March 2016

James Draney


Intoxication by Jean-Luc Nancy, translated by Philip Armstrong

In his recently translated treatise Intoxication, Jean-Luc Nancy writes:

When a discourse on intoxication is announced, one might expect either a patient analysis of the specific characteristics of this condition and its significations (enthusiasm, the Dionysian, celebration), or a passionate exaltation of excess, debauchery, distraction, euphoria. [...] We might even think: reason or passion, philosophy or poetry.

Nancy samples from both of these discourses, but as one dips further and further into Intoxication, passionate exaltation becomes the overriding concern, as should be the case with any good treatise on the subject of inebriation.

Intoxication, translated from the French by Philip Armstrong, was originally delivered as a talk at an Alsatian vineyard in 2008, for an occasion organized around the theme of intoxication. It was later published by Édition Payot & Rivages as Ivresse, and arrives to us in English courtesy of Fordham University Press's Idiom series. It is important to keep in mind that Intoxication was developed for reading aloud. It is a performance of sorts, and Nancy is certainly at his most exuberant as he riffs on his theme.

He begins with the connection between intoxication and ennui. On the very first page he quotes from Baudelaire's famous exergue to modernity:

You must be drunk always. That is everything: the only question. Not to feel the horrible burden of Time that crushes your shoulders and bends you earthward, you must be drunk without respite.

The idea of intoxication as a cure for the alienating effects of modernity has a long history, but, Nancy soon reminds us, so does the notion that intoxication breeds reason. These contradictory strands punctuate this brief and playful volume (whose main text consists of fewer than 50 pages), but the playful inevitably blurs into the incomprehensible as Nancy's passionate exultation takes hold.

Formally, the book is broken up into aphoristic paragraphs, brief sections that focus on one or more aspects of intoxication. It's fair to say that readers are better off sampling in small doses than knocking Intoxication back in a single go, to stretch the metaphor a bit. Nancy dances between Hegel and Husserl, Socrates and Spinoza, Verlaine and Valéry without missing a beat, though his rhythm soon becomes difficult to follow.

Presumably, Nancy himself doesn't drink -- or doesn't drink much, at least. The philosopher's precarious medical history is well known: not long after suffering a heart attack in the late 1980s, he was diagnosed with cancer, forcing him out of his teaching job and into bed, where he continued to write furiously. Several of his most influential titles, including The Sense of the World (1993) and Being Singular Plural (1996) were composed during his illness. Regardless, Nancy emphasizes the role of intoxication ("on wine, on poetry, on virtue," as Baudelaire's exergue goes) in philosophical thought.

For Nancy, Socrates is the "drunken" philosopher par excellence precisely because he never gets drunk: "[A]n astonishing drinker who remains in self-control and who, in this way, passes into a higher form of intoxication." He cites the philosopher's remarkable drunken endurance, which Alcibiades remarked upon in the Symposium, but the "higher intoxication" to which Nancy refers is less intoxication on wine than on thought. Socrates is "no less drunk of consciousness, of nonknowledge and knowledge so true that it makes us dizzy, drunk."

Ecstasy (in the sense of its Greek root as "standing outside oneself") has always been a subject of fascination for Nancy. In the first chapter of The Inoperative Community, Nancy wrestles with Bataille's inability to reconcile personal ecstasy with a truly communal politics. Bataille figures heavily in the present volume, as does Nancy's concern with dissolving the boundaries of the self. "Excess," he says, "is an access -- to the inaccessible."

Poetics of excess aside, Nancy's style tends to disorientate. Sometimes his playfulness extends past the point of comprehension; it's easy for the reader to get lost in his sentences. Consider the following:

The independent depends on me [Dépend de moi l'indépendant]. Thus, not depending, but rather I am depending on this independence whose infinite proximity appropriates me as what is more proper to me than any possible property. Evohe.

Aside from sounding like something out of a poetry slam, the sentence is representative of Nancy's keen exuberance. As the reader gasps for breath, she is reminded of Intoxication's provenance: it was read aloud at a winery, of course, and should continue to be read in such a spirit. (Evohe, according to Armstrong's notes, is a cry in praise of Dionysus).

The subtitle of FUP's Idiom series is "Inventing Writing Language." The editors propose a shift towards "theory that loves language and loves especially language's plasticity." Nancy's Intoxication certainly conforms to these standards. By the end of this new volume, the reader will surely feel something akin to what Nancy describes as intoxication's "comic" aspect: "pitiable, sobered up, and sometimes disillusioned with intoxication itself."

Intoxication by Jean-Luc Nancy, translated by Philip Armstrong
Fordham University Press
ISBN: 978-0823267736
72 pages