Derrida begins the White Mythology with an excerpt from Anatole France’s Garden of Epicurus. In that essay, a dialogue takes place about metaphysics, in which one of the interlocutors, Polyphile, makes a suggestion that should sound familiar to those who’ve read the German ideology: the abstractions of metaphysics are all, in fact, images borrowed from images of matter. The soul, for instance, if we dig our way through the tangle of etymologies, can easily be seen to derive, linguistically, from the word for breath. By an easy inference, we go from the abstraction to the living thing, breath. As France’s interlocutor makes his translations, he remarks that Western texts of metaphysics resemble the Vedas. This is no accident – there is quite a history, by the time France is writing, that attempts to demonstrate that our Western concepts came from India. India to Greece – this was the direction urged by Georg Creuzer in his Symbolik. So we have two scenes play themselves out: one is that materialist deduction which leaves the idea – and idealists – by the side, as poets at best; and we have a history, a past that we can go back to through the language we use itself.
Derrida sets himself the task, in the White Mythology, to investigation this double scene. He asks about the eclipse of symbolization, that process that seems to use the matter, the images of common things, until it erases their materiality. And he asks about this course from the East to the West. There is one thing that proceeds from the East to the West and is eclipsed – the sun. Yet to find the sun, here, is to use France’s method of scratching through the abstract. It is part of Derrida’s argument that the way in which the arguments take sides, here, corresponds to a certain systematic impulse – one that he calls the White Mythology. When, in the seventies, James Scott talks about the Great Tradition of the urban elites, with their abstractions and the Little Tradition of the Peasants, with their materialist practices, he is (although doubtless he has not been influenced by Derrida) going in the same direction – or at least concentrating on the social processes that bring about the White Mythology.
Of course, Derrida’s interest is not those social processes so much as the system itself. I should remark that the American reception of Derrida often makes him out to be Polyphile, whose interlocutor leaves him unconvinced, because he has not “argued within the rules.” But Derrida is not Polyphile, far from it; his argument is founded on showing that the divisions between disciplines, between the idea and the thing, between metaphor and metaphysic, are not given naturally, but are treated as though they are given naturally, thus setting up a semantic “bank”, so to speak, that is always loaning from one account to another, on the supposition that somewhere there is an asset that is worth what it is – an idion, a thing that is properly itself. I risk the metaphor because, indeed, it is a question of economics, taken in several ways: as a science of pleasure, as a science of circulation and production, as any science having to do with value, as a system of household management. There is also the verb form of economize, meaning to spare one a long story – for instance, the story of symbolization which takes us from matter to abstraction. It is economized, shortened, bracketed, left out as irrelevant.
Derrida makes clear that this is not another metaphilosophy, nor a study of the rhetoric of philosophy. Rather, it is a grapple with those systematic concepts that have guided our notion of the metaphor and of metaphysics, which have determined the fields that would study them – rhetoric, or some impossible philosophy of philosophy.
I think of the White Philosophy as I think of what Goethe, in Italy, is trying to accomplish – for surely he is going through the stages of just that kind of estrangement from the system in which he can no longer live, the system of the proper in Weimar, and like Polyphile, he is using a method to scratch through the surface and get to the savage past. In Goethe’s case, the method is a planned alienation from the proper that he must know is right out the adventurers tool kit – the use of the Incognito. By shucking his name, Goethe hopes to slip the yoke and turn the joke – he hopes to see anew, afresh. To see “alone the things he had never hoped to see.” And that refreshment is a journey that not only reproduces a journey taken in the past by others, including his own father, but is a journey continually coming upon the past, from the stone age hovels of certain of the Italian peasants to the mode of transportation via mule cart – a bruising transport over the roads that, as Goethe notes, was replaced in the North centuries ago.
When Goethe gets to Rome, this doubled sense of himself and his object is projected in a classical metaphor:
“When Pygmalions Elise, whom he had formed wholly according to his wishes, and had given her as much truth and being as any artist could, finally came up to him and said, I am here [ich bin’s], how otherwise was the living thing to the molded stone.”