Memoirs of the Blind

by Jacques Derrida
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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1995

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.

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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, both of these anonymous voices are those of Derrida, who initially acknowledges his reluctance to commit his unconventional ideas about drawing to writing.

Is Derrida’s confession that he always had considered his own ability to draw inferior to that of his brother in any way related to the fact that many of the artists he chooses to discuss are generally rated below the first rank? Such artists serve Derrida’s approach to technique particularly well. His concerns are the relationship between sight and insight, the mind’s eye and the theme of blindness, the disjunction between the eye of the artist and the production of the artist’s hand. The works, all of which appear in the text, are of several varieties: depiction of blindness, relation of blind individuals to their environment, blindness cured, blindness that brings insight, the self-portrait and self-portrait series and its diachronic relationship to landscape portraiture. As one might expect, mythic and literary themes predominate.

Derrida begins with several of the studies of blind people made by Antoine Coypel (1661-1722). Coypel was an iconoclast, his choice of subjects generally opposed to the taste of the late seventeenth century; yet by the last third of his life, Coypel had won acceptance. His blind subjects, exclusively men, advance to a goal unknown by them. In this sense, they are also self-portraits, the artist’s search for his stylistic voice. Even when some definite program underlies the work, as in Christ’s healing the blind men of Jericho, it is not specifically a cure for blindness that they seek. As Derrida perceives it, these blind men instinctively grope for truth, which they sense in the person of Christ—the quest of every honest inquiry in whatever medium one expresses it.

Derrida frequently notes the open gestures, the extended arms and open hands of the blind figures of various artists. Jacques-Louis David (1748-1825), most familiar for his representations of mythic and historical subjects from classical antiquity, portrays Homer, blind poet of the Iliadand Odyssey (c. 800 b.c.e.), with the same open gesture Coypel employs as he sings his verse to an impromptu audience. Here Derrida identifies the artist’s concerns with those of Homer, indeed implies that the search for the true is common to all the arts, whether pictorial, musical, or literary. Mistaken perceptions, at least apparently so, concern Derrida in his discussion of the biblical theme of the blind Isaac’s testamentary blessing of his younger son Jacob for the elder Esau. For Derrida, the seeming mistake actually shows the light of vision, a theme captured not only in the biblical text but also in the position of Jacob’s head, his countenance, and his hand as they appear in a work by Francesco Primaticcio (1504-1570).

Though he rarely makes specific assertions on the purpose of perceiving the drawn line in this unusual way, Derrida has clearly made certain original and worthwhile observations on the commonality of the arts and the interiority of inspiration. He thereby avoids the subjective aesthetic judgments that often haunt critical writing, though his ways of seeing, fascinatingly seductive as they are, often remain idiosyncratic. For Derrida, the monocular stare of a cyclops represents animal narcissism—relentless, savage, but lacking the insightful gaze of the human being. He quotes Homer’s vivid description of Odysseus blinding Polyphemus (Odyssey 9.406-414), and he notes that Odysseus claims his right name only after he has blinded the cyclops, when he is no longer Outis(Nobody). The double wordplay of the passage appeals to Derrida; outisand mētis both mean “nobody,” but mētis means “trick” or “cunning.”

Derrida wonders whether “anyone ever represented the movement of this lever, of this mochlos, or fiery-pointed stake, as it draws a piercing spiral into Polyphemus’ bleeding eye.” This kind of insertion seems an innocent rhetorical question, indeed one bordering on the naïve. On the one hand, it is difficult to believe that Derrida is unaware that the blinding of Polyphemus was a favorite theme of Greek artists from the seventh century b.c.e. Even so, Derrida’s words, here as elsewhere, are protean. His main point is that Odysseus wielding the mochlos is akin to the writer with pen and the draftsman-artist with pencil. Yet would Derrida be satisfied that the ancient representations of Polyphemus’ blinding concerned themselves sufficiently with the movement of the stylus? The analogy is clever indeed; for Derrida, the production of art is essentially a destructive act, though its purpose is transmission of insight. The ruse by which Odysseus blinds the cyclops corresponds to the strategy by which an artist’s skill exerts control on the raw material of the subject and reveals its tracé. The blinding of Oedipus, once he has learned his double sin of patricide and incest, thus becomes a parallel literary example, as does the blinded Samson, who recognizes the true source of his strength only after he has fallen prey to the Philistines.

Confessional elements necessarily follow from the sight-blindness-insight matrix that Derrida identifies. This is obvious in the androgynous self-portraits of Jean-Baptiste Siméon Chardin (1699-1779), less so in thetrompe l’oeil of Jean-Marie Faverjon (1828-1873), in which the eyes, forehead, and hands of a man, presumably the artist, point, emerge from behind, and indicate another painting, a mythic consummation scene of lovers framed by a curtain draped in the form of an eye. The painting within a painting describes the desire, insight, and indeed voyeurism that attend both the production of art and its appreciation.

Derrida also touches on the relationship of the conversion experience to insight and to the violence of the creation process. He notes Caravaggio’s use of light in his The Conversion of Saint Paul and compares it with drawings on the same theme by Lelio Orsi (1511-1587) and Laurent de La Hyre (1606-1656). All the constituents that Derrida identified before emerge again: blindness, light, insight, creation, and here re-creation of a life. Still, it is noteworthy that Derrida makes no observations on the relative aesthetic worth of the three works. Art criticism written more traditionally would surely have included some commentary on the dramatic superiority Caravaggio achieves through his use of darkness and light.

Saint Augustine’s Confessiones (c. 400 c.e.; Confessions) figure prominently as a literary touchstone for the conclusion of Derrida’s book. Augustine’s conversion in the garden appears in literary terms, his bibliomantic encounter with a text from Saint Paul. Derrida, however, focuses on Augustine’s numerous references to weeping and tears, symbolic of clouded vision and acquired insight. He parallels this, quite unconventionally but with great élan, to the Dionysian counter-confessions of Friedrich Nietzsche in Ecce Homo (1908; English translation, 1911). For Derrida, as different and philosophically irreconcilable as Nietzsche is to Paul and Augustine, the question that faces all three remains that of blindness and insight, a concern that is subjective in the medium through which it is expressed but universal in its appearance across the disciplines.

Memoirs of the Blind is a handsomely produced soft-covered book that resembles an exhibition catalog, which indeed it is in part. It contains seventy-one reproductions on high-quality paper, all but the pen-and-ink drawings in full color. It is more important, however, as an application of Derrida’s aesthetic theories to art criticism. However problematic and subjective they may be, these perceptions remain a welcome complement to the author’s masterwork, Of Grammatology, and readers of that earlier work will find comparably stimulating analysis here.

Sources for Further Study

Lingua Franca. IV, May/June, 1994, p. 14.

Print Collector’s Newsletter. XXV, September/October, 1994, p. 154.

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