Summer 2011

Forgetting Derrida, Forgiving Freud

Out of sight, but not of mind

Barry Sanders

Poetry should make air and silence hang around a word.
—Stéphane Mallarmé

I forgot that. Imagine: I forgot the gift handed over by Jacques Derrida. I forgot that, when we met one afternoon in Canada, Derrida had offered me a copy of his very own typescript, with his own emendations. “Do you want to read this?” he asked, and extended his hand, and I said, “Of course.” We had been talking not just about the way speech offers such a feeble way of retrieving our lived experience, but about the way speaking so much insinuates itself into forgetting. We wondered (actually, he wondered, with me trying to follow his peculiar brand of wonder): Is it possible that by speaking, or even by writing, we erase whatever we attempt to express? And he handed me an eighty-page typescript on the art of uttering forgetfulness, a shorter version of which he had given in a talk only months before in perhaps the unacknowledged capital of the ineffable, Jerusalem.

We wondered again (and, again, same pas de deux of logic): Is it possible that in writing we actually take the first step toward eradicating? Does the form we give our own thoughts, the words we select to isolate our ideas, actually work against meaning, creating a forgetting of what we thought we once wanted to express? In writing, do the very acts of gathering and sorting and arranging undo knowledge itself? Does the template of grammar actually act as an eraser? Did Plato get it all wrong in the Phaedrus when he refused the gift of letters, arguing that literacy would eliminate the need for memory? Should we count memory as literacy’s greatest fiction? In the end, do those most human of qualities, speaking and writing, confound rather than enlighten, cause us to forget rather than remember? These questions Derrida raised, and for these questions he had no definitive answers—as if by asking them he had proved his point and had forgotten, erased—any answers, even the most tentative of answers.

I forget, in a certain way, everything I write, doubtless also, in another way, what I read. Save this or that sentence, some sentence morsel, apparently secondary, whose lack of apparent importance does not in any case justify this sort of resonance, of obsessive reverberation that guards itself, detached, so long after the engulfing, more and more rapid, of all the remains(s), of all the rest. One ought to touch there (coagulation of sense, form, rhythm) on the compulsional matrix of writing, upon its organizing affect.1

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