Man with a mission impossible

November 12, 2004

Derrida's refusal to take short cuts or to simplify allowed him to cast a fresh eye on the familiar

Three philosophers kick off a five-page look at Derrida's legacy with thoughts on how he transformed the customs and practices of a discipline

In the days following Derrida's death, the public was given many potted accounts of his method of reading. Roger Scruton told us, for instance, that for Derrida "there is no such thing as meaning - it always eludes us and therefore anything goes". No doubt this explains, for such commentators, how Derrida managed to write some 70 books - if anything can mean anything, presumably it doesn't take much effort to churn out readings.

Others tell another story. Words don't mean what they appear to mean; there are hidden significances that may contradict surface sense (and the intentions of the author) and that the skilled deconstructionist can uncover. Not surprisingly, this version of Derridean reading was often accompanied by the comment that there was nothing new in it: it was basically the same as the "practical criticism" or "new criticism" of I.JA. Richards, William Empson or William K. Wimsatt.

Both these versions of Derrida's way with texts are implausible, though many otherwise scrupulous thinkers seem to accept one or other of them.

Derrida's meticulously detailed and strenuously argued engagements with the writings of a wide range of philosophers hardly suggests doubts about their meaningfulness; and his work could not have had the impact it did on literary studies if it was just more of the same.

If there is one lesson Derrida leaves us with, it is that short cuts in thinking are not merely bad intellectual practice, they are ethically suspect. And his work is shot through with an awareness of the dangers of simplification.

The importance to Derrida of a number of literary writers - Shakespeare, Joyce, Kafka, Stéphane Mallarmé, Paul Célan and Hélène Cixous among them - is that their work stages, in vivid and engaging form, the complications and indirections of language as it engages with the world we live in, pushing to the limit what it - and thought - can do.

Derrida does not deconstruct literary works in the way he deconstructs works of philosophy, teasing out their dependence on longstanding assumptions about meaning and presence. Rather, he traces and highlights their own deconstruction of ways of thinking we take for granted. Like any good literary critic, Derrida's aim is always to do justice to what is unique and surprising in the work. And his essays on literary works cannot be imitated: they are unique responses that call for an answering inventiveness. The value of reading and re-reading them lies in the very unpredictability of the fresh thinking this can generate.

These literary essays do not form a separate compartment within Derrida's oeuvre, however; their concerns are continuous with those raised in his readings of philosophical works and in his more general and often topical discussions. The legacy he leaves students of literature - and writers - comes as much from these other writings as it does from his engagements with literary works.

More specifically, however, he threw light on a number of the concepts that feature in our daily lives, and hence in our works of literature, bringing out the difficulty and complexity of familiar notions. What would it mean to give, really and truly, without any ulterior motive? What is an act of true forgiveness? How could one be wholly hospitable? His answers - or rather his rephrasings of and delvings into the questions - are of immediate relevance to anyone writing about literature concerned with these issues, or for that matter anyone writing literature with these matters at its heart.

Pressed for a definition of deconstruction, Derrida said it was "a certain experience of the impossible". This is not the deliberate mystification some instant pundits have taken it to be, but arises from a thorough reconsideration of our habitual opposition between the possible and the impossible. Giving, forgiving, being hospitable, loving are, Derrida argues, among the many impossible acts that figure in our understanding of one another and of ourselves. Whether they ever happen is not something we can know.

But as formative impulses - understood in the fullest way imaginable, pushed as far as our thinking can take them - they colour the most important things we desire, do and achieve. Any lesser way of imagining them reduces them to the knowable, the predictable, the calculable. And some of the most potent imaginings of them happens in literature, because the literary work, understood as Derrida wanted us to understand it, is not an object but an impossible event, lived through uniquely by each reader, regardless of what the simplifiers and summarisers may say.

Derek Attridge is professor of English at York University.

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