Adieu, Paul

The “adieu”, as I’m sure you will have agreed, is in many ways an impossible genre; impossible for the simple reason that it begs the question so beautifully addressed by Heidegger in Being and Time: If we are what we are because we are capable of dying, how can we possibly understand death?

To simplify, if death is fundamental to living and being, yet remains the one event I can never comprehend, how is it possible for me to fully understand what being human means?

Paul Cilliers: A complex life well lived

In a different register this question – how to recognise life as circumscribed by death without being able to comprehend the circumscription itself – this question, as you know, haunts us at the same time that it enables and makes possible the very thought of being haunted; the experience of the haunting. Everything is made possible by this melancholy, this sadness without a referent.

Philosophy, the subject whose seduction you could never resist, is the anatomy of that melancholy, for it is premised on death in more than one way: on the fatality of thought that recognises its birth in death, on its commitment to institute against death and on the playful recognition – no, your playful recognition – of our collective, impossible desire to apprehend the spectre of thought nonetheless.

For a philosopher, the question of death is the first and last question. For those who remain after the event to contemplate its meaning, the “adieu” seems to offer a promising seduction: after all, we are encouraged to think, this life has run its full course, the beginning and end are clearly visible; surely the meaning of this life can be comprehended in its fullness, in its plenitude?

Few people understood as well as you did the longing and impossibility of this desire for totality, how it may at once seem so obvious and impossible. Your memory is a living reminder – endlessly deferred – of the fact that any life continues as a trace in the lives of family, friends, students and colleagues.

You will continue to be present in my life where your absence will be most sorely felt. Like Arvo Pärt’s music – which you said exists “merely to convey silence” – you existed to convey traces of Paul, perhaps of “a” Paul or, no doubt as you would have insisted, of a different Paul – whose traces continue to be inscribed in us; whose traces have become us and we, them.

How does one comprehend such a life? How does one comprehend a life that will continue as so many traces? How, if not by perpetually beginning, faltering and beginning again, to say “adieu”?

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