Chateaubriand published his Vie de Rancé in 1844, only four years before his death, at 80 years of age, in 1848. He lived to explore the continent of old age and taught us to distrust “old age in power”. This is the impotent power of those who cannot transform the world, but can only interpret it, and confine themselves and others to their interpretation. It is the power of abstraction and of the abstract concept (which is not a concept in Deleuze and Guattari’s terms).
There is another power, which does not abjure interpretation (that would be impossible), but that renews and transforms existing interpretations and that contributes, however slightly to the project of transforming our world. We have seen that Chateaubriand’s art trusts in the potency of that power, “affirms only the power of writing”. We can read: the power of writing, of speaking, concretely.
Deleuze alas did not live as long, measured in years of chronological time, he was too ill. He published WHAT IS PHILOSOPHY? in 1991, at the age of 66 (Chateaubriand published Vie de Rancé at the age of 76), four years before his death in 1995. Deleuze explored only the beginning of the continent of old age, he was much more familiar with the continent of bad health and sickness.
Deleuze, like Nietzsche, taught us to mistrust sickness, but not to judge it or condemn it. In sickness lies an “impossible value”, if we can elaborate its concept (Deleuze is ever the philosopher), if we can create new concepts by means of it (perhaps we shall explore the use of “pathological” means in a later instalment). In this book Deleuze takes a step back. He looks on old age with mistrust, and with hope, but more importantly he wants to, and wants us to, mistrust the concept:
trust must be replaced by distrust, and the philosopher must distrust concepts the most, as long as he has not created them himself (WIP? page 6, my translation)
Mistrust of the concept has become an important theme of philosophy, and Deleuze has been criticised for his conceptual, or perhaps we should say “hyperconceptual”, style.
In a recent conference Michel Onfray critiques Deleuze’s definition of philosophy as the art of inventing concepts, comparing it unfavourable with the philosophical practice of Montaigne, who he claims invents no concepts, does not write conceptually at all. Onfray claims that there is no concept specific to Montaigne, like the body without organs for Deleuze or the eternal return for Nietzsche, but only themes open to everyone: life, old age, death, the friend.
There is something to be said for this criticism, but we cannot exclude that Deleuze has already thought about it, and has at least attempted a solution. The fact that this book is signed by both Deleuze and Guattari places it under the sign of friendship. We have also seen Deleuze and Guattari begin with “old age”, and the second paragraph begins a long reflection on the “friend”, that will crop up regularly in the course of the book).
In a similar vein, Michel Serres fills his books with characters, but refuses them the label of “conceptual”:
Why aren’t these characters conceptual? Let us take a little detour to understand… [Serres uses the example of the hip as illustrated in an anatomy textbook from 1950 and from today. In the former we find a generic schema, in the latter we find specific MRI scans of a young girl, of an adult sportsman, etc]…All my books are constructed like the anatomy textbooks of today: they do not contain concepts, but singularities. Here there are two totally different manners of thinking: on the one hand the concept, on the other the singularity (Michel Serres, Pantopie: de Hermès à Petite Poucette, page 83, my translation).
Serres too has a point. I personally do not subscribe to the the maxim “Deleuze can do no wrong”. However, we cannot exclude that Deleuze has given thought to this problem as well. In his “Letter to a Harsh Critic” Deleuze admits that his writing was too erudite, too academic:
too full of things that remain erudite and that resemble concepts (my translation)
He claims that it was his reading Nietzsche and his collaboration with Guattari that freed him from all that, and this is surely at least in part true. WHAT IS PHILOSOPHY? is not a book written by Deleuze alone, but co-written with Guattari. Together they wish to speak concretely, both take concepts as “singularities”, but do they succeed in their endeavour?