Interview with Jacques Derrida: The Philosopher sees (or doesn’t see)

Discussing “Memories of a blind man – the self-portrait and other ruins” and his choice of drawings for the exhibition in the Hall Napoleon of the Louvre, from 26 October until 21 January 1991

The idea of a series of exhibitions organized by people outside the museum world arose within the Drawings Department of the Louvre as a way of bringing variety to a language that was often rather technical. It was an attempt to move beyond the problems of chronology and attribution. “Mémoires d’aveugle: l’autoportrait et autres ruines”, is the first stage in this cycle and comprises forty drawings – all from the Louvre collections – which are linked by a number of themes proposed by the philosopher Jacques Derrida. The connections between drawing, and the self-portrait in particular, and the impossibility of seeing: memory, and the ruin, are explored to the verge of a hypothetical philosophical knowledge based on a non-visual paradigm. Starting from his experience of drawing, which he likens to that of a blind man, Derrida analyses this theme in autobiographical terms, by analogy with Biblical episodes of loss and recovery of sight in which a brother or father plays a key role; Old and New Testament, myths and legends, poets and philosophers come together in a fascinating essay. It is, therefore, an exhibition in which the text is very important. Nevertheless, stresses Françoise Viatte, Keeper of the Department of Drawings, it is first and foremost an exhibition of drawings, and thus the literary, philosophical and poetical thought which has conditioned the choice of works remains apparent but simplified and heightened precisely by the extreme purity of the selection and the small number of works — a mere seventy — exhibited. The two parts of the show, the drawn and the written, have grown together; the ideas of Jacques Derrida and the selection of the drawings have mutually enriched each other. As an exhibition, it is not simply a star turn, much less a search for originality at all costs. A visit to the exhibition before reading the catalogue and another after reading it is perhaps the best way to “open up” the drawings and to liberate them from their material nature, which is technically and historically circumscribed, and to enjoy the philosophical significance of such a “parti pris”. All the more so since among the works there are three Fantin-Latour portraits and three by Chardin, a Homer by David, “Tobias restoring his father’s sight” by Rembrandt, two Coypels, a Cigola and a Polyphemus by Annibale Carracci. But now let Jacques Derrida speak:

Professor Derrida, is this the first time you have been invited to take part in such a project?

Yes, and I responded to the invitation with enthusiasm and gratitude but also with much disquiet. I would like to stress the limits of my competence because these explain in part the choice of the theme. For family reasons I feel myself peculiarly incapable, not only of drawing but also of perceiving and analysing drawings. I feel myself to be blind; I have the feeling of out and out infirmity before a drawing. Then, just before choosing the theme of this show, events occurred in my own life which led me to reflect on blindness. The title of the exhibition therefore traces more than a mental path. First of all, it is a question for me of writing about the memories of my blindness in front of a drawing, but at the same time of placing the theme of blindness in the memory of drawing. Both in Judaeo-Christian culture and in Greek mythology we find many great, symbolic blind men, whose image is held by everybody as a graphic memory. Many sources, quoted in the catalogue, tell us that when he is drawing, the draughtsman does not see himself or the model, but draws from the mind — from memory. I am therefore trying to analyse the role played by memory in the act of drawing.

How did the self-portrait come into it?

Naturally this experience of unseeing, which makes a draughtsman a blind man every time he draws, is intensified with what we refer to as a “self portrait”. In the exhibition there are faces lost in the night, beneath the shade of a hat; haunted faces lost in the reflection of a mirror. And then there are portraits with closed eyes: sleep, agony, inner contemplation, concentration, mystic absorption, prayer. There are cyclops; those blinded in punishment or sacrifice. There is blindness tied to illumination, such as that of St Paul, falling backwards and losing his sight in the glare of revelation. But as to self-portrait, there is a more complicated reason for treating it as part of this reflection. Without the explicit title “self-portrait”, we would never be able to identify a self-portrait as such. We can only do so through external elements, tests, discourses, titles, all readable and not visible in the drawing, the product resulting from a self-portraitist blinding himself at the moment in which he tries to surprise his face in the mirror.

And the self-portrait with glasses, such as the Chardin?

There are several with glasses, because this is also a show about the pathology of the eye, about everything that disturbs vision. The expression “to restore sight”, which frequently occurs in the tests quoted in my essay, applies to various situations. First of all, to the miraculous cures such as those of the New Testament; to the scientific or natural cures — in the eighteenth century cures began to be found for those blind from birth and this has influenced texts such as that of Diderot on drawing and painting. The same expression, however, could be interpreted in another way; one could say that the draughtsman attempts to restore sight, to restore the visible.

Exactly what does a self-portrait represent?

There are several hypotheses: the portraitist while he looks at himself in a mirror or while he looks elsewhere, the portraitist who looks at himself while he draws himself or some other thing ... in short it is virtually impossible to decide on the subject of the self-portrait through the simple perception or internal analysis of the picture/portrait. And the tears? One of the things that struck me in this task is that the great blind figures in the Bible and mythology — the legendary, symbolic blind figures, are always men. There are very few women (there is a blindfold female figure who represents the Synagogue, for example, but I will deal with that under another heading). On the other hand, tears are often the tears of a woman. We have also followed another path and asked ourselves whether there are tears specific to man. It is a question which has some history to it.

In other words, is the essential purpose of the eye to open itself to light, to perceive, to see and therefore to know, or do the tears which cloud sight, or through which we see, say something more fundamental about sight itself as regards the eye?

Sight is a privilege that man shares with the majority of animals, although some say — and on this point I have some reservations — that all eyes see but only the eyes of man weep. The poet Marvell, for example, said it of another poet, Milton, who was blind. This argument introduces a vast philosophical theme on the role of the metaphor of the eye, the authority of optics and eidetics in the same concept of truth and knowledge. That is equivalent, in short, to suggesting other modes of comprehending the truth to those based on vision ... it is a hypothesis. But all of this exhibition is arranged as a hypothesis. I must add that in the catalogue more than in the exhibition, we have also followed a tradition of great writers and poets who were blind, from Homer to Milton, up to Joyce and Borges. In mythology, the blind man prophesies. This heightened faculty is one of the great themes of the exhibition. There is the theme of foresight, of providence, of second-sight, of the blind man as visionary. The punishment of blindness is often interpreted as recompense for extraordinary lucidity or is inflicted by divine providence on those that it wishes to illuminate with faith.

To return to drawing. I thought about the idea that the drawn line is intimately tied to blindness because it is concerned with, indeed requires, a blank background in order to exist.

In the essay accompanying the show there is a reflection on the connection between invisibility and blindness. I begin precisely at the passage from the blank to the line. At the moment in which the draughtsman draws, the line has to find a path in the void.

How does the theme of the ruin fit into this?

I believe that the experience of the ruin as a memorial or as a monument is at the centre of the question of blindness and invisibility. In my hypothesis the ruin is not merely that which comes “after” the destruction or the incident which the monument commemorates, but is something that is in existence, is visible, right from the start — a ruin at the outset, the original ruin if you like. As a metonym of this general experience of the ruin, we are displaying a drawing by François Stella of the Colosseum, which resembles an orbit, an open eye through which it is possible to see.

Originally appeared in The Art Newspaper as 'The Philosopher sees (or doesn’t see)'