Elegy: Jacques Derrida on Sarah Kofman
This is what Sarah Kofman gives me to think about today, in the over-flowing of memory, there where she remains for me unique (unique au monde), and where I want to believe that this reaffirmation of life was hers, right up to when the time came, to when it became time, right up to the end.
These are the closing words of Jacques Derrida’s 1997 elegy for Sarah Kofman, fellow philosopher and scholar of Freud and Nietzsche, who committed suicide on October 15, 1994 following a debilitating illness. As a man perpetually occupied with language, with its permutations, coincidences, and capacity for wordplay, Jacques Derrida was a great reader—inevitably a very attentive one and not, I’d like to think, a snobbish one. Whether or not he had a penchant for children’s literature I think he (with his notions of différance, his affinity for pushing a given text beyond its most apparent assertions) would appreciate that upon reading his final words to the memory of Sarah Kofman, I immediately thought of Antoine de Saint-Exupéry’s Le Petit Prince:
“He was just a fox like a hundred thousand other foxes. But I’ve made him my friend, and now he’s unique in all the world.”
It’s admittedly an idiomatic expression, but that phrase unique au monde (unique in all the world) is for me indelibly associated with the Little Prince’s fox. In making the fox his friend the little prince, who learns and teaches at the same time, finds that the fox has become essential and uniquely special to him, a fox set apart from the rest.
In his essay, Derrida argues that the piercing quality of Sarah Kofman’s work set her apart from her many contemporaries writing on Freud and Nietzsche, but in addition to the ghost of philosophy, friendship haunts these pages. Sarah Kofman certainly set herself apart from her contemporaries; for Derrida, however, this essay becomes as much an elegy for Sarah Kofman the friend as it is for Sarah Kofman the academic.
Originally featured in a special issue of Les Cahiers du Grif dedicated to Sarah Kofman’s life and work, the essay is published in a collection of Derrida’s elegiac writings. Titled The Work of Mourning, the compilation comprises texts about Derrida’s colleagues, contemporaries, and friends that collectively speak to the legacies these various intellectual luminaries inevitably left behind. Yet the words devoted to Sarah Kofman are different: in this essay, Derrida’s tone is decidedly personal and his grief most raw. It’s a text that engages directly with Sarah Kofman’s writing without ever becoming commentary. With this untitled essay Derrida grapples with his anguish at Kofman’s premature death with the language and approach of philosophy such that the text itself is an act of mourning.
The essay contains a penetrating and perceptive reading of Kofman’s “Conjuring Death,” which is a discussion of Rembrandt’s The Anatomy Lesson of Doctor Nicolaes Tulp. The painting concerns an anatomy lesson for students, facilitated by a cadaver and a textbook, which the doctor consults – but also, implicitly, writes, too: for the knowledge he gains from this and other studies will be the new knowledge that will fill new textbooks. It engages with Derrida’s own ideas and Sarah Kofman’s larger corpus, and does so in an effective, persuasive manner. As such, it deserves a critical reading that is beyond the scope of this piece. Rather, I’d like to consider the purpose served by these engagements with Kofman’s writings, namely that the act of reading Kofman becomes an act of mourning for her. To that end, there are—broadly—two overarching themes to Derrida’s essay that I’d like to address: gifts and laughter. These themes provide the framework not only for the genesis of Derrida’s essay, but also for the contextualization of his grief.
Derrida begins and ends his essay with the idea of gifts: the kind we give, the kind we receive, the literal and the figurative kinds. The first gift is one he means to give to Sarah Kofman at least indirectly, through the writing of the essay, but finds himself at a loss: “the gift of a title” for his elegy to her memory. In most of the essays in The Work of Mourning, Derrida begins by saying, as many do, that he finds himself at a loss for words when asked to describe the personal or professional magnitude of the loss. But Sarah Kofman is different: in this essay, Derrida’s inability to put words to her passing is understood. Rather, he begins by saying, “At first I did not know – and I in fact still do not know – what title to give to these words. What is the gift of a title?” By this, we come to understand, Derrida is wary of being the one to frame her legacy, because in giving a title to his piece, he would inevitably impose on the reader the finality of his own perspective. As Judith Butler so persuasively argues in a lecture on her book The Psychic Life of Power, there is immense responsibility and power in calling something or somebody by a particular name or title, because naming is necessarily a constraint imposed on that person or thing, usually without their consent. Derrida’s piece remains untitled.
Understood too in Derrida’s use of the word “gift” are the gifts a person shares with family, friends, and colleagues. In Kofman’s case he refers particularly to the gifts of her texts, to what we can continue to learn from her. The act of reading Sarah Kofman becomes a memorializing activity. Derrida chooses to address Kofman’s last text, “Conjuring Death,” a posthumously-published unfinished “sketch,” which, he argues, encapsulates for him Kofman’s thinking on life and death.
Derrida not only engages with “Conjuring Death” to illustrate Kofman’s gifts as a perceptive reader, but, in his words “to make linger, these last words leaving her lips…” It’s only by thinking about Kofman’s work that Derrida can hope to keep her alive just a little longer. The only conversation that will occur will be that which he reads from her writing, and so it is imperative that he read her work, and think about it, and respond to it, if only to perpetuate the conversation just a little bit further. By reading her formal analysis with an eye toward her word choice, Derrida establishes a link between the body – between the corps of the corpse in Rembrandt’s painting and the anatomy textbook and Sarah Kofman’s work as a whole, her corpus. Coupled with Kofman’s analysis of the painting, in which life is a central concern, Derrida establishes the etymological link between corps (French for ‘body’), corpse, and corpus (body of work), all of which are derived from the Latin corpus, meaning “body.”
By pairing the words together (corps/corpse, corpus/book), Derrida argues that the “book stands up to, and stands in for, the body: a corpse replaced by a corpus, a corpse yielding its place to the bookish thing.” Since the doctor is reading, he is shown interacting with the book, not the body, with reading as a means to “forget, repress, deny, or conjure away death.” The book is at once a means of rejecting death but also perpetuating life after death, for it represents a kind of second life for the corpse. It’s in discussing her work – this idea of the text as living thing – that Derrida can “keep her talking.”
Derrida wants not only to let her conversation last a little longer; we learn too that Sarah Kofman laughed, and that he feels the absence of her laughter just as keenly. Of course, for Derrida laughter (and Kofman’s laughter in particular) isn’t just an act or a shared experience that he misses. Laughter is something to consider seriously. Like Kofman’s gifts, Derrida says, it’s at once an experience for which he has personal memories but which also is an area of intellectual interest and engagement for Kofman and himself. “I will thus speak of her art but also of her laughter – indissociably,” he writes. Laughter is not synonymous with happiness, and though Derrida recalls the joy of Kofman’s laughter, he nevertheless notes quite lucidly that there were many days in which she did not laugh out loud. But if laughter for Kofman was indissociable from art, from thinking, then she laughed—silently, to herself, perhaps—when she read, when she wrote, when she drew and painted. “I want to believe that she laughed right up to the end, right up to the very last second,” Derrida writes. In her texts, that laughter endures.
In the book of Genesis, as Derrida reminds us, Sarah (wife of Abraham) laughs in disbelief, in protest—another word that for Derrida is integral to the idea of Sarah Kofman—at G-d’s news of her pregnancy, though she later denies it; and while she admits to it, when her son is born and given the name Isaac (“he who laughs”) she laughs again. She laughs when she is given a new name, when she relinquishes Sarai (my princess) to become Sarah (princess). (Again with the gift of a name, Derrida muses. What is the gift of a title?)
It is this vibrancy, this laughing protestation of Sarah Kofman that Derrida wishes to keep alive through her texts, through their perspicacity, their incisiveness; through the penetrating concision and sparkling logic of her arguments. There is another Biblical woman who laughs, however: the ideal woman, wife, mother, and mistress of Proverbs 31, who brings honor on herself, her husband, and her family through her good works. She laughs at the days to come: she is confident, she has no fear of the future. For Sarah Kofman’s work, for Jacques Derrida, there are many more days to come.
This, I think, is as much a part of Sarah Kofman’s legacy as Sarah who protests in disbelief: as Derrida so frequently argues, her texts speak for themselves, with voices that the passing of time will not silence. She challenges us; we return to her again and again, finding something new in her thinking each time. “Une leçon,” Derrida says, over and over again, referring at once to the central concern of Kofman’s last text and a major part of his elegy for her; but Derrida’s heartfelt essay about Sarah Kofman is une leçon in itself: a lesson in grief, in mourning, in the ultimate, necessary acquiescence to her loss and, paradoxically, in rejoicing in the days to come, in what we have yet to learn from her, in what remains as-yet undiscovered in her work.
Did I begin by saying she is the fox? Perhaps she is the little prince.
Butler, Judith. “Giving an Account of Oneself.” Reading Group Discussion, School of Arts and Humanities at Claremond Graduate University. Claremont, California.
Derrida, Jacques. “…..,” tr. Pascale-Anne Brault and Michael Naas, in A Sarah Kofman Reader, ed. Georgia Albert and Tom Albrecht (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2001), reprinted in The Work of Mourning, ed. Pascale-Anne Brault and Michael Naas (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2001).
Saint-Exupery, Antoine de, The Little Prince, tr. Katherine Woods (New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1961).
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Amanda Civitello is a freelance writer based in Chicago. A graduate of Northwestern University, she holds degrees in Art History and Political Science and is a bilingual French-English speaker. She is primarily interested in arts and literary criticism, queer theory, and the depiction of women in contemporary fiction and film. She has written for Autostraddle, Review31, and feminist film criticism blog Bitch Flicks. You can find her online at amandacivitello.com.