He chose the café—a raspberry red one known for light, fluffy pastries filled with heavenly creams. I chose the table—for two, near the wall.
I was way early. He was on time.
He was the great Jacques Derrida, an intellectual alpinist scaling a Matterhorn of footnotes, an Olympian in the exhilarating world of ideas, a French egghead of astronomical proportions. In fact, he was arguably the most important living philosopher in the Western world.
And who was I? Rookie journalist Dawn Cleaver, born in No-Where-Ville, Illinois, the product of astonishing parental weirdness and back-woods common sense. No, wait—I was Dawn Kolokithas, a lifelong English major briefly married to the guitar-playing, mustache-wearing Angelo Kolokithas. The same Dawn who, after tragedy upon tragedy, eventually made her way—via a couple western states, East Africa, and a sojourn in Greece—to Paris, France. I was my own little study in resilience. I was Dawn-Michelle Baude waiting in the wings, trying to look French-ish in my navy-blue blazer with embossed gold buttons and seriously fashionable shoes. I was a woman who talked an editor into running a profile on Derrida for a series on French philosophers. And Derrida had agreed.
I waved when he entered the café, looking stylish in a Parisian-professor type way—velvety corduroy pants, wool blazer, a scarf coiled carelessly around his neck. He smiled warmly. I remember a flash of teeth.
Zeez are your notes on my work? He pointed to the table strewn with index cards and sheets torn from a spiral notebook, the serrated edges sprinkling chads.
I’d been taking notes on Derrida’s work since I first saw him lecture in San Diego… was it a decade ago?
Mais oui! So you were at this lecture? So many people crammed into this small room. America is so big, and then you end up in this teeny room, so full of people! Incroyable, no?
What a friendly, charming man. He was happy! There was something a little impish, there, too—in the way he looked at the menu of pastries, tempted by confections so exquisite they resembled jewels.
No. Je ne peux pas, he said gravely, but when the waiter came, he ordered a pair of vanilla macaroons, winking at me.
I smiled in that blond way, straddling vacuity and absorption at the same time.
The delightful professor seated across the table from me was hard to reconcile with the author of the notorious work with the inhospitable title, Of Grammatology. Even among scholarly tomes—books so taxing to read that attention and boredom paradoxically converge—Derrida’s oeuvre is a standout, its prose so impenetrable that you need a chainsaw to slice your way through, and even then, blisters form, muscles ache, the head throbs, and you still don’t get it. You kick around the chips, re-reading, off and on, over the years, adding marginalia to the marginalia. Post-It tongues lap the fore-edge. You crack open the highlighters once again, trying out new, optimistic colors. Eventually some of the great man’s ideas about writing and representation seep into the skull. Nonmetamorphticity. The Hegelian Aufhebung. The Ousia and the Grammé. They plug into a neural socket with a satisfying plonk. Maybe.
Derrida received his espresso. The waiter frowned. I scooted my chads into a little pile on the tablecloth to make room for my citron pressée chaude, a DIY hot-lemon set-up which included a tall glass one-third full of freshly pressed lemon juice, a little pot of warm water, and a smaller pot of honey with a teeny spoon.
Reminding Derrida that the publication I represented—the mighty, but short-lived, Paris Passion monthly—was aimed at the general reader, I punched “record” on the tape machine.
So… how does your philosophy change the way we look at writing?
Derrida took a deep breath, fanning ample nostrils. I clutched my sheet of questions with both hands as the engines roared. The ions polarized. Derrida needed so little to fly from the café table into that incandescent realm where ideas are conceived, nurtured, expand into universes most of us never glimpse, let alone inhabit. I let him talk without interruption. I nodded when a nod was needed, fed him the next question when he nibbled tidily on a macaroon.
But when we moved on to the subject of his critics, the engines slowed, the converter clogged. Derrida’s eyes dimmed in twinkle. His lips rode lower on his teeth, protecting his mouth.
I really cannot understand ziss. His voice was low, almost muffled. …Why my ideas make people so mad.
I wanted to help him.
I hated your work, once, too, I said quietly.
And now? he demanded.
Now I thoroughly respect you for the durable contribution you’ve made to the world of ideas.
I poured more warm water from the little pot into my glass of lemon juice and smiled. I was living proof that critics who denounce Derrida’s ideas can make an about-face. If I could, others could too.
Derrida put his forearms squarely on the table and leaned in—in France, hands under the table suggest that you may be hiding something. Mais non. Why, why do you say this? Why do you say you hated my work?
The short-answer is that I’m a blurter. I could have just kept my mouth shut like a pro and finished the interview—but no, I had to tell him. Maybe I’d been saving it up for years.
It just takes time to come to terms with your ideas. I smiled again, but there was guilt stuck in my gums.
Mais pourquoi? he repeated in French.
I cleared my throat. Wow—that lemon is sure strong, I puckered.
But why, why is this? Derrida insisted. You know my work and you, too, you say these things?
I told him I had trouble understanding how brilliant his arguments were. It was the truth.
No—this is not right.
Derrida wore the agonized look of a wronged man. And Derrida had been deeply wronged. By the dons at Cambridge University shamefully protesting his honorary degree in The London Times. By critics who publicly reviled him on both sides of the Atlantic and the Pacific, from pole to pole. And now by me, an American journalist with -ish credentials who had to, just had to, tell him that she was miffed too.
What is it that causes this reaction? he asked. I want to know.
I brushed a couple of stray chads into the pile.
Because—when I began to think I understood some of your work….
I surveyed the tables at Dalloyau, where forkfuls of bliss were on trajectory.
When I got it, well….
He was patient.
The light went out of my world, I said finally.
The pain in Derrida’s face was replaced by concern. But what does this mean, the light went out of my world?
Blank and blond, I stared at the pile of chads.
The scholar in him picked up the scent.
Are you using this metaphor because you’ve understood that the text is not transparent?
I had completely lost control of the interview. I was so in over my head that I couldn’t even see the waves crashing above.
I was hundreds and hundreds of miles and multiple lives away, seated on the floor in a plain room with faint light.
It was in a small house converted into a modest Zendo in San Francisco. I was not comfortable. My back hurt and my knees ached because I wasn’t used to meditating—sitting on the hard floor, head up and back straight, for hours on end. But I sat on my little knot of a pillow, listening to the traffic, my breathing, thoughts, breathing, while a tubby Buddhist priest waddled past the doorway. He checked on me frequently. Although my eyes were closed, I heard the doughy pad of his slippered feet, the faint whir of his robes. He was a much-respected poet. Our joint interest in imagery didn’t help him understand why I was there. I’m not a Buddhist.
But I knew that Buddhists find peace through emptiness, and I was very, very empty. I’d lost everything. After finally really comprehending a chunk of Of Grammatology, I had had an intellectual revelation that shook me to the core—filling me first with rage then with an almost impenetrable grief. I was gray, shivering, wrapped in an old Irish cardigan with nubby elbows, shocked. For four days, I skipped classes, called in sick at work, sat in the plain room with faint light. I left the Zendo only to go home to try to sleep a little and rouse my appetite. My roommates worried because there was no family to call and clearly I was in crisis. All I wanted to do was breathe—just breathe—and forget everything I’d ever read in Of Grammatology. So much I wanted to forget. Violence and death and a showcase of trauma had darkened my world repeatedly, but Derrida’s darkness hurt the most, because words—and a naïve belief in their power—were the last thing I had left. If he was right, and meaning is an illusion, then writing would never save me.
Derrida finished the last nibble of macaroon and pushed the plate to the side.
I believe I understand, he said, the color returning to his cheeks. This darkness is, once again, a problem of metaphysics.
He shot off into the ether.
Relieved I didn’t have to go into the Great Noble Truths of the Zendo episode, I snuck a look at the tape recorder to see how much tape I had left.
It wasn’t turning.
Is everything OK?
Derrida was giving great interview, and he knew it.
I told him everything was terrific! I switched out the cassettes and pressed fast-forward—the new tape, too, was as inert as a dead fish, floating belly-up in a puddle of citron pressée. The batteries were lifeless. I couldn’t let him know. I just couldn’t. We’d already talked over an hour—Jean Genet, Heidegger, Sartre, James Joyce. He’d put so much into it—checking I understood, repeating key points. We couldn’t do it all again. We just couldn’t. Dictation? Too conspicuous. The penetrating eyes of the philosopher observed my every move.
Basic survival instinct took over. I wedged the tape recorder between the water pot and the honey. He’d never know it wasn’t turning.
The illusion is necessary, Derrida continued. The illusion that the world is what we think is.
I maintained eye contact, yanked my chair nearer to the table, mirrored fascination with his every word, but the article was lost; the paycheck vanished. I’d screwed up the most important interview I’d ever landed.
Derrida spent the last 40 minutes explaining the main philosophical idea for which he is known—absence—while I sat there, solitary in the knowledge that it was Derrida himself who was absent.
The world to which writing refers is not there—it’s absent! (Breathe.) Writing is a means of staving off the absence of death! (Understood.) The missing phallus and the absent father are key terms in the chain of substitution that produces meaning! (Weird and probably sexist, but I get it.) The absent father is more present in his absence than he is in his presence. (Yep.) Western culture is based on the missing father. (Where is God? Did he ever exist? Derrida had lost his dad too.)
I really wished I had my cardigan. But it wouldn’t mix with rest of the outfit.
But Down, this you must understand: even though the voice is absent, even though it is gone, it returns. The dead speak. This is the most important point: every time we read their books, the dead speak. Every time we remember their words, the dead speak.
He insisted on paying the bill at the café, took my hand in his and pressed it warmly, flashing, again, that wise, kind smile.
Afterwards, I sent him one of my poetry chapbooks in gratitude for the generosity of spirit that had kept him at a café table for two hours. He sent me a handwritten thank-you note and asked when the profile would appear.
I think it finally is, here, now.