The Work of Mourning, by Jacques Derrida

True to its title, Jacques Derrida's The Work of Mourning (2001) is a haunting book, consisting in a series of 14 texts, each memorializing one of his deceased friends. Interspersed throughout these texts are profound philosophical insights concerning the interrelationships among friendship, fidelity, human finitude, and mourning. I have found myself reflecting on Derrida's understandings long after reading the book.

For Derrida, fidelity, finitude, and mourning lie at the heart of friendship.
The mourning of a deceased friend, claims Derrida, necessarily evokes an unre solvable conflict of loyalty. This is so because when we lose a friend we also lose a part of our own selfhood. We lose the emotional world--our own world--that had been constituted around the friend who is now lost:

"[T]he world [is] suspended by some unique tear ... reflecting disappearance
itself: the world, the whole world, the world itself, for death takes from us not only some particular life within the world, some moment that belongs to us, but, each time, without limit, someone through whom the world, and first of all our own world, will have opened up...." (p. 107)

"[A] stretch of [our] living self ... a world that is for us the whole world, the only world ... sinks into an abyss." (p. 115)

Thus, insofar as I always mourn not only my lost friend but something lost of myself, of my own emotional world, as well, my mourning is at once both an act of loyalty and of disloyalty to my friend. This inescapable conflict of loyalty is also reflected in the fact that my mourning cannot be directed at my friend who has disappeared; it can only be directed at an "interiorization" of my friend, at a presence who now dwells within me as an absent alterity. Derrida, clearly influenced by Freud, argues that we are who we are in and through these interiorized others.

For me, the most gripping of Derrida's philosophical insights pertain to what
in an earlier work, Politics of Friendship (1997), he characterized as the "law of friendship," namely, the law that dictates that every friendship is structured from its beginning, a priori, by the possibility that one of the two friends will die first and that the surviving friend will be left to mourn. As Derrida put in Memoirs for Paul de Man (1989), there is "no friendship without this knowledge of finitude" (p. 28). Finitude and the possibility of mourning are constitutive of every friendship. Derrida makes this existential claim evocatively and movingly in The Work of Mourning:

"To have a friend, to look at him, to follow him with your eyes, to admire him in friendship, is to know in a more intense way, already injured, always insistent, and more and more unforgettable, that one of the two of you will inevitably see the other die. One of us, each says to himself, the day will come when one of the two of us will see himself no longer seeing the other.... That is the ... infinitely small tear, which the mourning of friends passes through and endures even before death...." (p. 107)

"[This is] the mourning that is prepared and that we expect from the very beginning...." (p. 146)

"From the first moment, friends become ... virtual survivors. Friends know this, and friendship breathes this knowledge ... right up to the last breath." (p. 171)

Some intriguing ideas concerning representation follow for Derrida from the
law of friendship being a law of surviving and mourning. For example, he claims that the law of surviving and mourning is encrypted in our use of our names to represent us. Our names survive us; one friend will be left to speak the name of the other when the other dies:

"[T]he name signs death and ... races toward death even more quickly than we do.... It bears us with infinite speed toward the end. It is in advance the name of a dead person. And of a premature death that comes to us in it." (p. 130)

"[A] signature not only signs but speaks to us always of death... the possible death of the one who bears the name... the death that thus always comes before coming...." (p. 136)

The same can be said of any piece of writing, work of art, or creative product that comes to represent us. The corpus substitutes for the corpse. When I say or hear your name, when I see your signature, when I read your work, I am always already losing you and mourning you in advance. "The power of the image [is] the power of death" (p. 151).

Derrida's poetically rendered claims about finitude and the possibility of
mourning being constitutive of friendship (which includes love) resonate powerfully with criticisms that have been made of Heidegger's one-sidedly self-focused conception in Being and Time (1927) of what it means to have an "authentic" comportment--one that owns rather than disowns--toward the finitude of our existence. For Heidegger, authentic "being-toward-death" is a non-evasive owning up to one's own death as an existentially individualizing possibility:

"By its very essence, death is in every case mine.... [M]ineness [is] ontologically constitutive for death. " (p. 284)

Simon Critchley (2002), among others, pointedly "place[d] in question what Heidegger sees as the non-relational character of the experience of finitude":

"I would want to oppose [Heidegger's claim about the non-relationality of death] with the thought of the fundamentally relational character of finitude, namely that death is first and foremost experienced as a relation to the death or dying of the other and others, in being-with the dying in a caring way, and in grieving after they are dead...." (p. 169)

"[T]here is a thing--a corpse--at the heart of the experience of of finitude. That is why I mourn.... [D]eath and finitude are fundamentally relational, ... constituted in relation to a lifeless material thing whom I love and this thing casts a long mournful shadow across the self." (169-170)

Beginning with my work on emotional trauma (, which took form in the ashes of my own experience of a traumatic loss, I too have been seeking to "relationalize" the Heideggerian conception of finitude. I have contended that, in virtue of the finitude not only of our own existence but of the existence of all those with whom we are deeply connected, authentic being-toward-death always includes a being-toward-loss. Death and loss, to turn a Heideggerian phrase, are existentially equiprimordial, and both are anticipated in the experience of existential anxiety. Derrida's compelling and poetic texts explicating and illustrating the work of mourning give us a rich array of philosophical ideas and tools for comprehending and coming to grips with the relationalilty of human finitude.


Critchley, S. 2002. "Enigma Variations: An Interpretation of Heidegger's Sein und Zeit." Ratio 15: 154-175. doi:10.1111/1467-9329.00182

Derrida, J. 1989. Memoirs for Paul de Man. Rev. ed. Translated by C. Lindsay, J. Culler, E. Cadava, and P. Kamuf. New York: Columbia University Press.

------. 1997. Politics of Friendship. Translated by G. Collins. New York: Verso.

------. 2001. The Work of Mourning. Edited by P.-A. Brault and M. Naas. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press.

Heidegger, M. 1927 [1962]. Being and Time. Translated by J. Macquarrie and E. Robinson. New York: Harper and Row.

Stolorow, R.D. 2007. Trauma and Human Existence: Autobiographical, Psychoanalytic, and Philosophical Reflections. New York: Routledge.

------. 2010. "Individuality in Context: The Relationality of Finitude." In Persons in Context: The Challenge of Individuality in Theory and Practice, edited by R. Frie and W. Coburn, 59-68. New York: Routledge.