simple and terrible truth: that what guides a good part of our life is our thinking of ourselves as dead.  So terrible that we have developed exalted vitalist philosophies, deluding ourselves that death does not exist in order to distract ourselves from this macabre condition.  Yet our life would not be worth living if it were completely enclosed in the framework of our life.  Many of the things that are most important to us are things that will outlast us, and they are things that we do only so that they will outlive us.  Starting with our children: who would ever bring children into the world hoping that they will die before their parents?  And if I did entertain a hope of this kind, I should be the most awful kind of parent.  And this is true for anyone who loves:  the hope of every lover is that the loved one will be the survivor.  Is it for egoistic reasons, so as not to go through the horrible experience of living without our loved one?  One contradiction shines through here: by desiring that my beloved outlive me, I am wishing upon my beloved the pain of mourning.  So it is that egoism triumphs, slyly, at the peak of altruism.  A “hardcore” Darwinist would say that we produce children so that our genes will survive, given that the selfish genes of which we are the incarnation are there precisely in order to replicate.  But even adoptive parents desire that the life that they have helped to raise will survive them.  Modern psychologism tells us that we wish others to survive us because we desire to be immortal.  We should like to participate in the potential immortality of our species.

          Some are not satisfied in having their children survive them, but dedicate their lives to having their works survive them.  “Work, distinct from both games and computations, is an existing-for-beyond-my-death”.[13]  The desire that our works, like our children, will survive us, seems to us legitimate and is taken for granted.  The historian Lytton Strachey found it difficult to write when sick; when a friend advised him, “Write for posterity”, he retorted, “Why, what has posterity ever done for me?” 

Were we to ask the creators of these works to respond to the choice imposed by the genie in the bottle –  “would you rather be famous during your lifetime but forgotten after death, or unknown while alive and famous after death?” –  which option would they choose?  The either-or choice would throw many of them into an agonizing uncertainty.  What we are embarrassed to admit today – in times when selfishness and cynicism are often elevated to the status of pure rationality – is that, unless we give ourselves up to worthless hedonism, we live with our thoughts fixed on those who will follow us. We live gracefully for them.


9.  Homage to the real


In the film The Others, as in The Sixth Sense, the dead are oblivious to the fact that they are dead.  This specificity marks a turning point in modernity: we no longer want to know about death.

          Our mourning has effectively become iconoclastic; our grief for a loss is forced back into our personal and private life and is never displayed publicly.[14]  Our grief for the death of an “other” is more and more confined to our sphere of intimacy, if not repressed tout court (an inverse evolution when set in contrast to our attitudes to sexuality – a domain in which everything is rendered increasingly public, through films, discussions, and so on).  We don’t indulge our pain, rather we drag it along behind us like a dead weight, in the hope that it will soon forsake us – a process that we hope to speed up, perhaps by tossing down anti-depressants.  And as to our own death, we obstinately reject it.  The well-known therapeutic frenzy is not just a whim of doctors, it is the technocratic reverberation of our no longer wanting to know about dying.[15] 

Today we tend to repress death insofar as it represents the radically other than us.  Globalization insists that there is no longer the radically other-than-me.  Thus death, and whatever is authentically other than me, does not exist.  Everything is my World of Life.  Just as things are reduced to being our objects and our instruments, so subjects today are clients and agents – or better still, stockholders.  We must never be patients; if we suffer, we must transform ourselves as soon as possible into agents.  Certainly we are far from realizing the program of the Epicurean philosophers – to free ourselves from the fear of death by acknowledging that death does not exist, because if we are dead, we do not exist.  Our fear of death – so we are told – is a fear of nothing (actually, it is the fear of something: of Nothing).  We fear death only because we mistake it for something in life; in fact, once dead, it will be just as it was before we were born.  Our fear of disappearing must be an illusion – if we were free of all superstitions, it is said, we would no longer even fear dying.  This is the Schopenhauerian ideal, which many propose as the ethical way, that is, as a strategy for being able to be happy: to live without fears and desires, in an eternal present devoid of anxiety about dangers and excitement about projects.

And yet, the dead in Shyamalan’s film deceive themselves because they do not recognize their death – a metaphor for our illusory state as living beings who refuse to allow death to exist, including our own death.  The dead who deceive themselves into thinking that they are alive are thus the hyperbolic allegory of inauthentic life, according to us moderns: the life that has no idea that it is dedicated– and not merely destined – to death.  Not only in the sense that we all know that we shall die – we know that indeed – but in a more unacceptable sense: that in some way we are already dead.

To think of ourselves as dead, for each and every one of us, is to think of ourselves as radically totally other: dead, we will mean something only for others, and perhaps even something vital for them.  To be dead is the greatest point of alterity: it is to be nothing but “real”.  There is nothing more other than the real in itself.

Western thought, from Aristotle onwards, has usually thought of the real as

actualitas, act.  On the one hand the imperfection of “being in power” (dynamis), on the other the plenitude of “being in act” (energeia), when matter and form, joined together, emerge as presence.  Reality, act and presence, in the temporal sense of present, are intimately connected in our way of thinking.  The close connection between being real and being present, in the present, is dominated by a profoundly anthropomorphic activistic principle: the man who acts.  “In the beginning, there was Action,” Goethe wrote.  Thus the real is usually perceived as the product of work or of creation – of God, Nature, or man himself. “Verum factum est,” Giovan Battista Vico said: truth is something that is produced.  Western culture finds it difficult to conceive that part of being that seems marked by passivity or passion more than by action – that seems marked by death as a non-presence rather than by the presence of the life agent, and by the past more than the present.  Those dedicated to scientific objectivity state that “we look at the facts,” but already the term fact reverberates with the etymology of factum, of something produced.  And in the term given fact, one presupposes that objects were in fact given, they were gifted to us.  Facts and data, being fundamentally productions or gifts, lend themselves from the start to our manipulation which counts them, re-orders them, transforms them, and uses them.  But what then remains of the real of absence and of death?

The real is in fact a mode of absence: it is being-other-than-what-is-most-intimately-present-to-us.  The entity that we call the Real (unlike the Imaginary) is what asserts itself for us as other-than-us, that is, other-than-our-being-present-to-ourselves, and thus other than our presence and experience of it.  It is the rock against which the glorified ship of every spiritualism breaks in the end, the inescapable remnant that humiliates our presumptuous conviction that we can subordinate the world to our desires and interests.  Common sense tells us that even our most vivid and febrile sensations are not real: what we call real is instead what transcends us as subjects, something we usually ignore, except when it imposes itself on us as elusive otherness or trauma. A thing is far more real for us the less it is “for us” and “from us”: it is real insofar as it contrasts our being-present-to-ourselves with what is present to us to the extent that it is other than ourselves.     

As long as we are alive, we are, luckily, a little unreal.  We are certainly this or that, but we can always think that we might stop being it.  Everything Heidegger had to say regarding the human being as Dasein (being there), thrown projection, projection towards the future, gives a conceptual framework to this providential unreality of life, completely directed towards non-presence thanks to desire, to projection, and to that sweet longing for sleep.  To be alive means placing oneself ahead of time in something that is not yet there.  Alive, the possible sucks away a good bit of the real, it softens it, lulling us into hope and promise. To be alive is to believe that we are first of all possibility, that we do not coincide with the real that we were or still are.  To live is to leave the game of being open.  To die is just to have been, the game is over. 

The real is our being only for the other.  It is for this, our having-been – not for our still unrealized project of being-now  – that we demand respect, remembrance and tenderness.  In our desire to be honored after death, it is the need that the other be accepted and respected as other that affirms itself as the crucial condition of humanity.  Humanity implies the paradoxical desire that even what it no longer desires, what has ceased to be human, should be respected.  It is the most unshakable need for transcendence.  

Belief in the supernatural is the form (probably the most archaic) that this primary drive to transcend assumes.  We “transcend” when we want to go towards the real and the other in their absoluteness, when we want to go outside ourselves – a mad desire for rationalism, which never goes outside itself, and always has a good head on its shoulders. While this ecstatic, soaring desire, leads us to valuing the other, not because it lives with us or for us, or because it is part of us, but because it is precisely radically other with respect to us. This is scandalous for our modern mentality, for which only my life exists, what I want, what I believe in. I come upon the Other – the capital O here connotes its transcendental character – insofar as I forsake turning it into a practical object of my life; I exempt it from my whirlwinds of planning, and bow before this hard, ultimately mystical, recognition: that the real – together with all the other human beings belonging to the real – is more important than me.

Many people consider another person or another object as more important than themselves: their loved one, their children, the cause they fight for, the nation, truth, science, the need to carve their memories in stone. But I remain the most important thing for myself if I do not realize that I am already dead. In the world “we are” ultimately signs, names, titles, quotes, commemorations – and we demand respect for all these things that we are not. We want respect not for ourselves, but for the other that we are to others and for the other from that which we are, an eloquent approximation of the otherness that obliges us. The pity that we feel for our cumbersome otherness – which we also call self-respect – is the unexpected matrix of any altruism. But this other from what we are concerns us, impassions us and even stirs compassion in us.



10.          Dying for a Dead Man


The tragedy Antigone is a somewhat awkward horror story for us moderns, who have such a thirst for life. Antigone, like Alcestis, chooses death. Instead of lying on the marriage bed with Haemon, she will lie buried alive in a grave, because that is the City’s punishment for having covered the body of her murdered brother. Even Hegel modernistically smeared her: he saw her as the heroine of regressive family piety against the ethical reason of the state, as personified by her uncle Creon.[16] But Antigone is not only a fundamentalist upholder of family piety, nor a militant against a despotic state: she reminds us that the need to honor the dead is the basic ethical trait that specifies humanity.

          Apparently the Neanderthals, an extinct human species, were unable to speak because they did not have an adequate vocal tract, yet they had a form of death cult.[17] Tombs and gravestones are the first signs of what we recognize as humanity, even in hominids. We specify human beings, before the creation of languages or artifacts, as bizarre animals that pay homage to their dead. In this perspective, Antigone’s minimal ethics – the duty of funeral honors – appears to us today as most tragic when it interferes with the political and progressive reasons of the living. From Sophocles to Shyamalan, many western dramas illustrate this hyperbolic paradox: human beings are born into humanity to the extent that they suspend their hunger for life, and respect and pity their dead. Hence, human beings care for the no-longer-human, bearing witness to their own eccentricity with respect to life and the City. This respect is probably coessential to their vocation for science and truth, things that are so in-human.

          For human beings, the world cannot be reduced to their environment; the latter is only one side of the biological coin, the other side of which is the organism. In biology organisms and the environment are always mutually implicated. Yet, human beings, from their very origins, have transcended  their environment – enthusiastically getting themselves into trouble – and at the same time tend to transcend their organisms too, their living beings (I term transcendentality this very tension that is never definitively appeased). 

One of Marx’s famous expressions that I have always found to ring false is that in which he states that human beings only ask themselves questions to which they can find an answer. On the contrary, I think that human beings keep making new discoveries precisely because they always ask themselves questions to which it is impossible to give an answer, as, for example, “why is there a world instead of nothingness?” or  “does the divine exist?” The curiosity of human beings is aroused by extra-environmental entities, by matters that basically do not concern them. The strange passion for the supernatural that many share means that what has always counted historically for human beings is beyond their vital environment. Homo sapiens has always been fond of the dead or as yet unborn world, for the world beyond or before her or his own life. Scientific curiosity, insofar as it transgresses the limits of useful prediction, seems to have the same origin as death cults.



11.          In Praise of Death


When as a young man I read Plato’s Phaedo, I was quite disgusted by it. Indeed, this dialogue is an apologia for death. When Socrates drinks the hemlock, he speculates with his friends upon the immortality of the soul in theoretical terms, but is careful not to sing the praises of eternal life. To him the philosopher is devoted to death, therefore does not fear it, but loves it and hopes he will die.

          “Then it is a fact, Simmias – Socrates says – that true philosophers make dying their profession, and that to them of all men death is least alarming”. [18]  Philosophers behave like those who follow the lovers, wives or children they have lost into the next world. They basically commit suicide:


If this is so, will a true lover of wisdom who has firmly grasped this same conviction – that he will never attain to wisdom worthy of the name elsewhere than in the next world – will he be grieved at dying?  Will he not be glad to make that journey?[19]


          So, for Socrates,  Boeotians and fools are actually right when they say that philosophers, because they forsake carnal and material pleasures of this world, do not deserve to live. The philosopher, because he despises physical pleasure, already has one foot in the grave.

          The idea that philosophy is above all a preparation for death runs through the centuries. From Cicero (Tusculan Disputations) to Montaigne (“to philosophize is to learn how to die”) and Heidegger. [20]  Jacques Derrida, sick with cancer, would say: “I know what the fundamental philosophical injunction is, it is that to philosophize is to learn how to die”.[21] Has western philosophy – apart from a few exceptions – always had a vocation for thanatos?

In fact, when I first read the Phaedo, I found this vocation somewhat scandalous, because at the time, as a Nietzschean, I only appreciated life, or rather, the vital side of life. In this exaltation of philosophers as professionals of death, I already heard the echoes of the wretched fate of so much philosophy: its history as a champion of dogmas, unfounded certainties, intellectual acts of violence and violent intellectuals, of contempt for the common and blessed joys of life. By repudiating flesh and life, has western metaphysics not prematurely become corrupt, abandoning to its destiny the pathetic world of humans? From the Phaedo to Derrida, making being-for-death the model of its proper, appropriate – in short, philosophical – existence, has philosophy not become a servant of the powers that despise life and use philosophy to increase their power?

These doubts remain, yet in time things have come across differently to me. I came to understand – obscurely at first, … then, even more obscurely, that in some sense it is only the memento mori that makes us truly savor the value of life.

          So many paintings entitled Et in Arcadia Ego depict young people who in that mythic region of Greece dedicate themselves to erotic play in a carefree rural setting.  But the incongruous appearance of a skull in the picture reminds us that even these joyful shepherds and shepherdesses must die.  Like the skull in Arcadia, is the philosopher always a party-pooper, and so – as the uncultivated Boeotians thought – worthy of death?

But things can be seen in a different light: the philosphical skull, far from spoiling the partie de plaisir, indicates that this is in some sense the indispensable condition of human enjoyment.

In Hereafter (2010), Clint Eastwood introduces us to three unrelated characters– the young journalist Marie in Paris, young George in San Francisco, the child Marcus in London. The three do, however, have something in common that will lead to their meeting: a special relationship with death. Marie was swept away by the tsunami in Thailand and survived, after having various visions of bliss, something that, notoriously, many experience in comatose states. George is a medium who can communicate with the deceased. Marcus lost his twin brother and would like to meet him again. This contiguity of theirs with death isolates them from a social context steeped in life, but they eventually meet. Happy ending: Marie begins a romance with George, the only person who can appreciate her brief, dazzling contact with the hereafter. A film for superstitious followers of New Age culture? No. The romantic union is possible because both have had to confront, however differently, the irreducible otherness of death. As if only a common passage through the hereafter can assure a true bond of friendship and love.

It is a (false) belief that human beings are the only animals that can laugh, and that this is because they are also the only animals who know they will die. We know now that even animals laugh.  Only the desperate horizon of death insofar as it exists allows human beings to extricate themselves from too dense a life, without voids. And nothing tells us that the hedonist Epicurus lived more happily than Socrates, lover of death.


12.          “Death is Dead”


Marxism, philosophies of life, Nietzscheism, Existentialism, Pragmatism – all the conceptions that have dominated the twentieth century have glorified human life from different angles and have scorned the impartial, contemplative, detached eye – the divine gaze of objective science – as a metaphysical illusion. Modern philosophies are, beyond their differences, traversed by a common bio-centric assumption.

Traditional thinking had labored under the illusion that it was a Mirror of Nature, insofar as it centered on this eye outside the world: but bare crystalline objectivity, faithful reflection of and about the world, is a death gaze upon the world. This objectivist alienation supposedly began with Plato and has lasted up to the present day, with the whole range of positivist and objectivist metaphysics. Scientific determinism exemplifies the project of the sciences’ absolute power of prediction – it is the point of view of God, and God is a sublime metaphor for the dead. But for us who consider ourselves at the height of modernity, neither God nor death exists. In fact, only a zombie can look at the world with no memory and no desire – that is, disinterestedly – a delusion, however, that betrays a burning desire not to be dead.

The atheism or agnosticism on which a good part of modern thinking prides itself is the symptom of a deeper athanatism: the modern ideal drives the Hereafter out of being, it passionately upholds that death does not exist. And so this apotheosis of life as actualitas fuels modern nihilism – a life without death is practically nihil, it is in itself nullified.

          Nietzsche’s famous statement that “God is dead” has had such an effect not so much because of its role as one of the many variants of atheism; it has shocked us because it settles something much more embarrassing: with Nietzsche death is no longer deified. His blood-curdling idea of the Eternal Return of the Same means that in fact everyone will repeat their lives for eternity. We moderns deify only life – hence our insistence on the other’s right to live and enjoy – and it is death above all that we have undeified. “Death is dead”, Nietzsche tells us. God has dragged it away with him during his own ruin. I shall not be the one who returns to the monotheistic prospect of eternal life, and yet…

          Yet, I suspect that the secularization of death – its reduction to death of the other for us who are alive – is a repression. I feel that if there is no piety for the dead, our way towards a real piety for the living is barred. Pietas for those who are no longer with us is the matrix of all piety for those who still exist, as Antigone cries to us across the centuries. Behind our rational and virtuous participation in the suffering of the living, we find an irrational, essentially unfathomable, assumption: suffering for those who suffer no more. Salomon Reinach observed that “pagans prayed to the dead, Christians prayed for the dead” – they intercede for them, they have piety for them. [22] The impossibility of suffering, the other side of the impossibility of enjoying, seems to us worthy of the greatest compassion.

The modern world – for which only the desiring subjectivity of the living exists – is dominated by an almost hypocritical nihilism: it sets aside the truly great paradox of human life, which consists not only in knowing one is mortal, but also of not wanting to limit oneself to this mortality. The human mind is ecstatic – from ekstasis, being outside the self – in the sense that it always goes beyond itself,  directing itself towards the other and towards mystery. True nihilism would then consist in accepting life’s impulse to transcend itself, not despite our death, but thanks to it. If we were immortal, as Christianity guarantees us, there would of course be no nihilism, but nor would there be a true transcendentality.

Thanks to the monotheisms, our interest in others has ceased to be unfounded and paradoxical, and has finally seemed justified. Therefore, it is the necessary absurdity of our transcending ourselves that modernity just doesn’t want to know about. Insofar as human life accepts itself as mortal, it actually maps itself out as the life of an “other” for others. But what is this life of others in which we take such an interest if not that in relation to which we are ourselves other, perhaps even dead?

It could be argued: if the dead is the Other, not every other is dead. Of course, but the dead are evoked in many cultures as representatives of otherness precisely because they challenge our rejection of the radical other as something outside being and outside the Ego. It is precisely through our (absurd) relationship to the dead that we can map out a certain primacy of otherness.

The dead who do not know they are dead, therefore, stress an even more radical repression on our part: our wish not to know about the existence of death – our own death or the other’s. Our wish to forget that death is also the absence of the dead to themselves. We imagine the dead suffering for their inability to enjoy life, even a painful life, and this aporetic suffering without the awareness of suffering is the vividly human basis of every death cult. Besides, by reducing death in an imaginary dimension to the infernal eternalization of a desire from which any enjoyment is excluded – reducing it to our desire being condemned to unreality – we forget about the dead. In other words, we forget we are ultimately already dead for posterity, in the same way that we are irreparably other to others.



13.          The Desire to Be Real


But, in the same way as at Halloween irrepressibly lively children represent the dead, the dead represent another even more radical other. We depict “revenants” as desirers; that is, as hyper-living beings.  They plague us as though they were alive, devoured by envy and need. Hence the epic story, which shows no signs of coming to an end, of vampires, now renamed zombies – however remotely related to the original Haitian zombies.

In the George Romero film Night of the Living Dead (1968), humans who die are, as a result of an accident in space, quickly reanimated as living dead, dominated by a single impulse: to eat living humans alive. In contrast to traditional vampires – snobbish aristocrats – the living dead do not talk, they are only hungry for life – a hunger that kills. Their basic desire is to devour the vitality of living beings.

          The living dead hyperbolize the pathos that shakes our life, striking it dumb. But why ‘other’ into living dead that which, more than ever, would seem to represent ourselves?

          In fact, the modern outlook on life tells us on the one hand that we have to seek the truth about neuroses and psychoses in the lies and in the narcissism of childhood – that knowing the truth amounts to exposing the delusions of the child or the primitive in us.  On the other hand, what the same movement allows to emerge is the suspicion that  The child is not only the Dennis the Menace figure from which we have to free ourselves in order finally to become good spouses, fathers or mothers; the child, as Wordsworth said, is also the father of the man. [23] On the one hand, the truth of adult suffering is sought in the invention of the immature subject; on the other, this invention actually turns out to be a truth that has to be cast into oblivion so that we may function acceptably, without excessive suffering. The form of modern life is hammered out in this oscillation that traverses it in its entirety: in the unceasing pendulum between the passion for unveiling on the one hand, and, on the other, the feeling that this unveiling only whirls around the well of truth.

The not-entirely-dead are those who cannot enjoy, so to speak, their death, because their desire is never acted out as pleasure: it remains pure subjectivity without the real. It is the chronic eternalization of living desire that cannot resolve itself (that is, die) in the satisfaction that must be its conclusion. The dead, in contrast to the living, cannot let their desire die in pleasure – hence we find the dead that besiege us horrifying because they are nothing but purely, nakedly, living. Their pain is the penalty for a terrifying eternal life.

In fact, I call real that part of being of which the being is put into question. Desire and imagination are also coagulations of being with their way of being – private, subjective, imaginary, ‘worldly-wise’. Parmenides said: “being is being and not-being is not-being”, but desire is anti-Parmenidean: it is a being that is not, or a non-being that is. It is an unreal being, and in this sense it perfectly fits the “revenants,” the dead who cannot die.

          But the question remains: why express in ‘beings’ that torment us that non-being being that makes us feel alive? Freud replies that we feel guilty about our desire to see them dead and that we therefore project our death wish upon these imaginary figures. But this explanation simply shifts the problem: why should we feel guilty about having desired their death, and so punish ourselves with spectral apparitions? The answer: because we loved them nonetheless. And why does this conflict between love and hate, between life wish and death wish, resolve itself in believing in the return of the dead? Is it possible that the insistent request of our dead to enjoy life simply expresses our desire not to have also wished their death?

But why are we tortured by the fact that the dead cannot enjoy life? And why is this torture represented to us by the “other”, by those at the fringes of the life of the city, such as children or strangers? Obviously we feel the need – controversial and unbearable – that the unachieved and the unachievable express itself, that it present itself to us.

François Truffaut, in the film La chambre verte (1978) tells us the story of a man who decides never to forget his beloved departed. For him his deceased wife is still there: he spends whole nights with her and in his current life she holds the same place she held while alive. He does not replace his dead friends with living ones. In short, what he likes to do is please the dead. Does he do this because he hopes others will do the same with him after his own death? But why should he care about being remembered and loved by those who survive him? Why are we so troubled by the thought we could be completely forgotten after our death? Why do we fear that no one will turn up at our funeral?  Why is what the living will think about us after our death such a vital issue for us? Sometimes we worry more about what people will think of us when we’re dead than we are about what they think about us while we’re still alive. For the Greeks a life could only be judged from the viewpoint of its end, its telos – hence, for them, the end was their ultimate end. The beautiful death – dying in battle – had a retroactive effect on a man’s entire life: even if it had been ugly, a glorious end would make it beautiful post factum. Only the way one died gave a complete meaning to an entire life.

          “Life – in the words of Camillo Sbarbaro – needs an alibi: that of the hereafter, that of art… At least the alibi of offspring. Life in itself is not enough.”[24]  No form of scientific rationalism will ever be able to dissolve this impertinent transcendentality of Homo Sapiens: the fact that human life will never be satisfied by its own life alone.

          Some of us, therefore, fervently need an other-from-us to remember our existence: we have to welcome the other-from-us into our house or City and have him participate, even if fleetingly, in our pleasures. But what is the origin of this burdensome generosity towards those on the fringes? And does it really have an origin? Probably this other-from-us who insists on being accepted – who desires to be no longer  other – is in turn a pathetic humanization of a metaphysical need: accepting the most radically other from us, what we absolutely do not desire - in other words, the real itself.

The real is the way of being radically different from what I want and desire: it’s the nothing-to-do-with-me that, however, keeps on calling me into question. The longing of children to be adults, and of the dead to live, is therefore the figure that expresses what is really the highest of our desires: the real as such. In other words, we desire what is beyond our desire, what will never be present to us. Or rather, we use children and the dead to express our care for the real, of that part of being which we, as desiring and finite beings, lack.

Not-enjoying, then, is the pathetic form of something broader that justifies our resorting to the radical other: the dead who cannot actually enjoy allegorically express our inability fully to enjoy the real, and hence our inability really to enjoy. The otherness of the world escapes us; we can only desire it. The real – what was there before us, what will be there after us, what we are not – is something that we can only imagine or desire. In this we are ourselves radically “other”, envious and yearning like the dead who will not die: we desire the real because we should like finally to enjoy it. And all the pleasures in which we indulge – and that console us – make us forget what we are really striving for: the being that absolutely transcends us. We humans are condemned to transcending ourselves.

The vexatious insistence of the dead thus repeats the return of that which obsesses us: that our desire should remain, in spite of everything, alive. Desire for what? Desire to be real, to participate in what exists as something other than our feeling that we are ourselves. Desire finally to be able to be other than what we are, to be able finally to enjoy what we are.





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Hegel G. W. F. (1977) The Phenomenology of Spirit (Oxford: Clarendon Press).


Heidegger M. (1962) Being and Time (New York: Harper & Row).


Lacan J.  (2007) The Seminar, Book VII. The Ethics of Psychoanalysis (New York: Norton).


Levinas E. (2003) Humanism of the Other (Chicago: University of Illinois Press).


Lévi-Strauss C.(1952)  “Father Christmas Executed” in Unwrapping Christmas (Oxford: Clarendon Press).


Reinach S. (1905)  “L’origine des prières pour les morts” in Cultes, mythes, religions (Paris: E. Leroux).


Panofsky E. (1983) Meaning in the Visual Arts (Chicago: University of Chicago Press).


Sbarbaro, C. (1985) L’opera in versi e in prosa (Milano: Garzanti).


Trinkaus E. (1983) The Shanidar Neandertals  (New York: Academic Press).


Trinkaus E.  & Shipman P. (1992) The Neandertals: Changing the Image of Mankind (New York: Alfred A. Knopf).




[1] “There Are More Things” (Borges 1975).


[2] Indro Montanelli (April 22, 1909, Fucecchio, province of Florence - July 22, 2001, Milan), one of Italy’s most well-known and esteemed journalists.

[3] Brand (1777).


[4] Lévi-Strauss (1952, p. 49). On the echoes between children and death, see also S. Benvenuto (2000, ch. VIII).


[5] Lévi-Strauss (1952, p. 49).


[6] Lévi-Strauss (1952, p. 45).

[7] Lacan (2007, ch. XXI-XXII).


[8] Althusser (1995).


[9] Freud (1911).

[10] To imagine a “beyond” of the phenomenon or of the concept one has of it – or imagining death as beyond the experience each life has of death as its own limit – is considered contradictory, mythical, unthinkable, by the majority of modern thinking. Our pragmatism refuses to think the unthinkable, it excludes a priori that the unthinkable may question thinking. It excludes, therefore, that my being-dead regards my life. Death is nothing more than the way life thinks its own end, which will never be present to life.


[11] Heidegger (1962, ch. 1).


[12] Cohen-Solal (1987).

[13] Levinas (2003).


[14] On the evolution of the meaning of death in the West, see Ariès (1991)

[15] In actual fact, especially in America, a different culture has made a striking appearance on the scene: one that does not deny death, but tries to “enliven” it, integrating it as a part of life, as a moment which life has to, almost gaily, confront itself with. See Benvenuto (1995).


[16] Hegel (1977).


[17] Trinkaus  (1983); Trinkaus & Shipman (1992). Homo sapiens and Homo neanderthalensis coexisted for many thousands of years without ever amalgamating.


[18] Phaedo, 67e.


[19] Phaedo, 68a-b.


[20] De Montaigne, Essays,  chapter XX.


[21] Derrida (2004).


[22] Reinach (1905, vol. 1)


[23] The rainbow.

[24] Sbarbaro (1985, p. 505).


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