The Gift of Death, Second Edition & Literature in Secret
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The Gift of Death, Second Edition & Literature in Secret

Jacques Derrida, David Wills

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The Gift of Death, Second Edition & Literature in Secret

Jacques Derrida, David Wills

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The Gift of Death, Jacques Derrida's most sustained consideration of religion, explores questions first introduced in his book Given Time about the limits of the rational and responsible that one reaches in granting or accepting death, whether by sacrifice, murder, execution, or suicide. Derrida analyzes Czech philosopher Jan Patocka's Heretical Essays in the Philosophy of History and develops and compares his ideas to the works of Heidegger, Lévinas, and Kierkegaard. One of Derrida's major works, The Gift of Death resonates with much of his earlier writing, and this highly anticipated second edition is greatly enhanced by David Wills's updated translation. This new edition also features the first-ever English translation of Derrida's Literature in Secret. In it, Derrida continues his discussion of the sacrifice of Isaac, which leads to bracing meditations on secrecy, forgiveness, literature, and democracy. He also offers a reading of Kafka's Letter to His Father and uses the story of the flood in Genesisas anembarkation pointfor a consideration of divine sovereignty. "An important contribution to the critical study of ethics that commends itself to philosophers, social scientists, scholars of religion... [and those] made curious by the controversy that so often attends Derrida."— Booklist, on the first edition

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Secrets of European Responsibility
In one of his Heretical Essays on the Philosophy of History1 Jan Patočka relates secrecy,2 or more precisely the mystery of the sacred, to responsibility. He opposes one to the other; or rather underscores their heterogeneity. Somewhat in the manner of Lévinas he warns against an experience of the sacred as an enthusiasm or fervor for fusion, cautioning in particular against a form of demonic rapture that has as its effect, and often as its first intention, the removal of responsibility, the loss of the sense or consciousness3 of responsibility. At the same time Patočka wants to distinguish religion from the demonic form of sacralization. What is a religion? Religion presumes access to the responsibility of a free self. It thus implies breaking with this type of secrecy (for it is not of course the only one), that associated with sacred mystery and with what Patočka regularly calls the demonic. A distinction is to be made between the demonic on the one hand (that which confuses the limits among the animal, the human, and the divine, and which retains an affinity with mystery, the initiatory, the esoteric, the secret or the sacred) and responsibility on the other. This therefore amounts to a thesis on the origin and essence of the religious.
Under what conditions can one speak of a religion, in the proper sense of the term, presuming such a sense exists? Under what conditions can we speak of a history of religion, and first and foremost of the Christian religion? In noting that Patočka refers only to the example of his own religion I do not seek to denounce an omission or establish the guilt of a failure to develop a comparative analysis. On the contrary, it seems necessary to reinforce the coherence of a way of thinking that takes into account the event of Christian mystery as an absolute singularity, a religion par excellence and an irreducible condition for a joint history of the subject, responsibility, and Europe. That is so even if, here and there, the expression “history of religions” appears in the plural, and even if, also, one can infer from this plural a reference to Judaic, Islamic, and Christian religions alone, those known as religions of the Book.4
According to Patočka, one can only speak of religion once the demonic secret, and the orgiastic sacred, have been surpassed. We should let that term retain its essential ambiguity. In the proper sense of the word, religion exists once the secret of the sacred, orgiastic, or demonic mystery has been, if not destroyed, at least integrated, and finally subjected to the sphere of responsibility. The subject of responsibility will be the subject that has managed to make orgiastic or demonic mystery subject to itself. But it has done that only in order, at the same time, to freely subject itself to the wholly and infinite other that sees without being seen. Religion is responsibility or it is nothing at all. Its history derives its sense entirely from the idea of a passage to responsibility. Such a passage involves traversing or enduring the test by means of which the ethical conscience will be delivered of the demonic, the mystagogic, and the enthusiastic, of the initiatory and the esoteric. In the authentic sense of the word, religion comes into being the moment that the experience of responsibility extracts itself from that form of secrecy called demonic mystery.
Since the concept of the daimon crosses the boundaries separating the human from the animal and the divine, it comes as no surprise to see Patočka recognize in it an essential dimension of sexual desire. In what respect does this demonic mystery of desire involve us in a history of responsibility, more precisely in history as responsibility?
“The demonic needs to be brought into a relation with responsibility as originally and primarily it is not” (100). In other words, the demonic is originally defined as irresponsibility, or, if one wishes, as nonresponsibility. It belongs to a space that does not yet resound with the injunction to respond, a space in which one does not yet hear the call to explain oneself [répondre de soi], one’s actions, or one’s thoughts, to respond to the other and answer for oneself before the other. The genesis of responsibility that Patočka proposes will not simply describe a history of religion or religiousness. It will overlap with a genealogy of the subject who says “myself,” the subject’s relation to itself as an instance of liberty, singularity, and responsibility, the relation to self as being before the other: the other in its infinite alterity, one who regards without being seen but also whose infinite goodness gives in an experience that amounts to a gift of death [donner la mort]. For the moment let us leave that expression in all its ambiguity.
Of course, since this genealogy is also a history of sexuality, it follows the traces of a genius of Christianity that is the history of Europe. For at the center of Patočka’s essay the stakes are clearly defined as follows: how to interpret “the birth of Europe in the present sense of the word” (109)? How to conceive of “European expansion” (110) before and after the Crusades? More radically still, what is it that ails “modern civilization” inasmuch as it is European? Not that it suffers from a particular fault or from a particular form of blindness. Simply, why does it suffer from ignorance of its history, from a failure to assume its responsibility, that is, the memory of its history as history of responsibility?
This misunderstanding does not betray an accidental failing on the part of the scholar or philosopher. It is not in fact a sin of ignorance or lack of knowledge. It is not because they don’t know [faute de savoir] that Europeans do not read their history as a history of responsibility. European historians’ misunderstanding of historicity, which is in the first place a misunderstanding of what links historicity to responsibility, is explained on the contrary by the extent to which their historical knowledge occludes, precludes, or saturates those questions, grounds, or abysses, naively presuming to totalize or naturalize them, or, what amounts to the same thing, losing themselves in the details. For at the heart of this history there is something of an abyss [il y a de l’abîme], an abyss that resists totalizing summary. Separating orgiastic mystery from Christian mystery, this abyss also announces the origin of responsibility. Such is the conclusion that the whole essay moves toward:
Modern civilization suffers not only from its own flaws and myopia but also from the failure to resolve the entire problem of history. Yet the problem of history may not be resolved; it must be preserved as a problem. Today the danger is that knowing so many particulars, we are losing the ability to see the questions and that which is their foundation.
Perhaps the entire question about the decadence of civilization is incorrectly posed. There is no civilization as such. The question is whether historical humans are still willing to embrace history (přiznávat se k dějinám). (118)
This last sentence suggests that historicity remains a secret. Historical humans do not want to admit to historicity, and first and foremost to the abyss that undermines their own historicity. Why should one admit to history? And why would such a confession be difficult?
Two reasons might be given for this resistance to such an admission.
On the one hand, the history of responsibility is tied to a history of religion. But there is always a risk in acknowledging a history of responsibility. It is often thought, on the basis of an analysis of the very concepts of responsibility, freedom, or decision, that to be responsible, free, or capable of deciding cannot be something that is acquired, something conditioned or conditional. Even if there is undeniably a history of freedom or responsibility, such a historicity, it is thought, must remain extrinsic. It must not interfere with the essence of an experience that consists precisely in tearing oneself away from one’s own historical conditions. What would responsibility be if it were motivated, conditioned, made possible by a history? Although some might think that there is no exercise of responsibility except in a manner that is essentially historical, the classic concept of decision and responsibility seems to exclude from the essence, heart, or proper moment of responsible decision all historical connections (whether they be genealogical or not, whether their causality be mechanical or dialectical, or even if they derive from other types of motivation or programming such as those that relate to a psychoanalytic history). It is therefore difficult to admit to such a historicity and, inasmuch as a whole ethics of responsibility often claims to separate itself, as ethics, from religious revelation, it is even more difficult to bind it, in its essence, to a history of religion.
On the other hand, if Patočka says that this historicity must be admitted to, implying thereby that it is something difficult to acknowledge, that is because historicity must remain open as a problem, never to be resolved: “the problem of history . . . must be preserved as a problem” (118). The moment the problem were resolved that very totalizing closure would determine the end of history: it would bring in the verdict of nonhistoricity itself. History can be neither a decidable object nor a totality capable of being mastered, precisely because it is tied to responsibility, to faith and to the gift. To responsibility in the experience of absolute decisions that involve breaking with knowledge or given norms, made therefore through the very ordeal of the undecidable; to religious faith through a form of involvement with or relation to the other that is a venture into absolute risk, beyond knowledge and certainty; to the gift and to the gift of death that puts me into relation with the transcendence of the other—with God as selfless goodness—and that gives me what it gives me through a new experience of death. Responsibility and faith go together, however paradoxical that might seem to some, and both should, in the same movement, exceed mastery and knowledge. The gift of death would be this marriage of responsibility and faith. History depends on such an excessive beginning [ouverture].
The paradox here plays on two heterogeneous types of secret: on the one hand the secret of historicity, what historical man has difficulty acknowledging but which he must admit to because it concerns his very responsibility; and on the other hand the secret of orgiastic mystery that the history of responsibility has to break with.
An additional complication further overdetermines the breadth or abyss of this experience. Why speak of secrecy where Patočka states that it is historicity that must be acknowledged? This becoming-responsible, that is, this becoming-historical of humankind, seems to be intimately tied to the properly Christian event of another secret, or more precisely of a mystery, the mysterium tremendum: the terrifying mystery, the dread, fear, and trembling of the Christian in the experience of the sacrificial gift. This trembling seizes one at the moment of becoming a person, and the person can only become what it is in being paralyzed [transie], in its very singularity, by the gaze of God. Then the person sees itself seen by the gaze of another, “the absolute highest being in whose hands we are, not externally, but internally” (106).
This passage from exteriority to interiority, but also from the accessible to the inaccessible, assures the transition from Platonism to Christianity. It is held that, starting from a responsibility and ethico-political self of the Platonic type, there occurs a mutation that liberates the responsibility of the Christian self, although such a self remains to be thought through. For this is indeed one of Patočka’s Heretical Essays: it doesn’t fail to note in passing that Christianity has perhaps not yet thought through the very essence of the self whose arrival it nevertheless records. Christianity has not yet accorded such a self the thematic value it deserves: “What a Person is, that really is not adequately thematized in the Christian perspective” (107).
The secret of the mysterium tremendum takes over from a heterogeneous secrecy and at the same time breaks with it. This rupture takes the form of either subordination by incorporation (one secret subjects or silences the other), or repression. The mysterium tremendum gets carried away [s’emporte] in the double sense of the term: it rises against another mystery but it rises on the back [sur le fond] of a past mystery. At base [au fond] it represses, repressing what remains its basis [son fond]. The secret that the event of Christianity takes to task is at the same time a form of Platonism—or Neoplatonism—which retains something of the thaumaturgical tradition, and the secret of orgiastic mystery from which Plato had already tried to deliver philosophy. Hence the history of responsibility is particularly multilayered. The history of the responsible self is built upon the heritage and patrimony of secrecy, through a chain reaction of ruptures and repressions that assure the very tradition they punctuate with their interruptions. Plato breaks with orgiastic mystery and installs a first experience based on the notion of responsibility, but there remains something of demonic mystery and thaumaturgy, as well as some of responsibility’s corresponding political dimension, in Platonism as in Neoplatonism. Then comes the mysterium tremendum of Christian responsibility, second tremor in the genesis of responsibility as a history of secrecy, but also, as we shall see a little later, a tremor in the figures of death as figures of the gift, or in fact as gifts of death [de la mort donnée].
This history will never come to a close. Any history worthy of the name can never be saturated or sutured. This history of secrecy that humans, in particular Christians, have difficulty thematizing, even more so acknowledging, is punctuated by many reversals, or more precisely conversions. Patočka uses the word “conversion” as one often does to render the ascending movement of anabasis by which Plato calls for turning one’s gaze toward the Good and the intelligible sun, out of the cavern (a Good that is not yet goodness and so remains foreign to the idea of the gift). The word “conversion” is regularly rendered by words such as “reversal” (obrácení, 104) or “about-face” (obrat, 106). The history of secrecy, the combined history of responsibility and of the gift, has the spiral form of these turns, intricacies, versions, turnings back, bends, and conversions. One could compare it to a history of revolutions, even to history as revolution.
Taking Eugen Fink as his authority, Patočka describes the very space of Platonic speleology as the subterranean basis of orgiastic mysteries. The cavern becomes the Earth Mother from which one must finally extract oneself in order to “subordinate,” as Patočka puts it, “the orgiastic entirely to responsibility” (podřídit orgiasmus zodpovědnosti, 104). But Platonic anabasis does not provide a passage from orgiastic mystery to nonmystery. It is the subordination of one mystery by another, the conversion from one secret to another. For Patočka calls the Platonic conversion that turns an eternal gaze toward the Good a “new mystery of the soul.” This time the mystery becomes more internal, it takes the form of “the soul’s interior dialogue” (105). Although it does correspond to a first awakening of responsibility by means of the soul’s relation to the Good, this coming-to-conscience does not yet separate from its mystical element; it still takes the form of a mystery, this time unacknowledged, undeclared, denied.
One can already recognize the law for which this serves as a first example. Like those which will follow Plato’s anabasis throughout a history of responsibility that capitalizes on secrecy, this first conversion still retains within it something of what it seems to interrupt. The logic of this conservative rupture resembles the economy of a sacrifice that keeps what it gives up. Sometimes it reminds one of the economy of sublation [relève] or Aufhebung, and at other times, less contradictory than it seems, of a logic of repression that still retains what is denied, surpassed, buried. Repression doesn’t destroy, it displaces from one place to another within the system. It is also a topological operation. In fact Patočka often has recourse to a type of psychoanalytic vocabulary. ...

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