Overcoming dying: On Sloterdijk’s You Must Change Your Life

This is the ninth set of reflections on Peter Sloterdijk’s You Must Change Your Life: On Anthropotechnics (Cambridge: Polity Press, 2013). The first set of reflections can be read here. A summary of Stoterdijk’s principal theses is available here.


Here is the thrust of Stoterdijk’s argument:

First, reinterpret human beings as training animals and then see what this reinterpretation ‘opens us.’

Second, reclaim a kind of elitism which allows one to ask, ‘How is it possible for some adepts to become extraordinary?’ at the same time that one can avoid the universal injunction that all persons be this way or follow this path. I have called this orientation, in a felicitous paradox, ‘humble elitism.’

Third, make a distinction between ‘antiquity’ (an untimely, nonexistent epoch) and modernity. Show that ‘antiquity’ is set in motion by a ‘vertical tension’ wherein the ascetic is called by a particular interpretation that he must change his life. Demonstrate that modernity is committed to the expansion of the horizontal plane. Whence an entirely different injunction: you must change (all of) life for everyone. End human suffering. Seek universal equality. Live according to the moral law or the maximization of utility. Against the grain, plump for ‘antiquity.’

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The salamander and the black-and-white bird

Up to me came a  salamander to be warmed by the sun. The wind was cool and I felt chilled, so I sat down and began to climb. When I returned to be warmed by the sun, along came a little black-and-white bird hopping closer and closer to me. He was hopping along the low-lying branches in the sweetly smelling chayote bush. How curious, I thought, how close he is, this black and white little bird. One more hop carries him to the ground and then the sound of pecking. He pecks and flips a something about like scratches in the sand. That something is–was–the salamander. Now, I hear in the chayote bush more pecking and pecking. On the ground, I see a tail twitching every five seconds while the pecking continues in the bush.

‘Were I to die first, would you grieve for me?’

I am not satisfied with my understanding of the reasons we give when we are grieving. So I begin again, this time with an intimation.


We are speaking of our deaths.

‘Were I to die first, would you grieve for me?’ Aleksandra is speaking.

‘Yes,’ I reply.

For a while, I say nothing. Then I go on: ‘I would have to figure out why I was still living.’

Either death is something for us, or else it is nothing for us…

1. Either death is something for us, or else it is nothing for us.

2. If death is something for us, then we can either go along with it, or we can resist it.

2.1. If we resist it, then we will be filled with strife and ultimately we will lose.

2.2. If we go along with it, then we and it must be one.

3. If death is nothing for us, then we and it have nothing in common.

3.1. Having nothing in common, we can be nothing for it, and it can do nothing to us.

Neil Young and no sense of an ending

Some old men resign themselves to death; others rock out, failing to convince. Philip Roth, age 79, has said that he plans to write no more books. Neil Young turned 67 this month and, to celebrate, reunited with “Crazy Horse” at Madison Square Garden last night. We were there for part of the evening.

In his review of last night’s performance, James Reed of The Boston Globe called it an “epic ride.” If it was, then it was epic in the older sense of the word. Lord Tennyson’s Ulysses returns, after 20 years of war and wandering, to Ithaca. He is old but is, he says, not fit to rule. Ruling does not run in his blood the way it does in his son’s. With his men, therefore, all old friends, he will strike off again to see whether death can be bent back or held off by a supreme act of will.

Neil is old Ulysses yet bordering on bathos. It’s strange to hear an old man–looking, my love said, like a “colicky baby”–sing in the key of bathos in a cracking building before an aging audience. The two classics–“Cinnamon Girl” and “The Needle and the Damage Done”–were softly song and it was these that showed heart. Yet it was the rest of the set that made me think of melodrama (young girls and broken dreams–that sort of thing), of boundless striving and never yielding (“Walk Like a Giant” power-chorded on for 23 unbearable minutes), of massive amps set against any good sense of an ending. The newer songs were filled with cliches, the lyrics undone by tiredness, but there was nevertheless something sorrowful about watching a man who, unlike Dylan, could still sing but who had nothing to sing about. Was it the dishonesty or the pretense that got to us?