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L’affaire Derrida’

In response to:

A Normal Nazi from the January 14, 1993 issue

To the Editors:

In “A Normal Nazi” Mr. Thomas Sheehan has the nerve to speak of “Derrida’s legal threats against the very existence of Wolin’s book.” This is a falsification. Moreover, he himself recognizes that it is and thus contradicts himself in a flagrant manner. He knows very well that no one ever threatened the existence of Mr. Wolin’s book. I merely demanded that my interview be withdrawn from any subsequent printings or editions and only from these printings or editions of the book in question. May I recall that this interview was published without my authorization, in an execrable translation, and in a book that, as is my right, I judge to be weak, simplistic, and compulsively aggressive. I emphasize that I was never informed either of the project of this book or its publication, and this despite the fact that the said book included, in order to attack it, a long text of mine. Do I not have the right to protest when a text of mine is published without my authorization, in a bad translation, and in what I think is a bad book? As I have since written to him, Mr. Wolin seems to be more eager to give lessons in political morality than to try to respect the authors he writes about and publishes, in a greater hurry to accuse than to understand difficult texts and thinking—not to mention foreign languages (the reader who wishes to form a judgment of this not unimportant element of the affair can refer to the translation of my text that Mr. Wolin had the nerve to publish: it is accessible to the public in the first edition of the book, as are the crude mistranslations that characterize it; one may then compare it with my own text as it appeared in the Nouvel Observateur, 1987 and which has just been republished in its integrity in Points de suspension, Paris: Galilée, 1992). The fact that Mr. Wolin’s errors are not, alas, only linguistic gets us to the bottom of things. If Mr. Sheehan deems it worthwhile, for reasons the reader may judge, to devote almost a third of a very long article to this incident, one can only regret that he did not say more about what he believes it suffices merely to point out, as if in passing, namely that “Derrida’s position on all this is more complex than Wolin’s brief criticism (correct as far as it goes) allows…”

Jacques Derrida
Ecole des Hautes Etudes en Sciences Sociales
Paris, France

Thomas Sheehan replies:

The letters of Mr. Moore and Mr. Derrida remind one of Elliott Abrams, who, when asked in 1987 whether he had lied to Congress about the Iran-contra affair, made a distinction between lying and leaving a false impression. I. To begin with Mr. Moore’s letter: I have documentation for everything I wrote. It is Mr. Moore who misrepresents the facts on each point.

(1) Mr. Moore’s phone log will show that I called him at Columbia University Press early last May to verify the facts in the Derrida-Wolin affair. Mr. Moore was temporarily out of his office, and I was referred to Mr. Daniel Baird, his assistant. I told Mr. Baird I was reviewing Richard Wolin’s book and spelled out in detail what I knew of the affair. I left my number and requested that Mr. Moore phone me at his earliest convenience to discuss the matter. Mr. Moore never called back.

Instead, Ms. Jennifer Crewe, senior executive editor at Columbia University Press, phoned me on May 7, 1992, and told me, very courteously but very bluntly, “Lawyers got involved, and we can’t say anything.” All she would add was that the book was out of print and that the rights had reverted to Mr. Wolin. So much for Columbia’s interest in verifying the facts.

(2) Mr. Moore’s claim that Wolin flip-flopped over whether to retain the Derrida interview, or to delete it, certainly fits Elliott Abrams’s second category.

This is a serious charge—that Mr. Moore intentionally misleads—and there is an easy way to adjudicate it. Let Messrs. Moore, Wolin, and Derrida make public, in an appropriate forum, the relevant correspondence they had on this unfortunate affair up through June 7, 1992. Then let people decide for themselves whether Mr. Moore is telling the truth.*

The evidence will show that:

(a) Wolin, upon hearing of Mr. Derrida’s displeasure, immediately sent him an extremely courteous letter of apology (November 6, 1991) explaining that he had obtained the rights in good faith and with no intention of slighting Derrida, and offering to make amends. Derrida chose not to respond to Wolin’s letter for five months and, instead, had his lawyer initiate legal threats against Wolin’s book.

(b) Having reconfirmed with the Nouvel Observateur that he had the rights to the translation (Mme. Ruth Valentini’s letter to Wolin, December 11, 1991), Wolin nonetheless agreed, out of respect for Derrida, to drop the text from the forthcoming edition, and drafted a new, carefully worded preface explaining the excision of the text.

(c) Columbia, for its own reasons, cut Wolin’s fourteen-page draft down to four innocuous, anodyne pages and faxed them to him with no explanation for the cuts (March 17, 1992).

(d) Wolin, understandably upset, decided that on principle he could not accept Columbia’s radical cutting of his preface. After a telephone conversation with a senior editor at Columbia (March 18, 1992), he further decided he might have to withdraw the rights from the press. In frustration he faxed Mr. Moore (March 19, 1992) to suggest (and only that) that as president and director of the press he not give in to what Wolin called Derrida’s “intimidation tactics” but rather “consider republishing the volume as is.”

Was Wolin’s suggestion improper? Maybe so. But at least one can understand the frustration that lay behind it: four futile months of bending over backward to placate Derrida and Columbia University Press, only to end up having his text cut to ribbons, and for reasons not hard to divine. To save matters, all Mr. Moore needed to do was omit the Derrida text, as Wolin had agreed, and have the courage to publish Wolin’s new preface intact.

Clearly Mr. Moore does not see things that way. Otherwise he could not have written the second paragraph of his letter, least of all with its self-serving obfuscation of the facts.

(3) Mr. Moore’s claim that he refused to publish Wolin’s new preface because it would embarrass its author, and that Wolin significantly changed parts of it for the MIT edition, does not (to put it kindly) bear scrutiny. It is clear that the new preface was potentially embarrassing not to Mr. Wolin but to Mr. Moore and Columbia University Press. More important, the MIT preface is not significantly different from the version Wolin submitted to Columbia, as Mr. Moore should know. Wolin merely omitted from the MIT preface the text of his letter of apology to Derrida (November 6, 1991) and added thirty-two lines that simply extend—but in no way change, significantly or otherwise—the arguments of his preface.

II. Concerning Mr. Derrida’s letter:

(1) Did Mr. Derrida make “legal threats against the very existence of Wolin’s book,” as I claim?

(a) Re the first printing of the book, October 1991: In the letter entitled “AFFAIRE: DERRIDA / N. R.: 1251” (November 22, 1991) Derrida’s lawyer, Mme. Anne Weill-Mace, informed Columbia University Press that Derrida claimed the legal right “to procure the seizure [saisie] of the book that you published without his agreement, so as to have the pages concerning him suppressed.” By speaking here of “les pages qui le concerne” [sic] with its ambiguous grammar and referent, and by later broadening the scope to cover “the whole passage concerning this interview [“tout le passage concernant cet entretien“], the letter left it an open question whether Derrida was threatening to suppress not just his own text (pp. 265–273) but also Wolin’s comments on it at pp. 264–265, and even Wolin’s twelve-line citation from the interview on p. 299.

The letter makes it clear that Derrida’s alleged right to seize Wolin’s book applied to the first edition, the one that was then on sale, and that this right continued to hold even if—“out of courtesy and friendship towards your publishing house” and as long as Columbia acceded to his demand not to republish his text—Derrida chose not to exercise his right. In other words, Derrida’s threat to “seize” and “suppress”—which at this point was directed not against a hypothetical second edition but against the then existent first printing—could be executed whenever Derrida might decide to cease being courteous and friendly toward Columbia University Press. This legal Sword of Damocles seems not unlike the category of medieval jurisprudence called vacatio iuris: the sovereign certainly has the right to kill his subject, but chooses (out of mercy, whim, or whatever) not to—at least not at the moment.

(b) Concerning a second printing of the book: Mme. Weill-Mace’s letter goes on to threaten that, if Columbia dared to run a second printing of the book (which it arguably had the legal right to do), “we would go to the courts to procure an immediate withdrawal [retrait] of the publication.”

The letter does not make it clear what exactly Derrida means by “seizure” and “suppression” with regard to the first printing or the “withdrawal” of a second printing. Therefore, it is difficult to know just what condition the books would be in once Derrida, per hypothesim, had exercised his asserted right to impound them and “suppress” the offending pages.

Would he simply have the books locked up, unread and unreadable, in a police warehouse? Would he go so far as to have pages 265–273 ripped out of each copy, and then return the books? Moreover, there is the important philosophical and legal question whether those books, in their impounded and/or mutilated condition, could still be said to “exist” as what they were before. (In Aristotelian terms, would they have undergone a “substantial change” or only an “accidental change”?)

In other words: Do the sentences cited above constitute what I called “legal threats against the very existence of Wolin’s book”?

I think they do. Mr. Derrida thinks they do not. Given our philosophical-legal difference of opinion, I’ll compromise: If those sentences are not a legal threat against the existence of the book, they’ll do just fine until Derrida sees fit to make a “real” threat.

(2) Derrida’s arguments against Wolin are at best specious.

(a) In my article I readily granted that Derrida should not be forced to remain in a volume he does not approve of, even though legally Wolin had obtained permission from the Nouvel Observateur to publish the translation. But Derrida wants more. He continues to assert that Wolin had no legal grounds for publishing the translation in the first place and that he, Derrida, alone owns the rights to the interview in the Nouvel Observateur—this despite two written statements to the contrary from Mme. Ruth Valentini, the journal’s copyright editor (letters of October 23, 1990, and December 11, 1991).

Moreover, in a telephone conversation with me on January 13, 1993, Mme. Valentini reconfirmed yet again, and in English: “We are the copyright holder [of the text in question]…. The rights belong to us,…the interview belongs to us.” She also confirmed—this is the third time now—that Richard Wolin correctly obtained from the journal the rights to translate the text into English and that he paid the required permissions. fee, which the Nouvel Observateur, as is its custom, split with the interviewer (in this case Mr. Didier Eribon). If Mr. Derrida wants to continue the legal quarrel, why doesn’t he take it up with the French journal?

(b) Derrida calls Wolin’s translation “execrable.” He is wrong. Whatever infelicities there may be in the translation (there are three, at most, that are even worth talking about) could be easily corrected in a new printing. Wolin offered to do that (his letter to Derrida, November 6, 1991), but Derrida refused to answer Wolin for five months; instead, he had his lawyer initiate the threats cited above. Mr. Derrida’s charge about the translation is a diversionary tactic to cover up his real motives for opposing the book.

(c) Derrida excoriates Wolin’s book as “weak, simplistic, and compulsively aggressive,” and in a letter to Wolin he even calls it “sneaky.” Derrida is certainly entitled to his opinions, and even to such highly charged denunciations. But as a scholar, doesn’t he owe it to the public he addresses to do more than throw around inflammatory adjectives? Doesn’t he care to explain, calmly and discursively, his material reasons for disagreeing with Wolin’s arguments, just as Wolin spelled out, calmly and discursively, where he disagrees with Derrida?

When Wolin requested that Derrida share those reasons with him privately, Derrida refused to do so, beyond insisting (in majuscule, no less) that his judgment of the book was “essentiellement NEGATIVE…je le répète, NEGATIVE” (letter of May 1, 1992). Is such shouting supposed to substitute for reasoned arguments?

(3) One last thing. Up until January 4, 1993, Derrida’s ad hominem attacks on Wolin—that he is ignorant, a disrespectful moralizer, an opportunist, guilty of “unbelievable, shocking and inadmissible behavior,” a perpetrator of “gross violence” and “dissimulation”—were confined to Derrida’s correspondence with Wolin. But now, with his letter to The New York Review of Books, he goes public.

Mr. Derrida should know that, whatever he thinks of Wolin’s book, such tawdry personal attacks sully Mr. Derrida, not Mr. Wolin. Those of us who have a high regard for Derrida’s immense scholarly achievements can only find this behavior, to say the very least, embarrassing. I presume that Mr. Derrida, on reflection, does too.

January 14, 1993

  1. *

    The relevant correspondence would include (1) the letter of Derrida’s lawyer, Mme. Anne Weill-Mace, to Columbia University Press, dated November 22, 1991, and entitled “AFFAIRE: DERRIDA / N. R.: 1251”; (2) the two letters that Mme. Ruth Valentini, copyright editor of the Nouvel Observateur, sent Wolin (October 23, 1990, and December 11, 1991) confirming and reconfirming that her journal holds the rights to the interview and had properly sold those rights to Wolin; (3) Derrida’s letter to Moore (February 10, 1992) in which he offers his truly extraordinary exegesis of what supposedly Mme. Valentini “really” meant in her two letters; (4) Derrida’s two letters to Wolin (April 10, 1992, and May 1, 1992); and (5) Wolin’s responses to Derrida on April 20 and June 7, 1992.

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