Tuesday, July 30, 2013

The Gift of Death by Jacques Derrida / Book Reviews

Jacques Derrida
Why did I read this? Because, for good or ill, Jacques Derrida is one of the most important intellectual figures of my generation, and in The Gift of Death, he addressed one of my favorite authors, Soren Kierkegaard, for the first time.

The Gift of Death is written as four loosely organized sections that almost read like separate essays. The first two sections, "Secrets of European Responsibility" and "Beyond," were bound around Derrida's reading of Jan Patocka's (this is the first I'd ever heard of him) Heretical Essays. The next two sections, "Whom to Give (Knowing Not to Know)" and "Tout Autre est Tout Autre," were bound around Derrida's reading of Kierkegaard's Fear and Trembling and the Sermon on the Mount.

The first two sections give a historical evolution of responsibility in Western culture in three stages. Each of these stages deal with death in a different way, but in each one, every man's death is his own responsibility. Your death is unique to you. Only you can die as you, which means death gives you an identity.
  1. Demonic- Revels in death as a mystery beyond our comprehension
  2. Platonism- Subordinates the demonic mystery to Reason which tries to understand and control death. (See The Phaedo)
  3. Christian- Swallows Platonism (which contains the demonic) and gives us a way of dealing with death without having to completely comprehend it by creating a space for what is sacred (eternity).
If you're thinking Russian dolls at this point, then you may understand what Patocka and Derrida are getting at. Each succeeding stage contains and builds on the stages that came before.

The last two sections work closely off the story of Abraham and Isaac. Abraham could not tell people he was going to sacrifice Isaac because they would've tried to stop him. His responsibility to God had to be kept secret, and so Abraham could not justify himself to others. He was responsible only to God. Derrida uses the Sermon on the Mount to back up this idea of secrecy (But your Father who sees in secret...). Derrida takes this idea and says that we are responsible to others as we are responsible to the Other (which is God, more on that later). In the last few pages, he starts quoting Nietzsche and says that while there is no God, we still need to believe. By believing in the other, we have a good starting place for ethics (responsibility).

On the one hand, I really enjoyed Derrida’s close reading of Kierkegaard. Derrida helped me to understand Kierkegaard better, especially why Abraham’s silence was so important. On the other hand, Derrida doesn’t actually think there is a God. I think he confuses what is sacred with what can’t be thought. I can’t fully comprehend God, but lack of comprehension is not the same thing as sacred. This becomes obvious when Derrida says God is Other and people are Other, so God and other people are the same. Just because I can’t fully comprehend someone else does not make them sacred in the same way that God is sacred.

Of everything I’ve read by Derrida, this was by far the easiest to read which I enjoyed. It’s also short, clocking in at 115 pages. If you want a short primary source on how the postmodern culture thinks about religion, then this is a good place to start though it’s not an easy read.

The Gift of Death is $10 at Barnes and Noble.

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