Wrestling With the Angel That Was Himself

By Saul Austerlitz

Published October 22, 2004, issue of October 22, 2004.
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Portrait of Jacques Derrida as a Young Jewish Saint

By Hélène Cixous

Columbia University Press, 168 pages, $27.50

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During the era of the Talmud, the period of the scholars known as the Amoraim (200-500 C.E.) was dedicated to the fleshing out of the sparse, cryptic pronouncements of their predecessors, the Tannaim. In an effort to make the rulings of the Tannaim more accessible, the Amoraim — meaning “interpreters” in Aramaic — strove to explicate and flesh out their work, bringing it to a wider audience, who may not have been able to parse the intended meanings of their words.

In a similar vein, French philosopher Jacques Derrida, who died October 9 at the age of 74, was a Tanna of modernity, a believer in the power of the word who simultaneously used language to avoid explicit telling. Derrida’s lexical trickery and overarching air of impenetrability demand that an Amora interpret his thought and frame his worldview. Hélène Cixous’s book, “Portrait of Jacques Derrida as a Young Jewish Saint” — part memoir, part exploration of friendship and part amplification of Derridean themes — is an attempt to articulate the Jewish content of Derrida’s work. Like the famous image used to describe the Torah’s infinitude, Cixous compares Derrida’s work to a sea, in which the act of writing is a disorientation of time, leaving only the vagaries of memory.

Derrida and Cixous share roots as Algerian Jews who immigrated to France, rendering them triple outsiders, belonging to neither Algeria nor France while remaining mostly ignorant of their Jewish heritage. The paradox of their Judaism is their confused commitment to tradition: “Am I Jewish or do I flee from Jewish?” in Derrida’s equation. Derrida was a believer in his lack of belief, searching for symbol without devotion and for significance in the absence of God. As Cixous eloquently points out, the figure of Jewish history most relevant to Derrida is the “marrano,” the secret Jew: “One of those Jews without knowing it, and without knowledge; Jew without having it, without being it; a Jew whose ancestors are gone, cut off, as little Jewish as possible; the disinheritor, guardian of the book he doesn’t know how to read.”

The marrano is also the pilgrim of the pen, the wanderer living fully only within language. Derrida reversed the Jewish scholar’s tradition of studying the world, in all its endless variety, instead finding inside himself an entire world to explore. Still mourning the loss of paradise — be it Judaism, Algeria, or his mother — Derrida discovered writing as a means of turning back time and re-experiencing the possession, and loss, of Eden.

A crucial symbol of Derrida’s work, in Cixous’s commentary, is the tallit, or prayer shawl. Metonymic for Jewish tradition, the shawl is Derrida’s emblem of the preservation of Judaism as a cloak. Cixous quotes Derrida’s “Voiles”: “Right to the very end, never, no matter what: Under no circumstances, whatever the verdict at the end of such a redoubtable ‘journey,’ does one give up a tallith. One must never, at any moment, throw it out, or reject it.” Derrida, ever a master of the paradox, looked for an end to the comforting illusions of religion while simultaneously seeking comfort in its ritual.

Like any towering figure, Derrida is being remade in the image of his interpreters. Cixous views Derrida through the prism of her own thought and through their shared history as Algerian immigrants. Like the Amoraim, who viewed the rulings of their illustrious predecessors as fully binding, and as indicated by the hagiographic title, “Portrait of Jacques Derrida as a Young Jewish Saint,” this work is a wholly uncritical portrait of one French cultural critic and philosopher by another. Maintaining the image of French theorists’ utter incomprehensibility, significant swaths of Cixous’s book are forbiddingly dense. Whole pages can go by without a single immediately understandable phrase rising to the surface.

Nonetheless, her commentary helps to illuminate some of the gnarled, complex recesses of Derrida’s thought and as such will go far in clarifying his often punishingly difficult writing. Cixous has handed us a Derrida obsessed by the “unshareable secret” at the heart of all religious idealism, a biblical figure “wrestling with the angel of himself.” Like Jacob, he finds that it is only through the painful wrestling that one discovers one’s truest name.

Saul Austerlitz is a freelance writer in New York City.

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