Review: The Adventure

The Adventure. By Giorgio Agamben, trans. Lorenzo Chiesa. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2018. vii + 91. £9.99/$12.99, hardcover.

Perhaps at first glance, the task of articulating in what sense ‘adventure’ corresponds to everyday existence is a peculiar one. Giorgio Agamben’s The Adventure is not a straightforward philosophical text. Rather, Agamben borrows from mythology, Roman literature, medieval poetry, German idealism, and contemporary philosophy in what is a winding and whimsical little book. Though these sources sometimes feel manically random, they are simultaneously coherent, which makes reading The Adventurequite the event itself.

Agamben grounds his book on the four gods that preside over human life in Macrobius’s Saturnalia: Daimon, Tyche, Eros, and Ananke, also translated as Demon, Chance, Love, and Necessity. [p. 3] Each of these gods demands our tribute because of how they relate to our being and make up our ethics. [p. 5] To Daimon, we owe our character; Eros, our fecundity and knowledge; Tyche and Ananke are honored “because the art of living also involves a reasonable degree of bowing that we cannot avoid.” [p. 5] Following Goethe, he adds Elpis, Hope. Though Goethe himself prioritizes the Demon, Agamben finds that we most often encounter Chance.

In the second chapter, when he correlates Chance and Adventure, the book takes a particularly interesting turn. Agamben’s sources here are varied, and include Chrétien de Troyes’ Yvain, a number of lais from Marie de France, and theRoman de Thébes, as well as antidotes from various philologists to arrive at an understanding of adventure that bubbles up from within. Through a short etymological reflection on the roots of aventura, Agamben finds that ‘adventure’ originally connoted a union of event and story, of chance and destiny, where the two poles were indistinguishable. Further, Agamben finds that, “like a book or a living being, the adventure has a name,” a title that helps locate a thing’s particularity. [p. 28] Thus, the knights in these old stories encounter Frau Âventiure, Lady Adventure. [p. 35] It is important to note, however, that Lady Adventure is encountered interiorly. This chapter acts as a catalyst for the concern of the adventure writ-large. It is not just that one might more often experience Tyche than the other gods, but that the interiority that is adventure is a specific encounter with Being, a concept that is essential throughout the rest of the book. [p. 42]

Chapters Three and Four, on Eros and Event respectively, continue with this concern for adventure as an encounter with Being. Bringing together the work of philosophers George Simmel and Oskar Becker, Agamben finds that, like adventure, Love is a unifying principle that casts an arc over our life. “Only a life that has the form of adventure can truly find love.” [p. 54] Agamben’s examination of Event, Heidegger’s Ereignis, and ‘adventure’ contain some of his most difficult and compelling sections of the book. Without straying into a full explanation of Heidegger and Agamben’s take on Ereignis here, Agamben argues that adventure as Event is fundamentally an encounter with Being and ourselves.

In his last and shortest chapter on Hope, it comes as no surprise that Agamben somehow finds the myths of Pandora and Saint Paul as perfect interlocutors. The Hope that Pandora speaks of refutes Saint Paul’s statement that “in hope, we are satisfied.” Pandora’s hope does not expect fulfillment in the world, nor does it expect some “invisible beyond.” [p. 90] Hope is already fulfilled, and yet, paradoxically, not. Remember, the knight searches for adventure. Unsatisfied/satisfied Hope, then, is the orientation that overcomes all others, relating us back again to the unquenchable finite (and infinite?) adventure that is Ereignis in Heidegger. Needless to say, this chapter demands careful attention.

The Adventure will be a compelling read for a certain kind of person, in particular someone disinterested in tight argumentation and with a willingness to enjoy philosophy in the same way they might enjoy poetry or a quirky novel.

The Adventure is itself a bit of a journey, and its peculiar sources make it a delight to read. This is not to say The Adventure does not warrant criticism: using masculine and feminine principles to understand the experience of adventure might well raise pulses, while scholars of medieval poetry could perhaps question some of Agamben’s interpretation of his sources. But this work feels playful, as if meant to give rise to thought rather than argue a clear point.

Indeed, those bombarded by the buzzword ‘adventure’ in advertising will find in this work a refreshing take that invites more interaction with the concept of ‘adventure’ through the ideas and sources within the book. Offered to English speaking audiences in a superb and careful translation, The Adventure offers a new philosophical category for one’s everyday thinking about life. For this reason alone, graduate students and scholars alike should suspend their expectations and particular demands about the style of a philosophical treatise in order to play with the thought of adventure themselves.

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