Reconstruction 9.2 (2009)

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Derrida, Jacques. H. C. For Life, That Is To Say . . . Trans. by Laurent Milesi and Stefan Herbrechter. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2006.

Cixous, Hélène. Insister of Jacques Derrida. Trans. Peggy Kamuf. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2007.

It is evident that Jacques Derrida and Hélène Cixous love one another, and these two books provide clues not only as to the singular nature of that friendship, but may serve as testimonies, in their very singularities, for new inventions of friendship in a more general sense. Derrida’s book, published in English posthumously, has a title that a childhood sweetheart might utter, but in fact comes to us from the side of death. Nevertheless, it is Derrida’s proclamation while alive, and the reason he loves Cixous for life is, on the one hand, because they should have been childhood friends—both “Algerian Jews from Algiers”—although they did not meet until they had both arrived in Paris as “two young professors and writers” (xiii). On the other hand, Derrida finds the basis of friendship not in similarity, but in difference: “I, who always feel turned toward death, I am not on her side, while she would like to turn everything and to make it come round to the side of life” (36). Thus, it is Cixous who is “for life,” while Derrida is on the side of death. To begin this differential friendship, Cixous actually saw Derrida seven years before he saw her. She was standing behind the podium while Derrida gave a lecture on death. These coincidences, whether of the “magic circumstantial” kind just related, or the inexhaustible wealth of the unexpected punceptual connection, always surprise Derrida, come from behind to bewitch him. Derrida wants to be bewitched, and in H. C. For Life he is claiming that Cixous is bewitching because they are on different sides. He does not understand her side, which is for life even as it moves across and yet refuses or turns from death, even as he desires it, wishes he could be on the side of life. And yet, if they were on the same side, there would be no spacing to produce the abyss constituting the magic of friendship.

The spacing of friendship, it turns out, is no different from that of knowledge. You must not be on one’s side to be able to desire her friendship, to countersign her complexity: “If I were on her side, I could not speak of her nor tell her anything whatsoever. Nor especially receive anything whatsoever from her” (21). There is distance, but it is not an objective distance. Rather, it is a distance just close enough to amaze. Knowledge as the amazement of friendship may perhaps be one of the things that makes Derridean discourse appear so strange, strange without remittance.

How does Cixous amaze Derrida? Reporting the privilege of reading the manuscript of Cixous’ first book, Le Prénom de Dieu, Derrida notes a feeling that is completely foreign to him, which is partly but not only about being on the side of life. It was “an unheard-of speech, the appearance of an unidentifiable letter and literary object” (7). Knowledge and friendship must begin with a gift that is unidentifiable, which can only be incorporated into one’s body. The unidentifiable is contagious, infecting one’s orientation with respect to the most basic of concepts, such as “what to believe means, what to do means” (8). Rather than possessing a quality of negation, such infection produces an “excess and surplus” that “precisely passes through life, a word that becomes all the more obscure” (12). Uncertainty, not being on someone’s or some thing’s side, adds more possibility and thus more life. Inasmuch as we identify Derrida with deconstruction, we can in this way think of deconstruction as being inventive and life giving, where the sum of the parts is greater than the whole. But, in this view of things, we must also acknowledge that the writing of Cixous is constitutive of Derrida’s sense of deconstruction, which he is more or less explicitly admitting. Indeed, Cixous’ writing evinces this inexhaustible surplus in strict contrast to discourses such as psychoanalysis, even though or perhaps because it engages “Uncle Freud” in order to become “heteroanalytical as much as autoanalytical” (31). Apparently, the side of life is not to be construed as having anything to do with a talking or writing cure.
In fact, the numerous proposals Derrida produces for the “secret of this writing” (56) is probably the greatest testimony to his friendship with Cixous. “Quoting” her work (he avoids his usual “citation,” that which is used in an argument and thus invokes either the law or its abandonment), Derrida seems at a loss with Cixous, his starts and stops, his desperately loving interpretations less a sign of virtuosity than the constitution of friendship as being “at a loss” in difference. Whether it is the question of life versus death, what it means to take a side, not being able to look someone in the face, or the pendulous swing of “might” from possibility to power—to name just a few—Derrida ultimately finds in Cixous, his friend, “an unobjectivizable and unformalizable differential of speed, of a pure changing of gear” (73). Our knowledge, our lifelong friends, must always outrun us and beckon us, so much so that they betray our most sacredly held positions, which are after all nothing more than sides, but they do so in such a way that we desire this betrayal. Derrida, the hope of whose entire ouevre could be said to require the word destinerrancy, the letter or post card that can always not arrive at its destination, loves Cixous because, beyond his comprehension, but convincingly nonetheless, she “receives the letter before it arrives” (62).

In her Insister of Jacques Derrida, Cixous writes to and for Derrida when these sides of death and life have been literalized. Friendship for Cixous is to be an “insister,” but the question becomes, in the first chapter of the book, “How to translate that?” What does it mean to insist, and how does one do it properly? It is friendship in the form of mourning but which exceeds mourning. After all, who insists on something with no life? To insist is to be like Mary and Martha coming from the empty tomb of Christ. He is not there, but you must insist on him. Cixous begins to simulate this insistence by holding a conversation between herself and Derrida, but the translation is intentionally difficult since, for the most part, only em-dashes signify a new speaker. Sometimes it sounds like Cixous, sometimes like Derrida, which is not surprising given Derrida’s influence on Cixous and Cixous’ role in Derrida’s developing understanding of deconstruction. What is most interesting in this form of address is that Cixous answers Derrida’s definition of friendship as “being on the other side” with a proposition that friendship is an unresolvable twining of sides. In this twining, our difficulty is also Cixous’ difficulty, but also our joy, as she describes listening to Derrida as the “sensation of having an ear that limps a little,” but also “the sensation of being seized by a renewed felicity” (11). And finally, as he has continually admitted, Derrida’s difficulty, at least in relation to literature, is that he loves it “in the place of the secret” (9).

In chapter 2, “The Flying Manuscript,” Cixous finds insistence in the exhumation, in 2005, of Derrida’s Veils—an accidental event. In contradistinction to Derrida’s characterization of Cixous, this letter arrived before she received it. Derrida’s manuscript, handwritten on a jet plane in 1995, was sent “by air mail from the Aspen Towers Hotel, in the República Argentina” (62). Cixous’ discovery of the manuscript brings her the “joy” of Derrida’s returned face, the rarity of something in his own hand which is also the rarity of a revenant we had wished beyond hope would return. Significantly, this return of a friend takes the form of a tangible partition, producing a touching without touching as opposed to the gap implied by Derrida’s definition of friendship as a spacing between sides. This is significant even and especially as the intertwining difference comes from a text written by Derrida.

Cixous has never read the flying manuscript because Derrida sent it to her for safekeeping and requested that she keep it a secret even from herself, hence “this closed envelope slipped into an envelope and put on hold” (64). In one of her characteristic portmanteaus, Cixous refers to this veiled Veil as a “veil of separeunion,” (64), thus making it emblematic of her connection to Derrida. Of course, Cixous asks herself why she had forgotten the manuscript and only accidentally run across it in 2005. If the veil is the friendship, then everything about its circumstances must be lovingly and fearfully fetishized. Indeed fearfully, because Cixous has “been thinking about it like a poor beast being led to the impossible” (71). The manuscript not only brings Derrida back to life but leads Cixous back with Derrida to the side of death. Indeed lovingly, as Cixous compares the discovery of the manuscript, the pleasure it fills her with, to Proust’s discovery of the madeleine.

Preparing for a lecture in Barcelona, Cixous reads the manuscript in her own way, as if for the first time. She reads down the page the first words of each line: “to write/ that/ might be/ from/ the messiah/ truth/ unveiling/ another figure/ other figure/ someone/ or dead/ end” (98-99).This text on the sacred is being read as a sacred text, where one must cross the work in a counterintuitive manner, as if it were written in a code for initiates—like Saussure’s acrostic readings of ancient epics. The last “verse” of the text, which Cixous also dwells on, is sacred in another way, in the sense that it seems to offer a new revelation: “end of history—and without shroud” (99). For a philosopher who warned against Fukuyama’s declaration of the end of history, this statement may seem puzzling. But, noting the words were written in an airplane, Cixous hears a sigh, a cry, that cannot be exhaled audibly and is thus all the more poignant. It rises to “a veritable explosion of revolt in the airplane. And no one there to know it” (100). Reading the sacred text of her friend, Cixous wishes she could be there at its last sigh, which was also its first birth, particularly because she reads in his desire for the end to a certain type of history a revolt “against fated indebtedness, accounts to be settled, against the ineluctable contamination of love” (101). Derrida’s “prophecy” is of an end to prophecy, where imprisoning determinism is replaced by a messianic contingency. Cixous is right to emphasize that “its rumblings may be heard in all his texts of revolt” (101). It is a form of justice that is shared in the friendship of both Cixous and Derrida.

Finally, Cixous’ account of the flying manuscript reveals what may seem the most strange and yet touching definition of friendship—you identify a friend by the symptom or symptoms, by the aberrations, he or she opens up in you. For this manuscript finished in the air and sent to her by air mail, despite Cixous’ devotion to Derrida, somehow flew underneath her gaze:

I who read all Jacques Derrida’s texts, with at least three readings that I could
name, just before, at the time, just after publication, then at least thirty times I
read, each text, in front of and with my researcher friends, in our seminars,
from year to year. Except for Veils? (104)

How did she avoid touching this text about touching veils, in particular the tallith of the heritage they both share? Perhaps, necessarily, it is because the veil connecting them is the “metonymy of life death woven into that prayer shawl at a respectful distance in an alarmed restraint, an animal alarm, dazzled” (104). It, the symptom, is “the mystery according to Jacques Derrida” (105), a mystery that in the rest of Cixous’ book will register as symptomatic dreams, as a grammatical mistake Cixous makes only in front of Derrida. These symptoms register, are testimonies to the strange transferences of friendship. We would do well, with our friends, to listen for them, to seek their touch, with fear and love.


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