Thursday, 22 March 2012

Conclusion: 'Derrida uses Mallarmé to challenge the Platonic conception of literature. Discuss in relation to Derrida’s “The Double Session.”'

Another conclusion from a recent essay:

At the end of Derrida’s trail, then, is an impasse for those who hold to Plato’s mimetic concepts of art and literature. Not only is literature not purely imitative, its very medium, language, confuses and questions whatever the writer may have wanted to put across in the first place. For these reasons, Derrida was highly sceptical of the standard approach to literature as an identification of key themes – this, to him, was nothing less than an “attempt to regain that loss mastery” that the hymen has taken away from the critic. [1] Just as Mallarmé mocked the critical need to relate an unpremeditated mime to the past or future of an idea, so Derrida pours scorn on those who would do the same to a piece of literature.

Derrida produced several readings of texts considered to be Holy Scripture, and his ideas can be applied to them as much as to any other classification of literature. In two similar passages from the Old Testament, found in 2 Samuel and 2 Chronicles, God promises David that he will always have an heir on the throne of Israel. V. Phillips Long notes that “At the time of the Chronicler’s writing there is no longer a Davidic kingdom, literally speaking, but the kingdom of God, of course, remains. Thus ‘your house and your kingdom will endure before me’ of 2 Samuel 7:16 becomes ‘I will set him over my house and my kingdom forever.’ In underscoring the theocratic character of the Davidic throne, the Chronicler is simply making explicit what is already implicit in the promise of 2 Samuel 7:14: ‘I will be his father, and he will be my son.’” [2] The re-marking of an existing tradition is not limited to the Old Testament: the prophetic adaptation of Old Testament texts by New Testament authors is often made typologically, rather than literally. If this is the case, that even a book of supposedly divine origin re-marks and supplements itself, how can anyone say that these texts give greater insight into a pre-existent truth than, say, Oliver Twist?

The answer, in my opinion, lies in the belief that the divine Word works through and with these human words found in the Bible. But as Mark Knight notes, “To talk of God as the source of human language does not have to lead us back to another version of the logocentrism criticized by Derrida in Of Grammatology.” [3] Karl Barth’s ideas about theological language in general apply just as well to Scripture: “expressions that resemble the ratio and relations of the Word of God in a proportionate and, as far as feasible, approximate and appropriate way.” [4] Just as Christ, the logos external to mankind, was born as man with man’s limitations, so God can speak through the cultural consciences of historically disparate people, with a unified message discernible across this textual collection by use of the canonical criticism championed by Brevard S. Childs. By this logic God is in control of the supplementing and the re-marking of the ballerina, while the ambiguities of the hymen – reflecting perfectly the ambiguities of certain aspects of truth – are contained within the parameters of the canon. There is movement in God’s revelation, as there is interdependence in the Trinity, rather than a static truth with no movement that is to be slavishly copied.

This line of thinking certainly challenges Derrida’s notion that “there is thus no thematic unity or overall meaning to reappropriate beyond the textual instances.” [5] If the Bible really is the standard of truth, then other texts can be measured against that standard, providing new grounds for thematic criticism. Why the Christian Bible should be taken as truth, however – rather than other texts that claim divine authority for themselves ­– is another matter entirely.



[1] Ibid., 230.

[2] V. Philips Long, The Art of Biblical History (Michigan: Zondervan Publishing House, 1994), 84.

[3] Mark Knight, An Introduction to Religion and Literature (London: Continuum, 2009), 37.

[4] Karl Barth, Evangelical Theology: An Introduction (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1963), 17.

[5] Derrida, “The Double Session”, 262.

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