How to Stop Living and Start Worrying: Conversations with Carl Cederström

December 23, 2010

Is death the possibility of impossibility, or the impossibility of possibility? This is the sort of question that Simon Critchley tussles with in this ostentatiously erudite book. It's about his life, his career, his subject, and his thoughts on death, love, humour and authenticity. Deriving from interviews first aired on Swedish television, Critchley's interlocutor, Carl Cederström, describes the book in the introduction - I don't say accurately - as "a relentlessly critical diagnosis of our time, but also a uniquely fun and easy entry into philosophy".

That is the subject, then, although importantly it's continental philosophy in particular that Critchley wants to promote. He is less than enamoured of the version more widely practised here, which he sees as austere, abstract and unwilling to engage with history, culture and politics. That isn't thoroughly wrongheaded but, as with so much in the book, it is wildly exaggerated. Think of Robert Nozick and John Rawls, Peter Singer, Mary Warnock, Bernard Williams. And then contrast analytic philosophy's aim for clarity and inclusiveness with the wilful impenetrability of much continental thought, its near-rabbinical poring over texts, its reluctance to tell it straight. Despite the repeated gesturing towards political engagement, then, it seems it may in the end be Critchley, and those sharing his approach, who are in danger of leaving everything as it is.

If there is fun in this book, it's surely present in the title, a jokey flip on the sort of self-help manual still to be found near the philosophy section - if there is one - in your local bookshop. But the fun doesn't last. Critchley really is asking to put life on hold, to step back and dwell on how difficult, perplexing and, in the end, unliveable it is. He is hostile to optimism, stoicism, heroism, the current concern - he says obsession - with self-improvement, individual happiness, well-being and so-called authenticity. He wants, in place of this, a sort of acceptance of the fuzziness and the mess, irony rather than tragedy, a good chunk of what you get in Samuel Beckett.

But go back to death and the disjunction with which I started. The first option is Martin Heidegger's, a believer in the stiff-lipped and internalised philosophical death. He is opposed by Maurice Blanchot and Emmanuel Levinas, who hold that we grasp the notion through the death of others. Critchley takes their side, denying we can master death. And then similarly he sides with Jacques Derrida, honest and unhappy about his demise, against the reticent and stoical Michel Foucault.

Big names, but is there any sort of argument? In a further spin on the importance of history, we are told - even though it's plainly false - that analytic philosophy sees no relation between philosophy and biography. Rather it obsesses over logical form, or proof, or verification.

Critchley doesn't much like this and insists on the critical importance of the link between life and work. Biography here isn't merely an indulgence or padding, then, and it is in large part because of his autodidactical shift from catering college to university, because he was, and mostly still is, a punk guitar player with stupid hair, tinnitus and a mangled hand that Critchley is the man he is and has the thoughts he has today.

I find it easy to be sympathetic to the thoughts, to think similarly, to smile as in the final chapter Critchley and his sometime collaborator, novelist Tom McCarthy, pile up the things they're against - authenticity, theatre, humanism, post-humanism, transhumanism, neuroscience, Radio 4, progress, Essex (at least the university, but maybe the county as well), the future, the Times Literary Supplement. But why is it of more than passing interest what any of us think?

Literature is one option, a way of adding value to raw thought. Philosophy - demonstrating that what we think is true - is another. Critchley needs to commit, more clearly than on his showing here, to one or the other.

How to Stop Living and Start Worrying: Conversations with Carl Cederström

By Simon Critchley. Polity Press. 224pp, £40.00 and £12.99. ISBN 9780745650388 and 0395. Published 3 September 2010

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