Another Finitude

Messianic Vitalism and Philosophy

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Agata Bielik-Robson
Political Theologies
  • New York, NY: 
    Bloomsbury Academic
    , May
     2019.
     312 pages.
     $95.00.
     Hardcover.
    ISBN
    9781350094079.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.

Review

In Another Finitude: Messianic Vitalism and Philosophy, Agata Bielik-Robson sets forth the first installment in her “life-project,” a prequel volume that promises more to come, and also accomplishes far more than it initially promises in its cover copy description. Ostensibly a book on the Jewish critics of Martin Heidegger that seeks to revise vitalism by means of messianism, Another Finitude is so much more. In four long chapters and an introduction, Bielik-Robson provides nothing short of a new vision of finitude—drawing upon Hannah Arendt, Maurice Blanchot, Emmanuel Levinas, Franz Rosenzweig, Jacques Derrida, and others—in order to challenge and revise the works of Heidegger, Sigmund Freud, and the entire philosophical tradition that would, in some way, subordinate finite life to death. She writes: “I would like to see the infinite transposed, so it can become a necessary moment of the finite life. Finitum capax infiniti.” (i).

This transposition of infinity into finite life, however, requires a deep critique of the history of thinking about finitude, and Bielik-Robson provides such a critique by opposing the reduction of life to the inevitability of death (against Heraclitus: “whatever is born is destined to die”; against Augustine: “our whole life is nothing but a race toward death”; and against Heidegger’s Endlichkeit and being-toward-death). Lest the reader think that Another Finitude should have been titled Against Finitude, the author also provides a clear and rich account of the kind of finite life that stands apart from the reduction to death. This messianic vitalism is a lot of things: religious without being reducible to religion; vitalist without being restricted to appeals to biology or nature; life-affirming without being death-denying; and philosophical without being controlled by what she calls an “acephalic” Neoplatonism or Heideggerianism. More than these distinctions—which are developed in detail throughout the book—this volume follows the Jewish formula “love strong as death” as its principle of life (torat hayim). (xiii).

Through Rosenzweig, Freud, Arendt, and Derrida, Bielik-Robson provides a way out of nihilistic death-obsession by working through trauma, negativity, and false promises of immortality, toward a kind of love that meets defensiveness, reactivity, and overprotection with an open indefiniteness (an “in/de/finity”) that is both apocalyptic and optimistic, both erotic and in error (an “Erros”).

Bielik-Robson begins with a “radical denaturalization” of life that refuses biological determinism and sets finite life on a new heading out of the aporetic knot of birth and death. Quoting Deuteronomy 30:19 (“I have set before you life and death: choose life”), Bielik-Robson sees a way apart from the opposition of eros (love) and thanatos (death) in a sense of freedom and creativity that rejects both physical confinement and confinement to physicality. But rather than seeking an escape to a utopian future or a restitutionist return to a golden age, the author provides new avenues for thinking that move beyond self-preservation or survival and inaugurate “a movement encrypted in the symbolism of Exodus, which dialectically pitches life-against-life but always in life and for the sake of life: life shedding its natural form in order to go further, life denaturalizing itself and breaking out of the bondage of Egypt.” (9-10).

Not a tragic life that is defined by its erring, or a heroic life defined by feats of strength, the life developed in Bielik-Robson’s messianic vitalism both critiques and takes up aspects of Greek, Jewish, German, and Christian lineages without seeking to preserve their integrity or immunize them from critique. Following psychoanalytic theory up to the choice between survival and the reign of death, Bielik-Robson charts another path that collapses the false choice between “mere life” and “more than life,” and attempts to choose life in a very specific way: rather than a “life that defers living indefinitely for the sake of the self-defensive maintenance of its own existence,” the life claimed by messianic vitalism attempts to be resilient and vulnerable rather than governed by a fearful desire for safety and security (21).

Although there is much to praise in Another Finitude, there are also some open ends.

Throughout the book Bielik-Robson makes many positive references to the work of Harold Bloom, about whom she has already written a well-received book, The Saving Lie: Harold Bloom and Deconstruction (Northwestern University Press, 2011). However, given that the biographical complications of other thinkers are taken into account in the book, it is strange that Bloom’s biography does not come up. If messianic vitalism names a kind of life that is against the protective and possessive movements of immunization and dissociation, then it stands to reason that separations between scholarly work and biography should also be remediated in the name of a richer account of life.

So too with psychoanalysis. The final chapter of this work provides a powerful and interesting revision of Freud, moving past the reduction of life to the eros/thanatos binary and suggesting ways of converting anxiety into joy by fostering a flowing love without arrest or fixation. But is psychoanalysis the best area of study to draw from when trying to remedy the traumas of finite life in 2019? In the name of being accountable to more accessible experiences of life, I observe that it is not nearly as common to visit a Freudian or Lacanian analyst in North America or Europe as it is to see a therapist or counsellor who uses modalities like Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, Internal Family Systems Therapy, or Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing Therapy. Contemporary psychotherapy and the vast literature on trauma and attachment would contribute much to Bielik-Robson’s project of messianic vitalism, for this literature provides a robust (although not problem-free) way of conceptualizing the tensions and contradictions of finite life that would likely confirm Bielik-Robson’s insight that a life that is preoccupied with survival is not a full life.

Finally, although Another Finitude seeks to follow Arendt’s reorientation toward natality, nowhere does the book mention the important work of Grace M. Jantzen, whose distinction between mortality (that we will all die, and possibly die alone) and natality (that we were all born, and not born alone) in her work Death and the Displacement of Beauty (3 Vols. Routledge, 2004-2010) would add yet another supporting voice to the work of love that is messianic vitalism. Jantzen’s critique of violence and her turn toward a positive remedy for the violent habitus of the west would serve as an interesting supplement and challenge to messianic vitalism, adding to Bielik-Robson’s emphases on creativity and birth, and supplementing her gestures toward feminist critique.

Following and developing Derrida’s identification of living with loving, and his phrase “learning to live finally,” Another Finitude provides ways of learning how to live without certain kinds of finality, mortality, and fatality. The image of Bielik-Robson’s messianic vitalism that recurs throughout the book is not Jesus Christ and the Incarnation, but Jacob/Israel wrestling the angel, and being wounded and renamed—as the beautiful cover images. As a text to wrestle with, I loved this book, even though it is far too rich in reference and figural argumentation for proper summary in a brief review.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Maxwell Kennel is a doctoral candidate in Religious Studies at McMaster University.

Date of Review: 
June 29, 2020
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Agata Bielik-Robson is Professor of Jewish Studies at the University of Nottingham.

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