I was quite surprised at the comments in the Guardian over Derrida’s death. A few writers have some interesting things to say about him, but most come off as flip or ignorant. Why bother?
Deconstruction was the part of literary criticism that I least understood in college, and was the one I could never write. It was a sort of quantum physics of literature and meaning, and seemed to require much more background knowledge going in than even New Historicism. Our instructors brought it up, and made us read an essay or two, but didn’t insist too much on it.
One day, Derrida came to speak at UCSB and we all felt the obligation to go hear him, as one would a rock star or a poet. And he certainly did look cool in his suit and his brilliant white hair.
He spoke on the Balkan war, in his heavily accented English. I began to take notes, to try to help me make sense of what I knew would be a dense talk. By minute 15 I was lost. Was he even talking about the Balkans any more? I looked over at my instructor, whose critical faculties I admired, and even he was nodding off. People started to yawn, give up, walk out.
Derrida made no effort to connect to the audience, did not offer up analogies for us to grasp. He just plowed ahead. It was lit theory as performance art, as atonal feedback music. He must have seen these walkouts all the time and knew he was onto something. He couldn’t preach to the choir. There was no choir. And what do we mean when we say “choir”? He was a man unto himself and I suspect most people who admired and followed him only understood 15% of what he was laying down.
I had class and had to leave after 30 long long minutes. And that’s all I remember about Derrida.
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