OBITUARY: Gilles Deleuze

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In the introduction to Qu'est-ce que la philosophie? (1991) the philosopher Gilles Deleuze and his co-author the psychoanalyst Felix Guattari suggest that one cannot ask such a question until late in life, in old age which is the time to "speak concretely" at last. When that book was written, at the age of 65, Deleuze could hardly be called "old" by today's standards. But "What is philosophy?" is indeed the sort of question one asks oneself, as he tells us, "at midnight, when one no longer has anything to lose".

He goes on:

In younger days, of course, one never stopped asking it, but in a manner too indirect, or oblique, too artificial, too abstract, and one expatiated upon it, dominating it in passing rather than letting oneself be gripped by it. One wasn't serious enough. One was too eager just to "do philosophy", one did not ask oneself what it really was, except as a stylistic exercise; one had not yet reached that non-style that finally allows one to ask: but what was it all about, what have I been doing all my life?

So perhaps, having reached the age of 65, it was about time he began asking himself that question (among many others) as part of the privilege of old age:

There are cases in which old age gives, not eternal youth, but on the contrary a sovereign liberty, a pure detachment in which one enjoys a moment of grace between life and death, and in which all elements of the machine combine to launch into the future an engine that will travel through the ages: Titian, Turner, Monet.

Other examples of liberated old age are Chateaubriand. whose Vie de Rance "perhaps marks the beginning of modern literature", Boris Ivens in his last great cinematic works, Kant in his Critique of Judgement (written at about the same age as Deleuze was when writing this introduction).

Deleuze began by composing classic studies of Hume, Nietzsche, Kant, Bergson and Spinoza. Not until 1964 did he attempt more literary themes in Marcel Proust et les signes, in which he demonstrates that the concept of the "sign" rather than that of "memory" is the most effective way to approach a reading of Proust. This is already a "concrete" rather than a metaphysical approach.

In 1967, he published his Presentation de Sacher-Masoch, in which he shows us that Masoch made possible a link between "a perversion as old as the world" and the situation of ethnic minorities and the role of women in those minorities: masochism becomes an act of resistance. "Masoch is a great symptomologist."

In his Logique du sens ("Logic of Meaning", 1969), Deleuze uses as illustrations authors such as Lewis Carroll and Antonin Artaud to elaborate a certain number of "fluctuant" concepts (surface and depth, perversity and schizophrenia) that allow him to examine questions of language and the "expressivity of signification" that were to be at the heart of his collaboration with the dissident psychiatrist Guattari.

An amusing study could be attempted on why some authors feel a compulsion to write in tandem. Such literary symbiosis takes curious forms, sometimes verging on the pathological. The bachelor brothers Edmond and Jules de Goncourt were inseparable (until death did them part): they referred to themselves as Juledmond and nearly all their writing was done together. In the days before sexual correctness, Edmond was able to write in their monstrous Journal: "We even have our periods together."

When the two protagonists are a revolutionary therapeutic psychiatrist of 39 and a subversive visionary philosopher five years his senior, such a union of pens seems peculiarly piquant. It was certainly a very unusual form of literary-philosophical complicity that produced their first combined work, L'Anti-Oedipe (1972), which scandalised conventional psychoanalytical circles by its attack on repressive Freudian analysis and its relation of capitalism to schizophrenia.

This innovative work is also remarkable as the first to employ multiple references - not only philosophic, but also artistic, scientific and literary - giving them all equal value, with the deliberate intention of showing that desire should be considered not just as a basic need but as a polymorphic engine of production. Deleuze's acute perceptions on art found full expression in a work on Francis Bacon subtitled "Logique de le sensation" in 1981.

Another of Deleuze/Guattari's multiple references was the cinema. Deleuze quotes Godard as asking why television watchers are not paid for watching television, instead of being charged for it, since they are performing a public service. On cinema, Deleuze wrote L'Image-movement (1983) and L'Image-temps (1985). He made contributions to Les Cahiers du Cinema on Godard, Dreyer, Rivette, Wells and others including Syberberg, Varda, Ozu.

Deleuze is often a better writer and thinker than Guattari, yet the latter was important to him as a sounding-board and stimulus, as Deleuze was to Guattari. They both, working alongside one another, released something fundamental in each other's mind and personality. This is seen at its best in their greatest collaboration, Mille Plateaux (1980), a sequel to L'Anti-Oedipe. The essence of this complex but open-ended book lies in the declaration that literature, like everything else, is now in a reactionary period, in which writers, unless they conform to a certain acculturation that makes their works marketable, are marginalised and find it difficult to create freely. So the "thousand plateaux" the authors envision are the innumerable possible interactions between writers, painters, musicians, philosophers, linguists and sociologists that would bring support and greater self-confidence to creators.

It is impossible in a short space to do justice to the complexity of Deleuze's work - though it is a complexity understandable by all with a will to understand. There is his book on Michel Foucault, a great friend and inspirer (1986); another, Pericles et Verdi (1988) in homage to his colleague at the Universite de Vincennes Francois Chatelet; a book on Leibnitz and the Baroque entitled Le Pli ("The Pleat", 1988), and collaborations with other writers besides Guattari.

It was Foucault who first said: "This century will be Deleuzien." Almost the last thing Deleuze wrote was a brief eulogy on the death of The Friend, Felix Guattari, in August 1992. He was too ill to attend the funeral service, so it was read for him by Dr Jean Cury at the gates of the Pere Lachaise cemetery. Deleuze must have been wondering who would write his eulogy. Only he himself could have done it. For he had indeed reached that "non- style" of the old that finally demonstrates their greatness, and allows them to ask: "What was it all about, and what have I been doing all my life?"

Deleuze shortly before his death - he committed suicide by throwing himself from his flat in Paris - recorded one of the Arte Channel's most fascinating philosophical programmes, Abecedaire ("Alphabet"), in which he introduced a subject starting with a letter of the alphabet. "A" was for "animal", "G" for "gauche" (left-wing), and B was for "boisson" (drink). The "S" for "suicide" has yet to be broadcast.

James Kirkup

Gilles Deleuze, philosopher: born Paris 18 January 1925; died Paris 4 November 1995.