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’.

It is an aspect of what Derrida calls his melancholy that he should see all friendship as haunted by the friend’s future death, indeed defined by it, ‘in the undeniable anticipation of mourning that constitutes friendship’, and it is surely the gift of his melancholy that allows him to name the details of the sadness which he ‘always thought’ he felt in Roland Barthes, ‘a sadness that was cheerful and yet weary, desperate, lonely, refined, cultivated, epicurean, so incredulous in the end, always letting go without clinging, endless, fundamental and yet disappointed with the essential’. Melancholy is also what the work of mourning, in Freud’s scheme of things, is meant to undo and replace, and Derrida, throughout this book, and with increasing insistence and clarity, wants to resist that work. He doesn’t want to indulge melancholy, in the ordinary sense; but he doesn’t want to mourn and get on with life either . ‘I think about nothing but death,’ he says in A Taste for the Secret. ‘I think about it all the time, ten seconds don’t go by without the imminence of the thing being there. I never stop analysing the phenomenon of “survival” as the structure of surviving.’

‘Nothing but’, ‘all the time’, ‘ten seconds’ and ‘never’ are hyperboles, but hyperbole is not just a matter of style for Derrida: it is a kind of method, a way of getting extremities of thought to declare themselves and face each other. In a subtle and markedly autobiographical book with the unlovely title of Monologualism of the Other, published in French in 1996 and in English in 1998, Derrida writes of ‘the “hyperbolism” which will have invaded my life and work’, and traces it back to his pre-school days in Algeria, an excess of Frenchness strongly connected with the exclusion of Algerians, and especially Algerian Jews, from a notionally pure or ideal Frenchness. ‘In short, I exaggerate,’ he says. ‘I always exaggerate.’ But there is a difference between giving in to exaggeration and getting it to work for you – to do the work that mourning won’t do, for example.

‘Nothing is more unbearable or laughable,’ Derrida writes in the first essay in The Work of Mourning, ‘than all the expressions of guilt in mourning, all its inevitable spectacles.’ Well, this might just be melancholy putting on a show, but Derrida comes to feel that ‘the work of mourning’ itself is ‘a confused and terrible expression’, and in his essay on Lyotard he writes: ‘One would owe it to the loved one or the friend neither to be done mourning nor even to go into mourning for them.’ Is this possible? Probably not, but we might be able, as Derrida says of other hyperboles, to ‘hold firm’ between the extremes, or even zig-zag between them, without settling for the comfort of some imaginary middle. This would be to go on living ‘like rich and powerless heirs’, as Derrida writes in his piece on Louis Marin, ‘both provided for and at a loss, given over to being forlorn and distraught, full of and fortified by him, responsible and voiceless’.

Inhabiting these contradictions for as long as we can would be a way of being grateful for life and wary of death – respectful of death but not grovelling or ghoulish or jittery – but it also begins to look like thinking itself as Derrida defines it, one of philosophy’s more hazardous jobs, a matter of living on in a ruined house or country. ‘Yes, we will all have loved philosophy,’ Derrida says of his generation, just after his remark about the terrible and misleading word. This is the generation after Sartre (born 1905); after Lévi-Strauss (born 1908), too. Didn’t the previous generation love philosophy? Yes, but not the same philosophy, or not in the same way. With the exception of Barthes, all the members of the group Derrida identifies were (at some stage) philosophers, but Derrida is not merely saying they were happy in their work. He remarks that Deleuze was the one among them who was ‘doing’ philosophy ‘the most gaily, the most innocently’, but then what were the others doing, what will they have loved about philosophy, or what kind of philosophy will they have loved? A provisional answer would be that they loved philosophy’s distress, loved it because it was in distress. They loved, not difficult thoughts, but the difficulty of thinking, and they returned to it again and again.

Ideology for Althusser was a kind of thought beneath thought, a thought that didn’t know it was thinking, and Foucault began The Order of Things with a story from Borges which represented ‘the naked impossibility of thinking that’ – that being the sheer comic heterogeneity of a list found in ‘a certain Chinese encyclopedia’, a classification that wrecked the very idea of classifying. When Barthes used the word ‘argue’, as in ‘argumenter mes humeurs’, he meant something like ‘find arguments for and against but not for the sake of argument’. For the sake, rather, of learning about the movements of the mind. Derrida says Barthes’s conceptual frameworks lasted ‘the time of a book’. They are useful to others but Barthes is the only person they suit perfectly, ‘like an instrument that can’t be lent to anyone’. Writing about Derrida, Emmanuel Levinas said ‘the history of philosophy is probably nothing but a growing awareness of the difficulty of thinking’, which at least tells us what the history of philosophy felt like to some people in 1973, when Levinas wrote the piece. For Levinas, Derrida was both a new talent and a major symptom, a writer who left nothing ‘inhabitable for thought’.

Derrida suggests, again and again, that thought can inhabit all kinds of uninhabitable places, and that that is what it should be doing. When the word ‘deconstruction’ comes up in his later work – usually in half-definitions or refusals to define – it regularly carries this implication. ‘Deconstruction mistrusts proper names.’ ‘The impossible is deconstruction’s affair.’ ‘If there is any deconstruction, it takes place . . . as experience of the impossible.’ ‘The first impulse of what is called “deconstruction” carries it toward this “critique” of the phantasm or the axiom of purity’ – but this is an inhabited, even embraced, purity, that’s why the critique is needed. Some of these maxims may seem a little easy: ‘impossible’ is not a hard word to pronounce, and quite often it evokes only a lyrical or extreme form of difficulty, as when we say a person is impossible, or when Derrida, during a speech, says ‘speaking is impossible.’ But the possibility of the impossible, or the thinking of the unthinkable, are very much philosophy’s business, and even consigning such things to silence is a (now familiar) philosophical gesture. Paul de Man, Derrida says, ‘led one to think the very possibility of reading – and also sometimes the paradox of its impossibility.’ ‘What happens when one thinks and reflects an impossibility? Is this possible?’ Derrida asks this question in relation to Lyotard’s work on the notion of what is ‘worse than death’, and the same essay has what I think is the most provocative expression of what ‘thinking’ might mean in such a context. Lyotard insists that ‘there shall be no mourning,’ and a few sentences later that ‘mourning is never lifted.’ Derrida says he doesn’t know ‘how to interpret’ this dissonance, and immediately translates his inability into a radical impossibility, ‘the impossibility of interpreting’ – the move reminds us that an impossibility is usually an impossibility for someone. Then he writes:

And yet I do not consider this impossibility of interpreting, which is not a hermeneutical impotence, to be an evil. It is the very chance of reading. Beyond all destination, it bespeaks the very destiny or fate of mourning. It offers this destiny over to thinking, specifically to thinking, if that is possible, better than an interpretative decision or an assignable destination could have.

It’s a little risky to lay stress on these sentences without a French text to hand, and this essay, originally a talk given at the Collège Internationale de Philosophie in Paris, is so far published only in English and only in The Work of Mourning. But I’m assuming that the key terms, ‘interpreting’ and ‘thinking’, are not lost to us in the ethnic purity of the French language, and that it is their relation to each other that matters. Let’s grant Derrida his first move. It’s not that he can’t interpret Lyotard’s text and someone else could, it’s that there is something uninterpretable about the text itself. This feature affords ‘the very chance of reading’ – reading migrates from its usual home among interpretations, and becomes the promise of ‘thinking’. But what is ‘thinking’, if it escapes interpretation, or arises only, or at its best, on a sort of wreckage or impasse of interpretation? It’s clear that it’s a practice rather than a product, and that it’s not going to provide us with truth or wisdom or any other of the traditional consolations of philosophy. It can’t be argument, because argument is too close to interpretation, and it probably isn’t speculation, because speculation, although a little more plausible as a synonym, takes us too far into the realms of extrapolation, too far away from whatever difficulty the text is trying to rub our noses in. Would it be tautological to say that ‘thinking’ here means entertaining the difficulty of thinking, worrying about the habitability of the place you’re still living in? If not (or if the tautology has something to say to us), the understanding wouldn’t be new, since this is precisely the activity Derrida finds in Descartes. Derrida claims, contesting Foucault, that Descartes does not say ‘I who think, cannot be mad.’ He says the Cogito proves whatever it proves – an open question – ‘even if I am mad’. Madness makes no difference to the existence of thought, only to its reasonableness or the reliability of its references to the world. Thought is not reason? Reason is thought’s desire or defence. ‘And philosophy,’ Derrida writes, still on the subject of Descartes, ‘is perhaps the reassurance given against the anguish of being mad at the point of greatest proximity to madness’. It would be simply lurid, a form of false pathos, to claim that philosophy can only be this, but it seems dangerous to deny such excursions to philosophy altogether. Even the most pragmatic philosopher is going to have to think about thinking from time to time.

Although any philosopher might prefer not to. In the essay I mentioned earlier, Levinas compares reading Derrida to experiencing the fall of France.

When I read him, I always recall the exodus of 1940. A retreating military unit arrives in an as yet unsuspecting locality, where cafés are open, where the ladies visit the ‘ladies fashion store’, where the hairdressers dress hair and bakers bake; where viscounts meet other viscounts and tell each other stories of viscounts, and where, an hour later, everything is deconstructed and devastated.

Ferraris brings this passage to Derrida’s attention in A Taste of the Secret, and asks him how he feels about it. Derrida, a great admirer of Levinas, says the text ‘is in fact generous in my regard’, but wonders about the image which seems to compare him to the German Army. ‘It’s bizarre, I’d never looked at the text from that angle. What is the unconscious of that image?’ It is a disturbing image, but if we think of Levinas’s phrase about the ‘inhabitable’, it seems as if we need to take the whole situation into account, not just the German Army. First of all the analogy suggests it may be the retreating French Army that does all the damage. In any case, the French Army is there, and so are the unsuspecting locals with their almost Flaubertian devotion to making clichés of themselves. And then, perhaps, there are the Germans. What provokes the image of the fall of France is not Derrida’s Speech and Phenomena, published in 1966, the book Levinas has been reading and is writing about, but the atmosphere Levinas identified at the beginning of his essay, although with a question mark. ‘Are we once again at the end of . . . an unsuspected dogmatism that slumbered in the depths of what we took to be the critical spirit?’ Or more precisely, the image includes both this atmosphere and the arrival of this book. On this model, what looked like thought was just viscounts swapping viscount stories; small wonder a little thinking seemed so destructive.