Books: With a little help from his friends

Politics of Friendship by Jacques Derrida, translated by George Collins, Verso, pounds 16; The postmodernists' guru has gone from deconstructing modern ideas to reconstructing ancient ones, reports Jonathan Ree
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The fundamental concept in social science," according to Bertrand Russell, "is Power." To those who have accepted the premises of the modern world order, this cynical doctrine will seem a platitude. But there is an alternative and more venerable conception. A family may be united by blood and other bodily fluids, but a city, a nation or a state, according to ancient Greek tradition, is politically unified by bonds of personal friendship.

Friendship, however, is always trailed by suspicion. We hope our friends are true and firm, but fear they may prove fickle. Think of the advice offered by fussy Shakespearean parents: "Those friends thou hast, and their adoption tried, Grapple them unto thy soul with hoops of steel" (Polonius to Laertes); and "keep thy friend Under thy own life's key" (the Countess to Bertram, All's Well That Ends Well). A hard lesson for a generous son: make prisoners of your friends.

But what, after all, do we make friends for? For their sake or our own? To give them the benefit of our company, or take advantage of theirs? Time will tell, perhaps: a friend in need is a friend indeed, as the proverb says. The statement is easily misconstrued, however, and for half a lifetime it seems I always got it wrong.

Needy friends will always cling to you, I thought, however unwelcome they may be. It was another harsh lesson in reducing the generosity of friendship to the cynicism of power.

This kind of conceptual roller-coaster is a natural vehicle for Jacques Derrida. As everyone knows, the works he published in the Sixties, with their painstaking deconstructions of scientific certainties and their festive celebrations of indecision, made him into the great Parisian prophet of what was later called "postmodernism".

In the 1980s, however, when modernity went spectacularly out of fashion, he contrived to keep out of step by returning to Marxism and reorchestrating its old-fashioned belief in progress towards a democratic egalitarian future. This, his latest major book, will perplex the trendspotters yet again as it takes him a few steps further into the past.

The philosophy of friendship has been largely neglected for four centuries. Although Derrida gives a fair share of his attention to Nietzsche, and still more to Carl Schmitt, his true intellectual companions are decidedly pre-modern. They range from Plato, whose good disciple Derrida earnestly seeks to be, through Aristotle and Cicero to the infinitely affable Montaigne.

The argument of the book is easily summed up. There is something rotten in our classical conceptions of friendship, and therefore politics, because they are tied to an idea of freedom as personal self-sufficiency.

We imagine a continuum running from friends, through good friends, to close friends, and finally the best friend - "one soul in bodies twain," to use a phrase favoured by Montaigne. But if friendship is a matter of closeness, then the friendly project of reaching out towards others is doomed to failure. It will never liberate us from our walled-up selfhood, but only fill it up with captive friends.

This double-bind led Montaigne to contemplate "a remark that Aristotle so often repeated: `O my friends, there is no friend'." The phrase is pretty enigmatic, but Derrida pursues it energetically up and down the centuries.

He follows it to Blake and Michelet, for instance, and then back again to the original Greek. But here he meets a snag. It turns out that the quotation is not from Aristotle at all but merely a rumour, circulated centuries after Aristotle's death by Diogenes Laertius, a gossipy friend of all the dead classical philosophers.

Undeterred, Derrida works out dozens of interpretations for the rootless little phrase. My friends, there is no friend: does it affirm the plurality of friendship, a kind of safety in amiable numbers? Or its masculinity, from blood-brotherhood to the brotherhood of man? Or perhaps its temporality - the fact that true friendship can never be known in the present, since it may always prove false later?

On his travels between these various possibilities, Derrida coins a new term to describe a style of befriending that would not be overshadowed by the high walls of masculine self-sufficiency. Aimance, he calls it, meaning a respectful responsiveness to the incalculable strangeness of others.

Aimance is a lovely word in French, and perhaps a future translator will devise a better English equivalent than "lovence", which sounds too like a chirpy declension from thruppence to tuppence and plenty of nuppence.

But Derrida is pointing out intricacies in old conceptions of friendship rather than proposing a new one. And in a confident flourish he finally impales the poor orphaned pseudo-Aristotelian phrase that he has pursued throughout the book.

For it is probable that the Greek has always been mistranslated. Contrary to Montaigne or Nietzsche, it does not mean "My friends, there is no friend" but "Many friends, no friend". In other words, the more friends you have, the less friend you are.

Like all the messages that Derrida shakes out from the curious little phrase, this one too makes good sense. In friendship, as in philosophy, never spread yourself too thin.

And the great cascade of meanings has a wider implication still, which is indeed the generous lesson of Derrida's work as a whole. Truths are multiple, so take great care - one truth may conceal another.

Derrida is proving to be philosophy's Picasso. He is now in his sixties, and brilliantly inventive as ever. But his genius for turning any lingusitic doodle to philosophical account has provoked loud and querulous complaint. By what right is he so prolific, so varied, so assured? How dare he be so esoteric (indeed starkly incomprehensible to anyone ignorant of his precursors) - but at the same time so vivid?

Like Picasso, Derrida has suffered from his fame. For the time being, this great philosopher is encircled by too many enemies, and also by too many friends.