Post #34 of the Art as Gift project’s reading of Jacques Derrida’s Given Time
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:
- We are right, which confirms that we have reason, we belong to the species of the rational animal (logon ekhon)
- We know how to count, we are men of knowledge and calculation and also good narrators.
- 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.”