Jacques Derrida, a Cambridge epiphany

Candida Clark
25 October 2004

I heard Jacques Derrida give his only lecture in Cambridge, England, in 1992 on the occasion of his being awarded – amidst fierce opposition – an honorary degree. Honorary degrees are routinely conferred on those whose work has passed almost without note, at least beyond academic circles. But the row over this award was significant for a number of reasons, and a revelation to me personally. Unlike KA Dilday, my meeting with “Jackie” (as I understand he preferred, later, to be known) was nothing at all – just a brief “thank you” after a lecture delivered to a packed theatre; nor was it a definite turning–point, or a lode–star in my intellectual development. But it was something, and that something was decisive.

Evidence of a witnessing

It was a crisp Cambridge day, around one of the turns of the year – autumn, as I remember it. This might not in fact be true. It might have been just before spring. But certainly I remember that the mist was risen off the Backs, the banks along the river, and the air was cool enough to make it unclear whether the red cheeks of those protesting outside the lecture hall were rosy from shame – what, after all, did they object to? – or simply from the drop in temperature. Some wore black armbands. But who, or what, had died? It was less funeral than marriage: those armbands only underlined the ceremony of the occasion; and like all good funerals, it was underwritten with happiness. Even the protestors were lit with vitality: something, at last, to set their philosophical shoulders to!

I was never by any means a good philosopher. But I did, still do, love to read philosophy, and went to that university with a passion for the subject that might be embarrassing, now, had it not at the time also been authentic. To walk in the footsteps of Russell and Wittgenstein! I didn’t think I could bear the excitement. It was a world of beautiful safety, because it meant, precisely, that nothing was safe. Everything, I had thought, was up for the grabs of a good question. Russell’s line about philosophy not being about finding answers, but about discovering how to pose good questions was rocket–fuel to me then and now.

Meanwhile, I was working on a novel – my third, all of them happily hidden in bottom drawers: at that point, writing fiction was for me an entirely clandestine activity. To have done Eng. Lit., would have been to wear my heart on my sleeve, the real embarrassment. I kept it to myself; I knew what I would do, that novels would always be my thing.

I switched to read Eng. Lit in my third year. It wasn’t because of Derrida. I wasn’t starry–eyed about European philosophers; I don’t suppose I understood Hegel and Kant anywhere near enough to make the connections. I was still enamoured of the Anglicised Wittgenstein, taken to the university’s heart, made less foreign, though not, I understand, compliant, and still intellectually speaking, an exotic. (He also delivered supervisions from a deckchair, but that’s another matter.) I switched because the undertow of so many of the great writers I admired was, well, philosophical, and it seemed interesting to me to see them in that light.

This was by no means to “deconstruct” them, whatever, exactly, that means. There was nothing dry about the business at all, and by “great writers” I’m not referring, either, to those clustered around the post–structuralist /deconstructivist star: Robbe–Grillet, Lacan, Hélène Cixous. I mean Shakespeare, and Faulkner.

Philosophy–in–literature isn’t, I think, an alarming notion: I think, therefore I write novels. It’s hardly news. Philosophy is after all only formalised thinking: a peek at what lies behind the structures we so habitually inhabit. Some of my own novels, privately, might have a philosophical scheme behind them, but that’s hardly the point, it’s just the climate: ideas, looked at with as clear a sight as possible, by which I only mean honestly. Ezra Pound’s “fundamental accuracy of statement is the one sole morality of fiction” is the kind of honesty I mean – just a way of being unfettered by convention; learning to see for yourself, which I suppose is the moment at which all art–forms rise and converge: the attempt to convey an authentic point of view; to express consciousness through an individual perception. Philosophy and literature are such natural bedfellows, therefore, that it seems rather like a classic Gilbert Ryle “category mistake” to object to their intimate relations: you had sex with your wife?

It certainly struck me that way, that day in autumn, or spring – or was it a particularly cool summer? – when Derrida came to talk to whoever cared to hear him in Cambridge. Many stayed away; many turned up simply to bask in the thrill of the forbidden. That kind of hullabaloo was a definite ruck in the texture of Cambridge life, and his visit had the aura of celebrity about it, too. Non–philosophers came, and were made nervous by the excitement: had they done the wrong degree? Did this kind of thing happen all the time over in the philosophy faculty?

Some were bothered, too, by the prospect of what lay ahead: the certainty that whatever they did, it was unlikely that they would ever think so much, or so hard, as they were doing at that place and point in time. And like all revelations, that understanding was a kind of farewell. What were they doing, really, when they were not thinking? Did anything matter quite so much as chasing after a hot thought on a chilly afternoon amongst books?

By “they”, I mean “we”, of course, because I was no different. We were very definitely a crowd. Elias Canetti would have snickered to see us brought to heel: this motley crew from a nation of seafarers, landlocked in a place of Siberian winds and flatness, far from the shore, caught still in atavistic horror at the prospect of burning our boats – even if it was just intellectually.

But he only had ideas, not a match. Derrida’s theme, as I remember it, wound its way around the Holocaust, or shoah. Without my notes to hand – it’s twelve years later, now – he made the connection between “witness” and “evidence”. Relics, scant human remains, were, he argued, themselves a kind of witness to the act, and as such could speak: the evidence could be eloquent. But it had to be noted; observation, a state of philosophical attentiveness, was all–important.

It was not a purely academic matter at all. It was close, in spirit, to Wallace Stevens’s “you read poetry with your nerves.” Likewise, ideas: they too could burn; and, he suggested, they ought at the very least to ignite a spark somewhere in the region of the solar plexus. To neglect to do this was a kind of wilful memory–loss, a deliberate forgetting that we are no more or less than human.

I could feel those Siberian winds buffeting against the architecture of symbolic logic. “A hundred pages to prove that two plus two equals four in Russell and Whitehead’s Principia Mathematica!” It was the philosophy undergraduate’s half–horrified, half–proud boast: you think your subject is dry? “Intellectualism”, for us, was a thing of hothouse flourishing, vaguely sexual, and at any rate European. What we did was academia, two plus two.

Derrida, in making his case for evidence–as–witness, was soft–spoken, his gestures economical, and he was not a tall man, though his hair was, it’s true, startling, a vivid mop of light – the kind of whiteness that often comes overnight, after a profound emotional shock. His argument seemed ethereal: not just hard to catch hold of, but liable to go anywhere, pass through walls. Its ghostliness was an aspect of its modernity: it might have been an offshoot of cybernetics; it was entirely relevant, and to the entire business of thinking, too, in whatever faculty – and it was this, I suppose, that certain quarters found alarming. There was just that whiff of mortality about it: if they followed this line of argument, where might it lead? It was emotional.

Many people, I remember, stopped making notes after a short while, or started to make notes about something obliquely related, or perhaps not related at all. (I jotted down an idea that later, much translated, out of recognition, perhaps, became embedded in a novel – my first published, incidentally.) Most people emerged blinking into the bright afternoon, hiding their notebooks: had they missed the point? There was a good deal of laughter. “That red scarf! It was too Left Bank for words!”

There was solemnity, too, because Derrida had made many of us think of our parents, vague ideas we had of Paris 1968, and “happenings” and “sit–ins”, and wasn’t that, just then, a bit like one of those? We felt like kids. But the audience had included undergraduates, ancient professors: feeling like a kid had nothing, at that moment, to do with age. It had a lot to do with heat, and the sense of being on the hinge of things. Was it spring or autumn? I don’t suppose it matters. It was a point of change, and we all felt it; and if the change was private, a solitary observance, well so much the better. The nudge was not to think like a herd, a crowd, but as an individual. Of course it was that: understandable to infer from his lecture, if not his person, at the least an ambivalence, if not recoil, at the suggestion of safety in numbers. Two plus two, and the solution.

Anyway, we went off, some of us alone, and the catastrophe of his being granted an honorary degree gradually was absorbed into the life of the university; his work was studied there; his ideas were felt – they got around.

“Evidence as witness” was just a sylph of an idea, hardly the main body of his work. But I have never, before or since, heard a better reason for anyone’s ever bothering to set words down upon a page, and to set them as best they could, and attempt – even bother in the fraught enterprise – to publish them, send them out on the high seas in the body of a book, scanning the horizon all the while and praying for fair weather. It has nothing to do with the grand gesture of ego, nor the attempt to join the dead, bone–white ranks of the canon. That might be nice, but it’s hardly the point.

Derrida’s lecture that day was a very humble suggestion – a modest proposal. It had something to do with the idea of noticing lost time; making a note of time’s passage, bearing witness to the fact of being human, and since it’s all we’ve got, that’s also a very humane suggestion, to my mind.

Echoes of a conversation

EM Forster, very close to Cambridge’s heart, delivering the Clark lectures that later became his Aspects of the Novel said that the best way to think of literature was not as a linear progression, each age heaving themselves up on the shoulders of the one before; we should think of it rather as a circular room, all writers sitting convivially round, in conversation. Who we hear the best is up to us: part a matter of decibels, sure enough, but part the fineness of individual judgment. I think Forster might well have lent his ear to Derrida – outlandish suggestion though that may well appear to be – because there’s an aesthetic pleasure in Derrida’s work to which Forster, with his Keatsian love of beauty–as–truth, would have instinctively risen.

Shakespeare, too, with the sea echoing through every one of his plays, I think would have liked Derrida a great deal: because for the evidence to be good, to bear witness well, you play your piece to groundling, royalty, philosopher and rich burgher on the flood – to all of them alike, and in equal measure.

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