Around 1957, then, I had registered, as the saying goes, my first thesis topic. I had entitled it The Ideality of the Literary Object. Today this title seems strange. To a lesser degree it seemed so even then, and I will discuss this in a moment. It received the approval of Jean Hyppolite, who was to direct this thesis, which he did, which he did without doing so, that is, as he knew how to do, as in my opinion he was one of the very few to know how to do, in a free and liberal spirit, always open, always attentive to what was not, or not yet, intelligible, always careful to exert no pressure, if not no influence, by generously letting me go wherever my path led me. I want to pay tribute to his memory here and to recall all that I owe to the trust and encouragement he gave me, even when, as he one day told me, he did not see at all where I was going. That was in 1966 during a colloquium in the United States in which we were both raking part. After a few friendly remarks on the paper I had just given, Jean Hyppolite added, “That said, I really do not see where you are going.” I think I replied to him more or less as follows: “If I clearly saw ahead of time where I was going, I really don’t believe that I would take another step to get there.” Perhaps I then thought that knowing where one is going may no doubt help in orienting one’s thinking, but that it has never made anyone make a single step, quite the opposite in fact. What is the good of going where one knows oneself to be going and where one knows that one is destined to arrive? Recalling this reply today, I am nor sure that I really understand it really well, but it surely did not mean that I never see or never know where I am going and that to this extent, to the extent that I do know, it is not certain that I have ever taken any step or said anything at all. This also means, perhaps, that, concerning this place where I am going, I in fact know enough about it to think, with a certain terror, that things there are not going very well and that, all things considered, it would be better not to go there at all. But there’s always Necessity, the figure I recently wanted to call Necessity with the initial capital of a proper noun, and Necessity says that one must always yield, always go [se rendre] where it calls. Even if it means never arriving. Even if it means, it says, to never arrive. Even so that you don’t arrive. [Quitte à ne pas arriver. Quitte, dit-elle, à ne pas arriver. Quitte pour ce que tu n’arrives pas.]

☛ “Punctuations: The Time of a Thesis” by Jacques Derrida, tr. Kathleen McLaughlin, Eyes of the University: Right to Philosophy 2, Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2004, pp. 115-116.

This is excerpt for the text Jacques Derrida read at the doctoral defense for his State doctorate (doctorat d’État) on June 2, 1980. The defense took place at the Sorbonne in front of a jury chaired by Maurice de Gandillac and composed of Pierre Aubenque, Jean-Toussaint Desanti (supervisor), Henry Joly, Gilbert Lascault, and Emmanuel Levinas. In the biography he wrote about Jacques Derrida’s life, Benoît Peeters recounts the event:

The room was packed and the weather was scorching. Derrida, wearing a blue suit, shed his jacket before speaking. Summarizing his intellectual career in the very ne text ‘Punctuations: The time of a thesis’, he did not seek to disguise his extremely ambivalent relations with the university system, acknowledging that he had long neglected his thesis, before deciding not to submit one. (Derrida: A Biography, Cambridge: Polity, [2012] 2013, p. 316)

Derrida’s defense essay first appeared in English with the tile “The Time of a Thesis : punctuations” (tr. Kathleen McLaughlin, Philosophy in France today, ed. by A. Montefiore, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1983, pp. 34-50). The original French version is included in Du droit à la philosophie (Paris: Galilée, 1990, pp. 439-459). The same English translation is also included in Eyes of the University: Right to Philosophy 2 (from which the excerpt above is taken).

Below is the French version of the quote:

Vers 1957, j’avais donc déposé, comme on dit, un premier sujet de thèse. Je l’avais alors intitulé L’idéalité de l’objet littéraire. Ce titre aujourd’hui paraît étrange. A un moindre degré il l’était déjà et je m’en expliquerai dans un instant. Il reçut l’accord de Jean Hyppolite qui devait diriger cette thèse, ce qu’il fit, ce qu’il fit sans le faire, c’est-à-dire comme il savait le faire, comme il fut selon moi l’un des très rares à savoir le faire, en esprit libre, libéral, toujours ouvert, attentif à ce qui n’était pas, ou pas encore intelligible, toujours soucieux de n’exercer aucune pression, sinon aucune influence, en me laissant généreusement aller où le pas me conduirait. Je veux ici saluer sa mémoire et rappeler tout ce que je dois à la confiance et aux encouragements qu’il me dispensa alors même que, me dit-il un jour, il ne voyait pas du tout où j’allais. C’était en 1966, au cours d’un colloque auquel nous participions tous les deux aux Etats-Unis. Après quelques remarques amicales sur la conférence que je venais de prononcer, Jean Hyppolite ajou- tait : « Cela dit, je ne vois vraiment pas où vous allez. » Je crois lui avoir répondu à peu près ceci : « Si je voyais clairement, et d’avance, où je vais, je crois bien que je ne ferais pas un pas de plus pour m’y rendre. » Peut-être ai-je alors pensé que savoir où l’on va peut sans doute aider à s’orienter dans la pensée mais n’a jamais fait faire un pas, au contraire. A quoi bon aller où l’on sait qu’on va et où l’on se sait destiné à arriver? Me rappelant aujourd’hui cette réponse, je ne suis pas sûr de bien la comprendre mais elle ne voulait sûrement pas dire que jamais je ne vois où je vais, ni ne le sais, et que donc dans cette mesure, celle où je sais, il n’est pas sûr que j’aie jamais fait un pas ou dit quelque chose. Cela veut dire aussi, peut-être, que, de ce lieu où je vais, j’en sais assez pour penser, avec une certaine terreur, que ça n’y va pas bien et qu’à tout considérer il vaudrait mieux ne pas s’y rendre. Mais il y a Nécessité, la figure que j’ai eu envie récemment de nommer Nécessité, avec la majuscule d’un nom propre, et Nécessité dit que toujours il faut se rendre. Quitte à ne pas arriver. Quitte, dit-elle, à ne pas arriver. Quitte pour ce que tu n’arrives pas. (Du droit à la philosophie, Paris: Galilée, 1990,pp. 442-443).

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