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.