In response to:

'L'affaire Derrida' from the February 11, 1993 issue

To the Editors:

I regret that I must ask you once again to publish a response from me, this time to the letter of Mr. Sheehan. The text of this letter follows.

I would have preferred not to take up any more space in this column nor any more of the reader’s time with what could more correctly be dubbed the “Wolin/Sheehan affair.” However, the letter from Mr. Sheehan [NYR, February 11] compels me to recall a few stubborn and massive facts and then to pose several questions. The most incredible thing in this “affair,” let us note, is that now Mr. Sheehan seems to be demanding that I respond and justify myself in circumstances where it would be more appropriate and in better faith to demand it of Mr. Wolin. Isn’t he the one who translated (very badly) then published a text of mine without requesting my authorization and without even informing me of it, not even after the book was published?

  1. Mr. Sheehan claims to have a complete file on the matter (“I have documentation for everything,” he says). He declares that he called or wrote to everyone (to Columbia University Press and even to France, to Le Nouvel Observateur). Why then did he never contact me during the six months that, so it seems, it took him to prepare his article? Is what I know or think about the non-authorized publication of my text or is what I can attest to in this regard so unimportant in his view? Strange, “embarrassing,” isn’t it? Anyone can see that Mr. Sheehan’s behavior resembles Mr. Wolin’s. The latter had also informed everyone but me. He informed everyone (his publisher and Le Nouvel Observateur) of his intention to publish my text in translation: he then did in fact publish it without my agreement and without my knowledge, thereby carefully avoiding talking to me about it at any time (that is, for months and months), leaving me to discover the thing after the fact. Strange, “embarrassing,” isn’t it? For whom? Why these oversights, why this avoidance on the part of Mr. Wolin as well as Mr. Sheehan? I will do no more than pose the question, but the hypotheses are not “hard to divine,” to take up the expression with which Mr. Sheehan, at least twice, disguises his insinuations. No harder to divine, moreover, than the reasons for which Mr. Wolin had from the first absolutely insisted on publishing a long text of mine, even if he had to do so without my knowledge. After all, he could have easily quoted my text, analyzed long excerpts from it, referred to it, and so on, without any authorization. No, he wanted at all costs for me to figure as one of the co-authors of his book. So why? Is it “hard to divine”? And then the withdrawal of my text from the second edition becomes, in Mr. Sheehan’s view, the most notable thing about this book. For, when he comes to talk about the book, he makes almost everything he has to say turn around this incident, neglecting, in his promotional haste, to explain how my “position” is, as he nevertheless recognizes in one line, “more complex” than Mr. Wolin thinks. Why? Is it “hard to divine”?
  2. I maintain that Le Nouvel Observateur does not have the right to authorize without my accord the republication of my text in translation. Any competent lawyer will confirm this to be the case. No contract was ever signed between this magazine and myself on the subject of a text of which I remain the sole legal owner. Mme. Valentini acknowledged in a letter to Mr. Wollin (December 11, 1991) that she had “forgotten,” as had Mr. Wolin, to ask me for authorization (this “was forgotten,” she says calmly, “by you and by us”). If Mme. Valentini has recently claimed the contrary (over the telephone and in English, as Mr. Sheehan reports), she is mistaken or is misleading her questioner. If I have not taken legal action against Le Nouvel Observateur (“why doesn’t he take it up with the French journal?” asks Mr. Sheehan), just as I have never taken any legal action (I reiterate and insist on this point) against Mr. Wolin, it is because I do not like to assert my rights in this way when I can avoid it. This ridiculous affair has already made me lose too much time, and I was thinking especially of the future. Given that this wrong was irreversible, since the book was already published, I thought, let’s make sure at least that it is not repeated, and worry only about the next printing or edition. If there had been no wrong, by the way, would Mr. Wolin have offered his apology (“I apologize,” letter dated June 11, 1991, that is, long after his book was published and, in particular, after I had become indignant about it)? Even supposing, concesso non dato, that my legal agreement were not necessary, how can one justify that Mr. Wolin “forgot,” for months and months, to ask me, at least out of courtesy, for my authorization to include a long text of mine in his book? Did he think I was dead? How can one justify that, even afterward, he left me in the dark so that I had to discover his book in a store during a trip to New York? How is one to understand the fact that Mr. Sheehan, who claims to have conducted an exhaustive and impeccable inquiry on this question, vehemently takes the side of Mr. Wolin but “forgets” as well, for months and months, to get in touch with me? What is the most “embarrassing” here, “to say the very least” (I am deliberately employing the words that are so abused by Mr. Sheehan’s rhetoric as to render them immediately suspect)? And “embarrassing” for whom? Is it “hard to divine”?
  3. As I have already said, the serious translation deficiencies, which I consider “not unimportant,” were not my first concern. But I nevertheless continue to find this translation “execrable.” There are many more mistakes than “three, at most, that are even worth talking about” as Mr. Sheehan claims. Counting only the most serious ones, I have found at least two per page and the text has nine pages! If Mr. Sheehan disagrees with this or if, in good faith, he is not aware of it, then I must conclude that his knowledge of language (at least the French language) and the demands he makes of a translator are as lax as those of Mr. Wolin.
  4. Naturally I will make the list of these mistakes available to whoever may wish to consult it. And since Mr. Sheehan seems to think he is intimidating heaven knows who by this proposition, I declare that I am ready, for my part and from the outset, to communicate to whoever asks me all the correspondence I have on the subject (in particular the letters exchanged between Mr. Wolin and myself). If moreover it is possible to publish all these documents, including Mr. Wolin’s unpublished preface, in fair conditions, I accept to do so and would see only an advantage in it. One would then know for whom this is in fact “embarrassing,” whom it “embarrasses” the most, and who, as one says in French, ne s’est pas embarrassé de scrupules, that is, was not bothered by scruples throughout this whole episode.

  5. But I do not make any commitment to explain publicly and in detail why my evaluation of Mr. Wolin’s work is, I repeat, “negative.” First of all because I do not have the time and there are more urgent things to do. Next because I would never have offered a public evaluation of Mr. Wolin’s behavior or work if Mr. Sheehan had not compelled me to do so when he took the initiative to quote from my letters while all the time piling up counter-truths and bad faith arguments. Does Mr. Sheehan really believe one should be obliged to explain oneself publicly and in the press each time one judges a book to be bad, when one prefers not to share the responsibility for it, especially to the point of figuring in spite of oneself as author, and still less when one has not been previously alerted to that fact? Does he want to call on me from now on to justify myself in public and in the press each time I disagree with what I read? Or each time what I read bores me or doesn’t interest me? Or each time I refuse to write, speak, or publish here or there? Not to mention the practical consequences of such a constraint, I wonder about the political regime and quite simply the public space in which one would then have us live.

Jacques Derrida

Ecole des Hautes Etudes

en Sciences Sociales

Paris, France

To the Editors:

I’ve just read in your issue of February 11 the exchange of letters between Jacques Derrida and Thomas Sheehan concerning Richard Wolin’s book and the interview that I conducted for Le Nouvel Observateur in October 1987. I take the liberty of making the following comments:

Le Nouvel Observateur, in fact, like all journals, sells the reprint rights of its articles or interviews abroad. The sale of rights is made almost mechanically with foreign magazines that request them, and there are even agreements in which sales are made automatically with a certain number of European journals. As a general rule, Ruth Valentini, who is responsible for the sale of rights, does not get permission from the authors for the simple reason that this would be a full-time job in itself. To take just this example, the interview with Jacques Derrida was translated in many countries, and it would have been impossible to consult with him each time a request was made to the journal. Besides, Jacques Derrida, who has often had foreign versions of this article in hand, has never raised the least objection on this subject because it always involved journals of very high stature (El Pais in Spain, for example).

But the affair that concerns us, and that you bizarrely call “l’affaire Derrida,” is an entirely different case, because it is not a question of a journal but a book. And especially, of a book that not only reprints the entire interview of 1987, but comments hostilely on it, which Ruth Valentini obviously could not have known when she sold the rights to Columbia University Press (a sale of rights that was in any case valid for only one edition, which did not therefore include a new paperback edition).


In these conditions, it seems to me completely natural that Jacques Derrida would assert his rights (legally incontestable) to this interview and would object to Mr. Wolin’s failure to ask his permission, in addition to the Nouvel Observateur’s.

I would add that it seems to me above all that the real problem lies not at the level of legal rules but at the level of rules of courtesy. Given the nature of Mr. Wolin’s project, I think he should have asked Jacques Derrida, out of basic politeness, if he would agree to have this interview appear in that book. This, besides, would have allowed him to consult with Jacques Derrida on the English version which, in the current circumstances, and Jacques Derrida seems to me to be right also on this point, is not really faithful to the French text.

Didier Eribon

Paris, France

To the Editors:

As of this writing, Jacques Derrida has set forth—publicly and on several occasions—a narrative of the events surrounding the inclusion of the interview “Philosophers’ Hell” in my anthology, The Heidegger Controversy: A Critical Reader. That narrative is misleading and tendentious. It is, moreover, an account that is largely based on paranoia. For Derrida is convinced—and no amount of evidence can lead him to believe otherwise—that there was a conscious attempt to delude, misinform, and defame him; that, once again, the multitudinous “enemies of deconstruction” had sought to embarrass him and lay him low.

I’ve tried to assure him several times in private correspondence—in all honesty and in good faith—that this was not the case. I am far from an “enemy of deconstruction.” But Derrida will have none of it. It took him five months to respond to my first letter (November 6, 1991). Even then he only deigned to respond out of motives that were, shall we say, purely opportunistic: he had just learned from Columbia University Press that, since the press had allowed the book to go out of print, the rights to the volume had reverted to me and that I would likely seek to republish it elsewhere. At this point, Derrida sent a panic-ridden fax to my academic department at Rice University (April 10, 1992; the ironies are too killing: Derrida refuses to write me for five months, but suddenly he’s so desperate to reach me that he must do so by fax) urging me to omit the interview from any future publication of the book.

Of course, that is precisely what I did, in perfect compliance with his wishes, despite having already purchased the “nonexclusive right to publish an English translation” of the interview from Le Nouvel Observateur (permissions letter from Le Nouvel Observateur of September 9, 1990; reconfirmed by rights editor Mme. Ruth Valentini in her letter to me of December 11, 1991). But in his fax he also urged me to phone him—again, following five months of utter silence!—since, as he put it, he “did not have the taste for legal matters” and would prefer to resolve such disputes in accordance with “the traditions of courtesy and fair play.”

I was stunned. It was precisely in a spirit of “courtesy and fair play” that I had written to him in November 1991 seeking to resolve the dispute amicably and informally. And what had been his position upon receipt of my November letter? To me personally he would not even condescend to respond. Instead, the next word I received concerning the matter was a letter from his lawyer, Mme. Anne Weill-Mace, of November 22, 1991. In that document I was named as the virtual co-defendant in a planned legal action in which Derrida threatened, in no uncertain terms, to impound any future editions of the book in question (so much for “courtesy and fair play”). Moreover, as a condition for not suing the press he also required—with incredible presumption—that “all pages concerning him [in the book be] suppressed.” I interpreted this as an unambiguous demand by Derrida to insure that all discussion of his work be excised from the volume as a whole. And I am convinced that the press complied with this demand when, to my astonishment, they edited my new preface down from fourteen to a mere four pages. (A slightly longer version of that original preface is now available in the MIT edition of the book). I am the author of four books with Columbia University Press. Never before had the slightest substantive alterations been made in any of my texts.

Derrida himself then reiterated these legal threats in a letter to Columbia University Press of February 10, 1992. At that time he also stated unambiguously that, should the press not accede to his wishes, he would exercise his “legal right” to have all copies of The Heidegger Controversy—including the original edition—summarily yanked from bookstore shelves all across America (a fact he disingenuously denies in his letter to The New York Review of February 11).


Can there be any surprise, then, that when I received Derrida’s letter of April 10, I had serious reason to doubt his egalitarian interests in “courtesy and fair play”?

I can assure M. Derrida that if he had bothered to write me in a collegial and amicable spirit back in November 1991 requesting that his text be dropped, I would have complied on the spot, and he could have saved himself thousands of francs in legal bills. Yet, because he seemed so preoccupied with the legal aspects of the situation (“faire valoir mes droits” seemed to be his favorite refrain) and with the prerogatives of “authorship” (in a rather anti-deconstructionist spirit, I must add; for how can he consider himself the sole “author” of and possessor of rights to an interview, which is, after all, a joint venture?), he thereby forced me into a legalistic corner, whereby I had no recourse but to confirm, to the press and to him, that I had obtained the rights legally and properly—as the copyright office of Le Nouvel Observateur (which must be growing weary by now) has, without a scintilla of hesitation, repeatedly affirmed.

In our correspondence Derrida has raised the legitimate question of why I did not contact him directly about including “Philosophers’ Hell” in The Heidegger Controversy. In my letter to him of November 6, 1991, I gave him two reasons, both of which he has chosen to ignore. First, I was instructed by knowledgeable sources in Paris that I should write directly to Le Nouvel Observateur for the rights to the interview, since it is their policy to retain the copyright to everything they print (this point speaks to the legal aspect of the dispute; and, indeed, it turns out that my sources were correct). Secondly, concerning the “personal” side, I hereby cite from my letter of November 6, in which I told Derrida the following: “I assumed Le Nouvel Observateur’s granting of permission signified that there were no reservations on your part to the English translation of the interview; and that had there been, for example, any stipulations about the ‘rights of the interviewee’ (yourself) to review the translation, I would have been so informed.” I proceeded to apologize to Derrida, not for having proceeded improperly, but for the unfortunate misunderstanding at hand, which Derrida himself persistently chooses to view as an instance of intentional ill-will.

Moreover, at this time I’d like to state publicly that my original plan for The Heidegger Controversy did not include the Derrida interview (a fact that Columbia University Press, I’m sure, would be happy to confirm). Rather it was only included at the eleventh hour in response to an external reader’s report urging that more French materials be incorporated. So much for conspiracy theories or the idea that Derrida had been somehow intentionally “set-up.”

Finally, there is the matter of the translation, which I’ve always viewed as a red herring. I stand fully behind the English rendering of the text. Moreover, none of the other authors has raised objections akin to M. Derrida’s, including Pierre Bourdieu, whose text was also translated from the French.

Derrida has maligned the content of the volume—he judges it to be “weak, simplistic, and compulsively aggressive:” in sum, a “machine de guerre sournoise” (a “sneaky war machine”)—and here, of course, he is perfectly within his rights. I’d like to remind him, though, in case he hasn’t read it in its entirety before offering public comment, of the book’s contents: five important Heidegger texts, as well as contributions by Ernst Jünger, Karl Löwith, Herbert Marcuse, Karl Jaspers, Jürgen Habermas, Otto Pöggeler, Ernst Tugendhat, and Pierre Bourdieu. Can all of these eminent thinkers really be convicted of participating in a conspiratorial “machine de guerre sournoise,” as Derrida would have us believe?

Why doesn’t Derrida come clean? The real reason he’s so upset is that a highly exposed philosophical nerve has been touched. In both “Philosophers’ Hell” and Of Spirit he deconstructs into nonexistence the gravity of Heidegger’s Nazism—above all, its relation to Heidegger’s thought—and has been caught with his pants down, as it were. He contends that it is a surfeit of metaphysical humanism that led Heidegger into donning a brown uniform in the 1930s. I claim the reverse: it was precisely insofar as Heidegger remained faithful to certain precepts of “Western thought” that he was prevented from identifying wholesale with the “racial-biological thinking” of the National Socialists: a party whose doctrines and deeds represented (as Marcuse astutely points out in his contribution: MIT edition, p. 161) the very negation of that tradition.

Richard Wolin

Department of History

Rice University

Houston, Texas

Thomas Sheehan replies:

When read in the light both of Mr. Wolin’s letter and of his own previous correspondence, Mr. Derrida’s letter is, I regret to say, the desperate and pathetic gesture of a man caught in a lie.

Recall that in his last letter to The New York Review [NYR, February 11] Mr. Derrida explicitly denied he had ever made “legal threats against the very existence of Wolin’s book.” Derrida accused me, in no uncertain terms, of falsifying the facts.

But that was before I confronted him publicly, in the same issue, with written documentation, which he hadn’t known I possessed, that proves beyond a doubt that he did threaten to take legal measures to force the book out of print and destroy pages 264–273.

On November 22, 1991, Derrida, through his attorney, asserted his right to do just that,1 and on February 10, 1992, he threatened to carry out that action if Columbia did not meet his conditions. Claiming that Columbia bore “legal responsibilty” for improperly publishing his interview, Derrida wrote to Mr. John Moore, president of the press, to demand that Moore promise never to republish the interview:

If such a promise were not to reach us [that is, Derrida or his attorney] within a reasonable time, we should have to demand, via the appropriate channels, that all copies of The Heidegger Controversy be withdrawn from sale, including the first edition.2

And so, embarrassed at being caught out, Mr. Derrida drops his earlier claim entirely and in the present letter lays down a rhetorical smokescreen to cover his tracks as he beats a hasty retreat.

There are many “stubborn and massive facts” that Mr. Derrida chooses not to mention in his letter, and one can understand why.

It would be hard for him to admit—especially after denying it—that his dogged pursuit of a legal rather than an amicable solution began with his very first letter on the subject to Columbia University Press (October 31, 1991: “[Je] vais consulter un avocat à ce sujet“) and persisted for well over three months, leading Mr. Moore to virtually plead with Derrida that they “settle the matter by agreement” rather than “through attorneys’ actions and the rituals of legal systems” (Moore to Derrida, February 3, 1992).

And it would be hard for Derrida to admit to the vengeance that he planned to take against Mr. Wolin from the very start—this, despite Columbia’s every effort to placate Derrida by dropping his interview from future editions:

I shall pursue my investigations into the juridical aspect of the case and shall not fail to make Wolin pay the most fitting consequences.3

The irony is that, while Mr. Derrida has done his best to conceal these facts, they are henceforth on public display thanks to his offer to send all his correspondence on the affair to whoever requests it of him.

I myself, having received a copy of Mr. Derrida’s present letter (dated February 1, 1993) on February 3, was the first to take him up on his offer—much to his astonishment and disquietude (“étonnement…inquiétude“) as he told both me and The New York Review in a flurry of faxes and a phone call between February 8 and February 12.

Mr. Derrida tried a number a ploys to avoid fulfilling his promise to hand over the correspondence. At first he said his offer did not go into effect until his present letter was published in The New York Review. But he dropped that claim when it was pointed out to him that his letter places no such condition on the offer and in act declares his willingness “from the outset” [“depuis le début“] to provide the correspondence.

His second tactic was to insist, by telephone and fax, that I didn’t need to see the correspondence because, as he claimed. I already had copies of all the letters he possessed. But that is not true; indeed, Derrida misquotes me in his letter above: I didn’t say, “I have documentation for everything” but—there is a world of difference—“I have documentation for everything I wrote” [NYR, February 11, 1993; my emphasis]. Moreover, how could Derrida credibly claim I had all the correspondence—for example, the faxes Columbia had sent to him?

When questions like these were put to him, Mr. Derrida dropped his second line of defense.

His final ploy was to claim that what his February 1 letter means (regardless of what it actually says) is that (1) his offer was extended “primarily to readers who haven’t seen the correspondence yet” and (2) that the letter expresses his “preference for publishing [the correspondence] rather than providing it to private individuals.”4

Of course, his February 1 letter, published above, says no such thing; in fact, it says quite the opposite. And when that was pointed out to him, Mr. Derrida finally desisted, and consented to send me the correspondence—but out of courtesy, as he insists, and not in compliance with the promise he makes in his letter.

Mr. Derrida’s correspondence is not a pretty business. Nonetheless, I encourage anyone who wants the facts of the matter to request the dossier from him. And I would urge Mr. Derrida, for the sake of completeness, to include in his packet the correspondence he exchanged with me and The New York Review between February 5 and February 12, 1993.

The rest of Mr. Derrida’s letter is an embarrassment in both tone and content. Apart from his penchant for making personal slurs (even Mme. Ruth Valentini, subsidiary rights editor of Le Nouvel Observateur, is not spared), the following points should be noted:

(1) If the business is now known as “l’affaire Derrida,” that is because Derrida’s own lawyer, Mme. Anne Weill-Mace, gave it this title (“AFFAIRE: DERRIDA/N.R.: 1251″) when she informed Columbia University Press that Derrida claimed the right to seize the book and “suppress” the interview. The title “l’affaire Derrida” fittingly names Derrida’s claimed right to call in the police.

(2) No, I did not “forget” to contact Mr. Derrida. Having already assembled more than ample documentation on the affair, and having observed Derrida, over a period of seven months, falsify facts, distort the meaning of documents, and refuse efforts at reconciliation, I consciously chose not to contact him. The tone of his faxes to me since February 10, 1993, has only confirmed me in that decision.

(3) Nor did I insist Mr. Derrida respond to Mr. Wolin. I merely wondered—given his extraordinary cathexis on the matter, evident in his outrageous letters and ad hominem attacks—whether he didn’t care to share some of his reasons. On reflection, it seems better for us all that he didn’t.

(4) Regarding the translation of the interview, I maintain what I said before: there are three mistakes, at most, that are even worth talking about—unless Mr. Derrida is prepared to include a proofreader’s error.

More importantly, why does Mr. Derrida display such selective outrage? So far as I know, he has never complained about the dozens of mistranslations (sometimes three to a page, some of them howlers)—plus misspellings, omissions, and manglings of the Greek—that are so liberally sprinkled over just the first forty pages of his Of Grammatology—or in other translations of his works, for that matter.

(5) As regards Mr. Derrida’s continuing quarrel over the translation rights, I’ll leave him to fight it out with Le Nouvel Observateur. Mme. Valentini, speaking for the journal, has told me: “The rights belong to us, except if the interviewed said he doesn’t want it to be published in other countries.” Since Derrida—by his and Mr. Eribon’s admission—made no such stipulation, the French journal claims to own the rights. Without trying to settle the matter, I should say that two Chicago professors of law have told me that Derrida’s case against Wolin doesn’t have a legal leg to stand on.5

(6) For me the saddest thing about l’affaire Derrida is that Mr. Derrida himself just doesn’t get it. He fails to see that he has only himself to thank for the time he has wasted: The question of the interview could have been settled to his complete satisfaction—without lawyers and legal threats, without sordid name-calling—well over a year ago. And he refuses to let himself believe that my article was not motivated in the least by any desire to attack his intellectual work.

Finally: in a moment of pathos Mr. Derrida asks (of Richard Wolin specifically, but it could be of any of us): “Did he think I was dead?”

No, I do not think Mr. Derrida is dead. But I do think he is suffering, quite needlessly, from a self-inflicted wound.

February 25, 1993

(A letter from Professor Ernst Nolte in reply to Mr. Sheehan’s review will appear in the next issue.)

This Issue

March 25, 1993