Commentary – Derrida 101: What Color Is Your Nuance?
When I was a college student at Brown, the best-looking girls all wore black, majored in semiotics and smoked cigarettes while reading the “texts” of Jacques Derrida. That was in the mid-1980’s.
Derrida, the recently deceased Parisian Jewish philosopher of deconstruction, has since become a totem for our times. Can reality be expressed only in nuances and “shades of gray,” or is it susceptible to depiction in clear, terse, no-nonsense language?
Where you fall on the American political spectrum is to some degree an expression of where you come down on this question with which Derrida struggled—one on which Judaism takes an important if underappreciated position.
In his reflections, Derrida went a lot further than most Americans are willing to go. Deconstruction insists that reality cannot be conveyed in language at all. Whether in a novel, a Bible, an e-mail or an article in a scientific journal, language has no set, unambiguous meaning to be discovered.
Those Americans who sympathize with a version of his perspective admire Europeans who, it is said, have little patience for stark oppositions like right and wrong, good and evil. Instead, not least when it comes to morality, all is seen as a matter of shades of gray.
The New York Times had something like this in mind when it endorsed John Kerry, writing that “What [Kerry’s] critics see as an inability to take strong, clear positions seems to us to reflect his appreciation that life is not simple. He understands the nuances and shades of gray in both foreign and domestic policy.” This reflected the Massachusetts senator’s “maturity and depth.”
Conservatives responded that genuine maturity and depth mean being able to make precisely the kind of clear, black-and-white judgments associated with George W. Bush. This view has now been implicitly endorsed by a majority of American voters.
So who’s right, the deconstructionists or their critics? Well, neither, exactly. Jewish tradition asserts that real wisdom consists in knowing when life is simple and when it is not.
The archetype of Jewish wisdom is King Solomon. According to the Bible’s Book of I Kings 5:10-12, “Solomon’s wisdom surpassed the wisdom of all the people of the East and all the wisdom of Egypt. He was wiser than all men…; his fame spread to all the nations around him. He spoke 3,000 proverbs, and his songs were 1,005.” On this last verse, the medieval commentator Rashi explains that from every verse in the Torah Solomon could spin 3,000 parables, each with 1,005 meanings.
Now that’s subtlety! Yet Solomon was also breathtakingly decisive. Consider the story of the two women who brought a baby before him, each claiming that it was hers. He produced a sword and ordered that the baby be cut in half—at which one of the women cried out that her rival could keep the infant, thus proving that she herself was the true mother.
Judaism provides ample opportunity for speculating on the obscurities of language. The rabbis of the Talmud argued endlessly about the nuances of a single biblical verse. But when it came time for action, they laid down their legal rulings with surpassing clarity, even simplicity.
Solomon, in Ecclesiastes 2:2, said there is “A time to be born, and a time to die; a time to plant, and a time to uproot the planted….” There is, you might say, a time for deconstruction and a time for action. A wise person knows what time it is.
David Klinghoffer is a columnist for the Forward. His new book,Why the Jews Rejected Jesus: The Turning Point in Western History (Doubleday), will be published in March.