A Terrible Scene of Friendship

This post is part of the Art as Gift project

The enigma of the text (152-156)
Whether or not the friend gave the beggar a counterfeit coin is the interest, the enigma of Baudelaire’s Counterfeit Money, and as such is indecipherable and resistant to interpretation. This is the secret of the text, a secret which is “unbreakable.” There is no chance of ever knowing if a counterfeit coin was given – there is therefore no sense in wondering what actually happened, whether on the part of the friend or the narrator. As fictional characters they have no “consistency, no depth beyond their literary phenomenon.” The inviolability of the secret they both carry depends on this “essential superficiality of their phenomenality.” They are “two-to-speak” [this form of words makes them a single entity] holding the possibility of non-truth “in which every truth is held or is made.” This also says the “(non-) truth of literature,” which ensures the possibility of literature.

Derrida then compares literature to money, which as long as one can reckon with its phenomenality [its appearance as money], as long as one can count with and on cash money to produce effects (alms, purchase, speculation), as long as money passes for (real) money, it is not different from the money that, perhaps, it counterfeits. There is no way of detecting the difference, between the real and the counterfeit, as long as it is framed by its conventions or institutions. Beyond this frame other possibilities, other contexts of truth and reality are opened up.

This would confirm that everything was being played out for the narrator – the friend would not have done any of this if it had not been for his friend the narrator. Everything happens to the narrator, everything is dedicated to him:

  • The time of the story is given to the narrator
  • The narrator recounts a story whose meaning is dedicated to him

This situation leads to a murder, the narrative gives and kills time. The relationship between the friends is that of a merciless war – in which each acknowledges that the other is right, exchanging the phrase “you are right.” Derrida calls this exchange a “specular reversal” (155), which he writes as “you are right”/”you are right.” They tell each other that they are right to tell each other they are right, which Derrida says could mean three things:

  1. We are right, which confirms that we have reason, we belong to the species of the rational animal (logon ekhon)
  2. We know how to count, we are men of knowledge and calculation and also good narrators.
  3. Our calculation has prevailed, we have controlled by reasoning with the other.

Yet their being subject to reason, in giving each other reason, leads them to the breaking of the contract [of friendship?] between them. In giving reason to each other they have given nothing. The gift does not obey the principle of reason, it is without foundation, Derrida claims that the gift is a “stranger” to morality and to law.

If you give because you must give, then you no longer give. (156)

The gift and the event share the same conditions; “being outside-the-law, unforeseeability, “surprise,” the absence of anticipation or horizon, the excess in regard to all reason.” Leading Derrida to conclude that “nothing ever happens by reason.”

Derek Hampson

The Credit of Literature

This post is part of the Art as Gift project

The relationship between the narrator and the friend is uncertain, questionable, did the friend truly give counterfeit money or did he lie to his friend in a false confession? As Derrida says we will never know the answer to this question, which says something about the place of belief in writing, which frames Baudelaire’s writing. Derrida describes this frame as a four-sided border, a “dislocated frame of a triptych,” (150) which excludes a fourth term.

The narrative is framed in such a way that we, the readers, are like the narrator, in debt to the friend. But we are also his creditor, we extend the credit of belief to him that he gave the counterfeit coin as he said. There is no way we can intervene in the scene in order to ascertain the truth or otherwise of the narrator’s claim. The dual, dialogic nature of the friend’s “stroll tete-a-tete” excludes the reader’s access to the secret, as it excludes the author himself. (150-152)

Derek Hampson

The Antagonism of Friendship

This post is part of the Art as Gift project

The interaction between the two friends in Counterfeit Money is fraught with accusation, which leads to the friend justifying his action of seeming over-generosity by saying he had given a counterfeit coin. Derrida speculates on why the friend says this. He may be asking to get himself excused for his prodigality and for dominance of the narrator through his larger donation. His confession may signal a naively triumphal and boastful account of his speculative abilities. Yet these hypotheses do not exclude each other, they bear the appearance of counterfeit money, as such the false-donor the narrator is free of the violence of the gift, breaking the cycle of exchange implicit in the gift. (149-150)

Derek Hampson

 

 

The Pleasure of Surprise

This post is part of the Art as Gift project

In the story of Counterfeit Money the friend is judged by the narrator, but both are indicted by the appearance and look of the beggar to acquit themselves by sacrificing, i.e. to make a destructive gift to appease the gods, the poor. They both must give, but one gives more than the other and in this giving what they give must show itself. This is not for the poor man or for the law but for the other, the partner, the friend. This is because as friends they are not only indebted with regard to the poor man but also to each other. (145)

The comparison of their offerings is central to the story, the other elements, the poor man, the law seem as part of the conditions needed for their exchange to take place, which is constituted as a bidding war, a potlatch. What is given in this potlatch is one friend’s advantage over the other due to the surprising generosity of the donation. The narrator at first takes pleasure in his friend’s generosity, he treats himself to pleasure.

The narrator equates pleasure with surprise, the sudden coming of the new, which cannot be anticipated or repeated, it is an event. Pleasure is being surprised and more intensely causing a surprise in the other. The cause of pleasure in the other is surprise, the passion of wonder – the origin of philosophy. But the greatest pleasure is to be the cause of the cause of the surprise, by giving what gives me pleasure to the other – for example tobacco.

Derek Hampson

 

The Law of Alms

The demand of the beggar is the demand of the gods (137-142)

“Generosity is an obligation because Nemesis avenges the poor and the gods for the superabundance of happiness and wealth of certain people.” (Mauss, 18)

(This post is part of the Art as Gift project)

The beggar signifies the absolute demand of the other, which is the unquenchable thirst for the gift, for alms. The giving of alms to the beggar is within a sacrificial structure. Sacrifice is different to a pure gift – it is giving is in the form of destruction, hoping for a benefit. Mauss calls the sacrifice “the present made to the gods.” Alms are a calculated sacrifice.

The poor, marginal people excluded from the process and circulation of wealth, come to represent the gods or the dead. The look of the beggar or of the poor is one of incrimination, accusation, a demand from the other. You must pay, i.e. give to stop the spirit from coming back to haunt you. The giving of alms is in order to “get in good graces and make peace with it.”

The persecution of the beggar
Counterfeit Money is marked by misfortune from the moment of the first encounter. The condition of the poor man is on account of misfortune, he is destitute, speechless. The absolute demand of the other that the beggar gives, is communicated through his eyes. His look accuses and frightens the two friends, who are persecuted by the law, by justice, in the face of which they are in turn destitute. The poor man has nothing to give, he can only demand restitution in the disquieting mute eloquence of his look, which communicates humility and reproach. Baudelaire likens this look of the beggar to that of a beaten dog. Elsewhere he invokes the image of the dog and the poor to define his “urban muse,” “his poet’s inspiration as painter of modern capital and of the modern capital.” (143) Saying the poet shares the same fate of exclusion as the dog and the poor.

The trial of Counterfeit Money
The demand of the poor man embodies the figure of the law. The two friends are indebted and guilty as soon as the beggar silently looks at them. “They are on trial, they appear before the donee’s court as before the law.” (144) They treat with gratitude whoever accepts their payment in order to acquit themselves of their debt.

The story is a trial, a process [procession, walk]. The two friends walk for the length of the story, which also contains the time of a judicial procedure: incrimination [the meeting with the beggar], law [the giving of the gift] judgment [“I will never forgive him”]. In meeting the beggar they are before the law.

Derek Hampson

 

Two types of luck

This post is part of the Art as Gift project

Tukhhē and Automaton (133)
When speaking of fortune Derrida calls upon the Aristotelian concept of tukhē over the linked concept of automaton. The former is a chance, read into the event in terms of its outcome, of its end, which Derrida calls “finalized chance.” Whereas automaton has within it the idea that unforeseen things happen but without any intentionality.

The event of the gift as told in Counterfeit Money is prepared for in advance of its end, the friend prepares his change so that the counterfeit coin is at hand for when the right opportunity offers itself, as he knows it will.

Derek Hampson

On Nature and Production

This post is part of the Art as Gift project

Derrida (128) discusses the unity of fortune and nature, “fortune is nature” (126), expressed as the luck of the draw and what gives generously at birth, to the nascent being. Saying the alliance between these two dominates the narrator’s discourse in Counterfeit Money.

The primary concept of nature that Derrida calls upon is phusis [from which we get the word physic, as in physics and metaphysics etc]. Saying that nature can be either the great, generous and genial donor, which everything, law, art etc, comes back to. On the other hand nature can be the “order of natural necessities,” laws of nature in opposition to law, art etc. Here nature’s relationship to the gift is as what is given.

Similarly the concept of production can be opposed to the natural and to the gift. What is produced is not given and producing seems to exclude donation. Yet, Derrida asks, is not the “pheuin of phusis” i.e. what nature gives, the “donation of what gives birth, the originary productivity…that brings to light and flowering.” “Is it not what gives form and, by bringing things into the phenomenality of the light, unveils or develops the truth of that which it gives.”

Here we have a donating production in which fortune and necessity [the event and the machine?] are allied. It is worth noting that production translates the Greek poesis which means both to make but also has a relation to bringing forth of the beautiful, the poetic.

Derek Hampson