92 The Surre(gion)alist Manifesto
Derrida's Secret Name, or What Transpired in the Auditorium of Gaea & Logos
I recently discovered that Columbia University had decided to remodel the Audubon Ballroom, where Malcolm X was assassinated. The University planned to make it into a Biotechnology Center. There were protests against gutting the interior and effacing the traces of history. Columbia went on with its plans, but agreed to preserve the bullet-hole from the bullet that killed Malcolm. I imagine some future guide pointing out into space. "Over there is the famous bullet-hole: when the wall was demolished the hole was left intact, as you can see, for posterity." Inspired by Columbia, I have decided to create a Museum of Absences, which will contain famous holes, voids, vacuities, spaces, and other notable specimens of Non-Being. Columbia has been asked to donate its renowned bullet-hole. Richard Nixon has been requested to send the celebrated gap in his presidential tapes. Various dictatorships ("friendly" and "unfriendly," without discrimination) have been asked to be so kind as to send the Disappeared.
The immediate purpose of this communication is to request permission from Exquisite Corpse to include in the Museum's "Literature of Absence" collection Maria Goodwin's recent article "Jacques Derrida in Baton Rouge: The Philosopher in the City of Flayed Skins." (Exquisite Corpse, No. 37). The article is notable for the multitude of Absences contained within it.
First, MG informs us that her purpose was originally to interview Derrida and to ask him about the obvious influence of LSD on his work. We find instead the Absence of that interview.
Next, we discover that she proposes, in the Absence of the interview, a "summary of the lecture" that was given by Derrida. Fortunately, we are treated to no such summary, which is replaced a few sketchy remarks about the content of the lecture.
But finally, and most importantly, we discover the most significant Absence—let's call it the Dominant Absence—in the article. This is the Absence of Derrida's Secret Name. Ironically, the Dominant Absence depends on an abundant Presence. The Presence of "the philosopher," Jacques Derrida. Let's examine the way in which MG presents this Presence.
Maria Announces His Arrival
MG prefaces her announcement with an apology for her failure to submit "the philosopher" to the acid test. She associates LSD with the Sixties, which are curiously Absent for her. And that which is associated with the Absent, must, according to the rules of strict logic, also be Absent. She reports: "I completely missed the Sixties myself, went straight from the Twenties to the Twenty-First Century." Someone capable of an oversight of this magnitude can be forgiven for overlooking most of Derrida's lecture, the topic of her absent summary. Moreover, we must concede that the lecture did take place during the missing period between the Twenties and the Twenty-First Century. (It seemed, in fact, to take up a large chunk of that considerable time span). Furthermore, MG continues, her conversations with Derrida are not about things like LSD. When she "speaks with the philosopher" they "speak of Artaud, or of the Thirties, but mostly we speak of what I've seen in his work." Perhaps as she discourses on his works, he fills her in on the Thirties, which, like the Sixties, she missed. Finally, MG gets to her lamentable conclusion: "There is no way in which I can ask Derrida if he ever took LSD."
We must consider further MG's inability to ask things of Derrida. At this point, I want only to note how close she came to the forbidden topic of hallucinogenic writing. Of their three acceptable topics of conversation, one is, of all things, "Artaud." Why did it not occur to her to delicately remark "Jacques, something seems to have slipped my mind—what was it that Artaud used to do with the Tarahumaras down in Mexico?" They spoke of Artaud, the philosopher-poet who says he "did not renounce as a group those dangerous disassociations which Peyote seems to provoke and which I had pursued by other means." And who adds immediately that he wished to "bring back" that which "lay hidden," and "that it serve precisely by my crucifixion."'1 Can she speak of this to "the philosopher"? No way!
"Derrida arrives late," she reports. (It is still well before the Twenty-first Century, however.) "He greets me warmly, with our usual double bises." MG is slightly deceptive here. To an Anglo-Saxon audience this might appear to be a shocking profusion of bises. Actually, it is the minimum number of bises ever given by any French person in any century. "We use vous," she continues. This formality is, however, no reflection on the intensity of their friendship. No doubt for Derrida it merely indicates the multiplicity inherent in all subjects. But for MG, there is another rationale: "I have never dared go beyond that barrier."
MG does not dare. Derrida is a Presence to be reckoned with. There are questions not to be asked, requests not to be made, words not to be spoken. We are getting to her point. This is a story of "Fear and Trembling." Which is also, coincidentally, the topic of Derrida's lecture, which MG recounts briefly.
The Scene of the Reading: Subtropism in the Subtropics
"The room for the lecture, an antiquated amphitheater in the geology building, is packed." Note that MG employs the tense of Presence. But she is interested only in a certain Presence. She fails to note the nature (the physis, the physicality) of Presence, the nature of the Being-Present, for the audience. The physicality of four hundred people packed into a room without ventilation. The physicality of the dismal surroundings. The physicality of the intense, penetrating heat (an intensity that does not intend like language, a penetration that does not penetrate like Logos). A physicality that amplifies itself before a word has been spoken, during the long delay as the assembled multitude awaits what they have come for: the Presence of "the philosopher." From a certain point of view, this is merely a delayed gratification, and therefore no cause for complaint. From another point of view, it is not a delay at all. "We are late because we have all been at a reception, the speaker, the colloquium organizers." Some have already received the Presence, while others wait for their reception.
"The philosopher" enters. His Presence is applauded. MG informs us that she always prepares for Derrida's lectures by reading what Derrida plans to speak (or read) about. She is the auditor made in Heaven! Knowing that it is to be his topic, she has read Kierkegaard's Fear and Trembling (on the story of Abraham's willingness to sacrifice his son Isaac). She has discovered that Kierkegaard's pseudonymous author Johannes DE SILENTIO "is ironic." She has discovered that Kierkegaard himself is ironic. She does not mention that Kierkegaard once called himself, not entirely ironically, "the master of irony" (he wrote a masters' thesis on the concept of irony).
"The philosopher" does not begin at once. The auditors are required to sit through a very long, adulatory introduction, by a certain David Wills, whom MG calls the "presenter." The presenter makes a feeble attempt to sound like an intellectual on LSD, but no one is convinced. The presenter concludes his remarks by present-ing Derrida, who is then fully Present. "The philosopher" begins to speak, or rather, to read. This is "lecture" in the sens litteral. He spends several hours reading the long text, one that is obviously written for publication—not for oral delivery, in English translation, to this particular group of auditors in this particular Geology Auditorium, in, as MG would have it, this "City of Flayed Skins." As MG notes of Derrida at one point, "I have listened to him intently for years." The audience knew the feeling very well that night. Even MG shows some awareness of the conditions of Derrida's Presence. At one point she herself rises to the level of irony: "I am painfully aware of sacrifices. We have been sitting for two hours." But, in general, MG is overwhelmed by what merely bathes others in sweat. She takes copious notes. As she exclaims at one point: "I am on my third pen— blue, black, red."
The title of Derrida's text is "Gift of Death—the Secrets of European Responsibility." The Gift of Death!—no doubt after several hours many in the audience began to pray for that gift. As the temperature soared and the oxygen-supply plummeted, some may have indeed come close to the ultimate sacrifice. We auditors became, collectively, Isaac, the child. We followed obediently, like little lambs. Our Father, Derri-DaDa finally spared us. He finally stepped back from the Altar of Sacrifice (a table conveniently and tellingly placed before him).
What do we make of the reference to "European Responsibility"? It would not be difficult to conclude that Derrida, in subjecting the audience to such torture, was one irresponsible European. But this would be a merely ethical judgment. We had entered the realm of the Father, the realm of the Teleological Suspension of the Ethical. So the audience had no right to complain. What may not be entirely clear is the nature of the Telos for which Derrida so harshly suspended the ethical. There could be only one possible justification: that the entire event, the Presence of the philosopher, was a brilliant joke. Derrida's experiment: to see how long an audience could remain passive, could suffer, could offer itself sacrificially, hoping to be magically impregnated by the logoi spermatikoi, the seeds of his Logos, the phallic wisdom of the philosopher. Derrida would, through his ironic persistence in such a travesty, reveal the absurdity of his own power.
Unfortunately, this is only wishful thinking. The Spirit of Gravity prevailed. As Kierkegaard pointed out, the ethical is not suspended for the sake of the aesthetic. MB got her categories right. She reports that the reading was about the " mysterium tremendum." But it is clear that for her the true mysterium tremendum is Derrida himself. She exhibits a truly religious awe. It is for that reason that there are questions that "cannot" be asked of him. She calls him "the philosopher," unquestionable comparing Derrida to the Aristotle of scholasticism, the ultimate authority-figure among thinkers. But this reference, though not without validity, is deceptive. Is not the definition of a "philosopher" one to whom one poses questions—any and all questions? It is obvious that Derrida is seen as more than a mere "philosopher." As we shall discover, he is the One with the Secret Name, the Name that she cannot utter.
After several hours of reading, "the philosopher" stops, and the event is over. No questions are allowed, from the audience any more than from MG. The tired, damp throng files out. They may go forth into the world and report that they experienced the Presence of Derrida.
Whose Presence was this? It was not that of Jacques Derider, everybody's favorite pen-pal, the Jacques who cracked us up, and himself, in La Carte Postale. Not that of the deconstructor of onto-logo-theo-phallo-centrism. It was the Presence of "Jacques Derrida," "the philosopher," and more than philosopher, the One with the Secret Name. It was a logocentric Presence. It was a theological Presence. It was a phallic Presence. MG writes of "monolinguisme" but she does not write of monotheism or monolingamism.
Who is this "Maria" and whose Name does she announce by its absence? She remarks that his words—his Logos—"take me to familiar places where Derrida has been before—don, crypte, secret." What gift does he give? Into what secret places does he go? Does he leave stains? Or does he give immaculately? Will he come again?
Strangely, MG finds it worth noting that colloquium-participant Gayatri Spivak's "voice is not Derrida's but her own," and that "her garment . . . fits her perfectly." (She does not note that Spivak had dyed her hair purple). Of Derrida's garment we hear nothing, except perhaps a faint echo of "if I may but touch his garment . . . . "
It should be clear now that the Presence of the One with the Secret Name was a service. The audience's reception of "the philosopher" was also a service. But we hear much more about services.
MG proposes politely to Derrida: "Je voudrais vous demander un service." The favor is the interview, and perhaps a chance to pose the Corpse's killer question. But no! Derrida declines, because "he's tired" and "he fears interviews"! Un-huh, let's not scare Derrida. Apparently, "the philosopher" has not entirely lost his sense of humor. Taking his latter comment seriously, MG suggests foregoing the interview and "instead producing a summary of the lecture." Why MG thinks that readers of Exquisite Corpse would be interested in her notes on a text certain to be published in full is not clear. In any case, she gives up on the interview. "Je ne voudrais rein faire pour incommoder un ami de longue date," she remarks, generously. But despite an amitie de longue conservation, Derrida doesn't mind imposing considerable inconvenience on poor MG. In lieu of an interview he demands of her three pens (blue, black, and red) worth of incommodite! MG says, later, "I only condone those [sacrifices] that are symbolic and leave no red stains." But here it is, a copious sacrifice of stains: black and blue, red. Jacques! Jacques! A paltry pair of bises and then this!
Later Derrida turns the tables on MG: "J'ai un service a vous demander," he declares. It concerns his son. As MG puts it, "He has spent three hours talking about a father sacrificing his son, and he cannot help from thinking of his own." Perhaps the three-hour lecture was Derrida's mnemonic device for reminding himself that he had to send a letter to his son. "He needs to have a letter Fed-Exed to his younger son, with a photocopy of the genitor's National Identity Card, for an official purpose which needs [sic] not be disclosed." MG is a good friend, and is happy to accommodate "the genitor." A more calculating would-be interviewer might take advantage of the situation and tell "the genitor": I'll mail your letter under two conditions: 1) You disclose what the hell the official purpose is; and 2) You tell me whether you ever took LSD. But MG blows it, settling for the chance to see "the genitor's" I.D.
In fact, this turns out to be even more revealing [put that under erasure: "more revelatory"] than even the LSD question. As she informs the reader, she discovers something that finally gets us to the Dominant Absence of her article, and qualifies it for inclusion in the Museum of Absences. "I discover his secret name." She is getting to the climax of her story. The denouement of the Not. Derrida, we now know, is "the genitor," the Father. And we are now in the realm of the famous Name of the Father. Le Nom du P. (Pere, Phallus, Philosophe). She does not reveal to us that Name, needless to say.
Little did MG know that Derrida had played his old postal trick. He's been doing it ever since he wrote La Carte Postale, the most brilliant philosophical joke of the century. At every appearance he earnestly asks someone to send a fake I.D. to his non-existent son ("Isaac," I believe). They talk about it for months afterward in the literature departments. MG fell for it. Derrida is a master at "Faking It." "Faking Id." "Faking I.D."
Gaea Before Logos Except After Arche
But an important question remains for us. Why was Derrida called to the Geology Auditorium—the Auditorium of Gaea and Logos? The Place of Gaea before Logos? Perhaps another mnemonic device was at work. That is, a device that undoes the vice of forgetfulness (a professional vice of philosophers). An urgent message from Gaea, by way of Mnemosyne, daughter and granddaughter of Gaea. Why was he called to the Auditorium of Gaea and Logos? For "the philosopher" to bring his Logos to his Auditors, but, perhaps more importantly, to give "the philosopher" the opportunity to listen to the voice of Gaea, who comes before Logos. Perhaps because "the philosopher" in his quest for Logos—even a Logos that purports to subvert the dominant Logos—tends to overlook the Earth. It escapes his notice. Perhaps if the Earth "had taken on the figure of a very rare and tremendously large green BIRD, with a red beak, sitting in a tree on the mound, and perhaps even whistling in an unheard of manner," Derrida would have noticed it! Or perhaps that of a tremendously large green Word!
The fate that brought Derrida to the Auditorium, the place of hearing, destined us to hear his Logos and for him to hear Gaea. As "the philosopher" droned on, Gaea took her revenge. The heat of her anger pervaded the atmosphere. Could he hear the groaning of Gaea, the flowing of her salty waters? The Word is indeed Flesh. The Soul is indeed something about the Body. About the Terrestrial Body also.
1Antonin Artaud: Selected Writings, ed. Susan Sontag. (Berkeley: Univ. of California, 1976), p. 391.