The Work of Mourning is a collection of tributes, eulogies, essays, and funeral orations by a controversial philosopher, who was attacked as much for his enigmatic style (obscurantism, to some) as for his intellectual hubris (deconstructionism).  Some of those remembered in this book are equally famous philosophers - Foucault, Levinas, Barthes, Althusser - and others less so; this collection includes superb short biographical essays by Kas Saghafi that provide a foundation for Derrida's public expressions of grief on the death of his friends, teachers, and colleagues.


There are three ways in which this title merits inclusion in this database.  For those who followed Foucault's Madness and Civilization: A History of Insanity in the Age of Reason, and its critique of the treatment of the mad through psychiatry and psychotherapy, into the subsequent debates with Derrida, The Work of Mourning includes Derrida's final word, questioning whether Foucault's project itself would have been possible if it were not for Freud's own writing. 

Second, Derrida lingers on the question of death and dying, and of living on while friends, colleagues, teachers die; the pieces take on the weight of a elegy for a generation (Derrida notices this, not without some skepticism: "Each death is unique, of course, and therefore unusual.  But what can be said about the unusual when, from Barthes to Althusser, from Foucault to Deleuze, it multiplies, as in a series, all these uncommon ends in the same "generation"?" (193))  It is, in a way, a book about aging, about surviving one's friends, confronting mortality, savouring and stung by memory.

The third reason is that so many of the essays detail the author's grief - "What is more, I haven't the heart today to translate these few words, adding to them the suffering and the distance, for you and for me, of a foreign accent." (72)  "So much to say, and I don't have the heart for it today." (192, opening his eulogy for Gilles Deleuze) "I knew in advance that I would be unable to speak today, unable, as they say, to find the words" (114, opening his eulogy for Louis Althusser).  With this grief comes the need to speak, to remember what is already being forgotten, to announce friendship with someone who is not there to respond, and to do the work of mourning.  If Derrida is scoffed at as an obscurantist and as someone who could nitpick the meaning out of anything with loopy sentences and a blithe regression to ultimate questions, he is also here someone who insists upon continuing: almost every piece begins with the impossibility of speaking or saying or meaning, and so many of them evoke the lack of time, and yet each one goes on to evoke memories, relationships, and the spirit of endurance (so often ascribed to the one who is gone).


The University of Chicago Press

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Pascale-Anne Brault & Michael Naas

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