The Interpreters of Maladies

The Interpreters of Maladies

Derrida was often misunderstood, but rarely worse than in his New York Times obituary. Ross Benjamin explains, in a web-only feature.


When Marx wrote, “The philosophers have only interpreted the world in various ways; the point, however, is to change it,” he was not only taking a swipe at philosophers. He was slighting interpretation itself, as if thinking were an idle affair compared to action, where real men make their mark on the world. In fact, the act of interpretation is always an act, sometimes a veritable event, and, in rare instances, a harbinger of far-reaching changes. Maxime Rodinson, the distinguished scholar of the Arab and Muslim world who died at age 89 in Marseille on May 23, and Jacques Derrida, the philosopher of deconstruction who died at age 74 in Paris on October 8, were two of the most inspired interpreters of our time.

At first glimpse, Rodinson and Derrida would appear to have little in common. Rodinson was a student of Islamic history, Derrida of Western philosophy. Rodinson wrote to unveil the secrets of a world dimly understood by Europeans, Derrida to expose the hidden contradictions and incoherencies of what seemed most transparent about the canons of Western thought. The director of studies in the “historical ethnography of the Near East” at the prestigious École des Hautes Études in Paris, Rodinson was a proud heir of the tradition of Orientalist scholarship despite his sharp political differences with some of its practitioners; though universally admired in his field, he was hardly known outside it. Derrida, by contrast, was a glamorous maverick who attracted an international following for an idea that few could understand and that he himself seemed wary to spell out. Deconstruction’s air of enigma only enhanced its appeal, as it “disseminated” (a favorite Derrida verb) into fields as disparate as architecture, theology, political theory, musicology, history, film and, of course, literary criticism, where it was even more influential than in Derrida’s own discipline, which has resisted deconstruction as if it were a virus in philosophy’s hard drive.

Where Rodinson was a fervent rationalist in the Enlightenment mold, Derrida relentlessly questioned the universality of Western reason, and at times displayed a streak of Jewish mysticism. While Rodinson wrote in a prose of impeccable lucidity, Derrida cultivated a style that was highly metaphoric, elusive, gnomic, teeming with paradox and wordplay, at times opaque to the point of self-parody (“Therefore we will be incoherent, but without systematically resigning ourselves to incoherence”). In their approach to ideas they could hardly have been more different.

And yet there were deeper affinities. Both were left-wing, cosmopolitan Jews whose intellectual adventures–whose very identities–were shaped by what Derrida called “the passion of writing,” which, in his view, defined a “certain Judaism,” diasporic, itinerant, self-questioning, rooted in a fierce attachment to the Book rather than to the Land. (Isaac Deutscher would have described both men as “non-Jewish Jews,” rebels against the constraints of religious tribalism.) Both were in love with language–Rodinson spoke thirty languages, including Arabic, Hebrew, Turkish and ancient Ethiopian; Derrida wrote about literature and poetry as often as he did about philosophy–and both were practitioners of exegesis, influenced, if only distantly, by the traditions of Talmudic scholarship. And as writers and citizens, both men sought to bridge the gap–without eliding the differences and tensions, in the name of some pious liberalism–between Arab and Jew, and between the intricate formations of culture and politics that we lazily call “East” and “West.” The critique of Western ethnocentrism to which Rodinson contributed so formidably went hand in hand with the critique of Western metaphysics for which Derrida became renowned, as the philosopher himself acknowledged. Their projects were part of a long-overdue humbling of the West in the age of decolonization, a humbling that strengthened the foundations of the Enlightenment by holding it up to its own universalist standards.

“Maxime Rodinson is dead, but his work is not,” the Algerian historian Mohammed Harbi wrote in an obituary in Le Monde. Indeed, if the French have pursued a far-sighted, balanced policy in the Middle East, it is partly because men like Jacques Chirac and Dominique de Villepin have listened to the sober wisdom of Rodinson and protégés like Gilles Kepel and Olivier Roy, rather than to the purring assurances of Fouad Ajami and Bernard Lewis.

Rodinson was born in 1915 in Marseille, the son of Russian-Polish working-class immigrants. Rodinson’s parents were Communists, and he, too, joined the party as a young man. Yet it was not revolutionary Russia, the land of his parents, that captured his imagination but the Middle East. After studying at the École des Langues Orientales in Paris, Rodinson landed a job at the French Institute in Damascus–a haven, in 1940, from the gathering flames of French anti-Semitism. Eight years later he returned to France an orphan, his parents having been deported to Auschwitz by the Vichy authorities.

The murder of his parents did not, however, lead Rodinson to embrace Zionism, whose support among Jews had swiftly grown after the Holocaust, and whose triumph would ultimately lead to the expulsion of over 700,000 Palestinian Arabs–the Palestinian Nakba, or “catastrophe.” If anything, the creation of Israel made him feel “a special duty” toward the people it had dispossessed: “I prefer to link myself to Judaism in this manner rather than others.” As he put it:

I would be the last to minimize the atrocity of Auschwitz, where my father and mother perished. But don’t the tears of others count? Must I turn a blind eye to the tears caused by those who call themselves–and are to some degree–my congeners, even if they too are survivors of Auschwitz?… I am not saying…that it has attained the dimensions of Auschwitz, but many Jews have made many tears flow in the land of Palestine.”

Vilified by his detractors as an uncritical apologist for the Arabs, he was nothing of the kind. “I have never subscribed to all the political attitudes, tactics, and strategies of the Arabs,” he once said. “Arab intellectuals are well aware of this, and some of them have accused me…of being anti-Arab, anti-Islam, and even guilty of a crypto-Zionism all the more dangerous for its subtlety. The parallel between the apologetic methods (both defensive and offensive) of Zionism and those of the extreme forms of Arab nationalism, or of any nationalism for that matter, is striking.”

Rodinson’s experience in the Communist Party, with which he broke over Stalinism in 1958, left him with a horror of dogma and led him to renounce “the narrow subordination of efforts at lucidity to the exigencies of mobilization, even for just causes.” From then on, he was a free man, and in the following decade Rodinson published some of the seminal texts in Middle Eastern studies, including Mohammed (1961), a biography still banned in parts of the Arab world for approaching the Prophet’s life from a sociological perspective, and Islam and Capitalism (1966), a study of the economic decline of Muslim societies. Although he remained an independent (or, as he quipped, “agnostic”) Marxist, he appreciated the powerful role that religion played in the Arab world at a time when many European leftist observers of the region preferred to see it as a form of false consciousness that would melt into air once the Arab masses awakened to their “true” class interests.

After the 1967 Arab-Israeli war, Rodinson distinguished himself as a leading champion of the Palestinian struggle for self-determination, publishing a major article in Jean-Paul Sartre’s journal, Les Temps modernes, under the title “Israël, fait colonial,” and establishing the Groupe de Recherches et d’Actions pour la Palestine with his colleague Jacques Berque, the renowned scholar of the Maghreb. The bravery of Rodinson’s position at the time can hardly be overstated, and not only because he was Jewish. In 1967, owing in large part to guilt over the Holocaust, Israel still enjoyed the unconditional support of much of the European left, including Sartre. By contrast, as Rodinson sadly observed in an interview with a PLO-affiliated journal, pro-Palestinian sentiment in the West tended to be confined to the anti-Semitic right and the Maoist fringes of the left: “Are these the milieux that you want to win over?” Thus did he urge the Palestinians to take their case to liberal Europeans and not “simply write off people who, at a given moment, have expressed sentiments of sympathy towards Israel and the Israeli people.” He also warned, presciently but with less success, that “in the ardor of the ideological struggle against Zionism, those Arabs most influenced by a Muslim religious orientation would seize upon the old religious and popular prejudices against the Jews in general” and further tarnish the reputation of a just cause in the West. “The question is whether the Arabs want to continue to accord Zionism such valuable assistance.”

Though unwavering in his support of Palestinian rights, Rodinson made no secret of his disagreements with the PLO; and because he offered his counsel as a friend, he earned the trust and respect of his interlocutors. To be sure, the Palestinian people have suffered no shortage of friends since the 1982 Israeli invasion of Lebanon, when liberal opinion in the West began to turn overwhelmingly against the occupation and in favor of a Palestinian state. But, like the Kurds, they have had few friends who have spoken to them as honestly as Rodinson did. He sought to disabuse his contacts in the PLO of their most dangerous illusions, starting with the idea that Israel’s Jews could be driven out by guerrilla warfare, as the colons had been in Algeria. While he regarded Israel as a colonial-settler state, the creation of the state was now a fact, and “the time for questioning its wisdom is past. A tree must be judged by its fruits.” Israeli Jews were an ethno-national community, not, as he remarked in a 1969 speech before the Egyptian Popular Assembly, “a heterogeneous collection of gangs of occupiers who could be sent back where they came from with the greatest of ease.” As such, Israeli Jews had collective rights which Palestinians would have to honor in order to secure a just and lasting peace: “If there are two or more ethnic groups in the same country, and if the danger of the domination of one by the other is to be avoided, then both these groups must be represented as distinct communities at the political level, and each must be accorded the right to defend its interests and aspirations.”

While speaking frankly to his Palestinian friends, Rodinson never forgot on whose side lay the preponderance of power–and therefore responsibility. Israel, he stressed, could not turn its back on its neighbors and pretend that it was a part of Europe, nor could it forever postpone a reckoning with the injustices it had committed against the Palestinian people. Until Israel faced these facts, all its paeans to peace would ring hollow in the Arab world:

Instead of simply demanding, as it has done for 20 years, that the Arabs accept its presence as a fait accompli, it could offer, in the name of fairness, to compensate for the injustice that has been done…. The Jewish state is no longer a dream built on a 2,000 year old myth; it is a national fact, build on a few decades of hard work and suffering. But the only chance it has of gaining the acceptance it so craves from its neighbors is by adopting a language of conciliation and compromise…. Could there be some hope that these people, who declare themselves to be builders and planters above all else, might choose this path to survival?

Like Rodinson, Jacques Derrida was profoundly troubled by what he described as “the disastrous and suicidal policies of Israel–and of a certain Zionism.” This sense of torment, of being at odds with so many of his fellow Jews, meant that “I have a hard time saying ‘we.'” Yet, “in spite of all this and all the problems I have with my own ‘Jewishness,’ I will never deny it…. This tortured ‘we,'” he added, “is at the heart of all that is most disquieting in my thought.”

Unlike Rodinson, Derrida came from the Muslim world, a native of El Biar in French colonial Algeria. The Egyptian-Jewish writer Edmund Jabès, he would later write, “teaches us that roots speak, that words want to grow, and that poetic discourse takes root in a wound.” Derrida’s poetic discourse grew out of the wound of his traumatic exile from Algeria, which he left for Paris at age 19 to attend the École Normale Supérieure. The link between an author’s work and his biography is, to be sure, complex, and sometimes tenuous, and Derrida long shied away from discussing his personal life, and from even having his picture taken. But in his last years he finally began to speak of his Algerian childhood, of being a Jew in a colonial society, and acknowledged that “my own life and desires are inscribed in all of my writing.”

The son of a salesman, he was born Jackie Derrida (he later adopted a “correct” French version of his name) in 1930. The Derridas were Spanish Sephardim who fled to Algeria during the Inquisition. (In his work Derrida expressed a special kinship with Marrand, a fourteenth-century Jew who practiced his religion in secret.) Neither European settlers nor Muslims, they were a people-in-between, raising suspicions on both sides of the progressively hardening native-settler divide. The predicament of Algeria’s Jews, who numbered more than 100,000 by the mid-twentieth century, had been further complicated by the 1870 Crémieux Decrees, which granted them French citizenship–a reform that elicited furious protests from anti-Semitic pieds noirs, while driving a wedge between Jewish Algerians and the disenfranchised Muslim majority, with whom they had enjoyed peaceful relations for centuries.

“I took part in an extraordinary transformation of French Judaism in Algeria,” Derrida recalled in a recent interview. “My great-grandparents were still very close to the Arabs by language, customs, etc. After the Crémieux Decrees…the next generation became bourgeois: although she was married almost secretly in the backyard of the mayor of Algiers because of the pogroms during the Dreyfus Affair, my grandmother raised her daughters as if they were bourgeois Parisians, with the good manners of the 16th arrondissement.” By the time Derrida was born, the family spoke neither Ladino nor Arabic but French, having passionately assimilated the language of their colonizers. “That is why,” he explained, “there is in my writing a somewhat violent, not to say perverse, way of treating this language. Because of love…I only have one language, and at the same time this language does not belong to me.”

The renaissance of French-Algerian Judaism came to a sudden end in 1940, with the rise of Vichy. Goaded by anti-Semitic pieds noirs, the Vichy authorities in Algeria annulled the Crémieux Decrees, and within a year Derrida was expelled from school. “French culture is not made for little Jews,” his teacher informed him. Abandoned by the European community, the Derridas received comfort from their Muslim neighbors, who, unlike many colonized peoples and to their lasting credit, refused to ally themselves with the Axis powers against their colonial masters; Derrida never forgot this experience, which gave him a more nuanced, less fatalistic perspective on Arab-Jewish relations than that of many of his co-religionists in France.

Away from school, the young man developed a passion for philosophy, partly in rebellion against the synagogue he attended with his parents:

There were aspects of Judaism I loved–the music, for instance. Nonetheless, I started resisting religion as a young adolescent, not in the name of atheism, but because…religion as it was practiced in my family…struck me as thoughtless, just blind repetitions…. Then when I was 13, I read Nietzsche for the first time, and though I didn’t understand him completely, he made a big impression on me. The diary I kept then was filled with quotations from Nietzsche and Rousseau, who was my other god at the time.

After the Allies landed in Algiers, Derrida resumed his education, and the Crémieux Decrees were restored. Yet life in French Algeria was never the same again. Having contributed to the defeat of fascism as soldiers in De Gaulle’s Free French Forces, Algeria’s Muslims began to rebel against the French occupation of their own country. The first clashes took place on V-Day, 1945, when dozens of Europeans died in pro-independence demonstrations. With help from pied noir “ultras,” the French Army proceeded to slaughter tens of thousands of Muslims in the towns of Sétif and Guelma–“the first serious outbursts heralding the Algerian war” that broke out nine years later, as Derrida recalled. Following the 1945 massacres, Algerian politics increasingly hinged on a zero-sum struggle between settlers and natives–on what Derrida famously called a “binary opposition.”

Where did Jews like the Derridas fit into this equation? After all, they had benefited from assimilation, only to be cruelly betrayed by Algeria’s French population; and though they were “natives,” not colons, they were not Muslims, and they had come to identify fervently with French republicanism. Apart from a tiny minority of Algerian-Jewish radicals who joined the FLN, most Jews either sided with the European community or adopted an impossible position of neutrality. When Algeria achieved independence in 1962, Derrida’s family joined the general exodus of Jews to France.

Derrida was already in Paris, making a name for himself as a daring interpreter of Husserl and Heidegger. Still, it is more than possible that his suspicion of binary oppositions (between writing and speech, philosophy and literature, self and other, and, much to the chagrin of his colleagues in philosophy, sense and nonsense) arose from his family’s liminal status in colonial Algeria. It is also likely that Derrida’s sensitivity to the contradictions of even the most stable systems arose from having witnessed, in his youth, the transformation of an entire way of life that had once seemed eternal. What, in a 1966 lecture at Johns Hopkins, he would call “play”–code for the subtle shifts and realignments that subvert every structure, whether of thought, language, government or economy–had exposed the instability of Algérie Française and would ultimately trigger a “rupture” of historic proportions.

That now famous talk was titled “Structure, Sign and Play in the Discourse of the Human Sciences,” and it amounted to a direct and insouciant challenge to the eminent anthropologist Claude Lévi-Strauss, whose theory of “structuralism” had cast a spell over French historians, sociologists, literary critics and philosophers with its vision of self-regulating, perfectly articulated structures of language, custom and politics. As Derrida pointed out, structuralism could explain brilliantly why systems survived, but not why they changed. Because they emphasized structure at the expense of play, Lévi-Strauss and his disciples could only “conceive of the origin of a new structure on the model of catastrophe.” The idea of a structure with a center, he argued, merely “expresses the force of a desire.” For Derrida, nothing in life is stable, nothing is impervious to the subversions of play–not political systems, not language, not meaning itself.

Derrida took play seriously; it was a synonym, really, for the unexpected reversals of history with which he was intimately acquainted. Even at his most somber, this spirit infused Derrida’s work, whether he was writing on Plato, Heidegger, Stéphane Mallarmé, Freud, Artaud or the American Declaration of Independence. In his writing he developed a voice as original as Jean-Luc Godard’s–alternately inspired and maddening, animated by a similarly Joycean predilection for puns and collages of association, and a melancholy fascination with specters of the past that haunt the present, or “traces,” as Derrida called them. The two men also shared an interest in the French-Jewish philosopher Emmanuel Levinas, whose ruminations on the dialectic of Self and Other figure prominently in Godard’s latest film, Notre Musique, a beautifully fractured meditation on the wars in Bosnia and Israel-Palestine.

Derrida’s undisguised delight in play led him to be accused of the sins of “relativism” and “nihilism.” In fact, he had a high regard for truth and for the protocols of scholarship. If he sought to shake the certainties of philosophy, it was not out of a sense of nihilism, or even anarchist mischief, but rather a principled distrust of orthodoxies. Humility about the limits of our knowledge is among the central lessons one draws from Derrida, who, by all accounts, was a deeply modest, generous and fragile man, haunted throughout his life by a sense of his own mortality. In a touching interview published a few months before his death from pancreatic cancer, Derrida told Jean Birnbaum of Le Monde that “to do philosophy is to learn how to die…. I believe in this truth without having surrendered to it…. I haven’t learned to accept death.”

Another charge that stalked Derrida throughout his career was that he was an enemy of the Enlightenment, indeed of reason itself, and that deconstruction was a sinister anti-Western doctrine. It is true, of course, that Derrida lambasted the philosophical tradition for having marginalized “women, children, animals and slaves.” In a 1974 essay, he notoriously described metaphysics as a “white mythology which reassembles and reflects the culture of the West,” a mythology “the white man takes…for the universal form of…Reason.” Deconstruction was, he proudly declared, “a gesture of distrust with respect to Eurocentrism,” as well as to “phallogocentrism.”

Not surprisingly, feminist and post-colonial literary critics drew inspiration from Derrida’s critique of “white mythologies.” More often than not, however, they overlooked the profound tribute his work paid to the Western canon; his distrust was that of a lover, not a prosecutor. As Derrida pointed out, “even when [deconstruction] is directed against something European, it is European…. Since the Enlightenment, Europe has always criticized itself, and in this perfectible heritage, there is a chance for the future.” In an age of uncontested American dominance, he said in one of his last interviews, Europe “has responsibilities to assume, for the future of humanity, for that of international law–that is my faith, my belief.” Among these responsibilities, he argued, was the creation of a European army independent of NATO, “neither offensive nor defensive nor preventive,” that “would intervene without delay in the service of resolutions finally respected by a new UN (for example, in all urgency, in Israel, but also elsewhere).”

In his political commitments, he displayed the same rigorous skepticism that defined his writing. While he spoke out on behalf of the oppressed–Czechs under Stalinism, South Africans under apartheid, Palestinians under occupation, Algerians under military rule–he kept his distance from political parties and never glorified “revolutionary” states or exalted political violence, unlike many French intellectuals of his generation, notably his colleague and rival Michel Foucault. And, as he affirmed his fundamental attachment to the ideals of the Enlightenment late in his career, he came around to the view that some things could not be deconstructed, among them friendship, justice and–though he was not a believer–the “name of God,” a metaphor for “the unconditional,” and for the promise of redemption. As he explained: “We are by nature messianic. We cannot not be, because we exist in a state of expecting something to happen. Even if we’re in a state of hopelessness, a sense of expectation is an integral part of our relationship to time.”

This sense of expectation, he said, was not faith-based, and

does not belong to any determined religion. The conflict with Iraq involved numerous religious elements, from all sides–from the Christian side as well as from the Muslim side. What I call messianicity without messianism is a call, a promise of an independent future for what is to come, and which comes like every messiah in the shape of peace and justice, a promise independent of religion, that is to say universal. A promise independent of the three religions when they oppose each other, since in fact it is a war between three Abrahamic religions. A promise beyond the Abrahamic religions, universal, without relation to revelations or to the history of religions.”

Amen, Jackie, and adieu.

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