Dear Derrida

by David Kirby

My new grad-school roommates and I are attending

our first real lecture, which has gone okay,

we guess, since none of us understands it,

when one of our professors rises,

a somewhat prissy fellow

with a mild speech impediment,

and says he takes issue with the speaker's tone,

which he characterizes as one of "sar, sar,"

and here he raises his voice a little,

"sar, sar, sar," and wipes his mouth

with a handkerchief, "sar," and turns red

and screams, "sar, sar, sar--DAMN EET!--sarcasm!"

The four of us look at each other

as if to say, Hmmmm, nothing like this

at the cow colleges we went to!

After that, whenever we'd spill our coffee

or get a sock stuck in the vacuum cleaner,

we'd look at the mess ruefully

and say, "Da, da, da--SARCASM!--damn eet!"

Our lives were pretty tightly sealed,

and if we weren't in class or the library,

either we spent our time in wordplay

or cooking: what with girlfriends

and passersby, we always had a pot

of water boiling on the back of the stove

(It's like you're ready to deliver babies,

somebody said once), either for spaghetti

or sausages, though one evening Chris,

the English student from England, came by

for a sausage supper, and after he left,

we ran up on the roof to pelt him

with water balloons, though when we did,

he fell down as though he'd been shot,

and one of us said, Jeez, what's wrong

with Chris, and somebody else said,

You know, Chris eats nothing but sausage,

and a third party said, Hmm,

maybe we ought to vary our diet a little.

And that was our life: school, the boiled messes

we made on that stove, and hanging around

that crummy apartment talking about,

I don't know, Dr. Mueller's arm,

I guess, which hung uselessly

by his side for reasons no one

fathomed--polio, maybe, or some

other childhood disease--though Paul

said he thought it was made of wood.

Can't be made of wood, said Michael,

you can see his hand at the end

of it, to which Paul replied,

Yeah, but you can have a wooden arm

and a real hand, can't you?

And that was what our life was like,

because mainly we just sat around

and speculated like crazy while

the snow piled up outside,

so much so that by the time spring came,

I'd had it, so I moved out of there and in with Grant

and Brian and Poor Tom, who were philosophy

students but also genuine bad asses,

believe it or not, because at that time

you more or less had to be an existentialist,

i.e., tough, and not a deconstructionist,

which was a few years down the road yet

and which would have left everyone

paralyzed, since all texts

eventually cancel themselves out.

Of the new roomies, I hit it off best

with Grant, who became one of the big-brother

types I seemed to be looking for at that period in my life,

and in fact he rescued me

on more than one occasion, such as the time I was talking

to a local girl outside a bar

called Jazz City and her three brothers

decided to "teach me a lesson" and would have

if Grant hadn't punched one of them

across the hood of a parked car, or the night

he and I were in this other place where

a biker gang called Quantrill's Raiders

hung out and into which wandered

a well-dressed couple so unaware

of their surroundings that they asked the bartender

to please make them some hot toddies,

which set everybody to laughing,

only the Quantrills decided we were laughing at them

and jumped up to "teach us a lesson"

and would have, too, if Grant had not thrown

a table at them and dragged me

out of there to dive behind some garbage cans

and choke on our own laughter

while the drunk, fucked-up bikers howled

and swore and punched each other since they

couldn't punch us. All this was therapy,

I figured, since grad school was stressful enough

to send three people I knew to the clinic

with barbiturate overdoses (two made it

one didn't), and I'm not even listing here

all the divorces I know of that were directly

attributable to that constant pressure

to be the best, be publishable, hireable,

lovable, that came from professors and sweethearts

and parents but mainly from ourselves,

as though each of us were two people,

a good and capable slave, on the one hand,

and, on the other, a psychotic master

who either locked us up with our pots

of boiling water or sent us out to dance

with the devil in the streets of Baltimore.

That year magi appeared from the east:

Jacques Lacan, Tzvetan Todorov,

Roland Barthes, and Jacques Derrida

brought their Saussurean strategies

to the Hopkins conference on "The Language

of Criticism and the Sciences of Man,"

where they told us that all language

is code and thus separate from reality,

and therefore everything

is a text as long as there is nothing

more than this half-conscious

linguistic interplay between perceiver

and perceived, which is another way

of saying that language is the only reality

or at least the only one that counts.

As different as these thinkers are,

each was telling us that there is no us:

that cultural structures

or the media or Western thought

or the unconscious mind

or economic systems make us

what we are or what we seem to be, since,

in fact, we are not, which isn't such bad news,

if you think about it, because it means

we don't have to take ourselves so seriously.

Derrida and company make it impossible

for anyone today to read a book

as he had before, but we didn't know that then.

Grant didn't, that's for sure;

four years later, he put a gun in his mouth

and blew the back of his skull off,

and sometimes it makes me sad

when I think of how long it takes

for new ideas to catch on, because,

yeah, deconstruction might have saved us.

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