With exquisite, urban manners, using forceful, honeyed compliments, but not without double-edged meanings, Emmanuel Levinas once fiercely criticized Jacques Derrida’s philosophical system. With the tip of his lips, he recognized, fiendishly, his « poetry », which offers, he says, a « new shiver ». Was Levinas’ devastating, acid irony against Derrida nothing but the effect of the Parisian literary swamp?
The very excess of Levinas’ final metaphor, which evoked, in a totally unexpected way, the memory of the invasion of the German army during the Second World War, prevents us from thinking it…
Here is an excerpt of Levinas’ text about Derrida:
« In The Voice and the Phenomenon, which overturns the logo-centric discourse, not a single sentence is contingent. A marvelous rigor learned certainly in the phenomenological school, in the extreme attention paid to the discreet gestures of Husserl, to the wide movements of Heidegger, but practiced with a spirit of continuity and a consummate art: reversal of the ‘limit notion’ as a precondition, of the defect as a source, of the abyss as a condition, of the discourse as a place, reversal of these very reversals as destiny: the concepts purified of their ontic resonance, freed from the alternative of true and false. At the beginning, everything is in place, after a few pages or a few paragraphs, under the effect of a formidable questioning, nothing is more habitable for thought. There, outside the philosophical scope of the proposals, there is a purely literary effect, the new thrill, the poetry of Derrida. When I read it, I always remember the exodus of 1940.»ii
The passage just quoted was read by Maurizio Ferraris to Derrida himself in January 1994, during a series of interviewsiii. Derrida immediately stroke back. « It is a text that a friend, Samuel Weber, drew my attention to, a few weeks ago. He told me: ‘Doesn’t it bother you, this text ? What is it accusing you of at the moment? You are like the enemy army.’ So I re-read Levinas’ text, which is a generous text; but when you see what he says, that in short, when I came, it’s like when the German army came: then there’s nothing left… It’s weird, I hadn’t paid any attention to it from that point of view; what is the unconscious of this image? And then the Nazi invader… » iv
Understandably, Derrida, a Sephardic Jew, found it rather « weird » that Levinas, an Ashkenazi Jew, had compared his work to a « Nazi » invasion.
The question remains unanswered. What is the unconscious of this image? Why does Levinas feel the need to take this polemic to the Godwin point from the outset? What made him so uncomfortable about Derrida’s « deconstruction »? Or about the person of Derrida himself?
Or was it an occasion for Levinas, through Derrida, to paradoxically settle some score with German philosophy and its cultural-historical context?
Or could it be the effect of the unconscious resurgence of a deeper hatred that is both memorial and immemorial, and obviously ruthless?
After all, wasn’t Derrida’s attack of the logos, wasn’t his ‘de-construction’, in a way equivalent to attacking the Law ?
Moreover, if we add that Derrida said of himself: « I am the end of Judaism », had he not already, unforgivably, crossed all the limits – like the German army once had done, in a Blitzkrieg?
iiE. Levinas, Noms propres, Montpellier, Fata Morgana, 1976, p.82
iiiJacques Derrida, Maurizio Ferraris. A taste for secrecy. Hermman. 2018, p.63