Jonathon Dunk reviews Derrida’s Breakfast by David Brooks
By David Brooks
Brandl & Schlesinger
Reviewed by JONATHAN DUNK
This slender but wide-ranging collection of essays approaches the question of the animal from a number of complimentary and dialectic angles. Conceived through different paradigms and contexts a figure of the animal emerges in philosophy and poetics functioning as a liminal mechanism, a boundary stone constructed to police the edges of the structures and systems of the human image. The historical force of this translation of animal being is such that its ethically obvious and urgent problematics are stymied by the aporetic tensions implicated in any rethinking of the animals we are and are not.
This is elucidated most concretely in the volume’s titular essay, which interrogates one of the more salient iterations of the conceptualised animal’s tendency towards paradox. Derrida’s turn towards the question of the animal in his late phase stands among the more spectacular and influential developments in recent animal philosophy. Most notably in The Animal That Therefore I am (2008), but also elsewhere, Derrida pursued his own deconstructive method to its ‘logical’ implication, and with characteristic force, that “the animal is a word, it is an appellation that men have instituted, a name they have given themselves the right and the authority to give to another living creature.” Like many scholars, Brooks is sensible of the generative energy of this critique, however he situates it in the context of material ethics to examine why Derrida’s brilliant explication of this lacuna did not translate into more substantive political action, and specifically into consistent vegetarianism. The conjectured Derridean answer is that vegetarianism qua vegetarianism constitutes a foreclosure, a release of the tensions of ethical doubt, or in David Wood’s terms, an attempt to “buy good conscience on the cheap” (22). Understandably, Brooks reads this gesture as a sophistry, and interprets this hesitation more generatively through several forms of structural psychoanalysis. Derrida’s incongruous hesitation becomes an iteration of an Oedipal “deep doubling that seems both endemic and epidemic when it comes to thinking the animal” (26, emphasis Brooks’.) This doubling effects a form of circular or helical ressintement, a misrecognition of the possible connections between philosophy and the literal animal – prompting an attempt to cure system with system. In effect this means that Deconstruction is finally as incapable of addressing animal suffering as other intellections, which remain complicit with the metonymy of domination: “the mind alone, Western and otherwise, is for the moment so enmeshed in defences of its own monstrosity that no such leap is possible to it” (33). While generative, Brooks is being deliberately obtuse here, and owns the “naïve, crude and simplistic” (33) aspects of this reading on the firm ethical imperative that drives it. This move is successfully justified, but it remains the most tenuous aspect of the volume’s intellectual structure. It rests on a lamentably ubiquitous mistranslation of il n’y a pas de hors-texte and – knowingly albeit – evades the colossal significance of Derrida’s final efforts in The Beast & The Sovereign, which, certainly, speak more lucidly to the latter part of the dialectic, articulating the last gasps of the Pax Americana then transpiring in the disastrous stupidities of the euphemistic War on Terror. This measured criticism notwithstanding, this essay is a rigorous challenge to the ethical limitations of philosophy’s hegemony over praxis.
This argument is extended and clarified in terms of the particular semantics with which the word of the animal is invested in the second and third essays ‘The Loaded Cat’, and ‘Meeting Place’ which perform strong, nuanced readings of figurations of the animal in a range of literatures. The latter effects a particularly striking revision of Derrida’s own reading of D.H. Lawrence’s poem ‘Snake’, in which the philosopher mistakes, or prefers, an allusion to Coleridge’s sacral, innocent albatross, for Baudelaire’s self-piteous anthropomorphism. The difference inflects Lawrence’s reading of the animal palpably: Brooks’ interprets the poem as a mea culpa, an admission of the absurd arrogance implicit extending the obligations of hospitality – the master-theme of hospice being property – to the animal in its alterity. Derrida’s reading however, like the persona’s final futile gesture of anger at the snake’s trespass asserts the closure of ethics, and of philosophy, even as it ruptures it.
I found the collection’s final essay ‘At Duino’ its most provocative. Here Brooks’ concentrates the nuance and rigour of his critique specifically upon poetics, and the implications – political, aesthetic, and psychological – of the Orphic tradition. At a conceptual level the influence of this tradition, or complex, likely touches most European elegiac forms, but it’s present with particular intensities in the work of Rilke. Exemplifying his broader attempt to make philosophy stand upon the question of animal suffering, Brooks revises the Orphic myth through the eleventh poem in the second book of Rilke’s Sonnets to Orpheus written in response to observing an expedition of dove-hunters. The poem is unsettlingly powerful, and the “handful of pale doves” (82) flung from darkness into light are figured as a readily appropriable resource for Eurydicean metaphor, a ritual of rhapsody. The Karst doves are disturbed from their limestone caves by lowered lengths of linen cloth which, as one of the poem’s shifting apostrophic subjects actuate their paradoxical connotations – cerecloth and virginal robe – into a figure of sacrifice – a being sacrificed to the chthonic deity of the darkness below, interpretable as a register of negative capability. In return for the temporal sacrifice of the beloved in time, the poet receives the enduring stasis of the rarefied art object, a “calmly established rule of death.” This paradigm has been the subject of extensive revisions. Among many others, Blanchot in The Space of Literature argues that the movement of the orphic project:
“does not want Euridice in her daytime truth and her everyday appeal, but wants her in her nocturnal obscurity, in her distance, with her closed body and sealed face… not as the intimacy of a familiar life, but as the foreignness of what excludes all intimacy, and wants, not to make her live, but to have her living in the plenitude of death.”
Art, in this configuration, desires the beloved through the beloved’s displacement into art. Such is the power of that displacement that Rilke abjures pity, on the grounds that: “Killing too is a form of our ancient wandering affliction” (emphasis Rilke’s). This logic is observable in many of Rilke’s poems, including Requiem for a Friend written a decade before the Sonnets. Brooks’ singles out this poem because it clarifies his wider argument of a metonymy between the Orphic sacralising of death, and the ease with which we justify animal slaughter. Thus violence becomes the poem’s deep theme: culture’s ‘rules of death’ are seen to subsist upon a model of Cartesian dominion, whose first symbol is the hunt. If this reading seems too atavistic or bluntly Freudian for relevance, consider John Taggart’s discussion in Conjunctions of Susan Howe’s My Emily Dickinson: “the poet becomes a hunter by putting on power… Power is pitiless”. It’s worth noting here that Taggart and Howe draw heavily on Heideggerian schematics, particularly the notion of the Open as a site or space of disclosure, itself drawn originally from Rilke. The song of Orpheus’ descent into the underworld becomes the aestheticized violence of the hunt by which Heideggerian poetics assume the risk of composition in language’s wilderness – read as ‘wilderness’ a waste land theatre of projected solitudes, not a living ecology. The fascist implications here are obvious, and even without them the slippage inherent to metaphor renders death itself becomes thinkable as poem, as a cultural meaning rather than a horizon of event, of which it doesn’t take much to see the twentieth century’s industrial symphony of deaths as a synonym.
To utter peace to the animal, Brooks argues, we must liberate poetics from the power of Orphic myth. A functional poetics must be cognisant of death however – not least of its own – and at this juncture Brooks doesn’t suggest what an Anti-Orphic poem might look like. John Kinsella, another Australian Derridean – for want of much better words – and who appears in Brooks’ acknowledgements, illustrates a possible direction in the third movement of his poem ‘Graphology: Pastoral Elegy – An End Written for the End When it Comes’:
- Signing Off
It was always going to finish in an airless room,
sketchbook air freshener, deodoriser;
only enough light coming through; substantives
plebiscite, like planting crops
in carpet-folds. Furrow is all
there is, the biro’s ink run away
from ballpoint, dry bearing. Signed books
can’t go back to the publisher, unsold
remain in limbo. I sign off, wheatbelt
poet, anarchist, for whom copyright
was something others did:
Eros, artworks, the dark.
This poem faces its own aporia without the involution of a doubled other, and without veiling its own means of production in metaphysics. Its power is piteous in every sense, gesturing beyond the narcissine projections of the Orphic gaze, and the fascist onanisms of the hunt.
- Blanchot, The Space of Literature, trans Ann Smock, Nebraska UP, 1982, 172.
- Derrida, 208, 392
- Taggart Conjunctions no. 11 (1988, 270-273)
- Graphology Poems 1995-2015 Volume II, 5 Islands Press, 2016, 184.