Viscounts Swapping Stories

Michael Wood

In 1995, Derrida wrote of Lyotard and himself as the last survivors of a generation, although he also worried about ‘that terrible and somewhat misleading word’. The word is terrible, presumably, because it conceals death in its very announcement of life: ‘those dying generations’, Yeats wrote, but then all generations die, that’s what they do. And it is misleading because it bundles together very different people at the behest of a clock or a calendar. But we do live in particular times and are formed by them, and times change. Derrida insists on the desirability of listening to ‘our time’, and adds: ‘for we had no other’. That, no doubt, is the reason he doesn’t refuse the notion of a generation, and The Work of Mourning, although the pieces in it arose according to the random rhythms of other people’s deaths, is the story of one of those changes of time, and also an epitaph for a generation of writers and thinkers in France. The group Derrida has in mind includes Barthes (born 1915), Althusser (born 1918), Deleuze (born 1925) and Foucault (born 1926). Three years later Lyotard (born 1924) is also dead, and Derrida (born 1930) identifies himself now as ‘the last born, and, no doubt, the most melancholic of the group’.

The book brings together Derrida’s eulogies or essays or condolences on 14 writers and thinkers, all friends and (often) colleagues of his. They are, in addition to the five I have just mentioned, Paul de Man, Max Loreau, Jean-Marie Benoist, Edmond Jabès, Joseph Riddel, Michel Servière, Louis Marin, Sarah Kofman and Emmanuel Levinas. Six of the pieces are published here in English for the first time. The editors, Pascale-Anne Brault and Michael Naas, are sensitive to what might be ‘impolitic’ or ‘morbid’ about such a collection, but their introduction amply and lucidly justifies their assembly of these works, and the only snag with the book as a whole is that it makes certain rhetorical gestures look like tics – of course we are all often genuinely at a loss for words, but it’s odd to be caught saying it again and again, and in print. And, since we simply go from one death to another in this book, since death is all there is, so to speak, we may get the impression that Derrida is a perpetual mourner, scarcely engaged in anything apart from expressing and failing to express his grief. And yet the occasions are spaced over time in a way their proximity on the page quite belies – Barthes died in 1980, and Lyotard in 1998 – and a very considerable generosity and affection speaks in all these texts. The most substantial, the ones that most complicate and deepen the idea of mourning, are probably those on Barthes, Marin and Lyotard. A longer version of the essay on Foucault can be found in Resistances of Psychoanalysis (published in French in 1996 and in English in 1998).

A Taste for the Secret is the record of a series of conversations between Derrida and the Italian philosopher Maurizio Ferraris, with Gianni Vattimo joining the last one. The conversations, which took place between 1993 and 1995, offer a relaxed retrospective of Derrida’s work and a sense of particular preoccupations, like secrecy and the importance of not belonging – to a family or a nation or a linguistic group, for example. It’s not that we always have a choice about such things, only that we can choose not to celebrate such adherences, refuse to see them as definitions of who we are.

I have a taste for the secret, it clearly has to do with not-belonging; I have an impulse of fear or terror in the face of a political space, for example, a public space that makes no room for the secret. For me, the demand that everything be paraded in the public square and that there be no internal forum is a glaring sign of the totalitarianisation of democracy.

Readers of Derrida’s early work will recognise here an old worry about the tyranny of speech which he found in Rousseau’s ideal city, where everyone talks and everything is said. The volume also has an intricate and persuasive essay by Ferraris on ‘What Is There’.

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