Is Life Worth Living?

By Walter Benn MichaelsJuly 15, 2020

Is Life Worth Living?
To find LARB’s symposium on Martin Hägglund’s This Life: Secular Faith and Spiritual Freedom, click here.


THIS LIFE IS SUBTITLED “Secular Faith and Spiritual Freedom,” which basically corresponds to the two sections into which the book is divided and, although both parts are interesting, I focus in this response on the first part because it takes a question I think lots of people find puzzling — the one deployed as my title — and gives it a certain point. What’s puzzling (at least to me) is that, except as a way of thinking about some particular lives (like, yours or mine) at particular moments (like, here and now), it doesn’t seem to have much purchase. In what context (except extreme unhappiness, extreme pain) does anyone feel inclined to say that life is not worth living? Hägglund’s first contribution, then, is to provide this context, not exactly by imagining the conditions under which people do say it but by showing the degree to which people who say quite different and indeed opposite things — like I wish I could live forever — are required to believe it. His idea, in other words, is that someone who wishes she could live forever does not really wish to live at all. Why? Because if we really could live forever we would have no reason to value our time, no reason to use it in one way rather than another. It’s only our belief that we will not live forever, he says, that makes life worth living. It’s only our finitude that makes possible what he calls secular faith, as opposed to the promise of religious faith, the promise of a life that because it would be eternal would be meaningless.

Whether this thesis is fully defensible is an interesting question but a central part of it seems to me not only defensible but true — the idea that it is only the possibility of not having what you want that makes sense of all the things you do to get and keep what you want. Religious faith, Hägglund argues, takes eternity as its ideal — a world in which we cannot lose what we care about or in which we only care about what we cannot lose. The problem with this ideal, he thinks, is not the difficulty or even impossibility of attaining it; it is instead what we might call its incoherence, or its incompatibility with what it means for us to care about something. To love someone, for example, is to want to be with that person and to want that person’s happiness, and to act in ways that will enable you to get what you want. But if it were impossible not to get what you want (or possible not to want), it’s not clear what either wanting or acting would be. Indeed, the very concept of action involves the sense that we might fail. I could not know what it means even to try to explain Hägglund’s view if I could not fail to do so; if I couldn’t conceivably fail to do something, I couldn’t even try to do it. “Secular faith is a condition of intelligibility for any form of care,” Hägglund says; we could put the point only slightly differently by saying that the possibility of failing is a necessary condition of succeeding. Hägglund’s “secular perspective,” his focus on “normative practices” (“matters of what we do”) thus look to me like the deconstructive theory of the speech act, insisting that a certain ideal of the meaningful speech act is not only practically impossible but theoretically incoherent — since if we were present to each other and to ourselves in such a way that the speech act could not fail, there would be no need for or possibility of the speech act in the first place. So the possibility of failure is not extrinsic but intrinsic to the possibility of success.

For Derrida, however, this necessary possibility of failure entails, mistakenly as it seems to me, the consequence that there’s some sense in which every speech act really does fail — not exactly to mean but to be fully meaningful, where what fully meaningful adds to meaningful is the fulfillment of the speaker’s effort to achieve the ideal (not just avoiding failure but making it impossible). And Hägglund, I think, makes a similar move, albeit in a different direction. For him, understanding the irrelevance of the ideal has what he calls a “therapeutic” value. Since we “cannot shut down [our] sense of uncertainty and risk without also shutting down [our] capacity to feel joy, connection and love,” he says, we need to cease to value the kind of freedom from desire that Emily Dickinson famously called “a quartz contentment / like a stone,” and accept what he calls our “vulnerability.” But what does it mean to accept our vulnerability? If the risk of failure is built into the very idea of action, how can we possibly shut it down?

One way to put this is to say that I’m basically fine with Hägglund’s secularism but more skeptical about “the emancipatory and transformative possibilities that are opened up when we own our secular faith.” The skepticism is not about the emancipation (although there are reasons, to which I’ll return, to be skeptical about that) but about the link between owning or not owning our secular faith and being, for example, the kind of socialist that Martin Luther King (This Life’s political hero) was. Hägglund convincingly insists on the contradiction between King’s Christian faith in the “unlimited resources” of “the one eternal God” and his socialism but doesn’t give us any reason to believe that if his theory had been better, his practice also would have improved. Furthermore, just as there’s no reason to believe that people who have the right theory of action are thereby able to be better socialists, there’s also no reason to believe that having a good theory of action makes them more likely to become socialists in the first place. The rich man undeterred by his slim chance of passing through the eye of the needle will not be more deterred by the discovery that he doesn’t even need to worry about the needle.

My question here is first about the way in which a theoretical position gets turned into a recommended course of action and, second, about the course of action itself, and we can see both of them emerge from Hägglund’s fascinating account of Karl Ove Knausgaard’s My Struggle which, with its “extraordinary level of attention devoted to an ordinary life,” he praises for enabling “the reader to turn back to his or her own life with a more profound attention and concern.” Insofar as Knausgaard’s attention to the ordinary is a function of the acceptance of finitude, it’s hard to see why it should or could have this effect on the reader. We’re all embracing the finite all the time. Indeed, insofar as our relation to the finite is a necessary one, it’s hard to see why we even need to embrace it or why secular faith counts as a faith, at least insofar as our idea of faith is that it’s the sort of thing we could lose.

Thus Knausgaard’s “quotidian” concerns — his contribution to the “struggle” “to make your life your own” — seem to me relatively autonomous from his secular faith — that is, they involve not only doing what you can’t help but do (take risks, etc.) but also valuing certain things you might not value: “[S]etting the table, cleaning the house, flipping through books, taking a walk on a gray afternoon, staring out the window.” This is a writing practice that Hägglund plausibly identifies as “a form of mindfulness,” one that he decisively distinguishes from what he calls Buddhist mindfulness in which the goal of attending to your “attachments” is “to disengage from them” rather than to “own” them but that is harder to distinguish from the kind of mindfulness — let’s call it Brooklyn mindfulness — that we can find everywhere around us. Hägglund’s worry that you can find yourself “just going through the motions” while “disown[ing] your life” is almost indistinguishable from the opportunity to improve your life through “mindfulness” offered by organizations like who also worry about you if “you feel like you are going through the motions and not really living YOUR [Hägglund would say, “this”] LIFE.” Of course, Hägglund offers us a complex and interesting book of philosophy, not a six-week workshop, but the proximity of the two suggests that if it’s not possible to act on the strong therapeutic recommendation of This Life (we can’t choose the finite because we can’t refuse it), it’s only too easy to act on the weaker one: pay more attention to the quotidian. In other words, it’s not at all clear to me that the left politics of This Life (which I approve) follow in any clear way from the “spiritual” lifestyle recommendations that go with what many readers praise as its “spiritual” defense of socialism.

So some of my reservations here have to do with the degree to which the enthusiasm for owning one’s life is today characteristic of a kind of millennial entrepreneurialism on both the religious right and the woke left. But the question of the connection between the struggle to own your life and the struggle to own the means of production may run a little deeper. Hägglund gives us a sympathetic account of Knausgaard’s argument that the other “Mein Kampf systematically subordinates Hitler’s life story to ideology,” suggesting that one of Hitler’s faults was the refusal to engage “the grittiness of everyday life,” and that one of Knausgaard’s virtues is a prose style that because it obsessively focuses on the quotidian rescues itself from ideology. But it’s not hard (in a sort of New Statesman contest way) to imagine Hitler’s Struggle written in the style of Knausgaard’s, to imagine, for example, the view from his prison room at Landsberg becoming familiar, almost, he writes, “like the street outside where we lived in Braunau. I look at that Dad and his son walking to their car and I’m thinking maybe I’d like to paint them, and also ‘One blood demands one Reich.’” (Actually, more like a sentence that Bret Easton Ellis — stop having opinions, Bret and go back to writing novels! This is a personal plea from one of your biggest fans — could have written.) Perhaps whether you subordinate life to ideology matters less than having the right ideology. And perhaps the desire to subordinate life to ideology is itself a part of the problem. Hägglund approvingly cites Knausgaard’s remark that “[i]ndifference is one of the seven deadly sins, actually the greatest of them all, because it is the only one that sins against life” but both the indifference of the bored and shallow (think how much better off we’d have been if Hitler had just spent hours Googling himself and posting on Reddit) and a certain principled indifference of the ideologically committed seem to me much preferable to owning one’s life. Wouldn’t we all be much better off also if we had a left that didn’t care about nurturing what Hägglund calls our “capacity to care” and just wanted to produce a massive redistribution of wealth downward?


To read Martin Hägglund’s response to this essay, click here.


Walter Benn Michaels is the author of The Trouble with Diversity: How We Learned to Love Identity and Ignore Inequality, The Shape of the Signifier: 1967 to the End of History, Our America: Nativism, Modernism, and Pluralism, and The Gold Standard and the Logic of Naturalism.

LARB Contributor

Walter Benn Michaels has just completed a new book, The Beauty of a Social Problem; Photography, Autonomy and Political Economy, forthcoming in Spring 2015 from the University of Chicago Press. He is the author of The Trouble with Diversity: How We Learned to Love Identity and Ignore Inequality, The Shape of the Signifier: 1967 to the End of History, Our America: Nativism, Modernism, and Pluralism, and The Gold Standard and the Logic of Naturalism.


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