"Whom To Give To"
As an undergraduate, the first philosopher I read was Derrida and the first book I read was The Gift of Death. I picked it up because someone I admired and with whom I worked at the MTC (he was, in fact, a serious former student of Jim's) told me that one of the most significant and transformative spiritual experiences of his life occurred in connection with his reading The Gift of Death. I've tried to make it a rule to never turn down such book recommendations. I don't know for sure what passages he had especially in mind, but I have a hunch. And I'm pretty clear about which passages ended up producing a similar effect in me. In both cases, I think they are here in the third chapter.
A few comments and transcriptions.
1. "We tremble in that strange repetition that ties an irrefutable past (a shock has been felt, a traumatism has already affected us) to a future that cannot be anticipated; anticipated but unpredictable; apprehended, but, and this is why there is a future, apprehended precisely as unapproachable. Even if one thinks one knows what is going to happen, the new instant of that happening remains untouched, still inaccessible, in fact unlivable." (54)
The trembling produced by the mysterium tremendum is the living bridge between the trauma of the past (irrefutable, irreducible, and unmasterable) and the secret that is the future. The future, here, being constituted by the fact that it is necessarily a secret that cannot be told, a secret that is structurally rather than accidentally a secret or mystery. What gives the future a future (what makes it other than a modulation of the present) is its secret. We never know what's going to happen. The limit of the future, the limit that marks the future as absolute rather than relative mystery, is death. The gift of death is the secret that death holds and the future that death's secret both gives and forecloses (gives, Derrida would say, by foreclosing).
Within a Derridean framework we might say that typology is this living, trembling bridge between the unfathomable past and the secret of the future. Except, for Derrida, the quivering connection between type and antitype and is possible only if the antitype remains a secret (if it were not a secret the future would itself collapse) and thus the meaning of the type, though irrefutably given, remains a mystery. Or we might say: in a Derridean typology, we receive an endless series of powerfully transformative types but the antitype that would definitively reveal their meanings can never, by definition, be given.
2. "What is it that makes us tremble in the mysterium tremendum? It is the gift of infinite love, the dissymmetry that exists between the divine regard that sees me, and myself, who doesn't see what is looking at me." (56)
What does love have to do with death? Love is our trembling in the face of the secret/future that death gives. Love is a trembling in light of the dissymmetry between what I apprehend and the secret that the Other holds.
Love, Derrida would maintain, is only possible insofar as the antitype is never given and the meaning of the type is never definitively unveiled. Death makes love possible because death is what gives us an end, but it gives us end that we can only receive by no longer being around to receive it. It promises to tell us the secret by promising to keep the secret a secret. Love, founded on dissymmetry, is necessarily absurd: the books can never be balanced, the debits and credits can never be zeroed out, no universal equivalence can ever be accomplished. It is the dissymmetry of love that renders it immune to money (the universal equivalence machine) and, thus, unconditional.
3. "He [Abraham] says something that is not nothing and that is not false. He says something that is not a non-truth, something moreover that, although he doesn't know it yet, will turn out to be true." (59)
This is, I think, a tantalizing formula for doing theology (and typological theology). When we do theology properly we manage to say things that are not nothing and that are not false. When we do theology properly we manage to say things we do not know the meaning of but, nonetheless, will turn out to be true. We venture a wager in faith on the meaning of a type, but do so in the absence of its key, the antitype.
4. "If I obey in my duty towards God (which is my absolute duty) only in terms of duty, I am not fulfilling my relation to God. In order to fulfill my duty towards God, I must not act out of duty . . . . It is in this sense that absolute duty (towards God and in the singularity of faith) implies a sort of gift or sacrifice that functions beyond debt and duty, beyond duty as a form of debt. (63)
What does sacrifice have to do with the gift of death? What does sacrifice, as Abraham enacts it, have to do with the secret? Sacrifice is (as
Say we sacrifice the antitype. Derrida's point is that we can only preserve the antitype as a messianic antitype by sacrificing the possibility of its arrival. Or: the only way to love my wife is by constantly sacrificing my desire for the affects that she produces in me (the affects that I love). If I love her for those affects, if I love her out of duty to the debt that I owe her because of what she gives me, then I will have failed to love her and loved, instead, only what she gave. So that it is impossible to perform my duty to her (to love her) out of duty. In order to perform my duty to love her, I have to sacrifice that duty as a duty and love her without regard to what I owe her or receive from her. I can only love her by sacrificing my love for what gifts come from her.
Sacrifice, then, is the kind of action capable of keeping a secret: it can perform a duty without duty knowing that it has been performed. It can keep duty a secret from itself.
5. "Kierkegaard rejects the common distinction between love and hate; he finds it egotistical and without interest. He reinterprets it as a paradox." (65)
The paradoxical sacrifice that love enacts has to reject the common distinction between love and hate because, commonly, both love and hate are modulations of self-interest. In order to love Isaac, Abraham must sacrifice him. Abraham must hate him, sever any connection he has to or interest in what Isaac gives to him. Only by hating him can Abraham become free in a way that will allow him to love Isaac without the intervention of debt and the interest of self-interest. Love is neither love nor hate but some impossible third things beside them both. Faith is neither faith nor doubt but some impossible third thing beside them both.
6. "I cannot respond to the call, the request, the obligation, or even the love of another without sacrificing the other other, the other others . . . . I betray my fidelity or my obligations to other citizens, to those who don't speak my language and to whom I neither speak nor respond, to each of those who listen or read, and to whom I neither respond nor address myself in the proper manner, that is, in a singular manner (this for the so-called public space to which I sacrifice my so-called private space), thus also to those I love in private, my own, my family, my sons, each of whom is the only son I sacrifice to the other, every one being sacrificed to every one else in this land of Moriah that is our habitat every second of every day." (68, 69)
If this were the only passage worth reading in Derrida's corpus, it may still be worth the effort to read his work in its entirety.
In my estimation, life in the Spirit begins here: with the revelation of a responsibility that is not bound by any consideration of self-interested guilt and accountability at the judgment bar of God (or man). This is the revelation of a responsibility to others that exceeds anything that God (or man) would either reward or punish us for fulfilling or not fulfilling. The revelation of an absolute responsibility that can only be taken seriously by sacrificing both an attempt to be universally responsible (the tragic hero) and an attempt to limit our responsibility parochially (the aesthete). An absolute responsibility that we can only enact by sacrificing the other others to another other, both preserving and resigning what we sacrifice.
What is beautiful about this passage is it's non-intellectual, non-mystical, non-religious mundanity. This
7. "Our faith is not assured, because faith can never be, it must never be a certainty. We share with Abraham what cannot be shared, a secret we know nothing about, neither him nor us. To share a secret is not to know or to reveal the secret, it is to share we know not what: nothing can be determined. What is a secret that is a secret about nothing and a sharing that doesn't share anything?" (80)