MARIO PERNIOLA, JACQUES DERRIDA
Remembering Derrida, in "SubStance" (Univ. of California), 2005, n.1, issue 106.
I both read and met Jacques Derrida in 1966, and immediately judged
him to be a thinker of great importance. I was also among the first to
write about him in the Rivista di Estetica (1966 no. 3), in an article entitled
"Grammatology and Aesthetics." De la Grammatologie would come out
the following year, but I had read and studied the essay (published in
two parts in Critique, December 1965 and January 1966), which anticipated
the central thesis of the work. During this period, he and I used to meet at
the café "Aux Deux Magots" in St-Germain-des-Prés in Paris. He was
unhappy for many reasons. He felt both underappreciated by the
philosophical establishment, and behind in his academic career. What is
more, he was aggrieved that Critique had sold only 3,000 copies. I
remember a man who was very angry with the world. I, too, shared this
sentiment, but the fact of being eleven years younger than he allowed me
to feel part of the wave of student protests which, coming from the United
States, had reached France.
The events of 1968 separated us, but I continued to read his work in
a systematic manner, and indeed to receive from him affectionately
dedicated copies of his publications until 1972. His influence on my
thinking grew significantly during the 1970s and '80s, as is evident in
my books Ritual Thinking: Sexuality, Death, World, (New York: Humanity
Books 2001), Sex Appeal of the Inorganic (Continuum: London-New York
2004) and Art and its Shadow (Continuum: London-New York 2004). In
particular, the central ideas of "ritual without content" and "inorganic
sexuality" may be seen as developments of Derrida's polemic against
logocentrism and vitalism.
I saw Derrida again after many years, in Trento, Italy, toward the
end of the 1980s and, afterwards, on various occasions in Paris during
the 1990s. He seemed finally tranquil both in himself and with the world.
In the meantime, I had never completely stopped reading his work, albeit
in a fragmentary and irregular way. I realized that, with respect to his
earlier works, some changes had occurred in the development of his
thought. These developments proved very evident among the youngest
of scholars and admirers. Two things astonished me: the presence of a
decided emphasis on ethical topics, and a certain tendency on his part to
engage in a sort of mimetic rivalry with media-based communications
by means of an immense production of conference papers and articles.
Furthermore, in the work of his most recent followers, I no longer
recognized the Derrida I had studied 20 years previously, especially when
these adherents used deconstruction as a type of sophistry, an end in
itself. It is from precisely this period that I have the memory of a generous
man who, after a dinner with friends in Paris, had to walk in the rain to
his car in order to drive miles to his home in the suburbs. It seemed a real
scandal that a philosopher of such deserved worldly renown did not
have a driver.
The third point at which I thought intensely of Derrida was a short
time before his death, when I read his response to the question, "Who do
you think you are?" ("Pour qui vous prenez-vous?") asked by La Quinzaine
Littéraire (n. 882, 1-31 August 2004) of a hundred or so writers and thinkers.
Derrida's answer entitled "Le survivant, le sursis, le sursaut," may be
considered as a type of last will and testament. What struck me most
was the sense of dissatisfaction and unhappiness that pervades this text.
Having written and said so much, Derrida here has the impression of not
having been understood. After so many essays, books and conferences
dedicated to his thought, he tends to believe that we have only just begun
to read him. He writes: "I am grasped before I get to grasp myself"—a
sign of his generosity, of his tendency to give of himself to others, to seek
to conform to the image they have of him. Nevertheless, one can sense in
this text a malaise that does not derive simply from subjective or personal
circumstances, but is rooted in his position as a thinker who is successful
in contemporary society. I think that it is on this malaise that we must
reflect. I was struck by the memory of another thinker whom I used to
frequent during the second half of the sixties, a thinker who had adopted
a cultural strategy opposed to that of Derrida: Guy Debord, who totally
shunned the media, the institutions and the public in general, and whose
success was posthumous. But the path followed by Debord was no better
than that chosen by Derrida.
Translated by Deborah Amberson
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