The English Patient

by Michael Ondaatje

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In "Structure, Sign, and Play in the Discourse of the Human Sciences," Jacques Derrida outlines his concepts of play and supplementation. Discuss how these Derridean notions provide insight into Michael Ondaatje's The English Patient.

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Jacques Derrida was a French postmodern philosopher who came up with the concept of deconstruction, which is a way of understanding the bond between text and meaning. Because his works were often philosophical studies or analyses on the meaning of experience and consciousness, some analysts consider him the most important and most influential philosopher who wrote in the context of phenomenology.

Despite all of this, Derrida also wrote a detailed analysis on writing and speech in which he compared the linguistic theories of ancient times with contemporary ones. He argued that, unlike the ancient cultures, contemporary Western society has always preferred speech over writing, which is how he introduced one of the most influential concepts in modern social studies and analyses—supplementation. According to him, a supplement is something that can complete another thing and, at the same time, something that can completely replace it.

In The English Patient, Ondaatje makes an interesting and notable reference to Derrida’s concept of supplementation.

The titular character, Count Ladislaus de Almásy, suffers severe burns from an airplane crash in Africa and comes under the care of Hana, a young Canadian Army nurse. Before his accident, Almásy always carried the book Histories by Herodotus with him, in which he wrote various texts and collected notes from other authors. This book is the only thing that he manages to salvage from the crash. As Almásy cannot remember anything about himself or his identity, the book is the only thing that he finds valuable and significant. In one notable scene, he asks Hana to give him the book, and he reads a quote from it:

"This history of mine," Herodotus says, "has from the beginning sought out the supplementary to the main argument."

This is how Ondaatje explores Derrida’s concept of supplementation. The notes that the patient wrote in the book, the notes that he collected from various writers, and the notes which Hana wrote after she found the patient’s book can be seen as supplements to the original narrative.

In addition, Ondaatje references Derrida’s concept of play. In the concept of play, Derrida discusses an "event" that defines structure, or rather defines "the structurality of structure." Before this event, man was the center of the universe; after the event, however, he can no longer be considered the center of the universe.

In The English Patient, Almásy loses his "center" because he doesn't know his identity, and the other characters use him as a person to whom they attribute the identities and the personalities of their loved ones. Just as his identity is nonexistent, so too is the line between fiction and reality. The most important thing, however, is the fact that the patient’s spiritual and physical death will not stop the "play" of the "center." Ondaatje suggests that the patient's story will live on just as Derrida's "play" of the "center" will continue, "infinitely redoubling."

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