“Jacques Derrida is widely regarded as the most important French philosopher of the late twentieth century. Yet when his name was put forward for an honorary degree at Cambridge University in 1992, a significant portion of the Anglo-American philosophical establishment was outraged. Eighteen philosophers from nine countries signed a letter to The Times opposing the award on the grounds that Derrida’s work consisted of “tricks and gimmicks similar to those of the Dadaists or of the concrete poets” and amounted to ‘little more than semi-intelligible attacks upon the values of reason, truth, and scholarship’. Understanding Derrida’s legacy, then, must also involve understanding why he should have been the target of such vitriol.”
Around the time I began writing book reviews, I read that reviewing was “what lice will do, when they have no more blood to suck.” If so, the only blood I’ve ever tasted is mine. Early on, I already knew that my writing wasn’t entirely about the books “under review” so much as my internal “reading experience” – though that term might be misleading. In suggesting that my reviews reflect something of my “self,” I’m not about to recount my life story, let alone resort to that fashionable form, the “confessional” essay. On the contrary, literary subjectivity isn’t always aligned with autobiography. Right now, I’m writing this in the first person, but I perceive that person as a perfect stranger.
Put simply, I’ve never known who I am. Nor do I feel securely in sync with the world. I intersect with it at an abnormal angle – my link with life is dislocated. Of course, this condition isn’t uncommon. I mention it only to emphasize that an initial alienation led me to literature. Part of me is predisposed to treat reading as, to quote Houellebecq, a practice that pushes “against the world, against life.” At the same time, I don’t see reading as simply a passive escape from reality. As Kafka famously says, books can be “like a key to unknown chambers within the castle of oneself.” Reading is really a dual movement: books allow us to withdraw from the world, while bringing us back toward it. In reading we disappear, and yet we resurface. (more…)