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L’Affaire Derrida’: Yet Another Exchange

To the Editors:

I have attentively followed the exchange which you have tendanciously entitled the “Affaire Derrida.” I am sure I am not the only one to be shocked by the bad faith and the hatred Mr. Sheehan spreads across the pages of his letter. Without dwelling on this behavior which is all too easily decipherable by any vigilant, unbiased reader, I will limit myself to two remarks:

First, Mr. Sheehan judges with peremptory authority, letter after letter, the translation of Mr. Wolin, as well as the translations of certain books of Derrida. Now, it is evident that Mr. Sheehan’s knowledge of French is just as poor as that of Mr. Wolin’s, and I have seen for myself how poor Mr. Wolin’s French is. Mr. Sheehan translates:

Je poursuivrai mes recherches sur l’aspect juridique de la chose et ne manquerai pas de lui i.e., Wolin donner les suites les plus appropriés” as: “I shall pursue my investigations in the juridical aspect of the case and shall not fail to make Mr. Wolin pay the most fitting consequences.”

This translation is not only outrageous but absurd: it is contrary to the elementary rules of French syntax and morphology. In French, the pronoun lui obviously refers to “l’aspect juridique de la chose” (“the juridical aspect of the case” as Mr. Sheehan’s translation has it) or simply to “la chose” (the case). It is impossible for it to refer to “Mr. Wolin,” whose name does not even appear in Derrida’s sentence.

After a few months of study, a high school student knows that “lui” does not necessarily refer to a person, neither does it necessarily refer to the masculine gender. And here you see Mr. Sheehan contentedly putting in brackets “[i.e., Wolin]” in a footnote, without bothering to point out his addition in the body of the text, thus letting the reader ignorant of French believe that this travestied sentence is Derrida’s.

As for “donner les suites appropriées,” it does not mean “to make pay,” but “to draw the fitting consequences.”

My second point: I have asked Derrida to show me the correspondence in question (since he himself had declared he was ready to do so). It has been easy for me to establish that no legal proceedings have ever been started against Mr. Wolin, though they might have been justified.1 As Derrida has pointed out in his two letters, and all the pertaining documents confirm it, he limited himself to making known that he might have recourse to the law if and only if a second edition of the book still included the interview published the first time without his authorization. The excerpt of this letter of November 8, 1991, quoted above and translated in this devious and dishonest way by Mr. Sheehan, dates from several months before the decision of Columbia University Press not to republish the interview in question. Finally, contrary to what Mr. Sheehan says, the letter of October 31, 1991, of Ms. Crewe of Columbia University Press to Derrida mentioned in passing the possibility of a paperback edition. In his letter of February 3, 1992 addressed to Derrida, Mr. Moore of the same press had not yet given up the idea of a reprint in English of Mr. Wolin’s book.

Mr. Sheehan knows all this very well, since Jacques Derrida had the courtesy to send him copies of the correspondence. Why doesn’t Mr. Sheehan, who knows the facts, draw the fitting consequences? Why all the lies? Why the resentment?

Hélène Cixous

Professor, Women’s Studies and English Literature

University of Paris

Paris, France

To the Editors:

None of the many allegations, insinuations and accusations directed against Jacques Derrida during the past two months by Thomas Sheehan and Richard Wolin in The New York Review [Letters, February 11, March 4, and March 25] can obscure the following, indisputable facts:

  1. Disregarding the established rules of academic publishing as well as of common courtesy, Wolin translated and published a text by Derrida without bothering to consult the author. Although this would be inadmissible behavior under any circumstances, the fact that the book edited by Wolin addresses a highly controversial and complex topic should have made such consultation even more imperative. But Wolin appears to have long since made up his mind that Derrida’s work “deconstructs into nonexistence the gravity of Heidegger’s Nazism” (NYR, March 25), and he was not about to expose his conviction—or his translation—to scrutiny from a thinker he so desperately seeks to condemn and disqualify.

  2. In an article ostensibly written to review the book edited by Wolin, Sheehan attempts to launch a “Derrida Affair.” Instead of being aggressed by Wolin, Derrida is presented as the aggressor. The complexities required for a serious discussion of the relation of Heidegger’s thought with Nazism are thus replaced by a narrative in which personalization, moralization and “human interest” predominate. The two letters by Sheehan published since accumulate accusations of Derrida and apologies for Wolin.

  3. One such apology is particularly symptomatic. Dismissing Derrida’s contention that Wolin’s translation of his interview was seriously flawed, Sheehan provides an instance of his competence in this area by translating a sentence from a letter written by Derrida to the Director of the Columbia University Press as follows: “I shall pursue my investigations into the juridical aspect of the case and shall not fail to make Wolin pay the most fitting consequences.” Quite apart from the fact that in English one does not normally “pay…consequences,” Sheehan’s translation is incorrect and tendentious. In French Derrida writes: “Je poursuivrai mes recherches sur l’aspect juridique de la chose et ne manquerai pas de lui [to wit: “la chose” and not “Wolin,” as Sheehan translates] donner les suites les plus appropriées.” A more accurate translation would read: “I will continue my inquiry into the legal aspects of the case and will not fail to pursue it in the most appropriate ways.” In no way can the indirect object of the verb “donner” be Wolin, although this is precisely the point that Mr. Sheehan is obviously bent on making, even if he has to mistranslate in order to do so. For the sentence is cited by Sheehan as proof of the “vengeance that [Derrida] planned to take against Wolin from the very start.” Derrida, however, says nothing at all about making anyone “pay.” Sheehan thus demonstrates not merely his limited knowledge of French but, more seriously, his determined desire to discredit Derrida.

Such vindictiveness contributes to a climate in which provocation and slander increasingly take the place of serious, public discussion. Jacques Derrida deserves support in his efforts to resist and expose this dangerous trend, whether in the pages of The New York Review or elsewhere.

Derek Attridge Neil Hertz

Judith Butler Wolfgang Iser

Drucilla Cornell Fredric Jameson

Jonathan Culler Peggy Kamuf

Arnold Davidson Murray Krieger

Peter Fenves J. Hillis Miller

Stanley Fish W.J.T. Mitchell

Michael Fried Willis Regier

Christopher Fynsk Naomi Schor

Wlad Godzich Joan Scott

Gerald Graff Andrzej Warminski

Werner Hamacher Samuel Weber

Hayden White

Thomas Sheehan replies:

These distinguished scholars are right about one thing—the French dative case—but wrong about everything else.

Yes, as they point out, the phrase “lui donner” in this instance means “to give to it” rather than “to give to him” (i.e., Wolin), and I was wrong to take it in the latter sense. The syntax shows that Derrida was promising to pursue the legal aspect of his case.

But there’s an irony here. When Derrida’s syntax became politics—that is, when he transformed the lui donner into a concrete legal threat—Wolin turned out to be the real dative after all. Derrida did in fact make him pay “the most appropriate consequences”: He killed off Wolin’s book.

This is the fundamental fact that these distinguished scholars fail to mention. They strain out the gnat and swallow the camel.

The issue at stake in l’affaire Derrida is not my ability in French any more than it is Mme. Cixous’s ability in English (as in her “tendanciously”). The issue is that Jacques Derrida, for the basest of reasons, forced Richard Wolin’s book out of print.

Derrida did that not because Wolin had acted illegally (he had not), not because Wolin had been discourteous (he was not), not because the translation is “execrable” (it is not, and there are infinitely worse translations of Derrida).

Derrida suppressed the book for one reason only: he did not like the brief criticism—a mere three pages out of the book’s three hundred—that Wolin leveled at Derrida’s position on Heidegger and Nazism.

If Wolin had praised Derrida instead of criticizing him, Derrida would have let the book stand as it was, with or without permission from Le Nouvel Observateur, with or without translation errors. There would have been no threats to have the police impound the book, no quibbling about the rights, no histrionics about the translation.

How can the distinguished scholars not see this? Derrida is not the victim but the victor. He won. He succeeded in doing what none of them would ever dare to do: he muscled a book out of print because he didn’t like what it said about him.

As I have said before in these pages, Derrida had every right not to remain in a volume he did not approve of, but he could easily have had the interview removed from a subsequent edition without threatening to have Wolin’s book seized or destroyed.

The issue in l’affaire Derrida is one thing only: not translation rights or the rendering of French datives but Derrida’s ego and the power he can muster to serve it, including the power to commandeer—by a network of faxes and phone calls (and a good deal of arm-twisting, by all reports)—the two letters printed above.

How ironic that Derrida, who provides a language for criticizing power and for deconstructing the imperialisms of authorship, now parades himself, to the cheers of his acolytes, as the very psychopomp of power, who threatens to resort to the oldest and crudest of weapons, the police.

Apart from the question of the dative, all the points raised by these distinguished scholars have been answered in previous letters. There is only one thing that is new: the sad fact that they signed these pathetic letters at all.2

Surely we all understand Derrida’s deep personal embarrassment at having the whole business exposed, both his suppression of the book (which he had hoped to keep secret) and his foolish blunder in lying about it in The New York Review of Books.

And we can understand how his disciples and friends, out of loyalty to the Master, feel the desperate need for damage control to bolster the morale of the faithful.

But for these scholars then to sign a public letter justifying Derrida’s deplorable conduct in this affair—as if to say, by their signatures, that they too would have done the same thing—this, to me, is not so much morally shocking as it is evidence of just how politically dim, in their blind loyalty to one of their own, some professors can be. It gives a whole new meaning to Socrates’ question, “Do you know any tribe stupider than the rhapsodes?”

Let me say to these distinguished colleagues and to the others who have faxed in their signatures to Mr. Weber’s sycophantic letter:

I am no enemy of deconstruction, but neither do I believe, as some of you seem to, in the cult of personality or in defending Derrida at all costs. I teach and write about Derrida’s texts with considerable appreciation. But if valuing his work means one must approve his despicable conduct and support his threats to seize books, then count me out.

  1. 1

    One does not publish or republish a work without the knowledge and consent of the author. And this is fortunate since the context of publication is part of the way an author establishes his or her intent, as is well known. To neglect to ask the opinion of Derrida in this matter, was from the beginning an indication of mistrust, a gesture of repression, and finally a means to exclude him in the very act of including him.

  2. 2

    I apologize for going over old ground in this footnote, but Mme. Cixous’s falsification of the correspondence compels it. (1) On October 31, 1991, Jennifer Crewe wrote Derrida: “We have decided that we will not include your essay if and when we reprint the book in paperback, and we will inform Mr. Wolin of this decision.” (2) On November 22, 1991, Derrida nonetheless began his legal threats to destroy the book. (3) On February 3, 1992, Mr. Moore merely asked Derrida whether he had changed his mind. (4) On February 10, 1992, Derrida threatened to seize the original edition and to do so immediately if Columbia University Press (which had already capitulated to Derrida’s demands) did not quickly reconfirm its surrender.

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