PRINT October 2002


Jacques Le Narcissiste

Kirby Dick and Amy Ziering Kofman, Derrida, 2001, still from a color video, 85 minutes. Derrida at home with his wife, 1995.

WE CULTURE-ISTAS KNOW Derrida is the Madonna of thought. He’s antiphallogocentric and a total diva. Undeniably powerful, he’s either revered or deplored as the author of cultural relativism, rampant textuality, and undecidability. The notoriously close reader is still dashing at seventy-two, with a dark but surprisingly soft gaze, eagle-ish features, and a mildly poufy white coif: a silver fox. Spinning his web (yes, folks, that’s three animal metaphors!) of defamiliarization that readers find seductive or annoying, or both, his discourse is riddled with paradox: He fights to improvise “but always with the belief that it is impossible”; he emerges through the ear and eye of the other, although so do “I,” so who is there to read or see him?

When I think of Jacques Derrida, I think of the wretchedness of grad school, what a horrible, disillusioning period that was for me, university hideousness, especially in the downsized late ’80s. How sordid it all was, the dreary “culture wars,” my nausea at idealized father figures . . . and yes, I blame Derrida! For that, and for Everything in general! (Just kidding.)

Rabelais ridiculed the “Papimaniacs,” who fetishize the pope and his utterances, the “Holy Decretals.” Fast-forward to Derrideans and Derrida: Each spring circa Reagan’s second term, his seminar at Yale was the happening for weenies. His main groupies, the Three Toms, were alpha theory-geeks, strutting lesser-men turgid with proximity to the Master: They handled his texts, translating, editing. I avoided these fawning disciples. Yet recently when I played back my phone messages and heard a charming French-accented man’s voice: “This is Jacques Derrida . . . ,” I knew I would cherish the tape like a sacred relic!

Derrida the movie is codirected by Kirby Dick (who made Sick: The Life and Death of Bob Flanagan, Supermasochist) and, I was surprised to discover, Amy Ziering Kofman (a Derrida scholar I went to grad school with). Over several years, they filmed the jet-prof lecturing at seminars (on autobiography in New York, on Rodney King and testimony in Paris, on forgiveness in South Africa), installing his archive at UC/Irvine, and giving characteristically not impromptu interviews to Kofman in his home. The film, which premiered at Sundance in January, opens this month at Film Forum in New York.

When I spoke to Derrida on the phone, he was concerned whether I would use his words in an interview or in a piece I was writing “in my own name,” preferring the latter. (“I’m relying on you. I don’t improvise well in English,” he said in perfect English. “Try to improve what I said.” Is that possible? “Not only is it possible, it is indispensable.” A charmer, right?)

Kofman and Dick have made a film that is totally true to Derrida’s thought: That’s its strength, and its weakness. Those already initiated into the mysteries of deconstruction will say amen; those who aren’t will probably remain perplexed. The film is not “Deconstruction for Dummies.” Unlike, say, the moronic 1985 documentary (that nobody saw on PBS) of American poststructuralist macher Stanley Fish, which plays into every purist’s nightmare—including hilarious footage of Fish tooling about in his “well-preserved 1970 auto” while demystifying the postenlightened “university business,” pitching “All we can have of reality . . . are pictures, stories,” like a David Mamet character.

How does the über-Reader come off? Does a documentary move from the life to the work, or vice versa? True to Derrida’s thinking, this one does neither but, rather, hovers on the “borderline” between thought and empirical being. (“You noticed I was evasive in the film,” he said on the phone. “I emerged . . . through my resistance.”)

He starts a seminar on autobiography by noting, “When Heidegger asked ‘What could we say of Aristotle’s life?’, he said: ‘He was a philosopher. He was born. He thought. He died. All the rest is pure anecdote.’” This remark—privileging “thought” above mere “anecdote”—sets up philosophy’s pudeur regarding autobiography: “They think it is indecent that a philosopher should speak of himself as an empirical being, and this . . . ‘politeness’ is philosophy itself, in principle. So if we want to break with this classical philosophical axiom . . . then we have to be indecent to some extent.”

Nevertheless, Derrida remains decent. He will divulge only “raw facts” about himself. As we watch de Reader walk down the street, Kofman’s voice-over avoids “representing” him. Instead, she deconstructively koshers a quirky list of factoids; denaturalizing them via deadpan, she reveals: “His parents never read any of his books. . . . He is expelled from school because he is Jewish. . . . He fails his first entrance exam into the University. He writes his first novel at age fifteen, about the theft of a diary and blackmail for its return. He pretends to learn Hebrew, so as to read it without understanding it. . . . As an adolescent he dreams of becoming a professional soccer player.” Derrida agrees with Heidegger: “Who reads thoroughly a line of thought is more of a real biographer than someone who knows ‘the whole story.’” Yet he agreed to do this film. Kofman shows him watching footage of himself and Mme. Derrida not describing how they met. He is pleased “because we said nothing. We remained at the edge of an impossible confidence.” Kofman asks why he will only tell “facts.” He replies that he’s “not in agreement with Heidegger when he says a philosopher’s life can be summed up . . . ‘He was born. He thought. He died.’ Nevertheless, the story of one’s life—details, anecdotes, daily events—can only be inadequately told. . . . The question for me is always the question of narration. I’d love to tell stories, but I don’t know how to tell them . . . so I’ve given up telling stories.”

Kofman cannily develops the theme of Narcissus and Echo: The film literally enacts the structure of Narcissus/Derrida as filmed, seen, Echoed, by the “other,” the filmmaker who in turn repeats the words of the other on the voice-over: the Holy Decretals. “Cursed by the jealous gods, Echo can’t speak in her own voice and is doomed to repeat the words of others.” The plight—or love—of Narcissus and Echo resonates beautifully with Derrida’s discourse that the “I” is always already divided, seen, spoken by the other: “There is not narcissism and non-narcissism. There are [only] narcissisms . . . more or less open to the experience of the other as other. Love is the reappropriation of the other in the image of oneself.” Narcissus and Echo thematize our situation watching the film: The other (camera/audience) sees me (Narcissus/Derrida) when “I cannot see myself.”

So how was it to see himself on film? He thought it would be worse. “Having been very anxious about the result I got to some extent reconciled with it. And finding that there was some truth in it—not the truth that I see myself in the mirror, but a truth as experienced and seen by others. So from that point of view it was a test and a psychoanalytic experiment, working on my own image and trying to see myself the way others see me.”

At first he hesitated to let cameras inside his house. The mise-en-scène of the thinker and Mme. Derrida, an affable-seeming psychoanalyst who says practically nothing, says practically nothing: Their home is white, airy, modern, clearly comfortable, tellingly inscrutable like a blank page. The most “Derridean” feature is a glass-enclosed study extending into the leafy green backyard, where he can be both outside and inside, or neither, as he ponders the borderline.

Like a good Derridean, Derrida notes on camera how constructed the situation is: “Deconstruction sets out not to naturalize what is not natural. To not assume that what is conditioned by history, institutions, or society is natural. . . . For instance, I’m not really like this”—that is, fully dressed at home in the morning. “Normally I spend the day in my pajamas and bathrobe.” (I’m writing this in my bra and panties!) He gestures at the recording devices. “This is what you call cinema verité. Everything is false. Almost everything. No, not really.” He seems mildly amused. Alternately guarded and obliging, he stoically tolerates this ordeal of the other, by the other, for the other.

Still, this film portrait is remarkably insular. You feel as if you’ve entered a Derridean hall of mirrors. Echo’s voice is part incantation, part bedtime story. The sleepogenic drone of defamiliarizing space music becomes cloying. The documentarians’ combined earnestness undercuts any sense of Derrida’s irony about himself. When Kofman eyes the floor-to-ceiling books in the philosophe’s library, she asks, “Did you read all these?” “No,” he quips, “Three or four—but I read those four really, really thoroughly!” I watched the film with a Derrida-maven pal, and we were so alienated by the film’s piety we became giddy; when Derrida admitted “always already mourning” his archive, we got the uncanny sense he was doing shtick.

Documentaries are most interesting when they show a story other than the story the subject thinks he’s telling about himself. The self-referentiality of Derrida’s skittish fan dance between interview and evasion, Echo and Narcissus, is a tease. It is not by revealing the radicality of deconstruction that this film disturbs, but rather by its lack of competing viewpoints, posing the problem of the “authorized” documentary: Is it “true” to its subject, or is it puffery? The Derridean paradox of Echo “speaking in her own name, by repeating the words of others” can be strongly misread as diva-handling.

“I consider this film to be a work signed by Amy Kofman. OK? So that’s why I said that to some extent it’s also a portrait of her,” Derrida explained to me. “I was interested in this interplay; in the fact that of course the material was me, eh, but the choice, the shape, the editing, the selection was hers. And so I was, let us say, moved and interested by something which is not simply me, eh, but which is not simply foreign to me. . . . That’s why the question of narcissism comes back again and again . . . and the fact that the narcissist cannot see himself and so on. . . as if there were two mirrors [laughs] mirroring each other. And it’s always an interesting experience.” For him. “But I would not deny that there is some truth of myself in the film. It’s not the truth. It’s not the total truth. But who can claim that any access to the total truth of oneself is possible? It is a partial, selective, interpretative truth . . . an interpretation . . . I was trying to interpret my part, as an actor does. She interpreted my interpretation—and, eh, there are only interpretations.”

Directed, for example, to “interpret” lunchtime: Alone in his kitchen the thinker carefully dresses something from a plastic container while the radio reports on the Middle East. The vignette is strikingly intimate and voyeuristic feeling, unlike the rest of the film, in which Derrida is divided by discourse. If this were not played for the camera, of course, he’d be in his pj’s and robe. Nevertheless he seems vulnerable. The scene made him uneasy: “It was not seductive.”

We get a tantalizing glimpse of what a less “decent” film would show, when Kofman queries the thinker’s brother in an elegant parlor, a child plotzed on his lap. The not famous sibling marvels, “Where does it come from? L’esprit Jacqui? How does he come up with all these philosophical thoughts? Because we have brains as well, and we cannot come up with such things. It’s an enigma.” The family was “pas intellectuelle, pas du tout, du tout.

In another droll exchange, Gil Kofman (the producer) goofily inquires, “Which philosopher would you choose to have as a mother?” A bit startled, Derrida eyes Amy. “This is his style?” Reassured it’s not a joke, he becomes pensive (and actually “improvised,” he later observed). He imagines the “classical philosopher” as a masculine figure. So a mother as a philosopher would have to be “a postdeconstructive thinker, an ‘inheritor’ like myself, my son, . . . or my granddaughter.” (What would it be like to have Hegel or Heidegger as your mother? “I’d kill them!” he said on the phone.) The great debunker of phallogocentrism allies deconstruction with the “woman who thinks.” Yet despite this “improvisation,” the film repeats the stereotype of the male Narcissus Echoed by his reverent female amanuensis (literally mouthing his écriture).

I wondered how Derrida saw the (often imitative) “Derrideans” his texts seem to sire: “I try not to be a father in a certain way. But it’s very complicated. The son who doesn’t recognize you as a father is a good son. The one who can free himself from you.” So the echo is not seductive? “Echo herself doesn’t echo,” he says. “She echoes, but by echoing she says something else of her own. In fact, she says something that means something else—while obeying the rule of repeating. So she repeats without repeating. That’s what makes Echo a fascinating character, a loving one. Why don’t we end here?” Derrida chuckles.

Yes, why don’t we end here! Exactly.

Whaddaya gonna do?

Like Peeping Toms from the alley, we peer into the intellectual rock star’s sunny white abode. It’s riddled with cameras. We squirm through one last bout of deconstructive davening by Echo: “How can an other see into me, into my most secret self, without my being able to see in there myself? And without my being able to see him in me? . . . who is the I? The I who asks who? And what is the responsibility of the I once the identity of the I trembles in secret?”

“I would have liked to hear more about the sleeping tablets and amphetamines,” sighed my philosophy-prof pal. (A nervous collapse is briefly mentioned in the film.)

“But that would have been mere anecdote, n’est-ce pas? Would you have learned any more about Derrida?”

“No, no. I cannot repeat. I’m sorry. I can’t repeat.”

Oy. I just told Derrida that part of our chat was devoured by a defective tape! (The gods of butt-saving told me not to hang up.)

“The first time was an ordeal. Repeating the ordeal is more than an ordeal.” [gaining steam] “You can quote this!” More protests, then . . . shockingly, miraculously, he did go over some stuff—what a sweetheart! Or just charming another “loving Echo”? Undecidable.

At least I didn’t bend his ear about moi . . . how the filmmakers and I were fellow teaching assistants. . . . When I was starting to organize the TA’s, I reached out to Amy, raising consciousness over a pot of chamomile tea at the Atticus Café: one of the three places in town where you were likely to meet precisely the people you were gossiping about. She sympathized with the issues (such a nice person), although she did, she mentioned, have “an independent income.” What an epiphany! My fellow wretches (i.e., grad students) were living on such different planets. She (guiltily?) picked up the tab.

What does she represent for me that I feel so soiled? An unproblematic straight arrow who bought into deconstruction, buffered from the sordid economics of the university, she struck me as a true believer who “inherited” a methodological pedigree, and money. No need, like me, to anarchically expose authority figures—and everything—as absurd! I later learned that her biological father was a prominent LA philanthropist and Holocaust survivor. How unencumbered she seemed: good, gracious, decent, versus tortured moi.

“How fortunate,” Echoed my shrink.

Yes, fortunate! (I am now on the couch.) I envy her. That’s what I really thought about this film: It was a triple-header of sore spots: the academic wreckage, my issues with idealized father figures (antiphallic or not) and “inheritors.”

Did this “anecdote” have anything to do with my reading of this Narcissus and Echo text?


Rhonda Lieberman is a writer living in New York.