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.

The full text of this essay is only available to subscribers of the London Review of Books.

You are not logged in

[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.