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C H A P T E R T W E L V E Forgiveness at the Limit Impossible or Possible? R I C H A R D K E A R N E Y Several contemporary thinkers have responded to the question of the limits of forgiveness. Jankelevitch and Primo Levi have both affirmed the impossibility of forgiving those who do not ask for forgiveness. Arendt talked of the impossibility of forgiving radical evil; and more recently Derrida has written of the impossibility of pure forgiveness tout court. Paul Ricoeur seeks an alternative response to the limit of forgiveness. In an essay entitled “Difficult Forgiveness”—which serves as epilogue to his last major work, Memory, History, Forgetting (2004)—he attempts to give due credence to the strong arguments of Derrida, Jankelevitch, and Arendt, while seeking to shift the final emphasis from “impossible” to “difficult.” (As he confesses, the key word separating his work from Derrida ’s is impossible.) In what follows I will address this contemporary debate on forgiveness at the limit, with particular reference to the question of pardon as a secret gift. I Let me begin with a short account of Derrida’s approach to forgiveness before looking to Ricoeur’s alternative reading. I believe this crucial debate 304 serves to illustrate the different moral positions adopted by hermeneutics and deconstruction at the turn of the twenty-first century. Why is pardon impossible for Derrida? We can only forgive the unforgivable , he says, and that is precisely what cannot humanly be forgiven. If someone asks for forgiveness, that person has already atoned and so does not require forgiveness. Only radical evil and hatred, the imprescriptible crime, the irreparable effect, the inexpiable act, are matters for forgiveness. Such forgiveness is therefore, for Derrida, unconditional, undeserved, and ultimately impossible.1 But if it were possible, it, and it alone, would be true. How does Derrida come to this conclusion? Pure forgiveness, if it existed , would be beyond repentance, atonement, or any account of the crime. It would include the pardoning of radical evil and would have nothing to do with reconciliation, healing, remorse, or repentance. It would be forgiveness of the “guilty as guilty”;2 and, as such, it would not be applicable to those who had repented or apologized (and were therefore no longer guilty). Conditional forgiveness is not forgiveness, argues Derrida, because it is “corrupted” by calculations of the weight of crime and punishment. Unconditional forgiveness, by contrast, would involve forgiving the unforgivable (pace Arendt and Jankelevitch) and is impossible. It has nothing to do with judgment, punishment, or recompense. It is beyond laws, norms, and obligations. Even the Abrahamic account of forgiveness is ultimately compromised, Derrida suggests, in that it introduces the notion of pardon in proportion to repentance and, so doing, limits its own ostensible message of pure gratuity and generosity. True unconditional forgiveness is madness, a private and inaccessible event, never a matter of public or political action. It lies beyond the logic of rights or duties. Unconditional and conditional forgiveness are, Derrida concludes, irreducibly heterogeneous and irreconcilable.3 Forgiveness calls for a “hyperbolic ethics” beyond ethics. And in this sense Derrida holds out forgiveness as an impossible ideal, even as he admits that in everyday life and history we have to engage in acts of pardon “in a series of conditions of all kinds (‘psycho-sociological, political’ etc.).”4 But the problem, as I see it, is that there is no way for Derrida to transit or translate between the conditional and unconditional. There are no criteria, mediations, or orientations . Pardon is, at best, a leap in the dark, a form of insane guesswork or indiscriminate decision. All we know is that we can forgive only the Forgiveness at the Limit 305 unforgivable, except perhaps for the unforgiving, namely those who refuse to forgive. And this, of course, places a heavy burden to forgive on the victims of radical evil while affirming that all perpetrators of radical evil be unconditionally forgiven. This seems unjust, to say the least; but we must remember that we are not talking here of what is possible. Maybe pure forgiveness has little to do with real human beings, since it is unrealizable in any case?5 Who knows? II Ricoeur takes Derrida’s account on board while moving from the impossible to the possible. From the outset, Ricoeur confesses that his analysis will be formulated in the “optative” mood. It will operate under...


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