What Are They Reading?

What Are They Reading?

“It’s hard to imagine a more boring book” than Robinson Crusoe, declares Gilles Deleuze, “it’s sad to see children still reading it.


Textes et entretiens,1953-1974
Gilles Deleuze.
David Lapoujade, ed.
Éditions de Minuit.
416 pp. Euro 24,22.

PURE IMMANENCE: Essays on A Life
Gilles Deleuze.
Introduction by John Rachjman.
Translated by Anne Boyman.
Zone Books. 102 pp. $16.80.

It’s hard to imagine a more boring book” than Robinson Crusoe, declares Gilles Deleuze, “it’s sad to see children still reading it. Robinson’s vision of the world resides totally in property, and you’ve never seen a more moralizing proprietor.” Crusoe has merely recreated on the island the conditions of the bourgeois existence he left behind on the mainland—so what was the point of being shipwrecked? “Nothing is invented,” since Robinson has everything he needs already on the boat. Except an underling. “Robinson’s companion is not Eve but Friday, submissive to work, happy to be a slave, too soon disgusted with cannibalism. Any healthy reader,” Deleuze avers, “will dream of seeing Friday finally eat Robinson.”

Causes et raisons des îles désertes” is only the beginning of the surprises in L’île déserte, a volume of previously uncollected writing by—and interviews with—Deleuze (and a book I’ve been returning to constantly since the unexpected delight of finding it this past May, in Paris). As the early Deleuze playfully but rigorously elaborates the concept of the desert island, already making it a potential locus of “pure difference,” several other themes of his later work rise up hazily but unmistakably on the horizon.

Deleuze once described the eight years between his first book, Empiricism and Subjectivity (1953), on David Hume, and the next, Nietzsche and Philosophy (1961), as “like a hole in my life,” and speculated that it may be in the years of “sleepwalking” that occur “in most lives…that movement takes place.” You can see from the bibliography that Deleuze didn’t publish much then, but the selections from that period show him grasping intuitions he would spend decades unfolding. The 1954 article on his professor Jean Hyppolite is an early application of the Deleuzian method of surgically extracting from a text implications unsuspected, perhaps, by the author but useful for Deleuze’s own project. And nothing better demonstrates the consistency of Deleuze’s thought through the years than the beginning of a 1956 essay on Bergson: “A great philosopher is one who creates new concepts”—implicitly answering the question Qu’est-ce que la philosophie? just as he (and Félix Guattari) would thirty-odd years later in the eponymous best-seller (vive la France!).

For Deleuze, concepts are merely human devices—tools—not transcendent truths and not the motor of history. “There is no ideology; it is an illusory concept.” This is a veritable battle cry, resounding in Deleuze’s advocacy for the incarcerated and marginal. (It’s great fun overhearing the confrontations with colleagues who wanted to know exactly what Deleuze and Guattari meant by Anti-Oedipus.) Deleuze created a network of underground communication between philosophers cut off from one another by the highways of the history of philosophy. He said it was Spinoza and Nietzsche who set him finally free, but his reversal of Platonism begins with Hume’s empiricism—a logic implying the intrinsic malleability of personal identity and social institutions such as property relations, the foundation of morality in imaginative empathy and the vital role of art in extending the range of that empathy.

Deleuze’s 1972 summation of Hume’s thought also appears in English in Pure Immanence: Essays on A Life, along with 1965’s streamlined life/interpretation of Nietzsche and—from 1995—Deleuze’s final essay, the very brief, very dense and strangely moving “Immanence: A Life,” in which he defines a plane of presubjective consciousness, “the transcendental field,” that exists before and beyond any division into subject and object. He brings this down to earth through the retelling of Dickens’s “Our Mutual Friend,” about an old man who undergoes a moral transformation as he hovers between life and death, tended to by others. As he forgets who he was, he becomes nothing more than a life: He loses individuality and gains singularity. Deleuze doesn’t dwell on death as a privileged case—”a life is everywhere.” Yet knowing Deleuze was on his way out (and suffering horribly) cannot but add to the force of his affirmation: “A life is…absolute immanence: it is complete power, complete bliss.”

Deleuze had been planning one last book, La Grandeur de Marx, and then to put away the pen and devote himself to painting. Always something new…

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