'How do you finally respond to your life and your name?' Derrida raised this question in his final interview with Le Monde, published on 18 August this year. If he could apprehend his life, he remarked, he would also be obliged to apprehend his death as singular and absolute, without resurrection and without redemption. At this revealing moment, it is interesting that Derrida the philosopher should find in Socrates his proper precursor: that he should turn to Socrates to understand that, at the age of 74, he still did not quite know how best to live. One cannot, he remarks, come to terms with one's life without trying to apprehend one's death, asking, in effect, how a human learns to live and to die. Much of Derrida's later work is dedicated to mourning, and he offers his acts of public mourning as posthumous gifts. In The Work of Mourning (2001), he tries to come to terms with the deaths of other writers and thinkers through reckoning his debt to their words, indeed, their texts; his own writing constitutes an act of mourning, one that he is perhaps, avant la lettre, recommending to us as a way to begin to mourn this thinker, who not only taught us how to read, but gave the act of reading a new significance and a new promise. In that book, he openly mourns Roland Barthes, who died in 1980, Paul de Man, who died in 1983, Michel Foucault, who died in 1984, and a host of others, including Edmund Jabès (1991), Louis Marin (1992), Sarah Kofman (1994), Emmanuel Levinas (1995) and Jean-François Lyotard (1998). In the last of these essays, for Lyotard, it is not his own death that preoccupies him, but rather his 'debts'. These are authors that he could not do without, ones with and through whom he thinks. He writes only because he reads, and he reads only because there are these authors to read time and again. He 'owes' them something or, perhaps, everything, if only because he could not write without them: their writing exists as the precondition of his own; their writing constitutes the means through which his own writing voice is animated and secured, a voice that emerges, importantly, as an address.
LRB 4 November 2004 | PDF Download