Jacques Derrida has always been a thinker of excess. This concern with excess has been evident in many of the contentious claims he has made throughout his intellectual career, such as that the meanings of texts always exceed the intentions of their authors and that time always exceeds the horizon of the present. It now manifests itself in this perilous and untimely meditation on the gift of death, which seeks to show how the event of death always exceeds our attempts - manifest chiefly in the quest of religion, the ultimate reflection on the significance of mortality - to master its meaning and to determine once and for all its sheer uncanny being-there.
In recent years, as Derrida's style has become ever more gnomic and increasingly messianic, he has cultivated a knack for taking a single and singular thought and tying it up to a myriad other questions, resulting in a kind of philosophical fireworks display that is often dazzling and daunting.
This short text is a typical instance of his novel approach. The opening pages quickly establish that Derrida desires to link up the question of death with some of the most pressing and demanding questions of our time, such as the nature of responsibility, the meaning of sacrifice, the possibility of a Christian politics, and the future of Europe. Derrida's sources are wide ranging and cut across tidy historical and philosophical boundaries. He freely discusses and utilises, among others, writings of Jan Patocka - a Czech philosopher and one of the three founding figures of the Charter 77 declaration of human rights - Martin Heidegger, Emmanuel Levinas, S?ren Kierkegaard, Friedrich Nietzsche, Plato, as well as the Hebrew Bible and the New Testament.
What sustains the four series of meditations that make up the book is reflection on the paradoxical nature of the gift of death. A gift is by nature generous (something in excess of a mere present) and that given to us by death contains both promise and danger, like the secret and mystery of a genuine kiss. Instead of placing a closure on the meaning of what is given to human thought and experience, Derrida insists on teasing out and upholding the paradoxes and aporias which structure that thought and experience. Two examples given are the irresolvability of our attempts to resolve history (to end it), attempts that often result in insane acts of grotesque violence, whether the example be a Bosnia or a Rwanda, and the irresponsibility that is an intrinsic part of being responsible. In speaking of this latter aporia, Derrida once again utilises Kierkegaard's recognition of the madness of the instant of decision, that is, that it is always given "without why". As Derrida points out, there cannot be responsibility without a rupturing of tradition, authority, orthodoxy or doctrine - both dissident and inventive (as the case of a dissident such as Patocka so readily testifies).
A radical questioning of the aporetic nature of the gift of death along these lines ultimately leads Derrida to question the very possibility of sacrifice, such as the sacrifice of one life for another (such a sacrifice may be for another but it can never be a substitute for that other's own death).
To triumph over death, whether through dying for oneself or for another - perhaps by staring it in the face and tarrying with it - is an illusory task, for death does not lend itself to mastery. Death's giving is always excessive, undecidable, fatal. The secret and the mystery of death continue to live on. The mystery of Christ's death on the cross represents the death of mystery if it is given and taken as an invitation to eternal life.
This essay is being promoted as Derrida's first extended thesis on religion, and in an explicit, exoteric sense that is what is on offer. But the aporetic quality of his reflection also needs to be appreciated, otherwise one will miss the ultimate paradox of the essay, namely, Derrida's rightful claim that one can only think and stage the possibility of religion without religion and irreligiously. Religion must necessarily be sacrificed on the blasphemous altar of the aporia.
Keith Ansell Pearson is senior lecturer and director of graduate research in philosophy, University of Warwick.
The Gift of Death
Author - Jacques Derrida
ISBN - 0 226 14305 8
Publisher - University of Chicago Press
Price - £15.25
Pages - 115