- Let’s Start Again
start . . . v. i. to shoot, dart, move suddenly forth, or out: to spring up or forward: to strain forward: to break away: to make a sudden or involuntary movement as of surprise or becoming aware: to spring open, out of place, or loose: to begin to move: of a car, engine, etc. to begin to work, to fire, combust: to set forth on a journey, race, career.—v. t. to begin: to set going: to set on foot: to set up: to drive from lair or hiding place: to cause or undergo displacement or loosening of: to startle (obs.): to pour out or shoot.—n. a sudden movement: a sudden involuntary motion of the body: a startled feeling: a spurt: an outburst or fit: a beginning of movement, esp. of a journey, race, or career: a beginning: a setting in motion: a help in or opportunity of beginning: an advantage in being early or ahead: the extent of such advantage in time or distance: a beginning of building work on a new house-site. . . .—Chambers Dictionary
Ah, did you once see Shelley plain, And did he stop and speak to you And did you speak to him again? How strange it seems and new!
But you were living before that, And also you are living after; And the memory I started at— My starting moves your laughter.—Robert Browning, “Memorabilia”
The Shelley whose appearance regularly shocks Browning is, of course, a ghost. The bare fact of talking with a ghost is bound to be curious and impressive—enough to make one start. But at the same time it’s not unusual to converse with ghosts, and this generalization can be taken beyond the sphere of literature, beyond the notion of writers struggling with the mighty dead for imaginative priority, as it is conceived in Harold Bloom’s readings of Browning, for instance. Derrida insists that relationship in general requires the spectral: “[w]hat happens between two, and between all the ‘two’s’ one likes, such as between life and death, can only maintain itself with some ghost, can only talk with or about some ghost [s’entretenir de quelque fantôme]” [Derrida, Specters of Marx xviii]. Perhaps, then, what happens in and between the two books reviewed here needs to be approached in terms of ghosts and the psychoanalysis of ghosts, so powerfully thematized by Nicholas Royle. [End Page 4] Both his After Derrida and Robert Smith’s Derrida and Autobiography seek to make contact with something in writing that gets things going and produces breaks, that displaces and startles. Although each volume could still be called a monograph on Derrida, it responds to something other than a corpus.
The sense of shock, wonder, and discontinuity that makes the imagined interlocutor in “Memorabilia” laugh illuminates also something playing itself out across the reception of Derrida’s work. Part of that reception could be conceived in familiar terms—the development of a canon of what could be called Derrida commentaries, the establishment of a set of themes readily associated with Derrida studies (charlatanism, the deconstruction of a metaphysics of presence, and so on). Yet to speak with or about ghosts entails having to start reading, listening, and thinking again, in order to broach familiarity anew without innocent recourse to sheer intuition. These books also, despite their scholarly knowledge of the field, share a sense of responsibility to discuss an aspect of writing—hard to ignore in Derrida—that has begun without commentary, that gets commentary started and that subjects the movement of thought to something like fits. Whether these fits are of phobia, laughter, melancholy, delirium, or anger, their irruption marks interesting gaps in thought’s continuity. More than moods, these strange outbursts might be understood better in terms of the theory of metapsychological “phantoms.” The phantom, according to Nicolas Abraham, is “sustained by secreted words, invisible gnomes whose aim is to wreak havoc, from within the unconscious, in the coherence of logical progression” [“Notes on the Phantom” 175]. The phantom is also “alien to the subject...