Since when did happiness, wisdom and contentment become the cornerstones of a fulfilling life? Whatever happened to doubt? Instability? Melancholia? In 2010, Polity Press published How to Stop Living and Start Worrying, a collection of interviews with Simon Critchley which playfully parodies the conventional self-help manual. Through a series of conversations with Carl Cedeström, Critchley sketches an alternative view of the role philosophy plays in our lives today, covering an ambitious range of topics: from science and religion, to poetry and politics, love and humour, life and death.
Critchley, a philosophy professor who teaches in New York, takes us step-by-step through the major themes of his work in an entertaining and accessible way. Each interview takes the form of an informal, improvised chat on a theoretical topic, elucidating terms and concepts with helpful metaphors and memorable anecdotes. Jokes also play a key role in the overall tone of the book, illuminating central ideas with a lightness of touch.
How to Stop Living and Start Worrying begins with a biographical sketch of Simon Critchley’s early life and career. He relates his fascination with the radicalism of the 1970s punk music scene, and acknowledges his debt to the Penguin Modern Classics series (Orwell, Huxley, Sartre). His introduction to philosophy is cast in social and economic terms, where the work of Lois Althusser, Michel Foucault and Jacques Derrida were inseparable from the demands of political activism. Critchley’s interest in philosophy is also characterized by unexpected events, from traumatic physical injuries to the death of his father. Philosophy is valued as an everyday practice that we can all pursue, enabling reflections on the world and ourselves.
But the interviews provide an interesting counterpoint to the traditional self-help manual. Casting out the assumption that we are free and autonomous individuals, Critchley and Cedeström discuss human experience in terms of finitude and contingency. Finitude defines individuals according to a limit, whether it is death, or the limit of perception; while contingency acknowledges that we are culturally-constructed by social forces.
If there is a feel-good pep-talk element, it takes the form of acknowledging one’s impotence and incapability, the contradictions and discrepancies that structure our identities, and our experience of the world. In a world where the self ‘can never achieve mastery or authenticity’, philosophy forms part of a continual process of emancipation from dominant social norms and values – a talking cure for existence that goes on as long as we do. For Critchley, philosophy accepts that we are ‘ontologically defective’, or, as Nietzsche puts it, Human, All Too Human.
“Critchley’s ideal self is one aware of their limits, able to see what is ridiculous about existence and so able to laugh at themselves.”
Included among the discussions are reflections on love, examined for its transgressive potential, and humour, for its ability to disrupt and subvert Western cultural values. Critchley’s ideal self is one aware of their limits, able to see what is ridiculous about existence and so able to laugh at themselves. Relationships with others are also deemed essential, but not as an experience of contentment; rather, as ‘a trial and a struggle’, an experience of love as the ‘experience of infinite demand’ which ‘doesn’t know itself’.
There are fascinating observations on the work of Sigmund Freud, Samuel Beckett, Henrik Ibsen, and others; alongside broader reflections on suicide, suffering, mourning and immortality. In fact, few books include such a diverse range of references: from the Sex Pistols, Aristotle and Woody Allen, to Mozart, Kafka and Barack Obama. The collection spans the gap between high art and popular culture, sacred and profane, the academic and the everyday.
How to Stop Living and Start Worrying is an illuminating survey of Critchley’s work to date, and through a series of accessible dialogues examines the relevance of philosophy to our day-to-day lives. It’s a useful introduction for beginners, and an indispensable resource to anyone interested in Critchley’s writing. Stop what you’re doing, and start reading.
This review was first published at A Piece of Monologue in 2010.