Grief, Loss, Death & Dying

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The Work of MourningReview - The Work of Mourning
by Jacques Derrida
University of Chicago Press, 2004
Review by Matthew Ray
Oct 4th 2004 (Volume 8, Issue 41)

In accordance with some of the suggestions to be found in the substantial, well informed and well written 'Introduction' to this volume, one should probably not in all strictness interpret this book as work of philosophy. It is, rather, a poignant collection of occasional writings by Jacques Derrida, possibly the most famous living French philosopher. Unfortunately, and as the title suggests, the occasions are all heartrendingly sad: the texts collected here are funeral orations, elegies and letters of condolence to survivors.

    Each particular text by Derrida is preceded by an excellent mini-biography of each of the dead authors, written by Kas Saghofi. But given the general nature of the text, each such mini-biography inevitably ends on a sour note (Pascal: 'the last act is always bloody, however fine the rest of the play'). The reading of such a sorrowful litany of illnesses, complications and fatalities is as difficult and as sapping of the will-to-live as is any true and full appreciation of a memento mori. One eventually even wonders whether it is in bad taste to collect these writings. The editors do raise this very issue at the beginning of the book. But to raise the issue is scarcely to exorcise it.

 On the subject of exorcisms, the present reviewer was surprised by a weird neglect of religious issues in The Work of Mourning, given that it is essentially a set of mediations upon death. The substantial introduction, by the editors Pascale-Anne Brault and Michael Nass, talks of drawing social, historical and political issues out of Derrida's texts (pp.19-20), but not – as would surely be more appropriate - religious ones. Interestingly, something about Derrida's own religious commitments is perhaps revealed here in a way that is not the case in his more theoretical and philosophical texts. Thus Derrida has seemed to many commentators to undergo (under a broadly Levinasian influence) a late 'turn' toward considering religious issues (in, for example, the recent book The Gift of Death). But the reflections upon the deaths of his friends and colleagues presented to us in The Work of Mourning do not call for any kind of religious response on our part. Derrida does not mention or call for a (Catholic) requiem Mass (though he admittedly alludes to the last supper in the piece on Kofman), a (Protestant) service of remembrance, or a (Jewish) kaddish or yiskor.

 The texts collected in The Work of Mourning vary wildly in style (they are letters, collections of fragments and essays), complexity (some, such as Barthes and Kofman, have the themes of their writings closely analyzed in the manner now associated with a deconstructive reading, whilst others are more simply and personally mourned) and in length (from a couple of pages to around thirty pages) and were written between 1981 and 1999. They will doubtless be very interesting for Derrida scholars and admirers, not least as some of the themes and motifs of Derridian deconstruction are, if only fleetingly, in evidence here: undecidablitiy, friendship, the 'other', the painstaking way of proceeding through incredibly close reading. It is obviously to this audience that the book is primarily recommended. However, these Derridean texts will perhaps also be interesting for those keen on modern French philosophy in general, since most of its key figures are represented here: Deleuze, De Man, Althusser, Barthes, Foucault, Lyotard, Kofman and Levinas. (Less well-known figures also mourned are Max Loreau, Jean-Marie Benoist, Edmond Jabes, Joseph Riddel, Michel Seriere and Louis Marin.) This is probably the right place to mention that those new to reading Derrida might find the theoretical elements in the present collection (such as those in the texts on Barthes and Kofman just mentioned) rather difficult going, though, as they largely assume, rather than argue for, the general position established in earlier, more strictly philosophical work such as Margins of Philosophy.

How, though, does a reviewer ultimately, seriously, and with tact evaluate a fairly personal book of mourning such as this? Not just by its contributions to our knowledge. Nor simply for its sociological status as a time-slice of an entire generation of national thinkers. In the end, it probably has but one true measure, and in entertaining the thought of it I am reminded of a remark by Confucius in the Analects (Book XIX, § 14): "When mourning gives full expression to grief nothing more is required."


© 2004 Matthew Ray


 Matthew Ray, Bristol, UK


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