Richard Stern

At five o’clock on Friday, 19 April, anniversary of the shot heard round the world, Jacques Derrida gave the first of the four annual Frederick Ives Carpenter Lectures at the University of Chicago.[1] Tom Mitchell, chairman of the English Department and editor of Critical Inquiry, the English-language journal in which Derrida most often publishes, introduced him to a crowd that filled not only the seats and aisles of the Max Palevsky Auditorium, but the lobby, where there was a PA system, and the street, where there wasn’t. The introduction was graceful, Derrida’s acknowledgment of it not only graceful but an integral part of the talk, which, like its successors, dealt with questions of gifts, gratitude, ‘giving and taking time’, existence, narrative, fiction, tobacco, luck, chance, ‘perhaps’, and a few other subjects already part of the Derrida canon.[2]

Derrida is a short, compact, energetic man. His face is tan, roughly triangular, sharp but kindly. His eyes are a fine light blue, his short hair pure white. With glasses, he looks like an upper-level, not absolutely top-grade French bureaucrat, an administrator in a colonial territory (such as the Algeria in which he spent his early life). Without glasses, he could pass for a French movie star, a mix of Jean Gabin and Alain Delon, A witty local anti-semite called him der schön Jude. His English is forceful, strongly accented but clear. There are only occasional mispronunciations, some of them amusing, a hard-g’d ‘mangy’, a confusion between ‘annul’ and ‘anneal’.

Like sermons, his lectures sprang from texts. The first was two sentences in a letter from Mme de Maintenon: ‘The King takes all my time. The rest I give to St Cyr [a foundation]; would that it were all.’ Derrida took off on ‘the difficulty of giving more than all’, especially of a non-commodity, a ‘nothing’ like time. One’s mental hair rose at this treatment. After all, Mme de Maintenon didn’t mean time but herself, her thoughts, her actions. But then Derrida acknowledged this objection and asked us to go along with his interpretation. How could one not assent to so gentle a request by a speaker whose self-deprecating modesty had already won that part of the audience which had not come starry-eyed to the famous presence.

He went on to one of the main texts. Marcel Mauss’s famous, brief Essai sur le don (The Gift). Derrida said the gifts Mauss described were really exchanges. A real gift should be something given freely, outside the economic circle of debt, repayment, interest, amortisation and so on. A gift that leaves the onus of obligation is no gift. Therefore – a somewhat shaky ‘therefore’ – a gift can’t be, not in the ordinary sense of some thing given.

There followed an excursus on the German phrase for ‘there is’, ‘es gibt (literally, it gives, or ça donne)’.[3] The implication was that existence is a gift, impersonally brought into existence by an ‘it’. This notion became part of a Heideggerian waterfall about Being (Sein), being (seiendes) and being present (Dasein).

The Heidegger-Derrida anti-metaphysical metaphysics, or untheological theology, tries, I think, to derail reader-listeners from ordinary logic and usage to a stage of excited insight. The strategy is to put etymological, semantic and even phonetic pressure[4] on key words, often foreign (usually Greek) ones, moving playfully and poetically, until normal usage is opened up, leaving room – gaps or ‘traces’ – for their True Being. This Being is not a Revealed Truth but a mentality reinvigorated by debate. Not a Graven Tablet but a Merry-Go-Round. I can see here a humanistic parallel to the physicist’s Uncertainty Principle, except that that permits two mutually exclusive states of certainty.

Both Heidegger and Derrida pay homage to poets, Heidegger to Hölderlin, Derrida to Mallarmé and Baudelaire. The second text for these talks was a short prose-poem from Baudelaire’s Paris Spleen, ‘Counterfeit Money’ (Faux-monnaie), which is narrated by a man who leaves a tobacco shop together with a friend. The friend arranges his change in various pockets according to its value. When a beggar holds out his hand imploringly to them, the narrator gives him a few sous, his friend astonishes him and the beggar by giving a silver coin. The narrator tells his friend: ‘You’re right. The next best thing to receiving a surprise is giving one.’ The friend says the coin was counterfeit, but he still believes he’s done the right thing: he has created an event, a surprise, for the beggar. The narrator, repelled by this uncharitable ‘charity’, is even more repelled by the candid case of his friend’s expression, and decides that naive, stupid malevolence is worse than its intentional, conscious counterpart.

So the talk went from grateful acknowledgment of what the speaker owed the University of Chicago, his friends, colleagues and publishers here, to the false gift of the false money. This first day, there was no question period, but the audience was invited to a reception. Tom Mitchell hoped there’d be a ‘loaves and fishes’ multiplication of the wine and cheese. Apparently there was enough to satisfy the crowd which lined up to meet Derrida and ask him to autograph copies – acceptable counterfeits of his books. (Of signatures, Derrida writes that they always signal an occasion, a time, an event.)

I went home feeling both high and low, delighted and surprised at Derrida’s own gifts, charm, intelligence and wit. The talk was far more in the tradition of French clarté, elegance and formal symmetry than his writings led me to suspect it would be. The occasionally long-winded excurses seemed those of a man who wanted to make things clear and used repetition, explanation and translation to do it. I was especially pleased that this deconstructor of texts clearly adored them, that an enemy of the fixity of doctrine was a master of the elegance which solidifies it.

Yet I was also low. For years, I’d translated a distaste for the Derridean writings I’d tried to read into scorn, and had passed this on to others even less aware of his work than me. I’d thought he was a faker – a fumiste, a smoke-artist – though even his murky, staccato texts were streaked with brilliant passages which should have alerted me to something else. Then, too, I’d been upset by his influence on those disciples whose boring and often bellicose use of Derridean devices debased every story, poem or essay they treated. In person, at least, Derrida’s prose and manner were graceful; his disciples seldom had even the ponderous grace of Disney’s elephants. Wendy Doniger told me later that she’d danced with Derrida and that he was ‘a fantastic dancer’.

Sunday, I went to a buffet supper where Derrida, in striped shirt and tie, looked even more elegant, and once again exhibited his warmth, openness and amiability. I spoke with him about notions stimulated by his talk, the invention of Santa Claus and other fictions which allowed people to receive gifts without the onus of indebtedness. He appeared to find everything interesting; he gave you the sense that if only his own text were not complete and ready for publication, he’d cite your splendid ideas. Proust writes that kings are always modest.

I couldn’t attend Derrida II, but was told that it centred on a close reading of Mauss’s book. The three people who reported to me about it said that it went ‘on and on’. (Mitchell compares deconstruction to psychoanalysis: ‘Both are interminable.’ The difference is that psychoanalysis is intended to finish, whereas deconstruction – like Mao’s notion of revolution – isn’t.) An old friend said: ‘The man doesn’t know the difference between writing and speaking.’ I discounted this as junior colleagues discount much that I say, as the words of a stick-in-the prelapsarian, pre-post-modernist-mud. My pal shouldn’t be expected to like Derrida. After all, my very intelligent assistant, a second year graduate student, said that he and his friends had made very little of the lecture, and this was the case, as well, with several intelligent colleagues. One, a distinguished philosopher, said the lecture I’d heard had made no sense to him. ‘Though he’s obviously clever.’

Derrida III was introduced by Françoise Meltzer, a tri-lingual ‘comparatist’ who said that the reading of Derrida’s Dissemination in 1973 changed her intellectual life and reminded her of another revolutionary book she was then reading, Kant’s first Critique. In his kindly way, Derrida both thanked her and said that the introductions were too much for him. (I’m told that after Professor Arnold Davidson’s introduction on Monday, Derrida had said: ‘I could cry ... but I won’t.’)

The lecture, clearly built on the previous ones, did not seem to require them. Like an episode of a soap opera, it repeated much of what had preceded it. The focus was the Baudelaire récit, which Derrida read again, saying: ‘It’s the best thing in the talks.’ Now, though, it was to be fine-combed. First the title, ‘Counterfeit Money’. The title was itself a counterfeit: just as the narrator was a fiction of Baudelaire’s, the title was not just a naive description of the subject-matter but a counterfeit of a title, being about itself, the appearance of a report. This old Mallarmé notion of self-reflexivity was explored, re-explored and played with linguistically in a way that dismayed me. The dear old fellow in front began to seem like a child, not quite so delightful as tedious, one who had to be watched, not entirely trustworthy. The words which kept cropping up were ‘excess’, ‘superfluity’, ‘overabundance’ and ‘self-indulgence’. Derrida had said the Baudelaire récit was about itself. Was his talk about itself? Was this a strange, conscious or unconscious act of self-deconstruction, modesty carried to a pathological, cancerous, self-destructive stage?

Then there was a breath of air, a new theme, ‘the poetics of tobacco’. An excerpt from Mauss on the smoking rituals which accompany ceremonious gift-exchanges was read. Derrida reminded us of the tobacco shop from which the Baudelaire narrator and his friend emerged with the pocket of change. Smoking was an unproductive act which left nothing but smoke and ashes, a self-indulgent pleasure, a gift to oneself. No mention was made of the carcinogenic deposits, the poisonous gifts to oneself, though Derrida did say, ‘Now that almost everyone has given up smoking,’ which brought relieved laughter from a crowd stranded in the linguistic maze. Derrida cited other Baudelaire allusions to tobacco and its companion, liquor, and then read the first and final drafts of the dedication to the whole book. There Baudelaire said that Spleen de Paris was a sort of serpent whose segments, he hoped, had a life of their own.

It was clear that Derrida had the same hopes, not only for each of the talks, but for the segmental analyses which he frequently broke off with the phrase, ‘We shall return to this,’ just as one was hoping for a break-through. Was this the Wagnerian – or movie serial – trick of refusing promised resolutions till the opera’s final moments? Derrida’s dullest segment was a discussion of title – Fr. titre – and the titration of alloys which ‘gave title’ to money. Derrida, perspiring a little, seemed to be driving harder than usual, mispronouncing more words. Was he reacting to the audience’s uneasiness? Only one person had left Derrida I; there must have been thirty or forty who left Derrida III. Derrida started preparing us for the end, he was ‘coming to the end soon’, this was ‘almost the end’, there was ‘just one more section’, and, a few sentences after ‘This is the end,’ he ended.

I left before the fifteen-minute question period, upset, head full of Derridiculous language tricks. The De-rideau (curtain) had lifted to expose, not Derrida ridens (Latin for ‘laughing’), but Derrida derided, the self-mocked mocker. More than upset, I was sad, and more than sad. I felt a whiff of tragedy. This, I thought, is what happens to all of us. The cells which build us turn against us, our inventions become tricks, our gift becomes a burden. Decades before, I’d watched Buckminster Fuller talk extemporaneously, brilliantly, interminably, unstoppably (until someone physically interrupted and stopped him). Bruno Bettelheim had whispered to me: ‘He’s a megalomaniac.’ I was surprised at the word then, and didn’t want to think of it now in connection with this other brilliant, charming man. I preferred to think of the occasional inability of Schubert to end a piece, of Picasso, driving himself day after day, decade after decade, to fill more and more of the world’s walls with less and less of his genius. There are writers who cannot bear the thought of not writing about every subject on earth, every person they’ve met, every thought they’ve had. The four thousand sarcophageal pages of Sartre’s unfinished book on Flaubert exhibit the almost heroic vanity/insanity of this inability to stop.

I decided not to go to Derrida IV on Friday, the finale. I’d ‘had it’. Still, on Thursday I realised there was much I wanted to know about the man, the connections between his ideas and his life. Mitchell invited me to join them for coffee before the lecture. We walked over to the Quadrangle Club, where Derrida was staying, and he told me a bit about him. His Wife was Czech, they had two sons, one an anthropologist in France, the other a student of philosophy in the States. For twenty years he and Louis Althusser had been the philosophy department of the Ecole Normale Supérieure, where he himself had gone to School. After Althusser’s disaster (he’d gone mad, killed his wife), Derrida had been overwhelmed. Now, at the Quadrangle Club in the long, white raincoat he’d bought in Chicago, Derrida was again concerned about a friend. He’d just spoken to his wife in Paris about him. ‘He had a transplant six weeks ago, and seemed to be doing fine, going up and down stairs. Now he seems to be having some trouble.’ Concern deepened the fine face.

We went outside, and in front of the empty tennis courts spoke of out writing habits. For the last three years, Derrida said he’d worked happily with a computer. He found my method of writing and dictating, rewriting and redictating, quite odd. I talked about its problems and advantages. When I mentioned some I’d had with female assistants, his chin tilted and his eyes twinkled in the classic Frenchman’s delight in talk of les femmes. I told him about Henry James dictating his last novels to a woman named Theodora (Gift of God) Bosanquet. He said he was very fond of Henry James. I’d just been rereading The Golden Bowl, and saw it suddenly as a Derridean cat’s cradle of psychological and moral displacements. I asked him questions. Had he ever written poetry? Not really, he’d published a few poems in Algeria before he was 20. Had he learned Arabic there? No, he was almost pathologically monolinguistic. He stumbled over the word. ‘You see? I can’t even say the word in English.’ Walking to the auditorium, he asked Tom if this was the way they’d gone the other three times. Tom said it was, but now things were in bloom. ‘Is that the way you arrange your lectures?’ I asked. ‘Begin them in frost and end with bloom?’ ‘Ah yes,’ he said, twinkling. ‘It’s the way I like to program them.’ Meanwhile he had difficulty lighting his pipe; finally he put it back in the raincoat.

I told him that the Palevsky of the auditorium was the inventor of Xerox. Did that tempt him to offer a counterfeit of himself?

‘A colour copy,’ he said.

At the auditorium door, we shook hands, and he said something which I lost in the crowd noise. It had, though, the sort of warmth which almost all the exceptional people I’ve known radiate. I’ve come to think emotional generosity is as much a part of human brilliance as heat is of flame, whiteness of snow.

This last lecture was introduced by the theologian David Tracy, who talked briefly about Derrida’s influence on Christian, Jewish and Buddhist studies. During the applause, a balding, young man made his way to the stage carrying an enormous potted plant, which he presented to Derrida. While the man said he was protesting the University’s cancellation of a meeting to discuss the recent harassment of three gay students, Derrida held it dutifully. The man apologised for the interruption, and, as Derrida put the plant on the table and said he shared the man’s concerns, distributed envelopes containing salt and an article from a local newspaper prefaced with the words: ‘What if this envelope were filled with neurotoxins intended to kill liberal academics?’ The gay students had received envelopes with a powder of unknown origin in them.

Derrida did not make of this unexpected arrival what Baudelaire’s narrator and friend had made of the beggar. It rather surprised me that he did not make more of this ‘chance’, this Jamesian donnée, this objet, this sujettrouvé. In informal exchanges, Derrida was witty and spontaneous. But this was a lecture. He was reading from a text. These were the guns he was sticking to. Suddenly he seemed much more the good bourgeois, the bon pére de famille, the subtle explicator of the haphazard who is uncomfortable with its actuality.

Derrida IV incorporated and refigured all that had been talked about, everything that had been postponed. The heart of it was a traditional, marvellously subtle, almost word-by-word explication of the Baudelaire récit. It was full of role reversals: the beggar became the giver, the narrator the receiver of the event created by the friend, thus the true receiver of the gift. There was much about the creation of money under industrial capitalism, the ambiguities of credit and belief, destitution and homelessness; there was even a moving passage about mangy, homeless dogs and their spoiled, household counterparts. All in all, it was a beautifully intricate Jamesian prose-poem, its protagonists not characters but ideas.

At the two-hour mark, Derrida broke off for a few minutes, ‘so that those who have to or want to can go home’. Then he went on for another forty or fifty minutes, the last dozen of which he delivered in a rush. His final insight explored the Baudelairian narrator’s remark that his ‘fancy ran riot, lending wings to my friend’s imagination and drawing all possible deductions from all possible hypotheses’. Derrida transformed this Derridean loan into a Daedalian act, one which turned his friend into Icarus, soaring towards self-exaltation on wings which melted because of his stupidity, his abuse of his native gift, the power of reason given to all human beings. Derrida read this soaring conclusion rapidly as if to remove drama from it, part of the endeavour to take the starch from received texts, elevated positions, fixed hierarchies of value. Nonetheless, there was prolonged applause. The Deconstructor had built too well; only that ever-surprising Surprise which deconstructs us all would silence the applause.

[1] A few weeks before, the otherwise forgotten octogenarian Professor Carpenter died in California.

[2] A canon moulded by Mallarmé, Heidegger and Maurice Blanchot.

[3] From what I gather, this is drawn from Heidegger’s Heraklit.

[4] The usual word employed for such pressure is ‘paronomasic’.

[5] Gibt,German for poison, had been invoked to demonstrate the contradictions built into words. This became one of the largest potholes on Rue Derrida.