Man and His Death:
Reading Kojčve's Reading of Hegel

At this point, a passage from Kojčve is worth a longer quotation to help us think further about death.

And moving to the "phenomenological" level, we see that suicide, or voluntary death without any "vital necessity," is the most obvious "manifestation" of Negativity or Freedom. . . . And once one can commit suicide in order to escape from any given situation whatsoever, one can say with Hegel that "the faculty of death" is the "appearance" of "pure freedom," or absolute freedom . . . with respect to every given in general. But if suicide (which obviously distinguishes Man from the animal) "manifests" freedom, it does not realize freedom, for it ends in nothingness and not in a free existence. What reveals and realizes freedom, according to Hegel, is the Fight for pure prestige, carried on without any biological necessity for the sake of Recognition alone. But this Fight reveals and realizes freedom only to the extent that it implies the Risk of Life--that is, the real possibility of dying. . . . Death, therefore, is only a complementary aspect of Freedom. (emphases original; 247-48)

It is clear from this passage that, for Kojčve, although to die for nothing is to manifest freedom, this freedom is, nevertheless, absolute rather than concrete, concrete in the sense that it can be realized in human existence. Thus, despite the fact that to be man I have to negate my animal life, I cannot but keep (my animal life) alive so as to realize my being as nothing in freedom and negativity. That is why the human fight for recognition, as Kojčve points out, can only "imply" the risk of life, the "real possibility of dying," but never to die really, never to realize this very possibility (for by being realized, this possibility would "kill" at the same time all possibilities that could have been real). For to die in a real sense is to identify with absolute freedom, that is, with pure nothing, nothing possible anymore. And Kojčve, following Aristotle, does not hesitate to make explicit right after the passage quoted that "a 'possibility' which would never (= as long as Time lasts) be actualized or realized, would in fact be an absolute impossibility" (emphases original; 249). Therefore, the absolute freedom thus achieved by real death means at once all possibilities and absolute impossibility, that is, no (human) freedom at all. And the Kojčvean anthropo-ontology has its very essence that to be a free man, to be a human being in freedom, is precisely to be aware of his finitude in which, and only in which (as embodied in time, temporality, and history) can man's possibilities be "actualized" and "realized." This requires death as the ultimate horizon of man; a horizon, however, that can "only" be the horizon and can not to be reached and realized. Because by realizing death, man would become the absolute impossible project despite the absolute freedom thus achieved. The paradox is, by realizing death to embody the absolute freedom and to manifest pure nothingness as total negativity, man also at the same instant ceases to be. So, for Kojčve, man's destiny is more than to face death and to die to be, but that "he is death which lives a human life" (qtd. in Bataille 1955, 17).1

Thus, I not only do not have to die to be, but I cannot die to be. This is because, although to be is to be not, is nothing, yet to be not, to die, is to be pure nothingness. If I die, I am nothing in complete self-effacement. In order for me to be nothing as my being, I has to live so as to write down, to know, and to be conscious, that I am nothing. I have to live with my death and contain it in my life without realizing it. This is the very human condition that is elaborated by Kojčve's anthropological reading of Hegel: the existence in time, not out of time, in complete finitude, not infinity or eternity, and totally without any divine salvation or consolation outside of human temporality and history. There is just nothing in and after death that man can count on for his existence. Either I choose to manifest this nothingness as my being by dying and end up with manifesting nothing, or I choose to live this death, this nothingness, in my life and end up with the failure to manifest it as such. This is what Blanchot would call the "fatality" of being and the "impossibility of dying" (55-56). For the being of man as nothingness can never be presented and manifested as such, as nothingness per se. Any human effort and work attempting to articulate it, like literature, is doomed to fail. And, by same token, to die really is not to die, but only manifests the impossibility of dying. For to die is to stop being finite and mortal, and only mortal beings can die, so to die means not to be able to die, not to be human (as mortal and finite), and simply not to be anymore. Thus, to die as to be immortal is in fact not to die a real death. For immortality still has death as its ultimate horizon, the ultimate transcendence, that it cannot transcend. The immortal is condemned to be reborn and to die again; the immortal is in fact mortal. And the true im-mortality is the real death in which the death itself too is negated, destroyed, and itself in a total loss; it is night and darkness, pure negativity, nothingness, and absence without any reserve. And this Kojčvean paradox of human existence as the fatality of being can also be witnessed in Bataille's notion of sacrifice. Following Kojčve's idea of man as "death that lives a human life," Bataille sees sacrifice (for nothing) as a "spectacle" and a "representation" of death qua negativity as man's being because only by being conscious of death when he is still alive can man has "a human character" endowed by death. So, as Bataille says, "at all costs, man must live at the moment that he really dies, or he must live with the impression of really dying" (1955, 20). To be is to die, but to die is not to be. However, precisely because of this fatality of manifesting being as nothingness in life (let alone the total failure of manifesting it in death), sacrifice has to be a spectacle, a representation, that is, non-concretized or realized death itself. Otherwise, as Blanchotian impossibility of dying, in real death death itself would die too and cease to be the being for man to be. All this would lead us back again to Kojčve's notion that in terms of man's being as negativity, death can only be "implied" in human existence and can only exist as the "real possibility" of dying, never a realized death. That is why he would add that death is "only a complementary aspect of Freedom" rather than to be identical to freedom on the sole ground of both as negativity and nothingness. For Kojčve's main concern, with regard to man as mortal, finite, and historical, is still with the concrete freedom that can be achieved in human history and existence, not the absolute freedom as absolute impossibility. Thus, the Kojčvean thought of man's (historical) existence as a fight for recognition at the risk of life actually points out that the human freedom is not absolutely free. The fight for recognition is inevitable because my freedom as pure nothingness and transcendence has to face the other's transcendence that transcends mine. I will fight to the death to manifest my freedom as such, but at the same time I cannot die really so as to kill all my possibilities. So my freedom has at least two horizons, two limits, the other and death itself, that circumscribe my being in existence as at once social and historical (finite and mortal). And by this understanding of the Kojčvean man, now we may tackle the question still left unanswered up to this point, namely, why, despite all this knowledge of death and being, do I still feel dread of and even fear for death?

The reason for this fear is more or less already implied in the relation of death to freedom described above. It is precisely because I am equipped with the knowledge of my being as a void--the void, by its negating-negativity, guarantees my freedom to be possible only in front of the ultimate limit of death and my knowledge of death as pure nothingness, as that night without light, and as the absolute freedom to be absolute impossibility--that I would have this fear for death. Kojčve says in another place that "Man can be individual and free only to the extent that he implies in his being all the possibilities of Being but does not have the time to realize and manifest them all" (emphases original; 251). Thus, man as man would still fear death basically because this condemnation (and bliss at the same time) of finitude by which the potential absolute freedom can only be actualized and realized to some extent and in limited time, that is, before the real death of man. Insofar as I am living a human life of death, I know I am free; but I am "really" free insofar as I cannot really die. The fear of death comes from the total and complete negation of man's negativity, it is a negation of negation, the death of death itself. In this sense, the fear that death incurs in man does not belong to, say, slaves only. Taking into account of the master-slave dialectics that results from Kojčve's idea of man's "fight to the death for recognition," it is easily understood that this fear of death is not only what makes the salve slave, but also what makes him master later by negating this fear through his work to fight again for a "universal and homogeneous state" in which he could be a recognized citizen to realize his freedom. However, the prerequisite of this realized freedom of slave is still the "implication" of death, not the real death. So, although the fear of death can and has to be overcome by slave's consciousness of his being and by his historical work to make himself master again, death remains, at last, the same ultimate horizon of this (would-be) master's being. And in spite of the fact that, for Kojčve, master's existence is already an "afterlife" or a "deferred death" (248) for he has nothing to negate and no actions at all to take in a historical sense, it is not easily to come from this to an conclusion that master, or man in the end of history, would have no fear of death. Since death is the total negation of even death itself (or death as living a human life), the real death of this last man in the end of history would reduce him to pure nothingness, and negate even his being (as void) as master. Thus, even though the master, as Bataille argues, is left with this "unemployed negativity" which is only about "using free time" to do nothing (1937, 90 and 92), this sovereign being still has to be "inside time" to use free time, that is, he still has to be finite and mortal to manifest his sovereignty as pure nothingness in human existence. Even the master or any sovereign being has the fear for death, let alone the slave who still has too many unrealized possibilities to realize. And this fear for death is not fear for something horrible, but for the horror of pure nothing, for the total annihilation of man as well as his history. Thus, it is not only on the individual level that man, being either slave or master, has this fear for death, but also on the historical level that the human history bears this fear inside. On a historical level, an individual can die really only to transcend himself so as to become, not really, but conceptually immortal as keeping alive in thought (Kojčve 256). And on a historical level, in a way, man is immortal in that he is still mortal waiting to die the last real death, that is, the total annihilation of human history itself, the complete negation of human being on earth. Therefore, death is not only the ultimate horizon for individual man, but also that for the collective, for all men, for human history. And not only man, but also history will recoil in front of the horror of death as pure nothingness. In other words, this fear for death is purely Kojčvean, is as such only in Kojčve's anthropological reading of Hegel that leaves man forever in a "fatality" of being and the "impossibility" of dying. As Althusser puts in one article, Kojčve's reading of Hegel leaves out the possibility and even the promise in Hegel that the Night as the void and darkness of man's being could have "become Light," that is, to reach the totality of subject and nature, the totality as "the reconciliation of Substance and Subject, which coincide in the absolute truth" (172). The Kojčvean man as well as this man's history is always already condemned by the fear for death, for pure nothingness, and, in the final analysis, it is actually the fear of the total annihilation and destruction of subject into pure substance without any possibility to de-alienate and resurrect itself from the horrible substance, it is also the fear for falling inevitably back to that which (like nature) the subject at first negates to give birth to his being. It is the fear of the subject for being himself negated in a total sense by what he previously negated. However, we also have to admit at this point that the Hegelian totality is not necessarily the final salvation of man (to resurrect after death) any more than the Kojčvean anthropo-ontology as the forever condemnation of man (in the fear for death). Even Althusser, by writing down "That this [the Hegelian totality] is an extremely ambitious programme need not concern us here," betrays more or less his "concern" with this totality in its possibility--the possibility not only in theory, but also in reality, in the human existence and history. Probably out of this concern, he cannot but end his (harsh) critique of Kojčve's reading of Hegel with certain ambiguity: "But one must read this aggressive, brilliant book, which depreciates contemporary thought only in order to restore part of Hegel's veritable grandeur" (172). And probably this "grandeur" Kojčve restores is the tragic fate of man as the subject: the end of man is to know his death, he is death, but never to die really only to be forever tortured by his unending fear for death until . . . the end of man.2


1 A note in passing--at this point, I cannot help thinking that can a man, for example, who suffers from asthma so badly as to want to commit suicide thus die for nothing? In a way, he does, for by killing himself, he is negating the animal body and life as his natural given that confines him to bodily pain. He dies not out of pain, but for purely negating his animal life. But, following Kojčve, he is not in the least free in a human sense by his death. So the tragic fate of this man (if he wants to be) is not, by living and suffering from his animal life, he forgets to die; but rather, he lives a life always remembering he is dying at every moment of his life, he is in fact living a human life of death. His freedom, if there is any, is and has to be concrete in the midst of his existence circumscribed by pure nothingness; and his pain is pain not of the animal body, but pain for the nothingness that circumscribes and pierces through his life. And his joy, oh yes, he does have joy, is anguished because he knows his death, knows he is death, but also knows he cannot die. It is the anguished joy like in reading these lines from Rilke: "you had your death inside you as a fruit has its core" (246). Tantalus!

2 Another note in passing--probably now we can see more clearly why people would always be fascinated by dinosaurs, especially in recent years. Although it cannot be denied that the fever incurred by this already dead species comes mainly from media's popularization through novels and movies, yet does not the fact that the popular imagination is focused so much on this species manifest man's primal fear for death? By this I mean the total death and disappearance of all human beings, just like dinosaurs, at an instant and at the same time. Probably the efforts to put dinosaurs back again into the discursive system, either media or natural history, is no more than an attempt to eschew the fear of human death and the final ending of human history. By proving man is able to "think about" this no-more-existing species, man may prove to himself that his history and being would last, if not longer, at least long enough to bypass the fear of death for a while. And doesn't this fear just grow stronger the closer man approaches to the "end" of the century?

Works Cited

Althusser, Louis.
"Man, That Night" (1947). Louis Althusser Early Writings: The Spectre of Hegel. Ed. François Matheron. Trans. G. M. Goshgarian. London: Verso, 1997.

Bataille, Georges.
"Letter to X, Lecturer on Hegel . . ." (1937). The College of Sociology. Ed. Denis Hollier. Trans. Betsy Wing. Minneapolis: U of Minnesota P, 1988.

"Hegel, Death and Sacrifice" (1955). From On Bataille, Yale French Studies 78 (1990): 9-28.

Blanchot, Maurice.
"Literature and the Right to Death" (1947). The Gaze of Orphaeus. Trans. Lydia Davis. Barrytown, NY: Station Hill P, ca 1981.

Kojčve, Alexandre.
Introduction to the Reading of Hegel: Lectures on the Phenomenology of Spirit. Ed. Allan Bloom. Trans. James H. Nicholas Jr. Ithaca: Cornell UP, 1969.

Rilke, Rainer Maria.
Ahead of All Parting: The Selected Poetry and Prose of Rainer Maria Rilke. Ed. and Trans. Stephen Mitchell. New York: The Modern Library, 1995.

Copyright © 1997 Erik Lee