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  • Centre-piece
  • Sarah Wood (bio)

πoν σoν θαvατɛ τo κɛντρoν πoν σoν αδη τo νıκoς

O death where is thy sting? O grave where is thy victory?

- St. Paul, 1st Letter to the Corinthians

… on dit en anglais, self-centred. En vérité je rêve depuis toujours d’écrire un texte self-centred, je n’y suis jamais arrive, je tombe toujours sur les autres, cela finira par se savoir.

- Jacques Derrida, ‘Mes chances

The word exists, therefore the feeling exists.

- Hélène Cixous, Three Steps on the Ladder of Writing.

What makes a centre is something sharp: a goad, the point of a needle or the sting of an insect. A spur, peg, rivet or pin. One becomes aware of the possibility of a point, a douleur vive, a lively pain. For the word ‘centre’ is derived from the Greek for ‘sting.’

Kentron can mean pain itself. The sting refers to an external cause of pain and to the pain as it is experienced, so it is not one but two; not two but one. And a kentron, even if it is pain and pains you or me, is not itself a perception. It arrives but it’s not given: we have to read and write towards it. For perception, as Derrida clarified in the discussion after giving ‘Structure, Sign and Play’: ‘is precisely a concept, a concept of an intuition or of a given originating from the thing itself, present itself in its meaning, independently from language as a system of reference’(Macksey and Donato 272). Sometimes, in torment, and perhaps still looking for origin and presence, I go to the dictionary.

But words have no centre. The dictionary tells me this. Figuratively a kentron is an incentive, a metaphorical goad. However there is no mention of kentron in the etymology of ‘incentive,’ which comes, according to the OED, from canere, to sing. An incentive is what makes you sing. A beautiful mistake, one suspects. But let’s make no mistake, our word kentron is the enchanted and enchanting and chance vibration of a tuning-fork in the nerves that is silence and song. It hits me-and-the-dictionary like lightning because it is part of poetry. What I am saying is: a centre has a particular relation to the part of us that is capable of feeling a desire to die. Hélène Cixous is very precise about this wish: ‘The desire to die is the desire to know; it is not the desire to disappear, and it is not suicide, it is the desire to enjoy’ (Cixous, Three Steps 34). It makes us two, she says. It follows from this, I think, that we have to be two to want to be part of the events that ensue when a poem strikes, to want to know silence from the inside. This kentron, this centre, doubles us up like a stitch.

How is it possible to know and enjoy what is not? To expand on this question I can point you to two later texts by Derrida: ‘“Che cos’è la poesia?”,’ and Archive Fever. The former gives an account of poetry as ‘a stranger to all production, especially creation,’ and the latter discusses the Freudian death drive, which is ‘an aggression and a destruction’ of a particularly thorough kind (Derrida, ‘Che’ 233 / 232; Archive Fever 11). A poem enjoins its reader: ‘destroy me [détruis-moi], or rather render my support invisible to the outside, in the world … in any case do what must be done so that the provenance of the mark remains from now on unlocatable or unrecognizable.’ It will be as if the thing Freud calls the death drive had come along, working in silence ‘to destroy [détruire] the archive: on the condition of effacing, but also with a view to effacing its own “proper traces.”‘ (Derrida, Archive Fever 10 / Mal d’archive 24.) Destruction without ruin, without trace, unreadable, completely missing but not without love: what Derrida calls poematic experience entails the forbidden knowing and enjoyment of what never happens as a kind of phenomenal allure that never was, but is all the more taken to heart, loved...