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In The Waste Land With Mr. Zygmunt Bauman
by Adolfo Fattori
Zygmunt Bauman is one of the most influential living sociologist of the end of XX century and of these early of XXI. At the heart of his work have been the subject of death in the modern and postmodern eras, the new poverty in the world of globalization, the path of identity in the contemporary era. Among his works translated into Italian we note Mortality, Immortality and Other Life Strategies (1992), Thinking Sociologically (1990), Wasted lives. Modernity and its Outcasts (2004), and, very recent, Homo consumens (2007), that we reviewed in “Quaderni d’Altri Tempi” n. 10 (http://quadernisf.altervista.org/numero10/homo.htm).
He is Emeritus Professor of Sociology in Leeds and Warsaw.
We interviewed him on some of the key themes of his reflection.
that the meaning of finality, as much as the meanings of eternity, of uniqueness, of individuality in its twin facets of la memêté and l’ipsèité, are revealed to us, the mortals.
But as Vladimir Jankélévitch observed (2), not every death carries the same potency of revelation, enlightenment and instruction. My own death cannot be comprehended as finality, nor imagined as such (I can’t imagine the world from which I am absent without imagining my own presence in it as its witness, camera-man and reporter). The cessation of ‘third persons’ (strangers, the faceless and anonymous ‘others’), which is bound to remain an abstract, demographic/statistical notion however large are the figures in which it is expressed, would not strike us as irreperable loss; when hearing of such death, we cannot refer that news to anything in particular that we may be losing (in Derrida’s terms we may say that we did not know those worlds of which disappearance we have been informed). We know that all humans are mortal, we are used to the idea that all living species renew themselves through mortality of all their members, and we assume, even if only implicitly, that given time the gaps which death has laid open will be re-filled; that loss, however great the numbers, is not irreparable.
And so it is only one kind of death, the death of ‘thou’, of the ‘second’ not a ‘third’, of the near and dear, of someone whose life intertwined with mine, that paves the ground for a ‘privileged philosophical experience’, since it offers me an inkling of that finality and irrevocability which the death, all and any death, and death only, is about. Something irreversible and irreperable happens to me, something akin in this respect to my own death, even if this death of another is not yet my own. Sigmund Freud would concur: he noted the complete collapse when death struck down someone whom we love – a parent or a partner in marriage, a brother or sister, a child or a close friend. Our hopes, our desires and our pleasures lie in the grave with him, we will not be consoled, we will not fill the lost one’s place (3). 
The last two paragraphs spoke of human, all too human predicament – universal and timeless. In all epochs and all cultures men’s and women’s lives tend to be intertwined with the lives of other humans – their kin, neighbours, close friends – just like our lives are. To some humans around we are linked by strings of sympathy and intimacy of which the ‘I-Thou’ relationships are woven. Those selected others happen however to die, disappearing one by one from our world and carrying their own worlds with them into non-existence; in most cases they are not replaced, and in no case are they replaced completely – and this impossibility to fully replace them offers insight into the true meaning of ‘uniqueness’ and ‘finality’, enabling us to anticipate the meaning of our own death even if we are still unable to visualize the world without our presence, the-world-after-our-own-death, the world without us watching it. As they one by one leave - our own worlds, the worlds of the survivors, lose bit by bit their contents. Those who live long and saw off many of their near and dear, complain of the rising tide of loneliness: the eerie, uncanny experience of the world’s emptiness - another oblique insight into the meaning of death. For all such reasons the end of an ‘I-Thou’ world-sharing brought by the demise of the companion-in-life may be, with but a minimum of simplification, described as a genuine death-experience, even if ‘once removed’ (and let me repeat: this is the sole modality in which the experience of death is accessible by the living). But a similar end to the shared ‘I-Thou’ world may be caused by something else than the physical death of a close companion. Though brought about by different reasons, a breakdown of relationship cutting an interhuman bond also carries a stamp of ‘finality’ (even if, unlike real death, that stamp may be yet wiped out; relationship can be, theoretically speaking, re-enacted and so resurrected, even if the assumed likelihood of this happening tends to be severely diminished by the possibility of reconciliation being stubbornly denied and declared inconceivable in the heat of the partners’ estrangement); it could be therefore viewed as, so to speak, the death-experience twice removed.
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In one of your first book translated in Italian, Il teatro dell’immortalità (Mortality, Immortality and Other Life Strategies) you think over the different attitude of men of the modernity and of those of the post modernity towards the death: in the first case, in terms of “deconstruction of mortality”, in the second one as “deconstruction of immortality”. To 15 years-old distance from the publication of the book, do you believe that something can be added?
One more cultural stratagem runs parallel to the family of stratagems… As the historically shaped conditions of the efficacity (and so of the attractiveness) of the expedients you’ve mentioned begin to dissolve and disappear, this alternative stratagem, gradually yet steadily gathering force and popularity throughout the modern era, seems to be acquiring the prime of place in our liquid-modern society of consumers. This stratagem consists in the banalization of death, stripping it from the aura of the unique, one-only, one-off, unlike-any-other event; of the status of the sublime – the unknown and unknowable, a mystery never to be broken, horrifying precisely because being in-conceivable and un-imaginable.
‘Death’ in its various guises becomes an almost ubiquitous episode, repeatable like any other event, not final, supplied with a note ‘to be continued’ after the pattern of the weekly instalments of TV soaps… Banalization results in dissolving the phenomenon of death in the river of daily life. Once a wild, indomitable and unconquerable alterity, death is tamed, domesticated, something that with modicum of effort can be confronted, tackled and dealt with …
Jaques Derrida observed that each death is the end of a world, and each time the end of a unique world, a world that can never again reappear or be resurrected (1).
Each death is a loss of a world – a loss forever, an irreversible and irreparable loss. It is the absence of that world that will never end - being, from now on, eternal. It is through the shock of death, and the absence that follows it,
(1) [2] [3] [4] [5]