Nothing Gold Can Stay

Photo by Andrew CooperJacques Derrida, the French philosopher who took one of the great brave journeys of 20th-century philosophical thought, died last Friday of pancreatic cancer. He left behind more than 50 books, intense admirers all over the world (including Orange County, where he had lectured at UC Irvine since 1986), and a kind of thinking called deconstruction that was so controversial it all but split Western philosophy of the late-20th century in half—between those who reviled as nihilistic its relentless questioning of how “meaning” gets created and those who saw in deconstruction a powerful and necessary challenge to all the principles by which we live and think.


A charismatic presence whose UCI lectures overflowed with the converted and the curious, Derrida held his listeners, even those who couldn't follow his meticulous arguments to save their lives, with the power of his seriousness. Like Martin Heidegger before him, on the lecture stage, he conveyed a sense that he was embodying Western Thinking, that he'd taken it into himself as a profound if tragic inheritance and then pushed it forward into places no one would dare.


Exploding on the scene in 1966 with the publication of three major texts (including On Grammatology, still his most famous book), as well as a lecture at Johns Hopkins that dramatically redirected the pathways of the humanities and social sciences in America for the next quarter century, Derrida forced scholars (and soon enough a popular culture that started using “deconstruct” as a hip but inaccurate synonym for “destroy”) to face the fact that the most fundamental grounds of their thinking, the first principles on which they built their interpretations in literary studies or philosophy or history, were invariably groundless, products not of sound logic or reasoned thinking, but of a desperate (all-too-human) desire to make their disciplines and the world as a whole make sense. Belief in God, in progress, in reason, in science and technology, in “America,” in anything denoted less some “Truth”—which Derrida taught was the most suspect word in the language—than “expressed the force of a desire.” And there was no desire greater than our need to order the chaos around us by comforting ourselves with Truth.


Nietzsche and Heidegger were in many ways there before Derrida, but Derrida brought together their metaphysical insight and rhetorical power with a structuralist method he borrowed from linguist Ferdinand de Saussure, and he emerged with that profoundly provocative new thing called deconstruction. We can show how it works by examining a poem called “Nothing Gold Can Stay” by Robert Frost:


Nature's first green is gold,
Her hardest hue to hold.
Her early leaf's a flower;
But only so an hour.
Then leaf subsides to leaf.
So Eden sank to grief.
So dawn goes down to day.
Nothing gold can stay.


When most people read this, they see it as mourning the loss of “nature's first green,” of spring's “early leaf,” of all those good things that “stay” and “hold” fresh, innocent and “Eden”-like in unchanging beauty. The poem seems to convey a sadness that leaf “subsides” to leaf, that Eden “sank” to grief, that dawn “goes down” to day. What Derrida taught was that there's no necessary reason to think of the poem as mourning anything, that it's only our unacknowledged preconceptions that make us “privilege” concepts like spring, Eden, changelessness and holding up—rather than autumn, the post-lapsarian world of death and change, and the idea of sinking or going down. In fact, maybe the poem's positive—it's good that nothing gold can stay, since nature is ever-changing, we don't and never lived in Eden, and “sinking” and “going down” are good directions to go if we don't want to succumb to nostalgic comfort thinking. Derrida wouldn't have insisted on this latter reading either, but would have put the mournful and celebratory interpretations side by side and let them oscillate in our minds. In so doing, we get to experience what it's like to think in suspension, without a reliable sense of truth.


What you can do with Frost's little poem you can do with anything, from a speech by George W. Bush to any of the grand narratives by which we live. Derrida taught a way of thinking that forced us to be almost unbearably honest with ourselves. He taught us to confront the chaos of ideas around us and, perhaps most important, not to be afraid of—and even to embrace—the consequences. We'll be living with the consequences of Derrida for decades.

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