Jacques Derrida. H. C. for Life, That Is to Say.
First presented in 1998 at a conference at Cerisy la Salle devoted to the work of Helene Cixous, Jacques Derrida's H. C. for Life, That Is to Say ... could appear at first glance to be just another one of those occasional texts programmed by the academy where one scholar or writer pays tribute to another with a few well-chosen superlatives aimed less at shedding light on the work being discussed than at putting the author being celebrated in his or her best light. Though one might expect the homage to be in this case more poignant insofar as Derrida is writing here about the work of a fellow Algerian intellectual and writer and, as is well known, one of his closest friends, the genre would seem to dictate that this not be a significant work of Derrida in its own right. And yet the reader familiar with Derrida's inimitable way of transforming such an occasion into an event, his way of displacing a genre from within, and, as we see here, his unique flair for bringing philosophy to literature, should know better by now.
H. C. for Life is, to be sure, a more than worthy homage to Cixous, all 173 pages of it, an homage that will incite the reader to read and reread the entirety of Cixous' difficult though fascinating and unique corpus. But it is also one of Derrida's most probing texts of the 1990s on questions of life and death, life and power, the relationship between literature and philosophy, speech act theory, translation, psychoanalysis, and the list goes on. Do not thus let the title fool you; or, rather, take it very literally: in this work, Derrida pays homage to the rich and powerful work of Helene Cixous by rethinking the very concept of life in relationship to power, death, literature, and so on.
Derrida claims at the outset of his extraordinarily careful, inventive, and brilliant reading of Cixous that his work is little more than an exergue in the form of a series of digressions, detours, ellipses, parentheses, and beginnings. Indeed, rather than following a single theme throughout Cixous' work, or giving a reading of just one or a couple of works, Derrida multiplies beginnings in order to lay out a program for what he prophesies will be the generations and generations of readings of Cixous to come, for the centuries of colloquia, courses, and theses to be devoted one day to Cixous. Hence, Derrida begins but then interrupts thematic readings of Cixous on everything from animals, the telephone, the elements, dates, time, and height, to the father and the mother, and, as the title suggests, life and death. Such thematic readings never lose sight of, indeed, each is pursued through, an analysis of how such themes are always woven into the fabric of Cixous' texts in the form of sentences and words, to be sure, but even before that through a meticulous and calculated work on syllables and even letters, beginning with, for Derrida's reading of Cixous here, the "v" of "vitesse" (speed) and "vie" (life).
Life--the theme, concept, and word "life"--are thus at the center of H. C. for Life. Though the book is indeed a series of beginnings and initiations to Cixous' work, there is nonetheless a thesis that runs throughout, namely, that Cixous is always for life, on the side of life. Despite all the concordances and points of contact between their respective works, therefore, Derrida claims that there is this major difference between them, one that puts them on different sides: while he, Derrida, never stops thinking and writing about death, while he never stops believing in it, she, Cixous, who writes so much about death, who knows so much about it, nevertheless, does not believe in it, or believes that there is only one side, the side of life. Even when she thus speaks of death, Cixous is for life, on the side of life, on the side of the vivifying and resuscitating the power of literature, the enchanting and magically animating power of language. In one of the most fascinating passages of the book, Derrida follows out the consequences of what Freud in Totem and Taboo refers to as a quasi-originary Belebtheit, a life or liveliness more originary than animism, the notion of a life without another side, not without death but without any kind of death that would be contrary to it.
For Derrida, the "essence" of Cixous' work is its enchanting "power" (puissance--which Derrida tries to think not as a substantive but through the subjunctive of the verb pouvoir; puisse), a power that magnetizes--quasi-magically--the entire field of language, right down to the smallest lexical units, right down to the letters or elements of language. It is here that Derrida's reflections on Cixous develop into some of his most challenging and innovative work on the performativity of speech act theory, on the event and on power (since the puisse would precede the distinction between activity and passivity, potentiality and actuality, power and powerlessness) and, of course, on life. For Derrida, the philosophical stakes of this analysis could not be greater. As he writes, "in the philosophical gigantomachia, from Plato to Descartes, from Nietzsche to Husserl, Bergson and Heidegger, among others, the only big question whose stakes remain undecided would be to know whether it is necessary to think being before life ... or the reverse" (87). Refusing to accept the alternative, Derrida attempts here to think not life on the basis of being, or being on the basis of life, but both on the basis of puisse, this strange modality of "might," this unheard of modality of power/powerlessness, activity/passivity, that disturbs the clear distinction between science and magic, knowledge and faith, performative power and the event, the art of writing and the enchantment of logos.
Carefully and expertly translated by Laurent Melesi and Stefan Herbrechter, H. C. for Life is, it must be said, one of the books of Derrida most resistant to translation and one that treats most thoroughly the very question of translation. To give some idea of the challenges faced by the translators on every page, one need go no further than the title--H. C. for Life, That Is to Say.... Now, in this title in the form of a dedication, "H. C." is, of course, an abbreviation of Helene Cixous, though also a nod toward H. C. E. in Finnegans Wake (Cixous' first book was on Joyce). But the "C" in French is also a homonym of "c'est" (it is)--the mark of ontology--as well as "sait" (knows)--the sign of epistemology. This is hardly gratuitous, for Derrida's point throughout the book will be to show how the poetic writing of Cixous, the inventive "power" or "might" of her work, disturbs all ontological and epistemological categories by, first of all, calling for and resisting translation through an art of replacement that puts speed and liveliness in the service of an unprecedented homonymic play. Hence, the "that is to say" of the title evokes the necessity and impossibility of translating Cixous' work, the impossibility of a metaphrasis that would parse each Cixousian phrase with a "that is to say." H. C. for Life, then, suggests that Helene Cixous is in her work for life, on the side of life, writing in the name of life, but also that Helene knows life (as opposed to believes it), and has known about life for all her life and for the sake of life; but also, and most obviously, that between them, between Derrida and Cixous, "it is for life," a friendship that would go on right up until the end ...
Near the end of H. C. for Life, Derrida lists a series of reasons why the nonreaders of Cixous and even the readers of her (including himself) have for more than four decades now resisted her, that is, resisted reading her work. Derrida then prophesies that, one day, "it will be read," even if never without a sort of productive resistance. But in accord with the kind of performativity Derrida claims to be operative throughout the work of Cixous, it might be said that Derrida's prophesies are, in their very enunciation, already in the process of being realized in H. C. for Lift,, that is, in the writing of this extraordinary homage, well beyond the life and enunciative power of their author.
Michael Naas, DePaul University