(Literary Masterpieces, Critical Compilation)

Memoirs of the Blind: The Self-Portrait and Other Ruins originated from an exhibition held at the Louvre Museum, Paris, during the fall and winter of 1990-1991. This exhibition was the first of a series called Parti Pris (taking sides), for which critics whose disciplines are specifically not those of the pictorial or plastic arts organize and write commentaries to accompany and complement the works chosen. The rationale for this unconventional means of organizing an exhibit of pictures was to introduce original yet arguably justifiable critical perceptions into the context of art criticism. A by-product is the risk, perhaps even the encouragement, of unconventionality.

The original ways in which Jacques Derrida perceives and interprets virtually everything he writes about made him an appropriate choice for organizing the first Parti Pris. Though he has written art criticism, Derrida is primarily a literary critic, and he is best-known to readers of English forDe la grammatologie (1967; Of Grammatology, 1976). This early masterwork, which is alternately brilliant, insightful, and clever, and arcane, abstruse, and playful, springs from the deconstructionist sign theory that swept the European and American literary establishment in the 1970’s. In Of Grammatology Derrida reduces the writing process to its most basic element, which he identifies as the grammé, the “trace.” By this he means the strokes of the pen that, taken in conventional arrangements, the grammai (“traces,” but also “tracings” and “strokes of writing”), carry the outline of the text’s meaning. Understood in this way, all writing is sous rature (under erasure), and every text carries the constituents of every other text.

Memoirs of the Blind approaches the production and perception of art in a comparable way. Here Derrida identifies the tracé (“tracing” or “outline”) that the process of drawing requires. The tracé is akin to a miner’s lamp. Formulated by the eye-fingers of the artist, it picks objects present but otherwise invisible out of blind blankness. On several levels, then—those of the artist, the work itself, and those who perceive the work—Derrida describes the process of creating drawings and identifying their signification. Using blindness as a trope for the ongoing process, sight for direction and critical appreciation, and insight for significance beyond the tracé as measure of the artist’s (or the critic’s) success moves Derrida closer than he had been to the language of his late colleague Paul de Man, yet Derrida also identifies a consciousness of the drawings themselves.

For Derrida, an artist drawing a self-portrait traces all the individuals that the artist ever was and all the artist will become, as well as the individual the artist perceives as the self at the time of the particular drawing. Though one can envision a blind sculptor, it is harder to imagine a blind draftsman; yet it is for Derrida the finger-eye guided by the mind that provides insight. Every self-portrait is a memoir, reflecting the “memory,” the “story,” the “history” that was, is, and will be. Through the tracé, every drawing participates in the signification of every other drawing in a remarkable confluence of profound blindness and blazing insight. Every drawing is correspondingly a ruin, signifying that which is not apparent in the tracé as well as that which is explicit.

Considered conventionally, the consequences of this argument are devastating, for they deny the contribution of an artist’s technical development to the effectiveness of signification. The childhood scribblings of Rembrandt van Rijn hold the same signifiers as his most painstaking self-portraits. Perhaps this is the reason that the artists Derrida chooses to discuss are not those normally identifiable as the first rank. All are competent, most are French, and many are identifiable with the historical period known as the Enlightenment. Is the puckish Derrida underscoring his perception of the inextricable matrix of blindness, inspiration, and insight through such choices? Is he mimetically identifying his self-confessed technical deficiencies in drawing with those of the artists he discusses? Such autobiographical confessions appear at various points in the text, even as he employs an eccentric dialogue technique to carry his discussion. Abandoning the conventional third-person mode, an unnamed critic with definitely unconventional perceptions dominates a diffident interviewer. Derrida effectively uses this latter persona to substitute for the reservations a general reader might well have concerning the master’s comprehensive pronouncements. Still, the tone maintained is that of brilliant, facile teacher and serious but too silent student. On another level,...

(The entire section is 1995 words.)