Tag Archives: jacques derrida

The Gift of Death

Hermetic Library Fellow T Polyphilus reviews The Gift of Death [Amazon (1995), Amazon (2017), Bookshop, Publisher, Local Library] by Jacques Derrida, trans. David Wills.

Derrida Wills The Gift of Death 1995

Derrida Wills The Gift of Death and Literature in Secret

The principal text of reference for Derrida’s Gift of Death is the piece “Is Technological Civilization a Civilization in Decline, and If So Why?” from Jan Patočka’s Heretical Essays on the Philosophy of History, a text concerned to establish a European sense of “responsibility” dependent on Christianity and imperiled in the alleged contemporary Western return to an orgiastic operation of mystery. Derrida highlights the role of the “concern for death” (or “practice of death”: Plato’s melete thanatou) as a linchpin of the individual awareness of responsibility. 

Not overtly siding with Patočka’s diagnosis of modern malaise, Derrida is very attentive to the sort of dialectic genealogy in Patočka’s essay. He particularly focuses on the ways in which the development of this sense of responsibility is also a maintenance and iterative encryption of a secret, through its orgiastic/daemonic, Platonic, and Christian stages. “Because of this incorporation that envelops demonic or orgiastic mystery, philosophy remains a sort of thaumaturgy even as it accedes to responsibility” (15). 

The second chapter has Derrida turning more often directly to Heidegger as a direct influence on Patočka, as well as to Levinas as a critic in the same tradition. In its third chapter, The Gift of Death spends a great deal of attention on Kierkegaard’s Fear and Trembling and sacrificial responsibility in the context of Patočka’s essay. Derrida comes closer, I think, than Kierkegaard does to the real mystery of “the sacrifice of Abraham,” as a failed transmission of the initiation of Isaac. But he uses Kierkegaard’s language to bootstrap into the fourth and final chapter.

Derrida drives toward his conclusion with a set of reflections on the nature and significance of invisibility–the same invisibility of the Greek lord of the dead (aides-Haides), the unspeakable issuer of commands to Abraham, and the “Father” of Jesus “who sees in secret.” Attentive Thelemites may glean some important perspective here on the doctrine of the Knowledge and Conversation of the Holy Guardian Angel in the place of “the heart.” And there is also, here and earlier, worthwhile integration of the concepts of sacrifice, secrecy, and the sacred. 

At various points in the book, Derrida seems temporarily to accept some sort of theological claims, but he is careful to allow not to demand such acceptance from the reader (e.g., 69). And at the very end he invokes Nietzsche’s Genealogy of Morals (which was always behind Patočka’s genealogy of responsibility) as a background for observations about “the reversal and infinitization” that exalts the other (“God,” if you must) into mystery (115). There is, after all, no law beyond Do what thou wilt. The Christian God sacrifices himself “from love (can you believe it?)” taunts Nietzsche. And Derrida drops the mocking tone to ask whether one truly can, leaving me to wonder what such a possibility of dis/belief can portend if love is the law. 

“What does it mean to share a secret?” Derrida asks more than once. Only those who know how to die could tell, and they won’t say.


Hermetic Library Fellow T Polyphilus reviews Spurs: Nietzsche’s Styles / Éperons: Les Styles de Nietzsche [Amazon, Bookshop, Publisher] by Jacques Derrida, trans. Barbara Harlow.

Derrida Harlow Spurs Éperons

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.

The Ear of the Other

Hermetic Library Fellow T Polyphilus reviews The Ear of the Other: Otobiography, Transference, Translation by Jacques Derrida.

Derrida The Ear of the Other

The Ear of the Other is a heterogeneous mix of texts treating the themes of ears, texts, translation, reflection, and gender. The foremost of the component documents is a Derrida lecture entitled “Otobiographies: The Teaching of Nietzsche and the Politics of the Proper Name.” All by itself, this 35 pages would have been worth the trouble of the book. It is in some ways a sequel to Derrida’s other treatment of Nietzsche in Spurs, but “the Teaching of Nietzsche” refers not only to what Nietzsche taught, but also to the event of Nietzsche’s work being taught by others. The context of Nietzsche’s reception by “the Nazi ideologues” is expressly confronted here. The chief Nietzsche text serving as a point of orientation is Ecce Homo, and its “otobiographical” elements serve to create their author more than vice versa, at least as I understand Derrida’s exposition of the conundrum.

Derrida had given the lecture at a 1979 conference at the University of Montreal, and the following parts of the book consist of transcripts from two subsequent “roundtable” discussions at the same conference, organized respectively around the themes of autobiography and translation. The various scholars in dialogue with Derrida in these sessions basically offer mini-lectures to which he responds at length. So much is this the case that each has its own title: Claude Lévesque offers “That Incredible Terrible Thing Which Was Not” on the autobiography topic, for example, and Christie McDonald’s piece on translation is called “The Passage into Philosophy.”

The book ends with a substantial correspondence interview of Derrida by McDonald from 1981, entitled “Choreographies.” The interview is especially helpful, in that it helps to supply a bridge between Spurs and “Otobiographies.” It also revisits “the Teaching of Nietzsche” in the form of Derrida’s subversively sexualizing readings of Heidegger’s interpretation of Nietzsche.

In both the interview and the roundtables there is a great deal of reference to Derrida’s earlier works, such as The Postcard and Glas. There is also some discussion of Derrida’s relationship to the term “deconstruction,” which had come to serve as a general label for his work, outside of his own intention for it. On the whole, there is a real sense of retrospection in this book, as contrasted with some later Derrida volumes that seem to make fewer demands on the reader for familiarity with Derrida’s oeuvre. This book is not an auspicious point of entry into Derrida’s ideas, but it does contain some powerful and revealing developments of them.