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Monday, November 16, 2009

From the foot of versus

“Yes reader countless are the mysterious handwritings of grief or joy which have inscribed themselves successively upon the palimpsest of your brain; and like the annual leaves of aboriginal forests or the undissolving snows on the Himalaya, or light falling upon light, the endless strata have covered up each other in forgetfulness But by the hour of death, but by fever, but by the searchings of opium, all these can revive in strength They are not dead but sleeping.” - De Quincey, Suspira de Profundis

The palimpsest section of Suspira de Profundis operates according to the dysfunctional logic, the white mythology, that Derrida finds in Plato’s Phaedrus. There are two series of terms, here, in which writing finds its tenement, its power. In one series, the tenement is cursed – literally, this is the series of the witch’s portion, and potion. Like the contract that is written in blood and signed by Christoph Haitzmann, the painter who was the object of Freud’s essay, writing here misuses its fluids, its graphemes, it is the bad counselor, it is the evil vizier, it undermines memory, it is a voodoo-ed copy of the living word (half dead in the dead media to which it is assigned, stone, wax tablet, sheet of parchment, sheet of paper). But another series makes writing the good counselor, the wise vizier, the repository of memory, and, indeed, memory’s natural metaphor. Writing as pharmakon here creates the very power that distinguishes the animal from the vegetable: the animal has a past. The presence of the past – the present within the past – is, metaphorically, just this writing, this inscription. In the vaults of history, we take history to be a matter of records, a matter of leaving a trace.

Derrida is often read as a defender of writing against its accusers, from Plato to Rousseau. This reading comes about so automatically because, I think, philosophy has come to mean automatically taking a side. But I don’t read Derrida as ascending to the summit of some great “versus” – rather, he stands at the foot of it. Of the versus itself, of forward and backward, of the wolf going down the path of pins and the girl in the red hoodie going down the path of needles (“Le loup se mit à courir de toute sa force par le chemin qui était le plus court, et la petite fille s’en alla par le chemin le plus long, s’amusant à cueillir des noisettes, à courir après des papillons, et à faire des bouquets des petites fleurs qu’elle rencontrait.). And it is my contention, of course, and in fact my single insight into universal history, that these are the same paths, one going to, one coming from – eternally the same and different path. In this, I am unoriginal in the extreme. I follow Red Riding Hood, Michelet’s witch, Derrida, the Dao. The good counselor writes the social contract, and his brother, the evil vizier, writes the sealed message carried by Bellerophon – as you love me, kill the messenger.

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