The Idea of Death

The Idea of Death - Pulvis Art Urns Philosophical Diary

The angel of death, who in some legends is called Samael and with whom it is said even Moses had to struggle, is language. Language announces death-what else does it do? But precisely this announcement makes it so difficult for us to die. From time immemorial, for the entire duration of man's history, humanity has struggled with this angel, trying to wrench from him the secret he restricts himself to announcing. But from his childish hands one can wrench only the announcement he had in any case come to bring. The angel is not at fault for this, and only those who understand the innocence of language likewise grasp the true sense of the announcement and may, in the event, learn to die.

G. Agamben


In this third short essay, dedicated to Giorgio Agamben, the thought of the Italian philosopher is directed towards humanity’s never-ending confrontation with finitude or more precisely – towards humanity’s own consciousness of mortality, this unbearable knowledge that is one’s constant shadowy companion in the adventure of life. Here this intolerable thought is caught in the figure of the angel of death, which not only signifies the theme as heavy-laden with religious pathos and symbolism but also reveals the central tension in Agamben’s essay – namely that between language and finitude.

For angel means message in Greek thus giving away the essay’s insistence on the idea that death is intolerable as a thought for it is something that cannot be expressed in words, i.e., something that cannot be rationalized, represented, thought within an understandable framework. In other words, finitude for Agamben signifies a threshold of thought, an existential event that cannot be conceptualized. A border where language fails in its ability to shed light on what lays within the realm of the unknown.


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However, it is exactly this impossibility to represent finitude, to name it properly, to normalize it, that manifests the duty of philosophy. It is a duty of endurance which means a constant attempt to think about death, to try and find words for an experience without image or contours that can guide one’s mind through darkness

It is here that the piercing poetic quality of this short prose-piece reaches its full potential.  By exposing the cathartic relationship between language and death which, as said, is a relationship between the ability to become conscious of experience (to know, to name) and the encounter with what renders knowledge, language incapable of consoling, the Italian philosopher not only expresses the fragile human situation exquisitely, but also lays bare the denial and aggression which too often with the thought of finitude. And it is exactly this attitude - this lure of self-pity, the all-too-human temptation for experiencing death as punishment, as an undeserved suffering, that Agamben tries to overcome with his gentle, albeit complex and solemn, prose-piece.

However, his existential decision is not an easy one. “The Idea of Death” doesn’t rely on a shallow consolation, an attempt to evoke life’s many bright sides and thus send a message of superfluous positivity. Agamben’s wager is a wager of enduring one’s limits of will, of courage, of language. But this is not an endurance marked by the idea of gaining something in return. It is a silent endurance, a mute resilience that at first can seem like a kind of abdication in front of the unbearable. However, it is quite the contrary.

Agamben’s silent endurance, brilliantly conveyed in the phrase those who understand the innocence of language, that is its failure in front of death, its muteness at the threshold of understanding, is a powerful affirmation of the life, dedicated to being just and to being concerned for life itself no matter how hard, intolerable, and violent even life can be. Thus, for Agamben to learn how to die is a lesson in humility, a lesson in care for what cannot be named, of understood but only endured in gentle silence.


Author: Yakim Petrov

Yakim Petrov - Author at Pulvis Art Urns Blog



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