The Telegraph
Since 1st March, 1999
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- Remembering two famous French citizens

Within the space of a fortnight, two front-ranking French citizens have shuffled off their mortal coils. Already by the beginning of this century, Francoise Sagan was a defunct writer of fiction; perhaps her death would now be the occasion for a temporary revival of her once-and-past fame ' or was it notoriety' In contrast, Jacques Derrida's status as a celebrity philosopher was still unimpaired even as cancer extinguished him in early October. There was, besides, on the surface little in common between the two eminences, apart from the fact that, in conventional reckoning, both qualified as iconoclasts.

Or is it possible to argue that Sagan did not quite fall in the category' When Bonjour Tristesse hit the Paris bookshops like lightening exactly fifty years ago, it was accepted as a magnificent expos' of sham, but it also frightened the constituents of what these days is labelled as civil society. Here was a slip of a girl, hardly eighteen, yet she was making a statement which was a compact of adult cynicism and heart-rending agony, as if she had known it all and had accumulated enough confidence in herself to sum it up. The load of harrowing sadness strewn across Bonjour Tristesse was difficult to define. It certainly was no species of run-of-the-mill melancholia. This melancholy was to be savoured. Or, if you so wish, not to be savoured, for, Sagan did not entertain the least doubt, the gap between savouring and non-savouring was non-existent. Consider the ambience. Post-World War II bourgeois pretences were past their climacteric. All illusion was spent. It did not matter any more, Sagan had made up her mind, whether one chose to belong, or preferred to opt out. It did not make any difference; it did not make any difference whether one hated one's parents or adored them. It did not make any difference whether one dissembled or did not dissemble, cheated or did not cheat, went to bed with one's lover or, sheerly out of comic vindictiveness, with one's best friend's lover. It did not matter whether one drank oneself to death, took drugs, behaved scandalously in night-spots, or stayed prim and drearily proper. Western capitalism had written finis to its final chapters. Additions would be as bereft of significance as subtractions were. Yes, you have hit the nail on the head, it was impossible to identify the sad shadow lurking between meaning and meaninglessness. Sagan would not stand in the way if that sadness you were to accept in fact as sweet martini. True, there was an emptiness surrounding each of us, but, please, do not call it vacuity. Vacuity did not throb. Emptiness, as perceived by the Sagan set, did.

The eighteen-year-old girl scribbled her philosophy of life with a superb nonchalance. It received instant acknowledgment as the definitive judgment on contemporary history. It is important to remember the context; the early Fifties France in the thraldom of the Communist Party presided over by Maurice Thorez, the empire tottering in both Algeria and Vietnam-Laos-Cambodia. Sagan's outrageous melancholy struck just the right chord. She made money by disrobing her soul. It would not have mattered had she failed to make any. She squandered the money on cocaine and fast cars. She did not however surrender her integrity, she nurtured an ardour ' almost a reverence ' for the moral philosophy embedded in her romans. In that sense she disavowed amorality.

Such daintiness of sensitivity was an evil luxury for Jacques Derrida, five years Sagan's senior and flaunting an oeuvre vastly dissimilar to hers. Allow-me-to-go-my-way-and-let-the-system-travel-wherever-it-wants-to stance towards life and living would simply not do. The 'Nordic Gloom' was an affront to the intellect of man. It was not enough to try to bypass the system; the tyranny of the system, along with its supportive ideology, must be confronted headlong. Was not the particle more powerful than the mass' We had no business to accept as inalienable datum the legacy bequeathed by the past, or the interpretation of that past. A dash of Heidegger ' not Marx ' a sprinkling of Camus's concept of the absurd, some Freud in good measure, a fierce grudge against all formations whether conceptual or material even marginally smacking of a collectivist bias; Derrida and his acolytes were ready to take on the system, just any system, be it in politics or in literature, in philosophical speculation or historical studies, in the backyard of domesticity or in the various other battlefields where rationality was the issue needing to be sorted out.

The rest was mayhem, alias deconstruction. Smash into smithereens the object in your hand, tear and tear away the layers and layers of the allegedly pseudo-meanings of poetry, music, sculpture, political theory, anthropology, et al. Nothing, asserted the Derrida school of thought, was what it was stated to be. This carnival of anarchy had a certain fatal charm. The crowd incited to make a sacrificial goat of their social identity cheered from the ramparts. In due course, those engaged in creative activity in different spheres of the total apparat known as human civilization came, and continue to come, under siege. They could no longer, they were rudely informed, exercise suzerainty over their own creations, they did not know what their creations signified; the creations signified what the deconstructionist wanted them to signify. This view of life was without question a tremendous tour de force. It turned murder into holy ritual. It transformed bestial hatred into eternal love. Villains emerged as saints, and vice versa. It rubbed out the distinction between the lumpens and the honest bread-winners. The workers could be warned off against collective bargaining, even as the novelist could be told that no standard measure existed whereby it could be proved that Homer's Iliad was superior to the pot-boiler of a crime fiction produced by a hack writer. All this was most impressive achievement: Derrida in no time was acclaimed as the supreme anti-God frenziedly worshipped by devout idol-breakers. And now he too is gone.

There is always a certain sadness when smart, scintillating characters disappear beyond the horizon. Will it be unpardonable though if the sadness at the passing of the forlorn chronicler of Tristesse is felt a shade more deeply than what is felt on account of the end of tenure of the academician who ended up as High Church for a pack of intellectual near-hoodlums determined to destroy all norms and structures' On the other hand, it is pointless to rush to judgment. Even the Derrida fans, give or take a couple of decades, are bound to arrive at a kind of moral equilibrium. Five thousand years of human endeavour may, in the excitement of the moment, appear to be up for grabs. That is a temporary situation though. It has happened through the epochs that even nihilists, given the passage of time, have re-incarnated themselves as pious defenders of a new religious or political order. To refer here, also quoting history, to the marriage contracts entered into every now and then by rival feudal dynasties is not altogether irrelevant either. Derrida therefore is deserving of a second chance, even from his ideological adversaries currently hiding in establishments a-tremble with fear that the worse was yet to come. Meanwhile, there is sweet sadness in recollecting the Fifties while Derrida was not yet on the scene, when, Francoise Sagan, that slip of a girl, was the craze in Paris salons, the salons she, absentmindedly or purposely, failed to attend. The temptation to murmur, 'Adieu Tristesse, come back Tristesse', is indeed excruciating.

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