Sarah Kofman had something to say, about philosophy, about psychoanalysis, about art, about women. She found her voice in the 1960s, and the language she came to speak was deferred and delivered—articulated—through the lexicon of her generation. It was a time that prized radicalism of thought and often of deed. Impetuousness was rewarded; extravagance in interpretation became an odd norm. Some of the writing from this period, and some of its dramatic political gestures, now look like mere antics; the invitation to easy irony was a slippery slope and could easily be co-opted by commercial culture. And it was.
But Kofman had something to say, and her writings still command attention for their insight, their adventurousness, and their attentiveness to the philosophical traditions with which she so productively wrestled. She was one of the great readers of Freud in the twentieth century, and she brought the same caring intelligence to her interpretations of Nietzsche. In his memorial address for Kofman (reproduced as the introduction to this volume), Jacques Derrida called her love for these thinkers “pitiless,” by which I think he meant that she gave herself to them, and tried to find what they had to offer, without restraint.
When Kofman “reads with Freud,” alongside his texts, she grabs on to the relationship of affect and representation, of passion and symptom. The texts reproduced here explore both the worship of authority (be it for a hero or for an artist) and the desire to be free from (to kill) it. The attempt to unmask the father, to show his impotence, is also a form of praise for his authority. The desire for authority fuels its unmasking; Kofman calls this the desire to be one’s own father. “One can break with ideology only by renouncing the wish to be one’s own father,” she writes, underscoring the paternal dimension of political indoctrination. “Knowledge of ideology is futile if it is not accompanied by instinctual renunciation.” How to practice instinctual renunciation and, in Kofman’s words, to “accept necessity”?
After Freud comes Nietzsche, at least in this collection. Kofman thought about these two together, perhaps because both were concerned with affect and representation, with passion and symptom. What are the symptoms of a culture that has turned away from unruly desire, from the Dionysian dimensions of art? One would be the death of art itself: “There is no art, strictly speaking, without intoxication, without an overflow of life that becomes creative by spilling its excess of life into the universe.” For Nietzsche, the creature who represents sobriety, who represents the practice of instinctual renunciation in its highest form, is the Jew. Kofman is interested in why Nietzsche thought the Jew “sublime,” and she explores the German philosopher’s awful admiration for the Jewish refusal of transcendence, of communion. She, too, is fascinated by the Jew’s “alliance . . . with a God whose absolute transcendence entails man’s radical inability to fulfill ‘his’ Law and the necessity that he always be ‘cut off’ from God and subordinated to him. Without hope of reconciliation, union, or communion. No matter what he does.” Renunciation indeed. Pitiless.
In the section of this volume titled “With Respect to Women,” she explores how Freud and Kant dealt with the “radical otherness of woman.” She mocks both thinkers, but she does so with an attentiveness that is anything but dismissive. She shows that Freud’s obsession with “penis envy” was a wobbly rock on which to construct a theory, but she also underscores the importance of his puzzled concern over the “difference” in woman, over her sexuality. In the end, she knows that the remedy offered women by psychoanalysis is also a poison: “The psychoanalytic solution restores speech to woman only the better to rob her of it, the better to subordinate it to that of the master.”
Kofman’s writings about Freud and Nietzsche return again and again to a refusal of transcendence, to a renunciation of consolation and of instinct. This theme of renunciation (and of its awkward pleasures) carries over into the section on art, in which she explores issues of representation and of the idea of the “original,” of resemblance in portraiture and of the representation of death. The section’s three chapters are part of an extended conversation on aesthetics carried out with Jean-Luc Nancy and with Derrida over many years. What truths do paintings (and other art forms) convey? How can we understand these truths without subsuming them in the discursive regime of philosophy? Once we use words like understand, I don’t think we can avoid this regime, and I’m not sure why one would want to. Kofman hopes to protect art from a subservience to ideas, to philosophy. In her writings on aesthetics, she is not concerned with the expressive dimensions of art or with its cultural role. She is interested in the “shift in the real” that art can provoke in us—a displacement that can pleasure, that can fascinate. This pleasure is supposed to be more than consolation and distinct from concepts. The space of art must be beyond the reach of language.
Selected Writings concludes with a few pages of autobiographical fragments, and the author is not well served by their inclusion. A poem titled “Shoah” doesn’t begin to indicate what it meant for its writer to have been produced in those times. This writer who described her own childhood under the Occupation, who offered her interpretations as one recounts dreams, as one presents a gift, also took her own life. Her attentiveness, her pitilessness, and her devotion to reading with intensity can surely be traced back to her life story. But as Derrida noted in his memorial address, the place of the survivor is unlocatable. She was more than a survivor and more than part of the generation of 68. Sarah Kofman had something to say.
Michael Roth is the author of The Ironist’s Cage: Memory, Trauma, and the Construction of History (Columbia University Press, 1995) and president of Wesleyan University. He blogs at roth.blogs.wesleyan.edu.