Gustave Moreau’s Prized Possession;
The Secret Language of Jacques Derrida
The link that connects visual art with other forms of expression is often elusive, like the desert road that turns out to be a mirage. Sometimes, however, the connection is more convincing. It appears to be a kind of sturdy bridge traversing great distances of time and space. It allows one easy access to various cultures, histories and geo-political realms like a causeway connecting islands in the great archipelago of truth. This enigmatic passageway came sharply and abruptly into focus when a visit to a retrospective of works by Gustave Moreau (1826-1898), at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York,1 coincided with my reading of Monolingualism of the Other; or, The Prosthesis of Origin, a recently published English translation of a book by Jacques Derrida. 2
A painter known for his treatment of mythological and biblical themes, Moreau is one of the rare figures in art history who was admired in his lifetime by both the academy and the avant-garde, including his devoted pupils and younger followers such as Matisse, Rouault and Redon. Derrida’s reputation might be comparable. Deconstruction’s inventor stirs controversy among academics as well as young writers and artists, yet his work over the past several decades has had consistent and broad appeal. Nevertheless, the Algerian-born French writer is mired in feelings of being an outsider, which he explains in Monolingualism of the Other; or, The Prosthesis of Origin, a book that serves, in spite of the author’s protests, as an illuminating autobiography of his early years. He does admit, however, to indulging in a bit of “nostalgeria” (a term Derrida uses in reference to these Algerian musings).3
The remarkable clarity of the connection between Moreau and Derrida has most to do with the notion of “possession,” a pervasive issue in their works. In various ways, each asks the same question: Does one possess language, or is one possessed by language? Derrida in Monolingualism of the Other asserts that if language is able to possess, then it does so by means of a form of aggressive colonialism. Moreau’s work reflects just such a colonialist enterprise in which, one might say, the artist aims to seduce the phantoms of language. No doubt, Moreau feared that left at large, these apparitions would likely endeavor to possess the artist’s soul.
Derrida imagines himself possessed by language: “For, I confess, I always surrender myself to language.”4 His identification with the oppressed stems from his upbringing in Algiers, where he was constantly reminded of his outsider status as a French citizen far removed from France. He also relates his feelings of alienation as a Jew who was a stranger to Jewish culture. As Derrida warns,
In colonialist terms, Moreau imposes upon the melodramatic excesses of Romanticism the cool reserve of neo-Classicism, the predominant and sometimes clashing art movements of mid-19th century Europe. Significantly, his work was embraced by the sovereigns of a colonial power, namely those of France during the last years of the Second Empire. Prince Napoleon-Jérôme Bonaparte, in fact, purchased Moreau’s first mature canvas, Oedipus and the Sphinx (1864) after he saw it in Paris at the Salon of 1864.
The painting shows the moment of confrontation between the tall, idealized youth and the monster, as Oedipus utters the answer to the Sphinx’s riddle, and well before the events in the Oedipus story that so preoccupied Freud. Holding a long, red spear, the handsome youth stands above the graves of the monster’s victims. The winged creature with a lion’s body and woman’s head stares wild-eyed at the man who has just precipitated her demise. In a desperate attempt to possess him, and overturn her fate, the Sphinx claws his chest with the front paws and digs her hind paws into the man’s upper thighs, very near his discreetly covered genitals.
The look of terror in the eyes of the Sphinx recalls Derrida’s comment in the book that “inside languages there is a terror, soft, discreet or glaring; that is our subject.”6 He indicates that the source of the terror arises from the master’s realization that it is impossible to ever completely possess language. In fact, the master does not have exclusive possession of anything. Because language is not his natural possession, he claims it historically, through a cultural usurpation that always implies an essentially colonial strategy, to appropriate it in order to impose it “as his own.”
Monolingualism addresses notions of native culture and nationality designated by birth (the place and circumstances of origin, for example), but Derrida also proposes a study of language, nationality and cultural belonging that would be determined by death (the place and circumstances of demise), by sepulture, that would begin with the secret of Oedipus at Colonus: all the power that this ‘alien’ holds over ‘aliens’ in the innermost secret place of the secret of his last resting place, a secret that he guards, or confides to the guardianship of Theseus in exchange for the salvation of the city and generations to come, a secret that nevertheless, he refuses to his daughters, while depriving them of even their tears, and just a “work of mourning.”7
Derrida evokes his childhood experiences growing up in a French community on the edge of an Arab neighborhood. In the French lycée he attended in his youth, the study of Latin was mandatory yet Arabic was considered an optional foreign language, and other native languages, such as Berber, it seems, were totally excluded from the school. Hebrew was likewise omitted from the curriculum. Speakers of these “foreign” tongues were obliged to yield to the dominant languages of the masters, of capital and machines. They had to lose their idiom in order to survive or better themselves. Conflicted in this situation, Derrida admits that while he was fluent in no other language, he has never been able to refer to French as his “mother tongue.”
1 The exhibition, “Gustave Moreau: Between Epic and Dream,” opened at the Grand Palais, Paris, Sept. 29, 1998-Jan. 4, 1999, and traveled to the Art Institute of Chicago, Feb. 13-April 25, 1999 and the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, where I saw it several times during its run, June 1-Aug. 22, 1999.
2 Derrida, Jacques, Monolingualism of the Other; or, The Prosthesis of Origin, translated by Patrick Mensah, was published by Stanford in 1998. The book was originally published in French by Editions Galilée, Paris, 1996.
3 ibid, p. 52.
4 ibid, p. 47.
5 ibid, p. 39.
6 ibid, p. 23.
7 ibid, p. 13.
All culture is ordinarily colonial. In order to recall that, let us not simply rely on etymology. Every culture institutes itself through the unilateral imposition of some “politics” of language. Mastery begins, as we know, through the power of naming of imposing and legitimating appellations. We know how that went with French in France itself, in revolutionary France as much as, or more than monarchial France. This sovereign establishment (mise en demeure souveraine) may be open, legal, armed, or cunning, disguised under alibis of “universal” humanism, and sometimes of the most generous hospitality. It always follows or proceeds culture like its shadow.5