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For most literary critics, I rather suspect, Rodolphe Gasché’s new book will prove daunting. Steeped in the history of philosophy and blessed with keen analytical powers on frequently dazzling display here, Gasché will prove less formidable to philosophers, who are, after all, his principal audience. He argues cogently that those of us in literature have—owing to our lack of knowledge of philosophy, the conversation it has instigated and sustained, and its multiform strategies—systematically misunderstood Derrida’s works, which (he claims) we have all too easily appropriated and co-opted. But Gasché’s interest lies less in correcting literary critics than in saving Derrida for philosophy. In the event Gasché shows that a literary scholar can do philosophical analysis and “the work of thinking,” and he shows up philosophers because too few of them have treated Derrida with the seriousness that he deserves.
Gasché, in fact, opens this “companion volume” to his earlier The Tain of the Mirror, with questions concerning the issues and strategies that have perplexed and irritated philosophers and that students of literature have shown an inability, or at least impatience, to confront solidly:
How does one approach works of thought whose singularity has most often provoked either a violent hostility or a mechanical imitation that obscures them from our sight? From what angle does one look at these works, so markedly different from standard modes of thinking and exposition, which not only ponder questions of difference and singularity, but put these questions into action? How does one read works that do not limit themselves to making a point, but also perform and enact it? And finally, what do these works that fail and frustrate given expectations, that meditate on the rules of breaking the rules, expect from the critic? What place do they assign their readers? For what mode of relating do they call?
In calm, measured, painstaking, philosophical prose, Gasché tackles these questions and offers responsible answers. Ultimately, his is little less a performative act than Derrida’s, for he answers the philosopher’s [End Page 413] call and responds responsibly, precisely the concern of the last piece (they are all misnamed essays) gathered here, the one toward which the book seems structured to move-it’s called “On Responding Responsibly.” Along the way, Gasché carefully takes up such issues as Derrida’s relation to (the philosophical) tradition, the meaning of difference in his work, the place of reason in it, and where God may figure in it.
Though I don’t accept all of Gasché’s charges leveled at literary critics, I come away convinced by much of his argument (happily, he names few names). He succeeds, surely, in establishing Derrida as serious, as worthy of the most thoughtful and scrupulous attention, as participating in the conversation that constitutes, defines, and perhaps even privileges but certainly honors philosophy. Gasché shows himself remarkably learned (though not pedantic)-as much at ease in treating Hegel, Heidegger, and Kant as in moving thoughtfully among Derrida’s texts. Gasché is a skillful deconstructor-his discussion and enactment of deconstruction in the well-known piece “Deconstruction as Criticism,” first published in 1979, may be the most authoritative exposition of the work and implications of the arche-trace yet produced. I come away from it sixteen years later with my understanding clarified and modified-and myself rebuked. I wish I had earlier been able to read it as I do now.
I come away from the book as a whole feeling educated, as well as in awe. As he demolishes certain myths concerning deconstruction and establishes Derrida’s place in philosophy, Gasché helps ensure the latter’s importance, which, for various reasons and in various ways, has recently been questioned. I don’t know, though, how many of us in literature will be willing to exert the effort truly to come to terms with this book (Gasché’s point precisely regarding Derrida); and I wonder how many philosophers will even acknowledge its presence.
I might have wished that Gasché at least...