Jacques Derrida


An interview with Derrida on love and being. (This video cannot be embedded; click on the image, and then hit the YouTube link that appears.)

Today is Derrida‘s birthday (1930 – 2004).  Here is a selection of Frye’s references to Derrida in various interviews.  (Imre Salusinszky’s interview with Derrida in Criticism in Society here.)

In a 1979 interview, “The Critical Path”:

Herman-Sekulic: What, in your opinion, are the major trends in the theory of literature today?  In what direction is literary criticism heading now?

Frye: I think that the word “direction” is over-optimistic.  I think there is a good deal of mining and blowing up being done, and that after the dust settles the context of a foundation may become visible.  I think Lacan’s conception of the subconscious as linguistically structured is worth following up; so is Derrida’s conception of metaphysical presence; and there are many things that interest me in the work of the new Marxist critics who have got away from the old notion that ideology is something that only non-Marxists have.  But I am not capable of making a unifying theory out of this mess, and I doubt if anyone else is either. (CW 24, 481)

In a 1985 interview, “Criticism in Society”:

Salusinszky: If Bloom has, to some extent, challenged the Christian direction of English literary studies, it is Derrida who has challenged the persistent Platonism that one can also see running through English literary studies.  Criticism has always tended to think of any great literary work as possessing unity, with some sort of closure, and as being, in some sense seminal.  Now Derrida seems to have opened up a whole range of new possibilities, where instead of closure and insemination he has his concepts of dissemination, of trace, of displacement.  Derrida, however, is a philosopher, and I wonder if you regard his present influence as merely one of those enclosure movements which you describe in the Anatomy, as coming from outside and wanting to take it over.

Frye: It certainly seems to be the way his influence has operated, yes, but I don’t think it’s entirely fair to Derrida that it has operated that way.  I think he’s genuinely interested in opening up, as you’ve just said, new possibilities in criticism.  The thing is that I don’t see why the sense of an ending and the sense of wholeness and unity, and the kinds of things he’s talking about, should be mutually exclusive.  I don’t see why you have to have an either / or situation.  It’s like those optical puzzles you look at, which change their relationship when you’re looking at them.  (CW 24, 756-7)

In a 1986 interview, “On the Media”:

Interviewer: What about McLuhan’s distinction between the visual and aural societies?

Frye: It’s very difficult to avoid metaphors.  If, for example, you’re reading something, you frequently use metaphors of the ear.  And that’s what critics like Jacques Derrida are attacking: the convention that somebody is speaking, But, still, when you’re following a narrative, you are in a sense listening.  And then at the end you get a sort of Gestalt: you “see” what it means.  When somebody tells a joke, he leads in by saying, “Have you heard this one?” and then, if he’s lucky, by the end you see what he means.  But these are just metaphors.  The hearing is something associated with sequence and time; the seeing is something associated with the simultaneous and the spatial.  (CW 24, 768)

In a 1987 interview, “Frye, Literary Critic”:

Innocenti: Some new trends in criticism, such as deconstruction, deny that we can reach the meaning of a literary work or even that there is a meaning.  All efforts to interpret are ways to proliferate structures and senses in an infinite chain of nuances and differences.  In my opinion, this sceptical position reduces all criticism to a solipsistic and narcissistic exercise.  In your opinion, do literature and criticism possess a sense that might be saved from nihilism?

Frye: The deconstructionists will have to speak for themselves, but I think the “anything goes” stage is headed for the dustbin already.  Derrida himself has a “construal” basis of interpretation that he starts from, and I think his followers will soon discover that there is a finite number of “supplements” that can be based on that.  In another decade they should have rediscovered the polysemous scheme of Dante, or something very like it.  (CW 24, 827-8)

In conversation with David Cayley in 1989:

Frye: The general assumption when I began as a critic was that you started with the literal meaning, which is what Jacques Derrida calls the transcendental signified.  That is, there’s something standing outside the Bible or whatever it is, and the words point to it.  When Christianity began saying “In the beginning was the Word,” it was really warning against that kind of procedure, which of course Christianity promptly ignored and totally ignored for eighteen centuries.  Blake was, it seems to me, was the first person to bring religion back to this “In the beginning was the Word.”  There’s nothing outside the text.  (CW 24, 925)


Frye: [Supplement is] the term the Derrida people use when they are reading a text and deciding that what the author really had on his mind was something different from what he says.  That becomes the supplement, which means both something extra and something which completes.  I think that the real supplement, the one that lurks behind everything, is a mythical structure which completes itself.

Cayley: And it’s a supplement to end all supplements because it’s permanent and repeating?

Frye: Yes.  (ibid., 933)


Cayley: Jacques Derrida is someone who seems to have had an immense influence in literary criticism.

Frye: Derrida seems to have continued the whole tradition of the analytic, rhetorical criticism I encountered when I started the Anatomy.  He’s put it on a more philosophical basis with his conception of a logic of supplement.  As a result, he’s developed a group of disciples who don’t accept anything as an authentic text except what Derrida has written down and scratched out again.  I think that that’s an interesting technique in many respects, but I think it’s also exhaustible.

Cayley: What is a logic of supplement?

Frye: A logic of supplement means that what actually appears in a text is always written with a more complex mind.  Consequently, there are many things in your mind that have been suppressed from the text, and the criticism of supplement attempts to indicate what some of those are.

Cayley: That’s deconstruction?

Frye: That’s deconstruction, yes.  Rousseau wrote on the origin of language, but he was primarily interested in masturbation, so your criticism says that.

Cayley: This is obviously not an approach you would find congenial.

Frye: No.  Well, I can see the point of it.  But it is not something that I either know how to do or want to do.

Cayley: So the critical schools that have succeeded each other in your time have really defeated your hope for a unified and progressive science of criticism in the Anatomy?

Frye: They would have if they were winning.

Cayley: But they aren’t?

Frye: I am often described as somebody who is now in the past and whose reputation has collapsed.  But I don’t think I’m any further down skid row than the deconstructionists are.  (ibid., 952-3)


Cayley: You say, I think in the introduction to The Great Code, that you are employing the tactics of the teacher in that book.  I have the feeling that perhaps you had been doing that all along.  What is the relationship between the teacher and the writer in you?

Frye: The teacher, of course, helps to keep the writer in touch with the public.  I suppose in a way I’ve been one of Derrida’s logocentric people, that is, a talker who deprecates writing.  I don’t really deprecate writing — I think that principle is nonsense anyway — but I felt as I went on, and more and more as deconstructive, phenomenological, and other critical schools delveloped, that they were getting to a point where the could only talk to each other.  In fact, back in the Anatomy days, I said that criticism had a mystery religion and no gospel.  That was why I tended increasingly to address a general cultivated public rather than the primarily scholarly or academic audience.  (ibid., 984-5)


Cayley: But why, as you say in The Great Code, does Nietzsche’s famous statement that God is dead refer to an event within the history of language?

Frye: Nietzsche himself, after his lunatic prophet said that, scratched his head and said, “Well, it’s going to be very difficult to get rid of God as long as we keep believing in grammar.”  Believing in grammar, I think, meant for him primarily believing in subjects and predicates and objects.  As long as the human being is a subject and God is an object, there will always be an unresolved problem in language.  The metaphorical approach, on the other hand, moves in the direction of the identity of God and man.  My interest in the Bible has led me to a growing interest in the way that nouns or the world of things rather block movement.  The scientist, for example, is trying to describe processes in space-time, and ordinary language has to twist that into events in time and things in space.  But these processes are not going on in space and time.  One of the most seminal books I have read is Buber’s  I and Thou.  Buber says we are all born into a world of “its,” and if we meet other human beings we turn them into “its.”  In this view, everything is a solid block, a thing.  Consequently, when we think of God, we think of a grammatical noun.  but you have to get used to the notion that there is no such thing as God, because God is not a thing.  He is a process fulfilling itself.  That how he defines himself: “I will be what I will be.”  Similarly, I am more and more drawn to thinking in terms of a great swirling of processes and power rather than a world of blocks and things.  A text, for example, is a conflict of powers.  That’s why the Derrida people can pursue a logic of supplement.  They can extract one force and set it against another.  But the text is not a thing anymore.  A picture is not a thing.  It’s a focus of forces.  (ibid, 1011)

In a 1990 interview, “Schools of Criticism (II)”:

Vidan: Professor Frye, today, so many years after publishing your first books, which sent your work in a certain direction, I would be interested to know how you personally view your approach in relation to the mid-twentieth century and of the subsequent decades?

Frye: The answer is not simple, because after 1957, the year when Anatomy of Criticism was published, there was a great explosion of critical disciplines; that is to say, of approaches and methods.  I think that there are basically of two types: one emphasizes narrative characterisitics, like Bakhtin with dialogue and the various narrative schools in the United States, and the other is the development more in the direction of rhetorical and analytical techniques (e.g. Derrida and the deconstructionists).  I have always been interested in studying literary criticism as what I call an autonomous discipline.  By that I don’t mean I consider criticism separate from anything else, and certainly not from literature; I am referring to studying it by means of its own historical methods.  It seems to me that in the real or affected disagreements about critical methods that we see in today’s journals there is a fundamental consensus about the importance of literature and its social function.  I still insist on that importance and on that fundamental consensus.  (CW 24, 1079-80)


Vidan: …I think that the wealth that you reveal in some words is exceptionally inspiring, but it reminds me at the same time of approaches that are very far from yours.  For example, what is today called poststructuralism, deconstruction, in fact is very close to what you do, but, naturally, without that systematic overview of the field that is your characteristic.  You already said something about this at the beginning of the conversation, but have you perhaps in more recent times taken a look at the state of the battlefield?

Frye: I’m afraid that the answer to your last question is in fact “no.”  I have not dealt with that in detail.  I read Derrida with great admiration.  There is no question in my mind about his quality as a thinker or his critical strength.  It seems to me that deconstruction as a movement is more easily exhausted because of its tendency to disintegrate the analytical approach.  But when Derrida talks about the various meanings of the word pharmakos, the scapegoat, in Plato, for example, I am unreservedly on his side, because I know that it is precisely this that a critic ought to do with a text.  The same thing happens when in Wallace Stevens I discover the line “the imperfect is our paradise” — here I immediately understand that a paradox is involved between the word “imperfect” in the negative sense, in the sense of “something less than perfect,” and “imperfect” in the sense of openness, of continuity.  That kind of polysemy, I think, is imbedded in the whole conception of figurative language.  The critic cannot deal with literature unless he has at least some idea about the different viewpoints that can be gathered around any critical theme, exemplified, among other ways, by the different referential contexts of the same word.  (ibid., 1084-5)

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