The Other Reality

The Work of Mourning

Posted in Annotation, MFA by aryckman on March 18, 2009

Jacques Derrida’s TheWork of Mourning. The University of Chicago Press: Chicago and London, 2001.

The Work of Mourning was brought about by a conference with Jacques Derrida at DePaul University in 1996 about mourning and politics.  It is a collection of obituaries, letters, memorials, and eulogies composed by Jacques Derrida in remembrance of his friends and colleagues, many of whom were notable figures in philosophy. While each text is unique, special for the circumstances and individuals it recalls, there are consistencies throughout the collection as Derrida undergoes the process of mourning anew.
In writing about the death of a specific person Derrida has his own etiquette that dictates how to speak of the situation. Often he addresses the difficulty of putting to words something that would be meaningful enough to do justice to the individual as well as adequately express the loss that he feels, saying “Speaking is impossible, but so too would be silence or absence or a refusal to share one’s sadness… We know with what difficulty one finds right and decent words at such a moment when no recourse should be had to common usage since all conventions will seem either intolerable or vain” (72). “Why do just the right words escape me here?” (94). “So much to say, and I don’t have the heart for it today” (192). “I feel at such a loss, unable to find public words for what is happening to us, for what has left speechless all those who had the good fortune to come near this great thinker” (214).
The grief felt at a friend’s passing is universally understood, as it is impossible to live without at some point losing someone. While he addresses the general aspects of loss that accompanies a death, he also makes the text specific to the person they are written about as well as himself. He quotes from texts, letters or conversations he had with each friend and recalls memories of them. Often these memories are tinged with a palpable sadness, a sense of regret. Derrida remembers listening to his son and Paul De Man talking about instruments after a jazz concert. He expresses a deep regret for having missed the opportunity to speak to De Man about this because it was a part of his friend’s life that he did not know about.
The regret about not having the opportunity to speak with the lost person again transitions into the problem of not being able to speak with them now, who is to be addressed at such times of mourning? Speaking to the deceased runs the risk of becoming for him instead of of him. But Derrida often speaks to these friends confessing, “At bottom, I know that Louis doesn’t hear me; he hears me only inside me, inside us (though we are only ever ourselves from that place” (117). He talks to that part of the person that now resides in the friends who continue to live as a means to keep them alive.
While he addresses the dead in the living he also wants to allow them, the deceased, to talk.
This being at a loss also has to do with a duty: to let the friend speak, to turn speech over to him, his speech, and especially not to take it from him, not to take it in his place—no offense seems worse at the death of a friend…—to allow him to speak, to occupy his silence or to take up speech oneself only in order, if this is possible, to give it back to him” (95).
He, in some instances, mimes them. About Roland Barthes he felt that “a certain mimetism is at once a duty (to take him into oneself, to identify with him in order to let him speak within oneself, to make him present and faithfully represent him,” but it also can be “the worst of temptations, the most indecent and most murderous” (38).
In publicly speaking about, remembering, the people Derrida mourns, he has set a guide to tactfully addressing the situation. He balances the self-reproaches and regret of mourning with the personal memories and words of his lost friends. In this way the sadness required of the situation is not trivialized and the privilege of having known these unique individuals is emphasized along with the knowledge that they can continue to be kept alive in the people who they were a part of in friendship.

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