A Singular, and yet, Non-Arbitrary Life

A roundtable on the French philosopher Gilles Deleuze on the 20th anniversary of his death.

A Singular, and yet, Non-Arbitrary Life

On the 20th anniversary of the death of French philosopher Gilles Deleuze, LARB’s philosophy/critical theory editor Arne De Boever and Brad Evans invited several Deleuze scholars to reflect on the continued importance of Deleuze’s life and work today.


EVERY GENERATION has its own particular dead philosopher to mourn, as if marking time in the long duration of the death of philosophy itself, which has been dying from the beginning. Deleuze, perhaps, is the dead philosopher of “our” generation. What I mean by this is that his death marked a passing of philosophy as well, a passing that had already been forecast in Foucault’s earlier premonition that “one day this century will be known as Deleuzian!”

Of course, not all philosophers die in a manner that marks the change of an epoch. For example, American philosophers seem to pass away without anyone immediately noticing, as if they had simply left the party early and the exact time of their departure had to be calculated later on for the benefit of collective memory. In this regard, we seem to pay more attention to the deaths of writers and actors, but especially the deaths of celebrities and popular icons, than to the death of a philosopher, perhaps owing to the fact that philosophy has never been completely accepted here as an indigenous cultural genre.

French philosophers, by contrast, seem to provoke a large and public reaction, even in our own American press, almost as if the death of every French philosopher is viewed as “untimely,” or “tragic,” even when it is expected from natural causes or from long illness. Camus died tragically in a car accident in Burgundy, killed by his publisher, who was driving. Sartre, it is true, died of natural causes, edema of the lung that was fueled by years of chain-smoking (as was also the case with Deleuze). Simone de Beauvoir, his intellectual companion, died six years later from what was politely and respectfully reported in the press as “a long-term illness.”

In 1978, Sartre commented in a book of photographs that “death must enter life only to define it.” Two years later, in The New York Times obituary of April 16, 1980, we find the following judgment: “Twenty-five years ago Mr. Sartre, with Albert Camus and a few others, was an iridescent intellectual leader, virtually a cult object. But in recent times his stature was that of an ancestor figure whose generative conceptions had lost their force.” Perhaps in response to the passing of the “private thinker” and “universal intellectual,” Deleuze wrote publically to condemn the Parisian intelligentsia for speaking of his philosophy as if it now belonged to some “by-gone era.” They should, rather, admit the truth: that a certain cultural Bildung of philosophy had conspired which no longer favored the “private thinker” over the “public professor,” and that, “alas, we [referring to contemporary philosophers themselves] are the ones who in today’s conformist moral order are bygone.”[1] 

Here, we are witnessing the passage from the cultic figure of the “private thinker” (who Deleuze defines as someone capable of “speaking in his or her own name”) to the figure of the “public professor” (the specialist, or academic philosopher, “who represents something” and hails from “an order of representation”), a transition that also marks a distinctive change in public sentiment toward the figure of the “French philosopher” in our own time. This change was especially registered on this side of the pond with the rise of post-structuralism and deconstruction in the American universities, but especially in the vituperate reactions to these academic movements in the public press. Consequently, after the deaths of Camus, Sartre, and de Beauvoir, it was not accidental that many of the French philosophers who were admired most by my generation succumbed to somewhat ignoble and even unspeakable deaths.

Perhaps this was nowhere more evident than in the acerbic tone of The New York Times obituaries on the deaths of Foucault and Derrida. For example, on June 26, 1984, it was reported that Michel Foucault, “one of France’s most prominent philosophers and historians, whose writings explored society’s reaction to deviants, died yesterday in the Pitie-Salpetriere Hospital in Paris” (though the actual cause of his death was not disclosed until later).[2] Twenty years later, on October 10, 2004, in an obituary titled “Jacques Derrida, Abstruse Theorist, Dies at 74,” it was reported that “the Algerian-born, French intellectual who became one of the most celebrated and notoriously difficult philosophers of the late 20th century, died Friday at a Paris hospital […] The cause of death was pancreatic cancer, according to French television.”[3] 

If only to further reveal the cultural suspicion toward “the foreigner as public intellectual,” it appears that only by succumbing to an unhappy death the philosopher and group star is finally returned to the level of the common individual, to be subjected to moral scrutiny. To summarize: while the “private thinker” undergoes either a tragic death or a long battle with illness, thus preserving a degree of Humanity that can be mourned by everyone, the “foreigner as public intellectual” suffers a moral death, defined by “disorder,” “disease,” and finally, by suicidal “despair.” Recalling the above line by Sartre, it is this image of death that suddenly appears to define the philosopher’s life, as well as his work, and is offered as a warning to an overly credulous American public.

On November 6, 1995,

Gilles Deleuze, a philosopher and university lecturer whose prolific writings on art, literature and human thought influenced French intellectuals, died in Paris on Saturday […] Family members said he had jumped from his apartment window to end a worsening chronic respiratory illness for which he had recently undergone a tracheotomy.[4] 

Perhaps Deleuze represents a transitional, almost schizophrenic figure in the passage from the “private thinker” to the “public professor” of our time. As in the occasion of Sartre’s death, he champions the situation of the “private thinker” who is capable of speaking in their own name without “representing” anything; however, in his own life he occupied the position of the “public professor,” even though he claimed for his own philosophy a life defined as “pure immanence.”

In the year before his death, in one of the last articles he wrote which has become the subject of much commentary and speculation by Deleuze scholars, we can witness Deleuze reflecting on his own approaching death. In this brief article, “Immanence: A Life,” he begins by asking two questions that might also summarize his entire philosophy: What is a transcendental field? Second, what is immanence? Somewhat enigmatically, in his response to the first question, he responds very simply that the transcendental field is defined by a plane of immanence; in turn, that a plane of immanence is defined by a life. But here, we must ask, what then is “a life,” especially when this notion is separated from the personality of the individual who undergoes it? To illustrate these concepts, Deleuze refers to a lesser-known story by Charles Dickens, “The Same Respected Friend in More Aspects Than One,” from Our Mutual Friend (1864–1865). It is about a character named “Riderhood,” who in the beginning of the story drowns in the Thames in a boat accident and whose body is carried back to his apartment to await the doctor and the police.

In reading Dickens’s own account, however, or rather, the narrator’s, one can immediately locate the passage that inspired all of Deleuze’s attention on this story. The scene occurs in the second paragraph of the story, which describes the doctor and the attendants examining the “dank corpse,” at which point the doctor declares the body of the man, not hopefully, at least worthy of the effort in reanimating. At this moment, to which I will return below, we find the following passage: “No one has the least regard for the man; with them all, he has been an object of avoidance, suspicion, and aversion; but the spark of life within him is curiously separable from himself now, and they have a deep interest in it, probably because it is life, and they are living and must die.” In other words, it is the recognition of a “spark of life” that rises up from the “dank corpse” of an individual for whom no one had the least regard while he was living and whom everyone often sought to avoid in life, that suddenly became the object of deep personal interest by everyone in attendance — and even as Deleuze describes it, occasioning in each person the feeling of “beatitude.”

Of course, the original narrator does not go so far as describing this sentiment in such religious terms of “sympathy” or “fellow feeling,” but rather only speculates that their deep interest was perhaps motivated by purely selfish reasons, that is, “probably because it is life, and they are living and must die.” Here, Deleuze could be charged with introducing an affective fallacy with his own notion of the feeling of beatitude, which does not appear in the original account; if there is the least hint of a sentiment that could be remotely compared to the feeling of beatitude in the story at all, it only comes from the momentary tenderness felt by Riderhood’s daughter, who is called “Pleasant Riderhood,” but this is later called a “sweet delusion” by the narrator and thus rejected out of hand as a proper psychological affect that was felt by the others. This brings us to the second movement of the story, when this general spark of life is again eclipsed by the individual Riderhood, who is brought back to life. At this moment, “the spark of life was deeply interesting while it was in abeyance, but now that it has got established in Mr Riderhood, there appears to be a general desire that circumstances had admitted of its being developed in anybody else, rather than that gentleman.” Perhaps what is most crucial to notice in Deleuze’s own account is the great pains to avoid the psychological interpretation that is provided by the narrator, which he denies by converting it into a general and indefinite feeling of common interest and participation in a purely “impersonal life.”

We might see the Dickens’s character of “Riderhood” as a prototype of and inspiration for Beckett’s character of “Mahood” in The Unnamable, that is, a daguerreotype of Humanity reduced to its most minimalist and essential character trait: “supple to the twist and turn as the Rogue has ever been,” unlikeable as a form of individual life, but generally more pleasant to contemplate from a distance as a mere “token of life.” As the narrator exclaims:

See! A token of life! An indubitable token of life! The spark may smoulder and go out, or it may glow and expand, but see! The four rough fellows, seeing, shed tears. Neither Riderhood in this world, nor Riderhood in the other, could draw tears from them; but a striving human soul between the two can do it easily.

However, as Deleuze suggests in response this passage, “a life does not have to be enclosed in the simple moment when individual life confronts universal death.” 

To conclude my own observations, perhaps the main argument that Deleuze makes in this last statement is that we do not have to wait upon the death of the individual in order to witness the beatitude of a purely impersonal life, which does not appear in particular moments or events as it does in the between-times and between-events that traverse an individual life. In this regard, Deleuze was no existentialist, nor was he religious. A life that traverses all the events and accidents that compose an individual remains on a surface that is not incarnated in the living and thus may not even have a relation to the problem of finitude that has obsessed modern philosophy, particularly the philosophies of Heidegger and Derrida. Consequently, here I might even suggest that this offers us the image of a purely impersonal life, a life that is equal to the movement of an impersonal and even cosmic consciousness, that philosophy has always dreamed of, but which has never been able to realize. And yet, after Spinoza, Deleuze perhaps came closest to expressing this image of “a singular, and yet, non-arbitrary life.”


[1] Deleuze, “He was my Teacher,” Desert Islands, 79.

[2] Peter Kerr, “Michel Foucault, French Historian,” The New York Times (June 26, 1984).

[3] Jonathan Kandell, “Jacques Derrida, Abstruse Theorist, Dies at 74,” The New York Times (October 10, 2004).

[4] Craig R. Whitney, “Gilles Deleuze, 70, French Professor and Author,” The New York Times (November 7, 1995).


Gregg Lambert’s most recent book is In Search of a New Image of Thought: Gilles Deleuze and Philosophical Expressionism (University of Minnesota Press, 2012).

LARB Contributor

Gregg Lambert is Dean’s Professor and Founding Director of the Syracuse Humanities Center (2008–2014). His most recent book is In Search of a New Image of Thought: Gilles Deleuze and Philosophical Expressionism (University of Minnesota Press, 2012).


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