MD Kerr

Passions: a tangential offering

Published in Postmodern Culture 5.3, 2005

I read Derrida's Passions: An Oblique Offering in translation. Je lus or Je lis will be a difficulty for a French translator to resolve or to leave open [thus]. The ambiguity of 'I read' is my right as an English writer (though not as a speaker), but by what right do I write ‘Derrida's Passions: An Oblique Offering'? He wrote none of this text:

David Wood… sugests to me [m'offre] that these pages be entitled ‘An Oblique Offering.' He had even printed it beforehand on the projected Table of Contents of the complete manuscript before I had written a line of this text.

Should I ascribe this quotation to (Derrida, 1995:12) or to (Wood, 1995:12)? Derrida's only words are in square brackets which are not his. This is no mere rite: I respond to ‘response' without parenthesising the parentheses. It is not polite to accuse Derrida of words he did not write, but I raise the question not as a gesture, from duty or out of politeness, but out of love. This opposition – love vs gestures, duty, politeness – is crucial, as is the object of love: right now, love of Derrida and love of meaning. May I say I love Derrida, whom I have not met; by what right; what do I mean by that? I will have to defend my love of meaning and my love of Derrida in order to say, ‘I read Derrida's Passions: An Oblique Offering in translation',but for now, you know what I mean, I read Derrida's Passions: An Oblique Offering in translation:


Expotential reading: the ghost-texts of disagreement

I begin by enacting the ritual of the critical reader with which this text opens:

Friendship as well as politeness would enjoin a double duty: would it not precisely be to avoid at all cost both the language of ritual and the language of duty? Duplicity, the being-double of this duty, cannot be added up as a 1 + 1 =3D 2 or a 1 + 2, but on the contrary hollows itself out in an infinite abyss. (7) [1]

Let us leave politeness aside for a moment. There is no such abyss in friendship, Jacques. Only if the feeling,the relational motivation, the titular passions, is missing does ‘duty' come into play as a poor substitute, the letter of the law. The ‘abyss' recurs:

Taken seriously, this hypothesis… would make one tremble, it could also paralyze one at the edge of the abyss, there where you would be alone, all alone or already caught up in a struggle with the other, an other who would seek in vain to hold you back or to push you into the void,to save you or to lose you. (8)

It hollows itself out only if the relational motivation is absent. The ‘abyss' is anti-relational; if you are ‘all alone or already caught up in a struggle with the other' then appears the abyss, the hollow friendship, for friendship is already absent and duty fails to wholly supply the lack. The Passions of the title is also the Passion of Christ, a theological intervention that this article nevertheless lacks, and which ‘What is a “Relevant” translation?' (Derrida/Venuti, 2001) addresses repeatedly. The Passion of Christ heralded, theologically, the coming of grace, of a love that is higher than the law – the Spirit and not the Letter: ‘(literal circumcision of the flesh versus ideal and interior circumcision of the heart, Jewish circumcision versus Christian circumcision, the whole debate surrounding Paul)' (ibid, 194)

Already reading a different text to that written by Derrida, I am now doing so perversely: the word duty, already split into duty/ devoir, doubles again, for here, I say, there is no such duty, thereis love. Henceforward, I see each mention of ‘duty' as perhaps duty, perhaps love, and choose my interpretation by relating it back to the countertext that I am reading, which is no longer Derrida's Passions: An Oblique Offering, which I nevertheless continue to read simultaneously. The next disagreement, arising in both, increases these ghost-texts (res in potentia) exponentially.

One cannot simply count expotential readings – every word is an opportunity for a new text to spring up, but I single out a few, which I divide, though they are concurrent, into two groups: in the first group, I disagree with Derrida's meaning; in the second, I question issues of translation from French to English.

‘Derrida's meaning' abounds with presumptions which run contrary to my poststructuralist literary and linguistic training. I could say simply ‘the text', nicely avoiding a confrontation with either Derridaor meaning, and this text would be shorter for it. Instead, I deliberately open a canof worms: that the meaning I understand is the meaning Derrida meant; that the meaning belongs to Derrida; that I can understand his meaning; that his meaning is carried from French to English and remains the same meaning. These are the same worms I faced at the beginning and they will not vanish if I say coldly ‘the text' and keep the presumptions secret. Why not? Because in any case I am about to treat ‘the text', performatively, according to meaning, whether or not I avoid the word ‘meaning'; because in order to mount my disagreements, I must presume that there is meaning running through the text that is not mine alone, that the words have enough of a meaning to mean something which is not only my interpretation (‘For a writing to be a writing it must continue to “act”and to be readable even when what is called the author of the writing no longer answers for what he has written' (Derrida/Weber & Mehlman 1988: 8)); because I am reading this text because it is Derrida's and because I love Derrida even though Wood wrote the English words. I still say ‘I love Derrida' and I mean that in general I love his meaning (when I read in English) and both his meaning and words (when I read in French) and so to defend my love of Derrida I still have to defend meaning. (I feel no need to defend any notion of Derrida or his meaning being ‘unitary'; I don't believe that is true or that love depends on that.) I will defend meaning, but for now I will demonstrate it, rely on it in my peformance, as I mount my disagreements.

Nevertheless, the meaning of these words troubles me, from my own fingers or in the article I read: love for what, duty to… what? I read on, perversely:

An axiom from which it is not necessary to conclude further that one can only accede to friendship or politeness (for example, in responding to an invitation, or indeed to the request or the question of a friend) by transgressing all rules and going against all duty. (8)

I leave aside politeness, still. This doesn't follow; that one should be motivated by friendship, not duty (this according to my countertext), does not necessarily require one to transgress any rules, much less all. All rules, including those against incest and jaywalking? The abstract noun, ‘duty', troubles me, for duty cannot be codified. It was never unitary, even before I split it into duty / devoir and then perverted it as ‘love' – what of contradictory duties, what do I, my aunt, my mother, my father, my lover, regard as my duty? If this insistence on duty in life constitutes a fundamental misunderstanding of philosophy, then philosophy constitutes a fundamental misunderstanding of life. It is not so; such a word must remain ‘without a general and rule-governed response… linked specifically each time, to the occurrence of a decision without rules and without will in the course of a new test of the undecidable.' (16-7) Only by treating the word ‘duty' as a homogenous summary of all duties, which insists on an at least possible codification whether realised or not, can one conclude that if friendship must avoid duty, it must avoid all duty. Any abstract noun is dangerous until we have asked ‘From whom? To whom?' (6) and insisted that it is different whenever the answers to those questions are different.

The abyss is a well of love; it becomes an abyss only when that love is lacking and the friendship is (temporarily or permanently) absent; it is love that does not need duty or the language of duty. Similarly, ‘morality' requires its emotional antecedent.

Furthermore, would it be moral and responsible to act morally because one has a sense (the word emphasized above) of duty and responsibility? Clearly not; it would be too easy and, precisely, natural, programmed by nature; it is hardly moral to be moral (responsible, etc.) because one has the sense of the moral, of the highness of the law, etc. (16)

What is ‘morality'? That, I cannot codify any more than I can codify duty; it too, demands questions of specificity: when, where, for whom, to whom? It, too, must be ‘linked specifically each time, to the occurrence of a decision without rules … in the course of a new test of the undecidable.' (17) I elide ‘without will' deliberately: one's morality requires the will to be moral; ifyou forcibly prevent me from doing something immoral, then I remain moral in action but not through my own morality. So far, Derrida and I agree, but he situates this sense within a binary of natural/easy/instinctive versus logic/ethics/decision. A sense of the moral, however, is not inimical to that will which gives rise to decision, but intrinsic to it.

This ‘sense', as something subjective, seemingly instinctive, and emotional, belongs to the limbic system in our brains, rather than the orderly, logical, and apparently objective cortex: “The limbic system forms an emotional core of the human nervous system” (Cytowic, 1994: 157). Our decision-making, however, takes place not in the rational cortex, but in the limbic system. Although the cortex is called upon, like a consultant, the limbic system chooses the evidence and makes the final decision:

The limbic brain has retained its function as the decider of valence [during the evolutionary process]. What the cortex does is provide more detailed analysis about what is going on in the world so that the limbic brain can decide what is importantand what to do. (ibid: 168)

Descartes, according to neurology, was wrong: sentio ergo cogito, or, as Cytowic writes in The Neurological Side of Neuropsychology, “Strictly biological models of emotion … place emotion as the causative antecedent of cognition.” (1996: 295-6) Rather than a sense of morality being necessarily an instinct, it is the emotional prerequisite for a moral decision.

Although this article is called Passions: An Oblique Offering, at every stage Derrida opts for the ‘cold' option of rule, duty, law, codfication, rather than the ‘hot' option of an emotional response. The possibility of a passionate friendship is obfuscated with a hollow abyss and a duty to avoid the language of duty; passionate morality is held to be a contradiction in terms – leaving us with the view that the passions are immoral, unfriendly;the codes are the reliable or moral guide. The passions, at the beginning, are placed outside the person: ‘Even if his activity is often close to passivity, if not passion' (4) formulates ‘passion' as an extreme form of ‘passivity', which would regard the passions as metaphorically external inasmuch as they are independent agents acting on him who is passive. However, where do these codes – of friendship, of morality – come from, if not from instances analysed? Where do these instances come from, before the code, if not out of feeling? The passions are chronologically and neurologically the foundation of the code, not merely in opposition. The passions make the code possible, as well as (sometimes) necessary.

The offering may be oblique, but the Passions are tangential to the offering: they touch it at the point of (someone else's) titleand in the troubled concern about the Jesus motif (‘By speaking last, both in conclusion and in introduction, in twelfth or thirteenth place, am I not taking the insane risk and adopting the odious attitude of treating all these thinkers as disciples, indeed the apostles…' (18)) but they fail to enter the argument: it ignores the theological motif of grace, passion, feeling, that could redeem friendship and morality from perpetual paradox. The Passion of Christ was to die so that forgiveness superceded judgement and law, and thus to replace, relever, all law with something higher: love.

This tangent of Passions, this opposition of love vs duty / law / rules / codes, creates my most persistent countertext; I turn to it again, to redeem invitations from splitting and paradox:

An invitation leaves one free, otherwise it becomes a constraint… But the invitation must be pressing, not indifferent. It should never imply: you are free not to come and if you don't come, never mind, it doesn't matter… It must therefore split and redouble itself at the same time, at once leave free and take hostage: double act, redoubled act. Is an invitation possible? (14)

Free – from what? To what? This paradox depends on free being always and only free from constraint, obligation, in short, free from duty – but I can be free from duty without being free from feelings. Perpetual friendship (which loved consistently) would require no politeness, for it would already exceed it; when friendship is lacking (momentarily or permanently) politeness can step in as its appearance.

Let me return to politeness: ‘A critical reader will perhaps be surprised to see friendship and politeness regularly associated here…' (8-9) and once more the obliging critical reader, I agree – but only to disagree:

the hypothesis about politeness and the sharp determination of this value relates to what enjoins us to go beyond rules, norms, and hence rituals. (9)

On the contrary, politness is playing exactly by the rules and the norms (even if they are as hard to codify and learn as a language): should politeness and sincerity coincide exactly (‘That was a wonderful speech'), one is not just being polite: ‘I'm not just being polite, I really mean it!'Politeness is a pretence in ways subject to one's society, micro and macro: for instance, ‘children… must not “answer back” (at any rate in the sense and tradition of French manners)' (20) – well then, what of the macro society that uses the word politesse and not politeness? What is politeness in England< is not politeness in South Africa; what is politeness in English is almost certainly not politesse in French.

Expotential reading: the ghost-texts of translation

‘a difficulty suddenly arises, a sort of dysfunctioning, what could be called a crisis' (5): I am trying to read Derrida, with the familiar difficulty of the referent being withheld – ‘a crisis' (5), what crisis? I think, ‘What crisis?' (5). The nature of the crisis is withheld until the next page, and immediately after its being identified another is established, also based on an antecedent hypothesis and strung with its own hypotheses, and while everything is thus held in the air, in parentheses as it were, I am (via parentheses) given an entire new ghost-text to hold in the air as well:

At a certain place in the system, one of the elements of the system (an ‘I,' surely, even if the I is not always and ‘with all…candor' [sans façon, also ‘without further ado'] ‘me') no longer knows what it should do… But does the hypothesis of such a risk go against [à l'encontre]or on the contrary go along with [à la rencontre] the desire of the participants, supposing that there were only one desire, that there were a single desire common to all of them or that each had in himself only one noncontradictory desire? (6)

I am jolted from unravelling subclauses and hypothesesinto speculating better translations for sans façon which might not require such an interruption and wondering why [à l'encontre] and [à la rencontre] were deemed necessary when ‘go against'and ‘go along with' also echo each other's structure. I become aware of the French text – haunting this text, or in a different dimension to this text – and begin to translate mentally (le désir des participants … commun à tous), to attempt a retrieval of the French text, at the moment that this text breaks with it. L'autre n'a pas de crochets [2]

If the Passions of the title and ‘I have my two hands tied or nailed down' (22) cast Derrida as Jesus, then the translator here casts himself as John the Baptist, grantingme a vision of ‘the original' (10) while insisting he is unworthy to carry His sandals. In other words, the translation is not good enough to substitute for the French, but must be supplemented with it.

What is the purpose of this supplement? Before the purpose, let me consider the effect. ‘The supplementis maddening, because it is neither presence nor absence' (Derrida/Spivak 1976: 154). I am now reading not Derrida's Passions, but the translation. I no longer trust the translator, for he does not trust his translation to carry the meaning, and I regard phrases skeptically. For instance, in ‘what one calls in French a secret de Polichinelle, a secret which is a secret for no-one' (Derrida/Wood 1995: 7), I see a French ghost of that entire phrase as simply ‘un secret de Polichinelle' and an English ghost, an alternate translation if that French ghost is indeed real, ‘an open secret'. What the French might be and what the translation could have been double and redouble the already legion ghost-texts.

The insistence of my countertexts makes it harder and harder to read Passions: An Oblique Offering:

What we are glimpsing of the invitation (but of the call in general, as well) governs by the same ‘token' the logic of the response, both of the response to the invitation and the response by itself. (14-5)

I have rejected the model of the invitation and substituted my counter-model instead; how, then, can I apply it to ‘response', how am I to understand? Moreover, in trying to understand 'politeness' and ‘response', the second group of expotential readings re-emerges: ‘And to wonder whether “to respond” has an opposite, which would consist, if commonsense is to be believed, in not responding.' (15) For a moment, I am prepared to wonder this alongside Derrida, as a metaphysical problematic, but my wondering is cut short as my native language readily supplies just such an opposite: ignore. This opposite, like ‘responsiveness', is unavailable in French; the reading splits expotentially, again (so many times), for in my reading that particular question no longer haunts the text, unanswered. And while I, too, ‘cannot fail to wonder at some point what is meant by “respond”' (15), my wondering is of a different order to Derrida's: the vision of répondre floats above or behind each appearance of ‘respond'; I read and interpret ‘respond' while holding répondre in theair as that which might make my interpretations invalid and lay to rest at least some of these spectres:

‘Is it possible to make a decision on the subject of “responding” and of “responsiveness”?' (15) Decisions being ultimately emotional, responding and responsiveness are that which permit decision-making: both, respond and responsiveness, rely on a motivation of feeling. I respond out of feeling, and my degree of responsiveness is the degree and immediacy of my feelings. Given this, the second ‘fault' if Derrida responds to the invitation is no fault at all: ‘If I did respond I would put myself in the situation of someone who felt capable of responding: he has an answer for everything…' (19) On the contrary, to be capable of responding is not at all to have an answer, a solution, for everything, but to be capable of reacting. To respond would be to use the texts as a springboard, not to answer them; to show the texts capable of stirring him, which is to respect them, not to resolve them, which is to disrespect them. If ‘respond' means ‘respond', then not to do so ‘would smack ofa hybris' (19) – but what does Derrida mean by ‘respond'? I read further, looking now only for a definition of a single word:

The overweening presumption from which no response will ever be free not only has to do with the fact that the response claims to measure up to the discourse of the other, to situate it, understand it… (20)

This does not describe the word ‘response'; if an English word is required, then ‘answer' would be more apt – and would fail to connect with ‘responsibility' or ‘responsiveness'. The sentence does not make sense as it stands, but how is one to translate it – ought one to settle for ‘from which no answer [réponse] will ever be free'? This is what Tr. frequently chooses to do in this article – though not here, where the sense requires it. I criticise the translation ‘while running up an infinite debtin its service' (Derrida/Venuti 2001: 174) – a two-fold debt: thatI can read it in English; and that his translation provides me with material. If I criticise the translation, I must answer two questions: what do I think he should do, and why am I reading Derrida's Passions: An Oblique Offering in translation, when by now it is apparent that I could read it in French?

I shall answer the first in conjunction with an earlier question: what is the purpose of the supplement? The purpose – for whom? According to whom? Consider some of the supplements in this text, in addition to those I have already quoted: ‘aspects [traits]' (5), ‘brought their tribute [apporter leur tribut]' (7), ‘Let's not beat around the bush [N'y allons pas par quartre chemins]' (9), ‘n'y allons pas par quatres chemins [an almost untranslatable French expression which invokes the cross or the crucial, the crossing of ways, the four and the fork of a crossroad (quadrifurcum) in order to say: let us proceed directly, without detour, without ruse and without calculation]' (9-10), ‘what is at issue [il s'agit de]' (10), ‘in front of you [in English in the original – Tr.]' (10), Deconstruction [“la” Déconstruction]' (15), ‘testimony [témoignage, also the act of “bearing witness” – Ed.]' (23), ‘having to respond [devant – repondre], having-to-tell [devant – dire] … before the law [devant la loi]' (29).

The intention is presumably to replicate the original as closely as possible for the benefit of those who cannot read the original. The subtleties of ‘n'y allons pas par quatre chemins' and the punning on devant, must be replicated somehow if the meaning of the French text is to be transferred to this text and English does not have an equivalent for that phrase or permit that particular pun. That the square brackets do not replicate the original is already apparent: l'autre n'a pas de crochets [French in the original]. They are also strangely presumptious: if I am reading this in translation because I do not read French, how is ‘brought their tribute [apporter leur tribut]' (7) to help me? It is superfluous to both grammar and purpose. I am alternately grateful for, bemused by, and irritated by the interjections: grateful for ‘devant', bemused by ‘apporter leur tribut', and irritated by ‘témoignage, also the act of “bearing witness”' which I judge as unnecessary for ‘testimony' already has both the legal and religious overtones of ‘bearing witness'. In this instance, the effect is ‘[I don't think you quite got that – Ed.]' and ‘[I'm still here – Tr.]'Effect – on whom? Me, of course; I hate to be interrupted when I'm reading. Even if I judge my irritation to be singular, and hardly exemplary, part of that effect remains: ‘…which I judge…'If one cannot understand a word of French, most of the words in French add nothing to one's experience of reading, though one might garner the pun on ‘devant'; ifone understands the French supplements, the effects are to remind one that thisis a translation and to prompt one to evaluate the translation. Every square bracket, whatever else it says, says also [This is a translation and translation is ultimately not possible – Tr.].

Is translation possible? Je viens de lire (viens, come etc. etc.) and I have just read (just, only and justice, etc. etc.) invite very different responses. I have just [viens de] read is not at all both at the same time: it is a double-take, a break in the flow, an excess, a superfluity, an invitation to compare have just and viens de, an invitation to respond to the act of translation (which breaks with the source-language version which offered no such invitation), which is precisely what I have just [viens de] done [faire]. Past participle vs infinitive: discuss. Je réponds à ce texte: in English (in which I live and breathe and have my being), I respond to the text (the text is my springboard), I answer back (cheekiness – of confronting The Derrida, my superior in age, degrees, prestige, knowledge, and of confronting the translator, translator) but I do not claim to answer the text. Nevertheless, I do anwer my own questions.

Is translation possible? What are the conditions of translation? ‘the transfer of an intact signified through the inconsequential vehicle of any signifier whatsoever' (Derrida/Venuti 2001: 195): in other words (I translate from English to English), meaning that exists independently of signifiers, a wholehearted breach of faith with post-structuralism and Saussure, a restoration of the old lost faith in language, before the Fall. The example to which ‘What is a “Relevant” Translation?' (ibid) returns is ‘mercy seasons justice'. The corporality of the signifier prevents the transfer of an intact signified: ‘seasons' relates itself both to seasoning (‘season to taste') and the seasons (of the year). One could call this an accident of language – sometimes such correspondences are ‘accidental': a word enters the language and finds there a homonym or homophone with which it shares no ancestry. Sometimesthe two words share a common derivation, though they are now quite different – sense and sensibility. Sometimes a word will leave a language and re-enter from another language, to find its relations have grown up quite differently, as with relevant rejoining reléver in French. Nevertheless, their corporeal correspondence is such that, whatever their derivation, they inform each other and open up multiple entrances – as with réponse and réponsibilité, as with response and responsibility. This corporality is untranslatable precisely because translation requires a substitution of one signifer (or set thereof) for another. One might say a transubstantiation, if one believed that the spirit could thus be transferred – which would be to believe already in a signified, a meaning, a spirit, which is in the word but not of the word – l'être du mot not letter du mot, l'ésprit du mot. How shall I translate ‘ésprit' – with spirit, mind, or wit? How relevant[3] is it, in this context, that ésprit can mean ‘wit' as well as ‘soul'? If I shear it of those additional meanings by choosing ‘spirit', what do I mean by ‘additional'? To me, they are additional, because in English, wit, mind and spirit are quite distinct. However, I am not so laissez-faire about ‘ignore', which can be translated into French as ne tenir aucun compte de (payno attention to), faire semblant de ne pas s'apercevoir de (pretend not to notice), faire semblant de ne pas reconnaître (pretend not to recognise), ne pas répondre à (not answer), ne pas respecter (not respect), and so forth, depending on the thing that is being ignored. This does not constitute a list of meanings, but the fulland unitary meaning of ignore. ‘I ignore Derrida': je ne tiens aucun compte de Derrida (I pay no attention to Derrida), je fais semblant de ne pas reconnaître Derrida (I pretend not to recognise Derrida), or je ne respecte pas Derrida (I don't respect Derrida)? None of these are sufficient to my meaning.

Two linguistic phenomena are at work here: signifiers that inform each other through physical resemblance; and signifiers that permit a greater range of meaning than can be matched by signifiers in the target language. In each case, corporality gets in the way of the spirit – ‘the spirit is willing but the flesh is weak'. One must transcend the body, and the ultimate transcendence is death – of the body, one understands; the spirit flies up to the realm above and there arriving is sure of bliss. Itis words themselves (corporeal signifiers) that prevent us from believing in pure translatable meaning. Thus, in trying to find a way back to my faith in meaning, I am losing my religion, for I convey my meaning in words (as I live my life in the body).

If we killed the word, what would survive? What did Saussure teach us? ‘Without language, thought is a vague, uncharted nebula. There are no pre-existing ideas, and nothing is distinct before the appearance of language.' (Saussure/Baskin, 1974: 112) If the Saussurian view of languageis right, then translation is not possible, we cannot ever achieve ‘the transfer of an intact signified through the inconsequential vehicle of any signifier whatsoever' (Derrida/Venuti 2001: 195) because there is no such thing as the intact signified before the signifier, and once embodied in a signifier the physical resemblances and ranges of meaning come into play inall their untranslatability.

All this linguistic atheism is if I am coming from the direction of the signifier, the body. What if I were to do what certain religious people advise one to do,and take a leap of faith – believe without knowing, following no tightropes of argument – and first of all, believe in the meaning and tryto find the word? ‘No-one shall come to the Father except by Me,' said Jesus: this is New Testament stuff, the spirit and not the letter. Alongside Derrida (I am not ignoring him as much as you might think), ‘I insist on the Christian dimension... the travail of mourning also describes, through the Passion, through a memory haunted by the body lost yet preserved in its grave, the resurrection of the ghost or of the glorious body that rises, rises again [se relève] – and walks.'(ibid: 199-200)

I cannot yet mourn meaning, though I have done so for so long; I still hope that meaning is more than a product of language, becauseif it is not I shall never speak to Derrida and my love of his meaning is not even a doomed love but a lie. I hope; I take a leap of faith: ‘hope, faith and love, but the greatestof these is love.'Let me start, then, with love, another ghastly abstract noun that means nothing until I have answered ‘From whom? To whom? When and how?'There is nothing without context, but this context is above all private: I say, ‘I love you.'And this lover of words is inarticulate with love, cannot count the ways (abhorrent quantification), and is disgusted with the poverty of the signifiers ‘I love you' which fail to signify the least part of my meaning. When I was a more devout post-structuralist, I thought like a devout post-structuralist, I reasoned like a devout post-structuralist. I explained the poverty of this word, ‘love' by arguing that it had been used in so many different contexts (respecting the network of signifiers), many of them quite contradictory, that, unable to mean everything simultaneously, it subsided into meaninglessness. ‘Ce signe pur – vide, presque – il est impossible de la fuir, parce qu'il veut tout dire.'[4] (Barthes, 1993: 1383) [French in the original – Ed.] Now I have read more and loved more, both quantitatively and qualitatively. ‘I love you,' rather than being overloaded with meaning and descending into meaningless, cannot even begin to translate a tenth of whatI feel.

I say ‘to translate': I have accomplished my leap of faith if I say that (did you leap with me, or are you my Critical Reader, churning out ghost-texts?), for to translate assumes a pre-existent language and yet the language from which I am translating is the language of feelings. I use a linguistic metaphor, but I could offer others: the word cannot ‘bear the weight' (feeling as a physical load), it cannot ‘explain' (feeling as a mystery resisting logic), etc. If I attempt to say, instead of ‘I love you,' a litany of these loving feelings – admiration, security, lust, fascination, protectiveness, etc. – I am equally disappointed in the words, the finitude of their meaning, and the finitude of the list as my linguistic ingenuity founders before my love. Hence ‘words cannot convey…' and all those other helpless linguistic gestures towards what is not linguistic in nature. I cannot explain this love to you in words – but you know what I mean. That is, I have faith that you know what I mean, that you have experienced love; that is, that you have experienced what we designate ‘love' without it being the identical experience – apart from the feeling of uniqueness in love, you have not loved my love, W., and those who have, have not been me loving him. The word is but a clashing symbol,a clanging gong, a darkened mirror.

What shall I say now, about this signifier ‘love'? Love, lover, loving, lovable, lovage, beloved, in love, make love, lovely: ‘love' and ‘lovage', one of those all-important linguistic accidents, adds nothing to the meaning of love. Its usage, in certain parts of Britain, as a form of address (‘Here you are, love,' says the shopkeeper) adds no facet to my declaration, ‘I love you.'Its meaning is before, above, and beyond all words. But you know what I mean.

If ‘I love you' has any meaning, it does not come from the words. The signifier is arbitrary; it will do, as a poor substitute for being able to break through the cages of our skulls and press our brains together. Trapped in the Saussurean view of language, in a Lacanian development, we have been accustomed to regarding anything outside of language as inimical to it and anything priorto the symbolic order as unspeakable: ‘…an insurmountable problem for discourse: once it has been named, that functioning, even if it is presymbolic, is brought back into a symbolic position.' (Kristeva/Kerr, 1974: 24 n 16) Derrida, whom I love (differently and specifically; love is nothing if it is not specific), will loose me from these shackles of language with the prelinguistic mark, declaring with Derridean authority that

Writing is dangerous from the moment that representation there claims to be presence and the sign of the thing itself. And there is a fatal necessity, inscribed in the very functioning of the sign, that the substitute makes one forget the vicariousness of its own function and make itself pass for the plenitude of a speech whose deficiency and infirmity it nevertheless only supplements. (1976: 144)

Whence this Derridean authority to which I appeal and which I challenge, alternately? It is vested in him, not by him but by us, collectively: this is also the model of language which says the meaning is vested in the word, collectively. Academic mechanisms have created the word ‘Derridean'; is the authority ours, to attribute and withdraw, collectively, and did we then create it? Somewhere, once upon a time, therewas a student whose writing was judged worthy not as marks upon a page but in its function as meaning; then there was a young academic, whose peers reviewed his articles and found the meaning interesting, important, violating previous understandings and instituting new meanings for new words. The creation of ‘Derridean' was collective; the creations of Derrida were singular, and his own; both rely on his meaning, however imperfectly or perfectly understood by us. ‘Writing is dangerous from the moment that representation there claims to be presence and the sign of the thing itself' – Derrida is only a name, pointing at a man who writes articles and signs them, who questions the signature but not his legal right over that which he has signed, in whatever language it may appear. Words point at meanings, without encompassing them; shall we then say that there is a secret here?

What could escape this sacrificial verification and so secure the very space of this very discourse, for example? No question, no response, no responsibility. Let us say that there is a secret here. (23)

I read ‘response' as ‘answer' and as ‘répondre', in my expotential countertexts, and I answer back: ‘Why? “Let us say…” You have said it, I did notand hardly agree.'Now I must make sense of page after page about this secret, in whose existence and theoretical necessity I do not believe. Derrida writes, Wood translates, that this secret of his (I took no part in declaring it, although he repeatedly invited me – I declined the invitation, as an invitation permits one to do) is not numinous. I was not invited to define the secret; in fact, he denied an infinite number of definitions when he said ‘it remains foreign to speech' (27) and refuted every claim he made for it with contradiction, except the claim that it is secret. I make sense of it, for myself; I institute meaning, using what I am told and disbelieving, according to my own mind. I declare in the margins that I have met such beasts before; that contradiction-in-stasis belongs to mystical writing and to the Gnostic pleroma. Like a Gnostic, I want to know andto understand, I refuse to accept mystification; rather, I demand, ‘From what position of knowledge does he so firmly declare that this secret is unknowable?' As well as his declarative contradictions, his saying all of this is a performative contradiction. I know his secret; I will give it a name: meaning.

The above paragraph is full of ‘I': whose meaning am I reading, Derrida's or my own? There is a pragmatics of meaning, in the matters of salt-passing, legal documents, even academic discourse (you are engaging this pragmatics to read this): the word does not fully encompass the meaning, it points at it, but we have a pragmatic understanding which will do. Mere information canbe passed, like salt. Passions: An Obscure Offering is not mere information, nor is Shakespeare, nor is this article: responsiveness and responsibility, seasons, and ignore must all be allowed their full range and resonance without being cut down to mere information. This is the quality of the literary: a range of meanings, of expotential readings, amonst which the reader can choose.

When all hypotheses are permitted, groundless ad infinitum, about the meaning of a text, or the final intentions of an author… when it is the call [appel] of this secret, however, which points back tothe other or to something else, when it is this itself which keeps our passions aroused, and holds us to the other, then the secret impassions us. (29)

Expotential readings amongst which the reader can choose do not permit all hypotheses, groundless ad infinitum: they spring into being at the point of disagreements (which presuppose a meaning in the text with which to disagree; else we are all schizophrenics) and in the signifiers' multiple possibilities which are legion but not infinite. Pragmatism is not merely an attitude we adopt to make sense of an infinitely meaningful language; it is language baulking at further meaning, delimiting sense. The secret is meaning, and the more potential meanings are opened up, the more the secret impassions us, for that is the point at which I can insert myself into the text:

Certainly, one could speak this meaning in other names, whether one finds them or gives them to it. Moreover, this happens at every instant. It remains meaning under all names and it is its irreducibility to the very name which makes it meaning, even when one makes the truth in its name [fait la verité à son sujet] as Augustine put it so originally. The mseeacnrientg is that one here calls it a mseeacnrientg (countertexts, 26)

I have said that words point at meanings: I do not equate meaning with the signified for the signified is that which is already in language and delimited by a signifier. ‘I love you': call this meaning love, amour, a chemical reaction, make a necklace of substitutions – admiration, security, lust, fascination, protectiveness – but it remains meaning under all names and it is its irreducibility to the very name which makes it meaning. The abstract nouns, which cannot be pointed out or demonstrated, which seem the most likely candidates for the argument that meaning is a product of language, point at something that cannot be reduced to the name: duty, love, passions. They cannot be codified and left to language alone in the appearance of homogeneity, for then they are dangerous, then they claim ‘to be presence and the sign of the thing itself' and make us ‘forget the vicariousness of [their] own function'. (Derrida 1976: 144) Like ‘its' and ‘their', they are deitic and specific, meaningless until we have answered each time ‘From whom? To whom? When and how?', qualified by individual instances that proliferate into the future, defying codification. Where do these instances come from, before the code, if not out of meaning in life? The meaning makes the code possible as well as (unable to press brain to brain) necessary.

Is a translation possible? The condition set down by Derrida is ‘the transfer of an intact signified through the inconsequential vehicle of any signifier whatsoever' (2001: 195) The signified is already in language, that part of meaning generalised, specified, delimited by its signifier. Signifiers have their own corporeal lives and relationships, affecting the signified, but they also have meaning which was never, in the first place, passed into language in its full richness and resonance, but pragmatically, like salt. In saying, 'I love you,' I have already had to resign myself to losing the effect, the economy,the strategy (and this loss can be enormous) or to add a gloss, of the translator's note sort, which always, even in the best of cases, the case of the greatest relevance, confesses the impotence or failure of the translation.' (Derrida 2001:181) but you still know what I mean. Meaning can be conveyed through inconsequential vehicles; the signified cannot, for the vehicle is anythingbut inconsequential to it. This is also the definition of the literary: that the exact words matter.

L'Etre and the letter, meaning and the signified, are the soul and body of the literary. Translation is possible as reincarnation; we mourn the signified and erect monuments [thus] to it which only those who knew it will appreciate. New words open new possibilities in this new life, and the meaning lives on. I can say, at last, I love Derrida's meaning, and I read Derrida's Passions: An Oblique Offering in translation.

Works cited

Barthes, Roland. 1993. ‘Le Tour Eiffel' in Oeuvres Complètes (1993) Vol. 1. Normandie: Éditions du Seuil. pp. 1383-1400.

Cytowic, Richard E. 1994. The Man Who Tasted Shapes. London: Abacus.

Cytowic, Richard E. 1996. The Neurological Side of Neuropsychology. Cambridge, Massachusetts, and London, England: The Massuchesetts Institute of Technology Press.

Derrida, Jacques. 1976. Of Grammatology. Trans. Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak. Baltimore: John Hopkins University Press.

Derrida, Jacques. 1988. ‘Signature Event Context'. Trans. Samuel Weber and Jeffrey Mehlman. In Limited Inc. Evanston, Illinois: Northwestern University Press. 1-23.

Derrida, Jacques. 1995. ‘Passions: ‘An Oblique Offering'' in On the Name. Trans. David Wood. Stanford: Stanford UniversityPress.

Derrida, Jacques. 2001. ‘What is a “Relevant” translation?' in Critical Inquiry 27:2. Trans. Lawrence Venuti. 174-200.

Kristeva, Julia. 1974. Révolution du langage poétique. Paris: Éditions du Seuil.

Royle, Nicholas. 2003. Jacques Derrida. London & New York: Routledge.

Saussure, Ferdinand de. 1974 (Revised edition). Course in General Linguistics.Ed. Charles Bally & Albert Sechehaye in collaboration with Albert Reidlinger. Trans. Wade Baskin. Glasgow: Fontana Collins.


[1] As a temporary solution, all unascribed page references refer to Passion: An Oblique Offering, 1995.

[2] The other has no square brackets.

[3] Elle fait allusion à ‘Qu'est-ce qu'une traduction "relevante"' (Quinzièmes Assises de la Traduction Littéraire (Arles 1998) (Arles: Actes Sud, 1999), 21-48), traduit en anglais comme ‘What is a "Relevant" Translation?'

[4] It's impossible to escape this pure – almost empty – sign, because it means everything, it wants to say everything.