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Jacques Et Francois: Derrida vs. Voltaire

ISSUE:  Autumn 1998

“At the end of one of Derrida’s N. Y. U. classes, a student asks him where his discussion of secrets is heading. Derrida stares at a point above the crowd packed three or four deep around the seminar table. “What is really at stake in this seminar,” he states, seeming for a moment every bit the Gallic philosopher, “is the death of the other or my own death.”

Derrida’s students, though they’re politely nodding their heads, look perplexed.”

(The New York Times Magazine, Jan. 23, 1994)

An unusual and unreported conversation took place recently at the Ecole Normale Supérieure in Paris, unusual because one of the participants had not been seen since May 30, 1778. This was François Marie Arouet who added de Voltaire to his name and who, because of his protean accomplishments as a man of letters, as historian, dramatist, poet, philosopher, and satirist, became the most famous literary figure of his time. The other participant, a prominent founding father of what is today called deconstructionism, a prolific writer and professor of philosophy, was Jacques Derrida.

No one knows what bestirred Voltaire to emerge from the dead and engage in a dialogue with the living. But there had been rumors of considerable rumblings and discontent within that pantheon of departed philosophes from the Enlightenment century who somehow got word that what they labored so hard to achieve was being undermined by Derrida and his followers. In particular, so it was rumored, the philosophes could not believe that professional scholars would encourage let alone celebrate the demise of objectivity. In their view, so it was assumed, this is what the movement of deconstructionism was all about.

Certainly, it is unfortunate that much of what passed between Voltaire and Derrida will go unnoticed for their discussion gave Voltaire an opportunity to explain the goals and aspirations of a much neglected century of thought. It also juxtaposed in sharp contrast the difference between Derridean deconstructionism and the thought of the Enlightenment much of which, incidentally, went into the making of the American republic. For some, the grand political experiment of the Enlightenment century.

In brief, the central point of disagreement was language: for Voltaire, the process of civilization required the necessity to purge, by logical and objective criticism, whatever and wherever fallacy, fraud, and chicanery were found. “Au Faits,” Voltaire had proclaimed: to the facts and the facts shall make one free, at least free from dogma and superstition. Le texte ne signifie jamais ce qu’il exprime ou ne dit jamais ce qu’il veut dire, is Derrida’s premise: the text never means what it says or says what it means, a doctrine which enshrines the absolute indeterminancy of objective experience. The two men would have to clash over this fundamental issue.

I must say it was my good fortune to stumble upon this meeting. I was actually wandering through the corridors of this school in late afternoon following a day of research when I saw the great man from Ferney, Genève, and occasionally, Paris, enter a large seminar room on the main floor. I was able to enter through a rear door and I remained seated in the back of the room unbeknownst to the two men whose discussion from beginning to end I was lucky enough to record.

Unfortunately, everything remains unknown about how this event was arranged and, certainly, I felt rather hesitant about breaking into their debate with questions. I have thought about this many times since and I can only conclude that this event surpasses perhaps in mystical quality, that mystical event experienced by another Frenchman, Descartes, who on that evening of Nov. 10, 1619, in Ulm, discovered that he existed. About this particular meeting, however, I shall always recall Voltaire’s stubborn and civilized insistence that language abasement is the ultimate and most pernicious form of intellectual deception. But now, here is the dialogue between Jacques et François.

* * * *

Derrick: Ah, Monsieur Voltaire, may I call you Voltaire, or do you prefer François?

Voltaire: Yes, Voltaire will do, please, since that is the way I am known to this day.

Derrida: Ah, yes, I see. Your conceit, well known in your own day, has not, after two centuries, diminished an iota. It has become legend that you preferred to be hanged in effigy than to be ignored for what you put into print. You have the reputation, sir, of having an ego so outsized that it would not fit into one of the largest rooms of the Louvre.

Voltaire: You may say what you will, but as you well know, I was the spokesman for my age and my fellow philosophes, who, with rare exceptions, looked to me for direction and—to what you will undoubtedly call immodesty—courage. But, if you wish to understand my feelings toward my work, you will see that I am proud of what I tried to accomplish during the century of the Enlightenment.

Derrida: Ah, yes, I recall vaguely. It had something to do with combating error and stupidity, mysticism and the irrationality. Of course, my own work on the interpretation of texts as the supreme manifestion of critical thought parallels, to some degree, your own emphasis on criticism and textural irrationality. I might also add, Monsieur Voltaire, that my work, like yours, has resulted in a critical, skeptical attitude among those who take the time to read and understand. You are also well known for the playfulness of much of your writing and, similarly, but undoubtedly, to a much greater extent, it is I who have given new meaning to what may be called “semiotic freeplay.” Here, I refer to a piece of writing I did 20 years ago, titled Glas, which I suspect has escaped your attention. There is also—and I should apologize, my dear Voltaire, for it seems I am monopolizing our conversation—our shared disdain for useless metaphysics, the authority of which has plagued Western man for centuries and made of him an abject and passive recipient of a specious logocentrism. Therefore, Monsieur Voltaire, in the transmission of certain critical methodologies of skeptical thought and in the rejection of a repressive and tyrannical intellectualism, we are, essentially, in a way, brothers.

Voltaire: You are confused, my dear Jacques, and we are brothers only in the sense that we are Frenchmen, though separated in time. Permit me, Jacques, to clarify somewhat generally what separates us for I think there is a fundamental distinction in our objectives as these are reflected in our writings. You see, I believed, as did my colleagues, that the world was a sinkhole of privileged immorality, but that it was our duty as men of talent to set things right. Therefore, my literary efforts were expended to combat misery and injustice, which I thought followed from the teachings of philosophers and theologians, professional liars whose writings fostered deception and illusion that generated hatred and intolerance. My heroes were Newton and Locke, both empiricists, whose principles I applied in writing my satires and histories. Your work, my dear Jacques, is completely different from mine, and—I hesitate but I must tell you this—you tend to remind me of one of my character inventions in one of my satires, but that is really beside the point. In actuality, my dear Jacques, there is a very wide chasm which separates us intellectually, substantively, and purposefully, and it is somewhat peculiar that you do not acknowledge this.

Derrida: I do not understand. I, too, have written about the sickness of Western culture and especially about the oppression of European ethnocentrism, and while I have not allied myself with your colleagues, I have commented on the works of Diderot, Condillac, Rousseau, and others but without becoming a disciple of their creed. You must know that I am the author of 20 books most of which have been translated into English which proves that for large numbers of people my employment of reasoned argument appears to be far superior to yours. In fact, your Enlightenment colleagues are rarely studied these days. Just examine any college or university bulletin and you will find that in the history of ideas, it is Heidegger, Hegel, and de Man who are studied. Moreover, my dear Voltaire, merely examine my work and you will see just how obsolete, just how far behind the times are your satires, your histories, your philosophical dictionary, your polemical poetry on the Lisbon earthquake.

Voltaire: Excuse me, my dear Jacques, but those men you mentioned, Heidegger and de Man; were not these men associated with that colossal evil that caused the greatest horror and brutality the world has ever witnessed?

Derrida: Only indirectly and it should be noted that their ideas on deconstructionism emerged 20 years after the war, but I do not wish to go into this. What we are talking about is our work and, with due respect, Monsieur Voltaire, your method of reasoned argument, sometimes of outrageous wit and irony, that which made you an intellectual force two centuries ago, is simply inadequate today. Indeed, your work, by today’s standards of postmodernist thought, has been superseded by a variety of new theories and schools of thought undreamed of in your day. My colleagues, for example, have revolutionized the way people read books: we have invented strategies of reading since we now know there is a transcendental reality which lurks behind everything that is signified in a text. We have found also that what is signified is not only its own signifier, but we have also developed the theory by which the signifier must be the more prominent focus of our critical attention in reading a text. Yes, indeed, of even looking at a work of art, a photograph, or an architectural design, even if it should result in the construction of a building. Do you understand what this means Monsieur Voltaire? Can you share our excitement for what we have accomplished and, yes, for what still remains to be done? And by the way, who is the character in your work who reminds you of me?

Voltaire: No, I do not share in your excitement and yes, I have read portions of several of your books but I must confess I did not enjoy nor did I understand much of what you call postmodernist whatever it is. Your writing is extraordinarily convoluted and appears designed to turn the reader’s attention to you, as the signifier, instead of understanding the content of the work itself, which, I think, is supposed to be the signified. In my day, we would just call it a form of solipsism.

Derrida: If that is what you think Sir, then it is obvious you have no understanding of my work. And to suggest solipsism is to betray ignorance of the time and energy I have expended on behalf of Third World movements and minority causes.

Voltaire: Let us focus not on your politics, my dear Jacques, but on your writings. Earlier, you mentioned your book, Glas, which you say exhibits your playfulness. I must say I found it simply unreadable. I didn’t know which column to read first, and I could not fathom why you needed two different sizes of print but, essentially, I could not make sense of anything you said either about Hegel or Genet. I suspect you will tell me you were deconstructing them and getting close to the transcendent reality which is the unspoken truth behind their words. Or, it could be, you are trying to destroy the very notion of what a book is.

You see, my dear Jacques, neither I, nor my colleagues, Diderot, Turgot, or Condorcet, for example, if I may speak for them also, would not, could not, in their wildest dreams, have envisioned anything such as the kind of writing employed by you and your friends. You said you were familiar with Diderot, the heroic editor of the majestic Encyclopédie; my dear Jacques, Diderot examined your Glas and died a second time.

Jacques, do you still not see our frustration, indeed, my frustration? After I had labored unstintingly all my life to expose the metaphysics of nonsense, you and your followers, disclaiming any possibility of understanding the meaning of a text, then proclaimed the metaphysics of some form of reader presence or reader authority in a never-ending search for what is unsaid or repressed or concealed in a book and which denies any meaning that could be attributed to the author. This, of course, in simple terms, is what this deconstruction is, is it not Jacques? Is it not the metaphysics of evasiveness? or better yet, the metaphysics of obfuscation? Incidentally, the character you ask about is found in Candide.

Derrida: Come now, Monsieur Voltaire, aren’t you being unfair? Though fairness was never one of your strong points. To what metaphysics, more specifically, do you refer? To what specific obfuscations, or phrases, do you refer?

Voltaire: Well, what does one make of such terms as “epistemic self-stabilization,” “canonizing canonicity,” “Europhallo-geocentrism?” What about: “Metaphoricity is the logic of contamination and the contamination of logic”; “the good writing can be designated only through the metaphor of the bad”; “Bad writing is for good a model of linguistic designation and a simulacrum of essence”; “In dissolving any finite determination, negative concepts break the tie that binds them to the meaning of any particular being, that is, to the totality of what is”; these last several examples were written by you, Jacques, in Dissemination and in Margins of Philosophy. I could go on, but time is precious. To paraphrase Thomas Hobbes, are not these the kinds of words that drive men mad?

Derrida: Ah, my good friend, you are a relic of the past. You are from another era and, quite simply, you just do not understand. You not only do not understand the substance; you also fail to see the underlying purpose of our, rather, my work.

Voltaire: Jacques, do you not see that it is, by your own logic, impossible for me or anyone, including your followers, to understand the substance of what you write? Since you say there is no way to determine the meaning of a text, it follows that you can no more be understood by me or anyone else any more than you can understand what they write or what I have written.

Derrida: Ah, Monsieur Voltaire, you are incorrigible; you refuse to see the light. You do not understand but thousands, literally thousands of the highly educated, not only in Paris but in New Haven and in Irvine, not to mention Oxford and Cambridge, do understand and have adopted enthusiastically so many of my ideas. I have been invited to participate in seminars and interviews where I have been received warmly and where the content of those meetings, in an age of limited resources, have been published and disseminated far and wide, You see Monsieur Voltaire, contrary to what you allege, I am an expert in communication. Indeed, there are many who would say that it is I who have given new meaning to this very complex subject we call communication.

Voltaire: Well, if it is your Signature, Event, Context to which you refer, Jacques, I must tell you that you have taken a word, the word “communication,” the meaning of which is clear to all sensible persons, and made of it an incomprehensible muddle. Why should you want to savage ordinary language and discuss this word in its “polysemic aspects,” “its semiotic or non-semiotic meaning,” or as a “metaphoric displacement?”

You see, Jacques, whether you realize it or not, you are, because you have many followers, doing irreparable harm. You are not providing insight or clarity as to how knowledge or information is conveyed, which is what communication is. What you are doing, in effect, is diversionary; you are writing about strategies which involve looking for what you call the “transcendental signified,” which, whatever it may be for the moment, will have to be deconstructed, and will never become a construct since, as you once noted, “deconstruction is always deconstructing itself.” So, in actuality, what you are doing is making a mockery of truth, of science, of history. As I noted in my Lettres Philosophiques, also published as Letters on England, it took centuries to bring a modicum of justice to mankind because “a thousand false influences” and charlatans were at work in the world. As I put it in the Lettres, “It is to the man who rules over minds by the power of truth . . .to the man who understands the universe and not to those who disfigure it, that we owe our respect.”

Jacques, from what I know of your work, it is not only diversionary, it is also morally irresponsible. I emphasize morality and moral philosophy since, as you probably know, my colleagues, Diderot, Montesquieu, Helvetius, Hume, Gibbon, and the rest, were all moralists. We took this very seriously, Jacques, and made it the basis of our program. We believed the world could be made better and we waged a relentless war of words against hatred and intolerance, religious fanaticism and superstition. We wanted to put an end to arbitrary power, censorship, ignorance, the arrogance of dogmatists who wanted people to remain stupid. We worked hard, Jacques; for all you might have heard about our visits to monarchs who asked for our instruction, or, unfortunately, those rare dalliances, we studied and wrote for long hours, day and night. And now we are disappointed, but I am not sure you will understand this; you will probably want to deconstruct it.

Derrida: Well, we are certainly not moralists, nor did we make our mark by proclaiming moral platitudes. As for myself, I have little interest in moral philosophy, or in narrative history, which is useless unless it is also deconstructed.

But with due respect, Monsieur Voltaire, your problem is ignorance; you are, quite simply, extraordinarily limited, if not grossly deficient, in the study of language and in the relationship of written and verbal communication. Is it any wonder that you cannot grasp what I have explored in my many writings. You have, for example, no conception—permit me to quote here from my work Of Grammatology—that in the Western concept of language, “beyond its plurivocity and beyond the strict and problematic opposition of speech and language,” the Western tradition “attaches itself in general to phonematic or glossematic production, to language, to voice, to hearing.” I could go on, but I see this is boring you.

I will just add that your own training with the Jesuits over two centuries ago could not possibly have prepared you for the revolution in language, critical theory, or post-modern epistemes of thought. And as you and your colleagues had a program, I, too, have an agenda, and it is to criticize and destroy ethnocentrism by an asymmetrical counterethnocentrism. Monsieur Voltaire, the idea of individual, original thought, prevalent in your day, which could make a difference in the way people lived, is an antiquated assumption of your Western, liberal, Enlightenment era. Today, we have other fish to fry.

As for your Candide, I read it a long time ago as a student, but I have not looked at it in years. And really, Monsieur Voltaire, do you really think your little satire is still well read, in this day and age, when class, race, and gender are the most important questions in the struggle against Western logocentric reason?

Voltaire: Yes, I am getting weary. Even though I am much older than you, I still write for several hours each day. The Jesuits did train me very well and gave me the requisite intellectual tools that helped prepare me to be a man of letters. And a highly accomplished one at that, as you well know. But I must tell you, my dear Jacques, I, who read and understood Newton, have no idea of what you’re talking about. There is no question that yours is a movement that has won wide support, that you, singly, have influenced not only literature and philosophy, but art and architecture as well, especially in the way you have elevated speech over writing. But it is also true that yours is an intellectually lazy and sloppy age with considerable illiteracy, indeed, in many of those centers you visit across the ocean. And I cannot help but wonder, Jacques, if you and your acolytes have in some measure contributed to that intellectual confusion. How many thousands of students have been influenced by what I consider to be an absurd form of sophistry which leaves many in a state of perpetual bewilderment? Please, dear Jacques, forgive this emotional outburst; but as you know something of my past, I was and I remain, a passionate advocate of clarity and clear-mindedness and an absolute enemy of any form of muddleheadedness including your own. And that, Jacques, is what I think of your deconstructionism.

As for my Candide, you may belittle its diminished readership, but I remind you that it is still available in several languages in what are now called paperback editions. And to judge from the growing number of naive and unreflecting persons in the world, its tonic is sorely needed perhaps more so today than in my own day.

Derrida: I must say, Monsieur Voltaire, I resent deeply your accusation that our movement is—how did you put it— muddleheaded? I resent also your denigration, though clever, of our preference for non-Western pictographic or ideo-grammatical non-logocentric assumptions. You fail to understand that this is part of our methodology of hierarchizing ontological oppositions such as logos and mythos, phonocentric as opposed to logocentric assumptions. And I resent your insinuation that these methods of analysis have something to do with any person’s ability to think or speak clearly or to believe in the possibility of direct causal relationships that span ten, twenty, or fifty years or more. I reject your assertion that we have in any way contributed to the confusion that exists in the world. As for Candide, I have no interest in its future; indeed I look forward to the day when it will no longer be part of the canon. It may well have been discarded, dismantled, or deconstructed already.

You might as well face it, Monsieur Voltaire, the future belongs to us; it is we who are now cultivating our garden, and our garden knows no bounds. It is limitless. It is well, I suppose, that we conclude our discussion with that phrase, Il faut cultiver notre jardin, which is how your principal character, Candide, responded to the rambling discussion of his tutor at the end of your book. What was his name?

Voltaire: Ah, dear Jacques, you do know something of my little masterpiece. To answer your question, it was Professor Pangloss to whom Candide addressed that interesting remark. And do you recall what Pangloss taught? It was Metaphysico-Theologico-Cosmolonogology. And do you know why I gave him that absurd title? It was to ridicule the entire species of metaphysical speculation, the intellectual junk food taught in the universities. You see, Jacques, I carefully made Pangloss the butt of my jokes, my scorn and derision, I put him in the most humiliating of situations I could devise: the seducer and lover of Pacquette, the maid-servant in the household, from whom he caught venereal disease, and concluded, in a passage reminiscent of that 13th-century scholastic metaphysician, St. Thomas Aquinas, that his fate was inevitable and could not have been otherwise. You see, Jacques, I made Pangloss a character for all time: I made him a fool, a clown, a preposterous figure. No matter how catastrophic the event, no matter how much he or those around him suffered because of the mindless brutality of an insane world, Pangloss was always of one mind: whatever happened was for the best in this, the best of all possible worlds. Can you understand this, Jacques? The world is a moral shambles: it is deteriorating in front of his eyes, but he doesn’t see it. He remains convinced and denies his experience by repeating continuously that it is the best of all possible worlds.

Then, alas, I had a brilliant idea and turned the tables on those philosophers and theologians, the professional liars, the masters of deception, who, throughout the centuries, denied the primacy of the objective world. Ah, yes, but only the careful reader knows what Pangloss confesses toward the close of my satire. Three of my principal characters are discussing the tribulations and misfortunes of their recent experiences and “Pangloss asserted that he had always suffered horribly; but having once declared that everything was marvelously well, he continued to repeat the opinion and didn’t believe a word of it.” Jacques, Pangloss is a liar, he is a dissembler, and he is also the greatest oracle and professor in all of Westphalia. What do you think about that, Jacques?

Derrida: Really, Monsieur Voltaire, I have little time for fiction or the pleasant reminiscences of how you shaped the character of your philosophy professor who could not possibly remind you of me. As I point out in The Ear of the Other: Otobiography, Transference, Translation, while “I practice the trade of philosophy professor,” “talk about the philosopher,” “I am not simply a philosopher.” And as I point out in The Truth in Painting, I write and philosophize to interfere with the internal and external institutions of pedagogy, with its material, “external housing and extrinsic conditions of its practice,” its “social, economic, political structures,” and its “institutional conditions and forms of teaching.”

Voltaire: Yes, you remain vague and obscure, but you really want to dismantle traditional forms of communication and teaching, to subvert what you and yours call “cultural hegemony.” And you intend to accomplish this by employing your own form of metaphysics which denies any determinate meaning to books or experience. Actually, Jacques, if Pangloss were alive today, he would no longer profess Metaphysico-Theologico-Cosmolonogology. No, today, he would be a professor of Technologico-logophallocentrico-ethno-generalogy.

Jacques, I am on old man; I have seen it all: the frauds, the charlatans, the thousand faces of deception. Do you think it possible to fool me? My dear Jacques, I shall be direct here: Is not your philosophy or whatever you want to call it, whether in Glas, or Positions, the most elaborately expansive form of obfuscation yet invented?

Derrida: How dare you? How dare you impugn my work or that of my followers as obfuscatory? It is obvious you are simply not able to understand difficult texts or complex thinking; you are, Monsieur Voltaire, an old, ignorant moralizer and I am tired of your lectures and your accusations which are weak, stupid, simplistic. Je les repete, Monsieur, [shouting] WEAK, STUPID, SIMPLISTIC.

Voltaire: Ah, yes, I had hoped we could conclude on a more pleasant note. But from what I have read recently of another controversy in which you are a participant, you are behaving true to form. You see, Jacques, we have all heard about your fondness for intimidation and your complete lack of professional courtesy to a fellow scholar.

Derrida: That is an entirely different matter and I refuse to discuss it. And now, I have had enough. Bon soir, Monsieur, and should any of this conversation become part of the public record without my written approval, you shall hear from my attorney.

Voltaire: Yes, au revoir, Jacques. And who knows whether any of this will ever be published. But rest assured, I shall hasten to tell Diderot, who will probably want to invent a new repository of information, another encyclopédie, to do in the deconstructionist dogma, as he did with the earlier, medieval cosmology. As for me, you have given me an idea for a sequel to Candide.

* * * *

Derrida left hurriedly and presumably to the airport for a flight to New York, where he would begin another term as a visiting professor at NYU. Voltaire sat in silence for a moment and then disappeared into the quiet Parisian night.


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