thu 18/07/2024

Martin Hägglund: This Life - Why Mortality Makes Us Free review - profound book to be read slowly | reviews, news & interviews

Martin Hägglund: This Life - Why Mortality Makes Us Free review - profound book to be read slowly

Martin Hägglund: This Life - Why Mortality Makes Us Free review - profound book to be read slowly

Meditation on mortality emphasises collective and individual responsibility and agency

All at sea? A tumult of choice

Swedish-born multi-lingual academic Martin Hägglund lives in New York and teaches philosophy and comparative literature at Yale. His new book, This Life, is a substantial examination of secular faith in contrast to religious faith.

He defines secular faith as devotion to life as it is lived, with all its uncertainties, joys and loss. His argument is the opposite of strident. Rather, it is a heartfelt and radical take on the notion of faith. Hägglund presupposes that to think of life as finite is itself a faith; death is the background against which life appears.

Hägglund accepts life as finite and proposes that our own lives are what we make of it. This point of view emphasises our individual responsibility and our freedom to exercise that responsibility. Life is for life’s sake. If we tend towards eternity, nothing we do matters except as an impossible progression towards an immutable state. We cannot depend on ideas of the eternal – of extrinsic rules from some divine otherworldly imposition – because that means the value of life and its loss is meaningless.

Hägglund makes his point in different ways. There is a frisson of shock as he quotes the words of comfort offered by Barack Obama, a publicly committed Christian, at the memorial service of Sandy Hook Elementary School in 2012, when he quoted Jesus “Let the little children come to me”. Hägglund suggests that the logical end of these sentiments suggests the killings were not ultimately a tragedy but “a transitional stage on the way toward God”. God, Obama was saying, called them home.

Martin Hägglund portraitHe draws on many writers and philosophers, segueing from a meticulous examination of Karl Ove Knausgaard’s seven volume autobiographical My Struggle to Proust’s six volume In Search of Lost Time, while folding in the writing of economist Thomas Piketty, social commentator Naomi Klein and St Augustine. In a few hundred pages of philosophy, politics and economics he takes in Kierkegaard on the story for Abraham and Isaac, refers to Hitler and Mein Kampf, Adorno, Martin Luther, John Stuart Mill, and scores of the most significant writers, theorists, philosophers and economists of the past and present. It is an erudite reading list.

Heroes feature. The core of the book is a reading of Karl Marx which differs from conventional interpretations, cogently noting that the authoritarian state was the least desirable panacea for society. Extrapolating from Marx, Hägglund argues not for what he calls a social democracy but for democratic socialism. He outlines this in some detail, alongside a quietly devastating take down of capitalism as well as the notion that reforming capitalism is possible.

The other radical hero is Martin Luther King, whose political speeches were absolutely about life as it was to be lived, and what actions were to be taken to reach those goals. He forbade the reporting and recording of speeches where he actually used the word socialism and his activism is carefully examined – as is the basis of potential reform being economic.

If King and Marx are in different ways his ideal political philosophers, the philosopher he admires most is Hegel, whose ideas thread through the book.

Partly, his argument captures the ways in which our attitudes transform how we live. Hägglund is concerned with religious faith and the ways in which it may blind us towards what we should do with the finite life we have, but also with what he calls political theology. He concludes that the only way forward is acknowledging that we own the responsibility of our life together and that ultimately it is destructive to “assume that we must defer to higher authority than we the people in order to hold together as a community”. It is not the New Jerusalem we must look to – but New York, or New Memphis: “if we help one another to own our only life.”

He offers “a secular vision of why everything depends of what we do with our time together”. The decline of religious faith is not to be lamented. Rather, it provides an opportunity to make explicit and strengthen our secular faith in this life as an end in itself.” The italics are the author’s, and indeed his use of italics throughout, is a curious and touching echo of the way students underline important points in lecture notes for emphasis.

Hägglund’s This Life is a highly readable, accessible – yet profound – examination of what kind of society might enable life at its most fulfilling. Whilst realising our interdependence, we have to be responsible for our own fragile lives. The theses may be heavy, but the discussions and analyses, however complex, are written with a light touch and beguiling clarity which is both wholly absorbing and deeply relevant. The reader is complicit, a partner. It is a book to read slowly, and this reviewer is about to start reading it all over again.

He concludes that the only way forward is acknowledging that we own the responsibility of our life together


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"This life..." is a book that treats two topics (Hägglund connects them, but they can be considered separately). The second topic is capitalism. And this review does not says enough, I think, about the alternative (democratic socialism) that Hägglubd presents for capitalism.

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