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Does Derrida Taste Great, or Is He Less Filling?

July 12, 1987|JACK MILES | Times Book Editor

How important, among Jacques Derrida's works is "The Post Card"? Is it, for example, more important than "Glas," which the University of Nebraska Press published in 1986 in a $40 English translation by John P. Leavey Jr., with a $40 companion volume of commentary entitled "Glassary"?

The word glas means "knell" in French. Derrida's "Glas" tolls the knell of Western thought by juxtaposing (in parallel columns with extended commentary) passages from the 19th-Century German philosopher G. W. F. Hegel--who saw himself and has been seen by many others as the culmination of all philosophy--with passages from the late, spectacularly obscene, disreputable, perverted, sociopathic French playwright--I list only those qualities for which the man was most celebrated--Jean Genet.

Given Hegel's importance to philosophy and Genet's to modern literature (Jean-Paul Sartre wrote a famous book on Genet entitled "Saint Genet") and given the scope of Leavey's exegesis of Derrida's book on the two of them (320 pages of word-by-word analysis), "Glas-Glassary" might seem more worthy of review than "The Post Card," which takes as its proximate subject the work of a French psychoanalyst well enough known, to be sure, but not nearly so distinguished, even in the restricted domain of psychoanalysis, as Hegel and Genet in the larger ones of philosophy and literature.

Such would surely be the view of J. Hillis Miller, the noted Yale professor of literature, who contributed a pre-publication comment on Leavey's "Glas-Glassary" in which he said, in effect, that "Glas" tastes great. He wrote: " Glas is in my opinion Derrida's masterwork so far, the work of broadest scope and implication both as exemplification of his own methodology of reading and of his central philosophical and literary concerns. The work is difficult and challenging even for a fluent reader of French, and making available in English an authoritative translation is a major scholarly achievement."

But in so writing, Miller demonstrated only that he had misunderstood this extraordinarily influential French thinker. For if Derrida is right (see adjoining review), there can be no difference between masterwork and apprenticework nor any privileging of "central philosophical and literary concerns" over marginal ones. Let it be freely conceded that by any traditional reckoning, "Glas" is a more important work than "The Post Card." Nonetheless Derrida's point, a point about all such reckonings, will be better taken by attending to what is marginal about him and ignoring what is central. In short, "The Postcard" tastes great, "Glas" is less filling.

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