Books: All that Freud jazz

ARCHIVE FEVER: A Freudian Impression by Jacques Derrida trs Eric Prenowitz, University of Chicago Press pounds 14.25
Click to follow
The Independent Culture
What is this book? Another blast of flatus from Paris, another embarrassment for France. Circumlocution without locution - a stunning waste of time - a work of perfected heart-sinking banality. 4d for 9d (as Ethel Smyth said of Virginia Woolf "because she asks a lot and gives little"), nothing for pounds 14.25.

What is its occasion and its theme? It started out as a lecture given at an international colloquium on "Memory: The Question of Archives", held in London under the auspices of a number of institutions including the Freud Museum. It duly offers itself as a discussion of the notion of the archive, which it connects to a number of other notions: memory, forgetting, repression and the unconscious in the Freudian sense. It speculates heavily on the question whether psychoanalysis is "a fundamentally, essentially, radically, Jewish science". Freud thought not, on balance, and he was right.

What is its vehicle? It presents itself wittily in five parts: "Exergue," "Preamble," "Foreword" (these three take up 81 pages), "Theses" (13 pages) and "Postscript" (five pages) - and is principally devoted to a mildly oleaginous commentary on Yosef Hayim Yerushalmi's "handsome book", Freud's Moses: Judaism Terminable and Interminable, whose title echoes that of a paper by Freud called "Analysis Terminable and Interminable". In his book Yerushalmi presents a new translation of, and commentary on, the charming but banal Hebrew dedication that Sigmund Freud's father Jakob wrote in the copy of Sigmund's childhood Bible when he re-presented it to him, newly rebound, on his 35th birthday.

One is grateful to the quotations from Yerushalmi. They erupt with sudden substance into the Derridean vacuum (their level of content is ordinary, but blinding in context). There is a fine moment when Derrida mentions those French thinkers who claim descent from Freud, and from whom, he says: "Yerushalmi seems to want to shield himself - but why? - as from the plague." The question is poignant, but can be answered by Louis Armstrong's reply to the person who wanted to know what jazz was: "If you gotta ask, you ain't never going to know."

What is it like? It is like this:

"What happens to the status of the archive in this situation? Well, the day when in an absolutely exceptional unprecedented, unique, and inaugural fashion, indeed one that is incompatible with the tradition and the very idea of science, of episteme, of historia, or of theoria, indeed of philosophy in the West, the day, and from the moment when a science presenting itself as such and under this name binds itself intrinsically not only to the history of a proper name, of a filiation, and of a house, here Freud's house, but to the name and the law of a nation, of a people, or of a religion, here psychoanalysis as Jewish science, this would have the consequence, among others, of radically transforming the relationship of such a science to its own archive. "

Most of the excitement derives from the number of typographical errors.

What does it show? First of all, it shows that Derrida will have a lot to answer for on the Day of Judgement, when the charge of wasting people's time will be a heavy one. Second, it shows something that has been becoming increasingly obvious to a number of people for quite a long time: that although Derrida is a nice man, he is just not very bright. Third, it shows how terminological dementia can support incredible levels of insensitivity:

"Thus, as Freud might say (this would be his thesis), there is no future without the spectre of the oedipal violence that inscribes the superrepression into the archontic institution of the archive, in the position, the auto-position or the hetero-position of the one and of the Unique, in the nomelogical arkhe."

This, however, is not something that Freud might say. Freud, with his genius for clarity under pressure, would have been appalled.