Derrida died last night, the 8th October. If I were less of a miserable hack, I would be able to write fittingly of Derrida’s life, remembering his own generosity in writing of others, close to him, who had died and the generosity, too, of his own writing, voluminous and yet each time specific.
What did it mean to read and write while Derrida was alive? Alongside him (he was always there, on the other side of Channel or on the other side of the world. He was in Moscow, Shanghai, Sao Paulo ... and sometimes in Britain, too, passing through one colloquim or another)? There was always another book by him waiting to be read, always another in the great avalanche. And if there was nothing translated into English, more were waiting in French. If you were disappointed, or felt that he had repeated himself, or that, despite his intentions, he was becoming formulaic, there were always waves of commentators to challenge his view. Who could have dreamt, on reading Faith and Knowledge , of Hent de Vries’ great mediations? Doubtless more recent essays, like those collected in Without Alibi or The Eyes of the University will find their advocates and expositors. For the rest of us, there are old favourites: Writing and Difference, Monolingualism, The Gift of Death, Margins of Philosophy, Signsponge ...
For myself, lazy reader that I am, I loved his interviews; Points is a marvellous collection; Negotiations, The Taste of the Other, Echographies and For What Tomorrow are also fine. I loved to read about how he wrote, the tasks he set himself each time he began to write, meeting the challenge of writing anew, according to the occasion and according to the authors whose work solicited him. Each time he would try to incorporate the signature of the other, the author upon whom he was working, into his own signature. Each time, he would resist the urge to pronounce upon an oeuvre, to reach a definitive conclusion; he worked from the corner, he began in the middle: it was Kant’s neglected writings on the university which caught his attention, or Nietzsche’s lectures on education; it was the theme of hospitality he focused on in Levinas, or the topic of testimony in Blanchot.
What of his books, the books themselves? Sometimes, it is true, they were a disappointment. The heaviness of that disappointment attested to our expectations: we wanted more from him, sometimes, because we knew he had more he could give. We took him for granted, perhaps, for there were always more books, and no doubt there are many more to come. I am thinking of the transcripts of the seminars themselves of which only fragments have appeared (the massive Politics of Friendship is, I think, only one eighth of the whole seminar series on friendship).
I know for myself that I avoided taking issue with his work because he was perpetually under attack from Analytic philosophers. This is my weakness: a kind of paranoia prevents me from being able to turn on those philosophers whose work, it seems to me, needs protecting. Whenever I read a book by Derrida I feel as though I have committed a great transgression, as though I had committed a crime (at the university I studied, Hegel was deemed unphilosophical; we were not allowed near Nietzsche, let alone Husserl. At that university we focused for the most part on texts published in the English speaking world over the last twenty years. Nothing older, nothing French or German, nothing ‘Continental’).
Yes, I am too paranoid. But didn’t Derrida ask for a kind of protection from those who read him? Wasn’t there always something of Derrida which felt in need of protection, as though his place in the academy, in the history of philosophy, were never secure enough? I’ve heard this from a number of individuals: Derrida was a man who needed appreciation, just as I have also heard of his dislike of stuffy academic protocol; invited to speak on a stage at one university, taking his place with other staff, he chose to speak from the audience, where the students were gathered. I saw him speak on only one occasion; I was disturbed at his patience: his interlocutors were facile, they barely knew his work, but he was courteous, too polite. I asked myself: why was he here, in this ridiculous town in this dreadful part of the country? Why come here and meet them, his old antagonists …? Perhaps I will learn more about his desire to travel from Counterpath.
Still, it was interesting to see him: a handsome man, dark skinned, shorter than I thought he might be and more stocky. He was graciousness itself; elaborately courteous and even-tempered, speaking with great fluency and amazing recollective power. I have marvelled at his personal history: his office was near Paul Celan’s; for a time, Blanchot would visit him there, then Genet. He frequented a salon, I forget who ran it, where he encountered Sarraute; then there were the Tel Quel years. He shared a summer house with Lyotard, I think, and was always on good terms with Deleuze. Wouldn’t you have loved for him to have spoken of his friendships with these figures as he had spoken of his relationship with Althusser (I am thinking of the interview ‘Politics and Friendship’)?
Best avoid the obituaries in the papers tomorrow. The boorish British Media have rarely published anything favourable upon what is called Continental philosophy. I cannot forget, on Deleuze’s death, the praise of that stupid book by the faux scientists in the Guardian beneath a picture of Gilles Deleuze himself, that great man, that great philosopher: the picture where he stands by a mirror in a fedora. Doubtless the mocking of Derrida will continue tomorrow.