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  • Tracing Calculation [Calque Calcul] Between Nicolas Abraham and Jacques Derrida
  • Lawrence Johnson

To calculate the loss—is this the challenge that Nicolas Abraham has given to Jacques Derrida? Between 1959 and 1975, the year of Abraham’s unexpected death, they were close friends, sharing what Elisabeth Roudinesco describes as “a marginal position in relation to the dominant philosophical discourse of the day, and an almost identical syntax” (599). Yet it can hardly be said that they participated together in an intellectual movement in the same way that Abraham and his wife Maria Torok—and, latterly, Nicholas Rand—had done. Texts such as De la grammatologie, L’ecriture et la différence, and La voix et le phénomène (1967) elevated Derrida to a position of eminence among French theorists; Abraham, however, remained virtually unknown outside French psychoanalysis until after his death. Only a fraction of his work was published during his lifetime and that was primarily in essay form. It was not until 1976, the year after his death, with the publication of Cryptonymie: Le Verbier de l’Homme aux Loups, that Abraham’s work became more widely known. Interestingly, Derrida himself may have contributed to the marked disparity between the levels of recognition that Abraham’s work received before and after his death. He refers rarely, if at all, to Abraham in his own work before 1975. Then, in two interviews at the end of the same year, he refers directly to Abraham’s work; he writes the foreword to Cryptonymie the following year; within four years he writes another essay, “Me—Psychoanalysis,” to introduce the English translation of Abraham’s “The Shell and the Kernel”; and, in the last two decades, references to the ideas of a crypt within the ego and the anasemic character of psychoanalytic language are made usually, though not always, in connection with Abraham’s name—in La carte postale, Psyché, The Ear of the Other, Donner la mort, Donner le temps, and elsewhere. What Roudinesco describes as an “identical syntax” might seem to us, when laid out in this way, more like a compensation or a reaction-formation in the direction of Derrida’s own project.

Yet nothing is gained by asking whether Derrida’s interventions contributed to Abraham’s belated recognition. Since his death, immediately prior to the publication of his most famous account of failed mourning, it has been almost impossible for the responses to Abraham’s work to divorce the theory of the crypt from his name and, therefore, from the life for which this name purports to have signed. Remarkably, of the many occasions on which Derrida refers to Abraham and his work, after his death, none refer directly to this death. As Peggy Kamuf noted soon after the publication of Abraham and Torok’s collection of essays in 1978 (L’ecorce et le noyau), Derrida’s foreword to Cryptonymie bears down so heavily upon the term which Abraham and Torok take as the title of this work, and upon the names of the analysts, that Derrida’s words “cut through to the stone so that we can read them as epitaph” (33). “Writing on Abraham’s crypt,” Derrida thus casts himself in the role of Abraham’s “eulogist” (34). The role of the eulogist is, of course, not to refer directly to the death, but to give praise and recall the life. Like the eulogia from which the eulogy takes its name—the bread of the Eucharist that is distributed among those who do not participate in communion—it keeps the body of the dead alive. The “fantasy of incorporation,” as Abraham and Torok described it, is just such a refusal to mourn—a refusal by the ego, that is, to introject loss:

Incorporation is the refusal to reclaim as our own the part of ourselves that we placed in what we lost; incorporation is the refusal to acknowledge the full import of the loss, a loss that, if recognized as such, would effectively transform us.

(Shell 127)

Incorporation produces the gap in the psyche which Abraham and Torok have called the crypt, a place where the lost object is to be kept alive within the ego...

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