It Has the Character of Destiny

Giorgio Agamben, trans. Lorenzo Chiesa, The Adventure

MIT Press, 104pp, £10.95, ISBN 9780262037594

reviewed by Stuart Walton

The Italian philosopher Giorgio Agamben, best known still for his 1995 study of biopolitics, Homo Sacer: Sovereign Power and Bare Life, has concentrated in recent years on increasingly slender essays on some of philosophy's biggest questions. In lesser hands, these could easily turn into the short introductions and bluffer's guides in which trade publishing has established a lucrative sideline. Nothing could be further from Agamben's intention. His technique is to begin with an arcane scholarly minutia, something from classical literature perhaps, and follow its itinerary as an idea through the more familiar routes of western intellectual history, to arrive at brief but cogent philosophical reflections on the world in which we live.

In the present pocket volume, first published in Italian in 2015, we are referred at the outset to the contribution of one of the symposiasts at the Saturnalia of Macrobius, a fifth-century colloquium on antique beliefs. It is reported that the Egyptians thought that the birth of every human being was attended by four deities, representing the ubiquitous vital principles of Daimon (character), Tyche (chance), Eros (love) and Ananke (necessity), it being both unwise and futile to try to evade the influence of any of them in the course of one's mortal life. During his philological studies in 1817, the ageing Goethe stumbled on the passage, and worked a set of lyrical meditations on it into his Urworte (Orphic Primal Words).

To these four essential principles, Agamben adds a fifth – Elpis, or hope – which he posits as the indispensable link that binds the others together. Along the way, he takes in small but potent admixtures of Hegel and Heidegger, and rediscovers an extraordinary essay of 1910, also entitled 'The Adventure', by the German social philosopher Georg Simmel. Classical stoicism and Nietzschean amor fati are considered to see how they fit with respect to the present topic (they don't), and the essay ends on a note from the theology of Saint Paul, of which Agamben is a penetrating scrutineer.

A typically unexpected source is unearthed in the chivalric poems of Chrétien de Troyes and Marie de France, which jointly assert that the adventure of a life is indissociable from the telling of it. Adventure may be positive or negative in its effects, but whichever it is, we continue to yearn for it, partly because, despite its theoretically contingent nature, it has the character of destiny. As such, the story of it, in the medieval lays and in the self-reflexive individual life, cannot be separated from its narration. It achieves objective existence through being spoken, in a thought whose lineage refers us back to Aristotle's definition of Being as what 'is said', and which the linguistic turn in modern philosophy has thrown into ontological doubt.

Love is the prime example of adventure in many people's lives. It is simultaneously something that just happens to us, and yet manages also to feel like an achievement, a thought-form that, according to Simmel at least, is characteristically masculine. As Agamben encapsulates it, 'only life that has the form of an adventure can truly find love'. If life isn't an adventure, all that remains is the structure of Dantesque comedy. By the same token, Nietzsche's eternal return is the opposite of an adventure, for all that it mandates the subject's willing appropriation of it. Living dangerously surely comports more than just reacquainting oneself with the familiar. Despite the anaerobic giddiness of a philosophical impulse conceived amid the Alpine peaks, its continuities with Stoic indifference, the impassive acceptance of whatever happens without actively participating in it, lie transparently close to its surface.

In surrendering ourselves to love, Agamben contends, we are constantly aware of failing its ideal, of lagging behind, but the inability to fulfil it should be what prompts us to keep trying. Here, the argument takes a defiantly anti-materialist turn. Sexual gratification is the displacement strategy that medicates our inability to love, but its very corporeality convicts the love that it hopes to express of its emptiness. 'In it, love seems almost to be extinguished and bid us farewell – not because of disillusionment and sadness, as the bourgeois preconception has it, but because in fulfilment lovers lose their secret, that is, confess to one another that they have no secret.’

Here, in the essay's closing passage, is where hope comes into its own. It is constitutive of love par excellence – there is no more animating hope than that which accompanies a new relationship – but as in the myth of Pandora, hope is the final gift that remains in the box, not because it is endlessly deferred, as it often seems, but because 'somehow it has always already been satisfied'. It is so because the desire implicit in love is in itself, if we could but see it, already the satisfaction of it. In mystical theological terms, the hope for salvation is already satisfied too. Hope surpasses both salvation and love because it has already triumphed.

The sceptical reflex would be to ask what becomes of radical politics in a condition in which hope has already been satisfied. Hope for what has not yet come about is the motive force of all change, whereas the stance of considering that hope has already been fulfilled sounds depressingly like the hopeless counsel to count one's blessings, or the utter garbage expressed in those recycled homilies known as memes, to the effect that life's problems are only problems if you see them that way, and that overcoming them is all in the mind. Agamben's countervailing argument to this objection is that to construct hope as always focused on an 'invisible beyond' is the wrong temporalisation. It has to refer to something in the present condition in order for a redeemed future to have its roots in it.

Without offering any discussion of it, Agamben takes as the epigraph to his final chapter on hope Kafka's famous remark in the aftermath of the Great War, that 'there is an infinite amount of hope, but not for us', where 'us' is to be understood as the entirety of presently and hitherto existing humanity. The traditional pessimistic interpretation of this insight – that there is no hope, the world is doomed forever to be an inescapable nightmare – overlooks its initial assertion, that hope exists in abundance, out there somewhere like dark matter, never observed but providing the solution to much that is presently unreconciled. For whom does this hope exist, then, if not for us? Does it belong to the God whose momentary bad mood resulted in the catastrophe of this world? Or might it become available to a humanity that could think itself out of its current circumstances?

Kafka's observation could hardly be more at odds with the argument of The Adventure. In the mutually dependent complex of fortune, necessity, chance and love, Agamben's addition of hope functions as the unifying factor by which individuals might be reconciled to the lives they find themselves leading. Saint Paul's assurance in the letter to the Romans that hope is what saves us is, on Agamben's account, 'both correct and incorrect' – wrong in that it relocates the object of hope to the intangible realm of the not-yet, the unseen, where Kafka places it, as something that may or may not happen, but right in the sense that it has already saved those who no longer need to hope for salvation.

There is possibly no other thinker in the senior European ranks whose powerful concision leaves the impression, at the close of each text, that volumes of further reflection on its topic have been initiated, just as it sees fit to conclude. This makes it a properly participatory body of theory, an adventure indeed, animated by the utopian hope that lives, not in memes, but in real thought.