In Samuel Beckett’s novel Malone Dies the eponymous hero becomes obsessed with the idea of reciting a complete inventory of his worldly goods in the few moments preceding his death: a unique occasion, he feels, for producing “something suspiciously like a true statement at last.” Needless to say, despite Malone’s enjoying very few possessions, the reader understands at once that this last desperate bid for control will be beyond him. The world will not stay still, his memory is failing, and the moment of death, or rather the last moments of lucidity in which an inventory might be recited, are impossible to predict.
In Memory Theater, Simon Critchley’s hero, who would appear to be a fictional Simon Critchley, in that he shares the same curriculum vitae and publications as Critchley, has a more extravagant but related ambition: in the hours immediately preceding his demise he will embark on a virtuoso recall not only of his own life but of all the philosophy and history he has ever known.
At the instant of my death, I would have recalled the totality of my knowledge. At the moment of termination, I would become God-like, transfigured, radiant, perfectly self-sufficient, alpha and omega.
Critchley’s delirious alter ego has more energy than Malone and with the aid of a “memory theater,” an elaborate prompting mechanism, appears to have achieved his end, at least so far as the recall is concerned, only to discover that he is not going to die when expected. It was a false alarm. At this point he becomes more afraid of death than ever and the life that remains to him is one of terror and chronic, psychosomatic pain.
Much of Critchley’s work has been focused on death and contemporary attitudes toward it. Very Little…Almost Nothing (1997), written in the emotional turmoil after his father’s death, examines how one is to think of death in the absence of any religious or redemptive belief. There are long discussions of Maurice Blanchot, Beckett, and Wallace Stevens leading to the conclusion that if your desire for meaning remains essentially a desire for religious redemption, you will not find it, or any substitute for it, in literature. Critchley works on the assumption that many imagine the contrary.
The Book of Dead Philosophers (2008) opens with a denunciation of our desire either “to deny the fact of death and to run headlong into the watery pleasures of forgetfulness,” or alternatively to seek “magical forms of salvation and promises of immortality.” It is familiar criticism. To counter “our drunken desire for evasion and escape” Critchley offers philosophy, or rather Cicero’s notion that “to philosophize is to learn how to die,” an idea to be found in many of Critchley’s publications. He then proceeds to recount the lives and deaths of almost two hundred philosophers. Attractively dense,…
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