Sabotage

John Sturrock

  • The Tain of the Mirror: Derrida and the Philosophy of Reflection by Rodolphe Gasché
    Harvard, 348 pp, £19.95, December 1986, ISBN 0 674 86700 9
  • Derrida by Christopher Norris
    Fontana, 271 pp, £4.95, November 1987, ISBN 0 00 686057 5
  • The Truth in Painting by Jacques Derrida, translated by Geoff Bennington and Ian McLeod
    Chicago, 386 pp, £39.95, October 1987, ISBN 0 226 14323 6
  • The Postcard: From Socrates to Freud and Beyond by Jacques Derrida, translated by Alan Bass
    Chicago, 521 pp, £36.75, August 1987, ISBN 0 226 14320 1
  • The Archaeology of the Frivolous: Reading Condillac by Jacques Derrida, translated by John Leavey
    Nebraska, 143 pp, $7.95, June 1987, ISBN 0 8032 6571 9

Bait them and the Derrideans certainly rise. When the English version of Derrida’s Glas appeared last year in the United States[*], I wrote a griping review of it, to regret mainly that a philosopher as brilliantly fresh and radical as Derrida should want to publish something so mannered and so hard to follow. Some of the North American faithful objected to this review, and one, a professor of philosophy in Scranton, wrote a letter warning that I had failed not just Derrida but our whole benighted community. To wit:

The signs of the Holocaust were all around but only the Madman saw them. And no one listened to the Madman. It is 1939 with regard to the world of letters, and Jacques Derrida is telling us to wake up. But we don’t listen.

Thus spoke Zarathustra, as I recall, in an aggressively lyrical strain unsoftened on this occasion by any hint of Glas-nost. How odd that Derrida, one of whose democratic themes has been the need to deconstruct the notion of authority in the transmission of knowledge, should himself find authority so easy to come by.

The review did not ask for his ostracism as a Madman, it merely found fault with his presumption that readers of Glas should bear with him through the punishing tortuosities of its parallel texts on Hegel and on Jean Genet. The author of Glas is Derrida the writer, casting yet more doubt on the credentials of philosophy ‘proper’ by apparently allowing the surface accidents of language to call his own textual tune; the result is an arrogant show of that mix of rigorous commentary and antic verbalism which we might as well call Derri-Dada. This is not the most reasonable or effective style in which to be sounding reveille-calls to the slumbering world of letters. But why raise even the author of Glas to the rank of Madman, when he remains first and foremost a thinker, serious, fundamental and mind-enlarging in his inquiries into a whole range of unexamined a-prioris in philosophy, and a disappointment only in those places where he turns performative, and writes in such a manner as to exemplify from within rather than analyse from without the underlying continuities between the texts of philosophy and those of literature? The literary Derrida is for most of us parasitical on the philosophical one; thought is what we demand of him, not flighty approximations to fiction.

To recapture Derrida for philosophy is the aim, happily, of both Rodolphe Gasché’s The Tain of the Mirror and Christopher Norris’s Modern Master volume. Gasché’s is a formidable book, a dense, none too easy, but splendidly full and orderly synthesis of Derrida’s thought, which makes a meticulous case for him as a philosopher of real substance, given the radical nature of his investigations in the philosophies of language and of meaning. Gasché starts by restoring most helpfully the connections between Derrida’s concerns, unfamiliar as those notoriously are to anyone brought up on the prevalent Anglo-American philosophy, and the concerns of the German philosophical tradition in which he is so thoroughly read, in Kant, Hegel, Husserl and Heidegger – Nietzsche, a proto-deconstructionist if ever there was one, is surprisingly played down. Gasché’s central theme is that of reflexivity, or the ‘specular’ freedom of the human consciousness to reflect (on) its engagement with the world, and of this mirroring mind’s necessary, if frequently occluded, structural limits: the ‘tain’ is that non-reflecting surface which backs the glass in a mirror and makes reflection possible. This is the guiding metaphor for the whole of the book, since as a thinker Derrida has gravitated consistently and with profit to the bounds of thinkability, or the unthought conditions which have to be there for thought as we know it to be possible.

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[*] Glas is published in Britain by the University of Nebraska Press (262 pp., £47.50. October 1987, 0 8032 1667 X) The translators are John Leavey and Richard Rand.