I Will Be in Trouble If I Die

Yoshimichi Nakajima

Photograph by Sherman Ong

xx March 2006

Residing in Vienna. Even though it's March, there's fog-like snow falling outside the window without any sign of letting up. In the far end of the backyard sloping up towards the sky a faint light dances, yet the temperature is zero degrees Celsius. I bring into the lounge, with its immoderately high ceiling, philosophical works by Lacan, Kierkegaard, Husserl, literary works by Chekhov, Dickens, Zola (a real masterpiece, his L'Assommoir), Masaoka Shiki, Ooba Minako, et cetera and get lost in reading. And then I think about this and that. When I tire of thinking, I work on some unfinished manuscripts I've been ignoring. When I tire of that, I turn on the television and flip through the channels. I scan screen after screen, hoping to get some German listening practice, but everything is dull as ditchwater. At that point I get out the especially cheap wine I had bought at the supermarket: Alter Knabe, Servus, and Storch. Drunk, I go through the kitchen, through the dark corridor, into the bedroom (with yet another unsettlingly high ceiling) and fall asleep. When I wake up I return to my books in the lounge. If I get hungry, I eat. Repeat ad infinitum, that's how I spend my days.

I am almost sixty years old. In other words, it's about time to die. The last words of the unconscious Sōseki, on his deathbed, were "I will be in trouble if I die." It's true: if I die, I'll be in trouble. How could I stand to die as I am now? But there's no question about it, I will die. It's not clear what the trouble is, but it doesn't matter, something or other will be problematic. Whatever the case, if I died just like that, shamelessly, there would have been no point to my being born. If I were Dostoevsky's underground man I would add that I believed my liver was diseased. However, my liver is quite robust.

No matter how many times I re-read Notes from the Underground, I can't sympathise with the main character. In modern terms he is a hikikomori, one who withdraws from society, though his smallness is entirely laughable, his thoughts neither genuine nor profound, neither subtle nor precise. Anyone could come up with those hikikomori ideas. He is a man incapable of aspiring to even mere insecthood, and should such a man enter society he would become, with his smallness perfectly intact, the sort of lowlife who appears in The Adolescent or Demons, running around noisily from this house to that, day after day, convinced that the space within a kilometre radius of his body was the whole universe—he would become the lowest of the low. Manipulating others, manipulated by others, given to sudden faints, fits of white-faced infuriated shouting, untrammeled outpourings of worthless opinions... then he turns around and buries his face in his listener's breast, has a nervous breakdown, waxes vainglorious, by turns frivolous and hysterical he transforms into a mad dancing fool, as if his butt were on fire. Dostoevsky presents (almost perversely) example upon example of such mean, ignoble people, people whom the reader keenly wishes to avoid becoming. They do not have an iota of intelligence. In addition to a diseased personality, their brains are diseased as well.

Most writers including Dostoevsky are not much smarter, but this is simply a matter of their not thinking through fundamental ideas exhaustively. Of course Dostoevsky talks verbosely, off the top of his head, about love, eternal life, evil, salvation. However, from the underground man's Notes through to Ivan's parable of the Grand Inquisitor there is not a single philosophical idea. But given that he wasn't trained in philosophical inquiry, this is only natural.

It's something I've come to realise at this ripe old age, but can anyone tell me why the world is crawling with so many dimwits (who think even less than Dostoevsky)? Can they stand to live without self-reflection? Do they find that acceptable? Are they seriously able to lionise their unthinking selves and even criticise thinkers for spinning out "empty talk"? Wholly incomprehensible, no, I should say terrifying creatures, nothing else will do. Since they and I inhabit different worlds I have no desire to exterminate them, though at the very least I'd prefer that they keep their distance.

Humans, should they maintain an active mind, are almost certainly able to continue thinking even in old age. When I confessed, at a dinner event a few days ago, "I haven't felt any decline in my cognitive powers, I still experience new surprises and discoveries," one of my fellow philosophers S—— rejoined, "That is the surest sign of cognitive decline." I disagree. Always, always, abstract words and concepts are abuzz in my head.

To keep the mind vital, it is imperative that one continually use it, that one keep thinking. It's the same as physical training. I think incessantly: when I'm walking, when I'm eating, even when I'm excreting. About what, you ask? The diminishing population, environmental issues, the future of our country... nothing so trivial. The happiness of the human race, the meaning of life... nothing so yawn-inducingly worthless. The things I think about are more important, much nobler: questions such as "why am I able to see?" "why is it always the present?" and "isn't it possible that I don't exist?"

xx March

Was thinking today too, from morning till night. The sky remained gloomy and overcast the whole day, and a rustling snow fell as if slicing through it diagonally. It was zero degrees Celsius even in the afternoon. And so, with my philosophy books piled high on the table, I become absorbed in reading, one after another.

I've always kept a respectful distance from Lacan, but since last summer I've attended several times a research conference on the translation of Kant avec Sade, and listening to what the experts had to say I became interested in his work. In particular, the distinction between "the subject of the enunciation (énonciation)" and "the subject of the statement (énoncé)" I find thought-provoking. I remember reading Zupančič's Ethics of the Real and Borch-Jacobsen's Lacan: The Absolute Master and thinking so that's what it's about; I felt the veil drop from my eyes. Descartes' proposition "I think therefore I am" holds true insofar as it is limited to the the "I" (the subject of the énoncé) that is spoken about, and insofar as the speaking "I" (the subject of the énonciation) is covered up, is viewed as nothingness, is murdered.

This theory was developed from a psychoanalytic view of patients' utterances, but it can be generalised to show the dual nature of how the word "I" is used outside the treatment room as well. The woman who says "Oh I'm so happy," but is in fact dreadfully unhappy, the young man who says "I respect my father," while nursing a desire to kill him—these are not unusual. In these cases, the subject "I" who appears in the utterance splits off from the speaking subject. The patient has no intention of speaking (in the case of a lie) as though cognisant of the inconsistency between the subject of the énoncé and the subject of the énonciation. Nor does this mean that the two subjects are consistent in the case of a truth. The patient continually traverses this Möbius strip-like "gap." As Sartre analysed under the rubric of bad faith (mauvaise foi), at the moment of uttering "I (the subject of the énoncé) am honest," the dishonesty of the subject of the énonciation is completely exposed; conversely at the moment of uttering "I (the subject of the énoncé) am a liar," the subject of the énonciation incontrovertibly speaks the truth.

As long as the word "I" is used, there is no escaping this inconsistency. To acquire the word "I" and start speaking with "I am..." is to learn this inconsistency. Through the creation of the subject of the énoncé, the subject of the énonciation is killed off, eliminated from the language-governed Symbolic order. In effect, one takes off the Adamic "X" one wears before language acquisition, and puts on the garment of "I," accepting the traversal of the Möbius strip. Just as one uses a 10,000 yen note knowing that it itself is not worth 10,000 yen, that it is just a substitute—in short, a fake—so too does one accept, in place of "the real self," the fake "I" that can only be spoken about through language (the Other).

However, because it is an incredibly violent massacre, this lie peers out at us from every corner and makes us feel discomfited (unheimlich). Thus it is humans, having acquired a fake selfhood, and humans alone who are capable of suffering from mental illness, of committing suicide, of falling in love, of obsessively desiring sex or fame or material goods, of deriving pleasure from making others suffer.

xx March

This morning too, I wake up thinking. I open my eyes around six in the morning and draw aside the curtains, revealing more misty snow. I'm getting sick of this weather.

I fell asleep last night reading Kierkegaard, so his work was on my mind even in my dreams, even now I'm still thinking about the same thing. Kierkegaard is loquacious, narrow-minded, his words jump about willy-nilly and his philosophical writing is horribly difficult. But in The Deconstructive Turn, which I read recently, Christopher Norris suggests that Kierkegaard's style is a kind of deconstruction, a narrative technique (just barely) that is intended to draw the reader into his linguistic world. That makes sense to me.

Towards noon the sky clears up, so I decide to venture out for the first time in three days. Unfortunately, on the way here I managed to lose my Credit Anstalt passbook (probably in the plane). I had about 1,900 euros (270,000 yen) left in my account, and a wad of notes amounting to roughly 100 euros in my passbook, which was in my coat pocket. During the flight the cabin got quite warm, so I took off my coat and put it on my lap, but then it got in the way of things, so I put it in the overheard compartment. Then, at Vienna's Schwechat airport, I looked in my pockets to discover that it had gone missing. There was nothing to be done about the cash, and as for the passbook, even if someone had picked it up, he wouldn't be able to withdraw money without knowing the password (Losungwort, not a number). However, for this trip I had planned on withdrawing money when I got here; the amount of cash I had on hand was inconveniently small. First, I went to the Austrian Airlines office to see if it had been brought in: it had not. Next I went to the Grinzing branch of Credit Anstalt, but without my account number (which I had not thought to copy down) they were unable to issue a new passbook on the spot. And so, because of this, for the duration of my residence here I would have no choice but to lead an exceptionally frugal existence.

I've read Kierkegaard's The Concept of Anxiety countless times before and never had a clue what the book was about, but re-reading it this time something clicked and I got it right away. In Being and Time Heidegger borrows the term "anxiety" (Angst) from Kierkegaard to refer to an indicator of the fundamental situation of being-in-the-world, which is rather different from Kierkegaard's usage, I realised this time. In Kierkegaard's case, anxiety is something only Christians are able to experience, the precursor of which is Adam's anxiety upon hearing the command "You must not eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil." When Adam heard God's prohibition in the Garden of Eden, he experienced anxiety. "The prohibition made Adam anxious, because it made him aware of the possibility of freedom. The nothingness of anxiety that passed right by his innocence has now entered into Adam himself." (Collected works of Kierkegaard, trans. Hikami Hidehiro, Hakusuisha. I have here and elsewhere changed parts of the translation where appropriate.)

Reading it this time, what really excited me (my whole body felt charged) was the big question of how Adam was able to understand God's command. Yes, of course, Adam was the first human being and could not possibly have understood language before eating the forbidden fruit. And yet, how is it that he was able to understand God's command to not eat the fruit of that tree? If he didn't know what the command means, wasn't he also incapable of disobeying it? I started reading Kierkegaard when I was twenty; how have I not noticed something so important these past forty years! Kierkegaard wrestles with this problem and gives an almost Freudian or Lacanian answer. "The imperfection of the Genesis story i.e. that someone comes along and has to tell Adam something that he is essentially incapable of comprehending, disappears when we consider that the speaker is language itself, and it is therefore Adam himself who speaks." (op. cit.)

Adam was able to understand God's words, because to learn language is to learn the existence of the Other, and through this the notion of "I" was established within him. But Adam was not conscious of this, of course. He heard the prohibition, and through his experience of anxiety he accepted language into himself. Into this instance of Adam hearing God's words, Kierkegaard reads the process of how humans after Adam accept the Symbolic order founded on the exchange of "language," and in so doing kill off the innocent Adam, and acquire for themselves a counterfeit "I" that can survive in the Symbolic.

xx March

After a twelve-day stay in Vienna, I'm on a plane headed towards Narita as I write this. I finish my meal as the plane flies over Moscow, and while everyone starts getting ready to sleep, my mind is fully awake and thinking about all sorts of things. I raise the window shade slightly. White clouds stretch away in all directions as far as I can see. Just what is space, I wonder. According to Kant, space is the form of our human senses, but as for what he means by space being "subjective," I've been trying to figure that out for almost forty years. "Subjective" here does not mean a personal subjectivity. Rather it means that subjectivity is apportioned to the sensing consciousness and not to the sensed object. Using Husserl's terms, we may well say that subjectivity is apportioned to noesis (acts of intentionality) and not to the noema (the object of such acts). In short, space is not a special object, but rather a form for or a method (Art) of apprehending objects. We normally tend to think of space itself as a physical expanse, but according to Kant, space is instead a form that makes the physical expanse possible. Recently I have begun to realise that Kant's conception of space is not expanse as it is commonly held, thus it follows that it is also not Newton's absolute space or Leibniz's relations between substances, but probably something quite unusual. Instead of "space," it seems one ought to call it a pre-condition for making spatial understanding possible.

Therefore Kant, taking bearings from the body, turns his attention to notions of direction: up and down, left and right, forwards and backwards. It is his opinion that the conception of space first arises from the combination of these directions. Indeed, we have no other method of comprehending physical expanse. No form of cognition (theory) can provide such a comprehension, nor can objects or the relations between objects. This is because we know that space exists even without any objects. The subjectivity of space—this core part of Kant's insistences is simpler than one might think, and seems to rest on the point that our notions of direction are inaccessible to all forms of deduction and must, quite straightforwardly, be decided via our bodies. Kant calls this a "distinction based on feeling (Gefühl)."

The way this problem is formulated can be related to the first-person issue raised by Anscombe. That is, I am always able to know, only in relation to my bodily states, and even in complete darkness (i.e. without relying on observation), that I am standing, touching my breast, stretching my fingers, et cetera. I have no way of knowing what direction my body faces aside from feeling, and by extension, I know via feeling the direction in which the space, inhabited by my body, is expanding. That is the subjectivity of space.

I raise the shade again. Regardless, how wide and open all this space is! And this is always followed by the feeling of how utterly empty this universe is! Even on land, the space occupied by humans is but an infinitesimal drop. Pascal speaks of the futility of humanity set before the vastness of the universe, to which Nagel asks "So if we were as vast as the universe, would we not be futile any more?" I find his question amusing. The very act of coming up with such questions reveals a philosophical sensibility.

Kant concludes that the cosmos and everything in it is "my representation/idea" (meine Vorstellung), but this is incredibly obvious. Kudos to Berkeley for saying much more directly that "we eat and drink Ideas, and are clothed in Ideas"—now there's a great man. Great men who don't realise things as self-evident as this swarm all around us, now that's a real problem. Because they don't think at all.

Our learning of language is the learning of ideas. We learn ideas as something more real than the Adamic "X" anterior to ideas. As an idea, pain is not necessarily painful. As an idea, red is not necessarily red. The learning of language is learning to say that something is painful even when it is not; it is learning to speak as if you were in pain even when you cannot feel the pain of others. In short, it is to live in the Symbolic, where the forgeries known as words are exchanged. Viewed from this broad perspective, it becomes obvious that space is an idea, because my body is in fact just an idea.

So too is "now" an idea, so too is "death." There is no need to talk about my death in a Heideggerian roundabout way, as the "possibility of impossibility." The fear of death is not the fear of being dead, because I know nothing about that state. Well then, is it the fear of nothingness? I would have to say no, since I know nothing about the state of nothingness too. What I do know about is the death of others, the absence of others. Mistaking that for my own death, I apply it to myself, I fear it. There is a duration to the absence of others. To someone in love, whether a partner is absent for a day or a year makes a great difference. This is because there is someone measuring the absence. However, my death does not come across as an absence to me. It is (probably) a straightforward nothingness. Therefore I am not able to measure the duration of my own death. As one definitively dead, it would all be the same straightforward nothingness to me, it doesn't matter if I were dead for a day, for a year, or for a hundred million years. It doesn't mean that being dead for a hundred million years is any more tragic or awful than... and as I was thinking that I fell fast asleep. I open my eyes, and raise the shade just a touch. The blinding orange sun illuminates a sea of clouds. This spectacle is all an idea. Be that as it may, after my death, how amazing would it be to have such a spectacle before me.

"We will be landing at Narita International Airport in approximately ten minutes." After some unusual shaking, the plane begins its visible descent, I catch a glimpse of the runway through the clouds, and the next moment I hear the thump of the rear wheels. This is yet another idea. Yet another safe landing. Nothing to do but to live on a while longer.

translated from the Japanese by Sim Yee Chiang

Used by permission of © Bungeishunju Ltd.