Thursday, March 3, 2016

On first looking into Derrida's Glas

It came in a pizza box.. When my copy of Jacques Derrida's Glas arrived in the mail a few years ago, it was packed in a heavily taped, plastic-wrapped, square cardboard box, the lid decorated with a disembodied hand presenting a stylized thick-crust pizza and the words Gino's Pizzeria in a semicircle over the pie. I cut the tape, lifted the lid, and saw inside not the half-expected, unordered, steaming,  cheesy, pepperoni-studded twelve-inch, but a sealed and factory shrink-wrapped copy of Derrida's large, square book, overprotectively bubble-wrapped and nestled amidst a cinema tub's worth of white Styrofoam popcorn.

It was a quirky, Warholian, Pop Art packing choice, and as such it was entirely appropriate for the book, because Glas is, if not more, at least other, than a work of philosophy or literary criticism. It is a piece of literary performance art, a thoroughly avant-garde work of late, late Modernism (so late some call it post-), and, I am increasingly convinced, the strangest of all masterpieces of twentieth-century French literature.

That last judgment is necessarily hedged and hesitant because although I do consider Glas a literary artwork, I recognize that it comfortably fits none of the existing templates for that art. It is neither fiction nor nonfiction, neither philosophy nor criticism. Instead, it contains elements of all of these categories in a single work that refuses any singularity (of structure, form, voice, genre) and radically problematizes the very act of its own reading. In a very real sense, Glas is a book that is almost impossible to read.

Taking a structural cue from an obscure essay by Jean Genet bearing the incomparably Genetian title "What remained of a Rembrandt torn into small, very regular squares and rammed down the shithole," Derrida arranges his book into two parallel columns of text, the left column on each page a (more or less) sustained commentary on Hegelian philosophy and the right column a more fragmented, stream of consciousness, impressionistic consideration of the works of Genet. (This assignment of sides is itself a pretty good Derridean joke, the rightist Hegel (whom Marx had to turn inside-out to found the most influential modern leftism) is here always on the left, while the ultra-radical Genet (whose politics encompassed both fascistic fantasies and leftist action, thus resisting easy categorization) is here always to the right of Hegel.) Opening the book to page one, we see two broken columns of text, a Roman ruin of a page. Both columns begin (seemingly) in midsentence (like Finnegans Wake or Samuel Delany's Dhalgren) and (seemingly) with a question signaled by the same first word, what. We quickly notice, however, that while the Hegel column does indeed resolve the initial word into the signaled question (sort of), the Genet column leaves its what suspended within the quoted title of the original essay by Genet. But even before we ponder this difficulty, we must face a difficulty even more fundamental, perhaps insuperable: how are we to read this...thing? That is the most pressing question.

Do we begin on page 1 and read the Hegel column straight through to page 262's nonconclusion, then return to the beginning and read the Genet column straight through? (This I call the 'traditional, or anal retentive, reading.') Or do we read the Hegel column on page 1 and then read the Genet column (or vice versa), then move on to read page 2 likewise, and so on? (This I call the 'Apollonian reading.') Or do we begin at any given point on any page from 1 to 262 and read across the central border, barely pausing at the end of each line of Hegeltext before beginning the nearest line of Genettext and continuing to read line-by-line across every page until the bottom of page 262 sends us back Joyceanly to the top of page 1 where we continue reading until reaching the point where we randomly began? (This I call 'Dionysian, or anal expulsive, reading,' and it is my preference.) There are many other possibilities, of course (including closing the book and not reading it at all, probably the most popular option), but let these three stand as the most obvious options for a complete reading of Derrida's text. Which do we choose?

It may seem that Glas thus casts us immediately into a classic deconstructive aporia, an abyss of indecidability in which we are assailed by countless equally valid options. I would like to argue, however, that this is only an apparent aporia, that in fact the text itself solicits what I have called a 'Dionysian reading.' While my 'traditional' and 'Apollonian' readings both normalize the book's form into that of, respectively, two consecutive, self-contained, book-length essays and two separate columns on a single page, the 'Dionysian' reading respects Derrida's deliberate formal decisions and attempts to read the book through them. Read line-by-line across the central margin, Glas becomes less a book of postmodern philosophy and more a Late Modernist prose poem, a vast John Ashbery-like invention on Hegelian and Genetian themes. Furthermore, only this reading technique maximizes what I consider the point of the entire book: the mutually deconstructive interpenetration of Hegelian high abstraction and Genetian bodily filth. Derrida's perfectly surrealist juxtapositions, the repeated encounters on the white dissecting table of the page between Hegel's dialectical sewing machine and Genet's tightly rolled phallic umbrella, achieve maximum effect only in a Dionysian reading. On page 38, for example, where an abstract Hegelian discourse on the myth of the Flood is juxtaposed to, slammed up against, sewn together with, Genet's description of a man taking a shit in a noxious prison toilet, the shocking juxtaposition retains its full effect only in a reading that ignores traditional boundaries of margin and column and page, reason and rhetoric and voice. Genet's long Modernist philosophical poem--a late, late entry in a genre that stretches back past Lucretius--a work that playfully dissolves the Platonic distinction between poetry and philosophy (among many other distinctions) demands a reading that is equally disruptive of arbitrary boundaries. A radical text demands to be answered with a radical reading. Glas is thus a transformative book, turning its readers into Dionysus, if only for the duration of their readings. (And isn't that the final bathos of Derrida? He was an incomparable radical, but his radicalism was restricted to the page.)

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