In a telling footnote to Of Spirit, Derrida dedicates his book to several of his colleagues but “in memory of ‘Schelling.’” Why does “Schelling” grieve Derrida, and what is a book on the question of Geist in Heidegger if it can be cast as mourning-work in the name of the German idealist philosopher? Among the many reasons for Schelling having a strange afterlife in Derrida is that Schelling’s own writings are haunted by the question of the living and the non-living, and on the ways in which the distinction between the two conditions is often much finer than one of contrast. What interests me are the ways in which the problematical border between the quick and the dead repeats other differences that trouble and fascinate Schelling: work and life, philosophy and non-philosophy, past and present, mourning and melancholia, argument and performance. Attending first to Schelling’s arguments about the irreducibly mournful nature of things, I argue that the idealist thinker re-reads philosophy after Descartes not conceptually as a history of ideas but symptomatically as an unfolding site of mortal desire, i.e., as a complex tissue of repressions, losses, and ambivalently executed disavowals that are structurally “melancholic” in nature and that register in their incompleteness the negativities which resist the systematizing design of speculative idealism (especially the idealism of Fichte and Hegel). For Schelling Schwermut and Melancholie are not only affects but also forms of resistant knowledge, radically impersonal in nature, that are also in excess of knowledge.
In Philosophical Inquiries into the Nature of Human Freedom (1809) Schelling surveys the landscape of modern European thought, finding only philosophies that are “dead” and that are of death. The terrific irony that contorts Schelling’s argument is that these philosophies are lifeless because they make no room for death; their faith in absolute knowledge as a form of pure life is for Schelling finally indistinguishable from death. To those dead who are indifferent to death (one thinks of Nietzsche’s scathing remark about Western philosophy as so much “Egyptianism,” mere traffic in “conceptual mummies”), Schelling opposes what appears at first to be a philosophy of “life” (of “flesh and blood,” as he says), about which the philosophers of death can know nothing and to which they can contribute nothing. Yet these death-writings are in some sense all too alive, because operating as menacing phantoms whose absent presence Schelling loathes and against which he feels obliged to summon the work of all future thinkers, especially German thinkers. Modern European philosophy is in this sense both inert and active, dead and alive, and it is to that peculiar condition that I partly attend in my essay. Schelling, I argue, positions himself philosophically as living life in the form of a wake, a watchfulness over death, and for that he displays all the wrenching symptoms of what Derrida identifies as “archive fever.” Schelling cannot return to the Naturphilosophie of his youth, even if the language of immanent life with which he castigates the philosophies of death sometimes makes it seem so. But he also refuses to become a member of the cult of Geist, swept up into the ghostly idealisms of Fichte and Hegel. Life or death? This pitiless opposition strains and folds under the weight of Schelling’s keen analysis; my reading in turn pays attention to some of those kinks, there where Schelling prevents us from merely opposing the animate to the inanimate.
If Schelling reads German philosophy symptomatically as melancholic in nature, it goes without saying that his own work too calls for such a reading. To that end I turn to a close examination of the Stuttgart Private Lectures (1810), supplementing that analysis with a consideration of Schelling’s notes and private correspondence from the same period. The Stuttgart lectures were delivered amid great personal loss, coming as they do in the months after the death of his beloved wife, Caroline, a philosopher in her own right who had once been married to August Schlegel, and whose affair with Schelling had scandalized the circle at Jena: a vivid instance of the passional ways in which “life” will always exceed
“thought.” Schelling’s diary entries from the period are despondent, to say the least: “afternoon,” he scribbles haltingly at one point, “dreary hours and many tears.” The doxa about the lectures is that they are a supplement to the essay on human freedom, designed to recast its densely articulated arguments about finitude and the destitutions of spirit for a lay audience–in this case the political establishment of the city where Schelling, now a widower, had been urged to move by his physician brother. The lectures are, in effect, staged as the mourning philosopher’s “talking cure,” but in ways that are more than therapeutic. In their preoccupation with death and desire, with corpses, ghosts, and the memories of the dead, with illness, madness, and infection, and with the tormenting excesses of nostalgia that characterize what Schelling repeatedly refers to as “this life,” the lectures come across as queerly at odds with themselves--a philosophical pedagogy, a work, to be sure, yet also a performance, a wake, that veers into strange and richly affective spaces of worklessness, a sad suspension from the task at hand that isn’t easily described as distraction and that appears to labour at something other than work. In other words, the substantial philosophical labour that is accomplished by the lectures is complicated by the possibility that this work is not the only travail in evidence.
Caroline Schelling haunts the lectures, and returns to them in the manner of an apparition: forcefully, interminably, complicatedly. She proves, in a certain way, to be unforgettable, and her remembrance prevents Schelling from forgetting himself. Unnamed, she is also everywhere Schelling goes, especially as the lectures come to a conclusion. In their extraordinary preoccupation with death, desire, and loss, with corpses, ghosts, and the irrepressible force of the demonic in the nature of things, with the memories of the dead and with the deprivations of illness and accident and infection, with the prospect of dwelling in a universe in which, as Schelling says to his listeners, “everything, even the most precious being, must perish,” with the guilt that the living bear for the destitution of others, those now dead and yet to be born, with the tormenting nostalgia that Schelling locates at the heart of the psyche and the root of philosophy, with all of these richly affective details–each one of which would deserve a separate discussion--it is impossible not to think of Caroline and of her untimely passing--this, in ways that are not or not only auto-biographical. Schelling repeatedly speaks of what it means to live and breathe and have one’s being in “this life,” as he says, but nothing could be less certain, less self-showing, but also less philosophically indifferent, looking into Schelling’s haggard face than the referent to the phrase “this life.” What then is life? On this score the lectures demonstrate a curious narrative arc; they begin dominated by confident algebraic formulations that describe with mathematical succinctness what it means to be creaturely, alive. In these formulae, life is imagined to respond unresistingly to a symbolic logic drawn from the earlier Naturphilosophie. By the third lecture, however, the scouring efficiency of this algebra, this despotic over-coding of life, is nothing if not under threat. Schelling mostly abandons his equations, allowing his writing to totter into passages which read less like the short-hand of a visionary chemist and more like the dreams of a spirit-seer, so captured is he by the after-life of the dead, and by their irrepressible rapport with the living. As if to unseal the philosophy of nature he had once championed, Schelling calls for attention to be paid to the absent presences of the spectral or demonic, or what he calls, straining the philosophical rhetoric that he has inherited, “the corporeal aspect of the spirit and the spiritual aspect of the body”–in other words, to develop a theory of life that “forbids,” as Derrida argues in Specters of Marx, simply opposing the living to the non-living” (187).
In their last pages, the seminars come across not so much as an occasion for Schelling to work through Caroline’s death but as an experiment in what it might mean for her life and death to continue to work themselves through Schelling’s thought, and to form a legitimate or at least undeniable part of that thought. Under the veil of sadness, Schelling begins the lectures, stops them for three months, perhaps to gather his wits, and then picks them up again, now concluding his remarks quite quickly. That lacunae in the seminars, that public absence from the private drawing room in Stuttgart, also meanssomething; it is also part of the way that the seminars say too much by saying, for a moment, nothing at all. For all of its hurried quality, this last section of the lectures seems preoccupied with one theme: namely, Schelling’s impatience with the panicked logic of non-contamination at work in German philosophy, “the abhorrence of all reality,” as he says, “which might sully the spiritual through any contact with it.” Against that purism, Schelling’s intent is not to collapse the differences between Spirit and its others as multiply the differences between and within each realm. “It is not the body that infects the spirit, but vice versa,” Schelling observes, reclaiming a place for corporeality against the predations of the Geistig philosophies but not without also acknowledging that this quickening into life means its corruption, its exposure to what David Krell calls “the dire forces.” Those forces would of necessity include the dysentery that killed Caroline on the morning of the 7th of September 1809. If Spirit is what animates matter into life, it is also always the source of its disease and death: this, not from without, but from within: as Schelling says, “it is necessary to conceive a death that contains life within itself” (215).
“A death that contains life within itself”: that the phrase also describes the quickening effect of Caroline’s traces–as, indeed, the traces of others--in the Stuttgart lectures is surely no accident. That effect is perhaps no more apparent, and no more self-complicating, than in the last pages of the last seminar, as Schelling deftly turns from a consideration of what he calls “the demonic,” that grieving force in the human universe that is neither alive nor dead but both at once–what he calls an “essentiated materiality” (237). A challenge to the ostensible purity of Hegel’s Geist, “the demonic,” Schelling says, is “not spirit but a spirit, as when a spirit has appeared to someone”–reminding us of the fundamental relationship that obtains between the past and the future in the work of mourning, that is, between loss and the uncontrollable coming and unannounced appearing of the apparition of the other. Then an odd thing happens: in Schelling’s hands, the open secret of life’s rapport with death morphs into the question of life after death, and to the communication that obtains between what he calls the “spirit world” and, again, “this” life.” The seemingly occult subject matter–which Alexander Grau normatively characterizes as a “foreign body” contaminating the philosopher’s work of this period-- thematizes and the mournful colloquy with the dead that has in fact preoccupied the seminars from their beginning. For what is melancholia but intercourse with the dead? And what is mortal life but an interminable communication with the alterity of loss and death? What is telling is that the question of speaking with spirits–of clairvoyance--is instantly cast in the form of a question about the memory of the dead, their powers of recollection. Schelling asks, and then attempts to answer: Do the dead remember the living? Krell rightly characterizes Schelling’s unlikely response as “a memorable dream about memory by memory for memory” (Of Memory 34), but he is finally disappointed with the philosopher, whom he here characterizes as retreating into the “oblivion of forgetfulness,” against whom he champions Hegel’s phenomenologist, the so-called “monster of memory.” Yet I do think Krell underestimates the critical power of these suggestive closing pages, the complexity of the ideas with which Schelling hoped to leave himself as well as his tiny audience. What do the dead remember? --The unspoken suggestion here being that insofar as memory is the paradigmatic figure for the subject’s infinite particularity and otherness, the prospect of a dead person remembering could only mean that they had both died and survived death intact in their alterity. But how then, Schelling asks, are the memories of the dead different from those of the living? An odd crossing happens, the more general question of remembering the dead becoming literalized, condensed, as a question of the memory of the dead, the dead’s capacity to remember. To ask whether the dead remember the living worries a problem at the heart of mourning-work: namely the fear of forgetting, of not being faithful to the memory of the dead, of not being up to the task of doing justice to what the loved one–Caroline Schelling, for example--was when she was alive--beautiful, complicated, and precious. Here the anxiety about forgetting is troped, turned away, in the form of a concern with being-forgotten. To claim that the dead remember the living is also symptomatic of a certain melancholic refusal of death, of the sort that Schelling everywhere else and even here condemns. The question recalls a side to the experience of mourning that is perhaps less often explored: Schelling suffers the loss of Caroline, but in the blankness of that dispossession, he also suffers the loss of her love for him. In other words, one of the things that Schelling’s paranormal fantasy brings out is how the work of mourning is
about being-lost to someone as much as it is about losing that person, about the radical asymmetry that obtains when my ambivalent attachment to you, which precedes and survives the death of the loved one, is not met by anything that could be said to be reciprocal, part of an affective exchange. In a well-known passage from the Preface to the Phenomenology that Schelling’s lectures recall, Hegel says that it is Spirit’s task not to shrink from death but to peer knowingly into its countenance: “Spirit is this power only by looking the negative in the face, and tarrying with it” (PS 19). Schelling’s work, on the other hand, is conspicuous for the absence of such scenes of virile recognition and self-recognition. The grieving philosopher turns towards death and suffers the deprivation of having nothing, not even nothing, reciprocate, as if it were the negative tarrying with him rather than, as Hegel would have it, the other way around. That un-recognizable loss, the blunt force trauma of that loss, that non-exchangeability, is incalculable, the very source of grief. Schelling’s tears put to us, after all, that eyes are for more than seeing. They remind us that it is the living whom the dead leave or are said to leave corpse-like, “impoverished,” as Freud said, twisting in the wind, deadened in a way that leads the mourner to attribute a life-like and indeed inadvertently killing agency to those who are in factdead, and who in their departing appear to have left me for dead. “Do the dead remember me?” is a wish that the interminable but finally faithless recollections of the lost one are not met by the stony indifference of the dead, now no longer able to remember or to forget. For Schelling, it seems, the prospect of that profound inequality, the very source of the grief of mourning-work, is superceded only by a greater sadness, and that is, if the dead wereto remember, that they would remember in the same mortal way of the living, which is to say, unable completely to forget, but unable to remember everything either. Schelling says this, but will not have it; surely, he claims, revising himself, “The faculty of memory will differ from the one in this life in that it is no longer necessary to interiorize everything; rather everything is already of an inward quality.” So much is being offered up here, so much more than I can recall today, in memory of Schelling, as Schelling himself seems to realize in the next sentence when he withdraws his own remark as faithless to the question of being faithful to the dead. On the one hand, we have a fantasy of faultless mourning, a lurid figure of the dead perfecting an absolute interiorization, a memory so purely efficient that nothing is left to remember—not even the inwardizing act of remembering. The dead have memories but, wonderfully, no more will there be this letting the other in, of being forced, by necessity, to let oneself in for otherness. This is precisely the kind of Geistig fantasy that drives Schelling to distraction in the work of Hegel, where, as he argues, the great philosopher eats everything, eats even being, and then, like the fanatical binger he is, hides the grossness of that totalizing behaviour by eating eating. In death, no eating will be necessary, Schelling suggests, because we will always already have eaten: as he says, “everything is already an inward quality,” the very thing Spirit triumphantly confirms for itself in the concluding pages of Hegel’s Phenomenology of Spirit. Such spectacles of immoderate consumption are, as I say, ordinarily the object of Schelling’s fiercest derision, no doubt in part because he himself was powerfully attracted to them, unable to renounce the speculative idealism that he also championed. Perhaps this explains why Schelling here identifies the end of interiorization with the dead, ambivalently placing it out of the reach to life without making it entirely inaccessible, as a kind of thought-game or seance, either.
On the other hand, the end of Erinnerung, of inwardization, doesn’t appear to mean the cancellation of inwardness; if anything in death inwardness suffers a kind of hyperbolic concentration that only amplifies and reiterates what it also claims to transcend. How could there be an interiority without the work of inwardization, without, indeed, its law-like necessity operating in excess of the interiority it makes possible? The persistence of the thought of an interiority is worth remarking, as if inwardness and the inwardization of memory were indistinguishable, as if mournful remembrance were not one memory among others but the very possibility of memory and of subjectivity happening at all. It is as if the work of mourning remembers itself, memory beyond memory, irregardless of Schelling’s desire to forget it in declaring a difference between the memories of the living and the dead. Schelling pauses, vexed by what he has said, and starts again: “The concept of memory is far too weak to signify [this difference]. Of a friend or a beloved one with whom we were one heart and one soul we will say that we remember them and that they continually live within us; they do not enter our inner life but already inhere in it, such will
be the quality of memory after death.” The unstable temporality of the claim is telling: we will say one day that the lost one had already dwelled within. One cannot mourn and account for mourning, except, perhaps, by projecting oneself into a purely phantasmatic hereafter, promising oneself to an immemorial future that Schelling here names “death.” We see why it is not so much “memory” that fails Schelling here, but its “concept,” for what memory could be itself and conceive of itself in the same moment? How could one mourn the necessity of mourning, what Derrida calls “the force of mourning”? Something indivisibly remains that, as Derrida also says, "will never allow itself to be reanimated in the interiority of consciousness" (Memoires 65). What’s remarkable here is that although Schelling attributes an idealized form of memory to the dead, the illustration he provides is entirely of and about the living, as if to hold away from life a knowledge that only unwillingly accepts concepts of life and memory, and especially concepts of a living memory. It is Schelling’s oblique way of saying that living memory, appearances to the contrary, is of death. To be of death, and not to die: mourning and melancholia do not wait for death; they are at work already in life and as life. But because I cannot mourn and account for mourning, no more than I can live and account for life, this intimate colloquy with myself cannot be recalled except, possibly, in the form of its endlessly deferred anticipation: one day, I will remember the memory that I already am. Will that day ever come? If I am promised to memory, if I “myself” am that to which my memory is dedicated, what are the chances of ever living life as this life? In the impossibility of answering these questions lie tears too deep for thoughts.