The internationally renowned French thinker Jacques Derrida¨the New York Times once exaggeratedly called him "perhaps the world's most famous philosopher"¨is, as his readers know, interested not only in the traditional philosophical topics of life, death, and all the rest, but he's also and especially interested in the problems of speaking and writing about those subjects. This quickly becomes apparent in his new book about the activity and process of mourning. For example, if a friend dies and you're called upon to say something at the funeral or to write an obituary, how do you deal with the difficulty of speaking in the midst of grief? How to speak or write at all when, in a sense, the friend's death always leaves one "speechless," beyond words? How to speak in such a way as to really honour the dead and not to egotistically pre-empt the departed one with your own sorrow?
The Work of Mourning profoundly addresses both the psychological problems of speaking in grief¨a kind of intellectual self-help manual¨as well as the broader aesthetic issue of the eulogy. As in the famous opening phrase of Allen Ginsberg's poem, "Howl"¨"I saw the best minds of my generation..."¨Derrida also talks and writes about "the best minds" of a generation, a couple of them, as in Ginsberg, "destroyed by madness," but most of them flourishing, though surely mortal, creators of postmodern thought. Since the term "deconstruction" is often used to refer to Derrida's particular style and methods of investigating speech, writing, language, and texts, it should be noted that in this book he's primarily focussed on reconstructing the lives and writings of his friends. Derrida's collected remembrances of the dead include such figures as Roland Barthes, Paul de Man, Michel Foucault, Gilles Deleuze, Emmanuel Levinas and Jean-Francois Lyotard.
Derrida could no doubt write an entire essay or book on the philosophy of book reviews, and even the problem of how to begin them. Let me undertake this one, in the spirit of Derrida, by clearing away a tangle of this reviewer's idiosyncrasies. First, I usually dislike books that aren't really books, but volumes put together by editors on behalf of an author, especially when the writer is alive and not in need of "posthumous" support. But Derrida's The Work of Mourning is an exception, and a particularly beautiful one. It's not a book Derrida has written; it is a book constructed, from various essays of his about dead friends, by two admiring and intelligent editors, Pascale-Anne Brault and Michael Naas, both of DePaul University. They're aided in this elegantly conceived project by Kas Saghafi, also from DePaul, who provides useful brief biographies and bibliographies for all the people Derrida writes about.
Second, even though I work as a philosophy teacher, I've tended to avoid Derrida, perhaps put off by the reputation that his ideas and language are difficult and inaccessible. What little I've known of Derrida up to now, I must confess, has come from a few readable, friendly and amusing essays about him by his colleague, the American philosopher Richard Rorty. Rorty's essays about Derrida are worth reading in themselves as an overview of why the French deconstructionist is great, but of course, it's not the same thing as reading Derrida.
Finally, The Work of Mourning is an opportunity to "catch up" with our own intellectual times. Not only do these essays give us a poignant and warm-hearted Derrida, but they also work pretty well as an introduction to some of the best thinkers of our era.
The first of Derrida's memorials, which span a 20-year period, is about Roland Barthes, the French thinker who taught us, among many other things, to "read" the "signs" of everyday life for meanings more interesting than their obvious, mundane significance. Barthes' name is associated with a host of intellectual innovations in the 1960s and 70s: the discipline of signs known as "semiotics," the relationship between writing and desire embodied in his notion of "the pleasure of the text," and even with a revival of interest in the language of love (he wrote a best-seller in the 1970s called A Lover's Discourse.
As it happens, I know Barthes' writing pretty well, better than that of any of the other of Derrida's friends whose deaths he commemorates. So, I confess that I found myself reading this piece in memory of Barthes (who died in 1980), perhaps unfairly, as something of a test of how much I could trust Derrida as a guide to other minds, other people. Derrida's fame, combined with the difficulty of his thought, has made him the target of considerable criticism, distrust, and perhaps envy on the part of nervous, often self-defensive commentators. His wonderful obsession with multiple meanings invites parody. I know. I've done it myself, referring to some excessive passage of writing by him as sheer "Derri-dada."
But if you've read and have some affection for Roland Barthes, and you read Derrida's eulogistic essay about him, you can't help but discover that with Derrida you're in the company not only of a superb intelligence, but of someone who deeply knows and loves the work and person that he's writing about. In short, whatever arrogant suspicions I had about Derrida were quickly dissipated. As a reader, I could relax and simply learn from Derrida¨and share his sorrow on these various occasions of the death of friends. In "works of mourning," trust matters because, as Derrida himself points out, in the presence of a friend's death, we're concerned to stay faithful to that friend, to not "betray" his or her memory.
In almost all of these essays, Derrida offers a close, appreciative, instructive reading of the work of the now-dead friend, often an analysis of something the friend was working on near the end of his or her life, or something the friend had to say about death itself. In each of the essays, Derrida recognizes the irreparable fact of the friend's absence. In his essay about the critic Paul de Man, he cites the French phrase "la mort dans l'ame" (death in the soul), which he experiences "because from now on we are destined to speak 'of' Paul de Man, instead of speaking 'to' and 'with' him... whereas the most vivid desire... would be to speak, still, to Paul, to hear him and to respond to him." Derrida declares, here as elsewhere, "Speaking is impossible, but so too would be silence or absence or a refusal to share one's sadness."
Readers familiar with the work of Barthes, Foucault and Lyotard will be able to confirm the acuity of Derrida's reading of them here, but even philosophically literate readers will find themselves learning a good deal about other thinkers¨Louis Marin, Sarah Kofman, Max Loreau among them¨of whom they've heretofore only distantly heard. The Work of Mourning is a brilliant portrait of a generation, as well as a reflection on the idea of generations.
The unifying theme of the book, however, is its consideration of the difficulties of mourning. We must speak even though we're at a "loss for words." There's the danger of using the dead person, despite one's best intentions, for one's own ends or purposes. Personal testimony about the departed friend courts the narcissistic danger of taking pity on oneself instead of the deceased. Even seeking forgiveness from the dead can be an act in bad faith, an attempt at achieving a good conscience for oneself.
One of the most difficult questions of all is, Where is the dead friend? Leaving aside theological beliefs that the departed is looking on from heaven, we would like, on the occasion of mourning, to dedicate our thoughts to the dead friend, for our words to reach him or her, for that person to somehow "be there." Yet, as Derrida irrevocably recognizes in his essay on Barthes, those thoughts "will no longer reach him, and this must be the starting point of my reflection." So where do such thoughts go? Are they only "for him in me"? Do the dead only exist "in us"?
Further, every friendship is shadowed by death. The "law" of friendship is that one of you will die, one of you will go before the other; thus, mourning begins before death, and we imagine a world without the friend or without ourselves. It is almost unbearable. What's more, since there is, most often, a series of deaths, we are called on, each time, to respond to an absolutely unique event.
Do I have to say that Derrida's The Work of Mourning is not in the least a morbid book, but rather a completely 'vivid' text, i.e., a living body of thought? Derrida shares his sorrow, and we experience "the reader's grief." In this instance, it is grief I'm grateful for because, among other things, it is such a powerful reminder of what we might live for. ˛
Stan Persky teaches philosophy at Capilano College in Vancouver, and is the author of Buddy's: Meditations on Desire, an homage to Roland Barthes. His recent book, On Kiddie Porn, co-authored with John Dixon, won a Donner Prize for best Canadian books on public policy.