The Wounding Truth: Or the Corps-à-Corps of Tongues (1)

Évelyne Grossman—Although you say at times that you are not very “communitarian”, how would you describe the trans-national, trans-linguistic “community” of your readers? Yet the members of such a community do not resemble one another and often hardly have anything to do with one another. It is neither a group nor a school of thought, yet there is something about your way of thinking that ties them together. Might it have something to do with this “community of social déliaison [unbinding]” which you define in Politics of Friendship?

Jacques Derrida—You’ve described the situation quite well. Were I to do so myself, I would clearly be cautious—as you yourself were—in using the word ‘community’. It is true, however, that something—I don’t know if one can say assembles or resembles—something at any rate resembles, for several decades now, an affinity, a shared destiny or duty among writers, university students, and intellectuals coming from foreign cultures or writing in very different languages. They are often friends, themselves authors of original works and at times authors-translators. For quite some time now this has represented an ongoing source of astonishment, reflection and new experience. A source of joy and pleasure. I try to understand the hidden, practically clandestine story of what is going on there, of what happens by way of these languages that are often nearly untranslatable between one another, or are translatable but only with great difficulty. One of the paradoxes is that I write in a language I take to be very French, one that is as idiomatic and hence as untranslatable as possible. And yet I have more, dare I say lucid and generous, readers abroad than in France. I wonder why Egyptians, Canadians, Turks, Russians, Chinese, Japanese, Serbs, or Indians have a sharper, or say more attentive, or at least friendlier, approach to my writing than most, if this word still has meaning, of those belonging to a certain French public. This is clearly due to the nature and form of what I write, but also to a difference in university culture and structure, in institutional history and sense of the public space. Although I don’t have a very elaborate response, let me say that this question, like that of the problem of language, writing and translation, is always at the center of my work.
Increasingly, as I write, I realize that the majority of my best readers are English-speaking, Spanish-speaking, German-speaking or even Egyptians or Turks. One must first consider this phenomenon: language, the literary institution, the philosophical institution, the junction of these two, since what I write is always on the border between the two of them. And then also publishing and the media. How do these junctions work in each culture, in each country? Take the United States, for example. It’s often said, unfairly I think, that I’m better received in the United States than anywhere else. That’s not true. Certainly better than in France, but not any better than in Germany, Italy or Spain. In the United States, for example, at universities, in literature departments, one can teach very philosophical subjects. I rarely taught in Philosophy departments in the United States, but almost always in Literature or Comparative Literature departments, in the Humanities as they say, where I teach what I teach here in France on Hegel, Kant or on others, or on literary works as well. It’s possible to do so in the United States. As far as I know, it isn’t possible in France. This creates students and intellectuals who have a more open philosophical-literary culture than their counterparts in France. The same is also true in the fields of law or architecture: in the United States, one can teach theoretical topics like those I write on in the schools of law, architecture or theater, where there is considerable debate over some of my texts. Something unimaginable or hardly imaginable in France. And something similar happens in Russia, too (and I underline Russia, rather than the USSR), or in India as well (where some taxi drivers, I’m told, have heard of “deconstruction” and even know the names of authors associated with that “thing”). There is a kind of “popularity”–if I can use that term, but I think it’s the right one–an unbelievable “popularity” for these texts which are yet so French in their own way, and which in France one describes as “difficult”, “hermetic”, “exoteric”, “elitist”: a “popularity” which is incommensurate with what happens here in France. Over and above the kind of sociological analyses I’m quite fond of, an empirical sociology of what’s happening in Paris—personal, university, editorial, journalistic rivalries, problems of the media, etc., analyses we can all carry out—over and above these problems of empirical sociology, there are deeper things that explain this difference and what you called a “community without community”. These friends, readers or researchers, who are interested in my work, at times know one another, meet one another in seminars, but frequently don’t know each other and do not have at all the same approach. For each case it would be necessary to analyze the specificity of this strange milieu which is not a community, but which nevertheless maintains a shared reference to my own texts or my teaching, as well as an attitude of resistance to the predominant culture, to the predominant university culture. It is thus also a kind of counter-culture. In the end, what they have in common—a common destiny, if you will—is the same kind of enemy as I have: it brings us together. It is not a community but an almost clandestine destiny in which they recognize themselves and one another. If I were to work and write seriously on this topic, the essential issue would have to do with the question of language and with my own relationship to the French language. It is an irreducibly idiomatic relationship, as untranslatable as possible: a relationship that, paradoxically, rather than discouraging foreign readers, draws them in, interests them, appeals to them or stimulates them in their own language. That is to say, in their way of thinking, in their own institutional and political commitments. In order to answer your question, one area of examination, which I won’t cover here since it would be too improvised, would be to regard my experience with or treatment of the French language, the only language I write in and also the only one I speak in (even if at times I teach in English, though without the level of sophistication I would like). This would already have all the elements necessary for discouraging non-French speakers. But exactly the opposite occurs. A fact that at once astonishes me, but also gives me, as I was saying, great pleasure. It is also true that (is it a sign?) in my life, as one says, most of my friends are not French—and in friendship there is a certain complicity of interests, in work, in writing, in thinking. My best friends at the university are foreigners; I have very few friends in the French university milieu. Of course, I do have French friends, but much fewer in comparison.

EG—I initially wanted to dedicate this issue of this journal Europe to a single area of your work, which would have been, “Derrida and politics”. But I soon realized that it’s hardly desirable nor even possible to try to reduce or channel the variety of questions you’ve addressed. Each contributor thus focused on one aspect of your work that he or she wanted to write on. What is it that brings all “your” themes together–politics, the relationship between literature and philosophy, question of dreams, specters, the gift, hospitality; the “more than one” language, sexual difference? if indeed it is necessary to bring them together, in what way do these apparently diverse themes resemble you? In other words, rather than speaking in terms of “deconstruction”, “différance”, or disfigurement, would it be possible to say that this issue of Europe constitutes, in a certain way, your portrait, the portrait of a philosopher?

JD—Yes, of course. I haven’t yet read the texts, but I also hope that a certain dissimilarity, a heterogeneity, reconfigures what you just called “my portrait”. This is usually what happens, and I would be the last to complain about it. When I was talking earlier about that counter-cultural experience that gathers without ties, that brings together all these friends throughout the world, I was defining a political attitude, an attitude with respect to politics. One can say that in “deconstruction”, or at least in my work, there was from the very outset, if not a politics, at least an attention towards the political thing. It orients all my work. It is only during the last decade, over the last 12 or 13 years more or less, that it became clearer since I had to give it more recognizable signs, in Politics of Friendship, in Specters of Marx, or in other texts, on hospitality, etc. However, it would be easy to show that the premises of these texts are present from the very beginning, in my very first texts, whatever the subject matter: property, appropriation or sovereignty, for example. I am currently quite interested in sovereignty, but one can already find the premises to this question in Of Grammatology or in Writing and Difference. My interest had already begun well before that period that some in the United States call the “ethical turn” or the “political, ethico-political turn.” It is not a turn. I can’t deny that there is a new stage, a new mise en scène, a new insistence on things that can be identified as political, but all this began much earlier.
What links those who read my work, despite the interruptions between cultures and despite the distance, is a way of raising the question of politics and doing it with a stance that is, despite all else, one of dissidence or resistance. This can take on many different forms, depending on whether one is in Egypt or the United States. But they all share a kind of political, or socio-political, non-conformism. It is in this sense that one could speak of, if one likes the word, a certain “community”. This more recent, or at least less old, emphasis on a more identifiable political theme compared to earlier years, is undoubtedly explained—in teaching and in publications—by two things.
On the one hand, it seemed to me necessary to follow a certain course of thought, of a deconstructive type, in order to prepare a new formulation of a question of politics before jumping directly into these issues as they were conventionally coded. This preliminary work on deconstruction was necessary, but was not done in 1968-1970, a period in which my activities on the Left were known even though I had not written a politically coded text. What happened afterwards, beginning with the latter part of the 1980’s and the early 1990’s, was that I felt I could write things that were in line with my earlier premises. I think there is a certain consistency here. For example, traces of the theme of spectrality, which was so important for me in Specters of Marx, are found much earlier, and not only in the fictional work (or the application of a theory of fiction) titled The Post Card, written at the end of the 1970s. I myself am quite surprised when on those rare occasions I reread some of my books: I find all of this once again. Spectrality was always there, in some form or other. So, beginning at the end of the 1980’s and in the early 1990’s, I felt there wouldn’t be any theoretical or philosophical ambiguity in my approach to ethico-political questions.
On the other hand, the geopolitical changes and the urgency of the situation led me to write. I could describe several of these changes, but will talk about only one, which concerns hospitality: the political questions of emigration, exile, have since then become more urgent in France and I have addressed them in my seminars. Would I have written Specters of Marx if there hadn’t been, following the fall of the communist states, this overly rapid disaffection with Marx himself, this turn away from, the shrugging off of all that was Marxist, all of which I found quite suspect? And would I have written Specters of Marx if I hadn’t been invited to America by American (and somewhat international) Marxists to speak on Marx? Specters of Marx was at first a conference given in California. At that time I spoke of Marx in what was certainly an ambiguous, but fundamentally positive way; I took the Marxist discourse quite seriously, something I couldn’t have done—clearly, I had read Marx a long time ago—at the time when the field was occupied by dogmatic Marxist enthusiasts whom I didn’t want to fight, let alone join. While in California, I suddenly realized that there were no longer any Marxists, or at least very few of them, and found that situation to be politically false, unfair and dangerous on a global level. I saw it as an intellectual and political resignation. I therefore wrote this book which was ambiguous with respect to Marx, but in which I reaffirm some of my political positions in the analysis of the global situation, as well as a number of other arguments that I won’t summarize here.
I would say something similar, if not identical, regarding those questions that are rather ethical, such as the theme of the gift, hospitality, and secrets. This also goes a long way back and was only brought out much later in recent decades. But going back to the root of your question about community—this is a political experience. It is not a shared politics, it is clearly not a program, but the concern for thinking once again about politics, the State, the nation, international law, the concept of borders, of sovereignty, multiculturalism, multilingualism, etc. They all have this in common; we all have this in common. I think that traces of this are found, not only in my work; but what is it that ties together all those who belong without belonging to this community even in texts that are labeled as being political: for example, in the works of poets like Celan or Artaud, but in their own work, on their own ground. There are many women in this community—this is an aspect that needs to be noted, one that is not, in my view, insignificant. I have a lot more good readers among women than among men, if I can say such a thing without simplifying too much; and in my view, this is a phenomenon to be examined. These friends, both men and women, are themselves writers. Most of them have their own writings, each quite different from the other, and they carry out the same type of work in their own culture, in their own institutional setting—works unknown in France. It saddens me to see that very good books coming out of these countries cannot make it past the French border. First, there is the editorial barrier: translating a theoretical work into French is becoming more and more difficult. Then there is the general cultural, and often university-borne, barrier—though not always, one mustn’t generalize since it depends on the discipline—but arising from the university as well. It is a limitation of French culture that pains me and that one must, I believe, denounce since the delay in translation, or the lack of interest at any rate, for those areas in which I work, compared to the extremely important things happening abroad, are part of the framework we are talking about and which ultimately explains why you had to draw on foreign authors.

EG—Yes, but it is also what makes up the richness of these approaches and this portrait… I want to ask you now about the transmission of a work. On two recent occasions you raised this question: regarding Blanchot and Hélène Cixous. Regarding Blanchot, you write in The Work of Mourning* that “Blanchot did not gain a following, yet he said what he had to say on speech and on pedagogy,” and you go on to say that he left us a “heritage that cannot be appropriated. ” (2) As for Hélène Cixous, at your conference published under the title Genèses, genealogies, genres et le génie (Genesis, genealogies, genres and genius), you refer to the “genius” of a way of writing that “consists in bringing out, giving space to, giving birth to the work as an event, by paradoxically breaking off with all genealogy, all genesis and all genres. ”(3) Is one to understand by this (without, of course, wanting to assimilate two completely different writings, that of Cixous and Blanchot) something like a transmission without filiation, one that’s outside of genealogy?

JD—Before answering that question more directly, I want to reconstruct the context in which Blanchot expressed his mistrust, his suspicion, of pedagogical discourse. I believe it had to do with Hegel. According to Blanchot, the word ‘pedagogy’ presupposed the possibility of a discourse that is continuous, consistent, uninterrupted, ultimately a monologue. This is what literary thinking and writing couldn’t adapt to. He often juxtaposed aphorism, fragments, to the era. We later discussed the issue of the fragment. I told him that I had written somewhere that I mistrusted the notion of fragment since it implied once again the totality, and he took it into consideration. He wrote, he expressed regret, regarding the word ‘fragment’. In any case, he contrasted a certain uninterrupted speech with the monological continuity of philosophical and pedagogical discourse. One of the many differences between Blanchot and Cixous is that Blanchot never taught what he spoke. He respected professors but he was at the same time surprised that one could speak like that, that one could hold conferences, for example. Not only teach: hold conferences. The same was true of my friend Genet, who one day told me, “But aren’t you ashamed of speaking like that, of holding conferences, giving lectures!” He said it laughing, but still: “Aren’t you ashamed…!” For these writers, thinkers, creators, writing was irreconcilable with pedagogical, public, conferential speech. Hélène Cixous also writes what can only be called “literature”, and yet she has always taught. I attended, and sometimes took part in, some sessions of her seminar; I have heard recordings of others. She teaches in a way that is unlike her writing without being completely foreign to her writing and to what interests her in writing. And so the question you asked regarding transmission…

EG—Yes, whether or not transmission without genealogy is possible…

JD—Generally speaking, I believe in the inevitable and legitimate necessity of transmission, that is to say of tradition, translation, transition. Even if Blanchot did not gain a following, even if it is difficult to teach his work, there is a transmission and transference of his work (one could even say on his work). The reading is this: even if it doesn’t necessarily take the form of the doctrine to be taught, of the system to be applied or respected, there is transmission. Blanchot was also an avid reader and so also an heir. There is a legacy and I have nothing against tradition. I have even pushed things to the point of hyperbole: for the greatest multiplicity of legacies. Yet, in the experience of these legacies, of the knowledge that gets transmitted, there must, or there should, come about what one may call an event, something in thought or writing that cannot be deduced from the legacy, which interrupts the legacy in a certain way, which clashes with* the legacy.
“Which clashes with the legacy”: I just thought up that phrase, it came to me and suddenly I like it. I’ll stick with it. In “which clashes/promises” (qui jure), one must also understand by this an act of loyalty (an oath, and act of faith: do not betray…). When I read, my first concern is not to betray the one I’m reading or talking about. Each time, I promise (jure) not to betray. Even if I do betray, I do my best not to. At the same time, clashing with (jurer avec) means doing something else: it means betraying in a certain way, that is, doing something that is other, that cannot be reappropriated. There are those who don’t imitate, don’t reproduce, for the risk of striking the wrong note, and those who take this risk out of respect for the commitment towards loyalty. I often call this wager “countersigning”.
This clashing with (jurer avec) of the counter-signature is what guides me in the end. This presupposes both loyalty and disloyalty at every moment, or disloyalty through loyalty. It is like a contradictory law (and in my view, there is neither responsibility, nor decision, nor event without the continued presence of this contradiction) at once in my existence, in my teaching and outside of teaching: in everything I try to say, write or do. In teaching—because your question on transmission is raised in a very specific manner—I try, I have always tried, to do both at once. I had the institutional good luck to be able to do it and I couldn’t have done it in just any institutional situation. It turns out that I taught very little at the university, at least in France; I taught for four years as an assistant at the Sorbonne and the rest of the time was at the École Normale Supérieure or at the Hautes Études, where I could hold seminars on topics and authors I chose, in a manner I chose, and at the pace I chose. During these many years—I have taught for over thirty years—I have always tried to help students by explaining Kant, or Descartes or Heidegger to them, but have always done so with great autonomy, working from texts I myself was writing at any given time. I have always written everything I’ve taught—texts I signed as author, for all sakes and purposes, as literary works…not texts that were in certain parts “literary”, but texts that were not merely intended for the transmission of knowledge. I always tried to bring the two together: to transmit knowledge, to help students by rereading the texts myself—whether canonical or not, literary, philosophical, historical or legal—and to do it in such a way that each session was, I wouldn’t say theatrical, but a kind of theater, a kind of irreducible moment at the bottom of the logic or tradition I was talking about: a Hegelian and non-Hegelian way of talking about Hegel; a Kantian and anti-Kantian way of talking about Kant, even in his style, way of writing and speaking. I have, perhaps, the somewhat self-satisfied feeling that I fulfill my duty this way, that I best carry out my pedagogical mission in this manner.
As for genealogy, my response is, in short, two-fold, like in the text you cited: there is genealogy, genre, genesis; and there is then what I call, with considerable care, as in the case of Hélène Cixous for example, the moment of “genius”—that is, the moment of the event. I must stop with this confession that will surely seem indulgent. It might seem to suggest that each time I give a course, I invent something new. No, far from that. I don’t feel as if I’m the author of, or responsible for, what happens in those moments. It is something that really comes to me from the other, something that I receive from the complete other, even if it’s a complete other “in me.” When I read a classical author for students, and something happens that isn’t a simple commentary on Kant, my feeling is that it falls upon me unexpectedly. I think that this is what happens as opposed to my inventing or creating it. I don’t know if one can talk of responsibility here, but I assume the responsibility for something that in the end I’m not sure whether in fact I am responsible for it. When the expression “clashes with” (jurer avec) came to me earlier, I promise you that I had never thought of it before. This expression comes to us from the French language. And we use it in a way that is at times unpredictable, particular. We lead it to other places, inside and outside the dictionary and grammar books. In French, this jurer, this jurer avec, which is not a rite, has never before been used this way, and it remains untranslatable with its two meanings. This came to me in an instant, in a very particular situation which is the one we are now in, even though I had never thought of it before. This came to me through the French language, through a source I belong to, which you and I both belong to, as opposed to it belonging to us. Whence that clear feeling of both responsibility and irresponsibility—that is the event.

EG—While recently rereading some of your books, I was wondering whether, in that very particular writing you invent, in that style of yours (at the point of convergence and divergence between literature, philosophy and psychoanalysis), whether there wasn’t a passion of interpretation to the point of having even lost the belief in truth—an infinite interpretation carried out by the mise-en-scène of language and writing.

JD—You always express so well what I would like to say in response. You say it ahead of me. It is true that I have a taste for, a feeling of duty towards, interpretation, decoding, in short, for reading, for hermeneutics, not only for texts written in books but above all in life, what I call writing in the larger sense. I am always—it is not very original, but it is a real passion—trying to decipher over and above easily available codes. The paradox that you yourself noted is that this passion, I wouldn’t say that it is not a passion for truth—I am in a certain sense passionate about truth—but it is at the same time accompanied by, and probably motivated by, the belief that truth infinitely withdraws itself from interpretation. Not that it doesn’t exist. I never said, “There is no truth,” but I would say that the concept of truth does not answer what I am looking for, what we are looking for in decoding. That is to say, at the end of the decoding, there is no access to a true and established meaning. This would occur—and one cannot do it in an interview—by working on the history of truth, on the concepts of truth: a task I have carried with me throughout my life. In the case of Heidegger, one passes from a certain concept of truth like aletheia to truth as homoiosis, but along this Heideggerian path or even that of others, the question of truth torments me in a thousand different ways. It is not simply what discourages interpretation. To the contrary, it gives it its charge. One ought to sometimes call truth, as I myself have sometimes tried to do, those things that do not resemble transmissible truth. In “A Silkworm of One’s Own” I questioned the concept of truth (4) : I said that I was tired of truth as revelation, as a veil, the unveiling of the veil, in Heidegger’s sense. Nevertheless, I would not be ready to drop truth in the name of skepticism. I am neither a skeptic nor an empiricist; I believe in something that resembles truth and that is given in the experience of what happens, an untranslatable, perhaps untransmissible experience—what is an untransmissible truth?—an experience I don’t want to describe in terms of “light”, “lucidity”, “revelation”, “clarification” or even—and here one touches on a very difficult point—or even “as such”. In general, and for Heidegger in particular, it is when the thing appears “as such” that truth is possible. This is why Heidegger says that, for animals, there is no “as such” and hence no truth. I instead try to think of an experience of truth that does not appear “as such”, because as soon as it appears “as such” it can be captured and thus transmitted through ordinary language, by language in the ordinary sense. One says: Here is the essence of the thing that appears “as such”. I name it and so transmit it and it’s virtually universal, universalizable. No, it is a matter of a singular, untransmissible truth that perhaps doesn’t even appear “as such”, which may remain unconscious in a vaguely psychoanalytic sense, or at any rate of a psychoanalytic nature, and yet which does things. A truth transforms, works, makes things work, changes things. There is truth when a change takes place, a revolution as opposed to a revelation—provided, of course, that such a revelation is not in fact revolutionary, that it changes the world. One is not easily inclined to say that a revolution is true. The question would be: how can a change, a revolution, a performative or even non-performative event constitute a truth? It is a topic I have emphasized frequently for several years now, namely the privileged status given to the performative is not as justified as one may believe. The event cannot be performative. The performative implies mastery in the observance of a given, inflexible convention. Thus, how can one say that a more-than-performative or other-than-performative event constitutes a truth? And yet, I believe it. I believe that truth, what interests me over and above the traditional concept of truth, is always revolutionary, of a poetic nature, if you will, or of the nature of an event rather than a theorem, of what one can see before oneself or transmit. It is a change that one can try to think about after the fact. One can try to transform it into a transmissible truth, with all the risks it involves, but when it happens, it can no longer be thought, thematized, or objectivized. It is a truth that makes one think but that is unthinkable. There is consequently a need, I would say a drive for truth, that fuels all my work of interpretation and that is compatible with a certain mistrust, a certain suspicion of what is generally called truth as final meaning. There is a drive for truth, but I dare not present it that way, it would lead to too many misunderstandings.
I would add as an aside, in a more familiar, empirical way, that when I try to think, to work or to write, and when I believe that something “true” must be put forward to the public sphere, to the public scene, then there is no force in the world that can stop me. It is not a question of courage, but when I believe that something must be said or thought, whether it be something “true” or inadmissible, there is no power in the world that could dissuade me from saying it. This is what I call drive. This has, of course, created many enemies for me, and it’s most likely the reason for the turbulence, an occasional ambivalence, self-protective allergies, or even the hatred engendered over time. I have at times written texts that I knew would offend. These were, for example, the critiques of Lévi-Strauss or Lacan—I knew the milieu well enough to know that this was going to cause problems—but it was impossible for me to keep it to myself. It is a law; it is like a drive and a law: I cannot not say it. Between you and me, there have also been times, while writing texts of protest that were somewhat inflammatory for certain groups, that I write something and then, at the very moment that I’m falling asleep, while I’m half awake, someone inside of me, more lucid and vigilant than the other, says, “You’re completely mad, you shouldn’t do that; you shouldn’t write that. You’ll soon see what will happen…” And then, when I open my eyes and start to work, I do it. I disobey that council of prudence. This is what I call the drive for truth: this must be admitted.

EG—You’re sure you’re right, is that it?

JD—I am not sure that I’m right: I’m sure that this must be thought. It is not a matter of being right in a debate, even though that may happen at times, being sure that one is right. What does “being right” mean? You know, in many texts and especially in the text on Lacan that’s found in The Post Card, and even at the very beginning, when I acknowledge that the other is right, that is when they must be cautious, if they are not stupid, because the field is mined. I never acknowledge that I am right. Acknowledging that one is right is very complicated, but in any case, I feel that I have neither the right nor the force to prevent myself from thinking or saying whatever seems to be true in that other sense. It is true and they can come at me, even shoot me—I will say it. And it is not a matter of courage. That’s just the way it is. It is a kind of drive that shapes me because I’m like that as much in life as in writing. One can call it “passion”, as you say, a “passion for truth”: something that is stronger than me—to which I give in. There may be very forceful people around, forces that I fear, but there is something that is even stronger than I am that makes me jump forward, sometimes all alone, sometimes not, rarely into a large crowd but often with single individuals: alone with the solitary.

EG—It is still the idea that you are on the side of truth…

JD—Would I dare say it? Provided one took many precautions and put a lot of quotation marks around the word ‘truth’.

EG—I would now like to talk about the question of the secret and the undecidable that you often, and especially, spoke about in two recent books: Béliers, le dialogue ininterrompu: entre deux infinis, le poème and the one I mentioned earlier on Hélène Cixous, Genèses, genealogies, genres et le genie. In Béliers, regarding Gadamer’s interpretation of a poem by Celan, you write the following sentence that I find magnificent: “Without this risk, without this impossibility of showing who must forever remain and who must not be, saturated or closed by certainty, there would be neither reading, nor gift, nor blessing.” And you later add, “…the future of interpretation [is tied] to a pensive and suspensive interruption.” (5) This resonates with what you were just saying: one doesn’t have the proof of what one interprets, but there is at the same time a very strong certainty.

JD—I say it there in a text on Celan, but I think that, by analogy, it can be extended to all reading, to the reading of all poets, to all poetic writing. In every poetic text, but also in every word, in every manifestation outside of literature, there is an inaccessible secret for which no proof will ever be sufficient. In everyday life, for example, I know that I have often surprised my students by telling them, “One can never prove that one is lying.” One will never be able to prove it, neither in everyday life nor in a court of law. A witness may be false but one can never prove that there is false witness. Why? Because on the other side, on the witness’s side, as on the poet’s side, there is always the possibility of saying, “What I’m saying is perhaps false, I made a mistake, but I did it in good faith and there is no lie.” If I say something false but without the intention of deceiving, then I don’t lie. One can never objectively prove that someone has lied. That person can always say, “I acted in good faith.” One can never prove that someone acted in bad faith, what is called proving. This is due to the fact that the other is secret. I cannot be in the place of the other, in the head of the other. I will never be able to measure up against the secret of alterity. The very essence of alterity is the secret.
To return to the poetico-hermeneutic question, in all texts, and especially in those of Celan who is exemplary in this regard, there is a secret, that is, an overabundance of meaning that I will never be able to claim to have exhausted. In the case of Celan, there may be an allusion to a referent hidden in his life, or encrypted through several layers of hidden literary references. I recently received a letter from the translator of Nelly Sachs regarding Béliers. She says some very kind things about the book, but also that in all the elements I analyze there are echoes, affinities, consonances with the poems of Nelly Sachs, one of Celan’s closest friends. Thus, in a given word, there may be a nod toward Nelly Sachs or there may be a reference to a personal experience he never mentioned to anyone, a trip, a name. This neither discourages nor hampers interpretation. To the contrary, it sets it in motion. This is the difference I have been trying to make for a very long time, in “The Double Session” between dissemination and thematic plurality (6). One can take inventory of a multiplicity of meaning in a text, a poem, a word; there will always be an excess which is not a kind of meaning, which is not simply another meaning. There is first the question of spacing, since we were talking of space, spacing which is not meaning. The way in which Celan spaces his poem, what is it, what does it mean? The rhythm, caesura, hiatus, interruption, how does one read them? There is therefore a dissemination which cannot be reduced to hermeneutics in Gadamer’s sense. It is here that I play that game of agreement with Gadamer (I “acknowledge he is right”) and at the same time there are vanishing lines towards interruption. There once again, as we were just saying, this does not discourage reading but is instead the very condition for it. If I could prove something about one of Celan’s poems, say as many do, “This is what he means,”—for example, it’s Auschwitz, or Celan is the Shoah (clearly, it’s true!)—but if I could prove this and only this, I would immediately destroy Celan’s poem. It would be of limited interest if the poem were summed up in what it means, in what one believes it means. I therefore try to listen for something that I can’t hear, careful to note in my reading the very limits of my reading. This amounts to saying: “Here is what I believe one can reconstruct, what the poem might mean, because it is striking and beautiful and powerful.” But this also leaves intact what’s inaudible, what’s unsaid. This will also make possible other readings. My reading is modest and doesn’t exclude many other readings of this poem. It is an ethics or politics of reading.

EG—Considering still Celan and Béliers, at a certain moment you refer to the wound one inflicts on a poem by reading it according to this “disseminal experience” of interpretive reading, a wound that’s transformed into the “talking mouth of the poem.” Let me read the passage: “Such gapingness belongs neither to meaning, nor phenomena nor truth, but, by making them possible in their remaining, it marks in the poem the hiatus of a wound whose lips never close or never come together. These lips are outlined around a talking mouth that, even when it watches the silence, unconditionally calls the other, in the language of a hospitality for which one no longer decides.” (7) Is this mouth-wound simply a metaphor for you or do you really want to suggest that the poem speaks to us by this mouth that we’ve opened in it?

JD—The signature of a poem, as of any text, is a wound. A wound that opens, that doesn’t heal, a hiatus. Indeed, it is the mouth that speaks where it’s wounded. Instead of the lesion itself. In all of Celan’s poems there is at least one wound, his own or that of another (it is also why in Shibboleth, pour Paul I focused on circumcision, the mark, the incision). When one reads the poem, when one tries to explain it, comment upon on it, interpret it, one in turn speaks, one makes other phrases, both poetic and not. Even when one realizes—and this is my case—that on the side of the poem is a wounded, talking mouth, one always risks sewing it up, closing it. The duty of the commentator is thus to write while letting the other speak, or in order to let the other speak. It is what I also call, as I noted earlier, countersigning. It is also a word that Ponge uses quite well and that I highlighted, I believe, in Signéponge. One writes something else but must also try to let the other sign; it is he who writes, it is he who signs.

EG—But in order to do this, the other must first be wounded…

JD—The wound consists precisely in claiming to discover and master the meaning, in claiming to suture or saturate, to fill the void, to close the mouth. Imagine someone who claims to have said everything there was to say about a poem or verse from Celan, who claims to have exhausted the topic. It’s terrifying; it’s a destruction of the poem. In order not to destroy the poem, and that’s what I would like to do, one must first try to talk about it in such a way that, as Celan himself said, the poem continues to speak. It continues to speak. One must speak in order to let it speak. We are talking of this at the level of interpretive reading, of the hermeneutics of the poem, but this also holds for life in general. One speaks while trying to listen to the other. One should also speak while letting the other speak. It’s a question of rhythm, of time: not speaking too much by imposing silence upon the other, not remaining too silent. All this is negotiated.

EG—There is still something violent in the act of interpretation. You tell me that it’s a matter of letting the other speak. Yet, the wound you describe in Béliers also presupposes, it seems to me, an act of perforating, an opening that wounds: you describe the lips of a wound that give the poem that mouth through which it speaks.

JD—It’s another dimension of violence, unlike the one I just spoke about, which consists in taking the risk of saturating, or suturing. One can also take the risk of writing, which is sometimes an interesting risk, that of writing in turn something about a poem that the signatory ignored, didn’t want to say, or in any case didn’t master, would have been surprised to hear it said of his own poem. I don’t know what Celan would have thought of my reading, I have no idea, but the desire to surprise him by my act of reading is not new to me. If I do something, I have to do something that informs or surprises, to teach not only the reader something but also the I who signs the text. You’ve seen that the position of the I and You is very complicated in this poem. Who is I? Who signs the poem? What is the literary signature and the non-literary signature of this poem? It’s very difficult to say. Even impossible. An interpretation that surprises presupposes a violence with respect to the poem’s conscious signatory: you meant what you didn’t know you meant; you’ll have said more than you think and other things you don’t believe. This is the analysis, whether it be deconstructive or not. You said what you didn’t believe you’d say or what you didn’t mean. It’s violent, that’s true.

EG—But is it also a physical wound of the poem’s words? Is the wound directed even against the body of writing, which is the poem?

JD—There is already a “physical” wound, for example, in the fact of writing (in) another language. For example, I write in French about a German poem that is very difficult to translate. In this sense, the body of Celan’s words is violently taken apart and exiled to another language he knew quite well, but which is still another language than that of the poem. It is a body, yes; there is therefore love and violence. I don’t know if this is what you mean by “body of writing” but it is what makes this poem unique. Like an actual body, it is unique. The poem, once published, must be respected as being unique. It only takes place once. Even if one can put certain elements on line along with the entire corpus of Celan, Hölderlin, Nelly Sachs and many others, the poem is unique. What I would call the “body of the poem” is this uniqueness that is incorporated, embodied, in what was once called “signifiers”, in the graphemes that in themselves cannot be translated. To translate is to lose the body. The most faithful translation is a violence: one loses the body of the poem that only exists in German and does so once. It is hand-to-hand [corps-à-corps] combat, an attack. It is clearly desired by the poet—he wants others to read it, translate it—but I recognize that there is aggression and hand-to-hand fighting. I try to write a text that, by keeping it in proportion, should remain unique in a certain way. It is a kind of reading, it happened to me once, I did it once, it’s one of my texts. I would add that, in speaking of the body, when I say, “Celan’s poem belongs to the German language,” this is already a simplification. Celan’s language is itself a hand-to-hand combat with the German language which he deforms, transforms, that he himself attacks, cuts into. He takes it out of the body of the German language. In my own modest way I do the same thing with French. It is a battle not only between two languages, but between two languages that are themselves in an internal war. There is “internal” combat in every national language, every time there is writing. There is no writing that clears a path with this violence to the body. How else can one explain the charge—others would call it investment—the libidinal and even narcissistic charge that each person brings to their own texts? This is my body. Every poem says, “This is my body,” and what follows: drink it, eat it, keep it in memory of me. There is a Communion in each poem that says: this is my body, here and now. And you know what then follows: the passions, the crucifixions, the executions. Others might also say resurrections…

12 December 2003

Translated from the French by Marcel S. Lieberman


Cixous, H. & Derrida, J. (1998) “Un ver à soie” in Voiles (Paris: Galilée). Eng trans. by G. Bennington, “A Silkworm of One’s Own” in Veils (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2001).

Derrida, J.:
– (1972) La Dissémination (Paris: Seuil) Dissemination, trans. by B. Johnson (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1983).
– (2003a) Béliers, le dialogue interrompu: entre deux infinis le poème (Paris: Galilée).
– (2003b) Chaque fois unique, la fin du monde, with an introduction by P.-A. Brault and M. Naas (Paris: Galilée).
– (2003c) Genèses, généalogies, genres et le génie—Les secrets de l’archive (Paris: Galilée).

Richard, J.-P. (1961) L’Univers imaginaire de Mallarmé (Seuil: Paris).

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European Journal of Psychoanalysis