Hermetic Library Fellow T Polyphilus reviews Spurs: Nietzsche’s Styles / Éperons: Les Styles de Nietzsche [Amazon, Bookshop, Publisher] by Jacques Derrida, trans. Barbara Harlow.
Spurs (Eperons in the original French) is Derrida’s treatment of Nietzsche’s styles, which is to say his stylus, which is rather his phallus, approached through its apparent complement, Nietzsche’s representation of “woman.” Nietzsche is justifiably famous for both the seeming lucidity of his prose and the archness of his wordplay; Derrida is justly notorious for the opacity of his prose and the profundity of his wordplay. (The hieratically arcane Pierre Klossowski also deserves some mention, in consequence of Derrida’s reliance on his translations of Nietzsche.) This combination cannot but awesomely challenge the stoutest of translators, and my hat is off to Barbara Harlow for even attempting the English contents of this volume. Still, as if in admission of the practical impossibility of a translator doing full justice to the text, the original French is reproduced here in parallel.
An introduction is furnished by Stefano Agosti, who insists that “If one is going to speak of Derrida’s ‘text’, one can, finally, but re-state it, only prolong it” (25). Accordingly, Agosti tries to extend and outdo Derrida’s verbal convolutions, to the point where the English translation (I cannot vouch for the French) becomes a nearly unreadable blow to the head. (The lexical touchstone of Agosti’s introduction is the coup.)
Despite the elegance of the design, with its tallish page dimensions and enigmatic drawings by Francois Loubrieu, I fault this edition severely for its typography. In the English text (the French seems better managed) there are routine substitutions of em dashes for hyphens, hyphens for en dashes, and so forth. Especially in the context of Derrida’s inventive vocabulary and his sometimes halting, digressive presentation, these confusions of punctuation are unkindnesses to the reader. Likewise, the use in both the French and the English translation of French double-angle quote marks, and only French double-angle quote marks, creates serious hazards of reading. Spurs often finds Derrida quoting Nietzsche quoting another — even if this last is merely scare quotes — and these nested quotes quickly become entangled, so that the compounded intertext sometimes requires a diligent reader to go back to the start of the paragraph and count the marks inward to the verbiage at stake. This last process is hardly assisted by the short lines, the lack of either indentations or line spacing at the paragraph breaks, and the absence of full justification. (The text is merely left-justified.) And parentheses are an instrument of abuse similar to the quotation marks.
But intellectual frustration is in many ways the goal of the book. Ultimately, Spurs is concerned with the undecidability of signification and the ways in which texts undergo their loss of contexts. These themes are implicitly demonstrated throughout, becoming gradually more overt, and fully explicit only in the penultimate section on “Abysses of truth” and a sort of coda: ” ‘I have forgotten my umbrella’.” At the last, Derrida insists that his own writing (like Nietzsche’s) is “indecipherable … cryptic and parodying” (137). The disingenuous denial of the anamnesis of the umbrella is a failure to forget the phallus, an exposure of the simultaneous ubiquity and absence of sexual difference. Read it if you must.