- La part de l’autre
The theme of Jean-Michel Rey’s book is the servile dependence that can arise when one human being takes another as his or her absolute model. The book focuses on the rhetorical and—in the broadest sense—economic dimensions of imaginary identification and idealization. It examines the ways in which the figure of Authority arises out of persuasion understood as the process through which individuals extend credit to those to whom they thereby subject themselves.
Rey’s investigation of this general topic takes the form of close readings of three texts by three different authors. After his brief theoretical introduction, he pursues first (for almost a third of the book) a long reading of Erasmus’s “The Ciceronian: a Dialogue on the Ideal Latin Style”; second, a somewhat shorter interpretation of various passages from the writings of Paul Valéry, mostly fragments from the Notebooks (Cahiers); third, a rather brief analysis of Étienne de la Boétie’s The Discourse of Voluntary Servitude from the mid-sixteenth century. Finally, in a medium-length chapter he includes a scattered series of brief quotations from, and discussions of, various authors covering a broad range of periods and national traditions, all of whom touch on identificatory idealization, imitation, mimesis, and related concerns.
By treating this theme of imitative dependence in terms of texts from the sixteenth and early twentieth centuries, Rey explains at the outset (3), he means to suggest that from the rise of French classicism in the seventeenth century until the late nineteenth century an ideology of liberty, or of the independent, voluntary subject, submerges the interest in patterns of dependence. Rey does not explore this interesting historical hypothesis in any detail, however, and it remains somewhat unclear exactly wherein the distinction between discourses on dependence and those on independence (i.e. [End Page 164] liberty, autonomy, etc.) is supposed to consist, especially since, on the one hand, the texts Rey analyzes by Erasmus, La Boétie, and Valéry all criticize dependence as bad heteronomy, and on the other hand, modern discourses of autonomy do not necessarily exclude all acknowledgment of partial heteronomy. But let me summarize each of the chapters and the general message they deliver before making any further evaluative remarks with respect to the work as a whole.
The chapter on Erasmus’s “Ciceronian” provides an extended description of, as well as a series of interpretive reflections on, this dialogue from 1528, in which Erasmus satirizes those writers of his day who devote themselves slavishly and laughably to Cicero alone, the imitation of whose works they take to be the necessary and sufficient condition of good writing. As Rey shows, Erasmus effectively criticizes the imaginary idealization of, and identification with, any particular writer or authority, as well as the related attempt to constitute an orthodoxy around such a figure. What makes this critique particularly pertinent to our own day, according to Rey, is that while criticizing imaginary identification, Erasmus is more than willing to acknowledge—Renaissance humanist that he is—the necessity of imitation, repetition, and borrowing: the necessity of the impropriety of speech in general. Erasmus thus serves Rey as a useful mouthpiece or model for his own message.
This message can be summed up as follows: On the one hand, the inscription of the human being in language, history, and desire entails a certain degree of alienation, non-self-coincidence, and disorientation. On the other hand, it is necessary to understand that one’s models are always self-chosen, or self-credited, and that therefore their authority does not ultimately reside in them but rather in oneself, even if one can only determine “oneself” by reference to a multiplicity of possible models. One should therefore attempt to choose those models that are in some sort of harmony with one’s own inmost tendencies, despite the vexing complication that one can know what those tendencies are only by reading them in the features of chosen models. By taking such a position, Rey situates himself somewhere between the more anti-subjectivist, “pessimistic...