Tag Archives: Derrida

What’s a Mother?

A recent Carolyn Hax advice column triggered some thoughts about this mysterious, untameable tool called language that we all use every day.

A man asked Carolyn Hax for advice about a thorny family situation. Six years ago, he and his wife adopted a baby boy born to a teenage relative. The little boy, “Jake,” is doing great. He knows he was adopted but isn’t interested in learning more.

Three years ago, the couple’s other adopted child had a visit from her birth mother. Jake couldn’t understand what was going on and was terrified that his sister would be taken away.

Now Jake’s birth mother wants to visit him and start a relationship. The adoptive father doesn’t want to upset Jake – but also doesn’t want to be dishonest with him. The adoptive mother flatly refuses to allow Jake to meet his birth mother until he’s older.

When I read that letter, I was really grateful that I’m not an advice columnist! Carolyn Hax (of course) came through with some excellent advice and suggestions.

But my thoughts took off in a different direction. I started trying to figure out why “Jake” – a happy and secure little boy – had reacted so fearfully to the visit from his sister’s birth mother.

And what I decided is that there might be a hidden language issue here.

What is a mother? Life experience tells us there are many ways to become a mother: birth, adoption, a second marriage, foster care, and so on. But Jake knows only that “mother” means the woman who is the center of his young life. He depends on her for almost everything.

So what does it mean when a second woman appears, also labeled “mother”? To Jake, that experience must have been unfathomable. The only explanation he could come up with was that this new mother wanted to take his sister away. Isn’t that what his own mother would do?

It would help if Jake was old enough to understand the terms “birth mother” and “adoption” – but he’s not.

* * * * * * *

We like to think that language is something we can tame, control, and quantify – but it’s not, and we can’t. Our efforts will ultimately fail, and there’s a single word that explains why: imagination.

Language is not an inert system of symbols and sounds just waiting for us to do what we will. It is inextricably and mysteriously connected to the deepest parts of our brains and our souls. I’m talking – of course – about postmodernism.

While I was thinking about Jake and his fears this weekend, a little exchange from Shaw’s Pygmalion popped into my head. Henry Higgins, a professor of speech, is standing with a small group of theatergoers waiting for the rain to stop so they can go home. Pointing to a dirty young woman who’s selling flowers, Higgins starts a conversation with another man who’s waiting:

THE NOTE TAKER. You see this creature with her kerbstone English: the English that will keep her in the gutter to the end of her days. Well, sir, in three months I could pass that girl off as a duchess at an ambassador’s garden party. I could even get her a place as lady’s maid or shop assistant, which requires better English.

THE FLOWER GIRL. What’s that you say?

I don’t know how anyone could quantify and label that little exchange. Higgins isn’t even talking directly to the flower girl – she’s eavesdropping. But his words cause a paradigm shift for her. Suddenly she sees possibilities that never existed for her before.

When Higgins throws a large amount of money into her flower basket, she doesn’t go on the expected spending spree. Instead she decides to return the money to Higgins – in exchange for speech lessons.

(If you’re curious about all this, I’ve written an article linking this exchange in Pygmalion with Sigmund Freud’s “talking cure” – a provocative term for Freud’s therapeutic method, is it not?)

Critics of postmodernism think it’s hilariously funny when people like me say that words resist being pinned down. But little Jake’s parents are discovering that “mother” is a far more complex word than they originally thought.

In the same way, all of us often have language encounters that shake us up, open new doors, and challenge us in ways we could never have expected. As Jacques Derrida famously said, “the problem of language has never been simply one problem among others.”



“The Ink Stains That Have Dried upon Some Line”

This is the last of three posts about deconstruction. (Click here to go back to the first post.) We’ve been looking at a picture (below) of my parents at a Roman Catholic dinner honoring couples who had been married for 50 years.

In my last post I’d asked you to listen to John Hartford sing “Gentle on My Mind” and look for a reference to writing. (I hope you listened to it and melted the way I always do! Incidentally, I once heard Hartford – who composed the song and wrote the lyrics – perform it in person.)

OK, back to work. Here are the lines from the song that I’m going to talk about today:

And it’s knowin’ I’m not shackled
By forgotten words and bonds
And the ink stains that have dried upon some line

Written vows – according to Hartford’s song – are dry and lifeless. They hark back to a feeling in the past that was once alive and vibrant but may have faded with the passage of time. Hartford’s song is about the difference between marriage vows – “forgotten words and bonds” – and real  love, which has no need for promises and obligations.

What Hartford has tapped into here is a bias against writing that goes back to Plato and has found its way into every aspect of our Western culture. According to Jacques Derrida, we tend to dismiss writing as a stale and lifeless imitation of what’s real and alive: the warm breath of natural speech.

One of Derrida’s goals as a philosopher was to challenge Plato’s value system. Sometimes what’s unnatural and artificial is more expressive of who we really are than what’s natural, inborn, and spontaneous.

I’m thinking of myself after 25 years of ballroom lessons. I can feel and respond to a piece of music in ways that the untrained, “natural” Jean couldn’t have attempted. So who’s the real me? A postmodernist might say that all my “unnatural” training has uncovered parts of me that otherwise would have stayed hidden.

And what about those “ink stains that have dried upon some line”? I’m as much of a romantic as anyone else, and I love the idea of being swept away in a passionate swoon.

But I also have enough life experience to know that keeping a promise – even when it was made long ago, and things aren’t going well, and you really don’t feel like it today – has deep and lasting value. (But don’t think for a minute that my common-sense attitude towards life and love keeps me from appreciating Hartford’s song!)

If you’d like to learn more about these natural vs artificial and writing vs speech issues, I’ve published an article arguing that Bernard Shaw anticipated Derrida’s critique of Platonism in – of all things – Pygmalion (AKA My Fair Lady). You can read my article here. (If you’re thinking that Shaw was on the side of Derrida and the postmoderns – that’s what I think too. It doesn’t seem to have mattered that Derrida wasn’t even born when Shaw wrote Pygmalion!)

 *  *  *  *  *

If you’ve stayed with me this far, you might be thinking that I’ve loaded an awful lot of really heavy stuff into this simple picture of my parents. That’s right – and that’s my point.

In the end, writing is all about thinking. Because we want more, more, more out of life, we seek out writers who can add depth and breadth to our everyday experiences.

In the first of these three posts about the anniversary dinner, I talked about my mother in a personal way. Was there anything else to say about this picture?

My answer to that question is yes. I think we can “deconstruct” the picture – take apart its apparently simple and straightforward message to find unintended meanings underneath. Here’s my list:

  • Because the Catholic Church is so large, it sometimes loses touch with the individuality and diversity of its members
  • The Catholic bias against sex can complicate its support for marriage
  • No matter how hard an institution tries to send a simple, unified message, other truths will find a way to be heard

Do you have a picture you can “deconstruct”? Are there any accidental details that challenge the intended message? Or is there a “before” or “after” story that adds complexity to the picture?

My Mother and Father with the Bishop

  My Parents and the Bishop


Deconstructing a Picture of My Parents

In my last post I asked you to “deconstruct” a picture of my parents (below). The event was a dinner hosted by the Roman Catholic Church to honor couples who had been married for 50 years.

Following in the footsteps of French philosopher Jacques Derrida, I suggested that you look for accidental details that might put the picture into a broader context. I also encouraged you to think about what was going on before and after the picture was taken.

Here’s my list:

  • Before the picture was taken, my parents stood in line with other couples as they waited to be photographed.
  • My parents are wearing name tags.
  • Because the Roman Catholic church requires its clergy to be celibate, the bishop has never been married.
  • My parents and the bishop are holding a scroll of paper that records the wedding vows they renewed at the dinner.

* * * * *

Now I’m going to ask a very Derridean question: did that moment with my parents and the bishop actually happen? Critics of postmodernism (I’m thinking of Steven Pinker) love to make fun of Derrida and his followers for their denial of obvious realities.

So let me reassure you: The photo is real. (I’m not a nut, even though I’m a postmodern thinker!) Of course that dinner happened, and that moment with the bishop, and the picture.

But there’s also a sense in which the photo is not real. All photos are edited. The photographer makes decisions about what to include, what to exclude, and what to emphasize. So that photo is both real and a misrepresentation of that moment.

For example – think about how different the picture would look if the photographer had stepped back a few paces before he clicked the camera. We would see right away that there was no intimate connection between the bishop and my parents: they were one of many couples at that dinner.

The name tags my parents are wearing drive home the point. Who wears name tags to a get-together with a special friend?

But the dinner really did honor the sacrament of marriage, right? Umm…sort of. The Catholic Church considers celibacy a higher state than matrimony. So smack in the middle of the picture, where you can’t miss him, is a man who’s considered holier than my parents because he never married.

So…I would say that the picture did and didn’t happen. The bishop was delighted to meet a couple who were celebrating their 50th anniversary – but not enough to spend time with them or even learn their names. There were just too many people at that dinner! The immense size of Catholicism inevitably gives rise to impersonal policies and practices that may not work for some of its members.

And then there’s that ambivalence about marriage, which the Church honors on the one hand but also considers an obstacle to a fully lived spiritual life. It’s good to marry but even better to avoid sex altogether.

*  *  *  *  *  *

There’s something else noteworthy in that picture (and this is very Derridean) – that scroll of paper. I’m going to ask you to listen to a familiar (and wonderful) song: “Gentle on My Mind.” Look for what the song says about writing. (It’s there!)

There will be more about all of this in my next (and final) post about this picture. (Meanwhile, please listen to “Gentle on My Mind” even if you’re not interested in deconstruction. It’s great poetry and one of the best songs ever. Your day will be better!)

One more thing: you may be wondering why anyone would even bother with these ideas. I can give you two reasons. First, postmodern thinking is all around us – and has been for a long time. (Bernard Shaw was thinking about these ideas in 1914, when he wrote Pygmalion.) Second, this kind of “deconstruction” – digging beneath surface appearances for deeper meanings – is an excellent critical thinking tool.

My Mother and Father with the Bishop

                     My Parents with the Bishop



A Picture of My Parents

Today I’m going to challenge you to “deconstruct” a picture of my parents (below). The event was a dinner hosted by the Catholic diocese on Long Island (where my parents lived) to honor couples who had been married for 50 years.

That dinner – part of the Church’s ongoing struggle against the secular trends of casual sex and easy divorce – had an additional, unexpected effect. My mother was a lifelong Lutheran; my father was Roman Catholic. When they married, Catholicism took a dim view of what were then called “mixed marriages.” My parents weren’t even allowed to have a church ceremony – they were married in the priests’ residence. My mother always felt hurt and demeaned by the Church’s attitude towards her.

The anniversary dinner astounded her. She felt honored by the photograph with the bishop (below) – but what really astounded her was having the priests in the diocese serve the dinners and fill the coffee cups For the first time in 50 years, my mother felt recognized and respected by the Church. It was the healing experience she’d been waiting for.

 *  *  *  *  *  *

Now let’s start our deconstruction project. I’ve already given you an up-close-and-personal look at that anniversary dinner. Now I want you to figure out what this picture says about the Roman Catholic Church (and possibly about similar institutions). To do this, I invite you to think about these two questions:

  • What details in the picture (below) reveal the challenges that Roman Catholicism is facing?
  • What contradictions do you see? (I hope you’re already latching on to something important about deconstruction: it’s a form of critical thinking, and not just the word game that some critics take it to be.)

Here’s a hint to get you started. Imagine that you’re watching the photographer snap the picture of my parents. What happened before the click of the camera – and after?

Go ahead and make your list. You can compare it to mine in my next post, two days from now.

My Mother and Father with the Bishop

                                                                My Parents with the Bishop


Deconstructing Lady Gaga

The New Yorker recently posted a review of a new documentary about pop sensation Lady Gaga. A sentence from that review jumped out at me when I read it:

The accidental tells here – when Gaga stops steering her own story or suggests a version that seems to be at odds with the facts – are the most compelling.

Whew. Two unrelated ideas immediately popped into my head. So – hold onto your hat, because we’re going to be traveling in two directions today.

1.   I was immediately reminded of a principle from Steven Pinker’s wonderful book The Sense of Style: The Thinking Person’s Guide to Writing in the 21st Century:”Good writing takes advantage of a reader’s expectations of where to go next.”

I expected the New Yorker article to provide examples of “accidental tells” – slippages in the image Lady Gaga is trying to present to us – and incidents “at odds with the facts” – contradictory details. But the article didn’t include a single example.

I wish, I wish author Amanda Petrusich had told us what she was thinking! For example, she mentions drug use – Lady Gaga lists all the medications she’s taking, and at one point she’s shown swallowing a pill. But those moments from the document are hardly “accidental” – the producer and director must have known they were there.

Here’s a takeaway for aspiring writers: tell readers where your writing will be taking them – and be sure to give readers what you promised. 

2. My other thought was about Jacques Derrida. Derridean deconstruction is all about “accidental tells” – omissions and marginal statements that can point us to useful truths if we’re patient enough to ferret them out.

When I read the Lady Gaga review, I was expecting something truly marginal (a favorite Derridean term) – perhaps something an alert audience member might overhear in a conversation or glimpse in a mirror while watching the documentary.

There’s nothing mystical or mysterious about deconstruction: it’s an everyday activity for us. We’re always reading “between the lines” and listening for gaps in what we’re told. (Parents automatically do this with their teenagers!)

Jesse M. Hellman, a Shaw scholar and friend who’s also a psychiatrist, says that he’s always looking for omissions in what his patients tell him: “You’ve talked about everyone in your family except your older brother. So what do you think is going on there?”

I hope I’ve aroused your curiosity about deconstruction – and given you something to think about! Stay tuned: next month I’m going to post a photo of my parents – and ask you to “deconstruct” it.

Lady Gaga

                                Lady Gaga