my lecture notes on chapter 3 of Derrida’s ‘The Gift of Death’

“Whom to Give to (Knowing Not to Know)” begins with Derrida establishing the notion of the mysterium tremendum. This relates the way that our bodies react to mystery; mystery here is playing off the unknown: in the moments of our uncertainty, our body reacts to the mystery—what we do not know is coming—in the unconscious act of trembling. We can never control a tremble; it is like a reflex. Derrida discusses how the tremble is a sort of proof that an event that has incited fear has already occurred, and that may occur again. He likens this to the earthquake in that the tremble precedes it, and our feeling the tremble of the earthquake lets us know the event has already happened. The relationship of thunder and lightning is like this too.

The trembling occurs in us as a physical reaction we cannot control. Derrida says,

As different as dread, fear, anxiety, terror, panic, or anguish remain from one another, they have already begun in the trembling, and what has provoked them continues, or threatens to continue, to make us tremble. Most often we neither know what is coming upon us nor see its origin; it therefore remains a secret. (54)

This is an important connection between the outside event, and our unconscious understanding of it. Because we are passively subjected to the event, and unable to control our reaction (the act of trembling), we continue to tremble because of the inability to conceptually understand the exact nature of the event. The event is forever veiled in secrecy. Returning to the notion of the earthquake, we see how no matter what, the moment an earthquake hits is a secret. Also, the precise causes for the earthquake are unknown too. Yet we are always subject to the effect of the earthquake—the tremble.

Therefore, we tremble from our not knowing:

  1. Where did it come from?
  2. Why did it happen?
  3. Will it happen again?
  4. How often will it be repeated?

This lack of knowledge of certain events will always be a secret kept from us, yet subject us to it nonetheless. Thus, we have a passive relationship with the secret. Derrida states, “I tremble at what exceeds my seeing and my knowing although it concerns the innermost parts of me, right down to my soul, down to the bone, as we say” (54). This shows us the limit of our knowledge. We are so passive to the secret that we are even unaware of the cause of our own trembling. The agitation of the body is beyond us. This is a moment where the tremble reoccurs—in our very un-understanding of the relationship between the secret and our unconscious. The secret makes us tremble in our core, and even our core is a secret kept from us, from our mind. So we tremble again. This is what he calls the “double secret” (54); and it is also tied to the notion of the “unlivable experience” which encapsulates the notion of our reaction being out of our control. Derrida ties the act of trembling to the notion of tears. No matter that we know how tears form in our eyes, and fall down our cheeks, we don’t know why they do. We have absolutely no knowledge of why we physically cry over an emotional reaction to an event. The reason for our tears is another secret we will never know, but will occur nonetheless.

~~~Derrida’s call to create a new discourse to translate the cause of this reaction is interesting. I wonder if it is possible~~~

We may find this statement, in all of its power, frightening. But Derrida believes this

…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; it is the gift and endurance of death that exists in the irreplaceable, the disproportion between the infinite gift and my finitude, responsibility as culpability, sin, salvation, repentance, and sacrifice. (56)

The mysterium tremendum is our connection with God. Derrida’s language here connects it in the divine sense. He believes the causal relationship between the event and our secret reaction to it is God. In other words, this is the relationship between X and Y.

The most significant event any of us will ever encounter is death; death is the utmost secret that inevitably awaits all of us. He says, “Without knowing from whence the thing comes and what awaits us, we are given over to absolute solitude” (57). In the reflection of the emphatic terms “absolute solitude”, Derrida shows us that this is the mother of all secrets. When we usually think of secrets, there is the idea that it has been spoken between others, and kept from us. However, in this case, the secret is an un-utterance that is only shared between the divine and our unconscious. Thus, we cannot discover it until we let ourselves in on the secret. So we tremble in the possibility of death.

~~~Note that I use the X and Y reference earlier. Derrida talks of Kierkegaard, using the way the poet is “sworn into secrecy because he is in secret” (59). Our class can see that this is the experience Chad Sweeney has with poetry. I wonder, does this explain his knack for prophecy?~~~

Derrida then brings up Kierkegaard’s use of pseudonyms. The speaker in a poem is always a representation of a self—a secret self. The speaker is an invisible entity that shows itself on the page, but not as a real person. In this way, the writer is merely a house for the spirit of the speaker in the poetic act. Otherwise the speaker would be silent. To keep silent on one thing is “a whole discourse of silence” (59). “Speaking in order not to say anything is always the best technique for keeping a secret” (Derrida 59). This is so important for poetry. The act of translating our experiences into words is this move in a lot of ways; we write to name the un-nameable, yet it will forever elude us.

Of course Derrida establishes this discourse inside the biblical narrative of Abraham. Abraham is involved in a “double secret” with God. What does this mean here? To better understand this literary connection, we can think of Abraham as being in touch with his core. And Derrida uses Abraham as an example for one very crucial reason: responsibility. Abraham is so responsible that he keeps the “double secret” (i.e. silence) with God; he keeps it from even himself, though he knows it. Abraham keeps it to honor the secret, yet keeps himself in silence from the thing he fears the most: the loss of his son.

We return to the notion of absolute solitude again, both with Abraham and with poetry. Derrida says,

The first effect or first destination of language therefore involves depriving me of, or delivering me from, my singularity. By suspending my absolute singularity in speaking, I renounce at the same time my liberty and my responsibility. Once I speak I am never and no longer myself, alone and unique. It is a very strange contract—both paradoxical and terrifying—that binds infinite responsibility to silence and secrecy. (60)

Language is the most interrelated exposure of the secret, upon which the paradox is placed. To speak is to expose the secret. But to keep in silence is another act of speech. It is un-speech. The paradox also lies in the way we connect with others. Speech is the act that dissolves that which makes us a separate person with a special identity into a collective all. The speech act best for this is poetry. One that dispels otherness by keeping all of us in the state of otherness.

We can begin to see Derrida’s argument on responsibility as this connection with others. We are not singular in our sense of self, but universally singular. Speech, then, is the moment where we transcend the denial of the singular self, and reach out to the universal self. We are the singular that connects to the collective through our speech acts. It is our responsibility to honor that when we speak. (this will connect to the next chapter so much because we will realize the fullness of the tautology: tout autre est tout autre; all others are all others.)

The next significant move Derrida makes is the application of absolute duty. This is where he gets a bit more complicated. He defines it for us:

Absolute duty demands that one behave in an irresponsible manner (by means of treachery or betrayal), while still recognizing, confirming, and reaffirming the very thing one sacrifices, namely, the order of human ethics and responsibilities. (67)

I have an odd moment here where I stopped translating his text, and summed it up in this way for myself: The gift of death is all around us—in cases and places we are a part of in everyday circumstances. When we give someone or something our time and attention, be it to work, a person, ourselves, it is an act of duty to our life. But that duty is a double-edged sword. No matter how dutiful we are being, it is always a sacrifice to all else who are not being given the same duty.  Derrida talks of grieving after a death. Sure, we are honoring the loss of a beloved person, but we are denying others our attention while we honor the one. This is a duality of guilt and respect. No matter what, we are entrenched in this paradox. Alas, to know this is to be responsible. We must be responsible and ethical in our choice of duty.

We see the paradoxical concept of duty and responsibility play out in the story of Abraham and Isaac. In every choice Abraham makes, he plays one of the other. In his ethical responsibility—his absolute duty to God—he sacrifices himself in the sacrifice of his son. He does this by keeping himself in silence. Incidentally, Abraham also carries the weight of the mysterium tremendum in the most magnificent of fashions. Abraham knows God—the secret none others are consciously aware of. He could break this secret by telling anyone, thus revealing the horror that awaits his son. And, in doing so, he exposes his communication with God, which is in itself knowledge of the divine mystery. Abraham does not do this. Instead he keeps his secret.

This lets us see that silence is the only language we share with God. Therefore, it is the truest of all speech. Unfortunately, it is one that we cannot share with others. Paradoxically, it is one all others share with God, too. Again, we return to the sense of a double-secret at play, and the connection to otherness via our otherness. Silence is so powerful for this very reason. It necessitates all absence. Silence, as a language, is invisible, unhearable, unsharable, and most importantly temporal. Silence will always break into speech. It will always lack conveyance. We can never fully explain something realized in silence to others, and, in turn, never be fully understood. What role does this play in poetry? Do you see the connections? The ellipsis is that moment where silence is speaking. Erasure is that moment where speech fails, and wants to return to its realm of truth. This makes the use of language ethical, and holds us accountable always to our responsible use of language to each other.

But! But, this also makes us accountable to God for our silence. As the act of absolute duty participates in a conversation with God (and this is a stretch we would need to discuss in class as it is different for all of us), we are essentially sacrificing our duty to God in using speech to each other. Therefore, we must make our language work for it. Our speech must earn its loss of duty in the move to connect to others. Every time we try to speak to one another, we sacrifice our mutual otherness to the move toward unity. Yet, this is not unity. The paradox here, then, is in the differing of what makes us alike. Is it our shared language, or is it our shared silence? Derrida is hinting toward the latter. We all may “prefer not to” along with him ;-) This is the irony that Derrida brings up on 76 and 77. The act of not knowing is the essence of responsibility. We will never know what actions our choice will bring, but we act anyway.

The next part of why irony is so significant turns back to paradox. In the phrase tout autre est tout autre, Derrida upturns and reasserts Kierkegaard. He says, “It implies that God, as the wholly other, is to be found everywhere there is something wholly other…” (78). In our sacrifice of silence (which is speaking with God), we actually speak with God as well. The speech acts with others connects us to God because God is the otherness between us. How is this so? I take this as the critical understanding (that totally makes me tremble, for real) that we internalize our conversations we have with each other, and return them into our discourse with God—that discourse is our silence. This is when we think through things to ourselves. So, constantly we are in conversation with God in order to be in conversation with each other, which is also a conversation with God.




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