Last night, reading The Gift of Death, I ran across something too familiar in the midst of one of Derrida’s paraphrases of Jan Patočka. He writes “Death is very much that which nobody else can undergo or confront in my place.”
“Since your grace has been locked in the cage, enchanted, in your opinion, have you had desire and will to pass what they call major and minor waters?”
“I do not understand what you mean by passing waters, Sancho; speak more clearly if you want me to respond in a straightforward way.”
“Is it possible that your grace doesn’t understand what it means to pass minor or major waters? Even schoolboys know that. Well, what I mean is, have you had desire to do the thing nobody else can do for you?”
“Ah, now I understand you, Sancho! Yes, I have, quite often, and even do now. Save me from this danger, for not everything is absolutely pristine!”
Don Quixote, Part I XLVIII, Grossman trans.
I’m reminded in turn of a scene in the film Derrida where our hero, when asked what he’d like to see in a documentary about a philosopher–say, Heidegger or Kant–responded, “their sex lives.” It’s funny, and would no doubt be telling, given the evidence of the picture above. One imagines Kant, by whose regularity in his daily constitutional the housewives of Königsberg would set their watches, as being as dutiful as Walter Shandy, who, contra the opinion of his son, generally “minded what [he was] about when [he] begot me.” I’m sure that whatever Hannah Arendt did with her Martin, or Simone Weil did with her God, would give us something.
And yet: sex and death. It’s a bit operatic, don’t you think? How would philosophy
had [grammar edit!] have been different if it had built itself upon what else no one can do for you? Where would philosophy have tended if Patočka or Heidegger had remembered eating and its natural end, a kind of being-toward-supper (Sein-zum-Abendessen?)? If Plato had imagined creation as something other than a globe consuming its own waste?
When the sequel to Derrida comes (something like this), if someone asks me his question, I know what I’d like to have seen: Adorno in his kitchen, and perhaps elsewhere.
I like the Foucault reference. It also reminds me that I had thought about sex, Jeffrey, as akin to death in its being something that no one else can undergo for you. This doesn’t work, however, for several reasons: a) assuming one doesn’t believe in Christianity, no one’s death can prevent yours: it can only delay it (this bit from familiar faces paraphrased at some length in Gift of Death). Sex, on the other hand, can be put off forever. Maybe; b) if–and this is such a bit if–sex is never a direct relation, but always directed through fantasies, memories, hopes, our constitutively false imago, &c., then sex is precisely that which someone else always undergoes for you. In that way, it’s entirely unlike death, or eating, or shitting, unless we want to believe–and why not?–that there is something intimately ours about our orgasms, consumptions, or defecations, even if they’re always strange to us, even if they’re not entirely recognizable precisely because they are so intimate and hence beyond or below the typical networks that sustain our self-identifications.
I’ve started wondering what Derrida could have done had he turned his considerations on the gift to a consideration of the (singularly?) American locution “to take a shit.”
Eileen, that abstract from Jessica gave me one of those “well, of course!” feelings that we get when we encounter an argument that just looks inherently right and makes jumbled, incorrectness suddenly snap into sense. SEMA’s going to be so great.
I wonder, however, if we can make something of the structural analog here between the woman (on the philosopher’s back) and the hole (into which the philosopher falls). In what way is a woman like a marle pit? Well, The Miller’s Tale has much to say about that; so does Kristeva too, I’m sure.
I’m sure there’s a longer post in here somewhere, but I want to say just now that I’ve found this post’s soulmate.
My library just bought Valerie Allen’s On Farting, whereupon I checked it out, and, even though I should be reading Dinshaw, getting party prep in order for our big summer blowout, working on my piece for the Babel anthology, etc., I couldn’t stop myself once I, uh, slid down into this book. A few choice quotes:
“In the midden, one finds the most unlikely bedfellows and is constantly surprised by the connections between objects rather than any coherent whole that depends on an internal connection of deductive reasoning” (4) This belongs to her anti-Introduction, which swipes at notions of presenting a package with pretensions to wholeness, to having a clear beginning and end. With this book–as we are here–we’re always in the middle. Like a fart, Allen (would) say(s).
Or, for my imagining Adorno in the kitchen and perhaps elsewhere, Allen reminding me of the story of Herakleitos, who was discovered by travelers, philosophical tourists, “in the kitchen, warming himself at the stove”: but kitchen, Gk ipnos, Allen points out, only primarily means oven/kitchen, and secondarily means privy/dungheap. Nice.
Or, the scatological mnemonics or schoolroom Latin?
tourde in thy tethe merda dentibus inheret
I am almost beshytten sum in articulo purgandi viscera
Now, I’m not deep enough in the shit to get dirty with the argument. For now, like any good anal scholar, I’m just hoarding details.
I can’t think of any examples off hand of permanent sparing, but it’s just that ‘spared for a while’ that our thanatologists–Heidegger and Patočka and (depending on how close he hews to them in this book) Derrida–focus. JD writes “I can give the other everything except immortality, except this dying for her to the extent of dying in place of her and so freeing her from her own death. I can die for the other in a situation where my death gives him a little longer to live, I can save someone by throwing myself in the water or fire in order to temporarily snatch him from the jaws of death, I can give her my heart in the literal or figurative sense in order to assure her of a certain longevity. But I cannot die in her place” (43).
Sleep is a great example. As is dreaming. Your question is excellent, and I’m hoping something will come to me soon–probably while I’m drifting off!